Bluegrass from the Windy City: Cornmeal live at The Mercury Lounge

Carlos Davalos Jul 28, 2009

Cornmeal, a band that fuses bluegrass, folk and Americana, kicked off the east coast leg of their tour July 23 at the Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side. This Chicago-based progressive bluegrass phenomenon gave a full lesson on how to blend fiddle, banjo and progressive country lines to a modest (around 60 people), but very engaged crowd.


The band was sandwiched between sets by Leroy Justice and Sons of Bill (their last album, One Town Away, was produced by Wilco’s Jim Scott), two alt-country rock combos that, although talented, only play with the traditional rock instruments: electric guitar, electric bass and drums, plus a Hammond organ in Leroy Justice’s case. Cornmeal was the only band with a Banjo and a Violin during the night. 


Though Cornmeal only played four songs, their bluegrass flowed like water out of a virgin spring. With all five members furiously jamming on their instruments, the harmonies intertwined in a roaring cascade of electric jamgrass. Each song stretched from a steady lead-in to an explosion of frantic dialogues between banjo, guitar, fiddle, drums and string bass.


Drawing on American musical roots to create their genre-defying music since 2002, Cornmeal includes Wavy Dave Burlingame on banjo, Kris Nowak on guitar, Chris Gangi on string bass, JP Nowak on drums and Allie Kral on fiddle, with all of the band members switching off on vocals.


The session started with a gentle introduction to “Girl with Short Brown Hair.” J.P. Nowak’s brushwork on the drums chased Kris Nowak’s vocals, incorporating an innovative palette of sounds. At the same time, Burlingame’s banjo gently crafted the jam, allowing Kral’s fiddle to enter with a burst of violin riffs. The progression continued to build until all five instruments were jamming like a full throttle freight train of bluegrass madness.


For their second song, the band covered Bill Monroe’s “Southern Flavor” with dynamic virtuosity. The banjo blasted rapid-fire, finger-picked lines that set the mood for the violin’s majestic layers of Midwestern nostalgia. Audience members screamed and stomped their feet in time with Chris Gangi’s galloping string bass beat.


With a total of three albums under their belt, Cornmeal’s last record, Feet First, was released in 2006 byLivin’ Live records. Since then, the band has toured around the country, performing in a number of jamband and bluegrass festivals and sharing the stage with such titans as The David Grisman Quintet, John Hartford, Little Feat, Yonder Mountain String Band and Umphrey’s McGee. “A live album will come out with in the next couple of months,” said Chris Gangi, referring to all the material they have from touring.


“Rain your light,” the third song in the band’s short set list, was a slower, more traditional country music tune. For their last piece, “Onward,” they let the full power of their jamgrass music whip the tiny back room again. The banjo lines slowly emerged like giants approaching over the far horizon, forcefully imposing the Midwestern rhythm over the entire audience.


With upcoming tour dates in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Cormeal’s music exhales a breath of liberation that makes you want to dance the day out.


For more information about Cornmeal, see:







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