Chicago. Chicago! One of the main US cities that every lover of Irish traditional music should experience. It’s right up there with Boston and New York, at least that’s what I’ve frequently heard. (Yes, Boston, you’re next on my list!) And yet, it took me until two weekends ago to actually go and visit the real deal and not just the interior of O’Hare Airport. It’s only about a six hour drive away from me, perfect for a long weekend getaway. And I desperately needed a getaway. Petoskey is beautiful in the summertime, but I’m at a point in my life where I seem to need to be in constant motion, traveling the world, going out and grabbing new experiences whenever I can prioritize that spare time… So when I saw We Banjo 3’s summer tour schedule and noticed that the Chicago Irish Fest happened to be on my weekend off of work, I made the decision to go on a little adventure!
Some of you may know that right around this time of year for the past five years, I am usually getting my tune fix at the Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week in Asheville NC. Sadly it was not to be this year with my schedule, and I was feeling pretty discouraged about missing out on my best annual musicality-growing opportunity. I’m a big believer in finding the positives in situations that aren’t my ideal, but I’ll admit this one was a challenge. Even as I was driving down US-131 on the Saturday, I felt a little pang in my heart as I passed the exit that would take me to I-75 and back down to my southern roots. However, I think I made things work out for the best. So let me tell you about Chicago…
The first thing I realized as I was driving along Lakeshore Drive was that I was actually grateful for the slow moving traffic! Maybe it’s reminiscent of my days of learning how to drive around Atlanta, but mostly I was just so happy to be in a new place with beautiful views of Lake Michigan and stunning architecture of tall buildings (can you tell I’ve been living in a small town?). As I half listened to my GPS and mostly listened to the brilliant musicality of Liz Carroll’s fiddle on my car stereo, I felt an exciting thrill of adventure. Here I was in a new city, about to see a couple of my favorite fiddlers in action, and I was pushing myself out of my introvert zone to go meet new people and make new memories!
The only setback I had was with my housing for the weekend. I had booked what looked similar to an Airbnb on booking.com called Hollywood House, which seemed pretty unique and not like your average hotel (also cheaper!). It was about halfway between the Irish American Heritage Center where the festival was held and downtown, both of which I wanted to explore while I was there. However, when I got there, a bunch of red lights went off in my brain. First of all, it was a one way street, and I had to navigate Irish countryside-worthy roads in order to pull around in front of the house. Then, I saw all the zoning signs that demanded you have a special permit to park there. I went ahead and parked anyway, figuring that I would get some form of permit once I checked in (after all, it DID say free parking was available in the description on booking.com). Then I went to check in, and here’s what I found. Two doors with key codes, three mailboxes with other people’s names on them (residents most likely), no sort of check in or even an indication of a self check in (this was answered in a very impersonal email later), and no answer when I called the number listed on booking.com for assistance. I felt like I was trying to break into someone’s home, and since I was running out of time to get to Liz Carroll’s performance in time, I decided to try again later. Fortunately, this is not the first time I’ve had housing issues while solo traveling, so I wasn’t in a panic or anything, but I was a bit frustrated.
I was able to put aside my housing troubles for a couple of hours, however, as I listened to Liz Carroll and Daithi Sproule perform a fantastic set on the Folk Stage outside of the Irish American Heritage Center. It was wonderful getting to reconnect with Liz before and after the show, and I really enjoyed chatting with Daithi also! It always reminds me that the musicians I admire the most are the ones who take the time to really connect with their listeners as much as they can — I don’t know how she does it, but Liz has a real knack for remembering people and engaging in genuine conversation with everyone. Cloud nine, y’all.
Eventually I knew I was going to have to sort out the issue of where I was going to stay that night, so I left the festival and drove back over to Hollywood House, determined to figure out the mystery. My second visit proved no better, so I gave in and called around to a couple of hotels in the area, eventually succeeding in booking a room. Day One ended with a very exhausted but musically happy me conserving my energy and turning in for the night as soon as I got to my room — I really don’t mind being boring most of the time, what can I say?
I’m happy to say that Day Two was even more adventurous and exciting! I made a rough plan for the day over breakfast, and just kept adding to it throughout the day, going wherever my feet decided to take me. Everything I did was about a half hour drive away from each other, so I definitely got a lot of Chicago driving experience. I knew I wouldn’t have much time to explore everything this trip, so I headed straight for the Chicago Loop with the intent on spending the first half of my day near the waterfront. Rather than tell you about my walking adventure, here are some photos to guide you through my wanderings…
On looking back, I probably should have done some pre-trip hiking prep to get myself back in the habit of walking long distances (I’m reminiscing about you here, Ireland), but it was worth it anyway! Anyway, it ended up being a good thing that my feet felt like they were going to fall off when they did, because otherwise I never would have made the spontaneous decision to drive to Evanston and join in John Williams’ session at the Celtic Knot Public House that afternoon! There I most certainly got my tune fix and met some really lovely musicians, who I hope to reconnect with at more Chicago sessions in the future! I left early to catch Jimmy Keane and Dennis Cahill’s set at the festival, otherwise I would doubtless have stayed until they kicked us all out or our fingers stopped working from overuse. Such is my usual session habit.
Once again I found myself listening to some truly inspiring music that evening, catching bits and pieces of Jimmy Keane, Dennis Cahill, We Banjo 3, Gaelic Storm and the whole of John Williams’ sets. Between the abundance of musical talent and the gorgeous city sky/coastline, I think it’s safe to say that Chicago has won my heart and I will most definitely be visiting again — but probably only in the warmer months! Not only did this trip prove satisfying for my need to travel and follow the music, but it also opened my mind up to the idea of making more of these long weekend trips happen! So my question for y’all is… where do you think I should explore next? Thanks for reading! xoxo