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"Urban bluegrass, the Cornmeal way"

By Adam Bissen
Ask the average American to describe a bluegrass concert and you might hear images of straw hats and bolo ties, genetically compromised banjo players or picking sessions held on a hay wagon. Rare would be comments on the 21st century or mentions of cities with a million-plus residents, but that is exactly where the Chicago-born bluegrass band Cornmeal makes its home.

Although they will jam out in concert as befits the modern style, members of Cornmeal say they are dedicated to upholding the traditions of bluegrass. When asked if it is difficult to compose rural-based music in the midst of L trains and skyscrapers, bassist Chris Gangi answers succinctly: "Well, there's heartbreak all over the country and it doesn't really matter where you come from."

"There's a regional and national perception of Chicago, and any time you turn on the football game on TV, they gotta show the big Chicago pizza or some blues cafe," Gangi said in an interview from the recording studio, accompanied on speakerphone by guitarist Kris Nowak. "A lot of people might be surprised at how vibrant the country music scene and the folk music scene is here in the city of Chicago and ... it has been here forever."

In a regionally divided genre, the five-year-old Cornmeal can count itself among the most popular bluegrass acts in the Midwest - although there may be some purists who are reluctant to label the band bluegrass. With lengthy takes on stage and a noticeable rock influence, Cornmeal can sound a bit like early String Cheese Incident, acoustic Leftover Salmon or a Yonder Mountain String Band with drums. At one point Cornmeal's website claimed the band plays "citified urban grass" - whatever that means. Still, in an interview Nowak almost suggest that the unfortunate phrase is historically nuanced, that his own band's liberal take on mountain music follows the iconoclastic traditions of Bill Monroe, the man generally credited with inventing bluegrass in the 1940s.

"Bill Monroe actually spent a few years up in the Chicago area and used to see Louis Armstrong play, as a matter of fact," Nowak said. "And if you analyze the melodies and the instrumental runs that (Monroe) would play, there's definitely a jazz sensibility to bluegrass."

Before Monroe, country music hardly featured soloists, let alone traded melodies and group improvisation. After Monroe, bands favored daunting tempos and complex instrumentation, but the limits of recording technology kept every song under three minutes. Free from those restrictions (and free to study at the church of the Grateful Dead), Cornmeal songs can regularly extend for over a quarter hour in concert. They retain bluegrass' gorgeous harmonies and nimble finger play, but the unique improvisation attracts fans back for multiple shows.

Cornmeal courts its fans in a style particular to the jamband community. They tour heavily - over 160 shows per year, mostly in the Midwest - and have uploaded over 30 different soundboard-quality live recordings to, the free online treasure trove of concert bootlegs. Nowak also credits its promotions team, Children of the Corn, for attracting its largest- ever crowds in 2005.
"It definitely has a lot to do with our fan base and how loyal they are and how hard-working they are that they would want to promote us and be out there in the street, "Nowak said. "It's a big business out there and when you're doing it independently like us everyone pools together to make a much bigger impact in a much quicker time."

Cornmeal is currently working on its third album which it hopes to release in March. Around the same time their single will appear on the first-ever CD compilation released by, joining such artists as Umphrey's McGee, Keller Williams and Garaj Mahal.

- Madison's Core Weekly

"Cornmeal-In The Kitchen"

To call an album "song-oriented" is almost silly in its redundancy. What album is not somewhat based on songs? But often these songs serve as a springboard for instrumental excursions, or are pieces in a thematic puzzle. That is, a concept album is more theme-oriented than it is song-oriented, and a jam-fest of a CD is more improv-oriented than it is song-oriented.

In The Kitchen, the debut of Chicago-area bluegrass band Cornmeal, is song-based to the core. Their impressive first CD is remarkably solid in its songwriting and performance. The bluegrass tradition of the high and lonesome singer backed by acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin is the mode of expression here, but somehow singer/songwriter Jason Berger manages to put a modern twist on the sound using some quirky subject matter. The usual lyrical suspects - barefoot preachers, a mom cooking in the kitchen, and a train's smokestack - are joined by Berger's concoctions, like a woman named Sally who posed in a "gentlemen's magazine" and a scientist trying to explain man's origins to an inquisitive little boy.

Still, it is the songs, and the way in which they are performed - with beautiful vocal harmonies, strong leads and a great acoustic bluegrass band doing the dirty work - that make this album so enjoyable.The group, only together for slightly more than two years, is gigging steadily in the Midwest and playing some big jamband festivals, but unlike many of the bluegrassy bands on the jam circuit, Cornmeal is not bluegrass-influenced; they are bluegrass.

The opening track, "Cornmeal", showcases the tight vocal harmonies on top of a solid arrangement of fiddle, mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. "Dirty Rag" pays tribute to the aforementioned Sally before "The Boy and The Scientist" changes gears. This song is more introspective than the previous two and is in the ballad tradition. A young boy ventures out to find out how he, and his fellow man, came to be. He asks a scientist, a theologist and a mysticist. Humorously, and poignantly, each "expert" tells him the same thing, but in the end says nothing.

"Yesterday Morning" finds Cornmeal sounding a bit like "Nashville Skyline"-era Bob Dylan, especially in the vocal department. "Monorail" takes us back to hoe-down territory with an old-tymey tale of riding the rails. "Wishing Well" treads melancholy "why are we here?" ground touched on earlier during "The Boy and The Scientist"

. The eighth song, "Raging River", an ear-pleasing instrumental comes before a spirited cover of "Moving On Up" - The Jeffersons' theme song - wraps things up. Lisa Mackey guests on lead vocals. Both of these tracks are a nice added bonus, but do not achieve the heights of Cornmeal's preceding original, vocal-based tracks.


"Chicago-based band features bluegrass music"

Jessica Yorama-Daily Egyptian

For members of the band Cornmeal, putting a label on their style, a more high-energy, transitional sound is always somewhat difficult.

"I would say bluegrass is the base of it," said Kris Nowak, who sings and plays acoustic guitar for Cornmeal. "But we all came up playing blues and rock, too. It's still bluegrass, but we bring a different edge to it.

"So for that reason, it's kind of tough to categorize our styles because we've played so many others, it's bound to show up in our music. For lack of a better word, we just call it progressive bluegrass."

Putting a label on the band, as far as names are concerned, was not as difficult.

"It was just one of those things where we were sitting around talking about a name to describe the energy of the band," said Chris Gangi, who plays bass for Cornmeal. "[The name Cornmeal] was just one of those things that popped up and sounded good."

Organizers of the Sunset Concert Series like Don Castle hope the same soggy fate that poured down last week upon the opening band outside Shryock Auditorium will not dampen Cornmeal's performance Thursday.

The Chicago-based band, which is the second act in the summer Sunset Concert Series, is scheduled to perform at 7 p.m. Thursday in Turley Park.

A bluegrass band, the quintet provides audiences with a more modern edge to the traditional style of music. The primary aspect that separates the band is the presence of a less common bluegrass instrument, the drums.

According to members, the presence of the drums, the occasional extended improvisation and original songwriting help to give Cornmeal a more modern sound that members refer to as "progressive bluegrass."

Cornmeal, who most recently performed in Peoria and is headed to Nashville following the show Thursday, will perform songs from both of their previously released albums. Cornmeal's most recent album is titled "Tales from Magic Mountain."

The band, according to Gangi, began four years ago as somewhat of a "side project." The original members of Cornmeal met occasionally at a location where local musicians gather to play together. But, he initially had no commitment to Cornmeal. Some were even members of other bands. Throughout the years, the band has seen a few changes in style and members. But, for the most part, the group has maintained a similar sound of bluegrass mixed with elements of rock and other genres members experimented with prior to joining Cornmeal.

Nowak said before being approached by a bluegrass band seven years ago, he had yet to play bluegrass and had primarily experimented with rock music. Because of this, he said he believes it is hard to categorize their style as simply bluegrass music.

According to Nowak, who sings and plays acoustic guitar for Cornmeal, the band sits in the middle between the electric sounds of modern bluegrass and the traditional sound of the original style. The position is one that members said they feel rather comfortable in. While their willingness to improvise is similar to that of jazz music, they said they also have a definite respect for the history and stories that come with the original style.

"I always respect the stories and the mood the music projected," Gangi said. "We try to keep the music alive because in Chicago, there's not very many people exposed to it."

While Gangi and other members are dedicated to keeping alive the genre he refers to as a "fusion of old-time music and music of the Appalachian," he admits it is not the easiest style to perform.

"There's a lot of difficulty in playing acoustic music; the articulation and discipline you have to have to play music in this form still keeps us on our toes," said Gangi, who said he was influenced by early artists such as Bill Monroe and Woody Guthrie. "We're always playing to try and get better because there are always going to be other guys pushing the envelope."

Members realize bluegrass artists will never quite have the popularity of pop artists such as Britney Spears, but emphasize it does have its more mainstream artists like Allison Krauss.

Gangi also pointed out the form of the music does experience the occasional increases in popularity.

"The popularity of bluegrass always comes in waves, and say every 15 years or so, it comes back into style," Gangi said. "There won't be much going on until a movie like 'O Brother, Where Art Thou' comes along and made it more popular. That was the last time a real rise came along that got young people interested and caused more young people to re-invent what bluegrass is."

Nowak said Cornmeal's transitional sound, which is inventive while still adhering to the basics of bluegrass, should accommodate both younger and older audiences at the performance.

"Our brand of bluegrass is special in that it's just as energetic as any style that appeals to young kids, but not so over the top that it pushes families away because it's too loud or overbearing," Nowak said.

"We've played in front of all sorts of groups, whether it's families, younger people or the more traditional listeners, and every time we're in a situation where we feel like, maybe we don't belong here, we always get a great response.

For ticket information and more information about the band go to

- Daily Egyptian

"Back (Porch) Story"

Need a recipe for a unique jam grass explosion? Try one part Appalachian moonshine, a pinch of banjo pickin' and a healthy dose of extended Phish-esque improvisation. In other words, try Cornmeal. With near-perfect three-part harmonies and a loyal following, these guys are quickly becoming the hometown boys on the Midwest jam band/roots rock scene. On first listen of their album, it's not difficult to hear the influence of bluegrass daddy Bill Monroe or contemporaries like Leftover Salmon. But catch a live performance, and the band's emphasis on jamming, non-traditional song writing and electronic gear moves them a few measures outside of the strict bluegrass circle. A Cornmeal show leaves you exclaiming: "O, brother, here they are."

Playing the Town
"The true professional attitude, wonderfully talented engineers and willing staff at the House of Blues make it a comfortable venue to play," said bassist Chris Gangi. "And the simple aesthetic beauty of the Vic really energizes us when we perform there. On a smaller scale, the warmth at our regular Boulevard Cafe gig in Logan Square (every Wednesday) makes the weekly jaunt just like a trip to Mom's. The food is just as good, too."

Ones to Watch
"There's a Chicago band making waves these days called 1000 Vertical feet, on the rise to becoming one of Chicago's great electric groove bands," Gangi said. "They sound similar to Sound Tribe Sector Nine. Other up-and-comers include Freespace, Majors Junction and Cat Fight -- what a show!"

EP Attack Plan
"We released our debut disc, 'In the Kitchen,' in August 2001, and have plans to put out a new studio release in the spring of 2003. If it were up to us, we'd record constantly," said Gangi.

Local Heroes
"The incredible musicianship of the Bobby Broom Trio makes his group a joy to watch," drummer Brian Abraham said. "Devil In a Woodpile revitalizes those lost songs from Americana, which is pretty refreshing to our ears compared to the regurgitated rock you hear on the radio. To top it off, we dig the Indian-influenced, jazzy Fareed Haque Group. With a tabla player, DJ, tight rhythm section and the namesake's incredible guitar playing, it'll blow your lid."

After Show
"Even though we're a bluegrass band, we consistently stop by the Green Mill. There's always room for jazz, and Saturday nights feature Chicago's best house band -- Sabertooth," said Gangi. "For nightcaps, it's Carol's. Two-steppin' it 'til 5AM -- what else could you want after a long night of performing?"

Rock Candy
Go to Cornmeal shows hungry. Before the show, the band treats its audience to fresh-baked cornbread.
Bassist Chris Gangi teaches weekly at the Old Town School of Folk Music and helps run Livin' Live Records, the band's label.

On Sunday nights, the banjo pickin' "Wavy" Dave Burlingame plays bass for the Grateful Dead jam at the Boulevard Cafe.

Cornmeal's offical web site is
- Digital

"Cornmeal-Feet First"

Cornmeal represents several major reasons why the jamband movement is such a
good thing. Harkening back to the beginning sounds of country rock in the
late 1960's and early1 970's with tracks like opener "River Gap," this Chicago
band is bringing their bluegrass and Americana sound to a whole new
generation. The band has a lovely way of tying together the past and the present.
"Hasten Jason" is a bluegrass workout featuring some wicked sweet banjo by
Wavy Dave Burlingame and the fiddle of Allie Kral. Lyrically Wavy Dave gives us
a history of washing up: "Hasten Jason, Get the basin, fill it up and put
your face in, get the soap, its on a rope hanging from the door/use the
Johnson's No More Tears, kindly wash behind your ears, oops, slop, get the mop,
it's spilling on the floor."
Bassist Chris Gangi has a more introspective way with his words. "The Girl I
Left Behind," "On My Own," and "Onward" all give a sense of looking inward,
travelling; yearning to find something on the road. The tracks are given
plenty of time to develop. The full band stretches out on each song.
Throughout Feet First you get a familiar, comfortable feeling. Reminders of
John Hartford and The Dillards. A sprinkling of "Orange Blossom Special" and
"Old Man at the Mill," and "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
Cornmeal says it all. "Feeling good, spirit's up and the sun is shining
Bob Felberg-HomeGrown Music Network
- HomeGrown Music Network


Feet First-(2006 Livin' Live Records)
Tales From Magic Stone Mountain-(2003-Livin' Live Records)
In The Kitchen-(2001-Livin' Live records)



Cornmeal continues to forge a path all their own, pushing the boundaries of bluegrass, Americana and folk for a whole new generation of music lovers. Steeped in the tradition of musical acts such as Old and in the Way, John Hartford, and New Grass Revival, Cornmeal has proven to be an influential presence in the world of roots music. Cornmeal has consistently evolved its sound and stage performance using bluegrass as a springboard for honest songwriting that touches upon the fabric of the human condition.

With the release of their debut album "In The Kitchen" (2001 Livin' Live records), Cornmeal secured its place as one of the top bands in its genre. 2003’s “Tales from Magic Stone Mountain” (Livin’ Live records) garnered much critical attention and became a staple on College and AAA top 10 lists throughout the country.

In May of 2006, after almost three years, Cornmeal’s released their third album, “Feet First”(Livin' Live records). By far their best effort to date, Feet First is proof positive that Cornmeal’s tenure on the road has brought on an honest and mature sound. Produced by guitarist Kris Nowak and bassist Chris Gangi, "Feet First" features a strong confidence in songwriting, musicianship and the ability of this band to stylistically ride the fence and bring it back home without missing a step.

Spending over half the year on the road, the Chicago-based group has gained valuable exposure and attracted a faithful following from Colorado to the Carolinas. While playing a blend of high profile venues, jam-band and bluegrass festivals to thousands throughout the region, the band has shared the stage with such highly acclaimed national acts as THE DAVID GRISMAN QUINTET, JOHN HARTFORD, THE DEL McCOURY BAND, LITTLE FEAT, LEFTOVER SALMON, TONY RICE, YONDER MOUNTAIN STRING BAND, DARK STAR ORCHESTRA, moe, SAM BUSH and UMPHREY'S McGEE.

In addition, Cornmeal has employed a vigorous college, AAA and Internet radio campaign, including their recent addition to the Home Grown Music Network, helping to broaden their reach to listeners from coast to coast. Feet First has employed a staple position on the top 20 radio list since August 2006.

Heavily influenced by American roots and folk music, Cornmeal was started as a side project over eight years ago only to watch it grow into a Chicago institution. Known for their vast musical repertoire, lightning fast tempos, and impeccable harmonies, the five-piece acoustic-electric band prides itself on the energy it puts forth each night creating an unrivalled live performance that continues to shape itself into a truly unique experience.