Live Tunes Return for a Suburban Summer

At long last, it’s time once again to grab a lawn chair and head to the park for some live music. These two venues are ready to rock.

Music fans, rejoice! It’s been a long, strange experience since live music last flowed openly through our local parks and outdoor venues, but at long last the wait is over. COVID-related mandates are being lifted and more people are venturing out to public spaces once again. And, as we prepare for the warm-weather season more local arts venues are cueing the lights, firing up the amps and welcoming performers back to the stage.

Things may not feel totally back to normal this summer, but at least there’s a glimpse of something familiar coming to these local venues.

RiverEdge Park, Aurora

Jim Jarvis felt entirely out of his element last summer. As the vice president of programming and sales for RiverEdge Park and Paramount Theatre, in Aurora, he’s used to summer days filled with anticipation, road crews and sound checks, followed by evenings of music blaring into an ecstatic crowd. But it was all strangely absent when COVID-19 mitigations forced a full shutdown of local venues.

“Working in the concert and entertainment industry, I get this habit of summertime where I get up at a certain time, I get a call when the buses and trucks arrive,” he says. “We check the weather, I get my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, get to the venue at a certain time – it’s all this certain routine. I was lost last summer. Even my kids were like, ‘Dad, what are you still doing home?’”

Jarvis’ enthusiasm for this summer is infectious, and it’s little wonder. On July 9, live music returns to RiverEdge for the first of seven weekly concerts in the downtown Aurora venue. This year’s abbreviated lineup is rich with tribute bands that celebrate the best of the 1970s and ‘80s classic rock. Of course, there are a few surprises thrown in, too.

The season kicks off with One of These Nights, one of the nation’s top Eagles tribute bands. The following week, on July 16, TUSK brings an authentic re-creation of Fleetwood Mac that remains true to the original band’s notable sound. Then, on July 18, rapper Snoop Dogg is joined by Chicago-based rapper Twista. On July 30, Stayin’ Alive, a tribute to the Bee Gees, resurrects a classic disco sound. Hollywood Nights, a tribute to Bob Seger, visits on Aug. 6. This 10-piece band was an overwhelming favorite when it visited a few years ago, Jarvis says.

One of RiverEdge’s most popular and enduring summer visitors returns Aug. 20 for a genuine re-creation of the Led Zeppelin experience.

“I saw Zeppelin once in my lifetime, and I will tell you, this dude looks like Robert Plant, he sounds like Robert Plant, the band just owns it like Zeppelin, and they sell out every single year,” says Jarvis.

RiverEdge closes out the season Aug. 28 with Chicago-based Poi Dog Pondering, another longtime favorite in town. This 15-member band draws deep from the Chicago area’s music scene for a special blend of orchestra, rock and dance styles.

Set along the eastern bank of the Fox River, RiverEdge Park can seat up to 6,000 people with a combination of standing-room-only and lawn chair seating. Gates typically open at 6 p.m. and shows begin as the sun sinks below the trees. From the stage, performers look out over the glistening waters and the illuminated skyline downtown.

“For people who’ve never been there, this is an absolutely beautiful place,” Jarvis says. “You are right along the Fox River. You’ve got the view of downtown Aurora behind you. We’ve heard it from Idina Menzel, we heard it from Alice Cooper and Alan Jackson, and sometimes they’ll just talk about what a stunning view it is at nighttime when you’re getting this nice breeze.”

How exactly fans will fit in the park this year is still unknown, but Jarvis and his team are mapping out many scenarios, including one where there’s a reduced-capacity audience. Mask rules will depend on current state mandates, he adds.

“We just ask people to be patient, because things have changed on a daily basis,” he says.

Tribute shows range from $6 to $12 before June 1. Snoop Dogg and Poi Dog Pondering start at $45 and $30, respectively – still pretty affordable, all things considered. For fans who are still holding tickets from last year’s cancelled events, Jarvis promises those tickets are still good. Patrons can get a refund or credit up to 60 days before the rescheduled date.

For further updates, check riveredgeaurora.com or contact the box office, which remains fully staffed. Current ticketholders will receive a reminder 48 hours before the event and whenever any schedule changes or updates may occur.

“We’ve been planning this moment for a year, working out how all of these scenarios will work and getting ready to put it together,” Jarvis says. “I’ve got to tell you, the entire staff is just stoked to be able to spend our summer back at RiverEdge Park.”

Music Under the Trees

Last summer was a time of experimentation for many arts organizations, but new ideas were especially poignant for The Dole, in Crystal Lake, an artists’ haven that’s best known for the historic mansion and annex where monthly art events and live music are a major attraction. For at least five months, this nonprofit organization was shuttered to the public and unable to host any fundraisers or other public events.

“So, I was talking with co-executive director Janet Kay and we said, ‘Why can’t we have an outdoor event?’” says Ron Russell, past board president and a current board member. “Under the rules at the time, we were allowed to have so many people per square feet, and so we determined we could do an outdoor event on the grass around our circle drive.”

Volunteers quickly strung up twinkle lights among the centuries-old oak trees outside. They set up a modest 10-foot stage for acoustic duets and spray-painted 70-some circles where groups up to six could sit together. From July through September, crowds gathered around sunset to enjoy live music and a special meal served up by Ed Kisman of Grill Masters Catering.

“We sold out three of the four shows, and we were turning people away from the last couple of events,” says Russell.

This year, Music Under the Trees returns with eight shows on select Wednesday evenings from May 26-Sept. 22. Just like last year, performers are mostly duets with an acoustic setup, and patrons can select a dinner from visiting caterers or food trucks. There’s a bar service, and the familiar Julie Ann’s Custard van will be on-site, too. Shows start around 6:30 p.m.

The season kicks off May 26 with Jim and Justin, from Modern Day Romeos. The pair typically tour around McHenry County playing a wide range of cover songs, mixed in with some audience interaction. Additional performers are still being scheduled, says Russell, and the lineup is sure to include some of the same faces who appeared last year. Look for a special performance highlighting The Dole’s own resident musicians.

Right now, seating is limited to 150 people, though Russell says the number may expand, depending upon state mandates. Thanks to several event sponsors, all proceeds from the event support the arts-driven mission of The Dole and its work to preserve the organization’s historic buildings.

Starting June 6, The Dole serves another way to enjoy live music during its new Open Air Farmers Market+. The Sunday-morning market, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., draws together not just local farmers, growers and food purveyors but also local artists for a few hours of live music, shopping and gathering on the lawn at The Dole. Food trucks will serve up brunch and lunch while live musicians and local artists will bring out The Dole’s resident artists and their artistic flair. The market runs through September.

As summer wears on, keep an eye out for The Dole’s long-running Lakeside Fest, an Independence Day tradition that was sidelined last year due to COVID-19. If all goes according to plan, the festival will bring at least some degree of carnival rides, food vendors and live music to the grounds.

As for Music Under the Trees, Russell suggests buying tickets early. Advance tickets cost $20 and can be ordered at thedole.org. Though there will be an at-the-door charge of $25, Russel is confident shows will sell out well before then.

“People love to come outdoors, be in the open air, be with some friends and run into neighbors,” he says. “They love to listen to music again outdoors and have a beverage or two while they’re doing it. Last year, everyone was cooped up and to some extent we’re still cooped up. It’s just an enjoyable evening.”