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Chicago Country Music Festival 

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The only themed programming among Taste of Chicago's music offerings, the Country Music Festival returns with good news and bad. The bad news is that many of the top-billed acts are contemporary country radio staples--Sunday's headliners in particular will likely deliver hours of overcooked, rock-driven ballads and stompers. But the fest's organizers have shown some interest in mixing things up: Saturday's lineup emphasizes various strains of bluegrass music, while Sunday's daytime programming is exclusively devoted to Illinois talent--though most of the acts seem likely to finish out their careers without leaving the state. The headliners perform at the Petrillo Music Shell, located at the northeast corner of Columbus and Jackson; all other performances take place at the Taste Stage, on the southwest corner of the same intersection. All shows are free.

By Peter Margasak (PM) and Bob Mehr (BM)

SATURDAY 1

Taste Stage

12:00 Tangleweed

1:30 Chatham County Line

This Raleigh, North Carolina, quartet has all the trappings of a bluegrass band: its members play guitar, mandolin, upright bass, and banjo, and sing harmonies into a single mike. But on their latest album, Speed of the Whippoorwill (Yep Roc), they come off as roots rockers trapped in the bodies of traditionalists. They're familiar with breakdowns and mountain songs, and they have the chops to pull them off, but the twangy instrumentation belies the pop hooks in their tunes, and as vocalists they do away with bluegrass's elaborate multipart arrangements and settle for just shadowing the melody line. PM

3:00 Gibson Brothers

Not to be confused with the Ohio trash-rock band from the late 80s and early 90s, the Gibson Brothers use bluegrass as a starting point but tweak a wide range of styles. On their most recent album, Red Letter Day (Sugar Hill), Eric and Leigh Gibson enlist A-list pickers like Jason Carter and Ronnie McCoury, call on Nashville outsiders like Chris Knight, Kieran Kane, and Bruce Robison to pitch in on songwriting, and make room for unlikely covers of Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman" and the Rolling Stones warhorse "It's All Over Now." Admirably, the Gibsons aren't stuck on genre restrictions--there's as much honky-tonk on Red Letter Day as bluegrass--and though their singing doesn't have the zest of the arrangements, the disc's a pleasant romp nonetheless. PM

4:30 Shawn Camp

Shawn Camp has logged a lot of miles since the early 80s, when he started playing fiddle as a teen in his native Arkansas--by the end of the decade he was an in-demand sideman for, among others, the Osborne Brothers, Alan Jackson, and Trisha Yearwood. His solo career started with a thud--his 1993 debut album on Reprise went nowhere--but he got by as a songwriter, penning hits for Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn. He now goes the indie route as a recording artist, and his last two efforts are musically distinct but equally impressive. Live at the Station Inn, released in 2003 on John Prine's Oh Boy label, captures his bluegrass side, showcasing tunes written with the likes of Guy Clark and Jim Lauderdale; his latest album, Fireball (Skeeterbit), is a more rocking affair that suggests Rodney Crowell at his rawest, with nary a trace of Music City gloss. I expect he'll combine those two instincts at this gig, but since he's just as comfortable playing acoustic as electric it shouldn't sound schizophrenic. PM

6:00 John Cowan Band

Petrillo Music Shell

3:00 Yonder Mountain String Band

4:30 Glen Campbell

In October 2003 Glen Campbell was poised for a comeback: that month Capitol Records released The Legacy (1961-2002), a remarkable four-CD set that corrected years of catalog neglect and set the stage for a serious reappraisal of his work. But the next month he was arrested in Arizona for "extreme DUI," that infamous mug shot made the rounds, and Campbell became a punch line. Since then he's succeeded in recovering his reputation--last year he was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he's reunited with his old foil Jimmy Webb to work on a new album. His live shows tend to degenerate into Branson-caliber spectacles--like many acts of his generation, Campbell feels compelled to play showman instead of relying on his superb musical skills. But it's hard not to be won over by his apple-cheeked charm and his arsenal of timeless Webb-penned hits like "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," and "Galveston." BM

SUNDAY 2

Taste Stage

12:00 Kimmy Jo

1:30 Billy Childers Band

3:00 Majors Junction

4:30 Matt Poss & the Wild Bunch

6:00 Mike Kelly & the Chillbillies

Petrillo Music Shell

2:00 Phil Vassar

3:15 SheDaisy

4:45 Jo Dee Messina

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