Music Cities Series: Peoria, IL

(Photo credit: Keith Cotton)

I grew up in Peoria, Illinois; a river town nestled in the heartland of the Midwest. As a kid, I used to be fascinated by the opaque, murky waters of the Illinois River that seemed to cut a path right through the forests and hills where I lived. As I’ve grown older, the pollution and invasive fish species have tempered some of that excitement. But even so, there’s nothing quite like playing to a crowd of thousands of hometown music lovers, on a stage alongside a barge tethered to the banks and bridge with traffic humming above. 

Every year thousands of Midwesterners gather in downtown Peoria for our music & arts festivals which are held near the river.  I read in the local paper recently that Peoria generated over $1,000,000 in revenue from concerts on the riverfront. Previous bands that have headlined in Peoria include: Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Band of Horses, Buddy Guy, Blackberry Smoke, Umphrey’s Mcgee, Michael Franti & Spearhead and many more nationally acclaimed acts. I have observed that Peorians enjoy going to concerts and love to support the touring acts who perform in the area. I have also noticed they love watching the local bands the community is fortunate to have in Peoria. 

Peoria has several venues that are 300 capacity or more. Although the venues are great environments I would love to see the addition of an all ages seated venue that would accommodate smaller audiences without the room feeling too empty. Some shows in Peoria are 21+ or scheduled at times that are inconvenient for younger crowds. When I was younger, my parents would occasionally let me skip school for a show, but this was rare. Although it might not be advisable to skip school for a concert, I do believe it is very important for younger people to be exposed to live music as much as possible.

My band, The Way Down Wanderers, has had the privilege of playing at several historic folk clubs across the United States. Some of these clubs have been around for nearly a century and have hosted musicians such as: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Linda Ronstadt. Whenever I play a show at one of these venues, it makes me wish I had one similar in my hometown to return to. Though smaller music venues can seem as if they are of little importance, I feel very strongly that folk clubs serve an important role in our country’s culture. 

For me, folk music is a tradition handed down from my parents and their parents, and their parents before that. That tradition will continue to evolve as we continue celebrating music. Growing up in Peoria, I loved listening to the music of John Hartford and his songs about working on barges in the Peoria river valley. Although some of the folk music we listen to today has influences of modern pop music, folk will always be influenced by the music from the Appalachian Mountain region as well as influences from the Civil War during the slavery and emancipation era. Folk music has always served as an outlet for listeners and artists to speak out against social injustices. “Blowing in the Wind” was written in 1962 by Bob Dylan. Although the song is nearing 60 years old, the series of rhetorical questions it asks are unfortunately ones that communities, like Peoria, are asking themselves every day. These questions apply to many of the issues that are facing the United States like gun violence and prejudiced immigration policies.  

I got my start in music by taking lessons in Peoria and playing at coffee shops for anyone who would listen. I have had the opportunity to watch a lot of musicians perform in these types of listening environments. I learned there is an unspoken energy created by a smaller seated room. A listening audience can cultivate a special moment and connection between the artist on stage and the audience. It has been a privilege to experience some of these moments in my hometown. I am hopeful that Peoria will create spaces where musicians and audiences can come together to grow and share in experiences that will further the betterment of our community. A community like Peoria would significantly benefit from a folk club. Not only would it provide an audience for smaller, lesser-known musicians, but it would also serve as an outlet for people to speak out against injustices and spark change at a local grass-roots level. The music scene in Peoria is not unlike the river which flows through its center. People can be seen every day riding boats, fishing and walking along the scenic trails in the bluffs and valleys it winds through. We love the benefits our waters have to offer, but we need to come together to make the river a cleaner force in our environment. Peoria is a great place with lots of natural beauty and opportunities for folk music expression and education. But it also has its struggles. While a small folk club is not the answer, it would be a small step in the right direction. 

The Way Down Wanderers create music that is rooted in the very heartland of America. Their distinct sound draws on elements of bluegrass, but also touches on classic rock influences including the multi-part harmonies of the Beach Boys and The Band’s hybrid soul, as well as the roots qualities of The Avett Brothers and Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, with surprising elements of jazz, classical music and even hip-hop. Produced, engineered and mixed by Grammy winner David Schiffman (Johnny Cash, HAIM, System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine) the band’s independent sophomore release illusions finds them collaborating and exchanging ideas to further distinguish their unique sound; the album explores love, loss and personal evolution delivered in roots-influenced songs that are also rhythmically modern.

When lead songwriters Austin Krause-Thompson and Collin Krause met, the classically trained, high, lonesome crooner Collin was picking bluegrass mandolin and fiddle in a Dylan-esque folk band dubbed Something with Trees, while Austin was the drummer in a rock group. Jazz percussionist John Merikoski and classical upright bassist John Williams soon joined, with banjo player Travis Kowalsky being the final piece to the puzzle. The Way Down Wanderers have toured extensively across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., performing an official showcase at the Americana Fest in Nashville, earning honors from American Roots UK (Top Albums of the Year List 2017), Songpickr’s Best Songs Spotify Playlist (2016) and a finalist in the 2016 International Song Writing Competition. 
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Angela Mastrogiacomo

Founder of Infectious Magazine & Muddy Paw Public Relations. Lover of passion, ice cream, and books.

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