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The music we loved in 2023: Rustbelt soul, Robert Cray and a Guy Clark lesbian

A man in a navy, button down shirt sits with hands clasped around a fender guitar, smiling at the camera.
Turner Cray, Inc.
Robert Cray Band
Five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray performed Oct. 5 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

Music moved us this year— so much we couldn’t squeeze it in with the rest of WGLT’s arts and culture roundup. Here, we take a moment to revisit favorite stories, conversations and tunes that hit our airwaves in 2023 — be those local artists making music in Bloomington-Normal for decades, or touring groups big and small that passed through town for a day.

Presented chronologically, a summary of our top 2023 music stories:

Daz Exotic in April: Bloomington native Brandon Beck (A.K.A. Daz Exotic) brought an entourage to the WGLT studios to hype Spring Awakening, a wide-ranging one-night-only arts extravaganza at Nightshop. He talked about a new album, life in Atlanta and schooled this reporter on hype men.

A guitarist in red pants, jacket and heart-shaped sunglasses sings into a microphone on a stage with monitors and a drum kit. "WGLT Highway 309" is projected onto a curtain behind her.
Emily Bollinger
Jaimee Harris headlined the first Highway 309 Live at the Normal Theater with opening act, Emily the Band

Jaimee Harris in June: WGLT’s Highway 309 Live series launched this summer with a Pride-themed night at the Normal Theater. Before landing in town, headliner Jaimee Harris chatted about her stunning latest album, “Boomerang Town,” coming out as a lesbian who didn't fit the mold and the complexities of navigating the same music scene as her partner, Americana legend Mary Gauthier.

Great Value Jesus in July: Musician, songwriter and producer Noah Renken-Kapatos released new music under his longtime moniker Great Value Jesus this summer: “Hide N Seek,” a sardonic, ska-leaning punch to the gut reflecting on school shootings. The song pulls from an elementary school teacher’s experience working with disabled kids in the modern era. “It was horrifying to hear their active shooter training includes hide and seek, making a children’s game an easy way to get these children to be quiet — but for it to seem normal,” said Renken-Kapatos.

Harlem Hayfield in August: Decatur’s enjoying a bit of a musical renaissance, with Harlem Hayfield leading the charge. They’ve made a splash across the region this year, appearing at Make Music Normal, Jazz UpFront and the Peoria Blues and Heritage Festival, to name a few. The draw? An infectious original sound they call “Rustbelt Soul,” blending soul, funk and blues with sprinkles of roots rock and Americana on top.

Four band members in a dive bar look up at the camera, subtly smiling
Sweet Diezel Jenkins
Sweet Diezel Jenkins opened for Flo Rida and Ludacris at the Corn Crib on Sept. 29.

Sweet Diezel Jenkins in September: Greg Fulton rose to the top of 1980s Chicago’s metal scene as the front man of Znowhite and Cyclone Temple. But his eclectic musical taste and severe burnout led him to form Sweet Diezel Jenkins, a live band performing cheeky covers and cross-genre mashups. Has Fulton made peace with letting go of original music? Talking to WGLT before opening for Flo Rida and Ludacris at the Corn Crib this summer, it’s safe to say yes.

Robert Cray in September: Multi-platinum, five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray brought the full band to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts this fall for a retrospective spanning 40 years of productivity, including songs from his stellar 2020 LP, “That’s What I Heard.” At age 70, Cray can still rock. “I still have fun playing music,” he told WGLT. “It’s like it’s built in.”

A woman with platinum blonde pin-curled hair and red jumpsuit holds a white and black electric guitar
Daniel Sanda
courtesy Devious Planet PR
Samantha Fish played the Castle Theatre Oct. 10.

Samantha Fish in October: It was one of those “you had to be there” moments. On stage at the Castle Theatre in the middle of a rip-roaring guitar solo, blues rocker Samantha Fish tapped the palm of a motorized ghost, which started bopping and spinning to the music. As the final stop on her “Love Letters Tour,” Fish had gotten a bit loopy — and played one of Bloomington-Normal’s best shows of the year.

Illinois Symphony Orchestra in October: After a full year of guest conductors, the Illinois Symphony’s search for a new music director began in earnest this fall, starting with finalist Taichi Fukumura, Fort Worth Symphony’s assistant conductor. The charismatic maestro led the ISO in a brilliant program, with Shostakovich’s “Cello Concerto No. 1” as the main event. That was brilliantly interpreted by the young star Brannon Cho, plus the ISO premiere of Arturo Marquez’ “Danzon No. 2” and a rousing Tchaikovsky “Symphony No. 4.”

Omar Thomas in November: Illinois State University’s top band performed master composer Omar Thomas’ “Come Sunday” last month, five years to the day after it premiered in Normal. Thomas and ISU Director of Bands Tony Marinello discussed how self-imposed lines between jazz, gospel and symphonic band music prevents players from being exposed to the capacity of their instruments — and how “Come Sunday” busts down those barriers with a joyful noise inspired by the Hammond organ and music of the Black church.

A man seated in a radio station smiles at the camera. A CD jewel case sits on the table in front of him.
Lauren Warnecke
Vocalist and musicologist Justin Vickers' latest release includes four song cycles with echoing themes from his life and career.

Justin Vickers in November: ISU music professor and tenor Justin Vickers spent a lot of time in the Center for Performing Arts Concert Hall during the pandemic. The result is a staggeringly broad tribute to composer Benjamin Britten and his exponents called “The Poet’s Echo.” In a touching and personal conversation about the album, Vickers opened up about making queer representation visible in classical music.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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