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Festival of Life finds new home in Union Park

The Blue Notes will perform 2013 African/Caribbean International Festival Life.

The Blue Notes will perform at the 2013 African/Caribbean International Festival of Life.

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◆ Through Sunday

◆ Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph

◆ $15-$20

(312) 427-0266

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Updated: August 7, 2013 6:07AM

With the rescheduling of Taste of Chicago, the African-Caribbean International Festival of Life has become Chicago’s top music festival over the Fourth of July holiday.

The festival annually drew more than 50,000 people to its previous location on the South Side’s Washington Park. This year the 21st annual “Festival of Life” has set up shop on three stages in Union Park, 228 S. Racine (the site of the upcoming Pitchfork music festival).

IFOL, which runs through Sunday, includes headliners Inner Circle and Belize calypso/soca/punta crooner Lova Boy at 6 p.m. Saturday and Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes at 7 p.m. Sunday, followed at 8 p.m. by Jamaican dancehall vocalist Sanchez, who makes his festival debut. Also don’t miss Casper-Mr. C’s Cha-Cha Slide, where fans will take over the stage Sunday in the spirit of Marcia Griffith’s “Electric Boogie,” which gave birth to the Electric Slide line dance.

“Our attendance has gone up every year,” said Ephraim Martin, who started the festival two decades ago. “We’ve seen that 65 percent of our attendees in Washington Park were traveling from Evanston, the North Side and the west suburbs. Union Park was always in mind, but Taste of Chicago was taking place the same weekend. Now that Taste is no longer taking place on July 4th weekend, we moved it to a more central location. We expect more people at this location.”

IFOL is not a free festival like City of Chicago music events. Advance tickets are $15 and $5 for children 6 to 12; free for kids 5 and under.

“There are so many people who would like to come,” said Martin, who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. “And they cannot afford it. Over the years, we have given away thousands of tickets through aldermanic wards, schools and other means. Even the $15 fee is not enough to accommodate the entertainment we have for this festival. But we want to keep it friendly for people to come out and learn about our music, arts and culture.”

Historically, the Festival of Life is the only place to hear live calypso music outdoors in Chicago. In recent years, the bookings have veered off into jazz and blues (Billy Branch and Sons of Blues perform Saturday).

“We’re primarily reggae and world-beat music,” Martin said. “But because it is Fourth of July weekend. we try to give everyone what they want. Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes played for us six or seven years ago. People asked us to bring them back.”

Rufus Thorne is the longest-tenured member of the Blue Notes. Thorne, who sings first tenor, joined 37 years ago. Founder Melvin died in 1997 at age 57 after a stroke, and the group’s Teddy Pendergrass, who went solo in the ’70s, died at 59 in 2010 from complications of colon cancer. Original second tenor Roosevelt Brodie died at age 75 in 2010 of complications of diabetes.

Thorne tried to describe his precious time with the group. “How do you describe riding on a comet?” he said in an interview from his Philadelphia home. “It’s one thing to go in the studio and cut your music. But then when you hear your music ripping the whole world apart, it does something to you. We had wild times, but nothing too wild. Nothing like Justin Bieber.”

The Blue Notes will perform their biggest hits: “The Love I Lost,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” but it is “Wake Up Everybody” that has had traction recently. The 1975 John Whitehad/Gene McFadden/Victor Carstarphen anthem of social consciousness was covered in 2010 by John Legend & the Roots. It is Thorne’s favorite song.

“It’s a song that makes you realize we’re all in the same thing together,” he said. “It is not about color, and it is not about a rainbow. It is about a melting pot. In a rainbow, you still have separate colors. But when you mix up a stew, you have one great stew.” He began to riff on the lyrics: “... Preachers, be careful what you preach, teachers be careful what you teach.’ When we save our children, we save ourselves.”

The 1960s-70s Chicago soul sound, heavy with horns, was known for its political content. “Memphis like Stax was a lot of guitar,” Thorne said. “Motown had a lot of bass. What made the Philadelphia sound so unique was that we started incorporating strings and orchestration.”

Thorne said the group will even be wearing vintage “Soul Train”-type tuxedos for the outdoor gig. “We’re still slidin’ and glidin’,” he said. “We still have the old-school swagger. Even if it is hot, you got to be what you are. You gotta stay sharp.”

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