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Dave Matthews Band Caravan: biggest South Side event since ‘33

Dave Matthews warms up for his show Dave Matthews BCaravan concert venue near 83rd St. Lakefront Friday July 8 2011

Dave Matthews warms up for his show at the Dave Matthews Band Caravan concert venue near 83rd St. and the Lakefront Friday, July 8, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 29, 2011 12:35AM

The Dave Matthews Band Caravan is the biggest single South Side entertainment event since the 1933 World’s Fair.

Nearly 30,000 music fans came out on Friday to the former site of U.S. Steel’s South Works at 87th and Green Bay along Lake Michigan to see Matthews, the Drive By Truckers, Ray Lamontage and others. A beautiful antique ferris wheel sourced from a Phish concert greeted fans as they walked into the site that once employed 50,000 steel workers.

The festival runs through Sunday. Nearly 100,000 people are expected to hear 38 bands in three days.

There was magic in the air on Friday.

A postcard-perfect day turned into a golden sunset (accented by the venue’s dust) over the steeple of the 109-year-old St. Michael’s Church, a few blocks west of the site. The venue is spread out enough so sound doesn’t bleed across the three stages. And, instead of naming stages after corporate sponsors, they pay homage to the history of the site. Matthews performed a three-hour set on the main stage, a.k.a. the South Works Stage. The Truckers played the Slip Stage, appropriately enough with the Chicago Skyway as a distant backdrop.

The only disappointment was the Lakeside Stage, which had no view of the lake.

The concert was the first event for the new Lakeside Development that is slated to include 50,000 residents, stores, a high school and a marina, all to be built in the next 30 years. I envisioned fans arriving at the venue on their boats to hear O.A.R. Didn’t happen. Tall chain link fences prevented fans from getting near the lake.

“Maybe next year more of the lake could be considered,” said Nasutsa Mabwa, project manager, development for McCaffery Interests, which is developing the site. “There’s always worries about young people by water and boats.”

Mabwa was happy with Friday’s debut and the consensus is that if this weekend works out, more concerts will take place at the historical site.

“Certainly we’d do it again and the next couple years to come,” she said. “We’ve been pre-developing this site since 2004. But Jam Productions and Live Nation put in over $1 million in site improvement to get this ready. [Nearly 150 acres were cleared of wild brush and weeds, 60 tons of materials removed.]

“They’ve been dedicated over the last couple of months and they’ve hired at least if not more than 75 laborers from the 7th and 10th wards here. A lot of local people are working the concessions all weekend.”

Saturday was expected be the heaviest night in terms of attendance, but Friday the numbers were near 29,000 to 30,000, Mabwa said.

The Lakeside site still has hundreds of medium sized trees from the past and truckloads of wood chips were imported to cover the ground. As night fell, two dozen illuminated nylon balloons were installed across the venue to accent the festive touch of a half moon.

A female compadre of mine complained about the lack of toilet paper and hand santizers in the porta johns.

The Matthews crowd seemed flushed with excitement; maybe it was the weather or the adventure of the hour commute from the city. Matthews and his band had their best stoner groove going for “Rapunzel” and their set-opener “Squirm,” although the uptempo boogie of “Don’t Drink The Water” sounded more like a real song to me. Before kicking into the jazzy ballad “You Might Die Trying,” Matthews surveyed the crowd and said, “It smells delicious . . . those spices and herbs.”

Some old steelworker was spinning in his grave.

Amanda Weersing, Kelle Hill and her husband, Matt, made their first trip to Chicago to attend the three-day festival. They flew in from Grants Pass, Ore. They were hanging out at the craft beer tent (14 different fancy beers, $8 each) on Friday afternoon. “We like the sustainability they’ve incorporated and that this used to be a steel mill,” said Kelle Hill, 32, who runs a vintage retail business. Her husband, a 34-year-old dentist, added, “We read up on it and they recycled a lot of stuff they pulled out of here.”

They are staying downtown for the weekend. Wessering, a 31-year-old special education teacher, said, “On our way in here we had a transport driver and he seemed super stoked. And he didn’t even know about it, but he talked about the jobs this provided.”

The trio agreed they had seen Matthews “a million times” and it was support acts (The Flaming Lips, Emmylou Harris and Michael Franti & Spearhead, all on Sunday) that made them want to make the road trip. “The only disappointing thing is that we felt we would be right on the edge of the lake,” Kelle Hill said. “The Gorge [amphitheater along the Columbia River in George, Wash.] is similar in landscape. That could be the same here.”

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