Music Fest, by most accounts, was a rousing success. Madison Street was often packed during the three-day event. People came to hear popular local bands, sample the food and consume reasonably-priced beverages.
I was there on Friday and Sunday and thought it was appropriate that Jack Straw played on Sunday afternoon. The band’s leader, Jon Gram, is a long-time resident of Forest Park. Plus, it felt right to have a band play covers of Grateful Dead songs, during the summer of their final tour.
There were more than few tie-dyed shirts on display in the crowd, when the band started playing — a bit late in the Grateful Dead tradition. Their first number was appropriately titled “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” by the Allman Brothers. Gram’s mellow vocals and relaxed presence was a contrast to how he tore it up on guitar.
Though there were many 50-somethings sheltering in the shade, a number of younger fans were on hand. Elise may only be 5 but wasn’t afraid to shout out “Sugaree.” There was an even younger fan there, who couldn’t request any songs. Ayla was only 10 days old, already attending her first rock concert.
Gram channeled Jerry Garcia for her, on “Eyes of the World.” The band dipped into many genres, though, with “Secondhand Emotion” by Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” Keyboardist Paris Schutz captured Stevie’s 70s funk on the dance number, which drew some females from their seats.
As the set progressed, the crowd increased. Ryan Churchill played a 60s era bass solo and Mikey Schroeder banged on the drums. Schutz and Schroeder also helped out Gram on vocals.
Gram started singing when he was 15 but it certainly wasn’t 60’s rock. He was in an all-male choir at a church in Evanston. In 1970, he was discovered by Leonard Bernstein, no less. The great composer had been commissioned to write his “Mass” for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “He picked me for a solo,” Gram recalled.
After the performance, Bernstein wrote Gram a personal note on a sheet of the original score. “For my beloved Jon, a great artist and a beautiful spirit. Bless you and thank you from the heart.”
Gram’s next musical breakthrough didn’t occur until 1982, when he was at SIU studying classical and jazz guitar. His real influence, though, was the guitar playing of Jerry Garcia. “When I first heard Jerry Garcia, I was in high school.” The first song he heard was “Jack Straw.”
Gram and his friends formed Uncle John’s Band and toured the Midwest for 13 years playing Grateful Dead numbers. They were big at the time. But when drummer John Barry left the band, Gram followed him out the door. Coincidentally, Barry is the CEO of Star Events, the organizer of Music Fest.
After he left the band, Gram started Jack Straw, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. Gram also found time to attend 50 to 60 Grateful Dead concerts. He went to their show on July 4. Prior to the concert, Jack Straw was invited to perform at the Congress Hotel, where an exhibit of Grateful Dead art was on display.
In addition to playing with the band, Gram plays acoustic solo shows at Scratch Kitchen. His next gig is on Aug. 14. Jack Straw ended its two-hour set with one of Garcia’s favorites “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” For Gram, it’s his love of music that makes him want to keep doing the songs of his guitar hero.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.