Cornmeal in cornfields

By Alex Fiore

Get your dancing shoes on.

As part of Middlewest Fest, the high-octane bluegrass jam vehicle Cornmeal is coming to DeKalb Saturday.

Hailing from Chicago and perfecting their chops over the past decade performing across the country, Cornmeal plays an intricate brand of bluegrass music that leans heavily on improvisation.

Cornmeal, which consists of violin virtuoso Allie Kral, Kris Nowak (guitar), Dave Burlingame (banjo), Chris Gangi (bass), and JP Nowak (drums), will bring a type of fast-paced Americana not typically seen in the DeKalb music scene when they take the stage at the Van Buer Plaza, Locust Street and Second Street at 9 p.m. Saturday.

Cornmeal is no stranger to playing college towns, earning their stripes over the years playing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and other college towns across the Midwest.

Even though Cornmeal has since moved on to bigger venues and festivals, guitarist Kris Nowak said it’s nice to come back to a small-town environment.

“Every band starts playing in front of nobody,” Nowak said. “Playing smaller clubs, smaller towns, smaller festivals is always the way to reconnect with that thing you fell in love with when you first started playing music. It reminds you why you’re doing it.”

Nowak said playing larger festivals and venues can make it harder to connect with fans.

“When you play some of these smaller festivals or college towns, we have the change to go out and meet with the people and hang out a little bit,” he said. “The bigger the band gets, the less that kind of stuff happens.”

When the band hits town, it will be on the tail end of a summer tour that ranged from small dates out west to sharing lineups with jam scene stalwarts moe., Dave Matthews Band, Umphrey’s McGee and Widespread Panic.

“It’s pretty special being in that kind of company,” Nowak said. “It’s very rewarding and sort of validating that we’ve been working so hard all these years.”

It’s through Cornmeal’s dedication to improvisation that it gets to share the stage with these acts, and the band has earned a reputation as one of the most talented jam bands on the scene.

“The jams sort of feed themselves,” Nowak said. “The best way I can describe it is going on a hiking trail, one that might be a little rigorous. You sort of go along with the next turn of the trail, whether it’s uphill or downhill. It’s exciting; you want to see what’s around the next corner. In the jam, there’s this curiosity we all feed off of – ‘Hey, where is this going?'”

This kind of spontaneity was evident during the band’s second set at the Summercamp Music Festival in Chillicothe, Ill., in May.

Before Cornmeal took the stage, a thunderstorm rolled through and delayed the beginning of the set. When the storm passed and the band took the stage, the soaked crowd was delighted to hear a thrilling rendition of the Beatles’ psychedelic gem “Rain.”

“At a big festival like that where everybody is together and out in the mud … we’re all in this thing together,” Nowak said. “It’s a good moment to do something like that.”

Nowak said he has a good working relationship with Gangi (with whom he writes the set lists), and deciding to play “Rain” was the obvious thing to do.

“At the last minute we decided to swap out whatever the opener was and to play ‘Rain’ instead,” he said. “Sometimes it’s cool like that … in that instance he’ll look at me, and I’ll look at him, and we don’t have to say a word.”

As for the future, Cornmeal is looking forward to a milestone concert with Umphrey’s McGee and the Chicago Mass Choir at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on Nov. 26, Nowak said.

“It’ll be a special show one way or another,” he said. “It’s the first time we get to play at the Aragon Ballroom, and any musician who comes up playing music in Chicago…that’s definitely one of your goals, one of your dreams.”