Joining the ranks of other well-known college towns with thriving music scenes, Champaign-Urbana is rapidly making a name for itself in the music industry. Home of legendary giants like REO Speedwagon, Alison Krauss and 90s nostalgia bands like Hum and Braid, the city continues to be a creative hubbub for young talent. Thanks to its popular music venues that get swarmed by crowds (many are out-of-towners making the drive from Chicago), new and upcoming bands are welcomed by a supportive audience and proudly call Champaign their new home.
Nestled in the heart of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Canopy Club is located on campus, giving spectators a mini escape to a cosmopolitan feel. The swanky club has a spacious lounge, where concertgoers can take breaks from the dance floor to munch on pizza and vegan empanadas from Manolo’s before getting back into the groove. On most nights, neon light strobes and digital effects flicker from the stage while a DJ spins catchy beats, sending intoxicating shock waves to the audience. Musicians like Aaron Carter and Ben Folds have previously graced the stage with their tunes, making this venue a popular destination for big-name acts to make a stop on their tours.
Canopy Club is proud to introduce its newest baby, Blackbird, a concert venue and beer garden to the community. With the help of Crane Alley, the venue opened the new bar on Main Street in Urbana, an ideal destination for music lovers to explore by foot. For concertgoers looking to get their music fix during the week, Blackbird is known for hosting special nights including Nuvo Disco Wednesdays, Live Music Thursdays and Jazz Happy Hours on Fridays. On low-key nights, guests enjoy the convenience of its long bar with plenty of stools to comfortably watch sports on the screen while sipping on craft beers or mixed cocktails. Arrive to the downtown area early to peruse through vintage records at See You CD & Vinyl, or linger after the show for late night snacks at Pizza M (a few minutes walk from Blackbird) for their specialty pizzas.
Among the most celebrated bands in the area is Elsinore, an instrumental heavy rock group that echoes the essence of Death Cab for Cutie and Phoenix. If some of the songs the long-haired singer belts out rings familiar, it’s because of hit songs like “Yes Yes Yes” have been featured in “So You Think You Can Dance?”and can be spotted as background music in a popular Kohl’s commercial. Or catch a Sun Stereo show, a lively band accompanied by a cello and string of trombones, where the singer dominates the show as he pounds on the keyboards. If the Beatles were making music in today’s world, it’s speculated they would sound much like Sun Stereo.
For an ethereal singing, music-lovers can’t go wrong with female-fronted group Tara Terra, where singer Emily Blue notoriously shares lyrics to combat rape culture and gendered violence with 70s and 80s soundscapes. Largely consisting of former University of Illinois students, Tara Terra is quickly gaining popularity among its audience. In fact, Huffington Post recently praised the band for its “versatile lead textures and style.”
Chances are, visitors will find many of the upcoming bands at local venues like Cowboy Monkey in downtown Champaign, where groups play on an intimate stage that has sultry red drapes. Diners enjoying their nachos and fish tacos can comfortably hear the music from out on the patio under the lights, making for a romantic setting for a date night.
Rock music doesn’t always dominate the music scene in Champaign, country music is alive and well in the area, too. The City Center is a hip joint where it’s common to find lively bands jamming to bluegrass tunes and honky-tonk music. The venue has 9,000 square feet of entertainment space, including a 2,000-sq.ft. beer garden for music lovers to sip beers and get some fresh air. From there, visitors may catch charming acts from Bashful Youngens, a female and male duo singing folk music. Wait for the harmonica solo that provides the perfect climax to the songs.
Jazz lovers can head down to Iron Post, where tables and chairs are scattered around a grand piano and a small stage. This dive bar is a block away from Crane Alley in Urbana, but locals love to flock to Iron Post for its cheap beers, comfort food and good jazz music in a relaxed atmosphere.
Get in the groove and pick up the pace by bobbing along to CJ Run, a hip-hop sensation taking Champaign by storm. The 18-year-old singer hails from Northampton, United Kingdom, (but now calls Champaign home) and is rapidly grabbing attention, performing at Pygmalion, the city’s most revered music event of the year that takes place in downtown Champaign. While music is clearly the star of the event, Pygmalion prides itself in its cluster of events, including a food festival outfitted with a Bohemian street food market and a literary festival to encourage its spectators to exercise their creativity in various mediums.
At Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on campus, ELLNORA | The Guitar Festival attracts die-hard musicians from every corner of the globe to see popular artists like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame, Recess Monkeys and Janis Ian strum on their stringed instruments. The bi-annual fall event lasts for three days, but attendees definitely don’t want to miss the opening night party to kick off the festivities. C-U Folk and Roots Festival is another must-see fall event to see scores of bands quizzically play on their fiddles and mandolins. Approximately 80 bands are expected to perform, and the show is complete with folklore storytelling, family activities, dancing and workshops, where concertgoers can learn the art of instrument making.
There’s no need to wait for the big events to get a dose of music. Luckily Champaign has Friday Night Live! downtown, where bands are scheduled to perform every week from June–August. Start from there to get an early exposure to the music scene that runs through the veins of the city. Music lovers, it won’t be long before being drawn into the hip world of the area’s music community.