Ravinia is always on my summer “bucket list.” The outdoor music festival is located in Highland Park, Illinois —a thirty-minute drive from our home in Evanston. I’ve loved going to Ravinia ever since the first time—during the summer of 1983—my second summer in Chicago. That night, my husband and I took our kids to see the Preservation Jazz Hall Dixieland Band.
Recently up from Texas, we showed up with a motley assortment of lawn chairs, a red and white checkered tablecloth, Igloo cooler, paper plates, and citronella candles. Wandering the park pre-concert, I marveled at the elaborate picnic set-ups. Linen-topped tables with silver candelabras and crystal wine goblets. Elegant tapers with layers of dripping white wax. Beautiful food perfectly presented on porcelain china.
I don’t remember what we brought for dinner that night, but a bucket of Kentucky Fried chicken and side dishes sounds about right—considering that I was a graduate student with two kids and a serious lack of time, money, energy, and style. And still, I remember that beautiful summer night under the trees, listening to the kind of music that makes me feel all tied up in knots.
At one point, my son Jeff rolled up in the tablecloth and took a nap. Toward the end of the concert the band played When the Saints Go Marching In and a spontaneous parade began snaking through the grounds. We woke Jeff and joined in. The next time we visited Ravinia was for a different band, but when Jeff snuggled in for a nap, he said, “Wake me when it’s time for the parade.”
After that first summer, we went every year—sometimes twice. It was a good place to take children. It felt safe to let them wander off in search of ice cream or play with the other kids running through the park.
My perfect spot is on the lawn in front of the pavilion, audience stage right—a great place to people-watch, glimpse the performers from afar, and dance. I’m a creature of habit, and those who meet me at Ravinia know where to find me. The only summer I remember missing Ravinia was 1989, when I was in Saudi Arabia.
I’ve seen Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joe Cocker, Sarah McLachlan, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, k.d. lang—and many others I can’t remember.
I’ve survived downpours, laughing with friends huddled under umbrellas, wearing make-shift garbage-bag ponchos.
For my fifty-fifth birthday party I took a group of women friends in a limo to see k.d.lang.
I remember taking Mama to see Willie Nelson every summer, waiting for him to sing Georgia on My Mind—crying when he did.
In the summer of 1995, Jerry Lee Lewis was double-billed with Little Richard. When Jerry Lee walked off stage ten minutes into his set and never returned, Little Richard came on and more than made up for it rocking the night away. That was the night I met and danced with my Aussie, a “two ships passing in the night” never-to-be romance.
Last year, someone gave me pavilion tickets to see Sweet Baby James Taylor, and I came away with an autograph and a hug!
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band are regulars around my birthday every year, so it’s not unusual to find me there in late August—with my husband Barry and whoever else wants to join the party.
Over the years, the park has changed. The sound system has improved and enormous screens allow everyone to see the performers up close and personal. Meticulous grounds-keeping have almost eliminated the perfume of citronella wafting through the night air. Although prices have risen, crowds have become more diverse and laid-back. I imagine the picnics for the classical concerts remain much more “high-brow,” but I prefer my casual friends in low places. And afterwards, there is always the ride home—south on Sheridan Road, winding through the ravines under star-lit skies—the night’s music still playing through my mind.
The audience at last Saturday night’s Ravinia concert was as diverse and jubilant as I’ve ever seen. Melissa Etheridge was perfect scheduling for the end of a week filled with the breaking down of barriers to loving relationships. The sky cleared and gentle breezes kept the temperature at just right. Sipping red wine, holding my sweetie’s hand, and gazing up at the canopy of leaves, I felt home.
Saturday night Melissa sang about love and desire. When she sang about running for life and acknowledged all of us survivors in the audience, there was a sea of cell phones waving in the air like cigarette lighters. That’s the song still playing through my mind today.
I have the Ravinia schedule spread beside me as I write. Willie Nelson will be there July 14, and Lyle Lovett on August 23. There’s still a lot of summer ahead. Anybody want to join me? Also, please share your favorite Ravinia memories in the comments area below.
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