CHICAGO — For longtime fans of the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival — which kicks off Friday — memories of the roots music marathon are inextricably linked with the Congress Theater, the festival's home base since its inception in 2008.
But recent conflicts between the Congress, the city, and the venue's neighbors, along with hefty repair costs, have forced the theater to close for nearly a year, and driven the festival to other venues across the city.
That was bittersweet for Mike Raspatello — the festival's founder, along with Silver Wrapper and React Presents — because the Congress "was the only place that gave a theater that size to independent promoters like us" when the festival was still getting off the ground.
Instead of the three-day, two-venue event presented in 2012 for the festival's fourth iteration, Raspatello compares this year's format to a film festival.
Losing the Congress "was, in some way, a blessing, because it allowed us to include more bands and give the festival a level of flexibility that it didn't have before."
The new format helped organizers book more artists and a more varied lineup: Raspatello calls the 30-plus artist bill "the ultimate mixtape," thanks to "the range of venue sizes and dates" that made it easier to book hard-to-get musicians and groups.
"You wouldn't be able to do a Greensky Bluegrass-headlining show when your only venue size is 4,000 people," Raspatello said. "You can do that at a place like Concord [Music Hall]. ... Having a different range of venue sizes enables us to have headliners that wouldn't be headliners in a venue like that.
In booking artists for the fest's fifth birthday, "we were so much more imaginative in who we reached out to and who we talked to," the founder said, "because it kind of felt like the sky was the limit this year. It felt way more like my fantasy mixtape than it ever has before."
Raspatello also predicts that hosting the event at higher-end venues will expand the audience.
"While some of the bands made sense at the Congress, I can't sit here and say that somebody from Bela Fleck's audience would be as excited to come to a show at the Congress as they would at City Winery or SPACE," Raspatello said.
The new format "will allow us to capture an audience that is more comfortable at a seated, smaller venue."
The Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival runs Jan. 10 through Feb. 8. Tickets are available individually by event on the festival's website.