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Tune in to Woodstock, Illinois' 'Music Town'
By Mike Michaelson | Daily Herald Columnist

Woodstock's town square blossoms in spring and serves as the venue for several events.

 

Jam sessions featuring unusual instruments, such as a dulcimer, are open to the public at the Masthouse.

 

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Published: 4/26/2008 11:01 PM

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Second of two parts

Singer/banjo player Pete Seeger is, quite literally, a folk hero around Woodstock, Ill. Austrian composer and child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also has a large following in this pretty town, the seat of McHenry County.

By early summer, Woodstock is on a musical fast track with folk concerts, sing-alongs and open mics at various locations around town, including performances at the historic Woodstock Opera House. The latter, with its attractive interior stencils, is the venue of the Woodstock Mozart Festival, this year offering a three-concert series on the first three weekends in August.

Built in 1889 in "Showboat Gothic," the landmark theater has operated continuously since it opened, with actors such as Paul Newman and Orson Welles treading its venerable boards. Welles admired the pretty town, dubbing Woodstock, with its textbook of architectural styles, the "grand capital of Victorianism in the Midwest."

And so it remains, with cobblestone streets and meticulously restored 19th-century downtown buildings. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Woodstock to its annual list of a "Dozen Distinctive Destinations."

Unlike most county seats, Woodstock's old courthouse sits on the edge of the square rather than occupying the center of it. This makes way for a highly functional public park with gazebo bandstand, monuments, benches and paths. Locals and visitors head here for band concerts, ice cream socials and farmers markets (every Tuesday and Saturday, with live entertainment on Saturday).

More than 300 crafters are poised to descend on the town square during the annual old time Fair Diddley (May 17), which has been a popular happening since 1969. Red-and-white-striped booths ring the square, where fair-goers will find games with prizes as well as home-baked specialties and fair food that includes kettle corn, sno-cones, hot dogs, funnels cakes, roasted corn-on-the-cob, corn dogs and cotton candy.

That same weekend brings the Red Rose Ragtime Band to the Woodstock Opera House. The band specializes in ragtime for the seven-piece jazz band format, their concerts a potpourri of musical Americana mixing ragtime, jazz and pop selections from the 1920s and 1930s.

Another upcoming event is the 23rd Woodstock Folk Festival (July 20, noon to 6 p.m.), featuring main stage, open mic, workshop and an area for children with music and crafts. Guest star is Lil Rev, a 2003 inductee in the Traditional Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame. Also performing will be Amy Beth, co-founder of the event and recognized as "Woodstock's own lady of story and song."

Fanciers of folk music, storytelling and sing-alongs gather on the first Saturday of each month at the Masthouse (actually a private home in downtown Woodstock). Entrance is $4 per person (or what you can afford) and visitors are invited to join in the conversation and refreshments at a "sharing table" and are requested to bring a snack or treat to share.

Pete Seeger has performed here, as have the Kingston Trio and the Moscow Folk Ensemble. Head to the Masthouse on a Wednesday afternoon and you can listen in to a jam session (free admission), sometimes featuring offbeat instruments such as hurdy gurdy ("poor man's bagpipes," one musician dubbed them) and an Aboriginal instrument from Australia, a didgery doo.

Also check out Off Square Music, with several folk-music concerts each month and open mic night twice a month, attracting performers from Chicago and Milwaukee. Venues are the stylish Stage Left Cafe, adjacent to the opera house, and the Unitarian Church, two blocks "off the square" (hence the name).

You'll find plenty of fine eateries in Woodstock, and hardly can do better than at La Petite Crêperie, owned by Frank Ferru, an expatriated Frenchman from Nice. Mussels steamed in white wine with shallots are exquisite and you can't go wrong ordering crepes along, perhaps, with Salade Lyonnaise, tossed with bacon and chopped fried egg.

If you're out exploring the county, try the Windhill Pancake Parlor, just off the Riverwalk in McHenry. Potato pancakes are a popular choice, as are crepe-thin Swedish pancakes served with traditional lingonberries or strawberries.

Visit the tiny crossroads community of Hebron for a clutch of antique shops and lunch at The Bakehouse -- basically, a local coffee shop that serves homemade soup and well-packed sandwiches. Its pin-neat interior is decorated with quilt patterns. Windows look out onto the community's water tower, painted to resemble a basketball and proudly recalling Hebron as the home of the 1952 state champions.

If you prefer lodgings close to the music, you might choose one of Woodstock's two bed-and-breakfasts: the Bundling Board Inn, a Queen Anne "painted lady" with wrap-around porch; and the Alexandria House, a Victorian with a big front porch. Otherwise, you'll find nearby -- and around McHenry County -- plenty of chain lodging affiliates, including a comfortable Country Inn & Suites at Crystal Lake.

In the likely event that Woodstock's summer music offerings whet your taste for more, plan a return visit on the third Sunday in September. A day filled with music includes contests for fiddle, banjo and guitar, as well as an acoustic music jam and an open mic.

If you go

Information: McHenry County Convention & Visitors Bureau, (888) 363-6177, www.visitmchenrycounty.com; Illinois Tourism, (800) 226-6632, www.enjoyillinois.com.

Mileage: Woodstock is about 60 miles northwest of Chicago and is served by Metra's Northwest Line.

MikeMichaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."