Taste of Chicago is a little bit tastier this year

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While it has yet to recapture the glory days of the early 90swhen the memorable performers ranged from the Replacements to Barry Whiteor match the generally superior lineups offered by Milwaukees Summerfest, the musical bookings at Chicagos venerable Taste of Chicago have incrementally been improving in recent years, and 2008 is inarguably the best in quite some time.

And, as always, the settingthe Petrillo Music Shell with the lake to the east and the skyline to the west in Grant Parkand the pricefreecannot be beat.

What are your favorite Taste moments? I’d be curious to hear. Meanwhile, here is my breakdown on the schedule for 2008.

Friday, June 27

The musical component of Taste kicks off this evening at 5:30 p.m. with an inspired pairing of two stellar soul divas from two different generations. Angie Stone is still touring in support of last years The Art of Love & War; while it fell short of her career high with Mahogany Soul (2001), she can be firebrand onstage, and its hard to imagine she wont be inspired opening for one of her heroines, Chaka Khan. Raised on the South Side as Yvette Marie Stevens, Khan first made her mark in the mid-70s as part of funk greats Rufus; went on to a successful solo career in the 80s, and remains a vibrant force at age 55, with last years Funk This and a long string of recent hip-hop cameos to her credit.

Saturday, June 28

After avoiding live performance for more than a decade, the genre-blurring Motown legend Stevie Wonder followed a 2006 appearance on American Idol by hitting the road for a short tour last summer, including a stop at the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island. In fine voice, Wonder surveyed his career, joyfully romping through his many hits (Higher Ground, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Im Yours, Isnt She Lovely) as well as digging deep into classic albums such as Innervisions. Fans at the Charter One show in 2007 thought the best seats were worth every penny of the $125 ticket price. And did I mention that Taste is free? (Wonder is set to take the stage at 5:30 p.m.)

Sunday, June 29

Day Three offers the first of two shows for the kids. The headliners are Chicagos own Plain White Ts, a perfectly fine pop-punk band who will forever be known, at least in certain teenybopper circles, for the atypical acoustic ditty and Radio Disney favorite, Hey There Delilah. Opening at 5 p.m.: rootsy, Georgia-bred singer and songwriter Josh Kelley.

Monday, June 30

Yes, once again, its Broadway in Chicago, with the casts of Jersey Boys and Wicked and stars from Legally Blonde, A Chorus Line and other shows belting out um, show tunes. It starts at 6 p.m.; nuff said.

Tuesday, July 1

Were back to a slightly hipper brand of pop at 5:30 p.m. with the surprisingly credible young British soul singer Joss Stone, who delivered the goods when opening for hometown hip-hop hero Common last summer, and opener Ryan Shaw, the young Georgia soul man who mixes original material with slightly revamped covers by the likes of Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack.

Wednesday, July 2

Taste continues with a glossier brand of soul at 5:30 p.m. with Estelle, London-based singer, rapper and producer Fanta Estelle Swaray whose recent second album Shine includes collaborations with John Legend and Kanye West, and Fantasia, a.k.a. Fantasia Monique Barrino, who emerged from American Idol to revel in slick but successful mainstream R&B.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

In keeping with tradition, the Grant Park Orchestra, led by conductor Christopher Bell, will offer the usual Independence Eve concert of patriotic standards starting at 8 p.m., followed by the fireworks at 9:30.

Friday, July 4

This years edition of the big holiday concert starts at 3 p.m. with a bit of a yawn thanks to English indie-rockers Gomez and second-tier alternative-country mainstays the Old 97s, but things are guaranteed to pick up with headliner Alejandro Escovedo, the Austin legend and Chicago favorite who has just released the hardest-rocking solo album of his career with the aptly named Real Animal. Think of Iggy Pop fronting the Velvets at a Texas roadhouse. And yes, it promises to be that good.

Saturday, July 5

Rolling through week two of Taste, we have one for the soon-to-be seniors, with comedic Mississippi roots-rocker Dave Barnes opening at 5:30 p.m. for that long-running coffeehouse blues godmother Bonnie Raitt. And then

Sunday, July 6

At 2 p.m., Tastes second offering for the progeny of all those soccer moms, a Radio Disney spectacular with Keke Palmer (a Harvey, IL-born starlet whos been trying, in typical Disney fashion, to parlay film roles in Jump In! and Akeelah and the Bee into success on the pop charts), L.A. rockers A Cursive Memory (emo for the juice box crowd) and screech-inducing favorites Alyson Renae and Amanda Joy Michalkathats Aly & AJ to the faithfulthe squeaky-clean, mildly Christian California sister act behind the hit Potential Breakup Song and the platinum debut Into the Rush (2005).

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