Champaign Summer Nights

For the remainder of the summer, Friday nights in downtown Champaign will have a different feel to them.

Put on by 40 North, Champaign county’s arts, culture and entertainment council, Friday Night Live kicked off the first of several events this year that will showcase a variety of Champaign’s artistic performers. Mayor Don Gerard was in attendance for a balloon release at 5:45 p.m., 15 minutes prior to the first performances.

At the intersections of Neil and Park, Neil and Church, and Walnut and Chester Streets, two acts will perform — one at 6 p.m. and another at 7 p.m. — to punctuate the nightlife with free streetside performances.

In years past, the event was called Art & Sol and occurred monthly. According to Kelly White, executive director of 40 North, the event was handicapped by this lack of frequency.

“Before, we would just be getting going, and people would just be noticing it, and we’d be done,” White said. “So this time, no one has to remember dates … and then also it gives 40 North the opportunity to provide that many more chances for artists who perform, which ties in with our mission completely.”

White said the three corners at which the performers set up are modest, to portray the acts as “pop-up, guerilla-type performances” rather than elaborately planned events.

Additional sponsorship was provided by Bank Champaign, the Illinois Radio Group and the Champaign Center Partnership, or CCP, the latter two of which helped publicize the event. The increase in sponsorship funding allowed for the increase in dates.

The CCP sees the event as an excellent opportunity to further its own directives, which are to bring the community out to fuel the economy of the separate business districts of the city: downtown, midtown and campustown.

“We’re always trying to find ways to bring more people downtown,” CCP executive director T.J. Blakeman said. “This seemed like a great way to not only do that but make it on a recurring basis so that we continue to draw new people, and they look forward to it week after week.

“The more frequently we can do these things the more frequently people are thinking about, ‘Oh, well I’m sure there’s something going on in downtown or campustown, so let’s just head down there.’”

The acts on Friday were intentionally greatly varied. There were six in all: a folk-style instrumental guitarist, a blues singer-songwriter, a country singer-songwriter, a Dixie jazz band, a fire-breathing magician and a belly-dancing troupe.

“Gosh. We wanna make sure there’s something for everybody,” White said. “All different genres of music, all different types of dance, collaborative things. … We’re gonna have things that are more conceptual, maybe. Basically anything, we wanna make it family-friendly.”

The belly dancing troupe, Gypsy Hips, drew the most attention performing at the corner of Neil and Park Streets.

The members of Gypsy Hips each wore a different color of ornate, two-piece garb (to showcase the belly) covered with mock jewelry and performed group and individual routines that featured belly dancing and props such as silk shawls and swords.

Based in Champaign, Gypsy Hips has been performing together for nearly six years and saw the event as a great opportunity to interact with the community.

“We pretty much try to take any chance we have (to perform),” said Oksana Whitsitt, a stagename for a purple-clad member of Gypsy Hips. “We try to get into the community. … We do parties, which we always specify what kind of a party because unfortunately people sometimes misunderstand what bellydance is.”

But for those in attendance, there was no misinterpreting the artistic nature of the group, only appreciation, and perhaps a desire to see what other acts Friday Night Live has in store for the downtown Champaign community for the rest of the summer.