Unpretentious, irreverent and opinionated, the "Chick" behind Chicks Rockfest (a music showcase featuring Rock bands with a female presence), takes her seat across from me at Rock club Dirty Jack's in Elmwood Place, illuminated appropriately by moody dive bar lighting.
Jenny "Jem" George, 31, is a self-described "local music geek." Her feisty attitude is apparent before you even enter the bar. A handmade sign on the door warns you that the bar does not own any of the parking lots you are asking about; once inside, another sign on a shrouded piano warns that touching it will result in a $100 fine.
She looks at me, curious and slightly bemused, while I unpack all of my writer's paraphernalia. There's a feeling of potential camaraderie and mutual respect. We're both "two chicks doing our thing."
Before I even have a chance to turn the recorder on, George launches into a description of her duties at what she calls "The Bar" (Dirty Jack's) and her music production companies (Chicks Rockfest and Outrageous Productions). She talks fast, and somehow manages to cover three conversations at a time by bouncing back and forth among various digressions that remain relevant and weave together into one story. The story at hand: Chicks Rockfest.
The festival, which started out as a three-band showcase in 2001, grew to a full four nights on two stages with 40-50 bands last year.
Now it is morphing into a project with national reach and continues to grow.
Despite its feminist-sounding name, George says she didn't begin the project out of any feminist tendencies. Like many worthwhile things, Chicks Rockfest grew out of necessity.
"I started it exclusively to pretty much help promote my band," she says. "It was a three-band deal and it was kind of a joke almost to call it the first annual Chicks Rockfest. It was a regular run-of-the-mill show. It was my old band, Tornado Green, The Fairmount Girls and Ruby Vileos ... this was when Ruby Vileos was very, very new. The first year was at Mad Frog."
This seed of a show took root and grew into a full-fledged festival over the course of the next several years. Following the opening year, Chicks Rockfest took over Top Cats for another three-band night (it turned out to be Tornado Green's last show). The year after that, George filled two stages at the Southgate House with 11 bands in one night. Following that, the festival expanded to encompass 30 bands in two nights, three stages and two venues (The Cavern and Barrelhouse).
The festival kept expanding until 2007, when the Poison Room hosted nearly 50 bands on two stages over the course of four days. Because of online applications, George was reviewing applicants from all over the country. Chicks Rockfest was quickly growing in size and reputation.
Then, just as the festival was reaching its pinnacle, George received an offer she couldn't refuse -- the opportunity to drop her office job and instead run a bar and the bookings there. George had never managed a bar before, but she hadn't ever organized a large annual festival, either. In typical George fashion, she soon took over the establishment.
"I run Dirty Jack's. I am the bar manager, the talent buyer, everything else with the bar," she says. "I'm like the one-stop shop."
When George began working full time at Dirty Jack's, she found it difficult to maintain the festival at the same level that she had. She decided to scale down and simplify things, morphing the festival into artist showcases. The idea is to create groups of five or six bands that tour a small circuit, essentially creating portable "mini-festivals."
Her original version of these tours was ambitious; in 2005, she organized the Chicks on the Road series, which occurred simultaneously in seven regions nationwide. This involved seven touring groups of five to six bands playing in multiple cities all over the country during one weekend. The results were varied; some shows went well while others were poorly attended.
George winces at the retelling. "I was trying to hit the country all at once and I kind of got in over my head," she says. "The problem was, I couldn't be at every show."
Now, she is truly scaling down, but in a way that still leaves room to expand. Her new approach is to continue to tour groups of bands, but one region at a time. In a way, it will seem smaller (only six or so bands will play each show), but it will also be more frequent, with concerts occurring quarterly rather than annually.
Locally, there is an "artist series" showcase planned for Saturday at Dirty Jack's with acts from all over the country: Carrie Sample, Chakras, Stephanie's Id, Sugar Glyder, Vertigo and Lunapollo. Two weeks later, there will be a Chicksrock show in Nashville and a month after that it will be in Pittsburgh. George says she hopes to do at least three other cities by the end of the year.
While George still intends to grow and develop the festival, she says she is comfortable with where it is right now.
"I try not to get too ahead of myself anymore," she says. "The more ahead of myself I get the more I try to take too much on."
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