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Top Five Festivals For Music in the Open Air This Summer

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In summer, music in Chicago means one thing: festivals. It’s almost as though, after a typical brutal winter, we collectively can’t bear the idea of hearing one more note played in a crowded nightclub, dimly lit concert hall, or claustrophobic tavern. We want our music under the bright, blue sky and in the open air, with all the randomness, confusion, sense of community and acoustic challenges that represents. And boy howdy, do we ever get it.

Chicago Blues Festival
June 12-14, Grant Park
Still the largest free blues festival in the world, and one of the cultural events most associated with the city by out-of-towners. This year’s fest—the thirty-second—features local legend Buddy Guy as the headliner, and celebrates the centennials of both Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. Other acts include Billy Branch, Toronzo Cannon, Clarence Carter, Eddy Clearwater, Syl Johnson, Zora Young, Taj Mahal Trio, Eddie Shaw & The Wolfgang, Charlie Love and Chick Rogers, among many others. Over half a million people are expected to pour into Grant Park for the chance to bliss out to every kind of blues imaginable, including acid, electric, Delta, New Orleans, Kansas City, West Coast, St. Louis and (of course) Chicago. Free.

Pitchfork Music Festival
July 17-19, Union Park
After ten years, this laid-back, all-ages fest can probably be called a Chicago institution. This summer, hometown favorites Wilco, Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa welcome rock royalty Sleater-Kinney and The New Pornographers. Also appearing: Future Islands, Sophie, Ought, Churches, Run the Jewels, Iceage, A$AP Ferg, Panda Bear, Caribou, A.G. Cook, Jamie XX, Mac DeMarco, Todd Terje & The Olsens, Ex Hex, Tobias Jesso Jr., Jimmy Whispers, Bully, Ariel Pink, Bitchin Bajas, How to Dress Well, Mourn, Protomartyr, Single Mothers, Natalie Prass, Parquet Courts, Ryley Walker, Future Brown, Mr Twin Sister, The Julie Ruin, Waxahatchee and more. There’s also a wide range of local vendors, and a popular record fair run by CHIRP Radio. $65-$180. Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing Stars: I Found My Thrill in the Lawn Seats

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Esperanza Spalding

There is nothing I enjoy more during the warm summer months than attending outdoor concerts. It is a chance to discover new music I would probably not have a chance to get to know otherwise.

For instance, I would never have known what South African a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo really sounds like sans Paul Simon if I hadn’t caught a free concert they did at New York’s Winter Garden in the summer of 2001, or about how much effort Marisa Monte puts into stage production if I hadn’t seen her at an outdoor show in Fortaleza, Brazil. And then there was Steve Miller Band’s memorable 2006 appearance at the Ravinia Festival. Sure, good seats went for a price, but the rest of us could still enjoy the music from a distance.

Outdoor concerts have a spontaneity you cannot find in theaters, clubs or arenas. I recall speaking with jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, who once told me that the performer can feel the difference between playing in a club and an outdoor venue. For example, the audience reacts differently because in many cases folks at a festival are hearing that artist for the very first time, and that first experience can lead to a whole new musical discovery.

I will never forget watching then-mostly unknown bassist Esperanza Spalding open for Chicago-based Ledisi in Central Park Summerstage in the summer of 2009. She completely stole the show that afternoon and subsequently won herself a whole new following.

Too bad Beliebers weren’t there that afternoon, because they would have known who their idol was up against at the Grammys the following year. (Ernest Barteldes)

Riding the Wild Surf at Lollapalooza

Memoirs & Miscellany, Outdoor Concerts No Comments »

Photo: Matthew Taplinger

No keys. No phone. No money, credit cards or ID. I was sitting on the ground next to Buckingham Fountain staring out toward the darkness that had taken over Michigan Avenue. Slumped up against the concrete, with muddy feet and smelling of sweat and Budweiser, I had just had the best moments of my first Chicago summer.

“What time is it?” I asked the man sitting on the ground next to me. Through his beer goggles he swayed his eyes toward me. He said he didn’t know the time or where his friends were or how he got there.

An hour before, at the MGMT concert, I had left all of my things behind and surrendered to the crowd. Finally.

For Lollapalooza 2010, I splurged and bought three-day passes. For the first two-and-a-half days, I watched a friend of mine crowdsurf during almost every set. It was getting to me. I had to do it.

So, there at MGMT, my crowdsurfing friend and I, accompanied by our mutual friend Jim (Beam), sang all the best songs off of the group’s debut album, “Oracular Spectacular.” Yet again, my friend surfed away into the crowd with a smile. Now it was time for me to decide. At that moment, a favorite song came on. With one last bit of encouragement from Jim, I handed all my belongings to a friend.

“How do I do it?” I asked her, now realizing there must be some type of proper crowdsurfing etiquette.

“She wants to go,” my friend yelled to the large men in front of me.

As they turned around and looked in my direction I squealed, “Lift me up!” Read the rest of this entry »

Hit the Deck: The back porch could use some Emily Posts as well

Food & Drink, Memoirs & Miscellany, Outdoor Concerts, User's Guide to Summer No Comments »

Summer in the suburbs was sweet. On a half acre sheltered by towering oaks and dense shrubs we could perform whatever outrages we wanted and never see a neighbor without a formal invitation. Our daughter would sunbathe topless on the veranda roof with impunity, our errant son would hold drug-infested raves in the far back that the police pretended not to notice, and our artsy friends would commit abominations all over the lawns and porches free from public scrutiny.

When we moved to the city summer changed. Now we have a deck instead of gardens and terraces—a large deck, granted, but encroached on every side by other decks and porches and balconies, leaving us exposed and vulnerable. On one flank barely twenty feet away a sexy twentysomething sunbathes topless while her aging potbellied boyfriend wears an obscenely skimpy Speedo. On another side consultants from Chelsea Clinton’s firm host multinational MBAs with little in common but their True Religion jeans who chat with us across the void rather than face each other.

Deck etiquette challenges us daily. Do you greet your neighbors when they are relaxing five feet away, or respect their privacy and ignore them? Can you sit out in your pajama bottoms to read the morning paper? Is the bottom of a two-piece bikini adequate cover-up for women of a certain age? Do we introduce our guests, and do we need to muzzle our more outlandish ones? Do neighbors’ wind chimes assaulting our ear drums constitute a justifiable condo association grievance? Can I shoot my neighbors’ garrulous father-in-law, Cheney-style, when he peppers us with reminiscences of his life as a Houston orthodontist? Just because our deck offers the best views, does that mean the neighborhood kids are entitled to invade for every fireworks display and air show?

It’s trying for everyone. A fast-track young exec and his gorgeous girlfriend have to share an atrium patio with a family that includes two ADD boys under eight. A techie abandons his patio to his pugs, leaving angry neighbors retching. A misplaced social conservative across the alley emails me that we are all bound for hell.

I wish I could offer solutions, but there’s no Emily Post for decks. Navigating deck etiquette, like much else about summer in Chicago, seems just another trade-off for the excitement of living here: what you like most about it is also what you like least about it. (Burt Michaels)

A lollapalooza of a Lollapalooza

Memoirs & Miscellany, Outdoor Concerts No Comments »

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

After the debut of Lollapalooza in 1991, two friends and I decided on a resolute course of action for the follow-up in 1992: we would spend the day loaded on LSD. After all, the first one had practically been made for hallucinogenic drugs: Jane’s Addiction, Siouxsie, The Butthole Surfers prior to their alt-metal change-up. The crowd had been laid back—a relatively critical component of acid use—and we’d had such a good time, the only way to top it, we figured, would be to take more for Year Number Two.

A worse idea, we could not have had. The lineup was decidedly not hallucinogenic-friendly. Sure, the likes of Lush and Pearl Jam weren’t negative, as such, but the scene took a sour turn when Soundgarden took the stage. Huge pits of flailing, high-testosterone apes took shape everywhere we, um, could see. The venue, Fiddler’s Green in Denver, is composed of huge swaths of graded lawn, separated by twenty-foot flat sidewalks. Needless to say, the sidewalks were occupied by an angry army of the very non-acid friendly, buzzing in circle-pits. By the time Ministry took the stage, it was chaos. At one point, two sizeable lads crushed into us, conferred briefly with one another, relocated their spiked wristbands to their fists, and launched back into the circular fray. I couldn’t really hear what my friend said, but I’m pretty sure he mouthed “not cool.” As the Red Hot Chili Peppers began, we’d had enough.

“We’re never going to do this again” we agreed in unison as we left. And by that, of course, we meant take acid at Lollapalooza. We were scarred for life though—none of us ever ventured to another Lollapalooza. (Dave Chamberlain)

The Complete Summer

Amusement Parks, Baseball, Food & Drink, Living Arrangements, Outdoor Concerts, Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips, Summer Romance, User's Guide to Summer No Comments »

Before you can say “cold front” it’ll be September and you’ll be wishing you hadn’t spent all summer watching reruns on TV. There’s a whole world around Chicago, and for three months, it’s not as icy, bitter and unforgiving as a jilted lover. The sun glistens of the concrete, steel and glass menagerie we call home. But since it’s such a pain to find out what’s going on, and to plan things, NewCity did the work. From hot air balloons to Binti the ape who save lives, we tell you where to go to make you want to sing like Brian Adams about the Summer of ’97. Read the rest of this entry »