The ‘new normal’ hangs over another summer of live music

It’s music festival season again, and of course we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 222.3 million U.S. residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19—roughly 67 percent of the population. Vaccination is a great safeguard against serious illness or death, but it’s less effective against infection by newer variants and can’t control the spread of COVID all by itself—and there are still extremely compelling reasons to want to avoid the virus, even if you’re pretty sure it won’t kill you. 

For one thing, we’re still learning about the disease’s long shadow. According to new data collected in June and analyzed by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, nearly one in five of U.S. adults who’s been infected with COVID-19 is still reporting chronic post-COVID symptoms, or what’s called “long COVID.” Some of those symptoms are disabling, and we don’t know if they’ll be permanent. Meanwhile, basic preventative measures have been abandoned all over the country. The CTA dropped its mask mandate in April, and in May the highly conservative official count of U.S. COVID deaths topped one million.

Even as officials urge us to be vigilant, they link COVID mitigations to hospitalization rates, not to case numbers. The Chicago Department of Health deemed local COVID risk “high” for 21 days across May and June, but because the virus is rampaging without making as many people extremely sick, mandates haven’t returned. If you’re still trying to avoid COVID, even a quick trip to the grocery store can feel like a surreal ordeal. It’s as though the rest of society has just sidestepped into a different reality. To the pandemic cautious, everybody else looks like they’re playing chicken blindfolded.

Last year Chicago’s festival season resumed, albeit in late summer to give enough of the population time to get vaccinated. This year it’s more or less returned to its normal schedule. I’m highlighting 16 local festivals in this preview roundup, and as far as I can tell only Evanston’s Out of Space still requires attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Nine of these festivals don’t make any reference to COVID-19 that I could find on their websites. Riot Fest and the Windy City Smokeout both plan to update ticket holders on COVID precautions closer to showtime, and the Pitchfork Music Festival’s site includes a few basic COVID safety recommendations. Lollapalooza’s curt COVID warning appears in the “Help Center” on its website: “By attending Lollapalooza, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19. Help keep each other healthy.” Leaving collective safety in the hands of 100,000 individuals is doomed to fail, of course—the whole problem with infectious disease, as Americans seem very slow to learn, is that other people’s choices affect you and your choices affect other people.  

“Music festivals historically have been events that have been associated with outbreaks of disease—not frequently, but predictably,” says Mark Dworkin, associate director of epidemiology at the University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Public Health. “For example, you have crowding; you have often poor sanitation, relatively; you have people who are speaking loudly or singing or yelling; and you have large numbers of people. It’s the opportunity for some people who are infectious to be present in significant enough numbers to spread disease.” Dworkin says that shigellosis, the main symptom of which is diarrhea, sometimes causes outbreaks at festivals; in 1988, more than 3,000 people who attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival fell ill with the disease.

Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 is currently being replaced as the country’s dominant strain by BA.4 and BA.5, and they’re all much more contagious than the strains circulating last summer. “Even though there’s this perception that COVID is over, we have more transmission now than we did during the Delta wave back in the fall,” says Katrine Wallace, epidemiologist at UIC’s School of Public Health. Gathering outdoors still presents less risk than indoors, even with the new variants, but it’s higher than it would’ve been under identical circumstances a year ago. “The issue is when you’re all kind of crowded together by the front of the stage or something, when there’s people everywhere breathing on you—that’s where it’s a little bit less safe,” Wallace says. The advice for what to do in crowded spaces remains the same: wear a mask. If that doesn’t make you feel better, head for the edge of the crowd, where you can keep your distance.

Credit: CHema Skandal! for Chicago Reader

Wallace and Dworkin also recommend getting booster shots. Until the pandemic ends, assuming it can end, large groups (including outdoor music festivals) won’t be completely safe. “They’re certainly not alone in terms of being opportunities for large numbers of people to congregate together and for respiratory disease to spread,” Dworkin says. “They are part of normal human behavior that has a positive and negative impact. Positive impact is we’re entertained, it’s good for our morale. The negative impact is that these kinds of settings promote spread of disease, especially respiratory disease. It’s a trade-off.”

Personally, I don’t care to risk infection to see Porno for Pyros from a quarter mile away on a corporate-sponsored stage in Grant Park. I’m also increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of for-profit music festivals taking over neighborhood parks—Douglass Park, for example, hosts three major festivals this summer, so that residents will lose access to that green space for about a month and a half in total. Of course, I realize not everybody looks at this the same way. Lots of people, after two years of pandemic life, feel more comfortable seeing music at outdoor festivals than anywhere else. But I still believe it’s my duty to let you know the risks of attending a festival, whether those risks are to your health or to your soul.

In any case, here are those 16 upcoming festivals. This roundup isn’t comprehensive, obviously, and not every mention is a recommendation. I’ve skipped two major festivals at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview (North Coast and Sacred Rose), several notable street fests (Passport Vibes, Wicker Park Fest, and Square Roots, though the last is covered in our concert previews this week), and some big DCASE events whose lineups have yet to be finalized (the Jazz Festival, the World Music Festival). Nonetheless I hope I can provide some insight into the landscape of Chicago’s sprawling festival season. Get tested before you go, and stay home if you test positive.

Mas Flow

Calumet Park Beach, Fri 7/15-Sun 7/17

This new reggaeton fest is the work of local promoters Grass Root Events, who also put on June’s Michelada Fest and August’s My House Music Fest. Mas Flow’s three headliners, Zion & Lennox, Don Omar, and Tego Calderón, each have two decades of experience under their belts; Omar got his start in the mid-90s (though he took a two-year retirement in the late 2010s), and Calderón dropped his hit debut, El Abayarde, 20 years ago this November. They’re all from Puerto Rico, as are most of the festival’s 12 other prominently billed artists—after all, Puerto Rico birthed the form of reggaeton that would go on to storm the international pop charts. Queens duo Nina Sky (of the 2004 hit “Move Ya Body”) and Miami boy band Cnco are among the exceptions, alongside a few of the 25 acts on the festival’s undercard acts—including local DJ Karennoid of Milwaukee-based collective Agua de Rosas and Bronx DJ duo Dos Flakos.

Pitchfork Music Festival

Union Park, Fri 7/15-Sun 7/17

It feels like just yesterday that Parquet Courts played Pitchfork—probably because this is the fourth time the New York indie rockers have appeared at the fest. Pitchfork stakes its reputation on challenging or even shifting the pop zeitgeist, and though in its 16th year it has several repeaters on its 42-act bill (including headliners Mitski and the National), it has also booked plenty of first-timers who could open the ears of even longtime attendees. They include pop alchemist L’Rain, hardcore platoon the Armed, avant-pop auteur Yeule, Latin-fusion virtuoso Xenia Rubinos, and jazzy posthardcore adventurers Karate—I’m particularly thrilled about that last one, but I should mention that the Numero Group hired me to write promo copy when it reissued the band’s catalog. Unfortunately, this year’s lineup has only four Chicagoans on it—far fewer than average—and two of them, Jeff Parker and Noname, are now based in Los Angeles.

Noname performs a medley from Room 25 in 2018. She appears at Pitchfork on Sunday.

Heatwave Music Festival

Douglass Park, Sat 7/16-Sun 7/17

Heatwave debuts as the third major for-profit festival to occupy Douglass Park, which has become a battleground in the war over such temporary privatization. Heatwave is a dance-focused affair, marketed to an older crowd who like their electronic music sleek and arena size (and who might feel like they’ve outgrown Spring Awakening, which has postponed its tenth-anniversary blowout till 2023). Highlights include Dutch dance-pop duo Yellow Claw, Canadian EDM crossover artist Ekali, Dutch trance veteran Tiësto, Canadian remix masters Zeds Dead, and artsy Los Angeles stylist RL Grime of the WeDidIt label and collective. Heatwave suffers from a dearth of Chicago acts—I’m sure of only two—which feels like a grievous oversight for a festival based in a city with such a storied place in the history of dance music.

Silver Room Block Party

Oakwood Beach, Sat 7/16-Sun 7/17 

In 2002, Silver Room owner Eric Williams threw his first block party in an alley next to his shop’s old Wicker Park location, running extension cords out of his apartment to power Ron Trent’s DJ set. Williams had no permits and didn’t advertise the party, but it brought in a few hundred people by word of mouth. The Silver Room Block Party grew to attract thousands each year before Williams moved his shop to Hyde Park in 2015, at which point the free one-day festival exploded in size—in 2018 it attracted 40,000 people to 53rd Street. After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Silver Room Block Party has returned as a traditional ticketed festival, spanning two days at Oakwood Beach. Organizers used to wait till the last minute to announce the lineup, but with tickets to sell this time, they announced more than 50 acts in June. As usual, the bookings highlight Black Chicagoans from across generations and genres, among them reunited 1990s Chicago hip-hop duo Abstract Mindstate, cosmic jazz unit Isaiah Collier & the Chosen Few, longtime Chicago house producer K’Alexi Shelby, and elegant R&B artist Loona Dae. Some of the city’s best DJs will spin too—you can see Duane Powell, Bonita Appleblunt,Jesse de la Peña, and DJ Ca$h Era all in one weekend. And of course it wouldn’t be a Silver Room Block Party without a set by deep-house maestro Ron Trent

Filmmaker and TRiiBE cofounder Morgan Elise Johnson made this Silver Room Block Party video for the Reader in 2017, when the event was still free and based in Hyde Park.

Fiesta del Sol

Cermak between Morgan and Ashland, Thu 7/28-Sun 7/31 

Fiesta del Sol celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Its organizers call it “the largest Latino festival of its kind,” and it’s also the largest Chicago festival this weekend—Fiesta del Sol claims a million attendees over four days, more than twice as many as Lollapalooza. It helps that Fiesta del Sol is free to enter, and even its four-day Mega Pass—which covers as many carnival rides as you can stand—costs just $65, less than a single day at some music festivals. The music is all free, and all the acts that have been announced in advance are house music. The lineup for the 16th annual House of Sol reflects the breadth of this homegrown genre, with sets from Teklife cofounder DJ Spinn, Beat Thesis label owner T. Mixwell, “Minister of Sound” Ron Carroll, 5 magazine publisher CZBoogie, and long-grinding veteran Gene Hunt.

Lollapalooza

Grant Park, Thu 7/28-Sun 7/31

According to CNN, the top ten Live Nation stockholders as of July 1 include Goldman Sachs Asset Management LP, BlackRock Fund Advisors, and the Vanguard Group. Live Nation, parent company of Lollapalooza promoter C3 Presents, is obligated to consider the interests of these finance-sector giants above those of the musicians and stagehands who work its shows; live-music audiences, who have fewer and fewer opportunities to see concerts that Live Nation doesn’t control, seem to factor into the company’s plans mainly as a source of revenue. Most music festivals are trying to make money, of course, but the Tribune has explicitly celebrated Lollapalooza for its extraordinary ability to pry open young peoples’ wallets. The people who profit from Lolla shape the festival as surely as the performers—this year’s lineup, nearly 200 acts strong, includes Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who DJs on Friday. These big-money players are part of why C3 and Live Nation can so brazenly bend municipal rules and regulations to maximize returns. A November Tribune investigation discovered that Lollapalooza warned city officials that it wouldn’t inspect vaccine cards closely, and the festival also got permission to loosen its COVID testing standard to within 72 hours—a protocol the city had only applied to smaller events. Contract tracers were ultimately able to link Lollapalooza to fewer than 400 cases, but even assuming that isn’t a huge undercount, it still says a lot that a festival with Lolla’s resources would work so hard to do as little as possible to protect public health. The lineup just isn’t good enough to persuade me to overlook all this stuff, but if you must go, carve out time for pop star Charli XCX, crossover hardcore favorites Turnstile, and Chicago drill icon Lil Durk, who’s one of fewer than ten locals appearing.

Turnstile’s Baltimore record-release show for Glow On in 2021. They play Lollapalooza on Saturday.

Windy City Smokeout

United Center, Thu 8/4-Sun 8/7

The Windy City Smokeout bills itself as a celebration of country and barbecue. I’ll admit, I haven’t been, but if the food is as good as the lineup, the fest deserves a Michelin star. All four headliners are such high-powered stars that they can even impress a country greenhorn like me: Willie Nelson & Family on Thursday, Tim McGraw on Friday, Sam Hunt on Saturday, and Miranda Lambert on Sunday. The undercard includes some great music too—on Friday, Alabama native Tiera Kennedy plays at 4:10 PM, with a vivacious voice and an ear for pop- and R&B-flavored crossover hooks that ought to earn her a headlining spot down the road.

Northalsted Market Days 

Halsted between Belmont and Addison, Thu 8/4-Sun 8/7 

This weekend-long celebration in Chicago’s landmark LGBTQ+ enclave turns 40 this year, and its musical lineup zigzags from urbane to campy with a priority on joy. Want something indie? Psych-dappled rockers Fleece play on Saturday evening. How about a Drag Race alum who juggles cheeky pop and country? Ginger Minj performs Sunday afternoon. Looking for sprightly, jazz-inflected coffeehouse singer-songwriter material? Sammy Rae & the Friends close out Saturday. And brassy-voiced Sunday headliner Anastacia has a bounty of buoyant club hits. Perennial street-fest cover band Sixteen Candles also appear Sunday evening, for everybody who needs a dose of the 80s.

Anastacia’s video for the 2001 song “One Day in Your Life.”

Out of Space

Canal Shores Golf Course, Thu 8/4-Sun 8/7

Credit: CHema Skandal! for Chicago Reader

Temperance Beer Co., Thu 9/1-Sun 9/4

Launched by Evanston’s SPACE in 2018, the Out of Space fest sticks to that concert venue’s aesthetic but goes big and moves outdoors. Canal Shores Golf Course hosts the first four nights, which skew rootsy with alt-rocker Jenny Lewis (coheadlining with Trampled by Turtles), veteran punk singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, country royalty Lucinda Williams (coheadlining with indie-rock darling Waxahatchee), and blues legendBuddy Guy. Out of Space takes over the lot outside Temperance Beer Co. in September with bluesy alternative band Houndmouth (and Chicago rapper Ric Wilson), indie rockers Car Seat Headrest, alt-country champion Neko Case, and venerable British reggae act Steel Pulse (coheadlining with New York rapper KRS-One, one of the foundational consciences of hip-hop). 

My House Music Festival

Harrison Park, Sat 8/13-Sun 8/14

The lean lineup of this moderately priced two-day house festival—general admission tickets cost $30 per day, $50 for both—is all muscle. DJ Sneak, a key player in Chicago house’s popular second wave, headlines Saturday; pioneering house artist Farley “Jackmaster” Funk closes out Sunday. You can also catch sets from second-wave veteran DJ Heather, juke powerhouse Gant-Man, Hot Mix 5 cofounder Ralphi Rosario, and Chosen Few member Terry Hunter

Thirsty Ears Festival

Wilson between Hermitage and Ravenswood, Sat 8/13-Sun 8/14 

Classical music might seem like the least likely programming for a street festival, but Thirsty Ears (presented by Access Contemporary Music) bucks that expectation with two days of classical ensembles performing centuries-old compositions and brand-new works. The seventh Thirsty Ears features nearly 20 soloists and ensembles—performers on the the main Wilson Avenue stage include violist Rose Wollman, cello-and-piano pairing the Wurtz-Berger Duo, and 5th Wave Collective, a fluid ensemble dedicated to music by women and gender-nonconforming composers. Sunday closes with a preview of ACM’s video series “Songs About Buildings and Moods,” for which composers write music inspired by an architectural site where it will be performed. 

Ruido Fest

Union Park, Fri 8/19-Sun 8/21 

Ruido Fest prides itself on showcasing the depth and breadth of Latine alternative music, and this year’s lineup stays the course: the big names include bedroom-pop phenom Cuco, rock en español pioneers Maldita Vecindad, indie-pop sensation and three-time Latin Grammy winner Carla Morrison, and 1990s hip-hop hitmakers Cypress Hill. The Ruido undercard relies heavily on young artists, among them downtempo producer and vocalist Pahua (Mexico City), surf rockers Beach Goons (San Diego), and “sad sierreño” trio Los Aptos (Fort Wayne, Indiana). It also features some great local musicians—I’d recommend showing up early Sunday to catch modern-funk artist George Arthur Calendar and rapper A.M. Early Morning.

Carla Morrison performs at Ruido Fest on Saturday.

Dolton Park, Sat 8/20 

At the time of publication, Chicago dance producer DJ Clent had yet to finalize the schedule for the annual daylong picnic celebrating his Beatdown House label, now in its 25th year. Clent has a long, deep history in ghetto house, juke, and footwork, and whoever he books will know how to get dancers on their feet. His reputation in the scene will no doubt help him sign on fellow veteran DJs who’ve helped sculpt these aggressive house subgenres. 

ARC Music Festival

Union Park, Fri 9/2-Sun 9/4 

Credit: CHema Skandal! for Chicago Reader

The second ARC Music Festival has a doozy of a lineup, on par with the city’s other great dance-oriented fests—and what they have in common is they draw on Chicago’s deep well of talent. Among the great local artists on the bill are second-wave house veteran DJ Lady D, Mushroom Jazz creator Mark Farina, underground techno star DJ Hyperactive, Chicago house pioneer Chip E., and scene pillar Derrick Carter. Though Honey Dijon, who performs on Saturday, left Chicago for New York in the 1990s, she’s still part of our rich house legacy—and she’s rumored to have produced a couple songs on the new Beyoncé album. With more than 50 artists on its three-day lineup—including minimal-techno power player Ricardo Villalobos, British dance veteran Carl Cox, and big-beat crossover hero Fatboy Slim—ARC can satisfy longtime heads as well as draw in the curious. 

Riot Fest

Douglass Park, Fri 9/16-Sun 9/18

It’s not unusual for a music festival to book the same act more than once, but none caters to nostalgia as thoroughly as Riot Fest—its lineups, packed with punk and alt-rock relics, often seem to be encouraging nostalgia for previous Riot Fest lineups. And that goes for more than the annual appearances by intergalactic scumdogs Gwar: Riot Fest brought theOriginal Misfits back from the dead in 2016, and this year Glenn Danzig, Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, and Jerry Only return to perform the entirety of the Misfits’ 1982 debut album, Walk Among Us. Sooner or later we’ll run out of classic bands that could possibly reunite, but so far Riot Fest has consistently found new ones, or at the very least artists who haven’t played the festival before—this year they include goth icons Bauhaus, emo Halley’s Comet Sunny Day Real Estate, and 2000s alt-rock titans the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Riot Fest has a reputation as a haven for aging punks, but at least a few acts have a younger draw, most notably peoples’ champ Jeff Rosenstock.

Hyde Park Jazz Festival

Midway Plaisance and multiple other Hyde Park venues, Sat 9/24-Sun 9/25

This free festival, just shy of two decades old, is already an institution, celebrating jazz as part of the dazzling continuum of Black music and culture on the south side. Its adventurous bookings frequently demonstrate jazz’s porous borders; this year they include blues veteran Billy Branch and DJ Sadie Woods. When it comes to giving fans a feel for the shape and variety of jazz, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival is hard to beat, with a lineup featuring Trinidad-born trumpeter Etienne Charles and his group Creole Soul, the Chicago Soul Jazz Collective with singer Dee Alexander, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins performing with his quartet, drummer Mike Reed with woodwind player Hunter Diamond, and a version of the trio Hear in Now—cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Mazz Swift, and bassist Silvia Bolognesi—augmented by Ethiopian quintet Qwanqwa.

Related


How live music looks during COVID

Photographing Chicago’s cautious return to in-person concerts and festivals after almost a year and a half of forced shutdowns



A brief oral history of the Silver Room Block Party

Since moving to Hyde Park, this free community-focused festival has blossomed into one of Chicago’s most important cultural institutions.


The Hyde Park Jazz Festival takes a step back toward normalcy

Photos from the city’s most ambitious neighborhood festival, which returned to the Midway Plaisance for 2021


Photos from Ruido Fest’s dazzling opening day

Last weekend this ambitious festival brought together several generations and even more genres of Latinx music.

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