Country music, barbecue, and craft beer — it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a summer weekend in Chicago. Add in some of the biggest names in country music along with world-class pitmasters, the ACM Award-nominated festival Windy City Smokeout quickly became the nation’s premier outdoor country music and BBQ festival. With 17 nationally renowned barbecue joints participating, like Charleston, South Carolina based Rodney Scott’s BBQ; Texas’s Salt Lick BBQ; St. Louis’s Pappy’s Smokehouse and locals Bub City, Lillie’s Q, and Pearl’s Southern Comfort; plus 17 musical acts including headliners Darius Rucker(Friday), Dierks Bentley(Saturday), Jon Pardi (Sunday) and hometown favorite Brett Eldredge (Thursday), fans counted in the tens of thousands were anxious to welcome back live music to the Chicagoland area.
Returning to the United Center parking lots July 8 to the 11th — after last year’s installment was canceled due to the pandemic — the city’s first large-scale music and specialty festival since 2020 took some new and welcome precautions to help keep the massive crowds safe. Windy City Smokeout organizers required all concert-goers to provide either their full vaccination status or a negative COVID-19 PCR or rapid test to enter the festival grounds. To provide vaccination status, organizers had attendees download the phone app CLEAR and complete an enrollment to verify entry requirements before arriving at the festival site. Using the Health Pass, guests moved effortlessly through CLEAR check lanes into Windy City Smokeout by showing a green colored screen from the App on your device. After quick check your carry bags the final step was a scan of your micro chipped festival bracelet by an electronic reader and you were in! The whole process was fast, effortless and handled very efficiently by the friendly staff. (we would like to see all festivals use this method)
As fans of country music and BBQ flowed through the gates, most attending a mass gathering for the first time in well over a year, were met by groups of waiting friends, some meeting in person for the first time in more than a year. Emotional hugs and a few tears of joy served as a reminder to what had transpired over the last 18 months both good and bad. Its times like this when the healing starts and different cultures come together for few days of fun and making memories.
Taking over the full west end of the venue was a potpourri of high profile pitmasters with an array of meaty goodness, including local favorites like Near North’s Bub City, Lillie’s Q from Bucktown and West Town’s Green Street Smoked Meats. The17th Street BBQ was on the grounds from Southern Illinois, along with St. Louis’ Pappy’s and Sugarfire Smokehouse all hocking their smoky creations and featured fare. In fact, pitmasters from as far away as Los Angeles, New Orleans and Houston made the pilgrimage to the Windy City to celebrate the Smokeout and get back to the business they love, BBQ. If you couldn’t find something here to indulge, that would be an indictment on you. There was everything you could possibly imagine; ribs, brisket, pulled pork, smoked mac and cheese (with or without meat), nachos with brisket or pork and even smoked pig. If that selection wasn’t enough to entice the the most finicky BBQ connoisseur, there was also a selection of smoked sausages to choose from. For those who aren’t so into BBQ, Big Gay Ice Cream, Sushi-San and Tallboy Taco had your back, plus the usual street fest fare, if a paper boat of mac-and-cheese is your thing, you were covered too!
In the middle of this oasis of food was backyard party for a few thousand of your closest friends, with multiple cornhole games, table tennis, mini putting greens and giant Jenga blocks surrounded by beer tents, photo walls and plenty of places to relax. Hay bales, Adirondack chairs and picnic tables where scattered all around as landing spots to sit and enjoy the grub. Thirsty? Nearly a city block’s worth of beer taps, sangria by Café Ba-Ba-Ba-Reeba, tiki cocktails from Three Dots and A Dash — heck, you could even get a drink in a glass cowboy boot or fruity rum delights in sand pails with curly straws for sharing.
What’s a backyard BBQ with out music? Windy City Smokeout brought 17 of the biggest and best country artists together for four days of the best music North of Nashville. Thursday was a shortened bonus day for most early festival attendees with Walker County, Larry Fleet and Brett Eldridge on the bill. Fleet and Walker County both performed spirited sets but the night belonged to Eldridge. “This doesn’t feel real, but it sure as hell is,” said Brett Eldredge as he took to the stage for his first live concert since the pandemic began. Eldredge, a Central Illinois native, was the headliner Thursday, singing never-performed songs from his 2020 album “Sunday Drive,” and fan favorites like his 2015 hit “Drunk on Your Love” and “Wanna Be That Song.” Eldredge, clearly emotional throughout his set, said “July 8 is a day I’ll never forget.” As his silky voice echoed against the alabaster façade of United Center while the crowd sang along to “Sweet Home Chicago.” One thing was obvious on the first day: Concert fans are itching to get outside, rub elbows with strangers and raise a glass together.
On Friday the sun was shining, the drinks were a little colder and the music was just a notch louder than the previous day. Tyler Booth, Lainey Wilson, Ryan Hurd and Morgan Evans performed in support of the evenings headliner Darius Rucker. Booth and Wilson both performed spirited sets and afterwards took the time to check out the festival and snap a few photos with fans who spotted them. It was a fantastic sight watching the pair immerse themselves in the crowd and connect with the fans who have given them so much support. Hurd, taking the stage for the first time this year, performed numerous hits from his catalog and also took the chance to road test a few new songs, some of which had never been played in front of a crowd before. With an ear-to-ear smile big enough that it could have been seen from across the venue, Hurd visually showed his excitement for being back on stage for the first time this year. Morgan Evans debuted a few new songs of his own as well with a few incredible covers mixed in. Towards the end of his set, Evans looked out into the sea of fans who was singing along with him and said, “I want to thank you all for making me feel so at home“. What was truly incredible about the high energy set was it was Evans first outing with full band backing. Morgan Evans is someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Darius Rucker packed in a crowd that filled most of the space outside the United Center with fans of anxious to hear to him perform. Wearing a Slick Rick t-shirt, Rucker worked through his immense catalog of hits playing favorites “Wagon Wheel”, “Radio, Comeback Song”, “Beer and Sunshine”, even mixing in a few Hootie & the Blowfish hits as momentum builder. Rucker had a great time on stage and even pausing long enough to sign a fan’s shirt mid-set.
Saturday started with overcast skies and a chance of rain but that didn’t hinder the throngs of humanity that filled “lot C” once again. Angie K, Ross Ellis, Cody Canada & The Departed, and Riley Green all had their turn holding court, keeping fans entertained before event headliner Dierks Bentley hit the stage at 8:30 P.M. Stand out of the early performers were Riley Green singing “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” and Ross Ellis who shared beers with a fan in the front row while working through catalog favorites “Ghosts”, “I Wish You Would” and the song that Ellis proclaimed “Changed my life forever” the mega hit, “Buy and Buy.” After a lengthy and wet stage change it was time for Dierks Bentley. As with all of his live performances, it was hit after hit with fan interaction and one shenanigan after another. Mixed in between “Drunk On A Plane”, “Somewhere On A Beach” and “Gone”, Bentley shotgunned a beer with a fan on stage, showed off his guitar signed by George Strait, George Jones and Garth Brooks, welcomed a couple on stage for a marriage proposal then passed out shots to those brave enough to maintain their front row spots. “You guys look so good, but it’s the sound I miss”, Bentley shouted as he took a second to look out and admire the sold out crowd.
Sunday dawned with a steady down pour of rain, which under normal circumstances would keep the crowds smaller than anticipated. The lines were a little shorter but the pitmasters had the coals burning early and the BBQ and spirits showed no signs of slowing down. Fans who arrived early claimed the best seats on the rail where they huddled together in their rain gear for the duration and were treated to some more outstanding performances. Newly signed Kolby Cooper got the show started and was followed up by newcomer Hailey Whitters with a surprisingly invigorating set. Not to be out done, veteran artist the Randy Rogers Band ripped through a 60 minute set that had poncho wearing fans singing right back at the band. Hits “Kiss Me In The Dark”,”In My Arms”, “Buy Myself A Chance”, were crowd pleasers as were a few covers that had fans not familiar with the band singing along with also.
As the set change was taking place for the final artist of the weekend, Jon Pardi, the clouds parted and the rain suddenly stopped. When Pardi hit the stage at 7:30 there was a sea of people stretching towards the back of the venue for as far as you could see. Those brave souls who weathered the all day rain were treated to vintage Jon Pardi; 90 minutes of some of the best country music has to offer. “Night Shift”, “Tequila Little Time”, “Heartache Medication”, “Heartache On The Dance Floor,” all sandwiched in between a cover of George Straits, “Let It Run” along with an emotional tribute to Joe Diffie, the classic hit and sing along favorite “Pickup Man.” Pardi ended the night and festival with an extended version of his own mega hit “Dirt On My Boots,” that had virtually every person singing word for word right back at the stage in their loudest voice possible.
Windy City Smokeout was the first major festival in Chicago in nearly two years and a test bed for the remaining summer festivals. Organizers had to agree to the safety standards the City required along with new, untested methods to keep the fans in attendance safe. In order to further ensure the safety of fans, crew members and artists, all those who entered the festival grounds were required to show either a negative COVID test within 72 hours prior to entering or to upload proof of vaccination on CLEAR– showing how seriously organizers are taking being able to run these events without a hitch.
As the ACM Award-nominated festival was winding down Chicago’s country music station, US99, announced that next year’s dates and headliners have already been locked down. In 2022, the festival will return to the United Center from August 5-7. As festival goers grabbed their final photos and took one last look around at the first major festival this year, the experience and overwhelming feeling of relief at the return of live music was felt by all.
People and Food
Artists and Band Images