By Robert Rodi
There’s no denying the attraction of the big lakefront music festivals—Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, Jazz Fest and Blues Fest, Ruido and Riot Fest, yada yada yada—but I’ve got to confess a weakness for the smaller-scale festivals…the ones that offer a sense of community that’s at least as potent as the music. My recommendations are entirely subjective and personal; that said, I’m right about all of them, and you should trust me implicitly.
Square Roots Fest
All year long, you see musicians lugging instruments into and out of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square. Well, for three days in high summer, those players burst out into the open air and take over the entire block, including a significant chunk of Welles Park. The Square Roots festival hosts more than sixty acts on four stages, including jams, bluegrass, world music artists and other varieties of enchanting, inspiring performances that wouldn’t make it through the turnstile at the blockbuster venues. Long story short, it’s a festival for people who love making music as much as listening to it.
July 8, 9 and 10 on Lincoln between Montrose and Wilson
Northalsted Market Days
Market Days is only nominally a music festival, though it does boast three music stages, two local-band stages and a dance floor. Its real attraction is in its worlds-collide atmosphere, which brings together small-scale local business, including specialty shops, thrift stores, folk artisans and craft breweries, along with throngs of demimondaines of the kind you only usually get to see if you crawl the Halsted Street clubs at three a.m. It’s the city’s queerest festival, in every sense (including musical; the acts tend to skew either gay or gay-friendly), and how much you enjoy it hinges on your personal queer quotient. Mine is upper-ten-percentile.
August 13 and 14 on Halsted between Belmont and Addison
Taste of Greektown
I’ve had a weak spot for Greek music ever since landing on the island of Santorini in 1993 and being ravished by everything from local bouzouki players and rembetika bands, to over-the-top Greek dance-pop hits. It was supposed to be a week of island-hopping, but my partner and I moored where we were for five days, drinking it all in. What we learned was that no one—no one—parties like Greeks. And Taste of Greektown is all the proof you’ll ever need, with driving Hellenic bands, communal singing, dance lessons…and, oh yeah. The food.
August 27 and 28 on Halsted between Van Buren and Madison
Metal Threat Fest
It’s got to be a little frustrating for headbangers to watch fringe music genres—like hip-hop and EDM—sail serenely into the mainstream, while decade after decade metal remains sidelined in the cult category. Or maybe not; the sense of community at any given metal event is so palpable, you could slice it up and serve it on a plate… which is a bit of a mystery, since at any given metal event it’s almost impossible to have a conversation. Metal Threat Fest is Chicago’s underground metal moment of the summer and it seems somehow fitting that it’s the sole festival on our list to be held indoors. Music this face-melting isn’t meant for the open air.
July 15, 16 and 17 at Reggies Rock Club, 2105 South State.
Westside Music Festival
Some people are serious about trying to break the lakeshore’s hold of summer festivals and the Westsiders are giving it all they’ve got. In fact the festival is a strategic attempt to draw the eyes of summer revelers away from the waterfront and rivet them westward. It’s a multi-genre festival, but that said, the heaviest hitters—and the bulk of the acts programmed—are soul and R&B; so when these players make a case for themselves, they’re pretty much bound to break you down. And make you love it, baby.
August 20 at Douglas Park, 1401 South Sacramento.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. His literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.