Windy City Smokeout 2024: Guide to this year's bands, barbecue and more (2024)

Something about summer pairs naturally with cowboy boots, trucker hats, cut-off shorts and skin-baring sequin dresses. From a fashion standpoint alone, Windy City Smokeout — the outdoor festival that combines country music, slow-cooked barbecue and tasty libations — offers city dwellers and suburbanites alike an opportunity to sport cowboy duds without drawing awkward stares. They also enjoy the chance to savor and smell food directly connected to Chicago’s old “hog butcher of the world” reputation.

Taking place July 11-14 at United Center Parking Lot C (1901 W. Madison St.), Windy City Smokeout is a bit like a mullet hairdo — party in the back, more chilled-out in the front — in that it blends frat-like debauchery, adult theme-park-style entertainment, foodie credibility, corporate branding and family-friendly accessibility. Logistically, the annual extravaganza stands out from Chicago’s crowded festival slate by doing several things better than its peers.

Among the advantages: You can buy a day pass for less than $100. Since each artist plays on the same stage, you don’t need to trudge half a mile through a sweaty maze of people to see a musician or worry about having to choose between two performers with overlapping schedules. Thanks to in-and-out privileges, you can come and go as you please. You can refill your water container without waiting in long lines. And parents, kids under 10 get in for free.

Yet Windy City Smokeout’s finest feat relates to how it balances its two main attractions — live music and on-tap barbecue from around the country — by giving both a dedicated space. If you want to hoot ‘n’ holler and get close to the onstage action, head to the east end. If you want to relax, hang out in the “food court” on the west side. That roomy setup encourages you to grab a plate, plop down on a chair and watch performances on one of the televisions mounted in the various seating zones — including a pop-up lounge perched under a huge tent.

The downsides? The single-stage arrangement causes traffic bottlenecks on the level of the Kennedy Expressway. If you don’t want to stand, securing one of the limited available seats proves difficult. Ditto peering over the tops of thousands of heads and positioning yourself so your views aren’t compromised by the soundboard-lighting gear and cabana platform plunked dead-center in the east lot. Sightlines remain the festival’s biggest drawback.

Repeat attendees should note that the United Center — undergoing preparations for the Democratic National Convention — will not be open for restroom or cooling access this time around.

The good news? Unlike last year, tickets to all four days were still available at press time. Here’s a further taste of what to expect. Bring your appetite.

Music

Thursday:The son of ‘90s country staple Rhett Atkins, Thomas Rhett (8:25 p.m.) veers toward the romantic side of the spectrum with pop-heavy songs whose contemporary slickness dovetails with his breezy, simplified narratives. Favoring easy feeling over deep thinking, the Georgia native’s approach already netted him 20 No. 1 singles. Tempting as it might be to associate her with a famous Bruce, Alana Springsteen (2:25 p.m.) is not the Boss’ daughter. Possessing equal parts spark and spunk, Springsteen’s originals establish her as her own woman — the kind Nashville needs to hear more on the radio, and someone unafraid to put undeserving partners in their place with smart tunes such as “You Don’t Deserve a Country Song.”

Friday:Citing Willie Nelson and George Strait as inspirations, Parker McCollum (8:30 p.m.) taps neo-traditionalist roots and Americana veins that reflect the spirit of his home base of Austin, Texas. In the studio, the singer-guitarist buffers red-dirt edginess with polished arrangements. Here’s hoping the stage encourages the 32-year-old to drift further from Music City’s hom*ogenous trappings and lean harder into the sturdy, folk-infused rock hinted at in some of his arrangements. Comprised of three sisters, the Georgia-reared Castellows (2:20 p.m.) are one of the few groups on the bill. Their light, harmony-laden fare evokes blue-sky airiness, front-porch pleasantries and all-ages barn dances.

Saturday:A former professional bull rider and prison guard, headliner Cody Johnson (8:25 p.m.) wins the prize for best nickname. “CoJo” also happens to be the most traditionally grounded performer on the docket. Singing with an earnest Texas drawl, Johnson mixes saloon-ready honky-tonk, rafter-aiming anthems and tear-in-a-beer balladry in songs girded by workboot-tough backdrops. He brings an outlaw grit that’s otherwise in short supply. The hillbilly itch and hardscrabble soul of 49 Winchester (4:15 p.m.) put the sextet at the intersection of indie rock and backwoods country. Singer Isaac Gibson’s malleable Appalachian accent stamps the band’s music with an unforced authenticity.

Sunday:There’s a good reason why nobody is following Carrie Underwood (8 p.m.). Though the charismatic superstar will presumably operate without many of the visual effects and mobile props that help make her arena shows spectacles, her hurricane-strength pipes and authoritative deliveries don’t require anything more than a microphone. And when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll attitude and female determination, Underwood doesn’t front. If you’re only accustomed to her high-gloss studio work, you’re in for a treat. Certain to raise the volume amid the afternoon heat, Muscadine Bloodline (5 p.m.) echoes its Alabama heritage with a gumbo of rollicking country, greasy Southern rock and juke-joint twang. Wild-card bonus: Don’t count out the duo trying out a Blink-182 or Jimmy Eat World cover.

Windy City Smokeout 2024: Guide to this year's bands, barbecue and more (1)

Food

Bolstered by six Chicago area pitmasters — including representatives from Bub City, Green Street Smoked Meats, Lexington Betty Smokehouse, Chef Art Smith Restaurants, Smoque BBQ and Soul & Smoke — 25 barbecue joints from around the nation will serve everything from cherry cola beef burnt ends, BBQ lamb shoulder tacos, jalapeño cheddar rope sausages and diablo smoked chicken sandwiches to South Texas steak fajitas with Oaxaca cheese, world-champion pulled pork nachos, smoked Italian beef sandwiches and all manner of brisket, pork and ribs. Wash it down with beer from local and national breweries, or co*cktails from the likes of Chicago-based staples Three Dots and a Dash and Federales. Headed to the meat-heavy bonanza as a vegetarian? Worry not. Pizza, fries, beans, elotes, cornbread, shakes, banana pudding and more can be found at various vendors.

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What else to know

Basics:Windy City Smokeout runs 2-10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 1-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The entrance and box office are located at the intersection of Madison Street and Wood Street. Advance off-site wristband pickup is available from 1-6 p.m. on July 8 at Happy Camper Old Town and from 1-6 p.m. on July 9 at Bub City River North. First aid is near the main entrance on the south side of Madison. Restrooms are located throughout the festival. Wristbands include in-and-out privileges. Festival proceeds rain or shine. Concertgoers will be evacuated if severe weather materializes.

Allowed Items:Small clutches; purses; medical bags; diaper bags; totes; empty reusable water bottles and hydration packs; empty plastic or aluminum water bottles; baby strollers; basic cameras without detachable lenses, selfie sticks and other accessories; non-aerosol sunscreen in sizes less than 3.4 oz. Bags will be searched before entry and must be no larger than 10 x 6 x 2 inches.

Prohibited Items:Coolers; outside food and drink; pets (except service animals); glass containers; large bags; umbrellas; lawn and folding chairs; aerosol containers; drones; professional camera or recording equipment; laser pointers; airhorns and noisemakers; tents, canopies and shade structures of any kind; knives and weapons of any kind; skateboards, scooters, bicycles, wagons, carts and personal motorized vehicles; flag poles, staffs and sticks; bike chains and bike locks; wallet chains more than a foot in length; costumes and masks; offensive clothing or signage; anything larger than 10 x 6 x 2 inches (save medical and diaper bags). For a full list of allowed and prohibited items, visit windycitysmokeout.com/faq.

Transit:Organizers recommend taking public transportation or rideshare. Pickup and drop-off is located in Lot E (east of Wood, on the north side of Madison). In a change from prior years, no on-site parking is available. If you drive, use a parking app to book a spot close to the festival.

Tickets:General admission daily passes start at $69.95 plus fees. Several VIP packages featuring elevated seating areas, air-conditioned bathrooms and other amenities are available. Tickets cover admission; all food and drink is extra. Food vendors sell main items for around $8-$13 and side items for around $6-$7.

Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.

Windy City Smokeout 2024: Guide to this year's bands, barbecue and more (3)
Windy City Smokeout 2024: Guide to this year's bands, barbecue and more (2024)
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