The Ultimate Summer Guide to Chicago’s Music Scene

Charles R. Hackleman/Lollapalooza 2016
Charles R. Hackleman/Lollapalooza 2016

Cities like Austin and Nashville have made strong runs at Best Music City in America status, but we’re willing to wager no place beats Chicago in the summer. With the Windy City boasting everything from must-hit acts and festivals to up-and-coming bands playing out-of-the-way hotspots, consider this your expert guide to sifting through the noise and curating the perfect music-filled summer. You’re welcome.

Kobby Dagan / Shutterstock

Can’t-Miss Tours

Roger Waters
July 28, United Center

With U2 already passing through town last month and the Rolling Stones’ appearance limited to the “Exhibitionism” exhibit at Navy Pier (through July 30), this summer has been a bit light on iconic rock stadium tours. That all changes when 73-year-old Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters rolls into a town for a three-night tour featuring some “very secret” content.

Kendrick Lamar
July 27 & August 20, United Center

It’s hard to think of an artist who has flat-out owned 2017 as hard as Kendrick Lamar. The Compton-born “Humble” rapper comes to Chicago hot on the heels of the release of DAMN, his third consecutive No. 1 album -- and he just turned 30.

Kings of Leon
August 12, Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre

While stadium rockers Kings of Leon have never quite matched the magic of their 2003 debut, Youth & Young Manhood, it’s hard to deny they put on a killer live show. The “Sex on Fire” authors remain one of the preeminent rock stars of our time, with 2016’s WALLS a worthy attempt at a return to their more garage-inspired, Southern-rock early form.

Courtey of Lincoln Hall + Schubas Tavern

Coolest Venues

Empty Bottle
If you want to see bands before they make it big, see them first at Empty Bottle. The Ukrainian Village dive fits 400 in its intimate space; stop by August 11-13 for their awesomely experimental Million Tongues Festival.

The Smashing Pumpkins got their start at Metro, Eddie Vedder used to live next door, and Guns N’ Roses recorded upstairs. Bonafides aside, it’s flat-out awesome to see a show in this 1,000-capacity room, where the sound is pristine and the vibe offers just the right amount of edgy cool you want in a rock club.

The Hideout
You have to really try to have a bad time at The Hideout. Located in an 1890s balloon-frame house, its live music room feels like something out of your parents’ basement and stages everything from concerts and comedy to poetry readings and bingo nights.

Thalia Hall
Housed in an 1892 public hall modeled after Prague’s opera house, Thalia Hall’s typically diverse lineup includes Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Neurosis, and Lake Street Dive. Watch the show from the main floor or an Abe Lincoln-esque balcony, then head next door to the Michelin-starred restaurant Dusek’s or sample the punch bowls at its downstairs bar, Punch House.

Schubas Tavern
Schubas is a perfectly satisfying corner bar with an adjacent dining room slinging some serious mac and cheese. But the action is in the back room, where up-and-coming artists -- often the quieter singer/songwriter types, with the occasional wild-eyed rock show or bumping hip-hop gig -- are on stage most nights of the week.

Courtesy of Addison Wright

Hottest Up-and-Coming Artists

Joey Purp
A founding member of the SaveMoney crew alongside local hip-hop luminaries Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa, Joey Purp is primed for a spotlight of his own. With a blazing live show, fun spirit, and infectious stage presence, don’t be surprised to see this beloved scene-stealer headlining his own festival soon.

Jamila Woods
Soul singer/songwriter/poet Jamila Woods has already caught the eye of Macklemore with her smart lyrics that explore race, gender, and the city she calls home. When the Brown University grad isn’t performing, she’s also helping make the city a better place through her work with the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam fest.

When rapper Clinton Sandifer throws a pizza party, you best show up. The artist better known as ShowYouSuck is simply a blast to be around, whether he’s collaborating with local indie-pop songwriter Netherfriends or hip-hop/mash-up kingpins The Hood Internet. As evidenced by tracks like “Make-Out King,” the playful artist never takes himself too seriously.

Meat Wave
2017 looks to be the year of Meat Wave. With frenetic energy and unapologetic anxiety, this manic, noise-punk band (currently on a U.S. tour) has crept out of the underground with their newly-released post-breakup opus The Incessant, which is drenched in the dissonant riffs and jarring melodies that helped make them a leading light in the local rock scene.

The Orwells
It seems like The Orwells have been stuck in “next big thing” status for years. Whether their rambunctious personalities or on-stage antics (ranging from taking their pants off mid-set to on-stage fistfights) have held them back or pushed them forward, one thing’s for sure: These dry-humored garage rockers never suffer from being boring.

Courtesy of Roger-Ho / Lollapalooza 2016

Best Festivals

Wicker Park Fest
July 29-30, North Ave & Milwaukee Ave
Large music fests like Lollapalooza are great and all, but to truly experience a Chicago summer is to attend a city street festival. When it comes to music, none is finer than this long-running neighborhood event featuring 40 artists on three stages -- this year including Guided by Voices, Doomtree, and JEFF the Brotherhood -- all for a $10 donation.

August 3-6, Grant Park

Perry Farrell’s annual Grant Park throw-down is highlighted by Arcade Fire and Run the Jewels, while the undercard is always full of fun surprises. Plus, you’re guaranteed to run into at least three random people you know from high school.

North Coast Music Festival
September 1-3, Union Park

In all of the hoopla over Lolla, this annual Labor Day weekend festival always gets overlooked, but it shouldn’t. The lineup is consistently eclectic -- this year’s artists range from Deadmau5 to Damien Marley to Ween -- and the vibe is laid-back and easy, like any good festival should be.

Riot Fest
September 15-17, Douglas Park

Riot Fest has slowly overtaken the competition in recent years to become the best music festival in Chicago. This year is no exception, with another uniquely excellent lineup that brings together Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age alongside M.I.A. and Wu-Tang Clan for three of the most fun days you can have in the city.

Courtesy of Allison Taich

Weekly Music Nights

Tuesdays at Beauty Bar

Looking to get a manicure with that vodka tonic? Head to club/ ’60s-inspired salon Beauty Bar, where the beats are as fresh as newly-painted nails. On Timbuck2uesdays, a long-running showcase of resident DJs throw down quality tunes for a lively crowd that’s always up for a good time.

After Hours Jazz Party with Sabertooth
Saturdays at Green Mill

When the concert is over but you’re still jonesing for some music, skip the club in favor of former Al Capone hangout the Green Mill, where you can catch live jazz in a swanky setting until 5am. Not really a difficult choice.

Hideout Dance Party
Saturdays at The Hideout

If you’re looking for sheer, unadulterated fun, it’s hard to beat this weekly party that starts at midnight and features a rotating cast of DJs uncorking an eclectic lineup of sweaty, dance-worthy bangers. Whoever came up with the phrase “nothing good happens after midnight” has clearly never been to this bar.

Summer Music Series
Mondays & Thursdays at Millennium Park

There’s nothing wrong with drinking beer on a rooftop after work. Then again, there’s also free live music taking place in picturesque Millennium Park not one, but two, nights of the week where you can see established acts like Drive-By Truckers or discover your new favorite band.

Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor and publisher of local music magazine Chicago INNERVIEW. Follow @innerviewmag.