This past weekend I was at Windy City Smokeout, a country music and barbecue festival held in downtown Chicago… assuming that the parking lot near Grand Avenue and the Chicago River is downtown. I’m not a native, so I don’t want to declare anything “downtown” and upset any locals who insist that the Chicago Tribune parking lot isn’t really downtown.
While I was there, I saw a guy in his twenties take a drag on his vape pen and presumably try to do some sort of smoke trick with his mouth, but he was only able to exhale a messy smoke cloud that quickly dissipated. “There’s too much wind,” he exclaimed, defeated by his Juul mishap but still cheery. I saw a guy wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey (No. 24, for their productive rookie Lauri Markkanen) and a cowboy hat, one of many such pieces of headwear I encountered during those few days. Defining characteristics of this fest were that it was windy, there were Bulls fans, the folks had an affinity for country culture.
In high school, I was the obnoxious, my-music-is-holier-than-thou kid who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to country and would decry its merits at every opportunity. I’m not 16 anymore, though, and while country music still isn’t my go-to, I recognize its very real and legitimate appeal, an appeal that admittedly grew on me over the course of the weekend. Which is to say, Windy City Smokeout was an exemplary time, despite what my high school classmates probably remember about me.
I left most impressed by two acts. First there was Brett Eldredge, Saturday’s headliner and a local from Paris, Illinois. While I may not have been to as many shows as some of my colleagues, I can confidently say that Eldredge is one of the most energetic and charismatic performers I’ve ever seen live. The hometown hero angle may have gotten the audience extra amped, sure, but the fact remains that Eldredge knows how to get a crowd beyond lit. It was one of the loudest audiences I’ve ever been in, maintaining for at least two or three full minutes a decibel level that left cellphone videos of the performance unlistenable. The guy knows how to work a crowd, whether he’s just singing his songs, running around the stage to give everybody a good look at what they came to see, and shouting into the sky like he just struck oil.
It’s also absolutely worth noting that during his set, he brought his dog up on stage. The pair wore matching Cubs jerseys, did some tricks, and both were good boys.
Then there was Turnpike Troubadours, who drew me in with a southern rock- and folk-inspired sound that I wasn’t expecting. It was a delightful surprise that kept me in the photo/VIP pit for their entire set, despite my tendency that weekend to leave after the first three songs and find something else to explore. Whether or not you’re a “country fan,” these guys are just damn good. Truth be told, I don’t think I expected to leave Chicago with a new artist as part of my regular listening rotation, but a cursory exploration of their discography has so far confirmed that my initial impression of the group was spot on.