The weeks surrounding Thanksgiving have always been a busy time for concerts in Chicago, but for the last three years one energy drink company has pumped it up even moreso. As more and more big brands begin to notice Chicago as a cultural centerpiece of the country, we continue to see more and more quality, hometown-driven experiences. That continued this November. Here’s a few highlights from the month.
Red Bull Music Festival
For the third straight year, Red Bull took over a series of venues around town for a Chicago-focused “festival” and for the third year, it got a bit smaller. Thing is, it also got better. Eschewing radio darlings like the Migos or an abbreviated G.O.O.D. Music lineup, this year’s lineup gave each show more space to breath, a far cry from the ambitious ’30 Days in Chicago’ that kicked off the tradition. And it was all the better for it. The shows were well-curated and each stage setup was uniquely suited to the artist it hosted. Peter CottonTale kicked things off opening for Theaster Gates’ Black Monastic show where the Chance The Rapper music director showed off a full choir that brought gospel music to life in a way Kanye could only ever hope. It was happy, upbeat and held a discerning message. For those that had followed CottonTale to date, it was a perfect stepping out for his solo music that was made even more special by the setting provided by the Garfield Park Conservatory.
Later on, Lupe Fiasco had the entire Riviera Theater singing in unison as he went track-by-track through his iconic Food & Liquor album. Once again here, Red Bull benefitted from focusing on fewer shows as the stage setup was super memorable with Fiasco’s band scaffolded above him on three levels. He didn’t miss a beat through the whole project and neither did the audience. Truly a special Chicago moment.
Tierra Whack brought her Whack Factory to Concord Music Hall, which is still the worst place to see a concert in Chicago due to price, employees and general vibe. Regardless though, Whack was a revelation, although it would habe been cool to hear those minute-long songs stretched even just a little further. Before she jumped into that run of singles however, she was done in by the dreaded Concord. Whereas artists walking out onto speakers at venues isn’t new, Concord being Concord didn’t sufficiently tape off the edges of theirs, which caused Tierra to take a tumble that for a moment seemed like she wouldn’t return. A hard right step forward, expecting footing instead sent what seemed like her face into the adjacent speaker and her body on the ground about five feet below. Like a true champ though, she overcame the ordeal, pulled herself onto the stage to sitdown and talked to the crowd as her hair and makeup team tended to her. With that, she went on with the show.
As always, the Red Bull series closed with a pair of John Walt Day shows in honor of Saba’s cousin who passed away in 2017. The event is a beautiful joining of folks from across the city and the PIVOT Gang, fresh off a full-length compilation didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
As for Red Bull, they did a great job choosing artists, venues and setups for the shows this year, it felt like a creative direction change and it was welcome. Aside from that, it seems they still don’t know the city all that well and missed some great opportunities to get to the authentic, maybe in the fifth year. Regardless, it was a great time and an appropriate spotlight on local artistry.
House of Vans
In the midst of everything else going on, the House of Vans got back to pushing the skate ramps to the side and hosting some of the country’s top talent. This time around, Mick Jenkins and Kevin Gates played sets, apparently hosted by Boiler Room, although the night didn’t possess any of the typical aspect of a Boiler Room event, Goose Island once again provided free beers and a taco truck appeared just outside the back bathroom section, so the night had a solid backbone to it from the get-go.
To be honest, for all the space I still would love to see Vans put it all to use simultaneously. The laid-back vibes in the space are great, but the crowd, perhaps a bit worn out by the sheer amount of shows happening that weekend, seemed to be an odd mix. During Gates’ set I turned to see a circle of middle-aged folks in suits and ties doing a sort of hoe-down dance, looking like they’d ventured over from the Hoxton. It was a bit weird, but then again it’s the west Loop, no one knows what’s happening over there at the moment. Regardless, it’s impossible to hate a free show and Mick Jenkins claimed the title of my favorite rapper a long time ago, for that I’m grateful. He took the stage with Green Sliime and performed songs from across his library, occasionally flubbing the words to some of his earlier works. After a few he stopped and addressed the issue by explaining he has so much new music and happiness in his head, it’s hard to remember the old work. Engaged and with an album on the way, it seems we’re due for a new Mick Jenkins very soon and his performance at HOV seemed to be a transitionary one.
Kevin Gates hit the stage surprisingly early and proceeded to pretty much dry hump the first row for an hour. I’ve always been a Kevin Gates fan to a point, his admissions of relations with a cousin were always a stop for me but its good to see the guy out of jail, getting in shape and doing what he’s good at. Thing is, what he’s good at is talking in a pretty singular subject matter. If you were wondering, Kevin Gates enjoys sex. A lot. Probably more than you. In fact, definitely more than you, or me. He explained as much throughout the course of his 45-minute set which by the end seemed to finally drop out the backing track. Overall though, it was a cool experience to catch Gates and Jenkins onstage and the show was a relatively early, getting out around 11.