This past weekend, the United Center in Chicago made a 360-degree turn, becoming 18 acres of space for more than 15,000 eager music lovers, who were ready to celebrate the return of live music at the Windy City Smokeout festival.
Up until just last month, the car park of the United Center in Chicago had been a COVID-19 mass vaccination site. This past weekend, it made a 360-degree turn, becoming 18 acres of space for more than 15,000 eager music lovers, who were ready to celebrate the return of live music at the Windy City Smokeout festival.
To allow fans a chance to really revel in being able to spend 12 hours watching their favorite country acts again, an extra day was added to the event this year. The festival was one of the city’s first major events since relaxing its COVID restrictions.
In order to further ensure the safety of fans, crew members and artists, all those who entered the fest were required to show either a negative COVID test within 72 hours prior to entering or to upload proof of vaccination – showing how seriously organizers are taking being able to run these events without a hitch.
In addition to the 17 musical acts on offer across the four days, some of the most renowned pitmasters served briskets, pulled pork, smoked meats and more. Bub City, Lillie’s Q and Pearl’s Southern Comfort were among the local BBQ vendors, with almost 30 beer and cider vendors also serving on site to pair with the delectable food options.
Among the crowd, Brody Jenner, Vince Vaughn, Bob Saget, Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith, and of course, Chicago Bulls mascot Benny the Bull, were just a few of the celebrity sightings - Jenner even joined in on the fun and became a temporary bartender on Saturday at the Mamita’s Seltzer Bar.
The headliners across the weekend - Brett Eldredge, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley and Jon Pardi - were just as eager to get back to the live music as their fans were. No matter where you watched the music from, the energy was high.
Long before the first band took to the stage, there was the first of everything else. The first beers, the firsts toasts, the first selfies, the first revelry and the first moments of clarity that we are all in the same boat. We are all living in the light at the end of the COVID tunnel.
One of the first fans we talked to before the music started was an engineer from Virginia. He told us that when the quarantine cloud started to lift, he went online and searched for “country music festivals” - Windy City Smokeout was first on his list. He came mainly for Larry Fleet, who he’d discovered in late 2019 when he heard his song ‘Lied About Love’. He was just so glad to be at the festival that he didn’t care who was playing, as long as it was country.
And country it was; Fleet taking to the stage after Walker County, all before Brett Eldredge had his chance to return. Born and raised in Illinois, Eldredge’s first show back was a full-circle, homecoming kind of moment.
The sun was shining, the drinks were cold and the music was louder than ever on day two. Tyler Booth, Lainey Wilson, Ryan Hurd and Morgan Evans performed, as fans prepared for Darius Rucker. After their performances, Booth and Wilson both took the time to check out the festival and snap a few photos with fans who spotted them, immersing themselves in the crowd and meeting those who have given them so much support.
With a smile so big it could have been seen from across the festival, Hurd showed his excitement and gratitude for being back in his hometown. He sang the hits and also took the chance to road test a few new songs, some of which had never been played in front of a crowd before.
Evans played some new songs of his own as well, along with a few incredible covers. Towards the end of his set, he looked out into the crowd who was singing along with him and said, “I want to thank you all for making me feel so at home“.
Darius Rucker drew a crowd that filled most of the space outside the United Center, with fans of many generations attending his set. Wearing a Slick Rick t-shirt, he showed off his dance moves during ‘Homegrown Honey’ and even signed a fan’s shirt mid-set. Rucker danced with excitement at finally returning to the stage, and the audience was just as happy to see him in front of the mic again.
Walking into what seemed to be the busiest day of the weekend, the number of festival-goers was a bit overwhelming to say the least. The relief of knowing all in attendance were required to show a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination made the fear fade a bit, but it reminded us that we’re not quite out of the water yet.
Nevertheless, the rainy day didn't stop the fun, as attendees continued to roam the parking lot grounds in search of their daily dose of BBQ. Some stayed dry under the Carol’s Pub tent, while others put on their ponchos and embraced the weather.
On Sunday, Angie K, Ross Ellis, Cody Canada & The Departed and Riley Green were heard through the speakers, while a series of typically entertaining events unfolded during Dierks Bentley’s headline performance.
In true country music fashion, he shotgunned a beer, showed off his guitar signed by George Strait, George Jones and Garth Brooks, welcomed a couple on stage for a marriage proposal and, finally, passed out shots to those brave enough to maintain their front row spots. “You guys look so good, but it’s the sound I miss”, Bentley shouted as he took a second to look out and admire the crowd.
Work on Monday? Not a concern for those who walked through the gates for the final day of the Windy City Smokeout. The bales of hay were soggy and the wind was a little stronger, but the music never dulled and the delicious scent of BBQ still lingered in the air, making you hungry at all times.
There was hardly time to sit when there was still so much to eat, see and hear before the event came to an end. In between sets, fans did get the chance to play some games throughout the venue. The sounds of ping pong balls bouncing, Jenga blocks falling and bags hitting the cornhole boards made for a bit of fun around every corner. Of course, after the games, there was no shortage of creative photo ops to show off your amazing experience to all your friends who couldn't make it.
It was Kolby Cooper, Hailey Whitters, the Randy Rogers Band and Jon Pardi’s time to return to stage, as the final performances for the 2021 fest. Despite Cody Johnson having to miss the festival as he remained at home on vocal rest, the party never slowed down.
Luckily, Chicago’s country music station, US99, announced that next year's dates and headliners have already been locked down. In 2022, the festival will return to the United Center from August 5-7. As attendees grabbed their final photos and took one last look at the first of many exciting experiences to come this year, the feeling of celebration and relief at the return of live music was felt by all.
Here’s to next year.
Words by Madeleine OConnell & Alison Bonaguro.
Photography by Elisabeth Neely.