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A music critic’s 8 great places for live music

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Where does your mind go when you think about summer and music? For many, the season means enjoying concerts outdoors in settings conducive to breathing fresh air, hanging out with friends, disconnecting from work and reveling in laid-back vibes.

This summer, the concert docket is busier than at any time in recent memory. Prices for many national tours and big festivals suggest that demand continues to outstrip supply. But there’s good news. You don’t need to spend the equivalent of a few car payments for tickets or brush up against thousands of sweaty strangers at Lollapalooza to see a good show.

Though some of these spots do not attract household names, they deliver the intimacy and relaxed atmosphere many large locations lack. Even better: Most give you a chance to be outside and relish a pairing — comfortable weather and live music — as pleasing as a glass of iced tea on a steamy afternoon.

People take in a performance by Lucinda Williams during the American Music Festival at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn on June 30, 2023.

It’s hard to go wrong with Fitzgerald’s motto: “Live Music, Good Drinks.” After 40 years of ownership by the namesake family, the suburban institution changed hands just as the pandemic began but emerged unscathed. A majority of concerts take place inside the former roadhouse, yet FitzGerald’s boasts an outdoor patio stage where it often hosts free music. The complex also includes a cozy cocktail lounge and an Airbnb space above the main venue. A suggestion: Catch a patio performance and nosh on snacks from the on-site Babygold Barbecue before heading indoors for the evening.

Notable upcoming shows: The Iguanas (July 20, $25 and up); Greg Ward Quartet (July 25, free); JD McPherson (Aug. 6, $39 and up); Marc Ford and The Steepwater Band (Aug. 17, $20 and up); Cesar Rosas and the Chi-Town Playboys (Aug. 19, $25 and up); Chris Smither and Paul Cebar (Sept. 14, $30 and up)

At 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com

Concertgoers fill the lawn at the Pritzker Pavilion for "Tribute to Ramsey Lewis: A Gentleman of Jazz," at Millennium Park, June 22, 2023, in Chicago.

The looming skyline, the expansive lawn, the lake breeze, the twisted steel ribbons of the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion: Millennium Park encourages you to turn off your screens and engage with the surroundings. In an era where many locales increasingly look homogenous, Millennium Park emphasizes that you’re in Chicago. The central location also serves as a democratizer of race, class and age in that anyone can go — free. The programming feels equally inclusive. The Grant Park Music Festival alone is staging more than a dozen performances spanning piano concertos, symphony favorites, Broadway tunes and more.

Upcoming shows: Sergei Prokofiev “Romeo and Juliet” with Grant Park Orchestra (July 14-15); Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” with Grant Park Orchestra (July 19); Stephen Marley (July 20); Kurt Vile (July 24); Shemekia Copeland (July 31); “Bravo Broadway” with Grant Park Orchestra (July 28-29); Vieux Farka Touré (Aug. 10); “Sunday in the Park with Lyric” (Aug. 20); Chicago Jazz Festival (Aug. 31 to Sept. 3)

At 201 E. Randolph St. with Pritzker Pavilion event entrances at Randolph Street and Monroe Street; chicago.gov

Chicagoland counts dozens of breweries with patios that beckon you to linger. Admittedly, the pet-friendly outdoor space at On Tour is basic; you’ll see more concrete and brick walls than trees. What makes the West Town spot worth a trip is the commitment to its music-themed name. Though schedules aren’t announced far in advance, On Tour presents first-rate Grateful Dead, Phish and roots-based tribute bands for free. When the weather allows, garage-style overhead doors open to let the sound fill the air outside and give renewed meaning to dancing in the streets — not coincidentally the name of the Chicago Brewing District festival involving On Tour and several other local breweries the first weekend of August.

Upcoming shows: Grateful Gary’s Magic Bus (July 23); Afro Dead (July 26)

At 1725 W. Hubbard St.; ontourbrewing.com

Concertgoers set up picnic areas on the Ravinia Festival grounds before a performance by the Black Crowes, July 12, 2022, in Highland Park.

The area’s most venerable outdoor concert space has a well-known flaw: You can’t see the stage if you’re on the lawn. Yet the 36-acre park remains a sanctuary, and easy accessibility via a dedicated Metra stop gives it obvious advantages. That’s particularly if you opt for classical performances, which are cheaper than the pop shows and let you hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for less than it costs to set foot inside Symphony Hall. The ritual might be old hat, but there’s a reason why grabbing a blanket, packing a picnic basket and setting up on the general-admission lawn has been a tradition for decades.

Upcoming shows: Miriam Fried and the CSO (July 15, $17 and up); “Meet the Mahlers” with the CSO (July 19, $17 and up); CSO performs Beethoven and Rachmaninoff (Aug. 5, $17 and up); Buddy Guy and George Benson (Aug. 23, $51 and up); Brandi Carlile and Brandy Clark (Aug. 31, $67 and up); Carrie Underwood (Sept. 1-2, $77 and up)

At Lake Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park; ravinia.org

Fans watch King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard perform at the Salt Shed, June 11, 2023, in Chicago.

The feeling you get when you realize a venue cares enough to give you a positive experience? That satisfaction permeates the Salt Shed, where two stages, clear sound, preservationist-minded architecture and fun diversions — a new outpost of the Goose Island Brewery is in the works — make it more than a music destination. The former Morton Salt facility hosts shows inside and outside. Until fall begins, mingling outdoors in the Fairgrounds area where you can soak up a panoramic cityscape view and indulge in a plethora of food and beverage options should be on every music lover’s shortlist.

Upcoming shows: Trombone Shorty and Ziggy Marley (July 21, $61.50 and up); Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats (Aug. 9-10, currently VIP only, $250 and up); Beach Bunny and the Beths (Aug. 24, $45 and up); Pixies and Modest Mouse (Aug. 30-31, $69.50 and up); Cake (Sept. 10, $55 and up); Neko Case and Guster (Sept. 16, $59 and up); Drive-By Truckers (Sept. 17, $40 and up)

At 1357 N. Elston Ave.; saltshedchicago.com

Jazzin' at the Shedd on the aquarium's terrace on Lake Michigan.

The best ground-level view in the city likely belongs to the Shedd Aquarium terrace. Situated on the lakefront and providing an unimpeded vista of downtown skyscrapers, Navy Pier fireworks and Monroe Harbor, it hosts primarily Chicago-based jazz, pop, soul, R&B and Latin ensembles for the seasonal “Jazzin’ at the Shedd” series. Another bonus: The aquarium remains open during the performances, with exhibits such as Wild Reef and Stingray Touch accessible until 8:45 p.m. If you go, order timed-entry tickets ($14.95 and up) in advance and arrive early — seating is first come, first served.

Upcoming shows: Ava Logan Jazz Ensemble (July 12 at Aug. 9); Yoko Noge and the Jazz Me Blues Band (July 19); Mario Abney (July 26); Lake Effect (Aug. 2); Michele Thomas Quartet (Aug. 16); Victor Garcia Quintet (Aug. 23); Aniba and the Sol Starz (Aug. 30)

At 1200 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive; sheddaquarium.org

People wait for a concert to begin at Space on June 29, 2023, in Evanston.

Full disclosure: Space holds concerts indoors. Why sacrifice the outdoors for the inside? For starters, seeing concerts at this north suburban music hall can seem like you’re witnessing a performance in an oversize living room. With a maximum capacity of 330 — a total that lessens if the venue sets up cabaret tables — Space prioritizes proximity. It’s also within walking distance from vibrant cafes, shops and eateries worth exploring before showtime. And in late July, Space presents the Out of Space series at Canal Shores Golf Course (1030 Central St., Evanston). The events epitomize the carefree, casual evenings of summer you don’t want to end.

Upcoming shows: Regina Spektor (July 29 at Canal Shores, $45 and up); Andrew Bird (July 30 at Canal Shores, $60.50 and up); Marcus Miller (Aug. 1, $25 and up); Bebel Gilberto (Aug. 11, $25 and up); Son Volt (Aug. 16-17, $45); Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio (Aug. 19, $25 and up); The Baseball Project (Aug. 31, $25)

At 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; evanstonspace.com

Guitarist and singer Luciano Antonio performs at the Waterfront Cafe, 6219 N. Sheridan Road on June 28, 2023, in Chicago.

Approaching Waterfront Cafe can feel like entering a secret garden. Tucked behind the Berger Park Cultural Center, it’s an escape from the urban grind and a reminder of Lake Michigan’s breathtaking beauty. Framed by trees and hanging plants and adjacent to the beach, the patio appears to reverse time. Bring a book, dog, romantic partner or good friend, silence your smart device and surrender to the ambience. In addition to libations, Waterfront Cafe offers salads, rolls and appetizers that somehow taste better than they should. A rotating cast of local musicians who trade in low-key jazz, classical and folk add to the appeal.

Upcoming shows: Luciano Antonio (Wednesdays in July and August); Silver Stream Jazz Trio (Thursdays in July and August); Arthur Wolff and Kayla Jackson (Sundays in July and August); Derek Duleba (July 17 and 31); AKA Jazz Trio (July 21, July 28 and Aug. 4); Kevin Fort (July 25, Aug. 8 and Aug. 22)

At 6219 N. Sheridan Road; waterfrontcafechicago.com

Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.

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