25 don’t-miss summer concerts in and around Chicago

We looked beyond the massive touring shows to build this list of 25 area summer concerts that are affordable and top notch.

Summer concerts in Chicago
Music is everywhere this summer. Here are 25 smaller concerts happening in and around Chicago. Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times
Summer concerts in Chicago
Music is everywhere this summer. Here are 25 smaller concerts happening in and around Chicago. Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times

25 don’t-miss summer concerts in and around Chicago

We looked beyond the massive touring shows to build this list of 25 area summer concerts that are affordable and top notch.

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The beaches are finally open, the baseball parks are filling up and music is everywhere this summer. If you are avoiding the massive touring shows, here are 25 alternate choices — both free and ticketed — that will keep you busy through Labor Day.

Chicago Gospel Music Festival

4 p.m. June 1 in Millennium Park

This free, daylong festival in Millennium Park features both local and internationally recognized gospel recording stars, including the Clark Sisters, a Grammy-winning family group from Detroit whose influence over six decades can be heard in contemporary R&B. Also on the bill: Grammy winner Anita Wilson, who is a Chicago native, and up-and-comers Chandler Moore and Lena Byrd Miles. Don’t skip the hourlong tribute to Chicago church choirs; it features three of the best — First Corinthian Voices of Victory, Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir and Fellowship Chicago. 201 E. Randolph St., free.

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Chicago House Music Festival

10 a.m. June 2 in Millennium Park

This year marks the 40th anniversary of House music, a Chicago creation that originated in the city’s Black and gay underground to become a global force in dance music. This annual festival transforms the park into a dance party. Daylong sets by DJs include Alan King and Wayne Williams from the Chosen Few, a DJ collective that helped innovate House in the late 1970s, as well as Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, who wrote some of the earliest hits for Chicago’s Trax Records. A second stage will feature the Queer Fam Pride Jam billed as a “youth and queer family-friendly event” featuring dance lessons and more DJ sets. 201 E. Randolph St., free.

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Toronzo Cannon
Toronzo Cannon, left, will perform a show at Space in Evanston this summer. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Toronzo Cannon

7 p.m. June 6 at Space

With Buddy Guy retiring, Chicago’s Toronzo Cannon has emerged as the city’s next great ambassador of electric blues. Rather than mine the genre’s past, the South Side native draws from his decades of experience as a CTA bus driver to write songs about struggles in everyday life. His guitar playing and stage persona are both wildly entertaining, and his music feels overly modern, more than most contemporary blues players. This show is an album release party for Shut Up and Play!, his latest on Chicago’s Alligator Records. 1245 Chicago Ave. in Evanston, tickets from $16.

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Chicago Blues Festival

10 a.m. June 6-9 at the Ramova Theatre and in Millennium Park

The world’s largest free blues music festival strikes a somber note this year when headliner Buddy Guy uses it as his final large-scale appearance in his adopted city. Other headliners include Mississippi blues and gospel singer Mr. Sipp; Memphis blues-soul band Southern Avenue; local guitarists Mike Wheeler, Ivy Ford, Melody Angel and Melvin Taylor; and tributes to past greats Otis Spann, Dinah Washington and Jimmy Rogers. The festival kicks off Thursday, June 6 at the newly renovated Ramova Theatre in Bridgeport and will include performances by guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks and powerful blues singer Shemekia Copeland. 201 E. Randolph St. (Millennium Park) and 3520 S. Halsted St. (Ramova), free.

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Yola
Yola will perform in downtown Winnetka in June. Amy Harris/Invision/Associated Press

Winnetka Music Festival

5 p.m. June 14-15 in downtown Winnetka

This is the eighth year for this North Shore indie music festival. This year, it features Seattle rock band Band of Horses, German rock duo Milky Chance, British soul singer Yola, the Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans, singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter and Austin garage rockers Heartless Bastards. Lincoln Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Winnetka, tickets from $49.

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Gerald McClendon

9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. June 14 at Rosa’s Lounge

The self-described “Soulkeeper” around town, Chicago native Gerald McClendon is a world-traveled R&B singer who captures the classic sound of Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding in his music, as well as the jazz vocalist era of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. 3420 W. Armitage Ave., tickets from $15.

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Steve Dawson

7 p.m. June 16 at Space

This veteran singer-songwriter is a Chicago luminary for his deep catalog of records, both with his band Dolly Varden and collaborative solo efforts with Chicago’s free jazz community. He’s also a beloved songwriting teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and he often takes his instruction out of the classroom and into the recording studio, where he has recorded several albums by local songwriters. This is an album release show for Ghosts, his latest record on Chicago’s Pravda Records. 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston, tickets from $15.

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Blues on the Fox
Blues on the Fox will unfold in RiverEdge Park in Aurora. Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP

Blues on the Fox

7 p.m. June 16 and 3 p.m. June 17 in RiverEdge Park

The “other” annual blues festival in the Chicago area unfolds along the Fox River in Aurora. This year, headliners include pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, Chicago’s Toronzo Cannon, British guitarist and singer songwriter Joanne Shaw Taylor, blues-jazz guitarist Guy King and rock-blues band Big Head Todd and the Monsters. 360 N. Broadway, Aurora, tickets from $25.

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New Static! Revival Now

7 p.m. June 20 at Schubas

This festival, now in its sophomore year, attempts to curate the most exciting — and youngest — bands on Chicago’s thriving indie music scene. On the bill this year are lo-fi noise pop duo Sharp Pins, rockers TV Buddha, the electronic soundscapes of Donkey Basketball and noise-pop band — and sibling duo — twin coast. 3159 N. Southport St., tickets from $15.

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Cedric Burnside

8 p.m. June 25-26 at Schubas

The hill country blues of Mississippi sound much different than what you’ll hear in Chicago or anywhere else, and the only opportunity to hear it directly from the source is from the next generation of those who invented it. Cedric Burnside’s grandfather, R.L. Burnside, was a longtime musician who only gained prominence during the alt-rock era of the 1990s; Cedric — a guitarist and drummer — has carried the torch ever since. His minimalist sound and hard grooves create the backdrop of Hill Country Love, his latest record. 3159 N. Southport Ave., tickets from $20.

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Sun Ra Arkestra
Sun Ra Arkestra will perform two shows at the Constellation in Roscoe Village. Lou Foglia/Chicago Sun-Times

Sun Ra Arkestra

8 p.m. and 10 p.m. June 28 at Constellation

The pioneering composer, bandleader and otherworldly presence Sun Ra may no longer be with us, but his Arkestra continues his music throughout the world. This two-show stand features saxophonist Marshall Allen, who has been with the group since 1958, and more than a dozen players performing Sun Ra compositions. Expect many excursions ranging from big band swing to free jazz. 3111 N. Western Ave., tickets from $40.

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American Music Festival

July 3-6 at FitzGerald’s

One of the most consistently rewarding events of the Chicago summer, this three-stage, multi-night celebration of American roots music offers something for everyone: Zydeco, blues, jazz, country, folk and beyond. Nikki Lane and Sierra Hull are headliners along with the Jayhawks, the Old 97’s and Robert Randolph & The Family Band, along with FitzGerald’s favorites like Marcia Ball, CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, The Waco Brothers, Michael McDermott and Jon Dee Graham. Plus, there’s barbecue. 6615 W. Roosevelt Road, tickets from $65.

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Charlie Musselwhite with Ivan Singh

6:30 p.m. July 1 in Millennium Park

When Charlie Musselwhite was a teenager, he moved from his native Memphis to Chicago to hang out at South Side blues clubs and learn from the first generation of electric blues masters. Soon enough, the harmonica player became one himself. Making his name on the psychedelic blues scene on the West Coast, Musselwhite has built a long and distinguished career as a singer, sideman and composer, collaborating with everyone from Bob Dylan to Ben Harper. Now recording for Chicago’s Alligator Records, Musselwhite is as vibrant a performer as ever. 201 E. Randolph St., free.

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The Baseball Project

7 p.m. July 4 at Space

Summer is the natural time for this supergroup to emerge on concert stages to play perfectly crafted songs based on little-known stories of baseball history. If you’re not a baseball fan, no problem: The songs on Grand Salami Time!, the group’s most recent record, are perfect power pop fare for secular fans of the sport. This is also a special opportunity to catch half of R.E.M in a rare club show: Along with drummer Linda Pitmon, guitarist-singers Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate, the Baseball Project’s lead guitarist and bassist are Peter Buck and Mike Mills. 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston, tickets from $27.

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International Festival of Life

Noon, July 4-7 in Washington Park

This weekend of African and Caribbean art and music celebrates its 31st year. The entire park fills with more than 50 bands and superstars representing reggae, Afrobeat, Haitian and Latin American music. (This year’s headliners have not yet been announced.) 5531 S. Martin Luther King Drive, tickets from $35.

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Teairra Marí

11:59 p.m. July 6 at Metro

Def Jam Records veteran Teairra Marí most recently emerged through a series of mixtapes featuring cameos from Gucci Mane, Soulja Boy and Nicki Minaj. She’s also an occasional actress and reality show veteran. This show, billed as “the Ultimate Black Party” for Chicago Black Pride weekend, includes a series of guests including Stevia Smoke Da Rapper, GakTrizzy, ThizzMarley, Aki Da Rapper, Cash Da Trapper, Ok’Jaycen and DJ Gucci Roxx and DJ Brice. And yes, there’s a twerking contest. 3730 N. Clark St., tickets from $25.

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Frankfort Bluegrass Festival

10 a.m. July 13-14

One of the country’s largest bluegrass weekends of the summer happens in Chicago’s south suburbs every July. The festival spans two days and takes over four stages in Frankfort’s historic downtown, featuring groups from across the U.S. This year’s headliners include bluegrass veteran Peter Rowan and his band, Nashville singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale & The Po’ Ramblin Boys, Chicago’s Special Consensus, AJ Lee & Blue Summit from California. South Korea bluegrass even gets the spotlight, thanks to sets by Country Gongbang, a group that sings in two languages. Downtown Frankfort, free.

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Jah Wobble

8 p.m. July 12 at the Hideout

Jah Wobble is widely known for his role as the bassist in Public Image Ltd (PiL), fronted by former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon. He has had a long solo career, too and is now credited as a pioneer in bringing dub music to the mainstream. The British musician has been a much sought-after collaborator throughout his musical life, having recorded with Baaba Maal, Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno and Pharoah Sanders, and his pursuit of world rhythms continues to make him an influence on a wide range of music from industrial rock to hip-hop. For this show, he will perform dub arrangements to the 1979 PiL classic album, Metal Box. 1354 W. Wabansia St., tickets from $30.

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Seun Kuti
Seun Kuti, the son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, has made a name for himself as a formidable bandleader and vocalist Sunday Alamba / Associated Press

Seun Kuti

6:30 p.m. July 15 in Millennium Park

As the youngest son of pioneer Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti is Afrobeat royalty. He began performing as a saxophonist and percussionist in Egypt 80, his father’s sprawling band, and he became the frontman once the elder Kuti died. In the decades since then, Kuti has made a name for himself as a formidable bandleader and vocalist who, like his father, channels urgent social and political messages through the music. 201 E. Randolph St., free.

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Out of Space Skokie

5 p.m. July 26-28 in Illinois Science + Technology Park Field

Out of Space, the annual festival on Evanston’s Canal Shores public golf course, moved this summer to neighboring Skokie while its original location gets restored. The indie rock lineup is just as strong, however. This year, headliners are Courtney Barnett with Bob Mould and Squirrel Flower (July 26), Thee Sacred Souls and St. Paul and the Broken Bones (July 27), and Guster with The Lone Bellow and Devon Gilfillian. 4900 Searle Parkway in Skokie, tickets from $49.50.

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Charles McPherson Quartet

8 p.m. Aug. 1-4 at the Jazz Showcase

August is Charlie Parker month at the Jazz Showcase, and acclaimed alto saxophonist and composer Charles McPherson kicks it off. McPherson’s six decades as a bebop pioneer have led him from recording sessions with Charles Mingus and Art Farmer to collaborations with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and even incorporating bebop sensibilities into music he composed for the San Diego Ballet. 806 S. Plymouth Court, tickets from $20.

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Broadway in Chicago

6:15 p.m. Aug. 12 in Millennium Park

Calling all musical theater fans! Spread out your blanket and sing along to selections from past and present Broadway musicals performed live, including Back to the Future, A Beautiful Noise, Some Like it Hot, Les Misérables, Mean Girls, Ain’t Too Proud, and Beauty and the Beast. 201 E. Randolph St., free.

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Built to Spill
Built to Spill will perform the album There’s Nothing Wrong with Love at the Metro this August. John Davisson/Invision/AP

Built to Spill

8 p.m. Aug. 22-23 at Metro

Built to Spill’s combination of psychedelic stoner rock and folk-rock lyricism has served as the foundation for music spanning several decades that has always remained timeless. This year is the 30th anniversary of There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, the band’s landmark second album. The Boise trio, led by guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Doug Martsch, performs the album in its entirety. 3730 N. Clark St., tickets from $40.

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Chicago Jazz Festival

10 a.m. Aug. 29-Sept. 1 in Millennium Park

The annual celebration of both Chicago-based and international jazz is traditionally the city’s way to wind down summer in Millennium Park on Labor Day weekend. Look for a lineup announcement soon. 201 E. Randolph St., free.

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Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival

Sept. 1-2 in Island Park

One of the longest-running music festivals in the Chicago area, this completely volunteer-run, Labor Day tradition takes place on a beautiful island in the Fox River and includes performances from renowned folk artists from across the U.S. and Chicago. Beyond the stages, expect music and storytelling workshops and a Sunday night barn dance. The 48th edition of the festival will feature Mark Dvorak, Sara Grey, Margaret Burk, Debra Cowan and the Donna Herula Trio — and many others — across seven stages. Rt 38 at Rt. 25, in downtown Geneva, suggested donations from $20.

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Mark Guarino is a journalist based in Chicago and the author of Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival.

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