By Greg Wahl

It’s the season for big-ticket concerts and weekend-long lineups with multi-day passes priced in the hundreds. Luckily, for us cheapskates, summer’s also the season for live music events of the free variety. One of the perks of big city life is there’s plenty of free entertainment, and you don’t have to look too hard to find it. The hefty schedule of outdoor festivals downtown and in the neighborhoods add up nicely to a summer’s worth of live jams on the cheap, and there’s something for every taste. Here are my personal picks for the top local freebie shows for Summer 2012.


Chicago Gospel Music Festival

June 21-24
Various locations

Millennium Park, Pritzker Pavilion
June 21: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (7:30 p.m.)

Ellis Park
June 23: Fred Hammond (6:30 p.m.)
June 24: Blind Boys of Alabama (5:45 p.m.)

This year’s Gospel Fest is spread over three venues, Millennium Park, the Chicago Cultural Center, and Ellis Park at 37th & Cottage Grove. Local live favorites JC Brooks and his band take their “Uptown Sound” to church with a show at Millennium Park for the festival’s opening night. For fans of contemporary gospel, Grammy Award-winner Fred Hammond opens the Ellis Park portion of the fest, while the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama sing heavenly praises old-school style on June 24.


Green Music Fest

June 23-24
Damen & North Aves.

North Stage
June 23: Dinosaur Jr. (8:00 p.m.)

It’s not strictly free, as there is a $5 “suggested donation,” but since paid entry isn’t a requirement, it qualifies (though even the cheapest of skates among us should see fit to abide the suggested amount). Anyway, Dinosaur, Jr. will be bringing their fuzzy, grunge-era jams to Wicker Park, and that’s easily worth a kindly donation. If reliving the 90s isn’t your thing, the festival’s two days of Earth-friendly indie grooves includes live shows by the relatively newer Raveonettes, Passafire, and others.

Death Cab for Cutie (credit:

Taste of Chicago

July 11-15
Grant Park

July 11: Jennifer Hudson (5:30 p.m.)
July 12: Death Cab for Cutie (5:30 p.m.)
July 15: Dierks Bentley (3:30 p.m.)

This is the first year the city is charging for tickets to seats in the Petrillo Music Shell, but the lawn area remains free. Programming is clearly designed to cover a wide spectrum, from R&B to Indie to Country, and a lot in between. Local phenom Jennifer Hudson brings the contemporary R&B, indie giants Death Cab return after their recent visit to the much more expensive Chicago Theater, and country fans can get their freebie fix when Dierks Bentley tears it up.


Downtown Sound Series

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.

Millennium Park, Pritzker Pavilion
Michigan & Randolph

June 25: Occidental Brothers Dance Band International
July 16: Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires
July 23: Ana Tijoux

Despite budget cuts, the stellar programming of this Monday evening series remains intact this year, and these are just a few top recommendations. The James Brown-inspired Charles Bradley, also known as “The Screaming Eagle of Soul,” will do his best to get the Pritzker Pavilion crowd to its feet with his gritty brand of ‘’60s and 70s-style soul & funk. The Occidental Brothers should have no problem riling up the crowd, either, especially since the Chico Trujillo orchestra is opening for them. Also highly recommended is the groundbreaking Chilean hip hop of Ana Tijoux.


Grant Park Music Festival

Through August 18
Millennium Park, Pritzker Pavilion

August 17 & 18: Dvorák: The Spectre’s Bride (6:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.)

There are around 30 performances throughout the Grant Park Music Festival, and the Fourth of July concerts in particular always make a big splash, but it’s the season finale that has me most intrigued. This rarely-performed composition by Dvorák is based on a legendary tale of a young girl dramatically swept away by a ghostly horseman. If you generally avoid the classical stuff, this one might be worth an exception.


Chicago Jazz Festival

August 30-September 2
Millennium Park/Grant Park

Performance dates/times TBD
Allen Toussaint
Diane Reeves
Roy Haynes

Too broke to travel on Labor Day weekend? Jazz Fest will take you places, and it won’t cost a dime. The fest always brings out the legends, and so far this year’s lineup does not disappoint. Headliners have just been announced, and they include New Orleans great Allen Toussant, 87-year-old drummer Roy Haynes, and radiant vocalist Dianne Reeves.

Greg Wahl, CBS Chicago