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In the first great wave of black migration from the South just after World War I, jazz journeyed from the Storyville section of New Orleans to Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong made Chicago a jazz hot spot in the 1920s, and their music lives on in a whole new generation of talent. Chicago jazz is known for its collaborative spirit and a certain degree of risk-taking -- which you can experience at a number of lively clubs.
If there's any music that epitomizes Chicago, it's the blues. As African-Americans migrated northward in the years following World War II, they brought their musical traditions with them, including the mournful, guitar-and-harmonica-based sound known as Delta blues. In Chicago, the addition of electric guitar gave the traditional blues a jolt of new life, and local musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon influenced generations of rockers that followed. Today, blues clubs remain a staple of the cultural scene, but one that attracts mostly niche audiences. Some spots cater to out-of-towners looking for an "authentic" blues experience, while others keep a relatively low profile, surviving thanks to the loyalty of die-hard blues aficionados.
In the early 1990s, Chicago's burgeoning alternative rock scene produced such national names as the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, and Material Issue. Although the city's moment of pop hipness quickly faded (as did most of the aforementioned artists), the live music scene has continued to thrive. Although local groups still occasionally hit it big (Wilco, Fall Out Boy), most Chicago bands concentrate on keeping it real, happy to perform at small local clubs and not obsessing (at least openly) about getting a record contract. The city is also a regular stop for touring bands, from big stadium acts to smaller up-and-coming groups. Scan the Reader, New City, or Time Out Chicago to see who's playing where. The biggest rock acts tend to play at the local indoor stadiums: the United Center (tel. 312/455-4500; https://www.unitedcenter.com), home of the Bulls and Blackhawks, and Allstate Arena (tel. 847/635-6601; https://www.rosemont.com/allstate), in Rosemont near O'Hare Airport. These venues are about what you expect: The overpriced seats nearest the stage are fine, but you'd better bring binoculars if you're stuck in the more affordable upper decks. During the summer, you'll also find the big names at the outdoor Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre (tel. 708/614-1616; http://www.tinleyparkamphitheater.com), inconveniently located in the suburb of Tinley Park, about an hour outside the city, and cursed with pretty bad acoustics.
The good news: You can catch midlevel rock acts at local venues with a lot more character. The Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave. (tel. 773/275-6800; https://www.rivieratheatre.com), is a relic of the Uptown neighborhood's swinging days in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. A former movie palace, it retains the original ornate ceiling, balcony, and lighting fixtures, but it has definitely gotten grimy with age. (Head upstairs to the balcony seats if you'd rather avoid the crowd that rushes toward the stage during shows.) The Aragon Ballroom, a few blocks away, at 1106 W. Lawrence Ave. (tel. 773/561-9500; http://www.aragonballroom.org/; subway/El: Red Line to Lawrence), was once an elegant big-band dance hall; the worn Moorish-castle decor and twinkling-star ceiling now give the place a seedy charm despite its less-than-ideal acoustics. A former vaudeville house is now the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield Ave. (tel. 773/472-0366; http://www.victheatre.com/; subway/El: Red or Brown line to Fullerton), a midsize venue that features up-and-coming acts. (Get there early to snag one of the lower balcony rows.)
More sedate audiences love the Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave. (tel. 773/929-5959; https://www.parkwestchicago.com/; subway/El: Brown Line to Armitage, or bus no. 22 [Clark St.]), both for its excellent sound system and its cabaret-style seating (no mosh pit here). For tickets to most shows at all these venues, you're stuck going through the service-fee-grabbing Ticketmaster (tel. 312/559-1212).
Chicago Rocks -- Come summertime, Chicago's indie-music credibility gets a major boost from two high-profile concert festivals. Every August, Lollapalooza (https://www.lollapalooza.com/) takes over a prime section of Grant Park for 3 days of performances by big-name artists and rising stars. The lakefront views are great, but the number of acts and people can get overwhelming -- and the weather is usually steamy. Hipster music snobs prefer the Pitchfork Music Festival (https://pitchforkmusicfestival.com/) in July, which brings edgy young bands to play a series of shows at Union Park in the West Loop. Most are groups that mainstream rock fans haven't heard of, which is just the way hard-core Pitchfork devotees like it.
Country, Folk & Ethnic Music
Known as a musician-friendly town, Chicago attracts artists from a wide range of genres. While the big-name country music stars tend to play at stadium-sized arenas, "alt country" groups are a staple of the local music scene, mixing traditional American tunes with more experimental sounds. One highlight of the city's eclectic offerings is The Old Town School of Folk Music, a flourishing center that regularly hosts well-known singer-songwriters, bluegrass groups, Celtic fiddlers, and other traditional music from around the world.
Cabarets & Piano Bars
Chicago's relatively low-key cabaret scene is concentrated in River North and tends to attract a relaxed -- but well dressed -- clientele.
The Club Scene
Chicago is the hallowed ground where house music was hatched in the 1980s, so it's no surprise to find that it's also home to several vast, industrial-style dance clubs with pounding music and an under-30 crowd. Some spots specialize in a single type of music, while others offer an ever-changing mix of rhythms and beats that follow the latest DJ-driven trend. Many clubs attract a different clientele on each day of the week (Sun night, for example, is gay-friendly at many of the clubs), so check the club's website to get an idea of each night's vibe. Given the fickle nature of clubgoers, some places we list might have disappeared by the time you read this, but there is an impressive list of longtime survivors -- clubs that have lasted more than a decade but continue to draw crowds.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.