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Free Concerts in the Park: Perfect Picnics to B.Y.O.B.

Going to the Summer Music Series at the Pritzker Pavillion? Here’s how to picnic in the park like a pro.

By Arts & Culture

illustration by Zach Cooper

illustration by Zach Cooper.

Free food always tastes better, free clothes expand our personal styles, and free events keep college students out and about. Every summer, Millennium Park brings the city together with free workouts (including Tai Chi, yoga, and zumba), movies, and concerts. A staple in many Chicagoans’ summer activities, the free events offer something for everyone.

On almost all Mondays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. throughout June, July, and August, Millennium Park’s concerts offer a variety of musical styles. With two performers per concert, many of this year’s acts are from Chicago, such as Phil Cohran, Ecos Del Pacifico, Marrow, and ProbCause.

The majority of the musicians selected for the concerts this summer have roots in the folk music of their heritage. For example, Leyla McCalla, a Haitian-American, sings in English, French, and Haitian-Creole and plays the banjo, guitar, and cello.

While the music is great, it is clear that with the exception of cult film fans and Salsa Night, the main draw of the free concerts is the opportunity for picnicking. The lawn at the Pritzker Pavilion is ideal for picnics in the grass. While there are food trucks and a beer and wine tent at each concert, guests are encouraged to bring-your-own beverage — an invitation to drink in the public outdoors.

Looking around the lawn, one immediately feels that there is some serious picnic competition afoot. Young (and less young) adults in business attire lounge on mandala-patterned blankets with collapsible coffee-tables and special wine-glass carriers. The term “bougie” (pronounced “boo-djie”) as in “the bourgeoisie,” comes to mind.

The majority of the attendees have some version of a wine and cheese spread for their picnic. Though classic, wine and cheese can feel quaint in comparison to the home-made caprese salads, pesto pastas, and prosecco brought by the more dedicated picnickers.

Over the course of the summer, my friends and I wined and dined with the best of them in the Pavillon, and our seasoned experience (pun intended) has led to pitch-perfect picnics. Below is an account of some concert picnics so far, to awe and inspire any wide-eyed novices looking to up their picnic game.


June 20

Concert: DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation and Kelan Philip Cohran.

Picnic: Red and white wine from Walgreens (the $4 varieties are great), brie, Wasa crisp bread, fig jam, kalamata olives, Ruffles potato chips, french onion dip, and fresh cherries.

Notes: DJ Spooky remixed the music for the film, Rebirth of a Nation, in which a town has to face racial tension. The slow, trance-like synthesizer music and terrifyingly relevant content of the film facilitated an eerily introspective audience.


June 27

Concert: Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra and Ecos del Pacifico.

Picnic: For dancing, keep it low-maintenance. A quick trip to Walgreens for Ruffles, french onion dip, and a bottle of red wine.

Notes: Salsa Night was the busiest night so far, leaving only the back edge of the lawn open for those arriving right at 6:30. The sounds of piano, saxophone, and drums combined at a fast pace—by the second act the members of the audience were salsa-ing all across the lawn.


July 11

Concert: Femi Kuti and The Positive Force and ProbCause.

Picnic: brie, pink moscato, salami, kalamata olives, Wasa crisp bread, garlic herb cheese spread, and fresh cherries.

Following a weekend of Black Lives Matter protests, Femi Kuti and ProbCause addressed the events and showed their support to Black Lives Matter both through their music and while speaking to the audience.

Notes: Femi Tuti creates music with strong Afrobeats, with a strong emphasis on drums and call-and-response. A Nigerian artist, his performance included two dancers whose shimmies were contagious. ProbCause, a male rapper, incorporated a backup singer, an electric violinist, a drummer, and a saxophonist.


The Millennium Park Summer Music Series is a great way for everyone — especially college students — to have a fun weeknight. It is an inexpensive, low-key way to get a music fix, and spend quality time with friends and family. Get creative with a picnic, or pack up dinner in tupperware and enjoy.

My partner and I tend to stick with wine, soft cheese, salami, and olives; sometimes throwing in fruit or chips, or replacing the standard red or white wine with a cheap prosecco or moscato. Halfway through our regular free concert journeys we decided to upgrade our picnic game by getting plastic stemless wine glasses, which are more environmentally friendly than solo cups. The next upgrade: a cheese knife.

Upcoming free summer concerts at Millennium Park include Jose Gonzalez and Tall Heights on August 1 at 6:30 p.m.; Sinkane and Mark de Clive-Lowe on August 4 at 6:30 p.m.; Mbongwana Star and Dos Santos Antibeat Orchestra on August 11 at 6:30 p.m.; Elephant Revival and Mandolin Orange on August 18 at 6:30 p.m.; and Tortoise and Homme on August 25 at 6:30 p.m.

Can’t get to the Pavillon? Listen to our cultivated Millennium Park Picnic Playlist below:


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