The Downtown Sound music series is now a Monday night fixture during the summer at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, but it wasn't always so.
The city of Chicago had a hands-off policy toward rock music for generations, a phobia turned into unwritten civic policy that discriminated against large gatherings of young people at its parks, particularly its prestigious lakefront properties. All that slowly changed in the past couple of decades: Radiohead headlined Hutchinson Field at the southern end of Grant Park in 2001, Lollapalooza established itself in Grant Park in 2005, Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park in 2006, and artists like Sting and Tori Amos played paid concerts staged by corporate promoters at Pritzker.
But the notion of city-sponsored free rock shows at the city's most prestigious outdoor music venue didn't take hold until three years after Millennium Park opened. None of it could have happened if not for the support of Lois Weisberg, then-commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, and the park's first executive director, the late Helen Doria.
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"Helen Doria took her responsibility seriously to curate that space and make it something for everyone," says Jack McLarnan, who started out managing business operations at Downtown Sound and now books the series.
The city-sponsored rock concerts sprang from a desire to program events "not being featured at the Cultural Center or in Millennium Park, which was full of classical music, opera and jazz," says Mike Orlove, former programmer for Cultural Affairs. He and independent concert promoter Mike Reed presented the idea to Doria and Weisberg, and were warmly received.
"The only question was how to pay for it," Orlove says.
In 2008, the minuscule budget was matched by a modest music series: Audible Architecture: Chicago Nightclubs at Noon debuted at Pritzker, with indie bands taking the huge stage at noon on nine Mondays during the summer. Audiences were sparse — usually occupying no more than a quarter of the 4,000-seat pavilion — as curious lunchtime passers-by sampled artists like singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, Dutch punk rockers the Ex and Malian guitarist Habib Koite.
Orlove and Reed aimed to get Chicago clubs to help curate and promote the series.
"The part that didn't work was that Mike and I did 90 percent of the work — most clubs just lent their names to it," says Orlove, who now runs international programming for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington. "The turnout? It was slightly better than your daughter's (grade-school) basketball games."
But a September 2008 free evening concert with quirky violin-playing art-popster Andrew Bird at Pritzker filled the park.
"That was a real turning point," Orlove says. Oprah Winfrey had used the park for her season-opening show and left behind large video screens. Bird put them to use and turned the concert into a big preview party for what the still-nascent Downtown Sound could be.
"With almost no notice, Andrew brought in a crew to utilize the screens with a three-camera shoot," Orlove says. "There was a live XRT broadcast, and I remember thinking, 'This is the future; this is what the park will be like.'"
With Doria, in particular, playing a key role in setting a tone of openness, Millennium Park and city parks in general began opening up to events featuring not just symphony orchestras and jazz combos, but rock acts that drew a younger crowd. In 2009, Audible Architecture was retired from its noontime slot and replaced by a slightly more ambitious Monday evening series, Downtown Sound, which debuted with a paltry $45,000 budget. Reed dug into his own pockets to help pay for some of the acts, Orlove says.
But the first year was a roaring success, with 10,000-plus fans showing up on several nights. Among the soon-to-be-stars booked as opening acts that season were the Dirty Projectors and St. Vincent. The Feelies, a legendary New York post-punk band, played an extremely rare Chicago show — its first in more than 15 years — on June 29 to a huge crowd. But perhaps the most audacious booking was a last-minute one: revered punk rabble-rousers Shellac, a late replacement for another act that canceled.
"If I had asked for permission to present Shellac, I probably would've been told 'no,'" Orlove says. "At a couple points that night, I was hiding in a corner."
McLarnan remembers the night vividly.
"We were all aware that Shellac was pushing it a bit — they were more niche, more edgy than what we typically booked. But they're also such a legacy act in Chicago and so important to the music community. It set the tone for what we could do. It's easy to put safe choices up there all the time, but it's a much greater service to our audience to take some risks and do things that are more interesting artistically."
As the triumphant show drew to a close before a large, appreciative audience, the words of Shellac bassist Bob Weston would prove prophetic: "Let's let the city of Chicago know that they didn't make a mistake."
In subsequent seasons, overflow crowds greeted performances by Iron and Wine, She & Him, and Glen Hansard, among others. Besides these internationally famous acts, the Downtown Sound series also provided a forum for a cross section of respected local bands and artists, including Eleventh Dream Day, Disappears, Kelly Hogan, Scott Lucas, Kid Sister and Azita. This season's lineup includes veteran rockers such as Bob Mould, Richard Thompson and The Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo), international performers like Syria's Omar Souleyman and Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali, and heavyweight locals such as Russian Circles and White Mystery.
Downtown Sound now has a $100,000 budget — more than double what it started with, if not anywhere near what commercial ventures like Lollapalooza, Ravinia or even Pitchfork can command. But McLarnan says the experience of playing Pritzker — with its city skyline backdrop and extraordinary latticework sound system — is as enticing to many artists as it is to audiences, which average 10,000 per night.