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Pitmaster playoffs, country music stars at Windy City Smokeout

Attendees of the 2015 Windy City Smokeout enjoy barbecued ribs, baked beans and craft beer from local brewers such as Goose Island Co. | Photo credit: Jeff Marini

Barbecue enthusiasts, get your bibs out for the fourth annual Windy City Smokeout July 15-17 featuring a lineup of more than 20 country music singers, 20 craft breweries and 15 barbecue pitmasters from Chicago and around the country.

Myron Mixon of Jack’s Old South Barbecue of Braselton, Georgia greets festivalgoers at last year’s Windy City Smokeout as they chow down on barbecue and craft beer. | Photo credit: Jeff Marini
Myron Mixon of Jack’s Old South Barbecue of Braselton, Georgia greets festivalgoers at last year’s Windy City Smokeout as they chow down on barbecue and craft beer. | Photo credit: Jeff Marini

The festival will be held in a parking lot on Grand Avenue near the Chicago River and includes musical acts such as Chase Rice, Phil Vassar, Big & Rich with Cowboy Troy, Whiskey Myers, Billy Currington, Old Dominion and Maren Morris.

R.J. Melman, managing partner of several Lettuce Entertain You (LEYE) restaurants and an original founder of the Windy City Smokeout in 2013, said the idea for the festival came when he and some fellow partners attended LEYE’s Oyster Fest in downtown Chicago.

“We thought it’d be so fun to do a barbecue/musical festival — maybe multiple days — and there’s not really anything that brings the best barbecue talent from around the country,” Melman said. “It’s a great chance for Chicagoans to enjoy some of the best barbecue.”

Singer/Songwriter Phil Vassar performs at Country Thunder USA – Day 3 In Twin Lakes, Wisconsin on July 25, 2015 in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. |Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Singer/Songwriter Phil Vassar performs at Country Thunder USA – Day 3 In Twin Lakes, Wisconsin on July 25, 2015 in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. |Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

In addition to the allstar lineup of pitmasters that includes Myron Mixon of Jack’s Old South in Georgia, Scott Roberts of The Salt Lick BBQ in Texas and Barry Sorkin of Chicago’s Smoque, the weekend has more to offer than just the finest ribs and cornbread. Award-winning country music artist Phil Vassar is looking forward to performing at the Smokeout Friday evening.

“Anytime I get to come to Chicago, I’m happy,” said Vassar, who’s a familiar sight on Chicago stages, including Joe’s on Weed Street and the Rosemont Theatre. “I love it. The fans are always so enthusiastic, it’s so great.”

Vassar is famous for his social media-driven performances, in which concert-goers can tweet song requests that then appear on a monitor on stage.

“We get requests and we don’t even have a set list or anything,” Vassar said. “So we just go up there and let the audience tell us what to play. It’s really kind of fun, just doing what everybody wants to do.”

At a recent show in Europe as part of his 2016 international tour, Vassar said his band received a request and began playing the song, only to have their guitarist start playing a different song. Luckily, the audience didn’t notice.

“You have to just know your songs, which, you know, is hundreds of songs,” he said, laughing. “It’s fun to just go in the bank, and hopefully you remember them. It’s spontaneous, and it keeps us on the edge.”

Vassar is looking forward to continuing to perform nationally throughout the summer and fall while continuing to work on his “Songs from the Cellar” video project, in which he invites artists, songwriters, entertainers, athletes and wine connoisseurs over to his Nashville estate’s wine cellar for drinks, conversation and musical collaboration. Recent celebrity guests include Tommy Shaw of the rock band Styx and former professional boxer Mike Tyson. Episodes are available online, and Vassar will be working with Sky UK Limited, the United Kingdom’s largest pay-TV broadcaster, to film 26 episodes for two seasons in the coming months.

“What is there not to love about Chicago?” Vassar continued. “I even love it in the wintertime. It’s just the energy — I’ve been coming here for so long, I have so many friends here, so many of my friends have restaurants — we just have such a great time. As far as big cities go, Chicago has got to be my favorite.”

Festival officials anticipate nearly 40,000 attendees at this year’s Smokeout — eclipsing all previous years’ turnouts.

“It has grown — the first year it was probably 5,000 people,” Melman explained. “The next year it doubled, and then more than doubled the year after. It’s been a really cool trajectory, how it’s grown from a much smaller parking lot to now this location at Grand and the river.”

Some new food offerings this year include barbecue from Nashville’s Peg Leg Porker, cocktails from Three Dots and a Dash and sweet treats from New York’s Big Gay Ice Cream. Melman is most excited about a new event titled “The Biggest Happy Hour of the Summer.” From 2 to 5 p.m. Friday, visitors can enjoy $3 domestic and craft beers as well as live music from Jordan Gray, Brandon Ray, Steve Moakler and Shawn Lacy.

“We thought it’d be really fun to embrace happy hour in Chicago — that is a great addition to the festival,” Melman said, noting that anyone with a one-day Friday pass or three-day pass can attend the event.

Melman’s festival favorites include country music band Old Dominion, which will close out the event at 8 p.m. Sunday, and the ribs from Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis.

Vassar is looking forward to trying some smoked barbecued chicken, baked beans and coleslaw.

“I love it — something about being outside, in the middle of a bunch of people cooking and having fun and drinking beer,” Vassar said. “My God — [it’s] heaven!”

The 2016 Windy City Smokeout, July 15-17 on Grand Avenue near the Chicago River (560 W. Grand). One-day passes start at $30; three-day passes start at $110. For complete information and to purchase tickets, visit Windycitysmokeout.com.

Windy City Smokeout attracted between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors in 2015 who enjoyed three days of barbecue, country music and craft beer. | Photo credit: Jeff Marini
Windy City Smokeout attracted between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors in 2015 who enjoyed three days of barbecue, country music and craft beer. | Photo credit: Jeff Marini