Chicagofest 1981

I had a random concert conversation with a colleague of mine, Jonathan.

He asked me if I could guess which Chicago venue he had seen Cheap Trick in 1981. I rattled off several popular Chicago venues coming close, then I gave up.

He had seen Cheap Trick at Navy Pier during Chicagofest; the precursor to Taste of Chicago.

Then on Thursday, I received an email from Jonathan with a funny message saying, “This was where I saw Cheap Trick. I was the Sound Engineer...not really.”

His message also included a four-minute YouTube Video showing the beginning of the festival and Cheap Trick performing “Stop This Game.”

Watching this live concert flashback was fantastic.

Seeing Chicago’s Navy Pier 28 years ago –complete with a panoramic view of the Taste of Chicago roots and CT fans in 1981 paying for tickets and rushing the stage—was a fascinating sociological and cultural anthropological live music flashback.

With Mayor Michael Bilandic providing the impetus, Chicagofest didn't just last a weekend. It ran for a solid two weeks at Navy Pier. This was back in the days when the U of I Chicago campus long abandoned the location and it seemed more likely that Navy Pier would crumble into the lake. With the campus set up like a carnival midway, there was a main stage where the headline acts would play every night and themed stages running the length of the pier. At its height, Chicagofest drew an average of 500,000 people a day. We can remember seeing Cheap Trick, Willie Nelson, Blondie and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. For this post we've included video of Muddy Waters at Chicagofest in 1981.

When the Blizzard of '79 sealed Bilandic's loss to Jane Byrne, one of the first bright ideas Byrne had was to end Chicagofest. Residents complained to the point where Byrne reversed course and added her name to the marquee. Eventually, Chicagofest was ended by Harold Washington. The success of Chiagofest led Milwaukee to adopt the model for their annual Summerfest. It also inspired the creation of Taste of Chicago and the smaller organized neighborhood festivals that dot the city every year. That's a hell of a legacy.

Before we gorged our faces on endless corn-on-the-cobs, beef sandwiches and cheesecake
at the Taste Of Chicago, the big party of the year was ChicagoFest, situated on a dingy
and rickety old Navy Pier. Back then, the Taste was confined to North Michigan Avenue.
ChicagoFest was the place to be and be seen, and radio was no exception! Many stations
sponsored music stages, such as The Loop's "Rock Around The Dock," the WLS
"Vintage Rock Stage," the WXRT "Blues and Bud Stage," and the WOJO "Fiesta Stage."
Most stations were on hand for the Fest and many broadcasted live for the majority of the day.
Several stations found it easier to move their entire operation out to the pier, including all
the studio equipment, cart machines and large cart racks, as well as full-time engineers
serving as board operators. The Fest became a literal second studio!