It’s been more than four years since the redevelopment of the Morton Salt building was announced, and plenty of folks have had their eye on the reliable Kennedy Expressway landmark’s weathered rooftop mural ever since. On Tuesday night, the first phase of the project opened to the public, as the outdoor portion of Salt Shed—Chicago’s newest music venue from the team behind Thalia Hall and the Empty Bottle—hosted its inaugural concert.
Local drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven headlined a jazz-focused bill, which included British saxophonist Nubya Garcia and the final Chicago performance from soon-to-be-disbanded avant-garde act Sons of Kemet. And while lots of people showed up to listen to the music, many were also there to take in the new venue and to try to catch a glimpse of the still-unfinished indoor portion of the Salt Shed, set to open sometime in 2023.
Tuesday night’s show wasn’t sold out, so it’s unclear exactly how cramped the Salt Shed gets when it reaches its 4,000-person capacity (upcoming sold-out shows on the venue’s summer schedule will be a better test). The outdoor space feels a bit like a much smaller, standing-room-only version of the Northerly Island amphitheater, complete with concrete beneath your feet and a view of Chicago’s skyline behind the stage.
Here’s what to expect when you venture to the Salt Shed this summer, from the quality of the sound (it’s pretty good) to the price of a beer (it’s kind of expensive).
Work in progress
The team behind the Salt Shed has clearly done a lot of work to build out the site and prepare the outdoor portion of the venue for guests, but you’ll still encounter a few rough edges amid the arching beams and other relics of the site’s industrial past. The side of the Morton Salt building to the west of the stage is the most noticeable example, where the beginnings of a balcony overlooking the outdoor venue are beginning to take shape. You probably won’t experience a more complete iteration of the Salt Shed until next summer, at the earliest.
Outdoor sound can be tricky (as many a summer music festival attendee can attest), so we’re thrilled to report that McCraven’s snare hits and Garcia’s sax solos on Salt Shed’s opening night were as crisp as can be. The sound can get a little muddy once you get behind the sound booth, but there’s plenty of room between it and the stage. The mix even carries to the vendors and bars on the north end of the venue near the entrance, so you can go grab a snack or beverage within earshot of the performance.
Prepare for porta potties
Hopefully you’ll someday be able to go indoors and use a real toilet when seeing an outdoor concert at the Salt Shed—but for the time being, you’ll have to use the porta potties. You’ll find two rows of the mobile restroom facilities located on the north end of the space along the river. If you’ve attended a street festival or a music festival in a park, you know the drill.
Great grub, while it lasts
In addition to running music venues, hospitality group 16” on Center also operates food halls (Revival, From Here On) and restaurants (Longman & Eagle, Pizza Friendly Pizza), so it’s no surprise that the Salt Shed’s culinary offerings go beyond hot dogs and popcorn. Local spots like charcuterie connoisseurs All Together Now, Mexican spot Cafe Tola, and the aforementioned Pizza Friendly Pizza are among the initial lineup of vendors—but on opening night, most of the food was sold out within just a few hours of gates opening. The quick sell-through may have been an opening night glitch, but it’s never a bad idea to grab a bite early in the evening, rather than later.
Refreshments at premium prices
The sticker shock at the Salt Shed might not be as drastic if you’ve purchased a beer at Lollapalooza or shelled out for a canned cocktail on Northerly Island—for everyone else, $9 seems like a hell of a lot to pay for a 16oz can of Bud Light or Tecate. But that’s the going rate for a “cheap” beer at the Salt Shed’s bars, where wine, hard seltzer, canned cocktails and mixed drinks start at $12. Budget or pre-game accordingly.
Restricted riverside views
When renderings of the redeveloped Morton Salt building first surfaced, it looked like concert attendees would be able to enjoy views of the Chicago River, which runs along the east side of the venue. As it turns out, your views of the city’s major waterway are almost entirely obstructed unless you shell out for “premium entry” tickets that give you access to a fenced-off area on the east side of the venue. For those unwilling to pay extra dough for access to an “exclusive” section of the Salt Shed that boasts cocktails from Moneygun, you’ll have to settle for the limited views of the river near the porta potties. How serene!
While metal and glass containers are prohibited inside the Salt Shed, you can bring an empty plastic water bottle (I brought a full one without being hassled by security) into the concert and refill it at a station located near the pop-up shops lining the northwest side of the venue. The alternative is paying $5 for a can of water.