The sun was beating down on Douglas Park, it was a thick day in Chicago's west side. Cole Bennett had turned out a real blockbuster for opening day of Summer Smash, the festival collaboration between SPKRBX and Bennett's own Lyrical Lemonade. The line of bare skinned youth snaked around the corner for a good quarter mile.
There was something in the air in 2021. One year removed from the onset of the pandemic, there was an energy building in solitude and isolation. Once the floodgates were opened there were those who leapt back into normalcy with reckless abandoned. But all of us were itching to experience what was once so familiar.
As the line finally approached the security manning the opening gate there was this sense of unease that crept in me, a familiar anxiety before entering past events. Will my ticket load? (a very modern concern) Will they accept my Covid test? (another one that dates this) Will my wax pen be considered contraband in a recreational state or should I throw it in my sock?
Studying the looks of the security I could make out the apathy in their motions, the heat can do that to you. Faces read with discontent, but despite this body language, festival goers were pulled out line for further examination.
Safety first, of course, but the fruits of their labor were often vapes and bags of shake. It was a roll of the dice of which line you chose. While one wont bother to check your backpack, the line next to it will tell you can't take your film camera inside park grounds.
It was a struggle. I had lost a fresh cart of THC oil to the bottom of a garbage can at the hands of security, at an event with vendors of the same trade no less, but I was in. The gates opened up to a sea of human excitement atop the greens of Douglas Park. Two stages drew the center of gravity, and I took in the colorful sight as we were all in its orbit.
It took just an evening for the VIP package to be rendered completely useless. The VIP section was closest to the stage, with a waist high steel barrier bordering general admission to its rear flank. All that stopped you from gaining a first class view was a small hop, so with no security in sight we all naturally threw our legs over the small obstacle. This gated off area soon became overcrowded with our backs pressed to the barriers, and we were mostly to blame. By the second day there was no VIP section.
On the second night a part of the crowd laid siege to the bar like an Assyrian war party, storming the barricade and harassing the outnumbered bartenders. Although no injury or theft was reported, alcohol was banned (or just slightly limited apparently) on the third day.
The bottled up pressure of a year of quarantine was being uncorked. The fights were plentiful, and also glorious in both their chaos and pointlessness. There was a trash can being crowd surfed, and on its descent back to Earth it struck one festival goer. The collateral damage this sparked would make sense to anyone familiar with the Malice at the Palace, as a melee soon erupted between unrelated parties pulled into the fray. It flared out like fire spreading to a neighbor's home before the White Claw-fueled tempers eventually simmered down.
Through the reckless attempts of generation Z trying their best to recreate Woodstock '99, the three days of Summer Smash was bolstered with an eclectic mix of talented artists ranging from the echoes of the underground to the heights of the Hip Hop mountain.
The first night was headlined by A$AP Rocky with his set treating the crowd with a healthy serving of unreleased tracks. The bras that he collects on stage and adorns his microphone with like medals are no myth, mind you.
The Lenny Tent, named for the Gumby-like character hidden as easter eggs in Cole Bennett's videos, offered a more intimate stage for artists that may go under the radar for the common day passer. From the emerging BKtheRula to the reclusive wizardry of seeing Pi'erre Bourne in the flesh. The smallest of the three stages offered the most close-knit vibe of the festival, with fans perched up in the steel beams holding it together. If you were there, you chose to be there over whoever was at the main stages. It felt cooler. It all felt within reach.
The thought of the surprise performer hung in the air in excitement when Cole Bennett teased them as a Chicago native. Maybe I was a bit foolish in hoping for Chief Keef or Kanye West, fuck it, bring in Fall Out Boy lets make it a party (pre-hiatus albums only). When Cole Bennett took to the stage he announced Lil Durk to a massive reception. I rather chose to venture to the Lenny Tent and see Pi'erre Bourne perform The Life of Pi'erre 5 instead, and also missed the second Chicago surprise in Chance The Rapper. Fair tradeoff.
The second day kept the energy rolling with a mix of Ski Mask, Earl Sweatshirt, Baby Keem, with Lil Baby closing the night.
But on the other side of production the reservoir was all dried up, quite literally. The water that supplied both handwashing and drinking stations had ceased to flow. Ah well, off to the vendors. The price of a single bottle of water truly had me questioning if supporting local business was worth it.
By the third day you began to feel like a salty recruit who had spent a few months in the field. You are a seasoned veteran to what the day will hold. You dress thin, pack light (fanny packs are critical to avoiding pick pockets), and when you are in the mosh pit remember De Niro's words, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."
Although it was three months before the tragedy that befell the young lives at Astroworld, always present was this impending doom about plunging into the sea of 30,000 people, especially with inconsistent management meeting reckless youth becoming a theme of the weekend so far.
Lil Uzi Vert was to headline the third and final day. For myself it was a marquee moment to experience the Lil Uzi aura in person. My brother and I made our way closer to the stage before the crowd could fully gather. The lights were off and the LED screens were blank, the air smoky with pyro of previous sets. There was an energy brewing in the air. The anticipation of Uzi's arrival was palpable.
As he finally burst onto stage in an impassioned sprint, the levee burst as we all erupted. He opened with an unreleased song which by 2023 has still yet to grace our ears. I drank in that moment beneath the star-lit Chicago sky, my vision of Uzi commanding the stage in a pink hue being swallowed by limbs and faces, I was beginning to feel the heat. The human walls were closing in on a scene so beautiful. It was that one unreleased song before my brother and I made for safer passage.
It was a long retreat, for you were stuck with sweat shoulder to shoulder with your fellow man like canned sardines. At some points you had to surrender to the standstill, hoping no massive wave of motion or push would topple this very fragile collective balance. My entry wristband miraculously became stuck in another man's backpack zipper with neither of us being able to reach it. In a moment of battlefield comradery, another stranger and my brother worked under phone light to free us our our bind. With a fine mix of brute force and finesse, we made our way to a stretch of crowd where we could breathe and fully absorb the captivating stage presence of Lil Uzi Vert as he ran through the different eras of his discography. He weaved through Eternal Atake while also dabbling into SoundCloud classics like "WDYW".
Running an instrumental mixed in 2015 through stage speakers is based.
You would always find people making their way back from the pits drenched in sweat with a thousand yard look in their eyes. Like soldiers being shuffled off from the front lines these rabid souls would make their way to the back of the crowd in shellshock. I had now become one of them. It was a unique form of ecstasy.
The inherent draw of a music festival lies in its wide cast of artists. One may come for Lil Yachty and Gunna but discover a taste for Griselda Records during their stay. That is what the Summer Smash experience does best. Cole Bennett and Lyrical Lemonade has curated an eclectic mix of performers that pierce through mainstream with more edge than your Rolling Louds or Lollapaloozas. Although, this more independent-minded approach bled into some management and logistical issues. It was a ripe moment for the reckless youth to pounce. But if I were to run back the festival experience again for one more tour on the battlefield, I'm going to Summer Smash.