For as long as Bruce Finkelman can remember, the Morton Salt factory has set his heart racing.

It’s not that he gets salt cravings any worse than the next guy. Rather, he remembers that when he was 12 years old, in the car with his parents on the Kennedy, the sight of the umbrella-toting girl painted on the Morton factory’s massive roof was the surest sign they were heading downtown—and that was where the action was. Finkelman is now cofounder and managing partner of 16” on Center, the hospitality group behind the Empty Bottle, Longman & Eagle, Thalia Hall, Beauty Bar, the Promontory, and other establishments, and he still feels the same way about the Morton building.

“On my daily journey between Longman, Empty Bottle, and Thalia Hall, I might go past it two or three times a night,” Finkelman says. His partner at 16” on Center, cofounder Craig Golden, took an interest too. “It started to be a conversation between Craig and myself—like, ‘OK, passing by Morton Salt.’ We wondered what was in there, which turned into wondering if we could do a show or festival there.”

That curiosity culminated in this week’s soft opening of the Salt Shed (1357 N. Elston), which just became Chicago’s largest independent venue. R2, the real estate firm redeveloping much of the Elston industrial corridor, announced that it would repurpose the former factory in 2018, at which point 16” on Center reached out to float the idea of turning it into a venue. The 4.2-acre Salt Shed complex can accommodate some 4,000 concertgoers on its outdoor grounds alone, with that number likely increasing significantly once the Shed is complete in early 2023. The Morton factory will be retrofitted into an indoor venue and retail space, but a 16” on Center representative declined to provide an estimate for indoor capacity, citing ongoing talks with city government.

“Being an independent venue isn’t about the size or capacity. It’s about what it means to be a good neighbor,” says Nick Heineman, executive director of the Chicago Independent Venue League. The Salt Shed just became the newest of the 60-plus member venues whose interests CIVL represents. “What the Salt Shed knows, as well as us, is that these independent venues provide thousands of jobs in the city,” Heineman adds. “And that impact is immeasurable.”

Makaya McCraven behind his drum kit, vividly lit in purple and gold, sticks in motion
Makaya McCraven onstage at the Salt Shed Credit: Chris Mariano for Chicago Reader

On August 2, about 2,400 music fans, roughly half of them invited guests of 16” on Center and CIVL, descended on the tranquil riverside stretch of Elston Avenue where the Salt Shed stands. Drummer Makaya McCraven headlined, leading the same hometown band that appears on his 2021 album Deciphering the Message. Opening for McCraven were London-based saxophonist Nubya Garcia (with special guest Akenya) and groove-driven quartet Sons of Kemet, led by British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, in their final Chicago performance.

Booking McCraven was a pointed choice. “The idea of having someone who has played for us before and grown with us for the first concert was really important,” Finkelman says. “I think it really makes a lot of sense to nod to Chicago’s long-standing jazz background and history.”

Attendance was capped below capacity, but $1 from every general-admission ticket went to CIVL’s ongoing advocacy and programming initiatives—including the impending launch of CIVL Charity, Inc., the organization’s staff- and venue-support arm. Future concerts will support both CIVL and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The Salt Shed crowd, at a little more than half capacity
The Salt Shed crowd, at a little more than half capacity Credit: Chris Mariano for Chicago Reader

Unlike a certain downtown megafestival run by C3 Presents and Live Nation, the Salt Shed’s outdoor shows don’t have to compete with much noise pollution. The rush and roar of traffic from the Kennedy is largely absorbed by the Morton factory building, which stands between the highway and the stage, and the grounds aren’t on the route of most air traffic. This prime spot has helped the Salt Shed develop nearly ideal acoustics for an outdoor venue: the output of its speaker system carries so well that artists commenting on mike between tunes were clearly audible from the gates of the grounds, but the overall volume could still be low enough for front-row fans to listen comfortably. 

The Salt Shed site from the air. The outdoor stage area can be seen between the Morton Salt building and the river.
The Salt Shed site from the air. The outdoor stage area can be seen between the Morton Salt building and the river. Credit: Chris Mariano for Chicago Reader

Heineman spoke briefly to the crowd, calling Chicago the “best independent venue city in the world.” The Salt Shed represents a new milestone for that already thriving live-music scene. By any metric, its opening festivities went impressively smoothly for a venue of its size. Because the grounds could hold almost twice as many people as were admitted, fans could wander around with mostly minimal crowding. Even its most cramped sections—such as the brick booths hosting local vendors, among them Semicolon Bookstore, Record Breakers, and Tiny Opal Vintage—were mostly manageable. (Finkelman says the booths will cycle through vendors, with relatively permanent tenants taking up residence in the to-be-completed retail space inside.) Once night fell, lights installed on the old Morton factory’s rusted steel frames dappled the fairgrounds with an entrancing blue and amber glow.  

Customers browse a vendor's wares in a temporary tent lit up brilliantly in fuchsia
Some of the pop-up vendors at the Salt Shed Credit: Chris Mariano for Chicago Reader
A handful of people sit or stand against a long, low building colorfully dappled with fuchsia, purple, and gold light
The low limit on capacity for the Salt Shed’s opening night left plenty of room for people to spread out if they wanted. Credit: Chris Mariano for Chicago Reader

The Salt Shed has a couple kinks to work out for subsequent shows, but only a couple. On August 2, food didn’t flow nearly as freely as drink; vendors Cafe Tola and Pizza Friendly Pizza visibly strained to accommodate demand, and the latter ran out of food halfway through the night. For the time being, the washrooms are no-frills, which is to say zero frills: until the indoor complex is complete, guests must use the 50 or so portable toilets in the northeastern corner of the grounds. And despite the excellent acoustics of the location, the mix wasn’t perfect—low-register instruments often sounded muted, a flaw that became especially apparent during solos by Nubya Garcia’s bassist, Daniel Casimir, and by tubist Theon Cross from Sons of Kemet. 

Nubya Garcia and her band, including bassist Daniel Casimir
Nubya Garcia and her band, including bassist Daniel Casimir Credit: Chris Mariano for Chicago Reader

Then again, the folks at 16” on Center seem convinced that this summer’s shows are just the Salt Shed’s baby steps. The outdoor space has longer-term projects in the pipeline, and Finkelman also teases an on-site brewery, with more details to come in September. He hopes the grounds can serve as a multipurpose park space on off nights, and he has his own laundry list of what he wants to improve after Salt Shed’s August 2 opening.

Shabaka Hutchings plays tenor saxophone and Theon Cross plays tuba, both in profile against a brightly light late-afternoon sky
Shabaka Hutchings and Theon Cross of Sons of Kemet Credit: Chris Mariano for Chicago Reader

“We want the lines to be shorter,” he says. “We want to make sure vendors have enough product to go all night long. We want to make sure that we’re giving enough instructions to people about where to go and where the bathrooms are.” 

The Salt Shed has the rest of the summer to refine its process for crowds of different sizes. Wednesday night’s Fleet Foxes concert was sold out, and at publication time so were Andrew Bird and Iron & Wine (August 12), Lake Street Dive (August 13), Lord Huron (August 15), and the second show by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (September 22 and 23). The Salt Shed will likely see similar crowds for future major acts such as Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, and Julien Baker (August 10); Courtney Barnett (August 16); and Death Cab for Cutie (September 24).

“Hopefully, all our favorite artists—and favorite new artists—will come into this space and enjoy it for the rest of our lifetimes,” Heineman says.