"If you were going to launch a new Taste of Chicago, who would you launch it with?"
That was Mayor Rahm Emanuel's question to the crowd at Grant Park's Petrillo Music Shell Wednesday as he kicked off the Taste concert series by introducing Englewood's own Jennifer Hudson.
New Taste? Chicago is charging for up-front seats at the Taste concerts this year. On Wednesday night, the seats on the apron in front of the stage were set up just as they were in previous years -- they just cost $25 now.
For the kickoff concert featuring Hudson, the newly ticketed seats (3,000 capacity) looked to be about 65-75 percent filled. The 33,000-capacity lawn, which is still free, also was just more than half full.
"We just came by to check it out," said Dale Mack, of Englewood, as he hung on the low fence separating the paid fans from the free fans like himself. "I mean, I'm a [Hudson] fan, just maybe not a $25 fan, you know what I'm saying? Not tonight, anyway."
For the up-close price, Hudson's performance was a bargain. Exuding steely confidence and projecting her world-class voice across the park and the nearby lake, Hudson opened her pop-oriented concert with Chaka Khan bravado and Pointer Sister sass, pumping her fist to the rock beat of "Night of Your Life," the track she sang for French DJ David Guetta.
After showcasing every dynamic of her vocal instrument over the course of "Where You At," Hudson took time to say hello to a lot of friends and family in the audience. "I'm so damn glad to be home," she said.
The "new" Taste -- charging for the concerts, five days long instead of the previous 10 -- is part of a new City Council plan to cut costs and trim annual losses sustained by the city's summer festivals.
Advance online ticket sales for this year's Taste concerts closed at midnight Monday with about half of the tickets sold.
Remaining general-admission seats are available through Sunday at a ticket booth at Jackson and Columbus, open from noon to 7 p.m.
Other Petrillo concerts during Taste this week include Death Cab for Cutie (Thursday), Michael Franti (Friday), Chaka Khan (Saturday) and Dierks Bentley (Sunday). A second music stage, at Columbus and Balbo, features local talent each day, too, for free.
For more information and complete schedules, call (312) 744-3316 or visit tasteofchicago.us.