Like many fans, the pandemic left me with a stack of canceled tickets — some rescheduled again and again. Each lost show was more than a hole in our social calendars. Our friends and heroes had their livelihoods cut off. We missed out on the concert rituals we love so much. Despite efforts like Save Our Stages, COVID permanently shuttered some incredible venues around the globe.
We all want to be back out there yesterday, but there’s still debate about how to safely bringing musicians, crews, fans and venue workers together.
In the past weeks, I have made it to Riot Fest, the Pitchfork Music Festival, an amphitheater show and one small club here in Chicago. I had to present my vaccination card at all of the events. A negative COVID test from the past 24 hours also would have worked. Mask wearing and social distancing were intermittent at best. Throughout, it was hard not to wonder, “Is this a good idea yet?” I am grateful none of these concerts lead to large outbreaks.
Let’s be honest. The nervousness isn’t going away, especially with colder weather making outdoor shows less possible in many places. I can’t fault anybody — fans or musicians — who aren’t ready yet. Across all these events, the joy of live music outweighed the second-guessing for me. But being back around large crowds is a process.
The Flaming Lips are a touchstone band for me. I have seen them more than half a dozen times. More often than not, they’ve been transcendent. On Sunday night of Riot Fest, the Lips put on an uncharacteristically shaky show. Sound issues hit them early. I don’t think it was purely rust. Ringmaster Wayne Coyne was uncomfortable from the moment he took the stage, switching in and out of his giant inflatable bubbles five times in a 45-minute set.
To be fair, the Lips were added to the lineup at the last minute. Riot Fest’s promoters overcame many cancelations: NIN, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Mr. Bungle, Faith No More. Canadian punk band F*cked Up was turned away at the border and couldn’t play. Still, the show went on — with standout sets from Run the Jewels, Devo and Smashing Pumpkins. Many acts were on their second or third show back and were extra loose.
I imagine when the Pumpkins are in full arena monster mode, they are a bit more dialed in, but I liked this more relaxed feel. In front of a hometown crowd, Billy Corgan seemed genuinely happy (a first?) to be back in front of an audience. As they rolled through the hits, you could feel the entire crowded field let go of our tension. This was what we had been missing; rats finally let out of our cages.
My favorite moment of the Riot Fest came from a mid-afternoon performance from the reunited Brooklyn spazz heroes Les Savy Fav. Frontman Tim Harrington went full gonzo, out-punking every other act at a punk festival. One part performance artist, one part Chris Farley, Tim threw himself into the crowd time and time again with an impossibly long mic cord. As the band ripped through “Patty Lee,” “The Sweat Descends,” and “Let’s Get Out of Here,” I saw him lose all his clothes, crowd surf on a folding table, and perform several unspeakable acts that made everyone howl for more. It was sweaty, insane and cathartic.
That collective release was present at many of the shows I saw, even if the energy was different. In August, I scored a last-minute ticket to see Sleater-Kinney and Wilco on the final night of their co-tour. It was at Pritzker Pavilion, a flowing, post-modern bandshell designed by Frank Gehry in the heart of downtown Chicago. Lounging on the lawn with the wine-and-cheese crowd was a distinct vibe from the dusty, beer-drenched pit with LSF. But everyone was still gleeful to be out together. With a new backing band, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein dug into the excellent record Path to Wellness they wrote while stuck at home last year.
Like the Pumpkins, Jeff Tweedy and team made the most of their home-field advantage. No matter how many times I hear Nels Cline take a solo on “Via Chicago” or “Impossible Germany,” it devastates me. Looking around, I could see others relieving memories of long-gone shows, mixtapes and friends, each of us conjuring up our own private ghosts.
Even standing in a beer line felt special. Tucker and Brownstein joined Wilco for an ecstatic take on Summerteeth’s “A Shot in the Arm,” reborn with new meaning as this tour’s theme song. Like many performers I saw, you could feel gratitude radiating off both acts. They profusely thanked the crew for making it possible.
I went with my brother to see White Reaper do a late-night Lollapalooza aftershow at a small club. WP was fantastic. Their punk Thin Lizzy energy ripped the house down. The opener that night? An unknown metal band OTTTO. The bass player is Tye Trujillo, son of Metallica’s Robert. Tye is a rail-thin teen with massive hair, who genuinely rips with tons of classic metal moves. That night, elder Trujillo knelt just off the tiny stage like a dad coaching soccer.
Now you could scoff, but pride absolutely poured off Robert. He should be playing to a gigantic crowd of 100 thousand Brazilians. But here is a millionaire rockstar, thrashing along to his son in a 400 person dive — doing everything to show his support short of handing out orange slices. As Robert helped wind cables after, he was clearly back in his happy place.
One of my happy places is a dusty baseball diamond in Union Park on the edge of Chicago’s West Loop. I’ve been there for the Pitchfork Music Festival nearly every summer since I moved here 16 years ago. For my money, it’s the best-run fest anywhere with consistently compelling lineups. Their bookers have pushed hard to bring female and POC artists to the top of their bills in the last few years.
This year, the early September weather did a good impression of July. There were too many great sets to count. My “new to me” discovery was Philly’s Hop Along, who lived up to their name with a bouncy Friday afternoon set. The Fiery Furnaces were also fantastic, playing an overdue reunion. Siblings Elenor and Matthew Friedberger were as weird and commanding as ever. Durning “Single Again,” I wanted to shake spacy Gen-Z teens and tell them that this is how you do it.
Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee kicked up little dust devils in the field as she played “Lilacs” from last year’s Saint Cloud. It felt so good to feel the bass kick me in the sternum during Ty Segall’s wooly psych stomps. After two years off the road, rapper Danny Brown ran out of rhymes he could remember — no one minded because he’s that damn delightful. Cat Power can be a famously reluctant performer, but she sounded strong and thrilled to be back. It was touching as Chan spoke about taking care of each other at the end of the night.
Angel Olson was sensational Saturday night, especially for her encore when Sharon Van Etten joined her for their duet “Like I Used To.” It’s easily my song of the year, and this performance was an all-time great Pitchfork moment for me.
Speaking of all-time greats, it’s hard not to think of Annie Clark in her own class. In her latest guise for Daddy’s Home, Clark is all borrowed ’70s lounge sleaze. (St. Vincent is the patron of thrift stores).
I enjoyed the LP, but everything clicked on a different level live with a truly funky band and background singers. Her performance was layer upon layer: theater, irony, musicianship and personal biography. Vamping as one of Cassavetes’ women under the influence, she pretends to fall apart and then toss off jaw-dropping guitar solos. People point to Bowie, but during her headline set, I thought of Midnight Vultures-era Beck, another chameleon and mix-up artist. For this tour, Clark recruited guitarist Jason Falkner and bass player Justin Meldal-Johnsen, two longtime Beck collaborators and successful LA producers in their own rights. During bows at the end of the night, it felt like a triumph just by all of us being together again.
St. Vincent’s particular genius for performance gives me hope that we are going to get back to normal one day. But it also reminds me we need to keep fighting for concerts. No live stream will ever replace being there — feeling the physical vibrations and being part of something bigger than ourselves. Yes, the last two years have been exhausting, but getting a taste for shows again makes me really not want to be complacent. Musicians need our support now as much as we need them; not to mention all the many others who tirelessly work behind the scenes. We owe it to them to find a way to make touring safe everywhere for artists big and small.
Here’s hoping I see you in the pit soon.