Two years ago, Lollapalooza closed out its fourth and final day of the 2019 edition in the shadow of national tragedy and horror, following two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Little did anyone know, it would be two years before fans gathered again in Chicago's Grant Park for the annual music fest, which returned Thursday, again in the shadow of national calamity, as Covid-19 cases continue to soar again nationwide, leading many local residents to question if it's a good idea for the city (which has maintained relatively low case counts recently) to host the fest—which is the largest in-person event taking place since the vaccines became widely available.
Chicago's Mayor Lori Lightfoot welcomed fans (locals and visitors) and introduced the Black Pumas' set on Thursday, showering the band with praise while wearing a Black Pumas shirt. Her presence at the festival comes as the city has considered rolling back some of its Covid policies, as major cities such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta have taken a nod from the CDC's recommendation to reintroduce indoor mask requirements, regardless of vaccination status.
Despite the concerns, festival organizers were likely breathing a sigh of relief on Thursday evening, thanks to a surprisingly large turnout from vaccinated attendees. To enter the grounds this year, either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test is required. According to organizers, about 600 people who showed up at the gates without proper documentation were turned away, while more than 90% of attendees were fully vaccinated and only a tiny 8% entered with a negative test.
Great job, Lollapalooza fans! More than 90% of you showed us your proof of vaccination today! Thanks go out to the 8% who brought their proof of negative COVID-19 tests and for the 600 of you who showed up without paperwork, we hope to see you tomorrow! Photo by @SheaFlynn. pic.twitter.com/v7yWmvUPHH— Lollapalooza (@lollapalooza) July 29, 2021
Michael Rapino, President of Live Nation, which owns Lolla's parent company C3 Presents, responded to the report with satisfaction. "Great to see this," he said on Twitter.
It's certainly good news for those who have been longing for a return to "normal," especially the many who believe the city's residents deserve this kind of reward after enduring brutal lockdowns and intense restrictions, and then quickly stepping in line to get vaccinated. Now as many Southern states and regions in the Western part of the country, where vaccine counts have remained below 50%, see their numbers skyrocket, Chicago is hoping to avoid the same fate.
But while Covid certainly looms large over the four-day fest, anyone walking the grounds would be forgiven for thinking the atmosphere mostly resembles pre-pandemic days. The streets and stage areas on Thursday were packed again. Hardly a mask in sight (despite the festival's request for unvaccinated people to wear one upon entering). Long lines for food and booze. Sure, there were more hand sanitizing stations set up throughout the park, and there were capacity limits for some indoor spaces, such a VIP lounges and the Lolla merch shops. Otherwise, it was back to the good old days!
Of course, no matter the lineup, a global pandemic which has killed over 600,000 people in the United States was likely to overshadow the bevy of performers, which on Thursday included the likes of Playboi Carti, Steve Aoki, Kaytranada, Jimmy Eat World and more. But a number of acts knew fans were eager to be back, because they were excited to back, too.
Kicking off the first day, newcomer Christian French opened with an electric performance of his song "Avalanche," before telling the crowd how stoked he was to be on stage again, noting it was his first live performance since March 2020, just before the world essentially shut down.
Later in the day, Ant Clemons dominated the Bud Light Seltzer stage as he also noted he had only performed live a handful of times since the pandemic. And he thanked the crowd for supporting him.
Aly & AJ opened the T-Mobile stage and wowed with their stunning harmonies, while SAINt JHN delivered a massive, early-evening performance worthy of the main stage.
The main attraction, without question, was Miley Cyrus, who took over the T-Mobile stage with an adoring crowd roaring back and singing along to opener "We Can't Stop." It was an electric, high-energy performance drizzled with a number of guest appearances, from Billy Idol to The Kid LAROI, along with Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa, Chicago rapper G Herbo and Chicago Bulls mascot Benny the Bull.
From the moment she stepped into the lights on Thursday, Cyrus delivered a rockstar performance. She has earned her right to be top-lining one of the biggest festivals in the world, which also happens to be one of the first ones back after global shutdowns.
That honor was not lost on the singer, who took a moment early in the night to thank fans for essentially giving her a career doing what she loves. "I am who I am because of you," she declared, noting how so many artists learned during the pandemic that they owe their success to their fans. She said even her "customized, bedazzled Gucci jumpsuit," which she wore during her set, would not be possible if not for the fans showing up—and in this case, in real life, instead of "through a screen."
When she performed her song "SMS (Bangerz)," which features Britney Spears on the original, a graphic appeared on the screen with open handcuffs and the words "Free Britney," drawing incredible cheers from the excited crowd.
Overall, it felt like a big moment. Not only because it seemed like a fitting benchmark for Cyrus, but because she seemed to reflect so many of the emotions likely felt by many in attendance at the festival, having made it through the last year and a half, and still facing so much uncertainty.