Aly & AJ
Festivals

My First Fest Back: Orville Peck, Aly & AJ, Journey & More Discuss Lollapalooza's Risks and Rewards

"We really wanted to set a precedent that we could do this responsibly and safely -- hopefully," says Orville Peck.

For the first time in 15 months, live music is returning nationwide after the global coronavirus pandemic ravaged the industry. Billboard’s “My First Fest Back” is a spin-off series off “My First Show Back,” dedicated to sharing stories from the return of Lollapalooza for its 30th anniversary -- the first large-scale festival, bringing in 100,000 attendees each of its four days, to come back. 

In this installment, Lollapalooza performers Orville Peck, Aly & AJ, Journey’s Jonathan Cain, Angels & Airwaves' Tom DeLonge and Tai Verdes recall how they felt the night before, during and after their respective sets. They discuss pre-show nerves, safety measures upon arrival -- citing the festival's various COVID-19 precautions even as the Delta variant becomes a greater threat -- and above all else, the responsibility they felt to bring live music back right. As Peck puts it: "We really wanted to set a precedent that we could do this responsibly and safely -- hopefully." (Their comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

ORVILLE PECK

There’s nothing more unifying than a pandemic, so there’s a lot of perspective change: realizing what you had and missing what you lost. And so getting to walk back out onto a festival stage and getting to see a huge crowd of people who are going through the same thing … There's something really special about seeing everybody come back together for probably what is people’s first festival back from this, especially a big one like this.

A festival is really exciting, because maybe half or more of the people watching me haven’t even heard of me, or maybe they’re just seeing me for the first time, or they’re new fans. I love a challenge, I love to win people over. I’m singing to the person walking away.

Personally, I hate livestreams. No one loves them, but honestly I just think so much of my performance is about connecting with the audience and feeding off of their energy, and making it an experience that we’re all involved in. So the livestream thing is just totally counterintuitive to that -- because there’s, of course, no audience. I find that very difficult. So preparing for a livestream was easy and disappointing, and then preparing for a festival I was psyched. I was excited to get out there and sing to people and have them kind of sing back at me. There’s nothing like it.

I think we’ve all just missed [live music] so much. I’ll speak for myself, I never realized how important live music was to me -- and I’m saying that as a musician and someone who does this for a living. Once that was taken away, I really realized how crucial it is to my mental well being and my emotional well being. It’s a little scary, a little nerve-wracking, but I think that all of those things feel that way because it’s so important culturally to all of our psyches as fans of music to be able to do this as safely as we can -- and hopefully as responsibly as we can.

I had an entire year’s worth of shows and festivals lined up before the pandemic hit, and honestly I’m just a road dog; I love to be on tour, I love to perform. It was really nice to have a moment to write and spend time with myself, which I’ve never really done before, but you know, I think all of us felt that until eventually you feel the ache to go back and play. So when we got the OK from whomever about vaccines and masks, we as a team on my end really spent a long time figuring out what our protocol was for COVID, and making sure the band and crew is all tested every week and we’re vaccinated and wearing masks in common areas.

We’re being ultra, ultra safe -- because we want to be a good example to other bands and musicians who maybe haven’t gone out yet, and we wanted to hopefully come back from this tour and say, “Look, we did this responsibly and it can be done responsibly.” I mean, the truth is, like everyone, we’re kind of just making it up as we go along. We’re about two weeks into our tour and everyone is still negative, and we’ve had lovely shows and haven’t heard about any spread. I hope and pray it’s all good.

That’s the responsibility we really felt, because we were one of the first bands to go back on the road, and we would’ve hated to have to then cancel that tour because we all got COVID. It would be an awful precedent to set. We really wanted to set a precedent that we could do this responsibly and safely -- hopefully. It’s not over yet.

ALY & AJ

AJ: We promised each other in our early teens that we wouldn’t go [to a festival] until we played, [and now] I just turned 30 and they’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of this festival. It felt like we were really supposed to be there. Like, I looked over at Aly and just got instant chills -- and looked out at the fans and was like, "This is right where we belong." It’s crazy to be on that kind of stage with that kind of group of people, because you literally can’t see the end. I mean at one point, there’s a photo I have where there’s human beings all the way across [the field]. It’s wild.

ALY: I felt like I had done this before? But obviously this was our first time [attending and performing at a festival]. The last official show were the two tiny shows we did out in New York at Baby’s All Right and Bowery. We’ve done a couple shows at colleges since things started to open up, but it was different. It definitely felt different than where we’re at now, just in terms of people actually being able to enjoy themselves and people being vaccinated.

We felt good I think because we knew that there was so much protocol being put into it. And then when we showed up, we noticed like, "Oh wow, security is really intense and you can’t really get anywhere without proper credentials and you are asked to be wearing a mask if you’re in a close space." So I think they’ve done the best that they can do for this given moment, and it’s just a matter of letting people feel like they’re being taken care of and that there’s a responsibility to keep your community safe -- but also wanting to enjoy live music again. It’s hard because it’s not perfect, but our world isn’t perfect.

It was really great how AJ got the crowd clapping along on “Lost Cause,” and the opening of “Break Yourself” felt really great. Those songs really flow really well into one another, they’re kind of perfectly placed in the set. And then obviously I’ll remember us closing it out with “Potential Breakup Song,” and just how wild the crowd was. Especially because that’s the first time we played [the explicit version of] that song.

At the end of the day, we just hope people walked away and listened to our set being interested in the music that we’re making -- and maybe they go check us out on Spotify, come to a show of ours here in Chicago, or if they flew in wherever they’re from. But we got everything we wanted out of it and more.  I just hope that the fans walk away feeling really filled up in terms of hope and energy and good vibes, all those things that you walk away with after you see a great show.

AJ: I agree with Aly, we kind of accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish here. I’ll truly never forget sharing that stage with [her], that was so cool as sisters to have that moment together. I’ll never forget it.

JOURNEY'S JONATHAN CAIN

After being off for COVID for so many months, you start to wonder if this [performing] is ever coming back. I got a little verklempt just driving in and looking at all the trucks, because, the new normal -- what is it? God has always had His hand on this band, and Chicago’s always been a huge Journey stronghold.

[Returning to the stage recently] was crazy, and spiritual, certainly a spiritual experience. It was more than another show, because people were so invested in it. They were missing it, and now just drinking it in. When they were singing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” they were loud. They wanted their life back. We wrote the song “The Way We Used to Be,” and I told the crowd, “Everyone’s thinking about the new normal -- we just want to get back to the way we used to be.” During COVID, as a songwriter, I have to notice things and read about people being separated, couples and old people and everyone, and it’s just heartbreaking stories. How do we navigate through this? Music is a great healing thing.

[When it comes to] the scare of the superspreader? I think life goes on. Honestly, I’m concerned about next year. I don’t know what that’s going to look like across the States, specially with the power of local governments, so it’s uncertain. But with Journey, we’re certain music for uncertain times. I think that’s why we’re here, because of a song like “Don’t Stop Believin’..." We’re getting our purpose back. When you’re an entertainer and your purpose is taken away, it can ruin you. But right here, this is where I belong.

ANGELS & AIRWAVES' TOM DELONGE

We were really excited [the night before our set]. I think there were some nerves just because the tour industry isn’t up and running yet -- the business part of it, or the logistics part of it. Once you’re on tour, you kind of have everything down where it’s working like a well-oiled machine, but to show up and do a really big show just as a one-off is always nerve-wracking because you want to make sure all the production stuff is on point. But once you get on stage, it feels like riding a bike -- you know how to do it.

It’s funny, you walk out there and it almost feels like nothing ever happened -- like we’re all going to erase the past year-and-a-half from our minds and never revisit that memory again. It’s funny to know that you can’t even stand within six feet of people, and then all of a sudden there are [hundreds of] thousands grinding against each other and sweating, just so gnarly to look at it with that lens. It kind of felt like everything was just happening as usual, but I’ll tell ya, everything felt a bit more alive. You feel more emotion in the people, you feel more emotion in the songs, it’s more of a celebration that people are coming back together. So I definitely felt that walking out.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the festival for a long period of time -- and when I got there I was kind of hiding out. I didn’t really socialize much, but seeing the environment backstage where all the bands are hanging out and all that, that I think is really cool. It’s one of the greater things about festivals, the socialization between artists, and Lollapalooza does a really good job at creating an environment for the industry and bands backstage. So I think with that in mind, it was cool to see that again. It’s communal, and I think everyone was happy to be there.

The cool thing about a festival is that it’s almost like a talent show. Everybody gets a little period of time to go up there and try to win over the crowd, and so bands tend to perform differently, they tend to choose their songs differently, and they tend to need to work harder because any crowd that is that big, is not all fans of yours, ever. Even if you’re a big band. So you have to do something to make it worth the while for people out there to like you or notice you or whatever. So I think with that in mind, you get a lot out of [festivals] as an artist and as a fan in an environment like that.

It almost feels like we didn’t take a break, but there’s something happening energetically where you feel like people are just a little bit happier than usual. There’s nothing quite like really loud music that just completely immerses you into a vibration, so I think it’s about time to do this in many more places than Chicago.

There wasn’t some crazy decision that we have to be at this [festival] -- it was just like, none of them were happening. We would play in your basement if you would let us. If you had us at a taco shop and called it a festival, we wouldn’t know the difference, we’re in.

TAI VERDES

Walking out on stage and seeing how many people were there to support me was motherf--king mind blowing. I have a song called “Real World” with no chorus -- it’s just a rant with some melodies, and I saw some people in the front row yelling every word. That’s the type of s--t that you can’t buy.

My artist project was born in the era of performing to screens. I got pretty good at making faces at my computer. But nothing replaces screaming with other human beings. At points of my set, I didn’t even sing parts of my own songs because the crowd knew all the words and I was just in awe.

Before L.A., I lived in Chicago for six years, so to have my first performance ever be in front of 20,000 people in this city was an amazing experience I’ll never be able to do again. You bet your mother f--kin' ass I’m saving this Lolla wristband!