There is no better barometer for the health of the music industry than live shows. Once the largest concert promoters in America — Live Nation and AEG — suspended all tours on March 12, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the music industry was unofficially shut down. For millions of fans, that meant no Coachella, Bonnaroo, Summer Jam, Astroworld Festival, Governor’s Ball, or any of the dozens of music festivals that allow them to see the biggest artists all in one place for the price of a few tour tickets. For all intents and purposes, the return of the music festival signals the return of the music industry, so CassiusLife traveled to Chicago for Lyrical Lemonade’s Summer Smash, one of the first American music festivals since the start of the pandemic, to see how much has changed in 18 months.
Before a single drunken teenage foot stomped across the Douglass Park grounds for Summer Smash, it was clear music festivals were not going to look exactly how they did pre-pandemic. In accordance with the City of Chicago, organizers mandated either full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the first-day attendees will be at the festival. Pre-pandemic, festivals were using their Instagram feeds solely for the promotion and recapping the FOMO-inducing moments. In this new pandemic reality, the Instagram account for Summer Smash was recommending nearby COVID testing sites as well as offering their own at the festival grounds days before the festival on the same Instagram feed as photos of A$AP Rocky holding up bras rained on him from adoring fans during his headlining set on the first day of the festival. The festival went as far as recommending masks, with organizers stating staff would encourage patrons to wear masks, something I must’ve missed in the sea full of unmasked teenagers huddled together risking limbs to turn up to Ski Mask The Slump God.
That last caveat underscored a prevailing sentiment that permeated the entire festival: nothing was going to stop attendees from enjoying this festival as they did before the pandemic. From the second the festival opened to ticket-holders, people immediately ran across the grass to the stage they were planning on parking themselves for the day in anticipation of the main acts. The Lyrical Lemonade main stage attracted the most diehard fans, with Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, A$AP Rocky, Latto, Baby Keem, and Yung Baby Tate all taking that stage over the three-day festival.
CassiusLife spoke with a 23-year-old festival-goer named Demetris, who claimed to frequently attend festivals and said he felt “caged in at home” in 2020, calling the festival grounds his “home away from home.” Before Summer Smash, he said he attended two days of Lollapalooza and was able to socially distance himself from the deluge of festivalgoers by not fighting to be in the front of the crowd. That assertion immediately came into question as he spoke with me maskless near the front of the Lyrical Lemonade stage and would later be seen bouncing around with other maskless patrons. He said he was vaccinated with Moderna, while his friend next to him said he was vaccinated with Pfizer and kept his mask on hand. When asked why he wasn’t wearing his mask while in close proximity to other festivalgoers, his answer is a microcosm of the prevailing sentiment throughout the festival: “Why am I not wearing my mask? To be quite honest with you, it’s because I’m 22 and I’m a wild boy. I do wild things.”
Besides fans being singularly focused on enjoying live performances they waited nearly two years to see, you could tell artists were anxious to get back on stage and make up for the lost time. A$AP Rocky’s last festival performance before the pandemic was Camp Flog Gnaw in November 2019, making it more than 18 months since he rocked in front of a gathering of disparate artist fanbases. In addition to sending the crowd into a frenzy with classics like “Praise Da Lord (Da Shine),” but he largely performed unreleased songs to mixed reviews. Some were visibly less enthused by the new music, presumably because they spent an entire year waiting to finally see their favorites performed. But, there were a wide variety of others that could be heard jubilantly psyched to hear the new music, as if it was a sort of indication that we were in a new normal.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the festival was how amped up the early acts were all three days. A typical rule of thumb for a music festival is if the sun is out, the stars aren’t. But, when 18-year-old Los Angeles-bred rapper Broke Boii commandeered the Lenny’s Tent Stage around 2:10 on the festival’s final day performing tracks from his Gnarly EP, you would’ve thought he was a headliner the way he had the crowd on a string. Chicago native OG Stevo from the first day was another standout. When he started handing out T-shirts to the crowd before sending them into a frenzy with his song “Hits,” mayhem ensued, and all of the people with pent-up turn up in their bodies buoyed them over the VIP barricade and turned a modest crowd turnout into a full-fledge moshpit. Stevo told CassiusLife this was the biggest performance of his young career, and to prepare, he stopped by local Chicago dispensary Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary in the River North section of Chicago to ensure his mind and body was right to give the performance of a lifetime, as part of an upcoming video series called Rapper Weed from Little Engine Media.
Lyrical Lemonade understood how long fans had been waiting to see live performances and didn’t slack on pulling out all of the stops. In the early evening of the festival’s final day, as the sun was setting, fans were greeted with a surprise performance from Chicago legends Lil Durk on Chance the Rapper. Sheck Wes detonated the festival grounds with a sonic boom surprise performance of “Mo Bamba” during Zack Bia’s DJ set, a welcomed surprise given the fact it was after an hour rain delay which caused festival-goers to begrudgingly leave the festival grounds and find shelter wherever they could. But, out of all the performances, Summer Smash belonged to one artist: Lil Baby.
Kicking off his Back Outside tour with his headlining performance on Summer Smash’s second day, Quality Control’s king of the charts put on more than a show; he put on a mini-movie. Starting his performance from atop an air mattress, Baby would go on to perform “Drip Too Hard” while being pushed around on a clothing rack and then performing “On Me” on a throne in back to back to back songs. His performance told the story of a young rapper who went from humble beginnings to seeing the flashy clothes as success to finally becoming the hottest rapper in the game and arguably the king of the new generation of rappers.
In the end, Lyrical Lemonade’s Summer Smash showed, pandemic or not, the show must go on, and it has to be lit.
Relive the entire festival in the gallery below: