Live music is back, though it looks different today than when it went away in March 2020. For 16 months we carried on without the collaborative magic of artist and audience. We’ve watched musicians find creative ways to keep gigging and be safe, whether delivering livestreams from their homes or playing on porches. Our favorite venues, whether shut down entirely or operating at reduced capacity, have been challenged to adapt. The artists, fans, and industry workers who most cherish and depend on live concerts know that this return to the stage may be fleeting—the rapid spread of the Delta variant has already pushed many venue operators to require full vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test, and Chicago’s reinstated mask mandate was recently adopted by the entire state. Venues and musicians continue to cautiously evolve, hoping to keep delivering the in-person musical experience that so many people find sacred. For the foreseeable future, fighting the virus with every tool science has given us remains the most promising way to let the music play. 

The iconic Green Mill sign is turned off after-hours in the early morning of August 20, 2021. Open for more than 100 years, the Green Mill often hosted live music seven nights a week before COVID-19 closures—and it recently began doing so again. Through the pandemic, the business has adapted, opening a patio and booking outdoor shows. The first line on the Green Mill’s website reflects what it’s been through: “Whoever coined the phrase ‘Change is a good thing,’ should be shot,” it reads. “Change is exhausting.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
From left, 33-year-old Anthony Cruz, 45-year-old Rocio Diaz, and 41-year-old Dani Garza wear masks as they enter Ruido Fest on Friday, August 20. Ruido Fest is a three-day Latinx music festival, and in 2021 it took place in Union Park. The festival required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours, and both COVID testing and vaccines were available free on the grounds. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
On March 12, 2020, Hideout co-owners Tim and Katie Tuten decided to close the beloved venue’s doors even before mandatory shutdowns were ordered in Illinois. The venue’s indoor stage hasn’t been open to the public since. Since July, the Hideout has been hosting outdoor concerts on the patio in front of the bar, and vaccination is required to attend. “It isn’t the easiest job in the world to be planning events during this traumatic event we’re going through,” says the venue’s program director, 32-year-old Mykele Deville. “It is rewarding to know you are taking steps towards making it safe. We take the sternest approach—we take the safest approach we can. We haven’t had a show indoors since we reopened in July. A year ago we couldn’t even do a show.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
From left, 26-year-old JakexSolo, 24-year-old LILBOYROC, and 21-year-old Yé make up the group Slime World. They were photographed on August 21, 2021, as the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash was being evacuated for extreme weather. As JakexSolo puts it, “As music and concerts return, we wanted to show that you can go out and still have fun while being safe. We are part of a group called Slime World that wants to see the world in a better place than it was yesterday.” LILBOYROC adds, “I think the return of music has really impacted every city’s music scene in a positive way. Summer Smash in Chicago on Saturday really gave that vibe we’ve been missing for a while. The energy of a festival experience makes the music hit ten times harder after that experience.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Thirty-three-year-old Madison Moore poses for a portrait while bartending during an Into the Silo set at the Empty Bottle. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Joanna Connor, who’s played regular gigs at Kingston Mines since the 1980s, spoke about the pandemic before an early-morning set on August 20, 2021. “It’s been the most surreal experience of my life. I’ve been playing since I was 17 years old in clubs. I’m 59,” she said. “I taught guitar online for like a year. It was a frightening time. As a musician, nothing is secure. Is this the end of my career? I got a vaccine as soon as I was able to in March—this is my mainstay gig. Practicing in your room or teaching is a whole different thing than playing in front of an audience. Everyone should get vaccinated so that we can keep going. The reason I became a musician is playing for an audience and the magic that happens. It’s a communal experience—they need you as much as you need it.” With the obvious recent exception, Kingston Mines has provided almost nightly blues on its two stages since opening in 1968. The club currently requires proof of vaccination. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Thirty-two-year-old Misael Aranda gives the COVID-19 vaccine to 22-year-old Yvan Flores at the entrance to Ruido Fest on Friday, August 20, 2021. Cavero Medical Group was administering the vaccines. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
A music room at the Old Town School of Folk Music sits empty on August 26, 2021. These rooms mostly went unused through the pandemic as the school pivoted to an online model. The Old Town School resumed some in-person classes on August 30 and continues to offer online options developed during COVID-19. During the pandemic, the Old Town School has found ways to broaden its reach. “We’re really lucky. We took a week off, but we’re able to keep 80 percent of our employees,” says Dave Zibell, the school’s director of marketing. “We’ve also been able to invite people who don’t live here, in Seattle or Ireland, which we didn’t really explore before.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Free COVID-19 vaccines are distributed among the food vendors at the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash on Saturday, August 21, 2021 in Douglass Park. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
The Sistazz of the Nitty Gritty performed one of the first shows on the patio of the Hideout when the venue reopened for the first time in 16 months in July. From left, they are pianist-vocalist Anaiet, bassist Brooklyn Skye Scott, and multi-instrumentalist Angel Bat Dawid. Bat Dawid formed the trio by performing remote concerts during the pandemic, and her passion for music shines through in everything she does. As she recently told NPR, “That’s what my whole message is to this world—just do music as often as you can. Like drinking water or eating food—you should be doing music all the time.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Twenty-nine-year-old vocalist Todday Gaither, 29, sings with Into the Silo at the Empty Bottle on August 27, 2021. “We never got the chance to perform before the pandemic,” Gaither says. “May 2020 we were scheduled to play at the Emporium Wicker Park. Pandemic happened, of course, and no one could perform. However, we continued to write our music from home. At some point mid-2021 we finally got the chance to play onstage, and it shows. Everyone onstage had matching energy, and I myself roared as loud as I ever could in my life.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
A masked-up Arakel Khaligian throws horns while watching La Armada’s set at Ruido Fest on Friday, August 20, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Chicago pop duo Oux (from left, Manae Hammond and Indigo Finamore) on the patio of the Hideout on August 17, 2021, where their set included the recently released songs “Rise” and “Queer Like Me.” “Every show we get to play I’m grateful—it’s all I ever wanted to do,” says Hammond. “Our main anxiety is are our dates in September . . . what’s going to happen with that?” She also addresses the difficulty of holding a music-industry job during the pandemic: “We were both working in sound—we’re not getting any assistance anymore. Unemployment is gone.” Finamore mentions an upside of the past year and a half: “The pandemic gave us an opportunity to meet a lot of musicians online. The music community is still there and solid and supporting each other. We wrote a whole album.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Crowds at the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash in Douglass Park during the set by Chicago rapper Lil Eazzyy on Saturday, August 21, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Signage at the entrance to the Empty Bottle. The Bottle requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours for entry. These requirements will be in place at least through October 31, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Sean Nyary, 30, checks identification and vaccination cards at the entrance to the Empty Bottle on August 27, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Twenty-two-year-old Gisselle Lydia Salgado wears two masks in Union Park on Friday, August 20, as she listens to Chicago artist Kaina perform at Ruido Fest. “So much of what I do is because of your energy,” Kaina said to the crowd from the stage. “It makes me happy ’cause I’m making you happy.” Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Chicago artist Ric Wilson headlines Wicker Park Fest on July 24, 2021—one of the first festivals to take place in the city since the pandemic began. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Mema Ayi, 47, works the door with a face shield at Rosa’s Lounge on August 26, 2021. Rosa’s requires proof of vaccination to enter. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel
Thirty-three-year-old Julie Pernaudet and 36-year-old Melissa Segovia take in Dance for Life on August 26, 2021, at Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Concerts at the Millennium Park venue reopened at full capacity in July. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel