DETROIT — It's the middle of the summer concert season, and Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill is back on the road for what was supposed to be a celebration of the return of live music.
The party is being dampened, however, as the delta variant wreaks havoc on an industry that was just starting to recover from the disastrous effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I feel like we're about to be out walking around with landmines all around us," he says, "and to get out without stepping on one, that's going to be a miracle."
His statement is indicative of a live touring business that is trying to make the most out of what's becoming a bummer summer.
After swinging open its proverbial doors to fans in June, the concert industry is rethinking its approach as the delta variant surges across the country. As the numbers worsen, some artists and venues are tightening the restrictions that were dropped perhaps too early as artists and fans started filing back into venues and are now requiring fans to show proof of vaccination and/or a negative COVID test before gaining entry into their shows.
That's the case at this week's Dave Chappelle shows at the Fillmore Detroit. The comic kicked off a run of seven shows at the venue with back-to-back concerts Tuesday, and fans are required to take a rapid COVID-19 test before gaining entry into the venue.
Concert promoter Live Nation announced last week it will allow individual artists to mandate whether concertgoers will need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to be admitted into their shows.
There were no mask mandates or vaccine requirements at Detroit's Comerica Park at Sunday's Guns N' Roses concert, which drew an estimated 20,000 hard-rocking fans to the Detroit Tigers' home, or at Tuesday's Hella Mega tour stop, featuring Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Weezer and a crowd of around 32,000 fans.
The pair of shows were the first downtown stadium concerts held since Garth Brooks played for a crowd of 70,000 fans at Ford Field in February 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 shut down the live touring industry for more than a year.
Garth Brooks is now back on the road, but is planning to reassess his tour in the wake of the latest health crisis and has put tickets to his upcoming shows on hold.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which was set to be held in October, over the weekend canceled its 2021 event, citing the rise of COVID-19 cases in Louisiana, and touring artists including Michael Buble, Stevie Nicks, Counting Crows, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Limp Bizkit and Detroit-based indie-pop duo JR JR have all shelved individual shows or entire tours either due to positive COVID cases or lingering public health concerns. Last week, Fall Out Boy pulled out of a pair of Hella Mega shows when an unnamed member of the band's inner circle tested positive for COVID.
"In short, the system is still very flawed," Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst tells Billboard. "Even if the performers, crews, staff and promoters do their best to ensure safety on and behind the stage, that doesn't ensure the safety of the audience as a whole. We are all in this together, and we all — individually and as a whole — have to make our best efforts to be as responsible and proactive as possible moving forward to combat and stop spreading COVID."
Some venues are taking matters into their own hands, requiring guests to be vaccinated or to provide proof of a negative COVID test in order to enter.
A handful of performers are following suit. Indie rock outfit Japanese Breakfast was one of the first artists to require proof of vaccination for attendance at its concerts, and singer-songwriter Jason Isbell is doing the same on his upcoming tour. If the venue won't allow it, he won't play the show, and he backed up his words by canceling his concert Tuesday night in Houston when the venue refused to comply with his policy.
"I'm all for freedom, but I think if you're dead, you don't have any freedoms at all. So it's probably important to stay alive before you start questioning your liberty," Isbell said Monday on MSNBC. "It's life and then it's liberty and then it's the pursuit of happiness. Those are in order of priority."
JR JR's Joshua Epstein said the group's four-date 10th anniversary tour was meant to be a commemoration of the band's legacy and the luxury of being able to perform live again, but with recent news the band wasn't much in the mood for celebrating.
"Ultimately we were hearing from a lot of hesitant fans worried about coming," Epstein says by email. "Since it was only four shows and the unbridled joy we hoped to impart seemed like it was less of a certainty, we decided not to ask people to risk anything by coming to see us indoors."
When the group announced the tour, the outlook for live concerts was sunnier, but the forecast has gotten progressively worse over the course of the summer.
"I think in late May we would've felt totally comfortable performing," Epstein says. "It's going to be fluid for a while, but it's not permanent by any means."
Lollapalooza unfolded July 29-Aug. 1 in Chicago and hosted roughly 100,000 fans a day. Officials reported 90% of fans showed proof of vaccination at the site's gates, but COVID cases coming out of the fest will be difficult to trace, officials say, because the fest draws so many out-of-towners.
Next month's Bonnaroo and Milwaukee Summerfest events are following Lolla's lead, and reps for both on Tuesday announced this year's shows will require attendees to either be vaccinated or provide a negative COVID test for entry.
Summer's concert concerns bleed into fall, where indoor arena shows take over as the weather turns and outdoor amphitheaters close shop for the season.
For Kings of Leon's Followill, he says he's a "ball of nerves" as his band is hitting the road for the first time since 2019; Kings of Leon launched its summer tour last week in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The fear of having to cancel individual concerts or writing off an entire leg of a tour will "always" be around now, he says. The band was set to go out in the road in 2020 when the industry went dark.
"It was never a fear two years ago, no one knew this was even possible," says the singer. "But there's also that thought of, let's go enjoy this, because if the tour would end up stopping in the middle of it, I want to make we sure enjoyed every second we had out there. But there's not really anything we can do besides just be smart and not get ourselves in any situations where we have to unfortunately cancel the tour.
"Everyone's been cooped up," he says, "we're just trying to create an atmosphere where people enjoy themselves. Hopefully everyone stays safe and we get to do it and don't have to come back home in the middle of it."
The Greek alphabet of COVID-19 virus mutations
First identified in the United Kingdom, and later found in the U.S. in December 2020, alpha is considered a variant of concern by the CDC, which noted it might have increased severity based on hospitalization and fatality rates.
First identified in South Africa, this was detected in the U.S. at the end of January 2021. This is also considered a variant of concern by the CDC.
First noted in India before being detected in the U.S. in March 2021, the CDC notes this variant of concern’s increased transmissibility. Researchers are watching the delta variant carefully as it continues to spread.
Dr. Emily Landon, chief health care epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, said recently that the delta variant is “even more contagious than the alpha variant.”
What’s been referred to as “delta plus” is getting buzz. This has been reportedly detected in South Korea, India and the United States, and some believe it may be more transmissible than the original delta variant. Experts are watching and waiting, but some note it hasn’t yet gained momentum here. Also known as AY.1, it is included under the World Health Organization’s list of variants of concern.
Brazil was the first place this was detected, and it’s also been recorded in Japan. The CDC considers gamma a variant of concern; it was first detected in the U.S. in January 2021.
Although the Epsilon variant is included on the Illinois health department’s website, a spokeswoman said it would be soon taken off the “variants of concern” list as it is not considered one by the CDC. The CDC lists the Epsilon variant, which includes multiple mutations, as a variant of interest.
The World Health Organization and CDC defines this as a variant of interest and noted it has been documented in multiple countries.
The WHO and CDC consider this a variant of interest. It was documented earliest in the U.S.; according to the CDC, the first detection was in New York.
This is also a variant of interest according to the WHO and CDC, with its earliest documentation in India in October 2020.
Initially spreading in Peru in December 2020, the lambda variant has so far been found in states including Texas and South Carolina. It is considered a variant of interest by the World Health Organization.