In his first concert review since the COVID-19 pandemic began, contributor James Shotwell travels to Texas to witness the return of live music at Summerland 2021.

The cool of the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park was a comforting escape from the hot Texas sun on Sunday, July 11. Two days of ruthless humidity and occasional downpours had finally given way to a sunny sky and fierce ninety-degree heat. People were over the weather long before that day, but the blistering sunlight was as close to a final straw as most have known. Thankfully, music was back, and there was (finally) somewhere to go to be among music fans.

Social media didn’t exist when EverclearLiving ColourHoobastank, and Wheatus last had the opportunity to share a tour routing. The Summerland 2021 tour delivers on the promise of a rowdy return to live music for fans of enduring rock bands from the 90s and early 2000s. It’s the soundtrack to every teen film between Clueless and American Pie 2, only with less Sarah Michelle Geller*.

*To be clear, there was and is no promise of Sarah Michelle Gellar.

One can easily argue no other tour has a lower bar to pleasing its target demographic. Virtually no one has been to a rock show of any kind since March 2021. Summerland offers a return to form. It’s a venti double shot of nostalgia reminding you of glory days and the awesome power of concerts as communal events simultaneously. The tour is tailor-made to deliver relief and good vibes for families with cool parents and unwed adults with still recommend Sparkle & Fade to strangers (that’s me — I’m that unwed adult).

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But Austin is a different kind of city which is a break from the familiarity of the tour. Music lives in the marrow of that place. Much like Nashville, it’s far harder to find someone in Austin who doesn’t know someone with dreams of making it big. Live music is constant, with or without touring acts, and not even a pandemic can change that. Austin is for the arts. Being proficient is the bare minimum. You have to bring it. Legacies and record sales won’t help you if the crowd can sense you’re not present.

So when I tell you that the first riffs from Wheatus, the nightly openers on the Summerland tour, struck the still gathering crowd like lightning— please know I mean it. In an instant, the audience locked eyes on the stage, and phones were out of sight. Everyone in the room became enraptured by the sudden rush of serotonin that only concerts can provide. I’m talking about that electric, instantaneously shakes your soul and rattles your bones, kind of energy.

Within seconds, the universe felt a bit more correct. The isolation of the past year fell off like weights from tired shoulders. The seemingly endless purgatory that was life void of communal experiences with fellow earthlings was over, and we were together again. Some people began to sway in that way that only white people with no sense of rhythm sway. Far more attendees raised their beers in recognition of the moment. Life was and is still surreal, but if nothing else, we were together again.

Wheatus brought seven people to the stage, and they each seemed as happy as the crowd to be in the room. The band hasn’t spent much time touring in their homeland in recent years, so this was a double comeback. Their set spoke to the meticulous creativity of Brendan B. Brown, and it ended the way you might expect:

“Is it dirtbag time already? Ok, let’s play the dirtbag song.”

Later in the night, Art Alexakis of Everclear would refer to Wheatus by saying, “They come out every night freak people out with how fucking good they are.” He did not lie.

A still-growing crowd welcomed the next act, Living Colour, with a resounding cheer. The punk legends brought a technical prowess that spoke to their time in music. As teens on Twitter like to say, “They understood the assignment.” The energy was high, the music didn’t stop, and each performance built on the established sonic foundation. There were extended solos, vocals runs that put all other frontmen to shame, and a clear desire to offer complete escapism to the audience.

During the final song, vocalist Corey Glover lept onto the arena floor to be with his fans. He then continued into the lower bowl and walked amongst his audience, all while singing as if it was his last set. The crowd, beers thrust to the sky yet again, sang back with the same passion they saw in his eyes.

The man to my left attempted to explain the importance of what had just happened to his teenage son. “The thing is,” he excitedly told his attentive son, “I had a poster of that guy on my wall. He just gave me a high five! That’s unbelievable!”

That alone was worth the price of admission.

Hoobastank took the direct support slot and walked through the songs you remember and the ones you don’t realize you remember. You know that song you thought was by another band? It’s not. That’s a Hoobastank classic.

In all seriousness, the band is finally doing what they always set out to do: Refusing to define themselves by “The Reason” (while also appreciating the cultural and personal attachments many have to it). When you give the world a song that becomes bigger than the vast majority of all music, people tend to lock an artist into whatever that song did. That’s who they are, and the rest is what exists outside Spotify’s popular track selections. Seeing Hoobastank live sells their immense talent and proficiency in mainstream alternative rock songwriting. Say what you will of their niche, but they do it well.

And if you’re dying to know, yes, “The Reason” does make people slow dance at the rock show. If you looked closely at the crowd, you’d also notice those subtle glances couples exchange when a song sparks a shared memory. For a split second, those couples are completely in sync, reliving something only they know. That’s the magic of art. That they paid for the experience and made a night of it is the magic of show biz.

I caught one of those shared moments myself. While “The Reason” was happening, the man beside me opened an app on his iPhone that made the screen resemble a lighter. He then held his phone high, but the flame was still facing his face. His wife noticed, turned it for him, and kissed his forehead.

If you’re not bringing that to the table, then I don’t want it.

Everclear closed the night with an hour of nonstop sing-a-longs that covered the entirety of the band’s immense catalog. Three decades into a career littered with enough hits to fill any set, the band refuses to let time define them. Alexakis, currently sporting long silver hair, commands the stage with his signature brand of earnestness. As with any time I’ve seen the band throughout my life, they quickly prove themselves to be masters of their craft. They know what audiences pay to see, and they do what they want in between each hit. Despite all the tours and stories, they still sell the idea this is the best — and possibly last — rock show ever.

The music of Everclear is a whirlwind of trauma, recovery, and constant setbacks. It’s the soundtrack of lives lived on the edges of society and the battle to define ourselves as something more than the sum total of our experiences. Beneath the accessibility of the instrumentation and song structure lies complex emotional landscapes that touch on themes that pop music otherwise ignores. The genius lies in how they sell all that to the average consumer. It’s so incredibly unique that I fail to think of another band in their field that’s done it. If Bob Seger wrote the great American songbook, then Alexakis is writing one for the counter culture.

I mean, honestly, Alexakis is nearly mythic at this point. He’s a rare example of an inspired storyteller who successfully sold his original ideas to the masses without sacrificing his vision. I sincerely believe some of his weakest songs are the band’s biggest hits. That’s a weird way of saying he’s more prolific than many realize, but I said what I said.

(Mr. Alexakis, if you’re reading this, please let me write your biography. I’m available.)

The bar for entertainment is the lowest it will ever be at the moment. We are concert STARVED. Anyone can play a show anywhere, and someone will come to be somewhere around people they don’t know and don’t have to meet. Every artist on Summerland 2021 could play the hits and get on home, but the reason (I hate to use that now) it’s a rock show is because every song hits as big as the singles. Do I like them all? No! Will I seek out each artist at future shows? Probably not! Will I ever forget seeing them performing at their best for a crowd that was hanging on every note they shared? Not in all my life.

As the crowd dispersed, a gorgeous Texas night sky greeted us with slightly cooler temperatures and the dancing of far-off lights. People passing by talked about the moments they loved and the artists that stood out the most. Some complained about the coming work week, which would start less than twelve hours later. Everyone was making small talk about small things, but not a soul was complaining about the show. They came, they rocked, and for a few hours — everything felt good again.