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For Rookie, Lollapalooza is a homecoming — and a dream come true

The five piece looked out onto the early afternoon crowd and swiftly jammed through their first few songs, letting their brand of 1970s-inspired roots rock blast through the festival grounds.

Dimitri Panoutsos and the rest of Rookie perform Friday afternoon at Lollapalooza 2021.
Dimitri Panoutsos and the rest of Rookie perform Friday afternoon at Lollapalooza 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For the members of Chicago rock band Rookie, stepping on to the stage at Lollapalooza Friday felt like a dream, years in the making.

The five piece looked out onto the early afternoon crowd and swiftly jammed through their first few songs, letting their brand of 1970s-inspired roots rock blast through the festival grounds, enticing sleepy concertgoers to stop by.

For years Max Loebman (guitar/vocals), Dimitri Panoutsos (guitar/vocals), Christopher Devlin (bass/vocals), Joe Bordenaro (drums/vocals) and Justin Bell (keys/vocals) each cut their teeth playing in the Chicago D.I.Y. scene. But after filling in for members in each other’s respective bands, the group decided to form Rookie in 2017.

As a new unit, the band began making a name for itself throughout the following years, rising with the likes of fellow Chicago scenemates Twin Peaks and Beach Bunny.

The group cites classic artists like Chicago, Neil Young and the Grateful Dead as influences, as well as more contemporary acts like Caveman.

They also trade lead singing duties on different songs, a testament to each member’s songwriting prowess and their collaborative process.

But by the time they released their debut self titled album — a gritty, catchy album with soraing guitars and smart melodies — in 2020, all momentum had stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tour dates were canceled — including a stint at Lollapalooza 2020 — venues shut down, and the band was tasked with figuring out what to do next.

Justin Bell of Rookie is photographed during the band’s set at Lollapalooza on Friday.
Justin Bell of Rookie is photographed during the band’s set at Lollapalooza on Friday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

So they did what they’ve always done — they got together and jammed.

“It was really scary at first. We spent a little time apart, then started getting back together and rehearsing in a garage so we could be outdoors,” said Loebman, 24, during a chat after their set at Lollapalooza.

Those jam sessions turned into writing sessions, and eventually recording sessions in Devlin’s basement. Eventually they finished a new album, which is in the process of being mixed.

With a new album on the horizon and a debut record that never got a proper tour cycle, Rookie, although slightly nervous, was more than ready when the time came to play the Tito’s vodka stage at this year’s Lollapalooza.

“It was incredible,” Loebman said. “We all love playing live music, and we always knew that, but just getting to do that again after not doing it for so long — it’s a huge release.”

Loebman said that playing a few recent dates with Seattle-based band Band of Horses helped to calm the pre-Lolla nerves.

Another source of comfort while playing the biggest stage of their career so far are family, friends and fans among the crowd, a group Panoutsos affectionately calls “Rookie Heads.”

“I think the best part was seeing so many familiar people,” Panoutsos said. Like, from my family, to friends from my neighborhood — people that came early just to hang out. That made me feel a lot better. It’s like playing any other show — but on the biggest stage that you’ve ever played on.”

The band was part of more than a dozen artists with Chicago ties on this year’s Lollapalooza lineup, including Polo G, Mick Jenkins, tobi lou and Serena Isioma.

Rookie was set to return to familiar territory Friday night, playing a soldout aftershow with Philadephia’s Mt. Joy at Thalia Hall. And on Nov. 26 and 27, their debut album will finally get a long-delayed record release show.

After ending their debut Lollapalooza set with a raucous jam that kept the crowd on its feet, Bell looked up from his Hammond B3 organ.

“This is a dream come true, thanks for being with us,” he told the adoring throngs.