Chicago’s plethora of venues and underground music birthed the Riot Fest there in 2005, with punk acts from DIY to major label playing all across the city. In 2011 it spread to Philadelphia as the one-day Riot Fest East (QRO photos), but it was last year that saw the Fest graduate to the big-time with one big, central location in Humboldt Park, along with one-day satellite events in Brooklyn, Dallas, and Toronto. And in 2013 the festival has gone even bigger, with a two-day event in Toronto beforehand (QRO photos) and another two days in Denver the weekend afterwards – along with a massive three-day fest in the Chi-Town, Friday to Sunday, September 13th to 15th.
Being a weekday, Friday at Riot Fest started later than the subsequent two days, with the first band on a 4:00 PM, but unfortunately that meant that all the punks trying to catch the Division Street bus to Humboldt Park were not only all trying to catch it at the same time, but also at right around rush hour. Each bus was packed to the gills by/before the Ashland stop, much to the consternation of anyone trying to board it later on down the line – at one further point, an old woman cursed out what was likely the umpteenth full bus that passed her stop by, even motioning to kiss her ass…
So you might have missed early punks like The Flatliners or Smoking Popes, or only heard Riot Fest’s random hip-hop act, Saul Williams, doing spoken word, from the other side of the entrance – but the party only really started with the ultimate party-starter, Andrew W.K. Unlike other dates on his ‘Party Messiah Tour’ (QRO live review), W.K. had a full band behind him, making for a fuller party experience at the distant Rise Stage. Admittedly, everything works back to partying, every song, every comment (the sun might have still been out – albeit setting right in the eyes of many fans – but, “If you party, every day is night!”), but that’s what you wanted from Andrew W.K. (who also head bangs like no one else this side of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” opening sequence to the Wayne’s World movie…).
While Riot Fest was decidedly a punk rock festival (no hipster ‘chillwave’ here…), its punk roamed from mainstream to DIY, and from old to new to in between. For instance, do you remember Yellowcard? Well, apparently a lot of people do, because they had a big crowd for their set, who sang along to their closer (which was likely their one big hit from back whenever). More understandable in their longer longevity is Bad Religion – even if they’ve basically made the same agit-punk record over and over again, it’s a good record; it’s easy to have a favorite Bad Religion album, even if it’s hard to keep up with the group. At Riot Fest the group did songs from their latest, this year’s True North (including the title track), and even if you didn’t know the songs or understood Greg Gaffin’s literate lyrics, they sounded like pieces you did know – and they likely played one or two songs that you actually did know (for your correspondent, early piece “I Wanna Conquer the World” and still-relevant “21st Century Digital Boy”). Gaffin even remarked on the age of some the acts playing the festival, “Lot of eighties bands tonight – oh wait, we’re from the eighties!…”
But the best band whose songs you didn’t know at Riot Fest was easily GWAR. The mock-horror stage show, replete with demon costumes and buckets of fake blood, would stand out anywhere, and didn’t fail to do so in Chicago. What other group starts out with a beheading, and only a few songs in does the singer declare, “Let’s get some blood & death in here!” (with which the photographers in the photo pit rushed out…)? Oderus Urungus (a.k.a. Dave Brockie – QRO interview) led the defiling of just about everything sacred, chopping of Queen Elizabeth’s tits, crucifying Jesus with upgraded slave Bonesplitter (joking that he’s a troll, not a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – and that they thought they’d ditched him at a rest stop in Kansas City…), creating, then beheading a “Super Zombie Jesus”, and more. The voice of God even challenged GWAR, remarking, “But first, you must remember: I DO NOT EXIST!” Even Oderus was taken aback, “Didn’t see that coming…”
Admittedly GWAR’s music plays second fiddle to the spectacle, but they still had a few memorable ones like oldie “Bring Back the Bomb” – Oderus introducing the piece by saying, “It’s good to see that Russia is helping Syria get rid of their chemical weapons – so they can sell them new chemical weapons!” He also shot his load over the crowd during “Pre-School Prostitutes”, and had a new song about his time on the gladiatorial sex planet of Scumdogia (“It sucked, but I still got laid!”). The new piece was from Battle Maximus, out right after Riot Fest and named after late guitarist Flattus Maximus (a.k.a. Cory Smoot), to whom Oderus paid tribute, remaking that he was rocking in the intergalactic sky now…
After that awesomeness, the rest of Riot Fest Day One couldn’t help but pale in comparison. Atmosphere was probably good for those at the festival who like rhymes, and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts were likely the oldest act of the entire three days – but played a set short even for a festival set (still was great to hear “Bad Reputation”, which was introduced to a whole new generation as the theme song to TV’s short-lived Freaks & Geeks – which itself introduced the world to the likes of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Linda Cardellini). One had to wonder why people were excited to see Sublime with Rome – the ‘with Rome’ is because the original ‘Sublime’ name is owned by the estate of late singer/guitarist Bradley Nowell; ‘Sublime with Rome’ is basically a Sublime cover band that happens to have the bassist & drummer from Sublime, but is fronted by fan Rome Ramirez – and Sublime weren’t that great in the first place. Danzig celebrated their 25th anniversary over on the Rise Stage by not letting anyone in take photos or video (not even the festival itself…), while Fall Out Boy proved whatever you already thought about Fall Out Boy, as they closed out the first night with a surprisingly metal set (which started with them all wearing ski masks).
After the ordeals of arriving the prior day, Saturday of Riot Fest was a whole lot smoother (that’s what happens when it begins before noon on the weekend, not rush hour on a Friday…). The earlier start of the festival did mean that some acts were missed, like 11:30 AM’s KITTEN, 12:00 PM’s Mephiskapheles, and 12:30 PM’s Surfer Blood & The Dear Hunter – admittedly, Surfer Blood’s new record (QRO review) isn’t that special, but if you were around for the short-lived spike in ska interest in the nineties, you remember Mephiskapheles (who do have one of the best ‘ska’ names…). Just after those, Memphis May Fire wanted the crowd to jump while the singer screamed, and T.S.O.L.’s Jack Grisham was just happy to be alive (he told a story about having a European tour with Sublime cancelled, due to that band’s singer/guitarist Bradley Nowell’s death – of course, ‘Sublime with Rome’ played the prior day at Riot Fest…). The day only really started with Los Angeles veterans X and Canadian alt-all-stars Stars, both of whom performed well in the early afternoon sun; meanwhile, it was still too early for all the screaming from The Devil Wears Prada (but is it ever the right time for that?…).
Riot Fest has interestingly had a tradition of crossing over from punk into ska, and while that’s not been a huge leap for a few decades now (not since Operation Ivy in the late eighties/early nineties), it was still really great to see the punks skank for The Selecter. Along with The Specials, The Selecter defined the two-tone ‘second wave’ of ska in the U.K. in the early eighties, and despite the many years since then, they were on fine form at Riot Fest. Especially special was frontwoman & original rude girl Pauline Black, and it was nice to see that the band still dresses up.
Of all the reunions at Riot Fest and everywhere else, none has been as great as that of Dinosaur Jr. Singer/guitarist J Mascis (QRO solo album review) & singer/bassist Lou Barlow (QRO solo album review) buried the hatchet first to tour the re-releases of their old records, but have since kept it going with new albums that are just as good as the old stuff! Oh, and you can’t forget about drummer Murph – never forget about Murph, who it was especially sweet to see behind the kit at Riot Fest, as he’d been missing from some of their festival dates this summer, including Riot Fest Toronto a few weeks ago (QRO photos).
Even if Mascis isn’t the most demonstrative frontman, Barlow more than makes up for it – he rocked so hard that his bass strap slipped off his shoulder not once, but twice, first during “The Wagon”, and then again in closer & classic cover of classic Cure, “Just Like Heaven”. The fans probably weren’t as familiar with Dinosaur Jr. as they should have been – the biggest cheer was for the intro to later, post-Barlow & Murph single “Feel the Pain” (but that’s a great intro), and the crowd didn’t know to shout, “It’s still you!” during “Freak Scene”. However, everyone did love the oldest song of the set, from Barlow & Mascis’ pre-Dinosaur band, Deep Wood – “I Didn’t Go To College” (the slowest song from that fast band, it was still pretty fast).
After that late great, the likes of punks Glassjaw and Pennywise just couldn’t compare. Better was to hit up the clear outlier of the entire festival, DeVotchKa. Not that the band’s gypsy-latin style doesn’t work, isn’t sweet, but was far more quiet than anyone else playing Riot Fest – and what other act had violins and a tuba? They were at the farthest stage, Rise, but that was also the stage that hosted Danzig & GWAR the prior night. Still, DeVotchKa’s emotion was more powerful than most of the punks at the festival. Also bringing emotion was Guided By Voices – everyone thinks of then as a beer-swilling act, and they do do that, but they’ve also got powerful songs (should have some, considering they’ve got like 20+ albums under their belt…).
“Before we start, I want to make one thing clear, to all of you, even the t-shirt vendors & guys selling beers: We’re not Black Flag. We are FLAG!” With that, singer Keith Morris opened up a set that was still replete with nostalgia, but what nostalgia! “Depression”, “Police Story”, “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, “White Minority”, “Wasted”, “Six Pack” – all songs the vast majority of the crowd never saw live, and even if Morris ain’t Henry Rollins, and Black Flag founder Greg Ginn is suing FLAG (and Rollins) over copyright infringement, Morris (who also fronted Circle Jerks – QRO live review) had Black Flag alumni Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, and Dez Cadena with him to bring straight eighties punk. But the most missing – no “TV Party”?!? Would have been great to hear FLAG name-check all the long-gone TV shows from that song, That’s Incredible, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, even Monday Night Football…
If for FLAG the expectations were low, and then well exceeded, the reverse was true for Blondie. The even-older act are New Wave legends, but didn’t live up to their hype at Riot Fest – a particular problem was that they just weren’t loud enough for the outdoor festival. But Blondie was always kind of overrated.
Unlike the likes of Blondie, FLAG, GBV, or Dinosaur Jr., Rancid has never broken up – even if they’ve never matched their early nineties peak of fame (when the post-Op Ivy act also managed to briefly bring ska to the wider world’s attention). They did start with early songs “Radio” and “Roots Radicals”, thank you, but the sing-a-longs were to more recent pieces such as “Maxwell Murder”. The group still has that ska-like backbeat to their punk rock, making them a “Time Bomb” (your correspondent only just got that…). The group similarly closed with older material, Operation Ivy’s “Bombshell” and finally “Ruby SoHo”, another crowd sing-along that was also the “Last chance to dance…”
Even more ‘starting off with early hits’ was the Violent Femmes, who began with “Blister In the Sun”, then “Kiss Off”. They actually played their whole first, self-titled album, track-by-track, but should really have paced themselves better. How many people had planned on sticking around until “Blister”, so then left early? Well, then they missed great closer “American Music” – and who doesn’t like American music?…
Closing out Day Two of Riot Fest was Blink-182. For some people who came into music just ten-plus years ago, Blink-182 count as “nostalgia,” and that’s how a lot of people have been describing this reunion of Travis Barker, Tom DeLonge, and Mark Hoppus – even though the reunion began two years ago with Neighborhoods (QRO review). For older folks, they’re the post-Green Day act for teenagers, snotty punks who made fart jokes, and they still do that, even with kids of their own now. Most importantly, they still love playing, rocking the whole way through the rest of the night, with a crowd even rowdier – Hoppus asked fans to take two steps back at one point (and reminded them to help up anyone who’d fallen, “I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”). Minor injuries were reported & ambulances came in – whose only effect seemed to be to make it that much harder to get a ride, any ride, out of Humboldt Park, and the end of the night.
The weather was pitch-perfect the first two days of Riot Fest – so you know that it wouldn’t last, and rain came down on Sunday morning. This left some mud on the ground, but people were relatively prepared, and only once during the day did it actually rain hard. Still, it didn’t help with turnout, especially early, so you might have missed veterans like Peter Hook & The Light doing a special Joy Division set, or Mission of Burma actually playing their old classics along with their new not-as-greats.
One act that certainly didn’t let the cloudy skies get to them was Japan’s Peelander-Z, who were all you would have hoped for – costumes, craziness, crowd surfing (by the band), limbo line, and more. They would introduce their songs with cardboard signs, which did help, as even Peelander-Yellow noted, “I cannot play guitar very well; I cannot speak English very well.” That was when he was handing off axe duties to Peelander-Yellow 2; at another point, he climbed on the shoulders of Peelander-Purple to not only play guitar, but also sing from a very elongated mikestand…
The worst rain of the festival came during the end of Against Me! and the start of Bob Mould, but thankfully hurt neither the performances nor crowds. The continued success and love for Against Me! after singer/frontman Tom Gabel’s (QRO interview) announcement of his sex change operation into Laura Jane Grace has been quite heartening; such an act, and so public, is still hard to accept in any sphere of life, and one really would have feared the sometimes-macho punk scene wouldn’t have handled it well, but instead, it’s been smooth.
Sort of akin to twenty years ago when punk rock icon Bob Mould came out as gay, and just kept on rocking. The rain was hardest during his set, and one could definitely have feared that the young Riot Fest crowd wouldn’t have respect for an elder (like at the thin, rain-soaked audience he had last month in Montreal at Osheaga Music Festival – QRO photos), but it was a strong one. Mould did basically the same set he’s been doing all year (QRO live review from earlier in 2013), starting with tracks from Sugar’s Copper Blue (which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year with a deluxe re-release – QRO review – and full-on Copper shows – QRO live review), then from last year’s new Silver Age (QRO review), and then some Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on), so it wasn’t that surprising if you were a longtime fan, but it showed to the many in the crowd who probably didn’t know Mould, what all the fuss was about. He actually lived in Chicago at one point, and will be back in the Windy City in a month to record his new album.
After Against Me! and Bob Mould, it was mostly newer bands that didn’t shine. The Dismemberment Plan may have made their fans happy with their reunion & new record, Uncanney Valley, but Chris Conley of Saves the Day sounded kind of emo-pleading at the too-distant Rock Stage. Suicidal Tendencies were just speed metal, and All Time Low just screamo, but you knew that already. And AFI was just as overwrought as you expected (plus, they did a cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”?!? That’s the territory of Day Two’s Dinosaur Jr.!).
A more surprising disappointment, maybe the biggest disappointment of Riot Fest, was the Pixies – though not for the reasons you’d have expected. Kim Deal left the reunited band, again, to focus on her Breeders (QRO live review), but replacement Kim Shattuck (of The Muffs) was more than capable of filling the ‘Kim slot’ on bass and for female vocals. The group, who reunited way back in 2004 at Coachella, basically starting the indie-rock reunion trend of this century/millennium, are finally putting out some new music, after touring their admittedly classic original stuff in the dirt (QRO live review), but the new stuff didn’t drag down the performance.
No, it was the volume that dragged it down – namely that it just wasn’t loud enough. There were lots of people in the large, spread-out crowd who were annoyed by the lack of volume, how it wasn’t louder than the chattering-amongst-themselves that it invited the crowd to do. It even inhibited all the singing-along that should have been happening. Thankfully, the sound was much better at their intimate club shows the following week in NYC (QRO review).
And even the Pixies umpteenth reunion show couldn’t compare to the main event at Riot Fest, not just on Sunday but the entire festival – the return of The Replacements! Now, yes, this is just singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson (QRO solo album review) from the original band – Bob Stinson is dead, Slim Dunlap is sick, and Christopher Mars didn’t want to work with Westerberg, but this is The Replacements, the band that defined ‘college rock’ in the eighties with eight amazing albums, first four independent (QRO deluxe edition reviews), then four on major label (QRO deluxe edition review). This is the band that broke up right there in Chicago way back in 1991, with each member leaving one-by-one during final song “Hootenanny”, to be replaced by roadies (a.k.a., ‘It’s Not Over Until ‘Til the Last Roadie Plays’…). This was only their second reunion show – and the first one was the month prior at satellite fest, Riot Fest Toronto (QRO photos). This is The ‘Mats!
What’s more, this was The ‘Mats having fun. Back in the eighties, The Replacements were notorious for wild, drunken performances that could be amazing or a total screw-up (they reportedly had a gig in Portland that was so bad that they wrote the b-side “Portland”, with the closing line, “Portland… I’m sorry”). But that was a long time ago, and they’re a lot older, so would they be buttoned up? Far from it. Westerberg was in a great mood from the get-go (maybe not having Bob Stinson or Christopher Mars up on stage with him had something to do with it…), joking with the crowd and more. Early on he took out the stage clock that was telling him when it was time to end, swinging it around his head by the power cord and tossing it off stage. He more than once forgot the words to a song, even remarking, “Tarzan stink. Tarzan not care.” He picked up and ‘played’ a guitar stand at one point (“Glad this always stays in tune…”). When he asked if the crowd wanted to hear “‘Waitress [In the Sky’] or [‘Kiss Me On the] Bus’?”, he replied back, “Both? Okay!” And at one point, when he was giving replacement Replacement guitarist David Minehan crap (on drums that was the best utility player this side of Tommy Stinson, Josh Freese), he added, “We could have Bob Mould up here in a second…”
The set was all old songs (nothing from the recent benefit Songs For Slim EP – QRO review), but that’s eight-plus albums of greatness – and emphasis on the ‘plus’, because not only was there a b-side from the group’s amazing posthumous greatest hits/b-side compilation All For Nothing/Nothing For All in “Wake Up”, but the greatest cover band this side of Yo La Tengo (QRO live review) also had some great covers mixed in (sometimes literally mixed in, fitting in some bars of Jimi Hendrix’s “3rd Stone From the Sun” into “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”, or seguing directly from “Love You On Friday” into Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”). With any other long-awaited reunion of a band with so much great original material, covers would be a disappointment, but one of the easy highlights of the highlight-heavy set was their version of “Borstal Breakout” by original punk rockers Sham 69.
Of the original studio material, the evening began back at the beginning with debut Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash in such rockers as “Takin’ a Ride”, “I’m In Trouble”, and “Hangin’ Downtown”, not to mention “Color Me Impressed” from third album Hootenanny, before shifting into usually regarded as their greatest record, the following Let It Be. Not only did Tommy get his tonsils out, but also there was “Favorite Thing” early, and “Androgynous” & “I Will Dare” back-to-back (with an outro cover of “Hey, Good Lookin’” in between). After Borstal was broken out of, the rest of the performance was devoted to fifth & sixth albums Tim and Please To Meet Me, especially Tim, which included killer singles like Tim’s “Left of the Dial” (the anthem of college-rock), “Kiss Me On the Bus” & “Waitress In the Sky” together, and, of course, “Bastards of the Young”, not to mention Pleased’s amazing tribute “Alex Chilton”, and “Can’t Hardly Wait”, with “I.O.U.” closing out Riot Fest.
Naturally, with so many great Replacement songs, there were gonna be a ton of songs that you wished that they played, not just from albums (“Someone Take the Wheel”, “We’ll Inherit the Earth”, “The Ledge”, “Here Comes a Regular”, “Answering Machine”, “Lovelines”, “Go”, I’m-in-love-with-a-girl-who-works-at-a-store-but-I’m-nobody-‘cause-I’m-a-“Customer”…), but also b-sides (“Satellite”, “Beer For Breakfast”) and even other covers (“Another Girl, Another Planet”, Songs For Slim’s “Busted Up”). It was interesting to note that there was nothing from second record Stink (save “Hey, Good Lookin’”, a cover of which as in the deluxe edition extras), and only one each from final two albums Don’t Tell a Soul (“Achin’ To Be”) and All Shook Down (“Merry Go Round”) – but Stink was only seven songs long (with no-longer-age-appropriate pieces such as “Kids Don’t Follow”, “Fuck School”, and “God Damn Job”), and Soul & Shook were the softest, most ‘just Westerberg’ Replacements albums. And it would have been really awesome had either Laura Jane Grace come up for “Androgynous” (which she covered at a show in NYC, just after announcing her change – the closest was Westerberg name-checking Day One’s Joan Jett during the song, just before he forgot the lyrics…), or Mould for “Something To Dü”, The Replacements’ early kiss-off song to their rivals in Minneapolis (apparently, they couldn’t get Bob up there in a second…). But those are minor quibbles about one of the best reunion performances ever.
Its detractors say that punk rock is all the same, and while obviously any genre of music is going to sound somewhat similar (that’s why it’s a ‘genre of music’), there’s a wide breadth in punk, and that was on display at 2013 Riot Fest in Chicago. You had from New Wave to Screamo, emo to party, solo singer/songwriters to GWAR. You had overnight hits to never-broke-through veterans, brand new acts to reunions – and reunions that are brand new to ones that are long established. Most importantly, you had a great a time.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Sara Bill & Ted Chase