The American music festival business is getting bigger & bigger, which has led to a lot of them watering down as the expand, going mainstream or EDM or OutKast, but one fest that has stayed true to its roots while also growing has been Chicago’s Riot Fest. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the three-day festival expanded all over Humboldt Park, with seven-plus stages of punk rock and more, Friday to Sunday, September 12th to 14th.
Was there a better way to start Riot Fest ’14 than with GWAR? They stole the show on the first day last year (QRO photos) with blood & gore & inappropriate humor galore, but this was an extra-special performance, as it was only the second by the Scumdogs of the Universe since the passing of Oderus Urungus, a.k.a. Dave Brockie (QRO interview). The band could have called it quits, after losing Oderus and guitarist Flatt Maximus, Cory Smoot, the year before, but you can’t keep a good GWAR down. Or a bad GWAR, for that matter.
Lead vocalist duties has since been taken up by Blother (Mike Bishop, formerly Beefcake the Mighty), who strode the stage with a oversized pompadour. “Put your heads down for our loss – a lost crack rock somewhere on the ground. Too soon?” After one person on stage was beheaded (leaving bloody faces among up front fans, which one would see the rest of the day), Blother remarked the headless figure was, “Still better than Joan Rivers…” It was also the debut of Vulvatron (Kim Dylla), as GWAR started their tour to conquer the world once again. Hail Oderus!
Other acts at Riot Fest felt a bit by-the-numbers – Emarosa sounded post-rock-ish, until the singer opened his mouth and they descended into emo-punk. Much more interesting and unusual was the ‘Pussy Riot Panel’ to the south at the ‘Riot Speaks Stage’. Hosted by Henry Rollins it featured not just Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot (and Petya Verzilov, their translator & Nadya’s husband), but also Greg Gaffin of Riot Fest ’13 performers (QRO photos) Bad Religion, Tim McIlrath of Riot ’14’s Rise Against, Riot Fest founder Michael A. Petryshyn, and writer/activist Marcelle Karp.
It was something of a daring move for the music festival to have a discussion at the festival, yet it certainly got a huge turnout, with fans spilling out around the stage despite the greying skies. Rollins got everyone on stage to talk about their punk origins, leading to name-checks of the likes of Stiff Little Fingers, The Clash, Sham 69, and others. There were some interesting and funny stories, like Rollins discussing fearing the LAPD – but now cops like him from his acting as a neo-Nazi on Sons of Anarchy, to Pussy Riot’s sarcastic comment that they were ‘trying to dress conservative, with heads covered’ when they had their protest-performance in a Moscow church (McIlrath also took that into talking about the last of women in punk rock, a good instance of self-criticism for the sometimes self-righteous genre). And one got to see Gaffin dressed like a teacher (which he actually also is), saying that his style is now called “normcore” – meanwhile, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova had dyed there hair, and certainly knew more English than their appearance in New York in February at the Amnesty International ‘Bring Human Rights Home’ event (QRO photos).
Yes, it was ‘preaching to the choir’, a praise-in, and seemed like basically a way to get Pussy Riot at Riot Fest – and Rollins did bogart the mike a bit (big surprise there…). But it is also true, as Petryshyn stated, that “This couldn’t happen at every music festival.”
Unfortunately from there, the weather considerably worsened. That didn’t dim the immigrant punk of Gogol Bordello, who seemed to thrive in the rain (having members from Eastern Europe must mean that they are used to cold weather). Indeed, fans seemed to be dancing just to warm up to songs like “Wanderlust King” and “Not a Crime” – though mikes were going out and chords were being lost on stage.
It was really with The Offspring and Jane’s Addiction that the rain got to people. Both acts were playing classic albums of theirs in full, The Offspring Smash and Jane’s Nothing’s Shocking, two of ten artists to do so as part of Riot Fest’s tenth anniversary, and they definitely tried their hardest (The Offspring still seemed jazzed to playing “Come Out and Play” – the “You gotta keep ‘em separated” song – and Jane’s punked up Nothing’s Shocking), but the cold and rain unfortunately drove a lot of people to leave early (something the MTA officials weren’t ready for, with long waits for a bus down Division Street – despite one bus just sitting there, lit up, empty, and saying “DIVISION”, but not taking passengers or moving).
After the rain of Day One, thankfully the sun came out and everything warmed up on Day Two. Yes, there was mud – but more annoying actually was the high number of bees out (and not just in the park), who seemed to have been stirred up by the rain.
Day Two started earlier, before even noon with The Pizza Underground, the MacCaulay Culkin-fronted pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band. After that bafflement was the garage-rock antics of Wavves and The Orwells – if you like your bands Home Alone-less.
Really doing it right at Riot Fest was Tokyo Police Club. The Canadian boys have grown up a bit since their early days, but haven’t lost their fun edge. Singer/bassist Dave Monks requested and got sunglasses from the crowd after remarking they were glad to be playing in the sun, and not the rain. He also mentioned playing local venue Schuba’s multiple times – but at Riot Fest, the band realized that they’d finally ‘made it’ when they were sharing a trailer with Wu-Tang Clan. Their newer pieces like set opener “Argentina” did feel more like their older songs (‘older’ still being a relative term with TPC), but perhaps more songs of theirs now feel like tried & true oldies. And the band did close with their anthem, “Citizens of Tomorrow”.
Next up came some veterans. The Dandy Warhols sounded more psych than their old pop days, but perhaps that was just from playing to a crowd that was so “Bohemian”. Seventies punk rock vets Buzzcocks performed to a healthy audience and showed no sign of age. Television played most of their seminal Marquee Moon for angular extended jams that didn’t quite fit with the festival.
Other acts had a definite following at Riot Fest, but also others that definitely weren’t interested. City and Colour might be big enough to have headlined Riot Fest Toronto the weekend before, but aren’t as big this side of the Great Lakes. Die Antwoord certainly were big and wild, and didn’t lack for fans at a festival where they were one of the few hip-hop acts, but the fans waiting for the next performer, The Afghan Whigs, did seem to sneer at such Antwoord antics as mooning a cameraman.
Sub Pop rock veterans The Afghan Whigs got notice in the nineties with Gentleman – the same decade that the world discovered The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The Boston ska-punk act went from being the biggest ska band out there (and thus disliked by all the other ska bands) to as time capsule of nineties as the movie Clueless (where they played Alicia Silverstone’s prom), but they’re still having fun in their second act. The entire many-membered group was dressed in red sportcoats with crests, like out of New England prep school – though singer Dickey Barrett did put on a fan’s hat for “Hell of a Hat”. And yes, dancer Ben Carr still dances…
Paul Weller seemed a little out of place at Riot Fest, the founding member of The Jam not being as big over here in the States. Meanwhile, The Get Up Kids still have some catchy emo-punk.
“Wu-Tang forever!” There are certain hip-hop acts that everyone loves, like Snoop Dogg or Flavor Flav, but few of those are also as universally respected as Wu-Tang Clan. One of the original hip-hop collectives, its various members have gone on to do many other things on their own (even a kung-fu movie), but this year has seen them reunite (and more recently with word of a new album). People can get really into them, even just based on their mission statement, and we all know that they’re nothing to fuck with. They played most of their seminal 36 Chambers, but also got fans to put up phones & lighters at the end of “A Better Tomorrow”. And props were paid to R.I.P., O.D.B.
A much better Canadian import than City & Colour is Metric. The band nicely straddles between electro- and alt-rock, though their light show at Riot Fest wasn’t as good as on other dates (and why only black-and-white on the jumbo screens?). Still great to see singer Emily Haines’ blond locks bounce when she’s on keyboards – guitarist Jimmy Shaw & bassist Joules Scott-Key don’t quite have that, though Shaw did play the theremin at points.
There was a giant inflatable rainbow and mushroom at Riot Fest because this is The Flaming Lips! The kings of the indie-rock spectacle brought it to the festival, playing “Yoshimi” and other hits, as well blowing the power out during confetti cannon on “The Abandoned Ship”. They actually closed with “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”, utilizing the five extra minutes given to thanks to the next act being late.
That next act was The National, who had issues getting back into America from Canada that were significant enough for the Riot Fest app to announce that they were going to be late – but also insignificant enough that they were only pushed five minutes late. Here in the Midwest the crowd sang along to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” – but then again, the crowd knew all the songs. The group’s natural tragedy couldn’t stay down amongst the psyched crowd, aided by the brothers Dessner raising their guitars at the close of “Fake Empire” and singer Matt Berninger going into the crowd to close the never-fuck-you-over “Mr. November”.
The ground at Humboldt Park had dried up by Sunday, though was occasionally soft and the worst spot, an infield of the regular ball field near the Riot & Rise stages, was fenced off. That did create a nice spot for folks with blankets, older fans & those with kids – or one could sit on the dugout benches.
Early on, Kurt Vile & The Violators had his usual jam-psych moments, but also surprisingly went country-rock and even straight-up country. The Hold Steady, on the other hand, delivered what their big crowd wanted – talkative rock ‘n’ roll. Also talkative was Billy Bragg, joking about his American brand of tea (“If you drink enough of it, it’ll make you think you can sing in tune – Morrissey recommended it to me…”) and dirty club bathrooms in old Chicago. If you’re just a solo artist up there on the big stage, you need to be a storyteller as well, which veteran punk Bragg is.
Energetic alt-rock the way it’s supposed to be – thank god for Superchunk. Frontman (and Merge Records founder) Mac MacCaughan is a fun presence, though guitarist Jason Wilbur joked as well. Rounding out the crew was maybe the funniest musician on Twitter, drummer Jon Wurster, along with bassist Jason Narducy (filling on tour for ear pain sufferer Laura Ballance) – did they red eye it from New York after playing three nights of their other gig, back-up to Bob Mould (QRO live review)?
Bringing the “Party” to Riot Fest for a second year in a row was Andrew W.K. (QRO Riot Fest ’13 photos) – literally, as he started with his big hit, bringing about so many crowd-surfers that photographers were kicked out of the photo pit after that first song. Meanwhile, skewing strictly younger in fans was Motion City Soundtrack.
But if you want a crowd that’s not only young, but also female, go see Tegan & Sara – even at a male-heavy punk fest like Riot Fest, XX chromosomes abounded, including couples and those jostling each other to get close. The sisters Quin are another act that also brings the funny on stage, whether Sara talking about being inspired as kids to do punk acoustic from the Violent Femmes (for Quins’ teenage ‘light punk’ band, ‘Plunk’), or Tegan (QRO interview) promoting her big “rock move” (“Even braver that Sara wearing tights…”), a high kick to start “Drove Me Wild”. They actually didn’t play as much off their most recent record, Heartthrob (QRO review), being at the tail end of touring it, also celebrating the tenth anniversary of So Jealous, the record that got them to pick rock ‘n’ over college, with its single “Walking With a Ghost”.
Like Die Antwoord into The Afghan Whigs on Saturday, a mismatched one-two was Tegan & Sara into Dropkick Murphys, whose own big crowd took up the entrance/exit, making for giant bottleneck. But “The Boys” from Boston were “Back” and were certainly rocking in that other Irish-American town. Unfortunately the legendary Patti Smith wasn’t quite loud enough for the loud Riot Fest.
Riot Fest had a few smaller stages with bands you didn’t know, like In the Valley Below, whose indie-rock power mixed with romance was reminiscent of Stars. A band you do know, playing a record you know, was Cheap Trick doing Heaven Tonight. Their unabashed classic rock seemed to get a better response/fit better than similar-aged critical icons like Patti Smith or Saturday’s Paul Weller, maybe because Cheap Trick were never too cool for school – they always wanted you to want them (they closed with that veteran single, after opening with the always-amazing “Surrender”, the last & first songs on Heaven).
Filling the role of cheeky emo-punk band on the final day of Riot Fest was New Found Glory. Filling the role of seminal icons that might be too full of themselves was The Cure, who played the equivalent of two full festival sets – but didn’t let anyone photograph. Robert Smith has put on a few pounds, but we will always love him…
Riot Fest’s other end started with “Those Damn Blue-Collar Tweekers”, Primus, who began with that song, but also did a lot of frizzle-fried jam. The low-lit set had the group’s two giant inflatable astronauts, but this time had regular drummer Tim Alexander’s face projected on both of them. Alexander couldn’t physically be there because of health issues, so instead Primus recruited Alex Van Halen (of, yes, Van Halen), answering the Craigslist ad. Singer/bassist Les Claypool (QRO interview) was enamored of the lit up Ferris Wheel spinning behind the crowd, while guitarist Larry LaLonde interpreted it in a solo.
There was a huge crush to get anywhere near final Riot Fest band, Weezer. Like nine other acts at Riot Fest, they were going to play a single album, but as headliners they had more time to do so, and thus started with a new song from their upcoming Everything Will Be All Right In the End, then went backward in time, talking about 2001 (“Island In the Sun”) and even “El Scorcho” from Pinkerton (QRO deluxe edition review) before taking a break. Yet Rivers Cuomo & co. returned (though Cuomo without his trademark glasses) for their ultra-amazing debut, Blue (QRO Blue live review). Virtually every song a classic, the crowd got to hear guitarist Brian Bell and bassist Scott Shriner do the spoken parts of “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, find out “My Name Is Jonas” (why haven’t the Jonas Brothers ever covered that?), and even get that stage’s second KISS reference “In the Garage” (which should be a theme song for one of the two competing Dungeons & Dragons documentaries).
Last year, Riot Fest seriously expanded, into a full three-day outdoor festival and a great line-up. In 2014 it obviously couldn’t grow that much again, but did expand its festival grounds – and its ambition, from the Pussy Riot Panel to ten bands playing ten classic albums. There was also a nice mixture of indie and punk, plus hip-hop and more, as Riot Fest begins to step up into the biggest leagues of American music festivals.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Sara Bill