There are a lot of music festivals out there these days, no question, and standing out is becoming harder & harder (kind of like being an actual musician these days). With acts doing the festival circuit each summer, many fests are becoming more & more similar, same acts, different town somewhere between New York and L.A.
But Chicago’s Riot Fest does stand out, from its punk bent to veteran artists to having many of those vets play a classic album of theirs in full. 2017 felt like the festival’s biggest year yet, with a particularly stacked line-up that included variety at Douglas Park, Friday-Sunday, September 15th-17th:
One area where Riot Fest is similar to other festivals is that the first weekday of the fest has admittedly the weakest line-up of the three days. No knock on the acts playing, it’s just that the Friday line-up has to compete with day jobs and school.
But Friday did not miss out on this more unusual Riot Fest. One-man electronic act Tobacco (main man of Black Moth Super Rainbow) hid behind his kit to open up the main Rio Stage, with probably more vocoder than you’d hear the entire rest of the festival. And next on the Riot Stage was the only wedding dress you’d see at the fest (probably), thanks to Liars. The noise-punk-art act’s giant singer Angus Andrew came out in full regalia, from veil to ruffles – something he has been doing all tour for their new album TFCF, but still a sight to behold.
Having a spoken word artist definitely stood out in its own way at Riot Fest, but Saul Williams has always stood out. It was just he on the Rise Stage (not even a DJ…), laying down poetic truths such as “A riot is not a fest” and pointing out that the event is happening at Douglas Park, named for Senator Douglas (the other side of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates), who said that the Declaration of Independence was written for white men.
Festivals in general are, or at least should, be able to bring attendees acts that they know of, but don’t know that well, ones they wouldn’t go see play their own show, but have been meaning to catch. Of course, different festivals bring different types of ‘been meaning to see’ acts – mainstream fests bring recent mainstream hits, whereas Riot Fest brought influential veteran punks like X and Buzzcocks. On the Roots Stage, Los Angeles’ X were celebrating their 40th year (their name dates back well before search engines…), and still have a great cowpunk, rockabilly-punk sound. Meanwhile, OG seventies British punks Buzzcocks at the Riot Stage might have been older, but they could still rock songs like “Orgasm Addict” – they’re always at it…
Rise Stage was the hip-hop stage for Day One, including Action Bronson. He’s as much a celebrity chef as celebrity rapper, with his own food show on VICE, and his own cookbook, Fuck That’s Delicious, which fans in the crowd brandished & Bronson promoted, recommending getting at your local bookstore. Of course, you might find either/both celebrity occupation to be insufferable – but he did play right next to the all the food stalls.
Much more in Riot Fest’s vein was Death From Above (formerly known as Death From Above 1979) at the Roots Stage, crushing it from second one. Playing behind their just-out Outrage! Is Now (QRO review), their dance-punk fury was a perfect fit for the festival, as drummer/singer Sebastien Grainger effused over the line-up. He also asked the crowd, “Do you want to have sex with me? You don’t have to answer that. I don’t even want to have sex with anymore…”
But for pure energy & aggression, there was Ministry. Yes, main man Al Jourgensen did look old up there on the Riot Stage, but like Yondu Udonta in Guardians of the Galaxy – not an old you want to mess with (albeit with pink, not blue, skin, and long dreds instead of a mohawk). They are the kind of band that could have a song called “Punch in the Face”, i.e. “You need a punch in the face!” They even had a song called “Antifa”, complete with bandana-masked young hoodies flying black & red flags. Not sure what the song was actually saying about the controversial anti-fascist movement, but definitely tapped into that fury. Jourgensen could sing about the new world order under George H.W. Bush, can sing about antifa now under Trump (and did play their biggest hit, “N.W.O.” – “I think you know this one…”).
Right up next on the stage next door, Riot, was New Order. Other than both acts being veterans who lean towards electronic elements, the two would seem to be an odd pairing, but it actually was a great one. Whereas Ministry brought the thunder and fury, New Order brought the art and dance, yin-yang twin gods from around 1990. And just as the anger of a song like “N.W.O.” is still relevant today, so is the energy of a song like “Blue Monday”. And they closed in maybe the most awesome way possible, with an encore of their late, much beloved and even more influential first incarnation Joy Division’s utter classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.
[note: It was an understandably heavy crowd for New Order, not just of fans but also of photographers – so heavy that security/fire marshal closed the photo pit so it could still be navigable by EMT in case of emergency. Meanwhile, headliner Nine Inch Nails only allowed in the first of those in the New Order photo pit, without any prior notification or warning…]
With the headliner heaviness of the back-to-back Riot and Roots Stages, it would have been easy to overlook Vic Mensa on the Rise Stage, but one shouldn’t have. The Chicago native had his own local crowd, and though he was limited by the darkness (which felt acute at Riot Fest, particularly away from the two main stages) and only being backlit, delivered quite strong rap at a festival not known for it.
But anyone at Riot Fest Friday had to admit that the day was primarily about Nine Inch Nails. The biggest industrial act in the world has had a resurgence of relevance lately, from frontman Trent Reznor’s movie soundtrack work to their moving cover of late friend David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” from Bowie’s Darkstar swan song (QRO review). This is true of their old songs and their new songs, from this year’s “Branches/Bones” to open through to classic biggest hit “Head Like a Hole”, plus an encore – there was even the live debut of “The Background World”.
Riot Fest can, at times, feel like its trapped in nostalgia, with older acts (sometimes playing older albums in full). There’s nothing wrong, and lot right, about late greats, and Nine Inch Nails easily could have delivered an epic set of just songs like “Hole”, “Closer”, and evening ender “Hurt”. But instead the band took advantage of their status and time to integrate the new material in with the old. And yes, there was a massive mosh pit.
A major sight at Riot Fest ’17, perhaps the most major, was Peaches on the Riot Stage early. Indeed, it was surprising to see an artist as well known as Peaches playing so early, but maybe it was because she needed the time for her stage and costume changes. And boy, were there costumes! She opened up wearing an enormous pink fur ensemble, with dancers in body suits dressed as dancing vaginas. Later Peaches removed her fur for a comical naked suit, and proceeded to ride a member of security’s shoulders so she could stand on the photo barrier. “Jesus walked on water; Peaches walks on you.” The new wave feminist icon wasn’t just show, with songs like “Talk To Me” and “Boys Wanna Be Her”, now immortalized as the theme song for the Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
After the ultra-aggressive noise-metal of super-group Dead Cross on the Roots Stage, the next-door Riot Stage had the suitably wild young punks FIDLAR. Opening with a cover of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (which they’ve been doing regularly, and not just this time because Boy Mike D was playing – see below), FIDLAR felt like what every young Riot Fest attendee wish that they could do on stage at Riot Fest. “I drink / Cheap beer / So what? / Fuck you!”
While the Rise Stage was the hip-hop stage on Friday, it was the Radicals Stage on Saturday that was the afro-punk one, with acts like Fishbone (doing classic Truth and Soul album in full) and Bad Brains (one wonders what they & other acts on the stage thought of the first artist, two white British boys who call themselves ‘Slaves’…). Like X and Buzzcocks on Day One, Bad Brains are one of those classic acts that you’ve always meant to see, and Riot Fest provided the opportunity for their mix of punk and jah.
At Riot Fest ’16, the absolute biggest event was the reunion of The Misfits, playing one of only two reunion dates (and the other was at Riot Fest Denver). So singer Glenn Danzig ‘just’ doing his post-Misfits solo act couldn’t help but feel like a comedown, particularly under the hot, beating sun that he referenced more than once. While it was nice to hear Danzig III: How the Gods Kill in full (save for “Sistinas”, which Danzig mentioned needed an orchestra to do) in different conditions, perhaps Mr. Danzig should have taken this year off from Riot Fest.
[note: One thing was similar about Danzig – he once again didn’t allow any photographers, because he’s definitely gotten older…]
Special mention needs to be made of The Lawrence Arms, who played Rise Stage the same time as the prickly Glenn, and announced, “Hi, we’re Danzig!” The Rise Stage was right next to the ‘Riot Feast’ food stalls, all located in the northeast corner of the festival, which developed some serious lines despite the many, many foods/stalls on offer (particularly at those that accepted credit cards, as opposed to the less fancy-pants ones…).
When one saw that Mike D of The Beastie Boys was playing the Radicals Stage, you pretty much had to check it out, but hopefully didn’t have high expectations. Yes, it was the living legend of the group that you’re never gonna get to see any more (after the sad too-young death of fellow Boy MCA). “So What Cha Want” Riot Fest? D sang that song, but over a backing track from his DJ, and mostly sang other people’s material, including Kanye West. The crowd seemed happy, but it was mostly just for the chance to see Mike D, as opposed to for the actual performance.
Giving a full on ‘actual performance’ was Gogol Bordello on the Rise Stage. The self-described ‘gypsy-punks’ are a perfect fit for Riot Fest (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘14), wild artists bringing out the wildness of the crowd. Frontman Eugene Hutz climbed on speakers many times, shedding his shirt early in dramatic fashion, but it should be noted that the other members are no shrinking violets – witness Pasha Newmer rock his accordion. Also should be noted is their politics, particularly their pro-immigrant stance in this era of DACA repeal. Gogol Bordello were not obvious, nor self-righteous, like so much political music, but just made their beliefs an essential part of their identity (kind of like being an actual immigrant). One definitely hopes that the mostly white crowd took the message to hear, along with the music.
As the sun began to set, the bigger acts came to the fore. At the Drive-In’s reunion brought them to the Roots Stage behind their new record in•ter a•li•a. The reunion seemed shaky after guitarist Jim Ward left it, and reactions to in•ter a•li•a have been divided. Their Riot Fest set, which was almost entirely in•ter a•li•a and final pre-break-up Relationship of Command, definitely showcased their unique hard & weird sound, though when removed from those up close, the weird and hard mushed together a bit into noise.
[note: or maybe your correspondent was just ticked off that the publicist for At the Drive-In & Queens of the Stone Age didn’t approve him to photograph…]
Headlining the Radicals Stage was the group you know are nothing to fuck with, Wu-Tang Clan. While the legendary hip-hop (super)group has played Riot Fest before (QRO photos at Riot ‘14), for this go they were playing classic Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in full (note: not the single record that recently convicted & imprisoned pharma bro Martin Shkreli bought…). It was a high-demand performance, which seemed to somewhat overwhelm the already-taxed Riot Fest security. The VIP section in front of the stage (a new addition this year) had its flimsy metal barriers straining as people wanted to see the Wu up close and personal (plus those entourage members in the photo pit, which caused security to close it completely…)
Queens of the Stone Age headlining Saturday at the Riot Stage made complete sense. Particularly coming after Nine Inch Nails on Friday and with their new Villains (QRO review) just out, they’re a totally appropriate & professional act to cap Day Two. Josh Homme & co. gave enough rock and mainstream appeal to be enjoyed by the wide crowd at Riot Fest, while Homme mentioned being excited to see his heroes GBH open the Riot Stage eight-plus hours earlier. It might not have been as special as the emotional Nine Inch Nails the day before or the surprise Jawbreaker reunion the day after, but it was the full Queens of the Stone Age experience (minus an encore – QOTSA ended before the 10:00 PM curfew, but did not return for what seemed like the perfect, even required, place for an encore, distinctly disappointing the crowd).
The final day of Riot Fest was another hot one, both literally and figuratively. Opening the main Riot Stage was Beach Slang, whose talkative – read: drunk – frontman James Alex joked about everything from day drinking to Gene Simmons (“Horrible man, helluva rock star”) and “Santana featuring Rob Thomas!” But their music was still strong, including a cover of Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”
And Alex gets special double drops for his last, quick note. Literally using his final 20 seconds on the stage (as he mentioned), Alex described getting a mixtape from the cool record store clerk when he was a kid (back when mixtapes were actual tapes…), which on it had Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on). Alex paid tribute to Hüsker drummer Grant Hart (QRO interview), who had died on Thursday, playing a bit of Hart’s Hüsker classic, “Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill”. “Rest loud & hard, Grant Hart…”
Certainly loud & hard, and not resting, was Hot Water Music on the Roots Stage, with their new album Light It Up just out. Later on, Mighty Mighty Bosstones (see below) singer Dicky Barrett noted about Hot Water, “If you caught them, you made the right choice. If you didn’t, you fucked up.”
But much less recent following up on the Riot Stage was that dog. Something of a could-have-been nineties alt-hit (they came up in the same scene that birthed Weezer), they were playing their final record, 1997’s Retreat from the Sun, in full. They noted that the track list was not designed to be played live in that order, also joking about all the songs about places, “Anybody from Minneapolis?” “Anybody from Long Island?” “Anybody from Hawthorne, CA?” Like many acts on Day Three, they sounded & were straight out of the nineties, particularly that decade’s great female alt-rock boom. And special mention of the two super-fans up front, who had a hand-made (and thus unreadable) cardboard sign saying that they had waited twenty years to see that dog.
In addition to the punk, Riot Fest has long booked not just ska-punk but out-and-out ska, so of course The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had played the festival before (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘14). This year’s Riot was relatively light on the skanking, but Boston’s own brought their A game as they played the twentieth anniversary of biggest hit album Let’s Face It in full. Yes, that included biggest hit single “The Impression That I Get”, which had so many crowd surfers.
[note: Two stages of photographers in the packed photo pit – which had become the on-the-fly standard at the festival – meant that your correspondent was in there for the third & fourth songs, as opposed to the usual first three. This meant he was there for the Let’s Face It’s fourth song, “Impression”, and got to see it up-close, as opposed to having to navigate his way out during it, as he did when The Bosstones played the record in New York in July – QRO review]
Going into the festival, you might have thought, “Who the fuck are Cap’n Jazz and why are people so excited about their reunion?” They showed why on the Riot Stage. The Chicago natives, fronted by Tim Kinsella (Joan of Arc, Owls), were super excited to be there in front of a crowd that was super excited to have them. Kinsella was particularly goofy, crowd surfing while singing, giving out his tambourine to the audience then asking for it back, made-up hand gestures to the soundman, somersault, playing with his mike cord, and telling long stories that would be brought to a sudden close when his brother/drummer Mike would start the next song.
Bosstones’ Barrett had also pointed to Pennywise, who followed them on the Roots Stage. Back in the nineties they kind of seemed like another hardcore band (and they had their name before the current remake of It), but they’re actually a pretty damn good hardcore band. “We’re here to put the ‘riot’ in ‘Riot Fest’!” Singer Jim Lindberg opened by borrowing a photographer’s camera to get an excited crowd shot, and a member of the costumed GWAR (see below) made an appearance at the side of the stage.
In New York, especially Brooklyn, TV On the Radio are indie-rock royalty, having pushed the city’s start of the century rock revival into new artistic terrain (and becoming maybe the first band that a hipster liked before you did). Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone, and Andrew Sitek have all already composed an impressive legacy, but does it hold up outside of the five boroughs? Yes, it definitely does. Maybe in a relief from the rock and the heat, TVOTR at Rise Stage were the Sunday band the crowd really paid attention to in order to appreciate, which always amps up this act.
Another band that’s a perfect fit for Riot Fest, and thus another returnee (QRO photos at Riot ‘13), was punk legends Dinosaur Jr. They’re a perfect fit for the festival because they appeal to a wide range, from the hardcore metal heads that want to hear singer/guitarist J Mascis wail on his guitar to indie-hipsters that want to hear him mumble on vocals. They’ve even moved into the ‘veteran that you’ve always meant to see’ status. And like The Bosstones, they made this Riot Fest appearance special by playing an album in full, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me.
Two acts always play Riot Fest, year after year: Andrew W.K. (QRO photos at Riot ’16) and GWAR (QRO photos at Riot ’16). This year, they were both playing on Sunday, and for some reason the festival rewarded their loyalty & delivery by sticking them on the smallest, farthest stage, Heather Owen – closing out that stage, but that meant that they were up against the big boys. Thus a lot of press never made it out to see them, but GWAR brought their show to the press, as the intergalactic scumdogs invaded the press tent. While a few members did interviews (please don’t ask your correspondent to know their lengthy & awesome names…), one took to pruning the trees with his giant buzz saw.
This wasn’t GWAR’s first time in a Riot Fest press tent (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘15), or doing interviews there (QRO interview at Riot Fest ‘15), but the press was smitten nonetheless. Many, many people asked for selfies – and there were people asking to take photos of people taking a selfie with GWAR – and there were photographers asking to take a photo of people taking a photo of a person taking a selfie with GWAR – and there was even a photographer (your correspondent) taking a photo of a photographer taking a photo of a person taking a photo of a person taking a selfie with GWAR. Even getting in on the act was the one strange denizen of the press tent, who spent the whole day with bandanas and shades covering his face like a member of Antifa, having GWAR sign his GWAR skateboard (which the masked press member held with surgical gloves, possibly even weirding out GWAR…).
Like last year, the final night of Riot Fest ’17 had a big reunion to headline, which pushed a bunch of big acts up against each other in the slot before. Heather Owen Stage had GWAR and Andrew W.K., the latter of whom did overlap with main Riot Stage. On the Roots Stage, right next to the main Riot Stage, was Prophets of Rage. The supergroup composed of members of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill, the question with them has always been whether or not they’re more than just a gimmick, a way to cash in their collected classics without the rest of said bands – particularly Rage singer Zack de la Rocha. Yes and no. They did do a lot of their old band’s material, particularly Rage, but if you’re gonna have someone who isn’t de la Rocha sing “Bulls On Parade”, Chuck D is a pretty good choice. And he & Rage/Rage guitarist Tom Morello were just on The Daily Show…
Starting at the exact same time on the Rise Stage (giving rise to the rare instance of two non-white artists playing against each other at the festival) was M.I.A. The British-Tamil rapper earned a lot of lovers, and a lot of haters, a decade ago with songs like “Paper Planes” and her political stances that struck some as limousine liberal (she tweeted out the personal phone number of the New York Times reporter who did an interview/profile of her that implied such). But that was a decade ago – has time mellowed her? Well, the haters might have moved on (they usually do pretty fast), but not her fans, as people were psyched to see M.I.A. She doesn’t play the States that often (has trouble getting a visa), but she was in full form at Riot Fest, with DJ, dancers, back-up singer, and jail-like bars on stage. With her white coat (that she did remove early) and gloves, and general regal bearing, she almost had a ‘Queen B’ or even Michael Jackson atmosphere to her, letting nothing phase her star.
[note: Or maybe your correspondent liked her because she & Paramore’s people approved him to shoot, unlike Queens of the Stone Age & At the Drive-In’s had on Saturday. Though M.I.A. did start five minutes late, with her DJ serving as hype-man before she finally made her entrance; not an issue for the fans, but was for the photographers who had to leave early & race to catch Paramore]
Running right up against M.I.A. – in this case a rare instance of two female artists competing at Riot Fest – was Paramore. The emo act leans pretty pop & popular for legit Riot Fest, but the kids love Paramore. Frontwoman Hayley Williams was all energy, now with long white hair as opposed to her prior usual pink short cut, more Debbie Harry than emo, but was still a total pop princess, without being ‘just’ a pop princess. They leaned heavily on new album After Laughter, and the crowd lapped it up. There’s a reason this group has lasted past their initial burst, to say nothing of line-up changes behind Williams.
If Riot Fest last year was about The Misfits reunion, if Riot Fest ‘13 was about The Replacements reunion (QRO photos), Riot Fest ’17 was about the Jawbreaker reunion. As you can see, Riot Fest knows reunions of iconic acts, but all reunions are not the same. The ‘Mats was Paul Westerberg & Tommy Stinson getting together with replacement Replacements behind them for a tour to cash in on their acclaimed legacy, but in the most fun way possible. The Misfits had an honest-to-god rock star in Glenn Danzig and their own successful legacy (that seems as much about the t-shirts as the music…) for a rare, not-to-be-repeated performance.
And the Jawbreaker reunion gig was different. They were younger than either of those, having broken up ‘only’ twenty-one years ago. Frontman Blake Schwarzenbach’s post career was nowhere near Westerberg’s or Danzig’s. They ended as more of a ‘could have been,’ with major label debut Dear You angering punk loyalists, yet also failing to break into the mainstream, leading to the band’s dissolution.
But it has held up, as had their entire material. Yes, there were punks decrying the whole idea of the reunion, ‘tarnishing the band’s legacy’ and all, but they were proven wrong (and be careful what you wish for punks: all of you who said Hüsker Dü should never reunite now got your wish…). It was amazing that, with no prior shows (save a small, short warm-up gig), they could close out the festival, playing the same headline stage slot as the likes of giants Nine Inch Nails & Queens of the Stone Age the days before. The show was for all of those who had waited & waited for them (documented in the just-out documentary on the group, Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker), from the giant crowd to the giant amount of people on either side of the stage – seemingly every friend & family (and there were kids before long after their dissolution up there) was there to witness this special reunion.
As festivals rise and fall and mutate, Riot Fest has made itself to be maybe the biggest punk rock festival, while not being ‘just’ a punk rock festival. Yes, you get the mohawks and even stretch from the hipsters to the metalheads, but hip-hop, ska and more. There’s even a carnival and motorbike trapeze act (which happened right outside the press tent, three times each day). You could play cornhole while listening to “Head Like a Hole”.
But Riot Fest has managed to be big without losing sight of what it is, big without being an unwieldy behemoth.
-words & photos: Ted Chase