Riot Fest has always walked a tightrope, between being just another mainstream festival and being too punk rock to actually be successful. It’s had to move locations in Chicago, headliner changes, and more. 2018 it seemed more precarious than ever, with radio silence from the festival after its initial “First Wave” line-up; many people online were saying that it was going to be cancelled, from bitching punks to cancelling out-of-towners to Chicago publications. The final announcements came in a flurry less than a week before the festival, including a headliner dropping out (Blink-182, due to drummer Travis Barker’s health).
Yet it all came together and it all came off, Friday-Sunday, September 14th-16th.
Just because she was playing fairly early on Friday, Liz Phair didn’t skimp on her old nineties hits at the Roots Stage, plus her newer material. She also wasn’t playing too far down on the bill to kick out photographers from the photo pit just after starting [word was that the slit on her slit skirt was a little too high…].
But there were tons of photographers for Pussy Riot’s return to Riot Fest at the Radicals Stage; understandably so, given that they had been launched back into the news in a most unfortunate way, with member/husband of a member Pyotr Verzilov having been poisoned in their native Russia [he is currently recovering in Germany]. The group, which this case was mainly just Nadya Tolokonnikova, opened with a banner to him. The set itself varied, from Tolokonnikova just rapping (without a mask), to a voice-over of twenty-five facts about wealth & inequality in Russia & the world (some were more ‘facts’), to a whole multi-cultural masked crew (including one in a wheelchair). And that was just in two songs of the performance.
While Riot Fest is no stranger to hip-hop, the genre is still an outlier at the punk rock festival, so it was nice how large the crowd was for K.Flay’s afternoon set at the Roots Stage. And the rhymer knew her stuff – though the biggest cheer was when she covered Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” (an alt-hit from 1997, showing the age & inclination of the crowd). She also invited up a man named David on stage to propose to his girlfriend.
It wasn’t a surprise that there was a large, excited crowd at the Rise Stage for Sum 41, despite their late start. Singer Deryck Whibley apologized, citing technical difficulties (also not a surprise, at any festival), and said he wouldn’t banter between songs to try to make up the lost time. The audience was certainly into it, with so many crowd-surfers that security closed the photo pit early to better handle them all.
And yes, it was a suitably wild Matt & Kim performance on the Roots Stage, from balloons to female crowd surfers. Drummer Kim Schifino (QRO interview) approvingly noted that it was sisters who were in the air, “Pussy rules the world – the sooner you realize that, the more you’ll get laid!” Their upbeat songs, old & new, fit well into the first day of Riot Fest, which definitely leaned more towards the popular.
More leaning into the mainstream next on the next-door Riot Stage was Bleachers. Jack Antonoff of fun.’s own band has grown into its own, even/because it sounds like The Killers’ ‘up with people’ rock. And the Jersey boy delighted the particularly female crowd (though he kind of looks like actor Jon Bernthal up there, Shane from The Walking Dead/Punisher from Netflix, with an entirely different mood…).
Taking Back Sunday seem to play somewhere between every other and every single Riot Fest, yet people were still happy to see them at Rise Stage. Less happy were those trying to buy sausage pizza from Connie’s at the nearby food area – they were out of sausage, because it cost the same as just cheese.
More of a stranger to the festival was Young the Giant, as the group hews more to the alternative mainstream of Lollapalooza than the indie-punk of Riot Fest. But they fit well up on the Roots Stage, giving “Amerika” “Something To Believe In”. Singer Sameer Gadhia is impressively evocative and active up there, but don’t forget about guitarist Jacob Tilley (the one with glasses). Perhaps they’ve never matched breakthrough single “Cough Syrup” – “Sing along if you know this one” – but they had a wide and excited young crowd. Special bonus points for covering, “The first song I ever played, in the second grade talent show,” “All the Small Things”, in tribute to the not-playing Blink-182.
When Blink-182’s cancellation was announced, also announced was the band that stepped up to fill in: Weezer. There are certainly people of a certain age who probably love Blink-182 more, but those both older and younger were definitely more pleased with the iconic W. The group has gone from nineties alt-success to twenty-first century critical failures to their current revival, and are doing it with aplomb, with even frontman Rivers Cuomo super comfortable up there on the Riot Stage.
Of course they crushed it with old songs, but also new-ish ones from their dark period like “Beverly Hills” and “Pork and Beans”. They threw in an extra Pinkerton (QRO deluxe edition review) song in “The Good Life” (they have been doing that this tour – QRO live review). One aspect of them currently has been their embrace of covers, from an interlude of Green Day’s “Longview” in The Turtles’ “Happy Together”, plus a-ha’s “Take On Me” (done solo by Cuomo, as was their own “Island In the Sun”), another cover of “All the Small Things”, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, and the cover that started it all, internet-driven Toto’s “Africa”.
Riot Fest has long taken in the industrial side of rock, but if they’re playing in the day, that dark genre often wilts under the hot sun. Not wilting was industrial pioneer Gary Numan on the Roots Stage in the midafternoon heat of Saturday. He and his band were dressed for the apocalypse, straight out of the desert wasteland of Mad Max, which nicely matched their sound and the environment.
Certain musicians get labeled as prima donnas, divas, difficult, crazy, whatever, but in today’s day & age one needs to examine those assumptions, particularly of female artists, who often get that label too easily (artists of color as well). But that was the reputation Cat Power had coming into Riot Fest, and it didn’t help that she started late on the Riot Stage (and didn’t allow any photos). But if she is eccentric, it definitely works with her music, which almost details what it’s like to be a woman labeled “crazy.”
As much as Riot Fest loves rock, sometimes the classic rock gets a short shrift, since that’s what punk was rebelling against back in its day. But Australia’s Wolfmother brought the loud rock in old school style to the Radicals Stage, albeit from twenty-first century artist. It is years since Andrew Stockdale broke out (and the rest of the band left), but he still delivers, whether old songs like “Woman” or new like “Lazy”. And yes, there was a mosh pit.
And yes, there was another mosh pit for Chicago’s own Twin Peaks at the Roots Stage. This was to be expected from the wild locals – with their own wild local crowd.
Less expected was the more relaxed, even introspective Elvis Costello. The living legend can pretty much do whatever he wants (looks how he’s managed to pull off his adopted name…), but on the Riot Stage at Riot Fest, one was hoping for more of his classic late seventies/early eighties rock hits. There was “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and iconic Nick Lowe cover “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”, but no “Oliver’s Army”, your correspondent’s favorite (he would have to work around him using the n-word in it…).
Actually playing their hits, and new material, were Interpol on the Roots Stage. They’re touring off of this year’s strong Marauder (QRO review), but are deep enough into their career to know that people want to hear songs from earliest records Turn Off the Bright Lights (QRO photos playing in full) and Antics (and not poor major label release Our Love To Admire – QRO review). And while singer Paul Banks’ signature baritone gets the lion’s share of the attention, guitarist Daniel Kessler is actually the more interesting one to watch up there (of course, he’s no ex-bassist Carlos D…).
“We’re Interpol!” announced singer David Yow of The Jesus Lizard at the Rise Stage. Austin’s foundational noise-punks have not mellowed with age (or lost their humor). Indeed, Yow went not only into the photo pit, but crowd-surfed – all while singing. He later took off his pants and mooned the crowd, because of course he would.
Riot Fest is a great place to catch older legends that you might not go see individually, might not know their material, but have always wanted to check out. Saturday had the likes of Gary Numan, Elvis Costello, and none other than the oldest hand in the game, Jerry Lee Lewis! He’s past eighty, and has had such a tumultuous life Dennis Quaid played him in a biopic (made in 1989), but he’s still rockin’. No, he wouldn’t run around on the Radicals Stage, but it was just such a delight to catch him playing his classic music (and more, like a cover Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes”). Because if Jerry Lee Lewis is playing a festival that you’re at, how can you not go see him?
Headlining Saturday night at Riot Fest’s big Riot Stage was Beck. It’s impressive how he broke out almost a quarter-century ago, yet is still relevant. The musical iconoclast covered everything from breakthrough “Loser” (described as being both completely of its time, and completely timeless) to last year’s Colors (QRO review). He even did a cover of Gary Numan’s classic “Cars” – with Numan, making it way better than all the Blink-182 covers of Friday.
[note: Beck also didn’t allow any photographs, but he’s not called ‘difficult.’ Well, photographers were complaining, but they played his Scientology…]
By Sunday at Riot Fest, energy might be flagging. That’s why it was great that early on, under the beating sun, the festival featured the likes of hardcore icons FEAR doing their seminal album The Record in full on the Rise Stage, as well as the young Los Angeles punks of SWMRS at the Riot Stage, providing their own energy with songs like “Drive North” (and it’s chorus of “I hate L.A.”).
Yet another legend that you’ve always meant to see, Johnny Marr played the Roots Stage. Yes, he’ll always be best known for his work in The Smiths, but unlike that iconic band’s infamous singer, Marr seems comfortable with his past and present. He played songs from his new Call the Comet (QRO review), but also did Smiths songs, including “Big Mouth Strikes Again”, sounding a lot like a guy trying to sound like Morrissey when he sang, “Now I know how John of Arc felt” (even if it sounded a little like, “Now I know how Johnny Marr felt”). Marr was playing to the crowd like a good British rock star should, though perhaps he shouldn’t have hired such a young backing band, as those kids did make him look old.
It’s hard at Riot Fest to go over to the smallest stage, Rebel, tucked into the corner past the carnival rides, with smaller acts. But had to catch New Brunswick’s own Bouncing Souls, who were still energetic at their age, and still a great fit for the festival. And for all of the stage’s distance, it had shade and felt closer for the crowd.
While Suicidal Tendencies rocked their first, self-titled record at the Riot Stage (“I just want a Pepsi!”), it was Superchunk at the Radicals Stage doing their whole catalog. And this was Riot Fest, so of course did the new tribute to classic hardcore “Reagan Youth” early on, nicely mixing old & new throughout. There was “Me and You and Jackie Mintoo” and “Driveway to Driveway”, but what about their contribution to the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon The Movie soundtrack (and b-side team-up with Meatwad), “Misfits & Mistakes” (QRO review)?
[note: your correspondent met Superchunk bassist/Bob Mould bassist/Split Single frontman Jason Narducy in the press tent the day before. Unfortunately, he’s not as funny in person as on his Twitter – he’s no Superchunk/Bob Mould drummer Jon Wurster – but those elbows lived up to the hype…]
After Blondie played the hits at the Roots Stage, Alkaline Trio came up on the Riot Stage. Frontman Matt Skiba is now doing duty replacing UFO hunter Tom DeLonge in cancelled-on-Riot Fest Blink-182, but the reason he has been an acceptable replacement was because of his own band. And the Trio delivered for their fans – bonus points for “Alkaline Trejo” fan-made sign.
When Incubus was listed on the Riot Fest line-up, one might have thought, ‘Oh, another popular mainstream act playing what’s supposed to be a punk rock festival.’ But, “Pardon Me”, they were great. What’s more, they were giving it their all, including trippy visuals and impressive (and very good looking) frontman Brandon Boyd. It was also the biggest crowd Rise Stage had all weekend.
In some ways, perhaps they should have been the closer of Riot Fest ’18. Sure, it was great that Bad Religion played Suffer at the Radicals Stage, and they might be the most quintessential Riot act (and there was Father John Misty on the Roots Stage if for some reason you came to Riot Fest and didn’t want to rock), but closing with Run the Jewels on the Riot Stage was a bit off. Riot Fest might have hip-hop, but it’s not the headliner. And one couldn’t help but feel that there was supposed to be big secret reunion headliner who was unable to make it (online rumors were that Bauhaus couldn’t play because singer Peter Murphy can’t get a visa), and so RTJ were bumped up to headline slot. But they do have a wide fan base, as evident when the played and afterwards, with those leaving those who’d come for El-P and Killer Mike.
With its inauspicious lead-up, Riot Fest ’18 could have been a disaster (snarky internet commenters even brought up the specter of Fyre Fest – which, admittedly, Blink-182 also backed out of before it happened, albeit for much different reasons). Instead, it was yet another triumph.
Riot Fest is loose enough that it doesn’t feel corporate or over-managed like your Coachellas or Bonnaroos (or even Lollapaloozas), but is tight enough that it doesn’t disintegrate (particularly notable, given how many wild acts there are). It does the great job of having a strong line-up top-to-bottom, from brand new no-names that you should check out early to hard-working middle relief to headliners you’re actually willing to stand in a massive crowd for. It’s not expensive, but doesn’t feel cheap. It’s in a city – no camping!
And the weather held up this year, which isn’t because of anything Riot Fest did, but is often the most important thing, or at least can be the biggest failure.
Yes, some wags were tutting that this would be the final year of Riot Fest, that there’s no way it could come back, but perhaps that’s because it almost seems impossible that it can pull off being so good.
-words & photos: Ted Chase