Music festivals are a tricky business, but somehow Riot Fest keeps doing it right. While it is still seeped in its punk roots, it has expanded, while staying true. There’s everything from hip-hop to albums played in full. Yes, it skews older than the likes of Lollapalooza (QRO recap), but that’s because it doesn’t book flavor-of-the-months, but rather veteran acts with long & impressive histories. And for a Riot, it’s a remarkably laid-back and easy-going festival, with the good vibes and positivity of a jam band fest – just with a lot more Misfits t-shirts. It came back to Chicago’s Douglas Park, Friday-Sunday, September 13th-15th.
Riot Fest has made a name for itself, distinguishing it from other festivals, by having multiple acts play classic albums of theirs in full. It’s a great hook, because Riot Fest books so many long-lived artists that broke through a while ago, but are still here, and you have to admit that you want to know that you won’t just hear their new stuff. And a festival slot is just enough time to play a full album.
One issue at Riot Fest ’19 was the conflicts: acts you want to see playing at the same time on different stages. But if there aren’t conflicts at your festival, it is either a small or bad festival – one can’t blame Riot Fest for booking so many good bands.
While it rained in the morning of Day One, thankfully it had let up, and hadn’t been that heavy, meaning that the ground wasn’t muddy while the sun shone down. And it wasn’t too hot, either, with the Windy City living up to its name.
Of course it was young punks who opened up Riot Fest, with The Garden on the Roots Stage, and then the snottier emo-punks Yours Truly at the Riot Stage, “All the way from Sydney, Australia.” People may say that rock is dead, but punk isn’t, as there are still a steady stream of kids who want to put their fists up (without Jersey Shore fist-pumping).
But Riot Fest is also about the old with the young. Though one wouldn’t call Anti-Flag ‘old,’ they have been making political songs since the nineties, and have only more material to work with these days (unfortunately). While they were at the Radicals Stage, the newer Caroline Rose played the Roots Stage. She had once been country, now is nicely rocking, catchy and fun without being just catchy and fun, a charming frontwoman.
Another rising act was I Don’t Know How But They Found Me on the Riot Stage. They opened with a song about being an opening band, and even covered Beck’s funky “Debra”, showcasing their fun, funkier side, but closing with “Choke”. Singer/bassist Dallon Weekes (of a rare bass-and-drums duo) later remarked that he realized he was dressed like Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me.
Like the day’s headliner Blink-182, Hot Snakes were supposed to play Riot Fest last year, but made up for it by coming in ’19 to the Roots Stage, with strong, powerful, in-your-face, driving punk rock. Though it was The Get Up Kids, playing one of their first shows without keyboardist James Dewees, who made their “bold claim – I think we got the best stage of the festival” at the Rise Stage, with their exciting, excitable indie-rock for long-time fans.
Neck Deep brought enjoyable, if not inspired, emo-punk to the Riot Stage. The opener on the Blink-182/Lil Wayne tour, they even covered Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” (last heard when quoted by Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen on Saturday Night Live).
As it got later in the day, the acts got bigger, with bigger back catalogs, like Violent Femmes at the Roots Stage. Admittedly, they’re not the most fascinating band live, and they weren’t loud enough for the big crowd, but that’s acoustic punk for you. And everyone still clapped along to classic “Blister In the Sun”, while the band also fit in their version of “God Bless America” from this year’s Hotel Last Resort (QRO review). Most importantly, while they’ve aged, their sound is as good as on your old records.
Conflicting with those last two were the cow-punks Lucero on the Rise Stage and the melodic hardcore of Pennywise at the Radicals Stage (do you think they’re pleased or annoyed that the source of their name is back, with the It reboot & sequel)?
Playing an old, though not as old, album was Dashboard Confessional at the Riot Stage, doing The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most in full – but not in order. Indeed, main man Chris Carrabba started the set solo and acoustic, but not with the first song on Places, the also-acoustic “The Brilliant Dance”. Still, it was actually pretty damn good emo, with everyone singing along, including so many pretty girls that you wish you could or would talk to, but you’re not Chris Carrabba.
Maybe the most fitting act to play Riot Fest is Descendents. Veteran punks who go back to the eighties Los Angeles scene, with their straight-up music, one could see why they were a go-to, legendary, base-your-music-on band (indeed, Blink-182 would later acknowledge their influence). And they were still wild on the Rise Stage. Bonus points for, during their interview earlier in the day, referencing not just Black Flag (obviously) but the late, great, Minutemen.
Starting a few minutes early on the Roots Stage were The Flaming Lips, because they’re excited professionals – and not robots. The Lips were playing Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in full, which was a great choice of record to do in full. Admittedly, The Soft Bulletin is also a classic (QRO photos of them doing it in full at a festival), and this year’s King’s Mouth (QRO review) one day will be great to do in full, but Yoshimi is more cohesive.
And The Flaming Lips didn’t skimp on the spectacle that they’re known for, with confetti, streamers, and singer Wayne Coyne (QRO interview) going out above the crowd in his plastic bubble. Coyne also paid tribute to the recently past Daniel Johnston, even adding in a cover of Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In the End” to the Yoshimi-ness. And please believe me, we didn’t let those robots win.
In one of the two greatest conflicts of the night, while The Lips battled pink robots, at the exact same time Rancid were showing Riot Fest what they got at the Radicals Stage. The other great conflict on Day One was Jawbreaker on the Rise Stage up against Blink-182. Jawbreaker couldn’t have been as good as their headlining reunion at Riot Fest two years ago (QRO photos), and Blink were doing the twentieth anniversary of Enema of the State.
Now, this is modern Blink-182, which no longer have singer/bassist Tom DeLonge, instead having recruited Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba, doing an album he didn’t make. But DeLonge is off with his Angels & Airwaves and hunting UFOs – during State’s “Aliens Are Real”, fans up front had inflatable little green men bouncing over the crowd. But it was a giant crowd, all the way back to the back bars to hear a record Blink likely won’t be doing in full again any time soon or ever. If you grew up with them, with that album, you had to be happy.
The clear skies of Day One continued, though without the Windy City wind, making for a hotter day overall. It was also a popular day – one only had to see the crowded subway heading back afterwards, packed to the gills (even if you did the smart move and went to the Kedzie stop, which might have been one stop further from downtown, but was a closer walk to & from the festival).
From the other side of the globe, The Hu came open the Riot Stage. Mongolian folk-metal with throat singing & morin khuur, in Mongolian, they had some videos go viral and carry them to Riot Fest. And they did not disappoint, with a very impressive stage presence and a new album just out the day before, The Gereg.
Over at the Rise Stage was Cherry Glazerr, who brought their indie-punk & more to early in the day, playing mostly off their new record, this year’s Stuffed & Ready (QRO review). But you couldn’t blame fans for not sticking around at the Rise Stage for Surfer Blood, or the rapper Prof at the Radicals Stage, when there was real (fake) blood at Riot Stage for GWAR.
“We heard there was a riot at this festival, so we’re shutting it down!” The scumdogs of the universe brought the full GWAR experience to their umpteenth Riot Fest, “Metal Land”. They defiled a pregnant Katelyn Jenner, Donald Trump, and dead children (“It’s not pedophilia, it’s necrophilia”), as well as songs like “Fuck This Place” and their cover of AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood (You Got It)”.
[note: later, GWAR members were in the press tent, in full regalia. Your correspondent was behind one of them at the bar, and, without any cash in the scumdog’s costume, had your correspondent cover the tip]
With Slayer’s final area show headlining the day, Saturday leaned into the metal, including side-supergroup The Damned Things (who include Scott Ian of Anthrax and even Joe Trohman & Andy Hurley of Fall Out Boy) on the far Rebel Stage. But this was still Riot Fest, so there was still emo-punk like Turnover on the Rise Stage and The Story So Far on the Roots Stage.
Yet the big opening metal salvo was Anthrax doing a fan request set list on the Riot Stage. They and Slayer naturally go together in most people’s minds, like when they played as part of the ‘Big Four’ in metal with Metallica & Megadeth at Yankee Stadium in 2011 (QRO live review), but if Slayer is pummeling dark metal, Anthrax is the more fist in the air fun metal. Or, to put it another way, Anthrax is your daytime party metal (they were all wearing Chicago Bulls jerseys with their names on the backs), Slayer your evening thrash, which is exactly what happened at Riot Fest ’19.
As day turned to night, the conflicting sets kicked in, forcing one to make choices. The big, emotional rock of Manchester Orchestra at the Rise Stage, a perfect Riot Fest fit? The grade-A agit punk of Rise Against on the Roots Stage, who paid tribute to both Riot Fest & Slayer for doing it for so many years, another perfect fit for the festival? Or those who are nothing to fuck with, Wu-Tang Clan at the Radicals Stage, who are a rap collective able to bring the ruckus & cross the genres, playing not their first Riot Fest (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘14)? Try to bounce between stages? Couldn’t go wrong with any choice.
And if you were a hipster indie kid who remembers the early 2000s heyday and not a metal head? Why, there was Bloc Party doing their 2005 breakthrough classic Silent Alarm on the Rise Stage to close out the night. Admittedly, Bloc Party haven’t matched that since, but it’s not like The Strokes have ever matched Is This It. The start of their U.S. Silent Alarm tour, did they the hits like “Banquet” and “Like Eating Glass” to a packed house that singer Kele Okereke thanked for, “Not getting their Slay on – they sound great, by the way.”
Yeah, you could hear Slayer at the relatively nearby Riot Stage, but you could hear Slayer all the way in Milwaukee. Billed as their final tour, with this their final Chicago/Milwaukee show, it was the big finish that made you put your devil horns fingers in the air. There seemed to be fire shooting out on stage for every song. It would have made any vampire afraid. Relentless & repentless, it was soooo metal. It was Slayer.
After two intense days, everyone was a little more worn down for the finale of Riot Fest. It was hot, and the ground had taken a beaten, muddier.
And fuck, Ric Ocasek died. The leader of The Cars, he was part of some amazing albums. He also produced the debut album by previous Riot Fest headliner, Weezer (Blue Album) – which Weezer did in full at Riot Fest ‘15 (QRO photos). Ocasek produced some more recent Weezer records, including Everything Will Be Alright In the End (QRO review) – your correspondent saw his tallness buying a drink when Weezer did it in full at an intimate New York show (QRO live review).
Early on Sunday were some interesting choices for Riot Fest. Nick Lowe is more known for his seventies songwriting – he wrote the piece that Elvis Costello made huge, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” – but more recently he’s teamed up with instrumental surf-rockers Los Straitjackets. While Lowe didn’t have on one of Straitjackets’ trademark Mexican wrestler masks, they were a great fit at the Radicals Stage.
Riot Fest booked The Village People. Many commented that, forty years after Chicago’s infamous ‘Disco Demolition Night’ that saw rockers burn disco records at old Komiskey Park and force the cancellation of the second game of a White Sox double-header (and has been reexamined today in light of the mostly straight white rockers burning records by mostly LGBTQ & people of color musicians), a punk festival booked one of the most iconic disco acts of all time. Yet while there might have been some irony & sarcasm involved, there was a huge crowd at the Radicals Stage for them, because who hasn’t wanted to see The Village People?
Admittedly, the only original Village Person was lead singer Victor Willies, but he was backed up by new construction worker, biker, Native American, and more (though if Disco Demolition Night is going to be reexamined today, then shouldn’t someone maybe not Native American who wears a full headdress costume be looked at?), who had full dance moves (the construction worker even tore off his t-shirt and threw it into the crowd). They did “Macho Man”, the closed with (of course) “YMCA” (reportedly somehow heard at the Boston ‘Straight Pride March’) – they were the surprise Riot Fest ’19 act that you had to check out.
This was Riot Fest ’19, so naturally their set overlapped with two others very worthy of being seen: Less Than Jake at the Rise Stage, and Ride at the Roots Stage. Less Than Jake came out of the northern Florida ska-punk scene in the genre’s mid-nineties heyday, and if you had a ska phase in high school, watching them start with “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts” was great. Ride came up in their own, very different, mid-nineties British shoegaze scene, and have reunited behind two great new records, Weather Diaries (QRO review) and this year’s This Is Not a Safe Place (QRO review), bringing a more rocking show (though all three suffered somewhat from sonic bleed from the other two).
Doing not one, but two records in full on the Riot Stage was Against Me!. Practically Riot Fest regulars by now (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘15), they played both 2002’s debut Reinventing Axl Rose and 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues (QRO review), the latter the band’s first album after singer/guitarist Tom Gabel (QRO interview) became Laura Jane Grace. It’s rare that a record so recent gets the ‘full album performance’ treatment at Riot Fest, but it’s a real twenty-first century statement.
Your correspondent’s toughest conflict of all of Riot Fest ’19 was The B-52s vs. Bob Mould (poor American Football getting lost in the mix on the Rise Stage). Mould was favorite artist for decades, but never seen B-52s, and it was billed as their ‘Final Chicago Show’, though they don’t seem to have announced real farewell plans. The B-52s had the bigger crowd at the smaller Radicals Stage, and there was some sonic bleed from Mould at the bigger Roots Stage, but his guitar would knock out everything in a five mile radius. They also didn’t just jump into their instantly recognizable hits, even doing “Planet Claire”, the b-side to their first single, “Rock Lobster” (which they did close with). But they can “Roam” if they want to.
It was a “Good Idea” for Bob Mould to “Flip Your Wig”, and “I Apologize” for checking out The B-52s, as Mould didn’t just stick to his great this-millennium solo material, but also brought in nineties Sugar and eighties Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on) greats. That included “Never Talking To You Again”, a tribute to his late Hüsker bandmate Grant Hart (QRO interview), who passed away during Riot Fest ‘17.
Patti Smith has been called the ‘Godmother of Punk,’ and so was a fitting act to return to Riot Fest (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘14) at the Riot Stage. Yet she seemed to play a lot of covers of other artists from her heyday, such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free”, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”, and even Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning”. All great songs, and Smith & co. (her band included her son Jackson on guitar, who also sang “Free” & “Walk”) pulled them off with aplomb (Smith mentioning being born within shouting distance of the festival), but a bit of an odd choice. Especially when she had great songs of her own, like “People Have the Power” and the covered-by-many-others “Because the Night”.
If last year’s Boarding House Reach (QRO review) was everything you hate about Jack White, The Raconteurs are everything you love about Jack White. His reunited band has a great new record out, Help Us Stranger (QRO review), and instead of all the self-conscious & self-indulgent rock star frills of solo White, it was just straight-up rock & roll, with White his enthusiastic best. Facing a Riot Fest crowd at the Roots Stage that could have easily been judgmental, they crushed it (and bonus point for giving it up for the headliners).
Riot Fest has always been known as a place where iconic punk bands reunite, from Misfits to Jawbreaker to The Replacements to this year with Bikini Kill. The absolute right place for the original riot grrrls to get back together for their first Chicago show in 20+ years, at the absolute right time. We needed Bikini Kill, and we needed them here & now. Like many of the other big Riot Fest reunions (though this wasn’t their first reunion show overall), they weren’t the biggest bands in their heyday (MTV was looking elsewhere), but their status has only grown since then.
A special moment was when lead singer Kathleen Hanna told how the lyrics to “Feels Blind” were taken from a poem she had written as a teenager, about her experience with an older man who she thought was taking her seriously, but just was working in to try to shove his tongue down her throat. Hanna said that she had never thought then that she would be singing those words to a crowd of thousands. And yes, they closed out Riot Fest ’19 with their classic punk anthem, “Rebel Girl”.
The festival business is tough. Many don’t make it past one year, or don’t even happen at all (your Fyre Fests, your Woodstock 50s). Yet Riot Fest celebrated its fifteenth year, and hasn’t relied on big corporate money or even really single-genre appeal. It also doesn’t cost an arm & a leg. Instead, it’s stayed lean & mean, with regulars who love to come back, fans who love to come back, full album plays, strong undercards, bands from your youth, bands for the youth, a convenient location, a punk ethos but wider artist choice, and more. Here’s to another fifteen, and another fifteen after that.
[editor’s note: Special mention must be made in thanks for the great press area, including free beer, and great press people, such as the Chicago Reader photographer Ryan Segedi doing photoshoots, to Car Con Carne podcast with James Van Osdol]
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Amelia Baird