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.