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.
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”.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Sara Bill