In this era of music festival consolidation, where the big outfits like Coachella and Lollapalooza (QRO recap) dominate and major promoters buy out the likes of Governors Ball, while smaller fests disappear no matter their pedigree (so long, All Tomorrow’s Parties…), it’s amazing that not only is Chicago’s Riot Fest still here, but it’s getting even bigger. This year’s edition, Friday-to-Sunday, September 16th-18th, had some of its biggest headliners ever, spread out across Humboldt Park:
Riot Fest 2016 opened on a D note, with the likes of Diarrhea Planet, Dan Deacon, and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Diarrhea Planet’s punk rock on the Rock Stage was of course appropriate for Riot Fest, while Dan Deacon was more of a curveball. Playing solo at the Roots Stage, just him & his computer equipment, Deacon had tech issues, eventually having to restart his whole set-up. The talkative musician vamped for time with banter, noting, “This is why you start bands with your friends, not computer…”
Meanwhile, The Dillinger Escape Plan were all intensity on the Rise Stage, right from the get-go, with leaps from singer Greg Puciato and guitarist Ben Weinman, Weinman making his thrash-hits on his guitar work with the music. They certainly didn’t seem like a band about to break-up…
On the flipside was Girls Against Boys at the Riot Stage. The alt-punk veterans are nearing on thirty years, but the crowd wasn’t as large or enthused as one would have expected. Perhaps it was just too sunny & hot at this point in the day.
But the crowd at the Rock Stage was huge for our intergalactic overlords, GWAR! The mock-horror band of costumed characters has played Riot Fest every year, and are always a standout. This time they was announced that of course they weren’t going to let puny humans pick the next President of the United States, but instead it would be decided with an on-stage brawl. First Obama came out to defend his title, only to be beheaded and spew blood on the crowd. Then Hillary & Trump wrestled while GWAR played “Bring Back the Bomb”, Hillary flaying Trump, only to have her breasts chopped off by GWAR (and more blood on the crowd). And this was only the first three songs…
Particular note should be made of the fans up front that wore white t-shirts to fully capture the fake blood sprayed upon them then & for the rest of the day. As opposed to the photographers in the pit, who ran for the hills at the first sight of red (including your correspondent…).
Things got more relaxed after that, as they kind of had to. Meat Puppets on the Roots Stage were the right band at the right time: someone most in the crowd had always meant to see, but only knew a bit of, at a time when fans were just milling about and looking to relax. The eighties brothers have gotten old, but who hasn’t?, and they were still enjoying playing. Also, the cow-punkers were about the closest that Riot Fest got to country music.
Very relaxed was Julian Marley on the Riot Stage, doing his father’s seminal Exodus. If you’re gonna have Bob Marley covered by someone, might as well be his son Julian (or other son Damien). The set confirmed that reggae is very nice, but also rather boring.
From reggae to the style that both pre-dated and post-dated it, ska, eighties two-tone legends The Specials took the Roots Stage next. Iconic in all sorts of ways, they have also aged, and their songs at Riot Fest didn’t have the same energy as the old records. This was particularly the case with opener “Ghost Town” – and absolutely amazing song, wonderful that they did it, but there technical issues at the start of the set, and it just seemed mellower. Any lack of energy fell mostly on singer Terry Hall, as singer/guitarist Lynval Golding bounced around the stage.
It isn’t a Specials show without some politics, even if they can’t really play classic anti-apartheid anthem “Free Nelson Mandela” anymore (but otherwise did do their many hits). There was a shout-out to not just Black Lives Matter (from the group that made Two-Tone crossing racial borders integral), but also Native American Lives Matter. “I come from a place called ‘England’ – it used to be nice, but now it’s shit. Do me a tiny favor – don’t vote for Donald Trump. How can you vote for a man with a pig’s head and that hair?” Later on, “A Message To You, Rudy” was dedicated to Rudy Giuliani.
Arizona’s Jimmy Eat World were originally catalogued a decade or so ago along with the emo breakthrough artists that they came up with (and, to be fair, breakthrough singles – and Riot Fest set closers – “The Middle” and “The Sweetness” are pretty youthful), but they’ve become more pop-punk, even hard rock as they’ve aged. That definitely seemed to be the case with the new songs that they played at the Riot Stage, off their upcoming Integrity Blues.
Ever since Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween) has gotten out of rehab and reunited with Mickey Melchiondo (Dean Ween) earlier this year, Ween has been playing a whole bunch of festivals – and why not? Not so much a reunion as a return, the group has been anticipated across the country – the crowd at the Roots Stage cheered just for the unveiling of their logo backdrop. But if you’d only remembered them from being weird, their set was a reminder of how psychedelic they are, geek-psych, even strutting geek-psych.
Saturday & Sunday’s headliners at Riot Fest threatened to overshadow Friday’s, but nobody overshadows The Flaming Lips. The masters of the indie-spectacular had adorned the Riot Stage with streamers and much more even before they began, but as they started there were giant balloons, confetti cannons, plus costumes, an inflatable “FUCK YEAH RIOT FEST” balloon-sign, even Chewbacca! One could say that this was the ‘usual’ Flaming Lips spectacle, and their set list did stick towards older standards like opener “Race For the Prize”, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and closer “Do You Realize??”, but also there was also a great cover of David Bowie’s great “Space Oddity”.
As amazing a frontman as Wayne Coyne (QRO interview) is, at one point singing while riding Chewbacca and wearing a coat of Christmas lights, special mention needs to be made of the rest of the band, who are able to handle all the spectacle, play the music, and allow Coyne to take center stage. Take Stephen Drozd, who ranged from drums to keyboards. Or bassist Michael Ivins, who, with his shaved head and sunglasses looked like the evil scientist who unleashed the robots Yoshimi had to battle.
[And save a thought for the Riot Fest grounds crew, who had to clean up all the confetti, though it littered around the Riot Stage for the rest of the festival]
Riot Fest is a great place to catch veteran punks, the kind who were rocking when you were in high school, even in diapers, but the question always is: do they still have their own spirit & energy, this far into middle age? Thankfully, The Vandals are still the silly punks that they’ve always been, making faces, wacky poses, even a one-legged guitar solo. On the Rock Stage they remarked upon the photographers leaving the photo pit after the standard first three songs, wondering where the photogs were going, adding, “Take photos of us when we were younger; we looked better…”
Most photographers were going to the Riot Stage for Smoking Popes – something Vandals singer Dave Quackenbush should have sympathized with, given that he was wearing a Smoking Popes t-shirt. As opposed to The Vandals, Smoking Popes didn’t have to be silly, just were strong indie-punk, though leaned on their softer side here.
While the rather unimaginative Motion City Soundtrack drew a large crowd (perhaps because they were literally playing their last show ever the next night, in town?) at the Roots Stage, The Hold Steady were as enthused as their fans at the Rock Stage to be playing their breakthrough record, Boys & Girls In America. The Hold Steady have gone from breakthrough to backlash to establishment in ten years, but haven’t lost their exuberance.
A particularly accomplished veteran punk at Riot Fest ’16 was Bob Mould. From the eighties in Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on) to nineties in Sugar to his twenty-first century solo work, he’s been remarkably consistent in quality (aside from some ill-advised electronica around the turn of the millennium). Interestingly for his set at the Riot Stage, he started with three Hüsker songs, then two Sugar, before going into his relatively more recent solo material (which he undoubtedly prefers). Special mention should be made of his rhythm section, Jason Narducy jumping around on bass, and on drums one of the funniest musicians out there, Jon Wurster.
Unfortunately there was an overlap, but even your Mould-loving correspondent had to leave to catch The Hives at the Rock Stage. The Swedish rockers are known for their wild live shows, and Riot Fest was no exception (though they did start ten minutes late, their ninja-clad roadies working extra hard). “Chicago, you know how to party, but you’ve never partied like this!” With that, singer Pelle Almqvist ran and jumped about, up the scaffold and into the pit, with he and guitarist Nicholaus Arson (QRO interview) at all ends of the stage. It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from the band; hopefully there’s more to come soon.
Another act that you knew were going to bring it at Riot Fest was Fitz & The Tantrums, overlapping The Hives with their Roots Stage performance. Big & alive soul-dance, with claps, hand-sign hearts (which actually don’t look silly from them), and more – including asking people not to be disengaged and on their phones for them.
For the punks that were funny back in the day, it’s great to see that they’ve still got their humor, like Rock Stage’s Vandals and Descendents. “Everything Sucks Today” – still. The group that maybe most defined funny in punk (before it got all snotty and bratty), think Black Flag on “TV Party”, with singer/frontman Mil Aukerman like Henry Rollins with humor instead of massive self-importance (and dad glasses instead of aggro muscles…).
Flipping things in outlook was Brand New, back at the Riot Stage. Their emotionally intense emo-punk, like a slightly skater Manchester Orchestra, had a visceral audience (there are also rumors of them ending things). This did lead to a lot of crowd-surfers and work for the staff in the pit (a feature of Riot Fest throughout), but security handled it all very well, staunch and professional without being overbearing.
A few indie acts stood out on the Riot Fest ’16 line-up, such as Day One headliners The Flaming Lips and Day Two top undercards Death Cab for Cutie. Really big enough to be headlining, but instead playing the Roots Stage before Morrissey – maybe the only act big enough & fitting enough for Death Cab to open for – it would have been easy to see them as a major label outlier to get more fans at Riot Fest. But that’s forgetting how essential Benjamin Gibbard & co. are. Admittedly, guitarist Chris Walla (QRO solo album review) is missed, and the show did seem more directly focused on singer/guitarist/ex-Mr. Zooey Deschanel Gibbard (even when he was behind a piano in the back), the band still rocked with both old songs and new. “The New Year” is always appropriate, any day, any year.
Of course, some might think that Morrissey playing Riot Fest is, in and of itself, an outlier, but the icon is a singular figure wherever he goes. That cuts in ways good, bad, and just Moz. He started forty minutes late – the festival organizers undoubtedly factored in his penchant for tardiness when scheduling his set to begin at 8:15 PM (Friday & Sunday’s headliners at Riot Stage were both scheduled to start at 8:45 PM), and the music piped while fans waited was classic punk/new wave, but there were still people leaving. Only for them to rush back when Moz actually started. For he still has his voice, and can still give it his all (when he wants to).
And he’s still Morrissey. “We all know they wouldn’t let Bernie Sanders win – because he said, ‘No war!’” The food vendors at Riot Fest all shut down at 8:00 PM to accommodate the nth level vegetarian (which was close to an hour before Morrissey actually started playing…). The set was almost entirely his solo material, with the only piece from his ultra-seminal eighties act The Smiths in closer “What She Said”, but even weaker newer songs like “The Bullfighter Dies” (from 2014’s World Peace Is None of Your Business – QRO review) were done well.
There was reportedly more international press at this Riot Fest than ever before, undoubtedly because of Saturday & Sunday’s headliners – for some reason, Morrissey & The Smith are huge in Mexico. Of course, only a few select photographers were allowed to shoot (and reported hand to hand in their memory cards to management, which would delete all but the few approved photos before returning them). For the international press & fans, they definitely got a Morrissey show, in all its Morrissey-ness.
The final day of Riot Fest had some choice, active names in the early afternoon. There was Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame on the Roots Stage, where he even covered Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole”. Meanwhile, actress Juliette Lewis and her Licks delivered pretty much exactly what you were looking for from Lewis on the Rock Stage: strutting seventies rock, including Lewis in a red, white and blue skin-tight jumpsuit. But that ultra-active frontwoman’s set overlapped with the set from ultra-active frontman Andrew W.K. at Rise Stage. The party maven has played Riot Fest every year, and at this one admitted he no longer knew how many times he’d played the festival – but, as always, “It’s party time!” (special mention to guitarist, who not only wasn’t wearing matching socks – even his shoes didn’t match..)
Another Riot Fest returnee was Bad Religion at the Riot Stage. “You guys don’t care about the classic material, do you?” joke-asked singer Greg Gaffin, before playing their nineties hit “Stranger Than Fiction”. The veteran punks are a perfect fit to play any Riot Fest, and even if their classic material sounded like their new stuff, can’t argue with Bad Religion.
While Riot Fest has gotten more diverse over the years, it’s still a punk festival, and so still leans white & male, but if Saturday’s Rise Stage was the black rapper stage, Sunday’s Rock was for the ladies, from Lewis to The Julie Ruin and more. The new band from Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, of course Hanna had statements about feminism, particularly not objectifying women (telling a story about some guy grading, 1-10, all the women on line with Hanna at a Taco Bell – giving his rankings to nobody in particular). At one point Hanna realized that she forgot her cowbell, racing around to find it, to no avail. At another her mike drooped out of her mikestand, so she sang up to (please, hold all your dick jokes), before finally singing lying down.
Another perfect fit for Riot Fest ’16 was Deftones. They were even a perfect fit for the main Riot Stage at that point of the day, early evening, as the final movements were kicking into gear. Grade-A hardcore, the group did not disappoint.
Because Riot Fest scheduled nobody against the headliners, fans were forced to choose between three acts playing the same slot before. The easiest pick for Misfits fans, both in sound and location, was Rob Zombie playing just over at the Roots Stage. Doing White Zombie’s Astro-Creep 2000, Zombie remarked that the last time White Zombie played, Deftones opened for them. But he was also the perfect opener for the Misfits, in that he owes his entire horror-rock career to them.
Meanwhile, at the same time the Rock Stage stayed XX chromosome with another outspoken act, Sleater-Kinney. As important to the Riot Grrrl nineties as Bikini Kill or anyone else, by now there are certainly millennials who think of them as ‘that band with the woman from Portlandia.’ But the ladies were more than capable of standing up to the strutting testosterone on the other stages.
And over at the Rise Stage, starting whole five minutes after Zombie & Kinney began, was Death Grips. Some in the crowd thought that they wouldn’t start at all, as the group became notorious for booking shows, but not actually playing them, but lately they have been showing up, and did for Riot Fest. Of course, they played in near-darkness, just some purple backlight – one might have thought that the festival would have objected, just on safety grounds, as it was hard as hell for security in the pit to survey the crowd, and crowds get wild at Death Grips (though this one was smaller than one would have expected from the buzz act, but that’s what happens up against Zombie & Kinney).
Last, but not only not least but first, was the reunion of the original Misfits. Somehow metal prima donna Glenn Danzig agreed to reunite with his original late seventies outfit, which invented the horror-punk genre – though just for two shows, first Riot Fest Denver, then Riot Fest Chicago. People had been camped out in front of the Riot Stage all day for a good spot, and did need it, as not only was the crowd the biggest of the festival, but no video was projected on the Jumbotron (just Misfits logos – and no photos by anyone, of course).
Of course, Misfits did rock, no doubting that (though Danzig was audibly out of breath many times over the set). Indeed, they not only didn’t start extremely late like Saturday headliner Morrissey, but muscled their way past the 10:00 PM curfew. Some did call it a fashion line having a concert – everyone seemed to be wearing one of the many Misfits t-shirts there are, from their old fans to even babies – but how could you not love “Teenagers from Mars – and we don’t care!”?
With all the ups and downs in the music festival industry (to say nothing of the music industry as a whole), it’s great that Riot Fest is both reliable and growing. This year did lean a little heavy on the headliners – and did include two of the biggest divas in music, Morrissey & Glenn Danzig – but that only left a leaner machine running beneath. The set-up for the festival grounds may have shifted for the worse (likely forced by the city) – a long walk to the one and only entrance, a massive Uber/Lyft scrum to get out, food and port-a-potties not spread out enough – but the stages were still where the magic happened. So put your index finger & pinky up in the air for Riot Fest!
-words & photos: Ted Chase