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:
The final day of Riot Fest was another hot one, both literally and figuratively. Opening the main Riot Stage was Beach Slang, whose talkative – read: drunk – frontman James Alex joked about everything from day drinking to Gene Simmons (“Horrible man, helluva rock star”) and “Santana featuring Rob Thomas!” But their music was still strong, including a cover of Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”
And Alex gets special double drops for his last, quick note. Literally using his final 20 seconds on the stage (as he mentioned), Alex described getting a mixtape from the cool record store clerk when he was a kid (back when mixtapes were actual tapes…), which on it had Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on). Alex paid tribute to Hüsker drummer Grant Hart (QRO interview), who had died on Thursday, playing a bit of Hart’s Hüsker classic, “Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill”. “Rest loud & hard, Grant Hart…”
Certainly loud & hard, and not resting, was Hot Water Music on the Roots Stage, with their new album Light It Up just out. Later on, Mighty Mighty Bosstones (see below) singer Dicky Barrett noted about Hot Water, “If you caught them, you made the right choice. If you didn’t, you fucked up.”
But much less recent following up on the Riot Stage was that dog. Something of a could-have-been nineties alt-hit (they came up in the same scene that birthed Weezer), they were playing their final record, 1997’s Retreat from the Sun, in full. They noted that the track list was not designed to be played live in that order, also joking about all the songs about places, “Anybody from Minneapolis?” “Anybody from Long Island?” “Anybody from Hawthorne, CA?” Like many acts on Day Three, they sounded & were straight out of the nineties, particularly that decade’s great female alt-rock boom. And special mention of the two super-fans up front, who had a hand-made (and thus unreadable) cardboard sign saying that they had waited twenty years to see that dog.
In addition to the punk, Riot Fest has long booked not just ska-punk but out-and-out ska, so of course The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had played the festival before (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘14). This year’s Riot was relatively light on the skanking, but Boston’s own brought their A game as they played the twentieth anniversary of biggest hit album Let’s Face It in full. Yes, that included biggest hit single “The Impression That I Get”, which had so many crowd surfers.
[note: Two stages of photographers in the packed photo pit – which had become the on-the-fly standard at the festival – meant that your correspondent was in there for the third & fourth songs, as opposed to the usual first three. This meant he was there for the Let’s Face It’s fourth song, “Impression”, and got to see it up-close, as opposed to having to navigate his way out during it, as he did when The Bosstones played the record in New York in July – QRO review]
Going into the festival, you might have thought, “Who the fuck are Cap’n Jazz and why are people so excited about their reunion?” They showed why on the Riot Stage. The Chicago natives, fronted by Tim Kinsella (Joan of Arc, Owls), were super excited to be there in front of a crowd that was super excited to have them. Kinsella was particularly goofy, crowd surfing while singing, giving out his tambourine to the audience then asking for it back, made-up hand gestures to the soundman, somersault, playing with his mike cord, and telling long stories that would be brought to a sudden close when his brother/drummer Mike would start the next song.
Bosstones’ Barrett had also pointed to Pennywise, who followed them on the Roots Stage. Back in the nineties they kind of seemed like another hardcore band (and they had their name before the current remake of It), but they’re actually a pretty damn good hardcore band. “We’re here to put the ‘riot’ in ‘Riot Fest’!” Singer Jim Lindberg opened by borrowing a photographer’s camera to get an excited crowd shot, and a member of the costumed GWAR (see below) made an appearance at the side of the stage.
In New York, especially Brooklyn, TV On the Radio are indie-rock royalty, having pushed the city’s start of the century rock revival into new artistic terrain (and becoming maybe the first band that a hipster liked before you did). Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone, and Andrew Sitek have all already composed an impressive legacy, but does it hold up outside of the five boroughs? Yes, it definitely does. Maybe in a relief from the rock and the heat, TVOTR at Rise Stage were the Sunday band the crowd really paid attention to in order to appreciate, which always amps up this act.
Another band that’s a perfect fit for Riot Fest, and thus another returnee (QRO photos at Riot ‘13), was punk legends Dinosaur Jr. They’re a perfect fit for the festival because they appeal to a wide range, from the hardcore metal heads that want to hear singer/guitarist J Mascis wail on his guitar to indie-hipsters that want to hear him mumble on vocals. They’ve even moved into the ‘veteran that you’ve always meant to see’ status. And like The Bosstones, they made this Riot Fest appearance special by playing an album in full, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me.
Two acts always play Riot Fest, year after year: Andrew W.K. (QRO photos at Riot ’16) and GWAR (QRO photos at Riot ’16). This year, they were both playing on Sunday, and for some reason the festival rewarded their loyalty & delivery by sticking them on the smallest, farthest stage, Heather Owen – closing out that stage, but that meant that they were up against the big boys. Thus a lot of press never made it out to see them, but GWAR brought their show to the press, as the intergalactic scumdogs invaded the press tent. While a few members did interviews (please don’t ask your correspondent to know their lengthy & awesome names…), one took to pruning the trees with his giant buzz saw.
This wasn’t GWAR’s first time in a Riot Fest press tent (QRO photos at Riot Fest ‘15), or doing interviews there (QRO interview at Riot Fest ‘15), but the press was smitten nonetheless. Many, many people asked for selfies – and there were people asking to take photos of people taking a selfie with GWAR – and there were photographers asking to take a photo of people taking a photo of a person taking a selfie with GWAR – and there was even a photographer (your correspondent) taking a photo of a photographer taking a photo of a person taking a photo of a person taking a selfie with GWAR. Even getting in on the act was the one strange denizen of the press tent, who spent the whole day with bandanas and shades covering his face like a member of Antifa, having GWAR sign his GWAR skateboard (which the masked press member held with surgical gloves, possibly even weirding out GWAR…).
Like last year, the final night of Riot Fest ’17 had a big reunion to headline, which pushed a bunch of big acts up against each other in the slot before. Heather Owen Stage had GWAR and Andrew W.K., the latter of whom did overlap with main Riot Stage. On the Roots Stage, right next to the main Riot Stage, was Prophets of Rage. The supergroup composed of members of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill, the question with them has always been whether or not they’re more than just a gimmick, a way to cash in their collected classics without the rest of said bands – particularly Rage singer Zack de la Rocha. Yes and no. They did do a lot of their old band’s material, particularly Rage, but if you’re gonna have someone who isn’t de la Rocha sing “Bulls On Parade”, Chuck D is a pretty good choice. And he & Rage/Rage guitarist Tom Morello were just on The Daily Show…
Starting at the exact same time on the Rise Stage (giving rise to the rare instance of two non-white artists playing against each other at the festival) was M.I.A. The British-Tamil rapper earned a lot of lovers, and a lot of haters, a decade ago with songs like “Paper Planes” and her political stances that struck some as limousine liberal (she tweeted out the personal phone number of the New York Times reporter who did an interview/profile of her that implied such). But that was a decade ago – has time mellowed her? Well, the haters might have moved on (they usually do pretty fast), but not her fans, as people were psyched to see M.I.A. She doesn’t play the States that often (has trouble getting a visa), but she was in full form at Riot Fest, with DJ, dancers, back-up singer, and jail-like bars on stage. With her white coat (that she did remove early) and gloves, and general regal bearing, she almost had a ‘Queen B’ or even Michael Jackson atmosphere to her, letting nothing phase her star.
[note: Or maybe your correspondent liked her because she & Paramore’s people approved him to shoot, unlike Queens of the Stone Age & At the Drive-In’s had on Saturday. Though M.I.A. did start five minutes late, with her DJ serving as hype-man before she finally made her entrance; not an issue for the fans, but was for the photographers who had to leave early & race to catch Paramore]
Running right up against M.I.A. – in this case a rare instance of two female artists competing at Riot Fest – was Paramore. The emo act leans pretty pop & popular for legit Riot Fest, but the kids love Paramore. Frontwoman Hayley Williams was all energy, now with long white hair as opposed to her prior usual pink short cut, more Debbie Harry than emo, but was still a total pop princess, without being ‘just’ a pop princess. They leaned heavily on new album After Laughter, and the crowd lapped it up. There’s a reason this group has lasted past their initial burst, to say nothing of line-up changes behind Williams.
If Riot Fest last year was about The Misfits reunion, if Riot Fest ‘13 was about The Replacements reunion (QRO photos), Riot Fest ’17 was about the Jawbreaker reunion. As you can see, Riot Fest knows reunions of iconic acts, but all reunions are not the same. The ‘Mats was Paul Westerberg & Tommy Stinson getting together with replacement Replacements behind them for a tour to cash in on their acclaimed legacy, but in the most fun way possible. The Misfits had an honest-to-god rock star in Glenn Danzig and their own successful legacy (that seems as much about the t-shirts as the music…) for a rare, not-to-be-repeated performance.
And the Jawbreaker reunion gig was different. They were younger than either of those, having broken up ‘only’ twenty-one years ago. Frontman Blake Schwarzenbach’s post career was nowhere near Westerberg’s or Danzig’s. They ended as more of a ‘could have been,’ with major label debut Dear You angering punk loyalists, yet also failing to break into the mainstream, leading to the band’s dissolution.
But it has held up, as had their entire material. Yes, there were punks decrying the whole idea of the reunion, ‘tarnishing the band’s legacy’ and all, but they were proven wrong (and be careful what you wish for punks: all of you who said Hüsker Dü should never reunite now got your wish…). It was amazing that, with no prior shows (save a small, short warm-up gig), they could close out the festival, playing the same headline stage slot as the likes of giants Nine Inch Nails & Queens of the Stone Age the days before. The show was for all of those who had waited & waited for them (documented in the just-out documentary on the group, Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker), from the giant crowd to the giant amount of people on either side of the stage – seemingly every friend & family (and there were kids before long after their dissolution up there) was there to witness this special reunion.