Riot Fest once again proved itself to be the music fest for grownups. Grownups in black t-shirts.
While all the other big festivals rotate the same dozen headliners, it’s great that Riot Fest has retained its punk rock focus. Maybe not as strictly as during its first several years as a multi-venue festival, but most of the performers still fall somewhere along the punk rock spectrum. And even the ones who don’t play distorted guitars could be said to have a punk rock attitude. Gotta respect that.
Riot Fest sometimes gets accused of cashing in on nostalgia. Sure, a lot of the bands peaked 20 or 30 years ago (or more). But the fact that they’re still around and kicking ass is a testament not only to their survival but to our own. We should all hope we age as gracefully as the most of these artists (Al Jourgensen excepted).
Headliners this year were Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, and a reunited Jawbreaker, playing their first full show in 21 years (other than a couple warm up gigs around San Francisco last month). The headliners get the big font on the poster, but fest diehards know that the undercard is always where the action is.
It was hot and sunny when we got to the park on Friday. You never know what you’re going to get in September in Chicago, but you can usually count on at least some rain. The line to get in was down the block and security was being thorough. I heard one guy complaining that they had opened his cardboard cigarette case the wrong way and wrecked it. A woman behind me was worried she was going to miss X, who she had last seen in 1983 with the Replacements opening up for them! Don’t worry, she made it in with time to spare.
We walked past Saul Williams who was reciting some poetry. We stuck around long enough to see him do an acapella version of “Black Stacey.” That’s a great song but I’ve seen Williams a couple of times already, and I’ve never seen X, so we kept moving.
X kicked off their set with a snippet of Link Wray’s “Rumble” before launching into their own scrappy, rockabilly-influenced L.A. punk. I first heard these guys on a mixtape from GLONO graphic designer Pat La Penna. I think it was their cover of “Soul Kitchen.” Exene Cervenka, John Doe, and Billy Zoom look like those hip, tattooed grandparents you see at the poolside bar on vacation in Mexico. I would totally drink margaritas with these guys.
To remind us that punk wasn’t exclusively an American thing, Manchester’s own Buzzcocks tore it up 1977-style. Original members Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle are still able to crank out that melodic racket that’s aged way better than anything recorded by the Sex Pistols or the Damned. And they all seemed super happy to be there.
Ministry brought it back home with some classic Chicago industrial pulverization. Al Jourgensen does not belong in the daylight, but that didn’t keep him and his band from conjuring the darkness of their bleak worldview into a sunny park filled with folks munching corndogs and pretzels. Most bands at fests would be better in a dingy club, but Ministry managed to be just as evil outside. This was a way better performance than when I saw them at Lollapalooza in 1992 outside of Detroit where they whined about the crowd lobbing clods of sod at them and cut their set early. I remember wondering, how evil can you be if you can’t handle getting hit in the face with a chunk of grass? Evil enough to be still at it 25 years later, I guess!
New Order was fine and Bernard Sumner looked more fit than he did at Lolla in 2013 (and at least he wasn’t wearing a New Order t-shirt this time) but he still seemed like he was phoning it in. Until I just looked up that link, I had forgotten that Nine Inch Nails also played Lolla that year. I was way more impressed by them this time and with Trent Reznor’s ability to put on an entertaining rock show. And it amazes me that he is still able to summon all that teen angst. Dude’s a pro.
Before that though, we had popped over to the side stage to check out Nothing More, a Texas metal band with an impressive light show and a stage full of weird catapult contraptions. Although it’s not something I would regularly listen to, they were really into it, and after a song or two they had won me over. Sometimes the fuckit attitude of punk gets tiresome and it’s refreshing to see an ambitious young band going all in on earnest virtuosity.
Saturday was another sunny day and we made it in time to watch Peaches do all her nasty stuff. I had been curious about Peaches ever since Johnny Loftus covered a show in 2001, so it was fun to finally see her. She’s a trip. An outrageous, campy trip. Her dancing vaginas are something you can’t unsee.
I saw FIDLAR last summer and loved them, so I was super excited to see them again. Even though their setlist was very similar (opened with “Sabotage,” closed with “Cocaine” and “Wake Bake Skate”), it was still a perfect show. Zac Carper is a charming frontman. And chicks dig him. Riot Fest leans pretty heavy to the testosterone side of things, but I’m pretty sure every woman in the park was packed in to see FIDLAR. It’s clearly reciprocal. At one point Carper called for an “all-girl mosh pit,” effectively a “girls to the front” moment. “No dicks on the dancefloor.” And later he suggested that if anybody was getting touched or groped, they had the “legal permission of FIDLAR LLC” to punch them in the face. Feminism for the win!
Danzig was up next, performing all of Danzig III: How the Gods Kill (1992). He cracks me up. He’s so serious. But he seemed more into this than the Misfits set last year. His voice worked better on these songs. And he was way less grouchy. I think I even saw him smile. But like Ministry, it’s weird to see him in the daylight. You’d think he’d turn into a pillar of salt or something. Nope.
But I had to get over to the other side of the park to see the band I was most excited about: the Regrettes. I’ve been into them since I stumbled across their “Seashore” video earlier this summer. They’re everything I love in a band: sassy, melodic punk with great harmonies and tons of attitude. They were only allotted 30 minutes but they took full advantage of it, playing all the highlights from their debut album, Feel Your Feelings Fool! Frontwoman Lydia Night is as cool as they come, rocking out with bare feet and a high pony. She’s a total badass, and if there was any justice in the music industry the Regrettes would be as popular as the Go-Go’s in 1981–83. They’re awesome.
After that, not even Mike D could compare. His idea of a DJ set is a guy sitting behind a laptop while Mike paces the stage and introduces the snippets and occasionally raps along to Run-DMC. It was pretty fun. But weird. He looks like he’s turning into Perry Farrell, too, which was also weird and distracting. Vegans, man, what’s up with that? (For the record I have no idea whether or not Mike D and Perry Farrell are vegans, but they both have that look.)
The breeze picked up at some point and it made a mess of Gogol Bordello’s sound. Riot Fest still hasn’t figured out all their sound bleed issues between stages, but usually everybody sounds pretty good as long as you’re standing nearby. Not so with Gogol Bordello. I actually wondered for a sec if I had damaged my eardrums because everything sounded muffled as if I were wearing rifle range headphones. I moved closer to the center and it still sounded bad. Not sure what was going on, but it was a bummer and it never happened again all weekend.
The Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to fuck with, however, so they sounded fine. I’m not the biggest Wu-Tang fan, but I enjoy 36 Chambers as much as the next guy. My man AMP couldn’t believe I wasn’t able to recognize them by voice, but I can’t, so I had to show him our photos afterward to be able to confirm which Clan members were actually present, and it seems like we got all the major ones: RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Method Man. They were great, if a little sloppy and under-rehearsed.
Sunday was cloudy with a chance of rain, so we packed our ponchos and we got into the park for a few songs by Culture Abuse. I only know one song by them, but I like it a lot, and they played it so that was cool. They’re funny and goofy. Their singer kind of looks like John Belushi. I’m definitely going to check out more of their stuff.
That Dog was playing all of 1997’s Retreat From The Sun and they reminded me that a lot of 90s bands have a really cool sound and vibe, but not enough good songs to back it up. There was a lot of filler in the 90s. Remember buying a whole CD because you liked the single, and then just being disappointed that there were only a couple other potential mixtape tracks on there? You’d listen repeatedly because you spent 16 bucks on it, but it was always a drag. A lot of the 90s was like that.
Sunday at Riot Fest was a bit like that for me this year as well. Not a ton on my must-see list, so we did a lot of wandering around, sampling as many different bands as possible. The Orwells are a fun glammy rock and roll band from the suburbs of Chicago. Local boys make good! The Mighty Mighty Bosstones played their album Let’s Face It (1997) and I saw more people dancing than at New Order. Versus sounded serious and intense. Built to Spill sounded like a mixtape from Johnny Loftus.
That was about the time I decided I needed some ice cream. I had looked all over on Saturday but I somehow missed the Cold Stone Creamery truck right next to the tacos I had eaten. The line was long but I didn’t have anything I really needed to see until Dinosaur Jr. It was slow going, and the friendly guy behind me decided to bail. But not me, bubba. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
51 minutes later I had my scoop of chocolate and Oreo and I had missed the start of Dinosaur. So it goes.
Aim high, hang loose, keep moving. Best Coast was cool and breezy, and GWAR was hilarious and ridiculous and for some reason crammed onto the little stage in the corner. People were packed in to see them spray blood and shout obscenities. As we exited the park and were walking down Albany Avenue and 19th Street, we could still clearly hear GWAR screaming “FUCK THIS PLACE” as we passed several neighborhood children on their stoops. Hopefully they had some good stories for school the next morning.
I would’ve liked to have been able to stick around for Prophets of Rage, Paramore, and Andrew WK, but we had a three-hour drive home ahead of us and grownups sometimes have to make tough decisions.
Riot Fest 2017 Photos
All photos by Jolie Brown for Glorious Noise.
Last year was my first Riot Fest, so this year I felt a little bit more like I knew what I was doing. But of course they move a couple things around to keep you on your toes.
The most obvious change was the addition of a row of elevated VIP cabanas overlooking the two main stages. People gotta make money, and people with a lot of money gotta spend it on something, so do what you like I guess, but these cabanas seemed a little obnoxious with their air-conditioning, private restrooms, and dedicated bartenders, towering over the grubby serfs below. It’s something you’d expect to see at Lollapalooza, for sure, but Riot Fest is supposed to be cooler than that, no?
Look at me: it’s my second Riot Fest and I’m already a jaded veteran telling them how to run their show.
While I’m at it, I’d also recommend cutting down on the amount of room at the front of each stage that is fenced off for Deluxe VIP holders. I counted at most 20 people in there even though there’s room for about 200. It’s a waste of prime space, and word from the photo pit suggested it was tighter than ever down there–and that came from several experienced photographers as well.
So maybe there’s a better balance somewhere between providing a good, comfortable experience for everybody and appearing as if you’re doing the Gator dance for the VIPs.
They also ditched the “Riot Fest and Carnival” branding this year to plain old “Riot Fest” despite the fact that they added five more rides this year, including the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Zipper. They also added two more shows: the Ives Brothers Wall of Death and the Circus Uno Motorcycle High-Wire Acrobats. I happened to catch the latter and it was moderately entertaining. No safety net!
The final noteworthy change from 2016 is the removal of one of the two small stages in the southwest corner. This year, there was only one: the “Your Name Here” stage, ultimately christened the Heather Owen stage. Last year, two stages meant there were no breaks in the action in that area with a new band starting every half hour. This year, with only one stage, there were half-hour gaps between all the bands. That’s a bummer, because that’s a nice shady area where you can go to check out something new if you hate whoever’s playing on the main stages.
There were times, especially Sunday afternoon, where if you didn’t like a main stage band, you were out of luck. For example, between 2:30 and 3:00 on Sunday, That Dog was the only band playing in the park. Same with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones between 3:45 and 4:00. I know, I know. What’s the big deal about 15-30 minutes without options? Eat a taco, crybaby! I get that. But the thing is, it’s just bad planning. Spread it out.
They booked a lot fewer bands this year compared to 2016. Last year, there were 41 or 42 bands every day, while this year featured 30. Now, normally I’d say less is more, and that I’d prefer 90 good bands over 125 mediocre ones. We all know Lollapalooza jumped the shark when they went from three days to four (and I’d argue the best year was 2005 when it was only two days–plenty!). But I’m not sure that’s what was going on here.
Options are important at a music festival. The park is small enough that you can get from one end to the other in five minutes. If you take advantage of that, you could potentially see a bit of every band that’s playing. You’d be exhausted at the end of the day, but it’s doable. But even if you’re not insane enough to attempt a feat like that, there should always be something interesting going on, or else you end up standing in line for an hour for ice cream.