I was never a punk. In high school I was a trendy little femme who liked the Smiths and sixties music. Duckie was my fashion icon. The only punk rock I listened to was the Dead Milkmen.
The king of the punks at my school was a senior named Alex who came to class one morning with perfectly spiked hair. Multiple four-inch spikes of Ziggy-red hair held up with egg whites or Elmer’s or some other gravity defying concoction. While he was walking down the hall some big dumb jock took a donut and placed it on one of those epic spikes.
Alex left the donut on his head for the rest of the day.
To me, that epitomizes punk rock. You make a personal statement that goes against the grain, you get hassled for it, but ultimately you subvert that mockery by reclaiming it and making it your own.
I didn’t see any donuts at Riot Fest this year but there was no shortage of that same punk rock attitude.
I’ve gone to Lollapalooza every year since it settled in Chicago, but I had never been to Riot Fest before. Over the past few years, Riot Fest’s lineups have gotten stronger and stronger. And more appealing to me personally than the lineups of the last several Lollas. But a big festival is a big commitment and you have to make choices, especially when you don’t live in town.
The crowds at the two fests are very different. There’s no Perry’s Stage at Riot Fest so there aren’t nearly as many half naked young people going off the hook. I didn’t see a single butt cheek at Riot Fest. Granted, it’s the middle of September in Chicago, but this weekend the weather was gorgeous: low 80s, sunny, and a nice breeze. You’d be comfortable in shorts, but most people opted for grungy jeans, mostly black, with black band t-shirts. “Roadie chic” is the Riot Fest look of choice.
And while there’s an equal amount of weed being smoked at both fests, I didn’t see any aggressively drunk people at Riot Fest. There were plenty of dilated pupils so I’m not suggesting a new straight edge movement was taking hold, but it’s a different vibe for sure. I didn’t see anybody vomiting or pissing in public the whole weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than four hours at Lolla without seeing both or almost stepping in it.
The people seemed to be there primarily for the music. And the music was good.
Because the footprint of the park is so much smaller than Lollapalooza, it’s super easy to hop from stage to stage and see enough of everybody you want to see, even if they’re playing simultaneously. The downside to that is there’s a lot of sound bleedthrough and you have to be standing directly in front of the stage if don’t want to hear the other band. The layout isn’t as streamlined either, so there’s no easy paths to get from one area to another without walking through lumpy fields of crowds.
I didn’t have any “must see” bands on Friday because we arrived late, but still managed to catch the Specials (who were awesome), Glassjaw (who were not), Jimmy Eat World (who are not the band who sings “Stacy’s Mom”), Ween (who played “Baby Bitch,” the only song of theirs I really love), Refused (who I can’t remember at all), the Flaming Lips (who played a mellowly psychedelic set), and NOFX (who clearly rock).
We bumped into our pals from Mustard Plug who go to Riot Fest every year as artists or fans, and they gave us lots of helpful tips for navigating the scene. I saw tons of people wearing Mustard Plug t-shirts throughout the weekend. Grand Rapids, Michigan, represent! Get up! Get up!
Saturday was a fun day. Started out with breakfast and bloody marys at Revolution Brewery and then we were able to drive down to the show because we got hooked up with free parking from a friend who lives across the street from the park. She hates Riot Fest and how it makes her neighborhood unlivable for the weekend, but she agreed to meet up with us for Morrissey that evening. Folks who live within a few blocks of the park can get in for free by just showing their ID. Judging by the demographics of the attendees, not too many residents take advantage of the offer. I could be wrong though.
The Hold Steady played all of Boys and Girls in America, which I totally loved. One of the many things I appreciate about Craig Finn is that he’s got a similar hairline and body type as me, except he’s as much of a rock star as anybody. Finn knows how to connect with an audience.
That’s Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist’s speciality too. And if the Hives aren’t your favorite band he won’t leave the stage until he’s convinced you otherwise. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Hives. They haven’t released an album since 2012, but they still look and sound great. I think the world needs some new Hives music.
I caught a bit of Bob Mould’s set, but I’m not familiar with any of his post-Husker Du material. What he played sounded a lot like Husker Du so I should probably give it a chance, since Husker Du is one of the great original American punk rock bands.
The Descendents are another pillar of American punk, and along with Mould they’re old! It’s kinda weird to see dudes in their 50s playing exuberant teenage rock and roll, but that’s exactly what they do, and they do it well. Even though I didn’t listen to them until I was in my 20s, the Descendents perfectly capture that feeling of being a kid with nothing to do. Nothing but make a racket, that is. And hey, “everything sucks today” is as vital a sentiment in 2016 as it’s ever been.
I like Death Cab and this is the first time I’ve seen them since guitarist/songwriter/producer Chris Walla quit the band. Didn’t seem to affect their sound much. They seem a little wimpy for Riot Fest though. I felt embarrassed for the dudes wearing Cutie t-shirts; thought for sure the dudes in Misfits shirts would trip them as they walked by, but I never saw it happen. They have so many great songs though, and they translate surprisingly well to an outdoor festival environment.
They ended promptly at 8:15 and Morrissey was scheduled to immediately start on the next stage with the longest set time of any of the Riot Fest headliners. The other big names each got one hour and fifteen minutes, but Moz was granted an hour and 45 minutes to do his thing. Unfortunately, the crowd apparently didn’t realize Morrissey’s thing begins with a thirty minute compilation of exquisitely curated videos. I’ve seen him a couple times before and this montage has always been a welcome distraction while the opening band breaks down their instruments.
So let’s get this straight. Morrissey was not late. Yes, he was scheduled to start at 8:15 and he and his band did not walk onto the stage until after 8:45. But that doesn’t make him late. The “Morrissey Show” started promptly at 8:15. It’s just that the first thirty minutes of the Morrissey Show consists of a YouTube playlist featuring clips of Lou Reed, Anne Sexton, Alice Cooper, James Baldwin, the New York Dolls, and a flamenco dancer.
You might be wondering if the above paragraph is sarcastic or serious. I honestly can’t tell you. I’m torn. I get that this is what Morrissey does. In fact, several of the videos he showed were the same as when I saw him back in 2006. But is it appropriate for a festival appearance? I dunno…
Attendees of big festivals have choices, and we plan our schedules down to the minute. OK, I can watch the first half of Death Cab, then run over and catch a couple Method Man songs and a little bit of Social Distortion before running back to see Morrissey. This is how we manage our time at festivals. It’s short attention span theater, and if you don’t grab my attention in five minutes, there are other bands playing just a short walk away. Hit it and quit it.
Anyway, for Morrissey I was planning on sticking around for the whole set, which ended up being pretty good. He opened with “Suedehead” and dusted off “Ouija Board” as well as “Everyday Is Like Sunday” and a whole bunch of newer stuff. His voice sounded as strong as ever. Before he lurched into “World Peace Is None of Your Business” he went off on a little speech about how Bernie Sanders was the only anti-war candidate. Which might be true, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody that Moz is a Bernie bro; his political persuasion has always been naive at best and infantile at times. He ended his set by audaciously complaining about the time constraints, but made up for that with “What She Said,” the only Smiths song of the evening. The last time I saw him he played a bunch of Smiths songs, so that was a bit of a bummer. Oh well, enough said.
Sunday was another beautiful day and was full of surprises. I didn’t have high expectations for Juliette Lewis other than possibly providing a good photo opportunity and some snide comments about the vapidness of celebrity. Other than John Lurie, has there ever been an actor’s musical side project that’s been any good? But Lewis surprised me. She was totally into it, she has a strong voice and a good band, and she has perfected her Iggy Pop dance moves. Her band, the Licks, are way more goofy and loose than typical Hollywood casting call “rockers.” I fully endorse seeing this band in a club if they come to your town.
Next, we wandered over to Dee Snider. He and I go a long way back. In 1984, my mom had the cable company disconnect MTV from our house after I flipped out and thrashed around my room screaming Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” It was proof that rock and roll could change your life. Thirty years later I introduced that video to my own son who thought it was the greatest thing ever and continues to watch it regularly. Snider today is a self-deprecating pop-metal entertainer who clearly felt out of place among all the punks at Riot Fest. He joked about his hair being “stuck in the 80s” but hey, when it’s like this I feel the music shootin’ through me, there’s nothin’ else that I would rather do. I wanna rock. So there, Mom!
And then it was time for Andrew WK who we’ve mocked on this site since 2002. I had never seen him live or actually listened to any of his music since sampling some 30-second RealAudio clips back in the pre-YouTube era. He was not at all what I expected. First of all, he’s a boogie woogie piano player. How come nobody told me that? He’s way closer to Jerry Lee Lewis than to Slaughter. Maybe he’s toned down his shtick recently, or maybe 2016 has beaten me down so thoroughly that I really crave expressions of joy, but his between-song banter did not annoy me. I found myself smiling the whole time. He was having a blast up there with his dopey band. His joy did not seem phony at all. And why not? He’s got a great gig and he knows it. Playing music should be fun. I love sad sack dad rock as much as anybody, but there are so many musicians who appear miserable onstage, that it’s just refreshing to see somebody grinning from ear to ear. Consider me a fan.
By this time I finally had a feel for the layout of the park. We bought some tacos and sat on a blanket in the shade for a while. Checked out the merch tents and tried to figure out the “carnival” angle. As far as I can tell, there’s just the Ferris wheel and then a sideshow revue that happens a few inconvenient times per day in a corner of the park you don’t have any reason to walk by. Seems like they could do more with this. The lights on the Ferris wheel should form a skull or something…
But I guess the main reason you’re there is for the music. And there was a bunch of it. We wandered by War on Women (badass), the Wonder Years (I heard them call Trump “that orange Hitler motherfucker”), Bad Religion (righteous), the Julie Ruin (fun and Kathleen Hanna has fantastic dance moves, although at times it felt like a Fred Armisen skit), Underoath (every parent’s nightmare, unlistenable), Jake Bugg (adorable), and Sleater-Kinney (awesome).
I always enjoyed the Me First and the Gimme Gimme albums and expected them to be a fun band to see live. Nope. They’re a one trick pony that can’t seem to decide if its trick is supposed to be funny or not. Their gimmick is “punky” covers of classic pop and country songs. As you might imagine, this is perfect for putting a quirky song in the middle of a mixtape but it gets old immediately in concert. For one thing, the whole concept is undone by the relative virtuosity of the band. And Spike Slawson can actually sing, so instead of sounding like a snotty bunch of kids killing your idols, the Gimmes come across like a fairly impressive wedding band. A distortion pedal and a few pick scrapes isn’t enough to make these songs their own. And the whole concept is anachronistic. At this point Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” sounds as “punk” as most of the Gimmes’ set.
You know who’s fun to see live? Rob Zombie. Dude puts on a show. His set had everything: balloons, smoke, mic stand shaped like a crucified Nosferatu, zombie makeup, fringed jacket, dreads, band with serial killer masks. It was over the top and awesome. A very nice teenaged girl with green lips offered me some weed, but I declined. I had to drive back to Michigan after all.
After the Misfits, that is. I didn’t get into them back in the day. Their fans creeped me out. In my school, just the metal kids liked them. It wasn’t until years later when a pal put “Skulls” on a mixtape that I really gave them a chance and realized they weren’t scary at all; they were good! By that time I had already discovered Hasil Adkins, so the idea of hacking the heads off little girls was old hat. Plus musically, there is a lot more going on than what I had assumed based on the t-shirts. There’s a rockabilly influence that makes it way more fun to listen to than most other American hardcore. Plus, Danzig is a great crooner and a hilarious lyricist.
Unfortunately, we didn’t hear much of that Sunday night in Chicago. Complaining about the “shitty mics” and that the “monitors suck,” Danzig’s vocals sounded like garbage. “20 Eyes” is one of my favorite songs of all time and I didn’t even recognize it until about 30 seconds into it. I just fact-checked myself by watching some fan-shot video which confirms how bad he sounded.
Even though he’s clearly out of shape, it was still awesome to see those guys playing those songs. And despite his whining about the technical issues, Danzig seemed to be enjoying the reaction from the fans. He was gregarious with his stage banter, punctuating sentences with “motherfucker” like he was getting away with something naughty, frequently chuckling at the mayhem in the pit, and tossing bottles of water out to the crowd. I think he might’ve actually been having fun.
And the stage design was amazing. I almost peed my pants when the black curtain came down and revealed the two 20-foot-tall jack o’lanterns! I was laughing so hard. Sometimes I wonder if Danzig forgets the joke though. He seems to take himself very seriously. This is a guy who can sing “I turned into a Martian” one moment and then shortly later announce, “Here’s another song I wrote about how much I hate the fucking Kennedys, corrupt mafioso motherfuckers. Yeah, I said it. They’ll probably have some drone come and fucking kill me.” Probably not, Glenn. Pretty sure Maria Shriver has more important things on her mind these days.
But yeah, just look at the setlist. Every song is a stone cold classic. I’m thrilled I got to see this band. It was fun. This and the Riot Fest in Denver a couple weeks ago were the first time they’ve played together since 1983. Sometimes reunions are purely nostalgic, and sometimes they produce a whole new level of magic. This one may not have been magic, but I’m hoping Danzig gets his voice and his lungs in shape and they continue to tour. Everybody should get the chance to see them do their thing.
In the 30 years since they last played together, the Misfits’ aesthetic has gone mainstream. Ed Wood has become a celebrated director whose films are all just a click away. Monster movies are hip. Skulls are cute now. Even babies rock the crimson ghost. The Republican nominee for president is a conspiracy theorist. Halloween is more popular than Easter. So it’s time for the originators of all that spooky stuff to reclaim their title. Plus, what else are they going to do with those two giant pumpkins?
All photos by Jolie Brown for Glorious Noise. See lots more on Flickr.