I’ve been attending big music festivals in Chicago every summer since 2005, but it’s been many many years since I arrived anywhere near early enough to see the opening wave of bands. There’s always bands I’d kinda like to see who play before 2:30pm but 3-day music festivals are work and you have to make sacrifices for your health and sanity.
Riot Fest scheduled Liz Phair to play at 2:10 on Friday this year. That’s early. Especially for a Friday. And even more so since I no longer live in Chicago. But I love Liz Phair, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen her in concert. In fact, I had tickets to see her in Detroit on Thursday but once the Riot Fest lineup was released, I decided to skip it. But that made it mandatory to arrive in Douglas Park in time.
I didn’t need to worry. Getting in to the park this year was easier than ever before. In fact, we made it inside with plenty of time to see festival opener Speedy Ortiz, who coincidentally is opening up for Liz Phair on her current tour. They were fun and cool. And their 30-minute set flew by.
The best thing about Riot Fest is that it’s got a small enough footprint that you can run around from stage to stage in no time. Five or ten minutes is all you need to get from one to the another. Unfortunately, this also means there’s soundbleed from other bands if you’re not standing directly in front of the stage. But it’s great to be able to skip around and get a sampler platter of everything that’s happening.
So even though Liz Phair’s start time was only 40 minutes after Speedy Ortiz’s end time, that was long enough to check out a few songs by Milwaukee punks Direct Hit on the next stage, grab a beer, check out the t-shirts, and make it back to the front before Liz kicked off her set with “Supernova.” Her voice sounded confident and her banter was funny and charming, but I don’t why she has two additional guitar players in her band. She is not Lynyrd Skynyrd. It sounded muddy.
In total she played eight of her best songs (including five from Exile in Guyville) plus two of the Matrix co-writes from her eponymous 2003 album. I’ve come around to enjoying “Why Can’t I” for its Avril pop confection, but “Extraordinary” remains the most cringey song in her discography. Pretty sure she has it in her setlist just to annoy old grumps like me. She closed with the one-two punch of “Fuck and Run” and “The Divorce Song.” You’d think at this point she’s earned more than a 45-minute 2pm timeslot, but who knows what mad science goes into formulating a festival schedule.
After Liz we checked out Pussy Riot who are far more interesting as provocateurs than musicians. They read a 30-point manifesto on something or other and did some interpretive dance over some big beats. I dunno. I wish them well (fight the power!) but you get the point after a couple of minutes.
On the way to get tacos we stumbled upon the Aquabats who we realized were the second band in a row we saw wearing masks. These guys were way more fun than Pussy Riot though and threw out inflatable pizza floaties into the crowd (among other inflatable floaties including sharks and cheeseburgers). I was impressed with what must be a hefty inflatable floaty budget for a ska band.
Sum 41 only has like one song (right?) so they definitely didn’t earn the right to be 15 minutes late. I just remember them being like the younger version of Blink 182 (who was scheduled to headline this year but cancelled due to health issues). Once they started they were fine, but Riot Fest has no shortage of pop punk bands so we moved along to the opposite side of the park to catch the Bombpops on the small Rebel stage. They were great: Los Angeles power pop that sounds like mid-period Weezer but sung by sweaty girls. What’s not to love?
Digable Planets reunited to perform Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) on its 25th anniversary, and I remember loving that album back in the day, but apparently I only remember the song “Cool Like Dat” because nothing sounded particularly familiar before we took off to watch Matt and Kim. They blew my mind at Lollapalooza 2007 when they unexpectedly filled in for a Brazilian band that had gotten held up by customs. Since that time they’ve gotten popular and their recordings have never lived up to that live set I saw. I couldn’t imagine that they’d be able to recapture the magic I had experienced now that they’re much bigger. I was wrong. If anything they were even more crazy and infectious than they were back then.
Matt thanked Chicago for always supporting them from the days they were playing basement clubs and house parties blackout drunk. Kim claimed she wasn’t far from it, after drinking in the sun all day. She proceeded to be the life of the party, smiling the entire time she played, dancing on top of her drums, and making hilariously vulgar stage banter about everything from her vagina to her butthole to her breasts, which she eventually flashed to the crowd.
They now incorporate all kinds of hip hop elements (they don’t rap but they use samples and beats) into their music, which is a little strange because Matt and Kim are the whitest people on the planet outside of Canada. But it works somehow and the crowd was super into it, jumping up and down and going nuts.
Half of my crew went home after that and I don’t blame them. That might have been the right call. It had already been a long day.
Bleachers are weird. They sound like a watered down Bruce Springsteen tribute band. I have no idea what Jack Antonoff has done to earn the privilege of working with Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent, and Lana Del Rey, but good for him. All that stuff he’s done with them has been good. Dude’s a goob though in his white tennis shorts and stupid hat. And his band is just alright.
Cypress Hill was supposed to be playing all of 1993’s Black Sunday but they’ve got Mixmaster Mike as their DJ now and he did a ten-minute intro. It was cool. After they played “Break ‘Em Off Some” they revealed that they’d be playing the album “back to front” instead. I’m guessing this was mostly to prevent everybody from leaving as soon as they heard track 3, “Insane in the Brain.”
Then there was Weezer. I used to love this band so hard. I still think Pinkerton is the best concept album of the 90s, but man, they’ve released a lot of garbage since then and Rivers Cuomo sure makes it hard to wanna defend him. But they had the guts to open with “Buddy Holly” so you’ve got to give them credit. Plus I got to hear “Hash Pipe” and “Jonas” and “El Scorcho,” so overall I’m glad I stuck around. I just can’t quit them.
We had to arrive early on the second day as well, because Jolie wanted to see a band whose name she could never remember. She kept calling them the Dirty Wastebasket but they’re called Lower Class Brats and they were playing at 2:15. We had heard a song on a playlist called “Who Writes Your Rules (For Rebellion)” and it’s perfect. And live, they didn’t disappoint. I suppose it’s fairly standard run of the mill punk rock, but when it’s done well it’s undeniable. You get the crowd singing along with the “Oh whoa whoa whoa” choruses and pumping their fists to the “Oi” punctuation and it’s everything you want to see at Riot Fest. And then they go and support an all-female mosh pit for a song and it’s even better. I still don’t know anything about the Dirty Wastebaskets but if they come back through my town I’ll definitely go see them again.
Gary Numan, on the other hand, was not at all what I was expecting. I’ll admit I only know “Cars” but I was very surprised to discover that he’s essentially Nine Inch Nails in a Rod Blagojevich wig. I couldn’t get away from there quickly enough.
Which was fine because Bully was playing right around the corner. I like everything I’ve heard by them and like a lot of cool guitar bands these days fronted by young women, they sound like the 90s. Live, it tends to be less noticeable but they’re good and loud and cool. We needed more tacos though so we couldn’t stay long enough to hear any of the songs I know. While we were eating, a terrible blooze band called Reignwolf nearly made it impossible for me to swallow my food. Just obnoxiously anachronistic guitar wankery. A total buzzkill.
We listened to Cat Power from a shady spot where we couldn’t see her but where we had easy access to beer and a comfy place to sit. I had never noticed how much her stuff sounds like The Trinity Sessions until now. It’s chillout music for sure. No need to stand in the sun for that. Speaking of which, the weather all weekend was gorgeous. September is a crapshoot in Chicago, but it was sunny and warm the whole time.
I love Julian Casablancas’ voice but wow his band the Voidz sucks live. They came on late, which is always annoying at a fest where you’re dealing with tight schedules, but when they finally hit the stage they were just horrible. Casablancas sings in this godawful falsetto and hunches over the mic like Quasimodo but with a much worse haircut. Not good at all.
From there we hoofed it over to get a good spot for Elvis Costello. Earlier we had run into some friends who were debating whether to see Killing Joke (playing at the same time as Costello) instead, because Killing Joke never tours. “But Elvis Costello is going to die.” We all are. But I still wanted to see Costello at least once before either of us do.
He opened with “Pump It Up” and closed with “Peace, Love and Understanding” so I can’t complain. (Although I would have loved to have heard “Allison,” “Red Shoes,” and “Veronica.”)
And then it was time for the Killer. Jerry Lee Lewis is a living legend, a pioneer of rock and roll. He’s also a bigamist, a child molester, and very likely a murderer, quite possibly twice over. And yet… He’s 82 years old. He has no business being alive at all. He has lived very hard. But he also helped invent this whole deal that I’ve dedicated most of my life to studying and appreciating. So I needed to see him.
But then he was a little late. His band, led by Kenny Lovelace — also 82 — who has played with Lewis since 1966, came out and played a few country songs. Lovelace made a roadie relocate a monitor and some electric cabling, clearing a path for the hobbled old Killer to shuffle onto the stage in a sparkly sequined jacket, cane in hand, up to his piano and sit down at the bench. And then he banged the shit out of the keys like he’s been doing for 60+ years. His voice was weak and who knows how his fingers work, but his arms are clearly strong enough pump those hands up and down and across that piano, and if you cross him I bet he could still whoop your ass in a heartbeat. His cane looks like it could be used in service of that task as well. Beware.
We cut out a little early to head over to the main stage where Beck would soon be closing out the day. the last time I saw Beck was in 2002 when the Flaming Lips opened and backed him up. It was not a great show. It was oddly paced and every time he’d build some momentum, he’d kill it with another bummer off of Sea Change. That was not a problem this time. He was in full-time disco party mode and it was 100% fun. Most of the set was comprised of tracks from Odelay, Midnite Vultures, Guero, and his upbeat new album Colors.
Plus, Beck had the best sounding set of the whole weekend. I don’t know if it’s just because it was louder or what, but there was none of the muddiness or whooshiness of other sets, even on the same stage when standing the same spot. And his stage design was super cool, all LEDs and lasers. He had eight people on stage and during the breakdown in the “Where It’s At” finale, he introduced everybody and gave them their own little showcase. The bass player played a bit of Chic’s “Good Times,” the guitar player did “Miss You” by the Stones, and when the keyboard player did “Cars” they brought Gary Numan onstage to sing it, so I got to see that without suffering through his whole set, ha ha.
Beck was awesome. He seemed to be in great spirits and his dance moves were on point. The only unfortunate thing was that he was lined up against Andrew WK, who puts on a super uplifting show. But fests require tough decisions sometimes, and that how it goes.
Since I moved away from Chicago in 2010 the last day of a festival is always hard. I’ve gotta drive home afterwards so I need to stop drinking at some point and keep on my toes. We were going to have to leave early despite how aware I am of what a great show Run the Jewels puts on. It’s a bummer to have to miss that but you know: #fests. So we got there early again to maximize the fun. We heard a little bit of Beach Goons followed by a little bit of Beach Rats, but we spent most of the early afternoon drinking beer in the shade and hanging out with people. It was hot and humid on Sunday, and beer and shade were necessary.
The first band I really wanted to see was old school hardcore band Fear, who was playing their debut album, The Record (1977), in full. Fear is the band that John Belushi notoriously booked to play Saturday Night Live in 1981 when they trashed the place and got banned for life. Before they started playing the album they did a song telling a bitch to get in the kitchen and make some breakfast. I thought it was probably supposed to be satirical but I’m learning not to tell women they shouldn’t be offended by stuff. It’s a process.
All I knew about SWMRS is that my favorite band the Regrettes opened for them on a recent European tour and posted about how great they were on social media. They were not wrong. They opened with a song about how much they hate Los Angeles (“Drive North”), which automatically won me over. Since then I’ve found out they’re from Oakland and their drummer is Green Day frontman Billy Joe Armstrong’s kid. The apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree, for sure, but SWMRS is fronted by the Becker brothers who aren’t afraid to embrace their dorkiness.
I’ve loved Johnny Marr since the Smiths were still together. And I’ve seen just about every band Johnny Marr has been in since they split. From Electronic to the The, Modest Mouse and the Cribs. Even the Healers. But now he’s solo and he’s better than ever. I like the singles from his new albums but nothing’s better than hearing him play those riffs from “Bigmouth,” “There Is a Light,” and “How Soon Is Now.” Although it was pretty great to hear him introduce “Getting Away With It” as “This is a disco song from Manchester, England.”
Superchunk never disappoints, although you can definitely feel the absence of Laura Ballance, who no longer tours with the band due to hearing problems. Mac McCaughan still makes me feel young, which I am not, because he’s older than me and he still bounces around the stage and rocks out like a teenage punk. And it’s always a pleasure to see Jon Wurtster behind the drums. Dude’s a monster.
I’ve blown off the opportunity to see Blondie a few times. They even played my kid’s high school auditorium a few years ago. But Debbie Harry is 73 now and who knows if I’ll get another chance? Founder Chris Stein didn’t play with them at Riot Fest for some unannounced reason, but original drummer Clem Burke is still a beast. They’re still great and I now wish I would’ve been going to see them all along.
I would have loved to stick around for Father John Misty and Run the Jewels, but I’ve seen them both already and it’s a long drive home and big music festivals always require some hard choices and sacrifices.
Riot Fest 2018 was blast as always, and it’s still the best music fest for music fans who like guitar bands.
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Day One Photos
Day Two Photos
Day Three Photos
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All photos by Jolie Brown for Glorious Noise.
Always on the bleeding edge of technology, Glorious Noise recently created an Instagram account. We posted a bunch of Jolie’s shots from Riot Fest while we were there, and we’ll be posting a lot more in the future plus tons of other photos taken for Glorious Noise over our 16+ years online. It’s kind of amazing how many great shots we’ve got in the archives. Follow us!