Riot Fest 2021: Be Safe Out There

So this is what it’s like attending a big music festival during a global pandemic, huh? Cool.

Big thanks to the 385,000 guinea pigs who attended Lollapalooza this year and proved that you can go to a huge, multi-day outdoor party without becoming part of a superspreader event…as long as you are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result.

I’ll admit that I had been dubious that Riot Fest was going to happen this year, especially after seeing those photos of the tightly packed, maskless hordes in Grant Park. But health officials only found 203 cases connected to Lollapa. Nothing unexpected. So yay!

That good news did not prevent several bands on the original lineup from pulling out of Riot Fest including My Chemical Romance, Nine Inch Nails, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, PUP, Holy Fawn, White Lung, Skating Polly, Faith No More, and Mr. Bungle. You might think that losing several big-name headliners and support groups would tank a music festival.

But Riot Fest is scrappy. And agile!

They were able to add a bunch of replacements at the last minute. It’s hard to imagine a corporately owned event being this quick on its feet, but independent Riot Fest can get shit done. They added Skipknot, Flaming Lips, Rise Against, Anthrax, Body Count, Pinegrove, Envy on the Coast, Action/Adventure, and Clockworks. Not only that but they tacked on a bonus Thursday with Morrissey, Patti Smith, Alkaline Trio, Joyce Manor, WDRL, and Kristeen Young.

Thursday evening felt like a throwback to what music fests used to be like: Two stages, no soundbleed from overlapping music, good ratio of killer to filler.

Patti Smith is amazing live and if you haven’t seen her in concert, you really should make it happen. She’s 74 so who knows how long she’ll keep touring? And she’s just so cool and life-affirming. Like, you can see the terrible world with clear eyes but still be positive and hopeful and happy. The fact that she continues to share this joy with us should not be taken for granted.

Someone who’s not known for sharing a lot of joy is Morrissey. People hate him. And he makes it easy to do so. People hate him so much they throw hotdogs at him. Which, you know, is pretty funny, but come on now. Yes, he says a lot of terrible things. And he paints himself as victim when we all know that’s just ridiculous. “Art is not a crime,” read one of his stage backdrops. Neither is being an asshole but you’re still an asshole. Sigh. I love his music. I’ve been loving his music since I was 15. I just can’t quit him!

Morrissey ditched his typical 30-minute opening video presentation and after a brief a capella snippet of “My Way” (“To say the things that he truly feels / And not the words of one who kneels,” oh brother!), kicked right off with “How Soon Is Now.” His set included additional Smiths classics, “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” “Never Had No One Ever,” and “Half a Person” as well as solo oldies “Everyday Is Like Sunday” and “Ouija Board.” His band has always been kind of pedestrian, but this time they were on fire. They must’ve spent lockdown getting good. Between songs, Moz made plenty of his trademark quips, which people either think are funny, or they don’t. I do. Morrissey’s humor is often misinterpreted or misunderstood or just missed. He’s in on the joke and always has been.

Both Patti Smith and Morrissey pointed out that it was Mexican Independence Day. That explains the Mexican flags and celebratory fireworks around the city all night long. ¡Viva México!

Friday was hot and muggy and a storm was rolling in. There wasn’t a ton on my “must-see” list but it’s fun to bounce around from stage to stage hoping for that magic moment when you stumble onto something surprising that you weren’t expecting. Girlpuppy is a band whose singer writes sad songs and looks like a Boticelli painting. This was their second show ever. They seemed like they would’ve been more comfortable playing a college basement party than a dusty festival field in the afternoon sun, but their songs were charming and sweet.

One of the new features on the Riot Fest midway was the thing where the “Riot Fest Twitter Person” wore a mask and sat in a dunk tank and heckled the crowd. The @RiotFest account is funny. This hired carnie was not. I heard him calling out women for being fat and mocking a Black man for the size of his lips, no shit. And I only walked by him twice, so who knows what other offensive garbage he was spewing. I didn’t see him at all on Saturday or Sunday so hopefully he got fired.

Did you realize that three of the nine bands who played the very first Lollapalooza tour were at Riot Fest this year? Would’ve been four if Nine Inch Nails hadn’t bailed. I was there in 1991 at Pine Knob outside Detroit. I don’t have any concrete memories of seeing Fishbone or Living Color, but that’s not saying much because I don’t have many concrete memories of anything from 1991. Do you? Funk metal has never been my jam (other than side one of Standing On the Verge of Getting It On) but this time both of those bands impressed me. Fishbone, in particular, was groovy and soulful. Living Color is still a little too metal for me and the guitar tones sounded generic, but their drummer is a monster. Whatever though. It’s thirty years past their heyday and they are still getting down.

My magical moment of surprise of the weekend came courtesy of Beach Goons. I’d seen the name but had never heard them. Oh my goodness, check them out. They are three young guys who play punk rock exactly the way it should be played. Someone described it as “fast paced, alternative surf punk with an underlying Latin thump” and that feels accurate. When they finished their set with a cover of “La Bamba” I was hooked. Unfortunately, it looks like they haven’t released anything since 2018, but they’re touring now so maybe something new is on the way? Hope so because they’re my new favorite band.

At some point on Friday evening the sky got dark and weird and the Weather Channel app showed shitloads of lightning to the west and heading our way. I’ve been evacuated from a music festival before and it’s one thing when you’re in the loop and have to find a bar with sufficient waitstaff to ride out a storm, but if that happens in Douglas Park where do you even go? The Pink Line would look like the Kabul Airport with hundreds of tattooed thirty-somethings clinging to the side of the el. “Doors closing.” Oh, the humanity.

Made it back to our room before the rain started and reports from the scene revealed that people got a little wet but not too bad. We chilled for a bit until the rain stopped and then headed over to Avec on Randolph. Impeccable service and delicious plates and drinks as always. If forced to choose between heirloom tomatoes and Smashing Pumpkins, I’m going with the tomatoes every time. With labneh cheese, coriander and black lime? No contest.

Saturday was sunny and cooler. I even contemplated wearing jeans for a sec.

Big Freedia, the queen of bounce music, got the party started with her big diva energy. Riot Fest is known for its focus on guitar bands but it’s showcased hip hop since it settled down into an outdoor destination festival. In addition to Freedia, this year had Lupe Fiasco, Vic Mensa, and Run the Jewels.

There was a weird old dude wearing a loin cloth selling beer and water from a wagon he pulled around the park. I couldn’t help being terrified that his buns were going to get sunburned. Speaking of weird old naked dudes, Les Savy Fav puts on quite a show. It involved face paint and glitter and lead singer Tim Harrington jumping into the crowd in his underpants and rubbing his big sweaty belly on his fans. “I’m slippery like an eel, watch out!” His band looks like a bunch of squares who are alternately bemused and annoyed by their singer’s antics. I saw Harrington later that day walking around in a t-shirt and pants and he looked like a totally normal beardo at a fest, exposed as a big rock star only by a bit of lingering glitter in an eyebrow.

Best Coast was happy to be there. Bethany Cosentino announced that this was their first show in two years. That was a common sentiment. Everybody seemed relieved to be playing in front fans again. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for bands at this level to get by over the past 18 months. It’s not like they’re getting PPP loans, right? Can bands collect unemployment?

Maybe I should’ve asked Gogol Bordello. They seem like they would know the answer to economic questions like that. But who knows? Eugene Hütz, always the most photogenic person on the festival circuit, seemed to lack his previous level of energy. Maybe, like the rest of us, he has lost a bit of his stamina from being locked up inside for the better part of two years. Or maybe he’s getting bored with the jumping-around-like-a-marionette shtick.

I’ve told this story before but the first time I saw Rancid was back in 1996 at a venue that has since been converted into a church. The grownups in the bar area were separated from the kids on the floor by a chicken wire fence. Those guys have aged a lot better than I have. I mean, they’re way cooler anyway. I can’t speak for their health or well-being or anything but they still know how to make a hell of a racket and make a crowd go nuts.

By the time Run the Jewels took the stage it was dark out. Riot Fest doesn’t do a great job of lighting up Douglas Park at night and as the crowds closed in it was the first time that I had started to feel uncomfortable with the people around me being too close. There were a couple of bros behind me yelling to each other about the differences between Harvard Business School, Wharton, and University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. I don’t know. Fests, man. What can you do?

Killer Mike and El-P know how to entertain. El-P said this was only their third concert in three years, but they didn’t seem rusty. They were excited to play some RTJ4 songs and we were all excited to hear them, even the business bros behind me. Music brings us together in a way that is really good for us. It’s easy to forget that when people are being annoying. But when’s the last time you got to be annoyed by a couple of strangers yelling nonsense behind you? It’s been a while, right?

I woke up Sunday morning in pain. Too much running around, too much sun, not enough water. I get that the Riot Fest organizers felt compelled to add more value to the “3-day” pass since half of their headliners dropped out, but adding an extra day is brutal. Am I finally getting too old to be putting ten miles a day on Chuck Taylors? Am I going to need to switch to more sensible grownup shoes? No time to think too much about that because I needed to be at the park by noon to catch the Gories. In the most ungodly scheduling transgression of the weekend, the founders of primitive Detroit garage rock were opening up the final day of the festival. What the fuck? They should’ve been headlining.

They were great, of course. Mick Collins and Dan Kroha are charismatic rock stars and Peggy O’Neill pounded away on her three-piece drumset and frowned throughout their 25-minute set, at the conclusion of which she stood up, grabbed her bag, and stomped off stage while her two guitarists continued to feed back for a minute. It was perfect.

Not much could live up to that, but I wandered around again looking for some magic. Facs were arty and boring, Airstream Futures were fun but forgettable, Blackstarkids were enthusiastic and adorable, Mother Mother looked like your new neighbors from suburban Canada, K. Flay was a perky, self-loathing millennial. And then there was Gymshorts. They’re a band from Rode Island led by Sarah Greenwell who is all smiles and jumping around and beating the crap out of her Fender Mustang. The fact that she was actually wearing gym shorts was a bonus. Their set was second only to Beach Goons on my list of happy surprises.

And then there was Body Count, the third band on the roster who had also played the original Lollapalooza in 1991. I can clearly remember walking across the lawn at Pine Knob when Body Count unfurled its backdrop: The Los Angeles Raiders logo but instead of a pirate it was Ice-T and instead of swords there were guns. My young mind was blown. Back then I never would’ve imagined that thirty years later, Ice-T would be the big star of a long-running network television program, beloved by old white ladies who watch Dick Wolf cop shows. Why he chooses to tour with his thrash band after all this time is anybody’s guess. Ice-T seems to relish his role as band leader. He’s got some sweet fist-pumping dad moves he’s not afraid to bust out. He clearly enjoys rocking out despite his constant scowl. They opened with a cover of Slayer’s “Reign in Blood.” So yeah. They’re fun.

Plus, I felt obligated to watch their set because I’d been wearing the hat all weekend and didn’t want to seem like a poser. Oh, did I not mention my ridiculous hat? Yeah, when I arrived on Thursday I realized I had forgotten to pack a baseball cap to protect my enormous forehead from the harsh rays of the sun. So I scoped the merch tents. There were a couple of alright Riot Fest hats but that felt a little corny, like wearing a band t-shirt to the band’s concert. The only other hat I saw was a ZERO hat and you know how I feel about the Smashing Pumpkins. I would’ve happily sported an heirloom tomato hat but didn’t see any. I did however see a Body Count hat, and since I had been there with them back in 91, I felt like an O.G. (See what I did there?)

It was only after the merch person went all the way to the other end of the tent and brought it back to me did I learn that on the back it said “talk shit, get shot.” Which, well, isn’t really on brand for me. But I needed a hat so I pulled the trigger. (Sorry about that one.)

It’s bad enough walking by police officers multiple times a day while you’re sporting a lid from a band whose only real claim to fame is a song called “Cop Killer.” But when you’re walking through the neighborhood to the park from the Pink Line basically threatening to shoot anybody who dares to step? Well, I just had to hope that everybody was picking up on the irony. Fortunately, nobody talked any shit throughout the weekend. Phew!

So despite all the setbacks and cancellations and craziness, Riot Fest managed to pull off a great weekend. It continues to be the best festival for folks who like rock and roll. I’ve seen people griping about the lack of diversity in the lineup but the majority of the sets I watched were by bands fronted by women or people of color. Doing the math, it’s actually two-thirds. I guess it helps that I skipped a lot of headliners. But whatever. It pays to show up early. It’s less crowded and you get to see cooler bands.

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Riot Fest 2021 Photos

Patti Smith at the Riot stage on Thursday.
Morrissey at the Riot stage on Thursday.
Girlpuppy on the Rebel stage on Friday.
Fishbone at the Radical stage on Friday.
Living Colour at the Radical stage on Friday.
Beach Goons at the Rebels stage on Friday.
Big Freedia at the Riot stage on Saturday.

GWAR at the Radical stage on Saturday.

Les Savy Fav at the Roots stage on Saturday.

Gogol Bordello at the Roots stage on Saturday.
Rancid at the Radical stage on Saturday.
Run the Jewels at the Riot stage on Saturday.
The Gories at the Roots stage on Sunday.
Gymshorts at the Rebels stage on Sunday.
Body Count at the Riot stage on Sunday.

All photos by Jolie Brown for Glorious Noise.

We also shot a ton of other bands this year including Kississippi, Night Moves, Best Coast, Ganser, Facs, AirstreamFutures, Blackstarskids, Mother Mother, and K. Flay. We’ll be posting these to Instagram over the next several weeks. So follow us there.

2 thoughts on “Riot Fest 2021: Be Safe Out There”

    1. Yeah for sure, but these guys have basically been treading water since at least 2006, writing the same type of uninspired background music to Morrissey’s occasionally still decent lyrics. Every time I’ve seen them live before this, they’ve been competent and alright but nothing to get excited about. This time, the band was on fire and it seemed to drive Morrissey to try harder. It was great. (But if he’s going to insist on recording new material, I still wish Morrissey would collaborate with a different set of musicians. He should team up with Beach Goons, for example! Or any young group of hungry whippersnappers, really.)

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