Riot Fest Chicago, Humboldt Park, Chicago, IL- 9/13-15
Riot Fest has grown into a huge festival over the nine years since its inception in 2005. What started as a multi-venue Chicago festival has grown into a city-touring outdoor festival that hosts over a hundred bands and hundreds and thousands of concertgoers. But despite the tens of thousands who attended the three-day festival at Humboldt Park in mid-September, it still feels like Riot Fest is flying under the radar despite its massive turn outs in Toronto, Chicago and Denver. This is perhaps because it’s an organization that doesn’t concern itself too heavily with what’s new or noteworthy, but rather celebrates the DIY ethos of early punk and all the genres and ethos, it would spur into the 90s and beyond. Despite the current masses the fest draws, it’s interesting to note that cofounder ‘Riot-Mike’ Petryshyn had the DIY spirit in mind back in 2005 when he first thought up the dream. “I was going to school, working a 9-5, and I guess I was just bored with what I was doing and I thought it’d be a good idea – to try to get some of my favorite bands together.” It perhaps seems counterintuitive that what began as a grassroots passion project has grown into a mass outdoor fest when riot Mike has himself expressed his reluctance to move the fest into new territory. “Originally I was dead-set against it. I don’t like outdoor fests, y’know people are bottlenecked everywhere, it doesn’t have the vibe that I wanted, and my partner Shawn and I thought if we were gonna do it outside, we were gonna do it on our own terms.” Walking into the Riot grounds of Chicago’s Humboldt Park, I was immediately struck by the over-the-top carnival-esque, freak-scene-shit-show that would provide the bizarre setting for my next three days. There were the live wrestlers, the rides, sword swallowers, clown, the freak show tent itself, and who could forget the butter sculpture of John Stamos a.k.a. Butter Stamos a.k.a. meet you at Butter Stamos. While the weekend offered more than a few highlights, the most impressive part of Riot Fest isn’t in any one attraction but in the fest’s overall ability to transcend the irksomely impersonal nature of generic outdoor concerts. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a fest oozing with as much style, character, humor and personality as Riot Fest.
My first set of the weekend was party-boy Andrew W.K. who put on a show as ludicrous and entertaining as his reputation. Andrew celebrated the 10th anniversary of the now historic I Get Wet, a heaven-sent gift to the frosh kids of Party, USA. When listening to W.K. record or seeing him live, one thing is made evidently clear throughout the body of his output. The man likes to party. Like Michelangelo of TMNT, W.K. also likes pizza. And since he’s a skilled thrash-rock guitar player with a propensity for writing curiously catchy anthem hooks, you might just call Drew a bona-fide radical dude. It was my pleasure to kickoff the weekend by chucking my brain at the door and loving his slightly demented set.
I expected to really enjoy Joan Jett’s set but was less prepared for it to blow me out of the water. Joan Jett might just be as badass now as she ever was as a 16-year-old runaway. The show began with the type of mega favorites that bands playing fest sets generally reserve until the final minutes, such as Do You Want to Touch and Bad Reputation, kicking the show off with a bang. Watching Jett and band whale on their guitars, I was in awe of this larger-than-life woman, who paved the way for tens of thousands of girls dissatisfied with the man’s world ethos of rock ‘n roll. Like the original badass babe and leather before her, Suzi Quatro, Jett is a mesmerizing figure
Rioters looking to see something bizarre could hit the freakshow tent between the two main stages, but it is my guess that that tent, no matter how freakish, would have nothing on GWAR’s hilariously over-the-top horrorshow, which consisted of monsters thrashing metal guitars, gimp lackies, the bloody massacre of Queen Elizabeth’s baby, and my personal favorite, the gory sacrifice of Jesus Christ, first via crucifixion, then with the dismembering of the Christian savior’s limbs, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘first six rows may get wet’. Just ask the array of slime splattered GWAR fans I saw throughout the remainder of the evening. But that’s not to say GWAR are all show. Somehow these literal monsters of rock were able to play skilled, tightly woven metal all the while dressed in bulky demon suits. It was sacrilicious.
Saturday began with one of my most anticipated shows of the fest: the L.A. punk rockers X. I’m a big fan of X’s male/female call & response approach to the genre and was beyond satisfied to witness their chemistry in the flesh. It says a lot when the first band of a long day is anything but warm-up for the festivities about to unfold, but X blew this tendency out of the water providing a dive-in atmosphere for the early fest attendees. And the crowd was anything but Slim Pickens. Thousands gathered, danced and sang along to old X favorites like Los Angeles or Johny Hit and Run Paulene, and my personal favorite The World’s a Mess It’s in our Kiss. X were the perfect beginning to what surely must be one of my favorite days of the year.
Even though I’m unaccustomed to seeing Dinosaur Jr. in broad daylight – sunlight does seem a little counter-intuitive to the idea of rock shows – I was as transfixed as ever by J. Mascis’ wailing guitar parts, Lou Barlow’s heavy-hitting bass, and Murph’s dynamic drumming – which kept the classic power-trio in synch, right from their set-openers, which included favorite, The Lung followed by the more recent Watch the Corners, a highlight from last year’s excellent I Bet On Sky. The middle of the set ventured into early 90s Dinosaur with favorites like Out There and Feel the Pain followed by a foray into prehistoric territory with a Deep Wound song, the band that J and Lou first began in ‘82 at around 17 years of age. The show came to an epic finish, first with the Bug classic Freak Scene, one of the eternally great songs, and one ever-appropriate to the likes of Riot Fest, and finally with The Cure’s Just Like Heaven. JLH may not be a Dino song proper, but Mascis’ pedal-laden guitar take on the song’s synth lead, along with his disaffected take made it as classic a Dinosaur Jr. cut as anything either Mascis or Barlowe has ever written. And with J’s warbly electric intro, it’s easily one of the coolest tracks to see performed live.
“This is great fun isn’t it? To be sandwiched between X, Dino Jr., Blondie, and the Violent Femmes”, said Robert Pollard at the beginning of his Guided by Voices set. “I’ve always wanted to open up for Blondie!” And with that GBV launched into perhaps the best “opening set” Blondie has ever had. Since the show took place at 4:45 with the mid afternoon sun still shining bright, I wasn’t sure if I’d see the former teacher-turned faux British indie front man up to his drunk old tricks. Fortunately for me time of day didn’t factor into things at all as Pollard, tequila in hand, loosely performed songs old and new from GBV’s endless catalogue of run-on sentence song titles. It was a joy to see Pollard jump and kick passionately through epic lyric deliveries and an overall phenomenal performance that left the audience chanting GBV! As in the opening sounds of ‘92’s Propeller… Pollard’s fiery response to the chants: Up next… BLONDIE!!”
The Violent Femmes self titled, 1983 debut, is one of those magic albums that sounds as too-good-to-be-true to new listeners today as it did 30 years ago. The stripped down style of the Femmes, sounding half like Velvet Underground, half Modern Lovers, but mostly a phenomenon entirely to itself, served as the perfect platform for the restlessly genius, sardonic voice of Gordon Gano, a teenager with shocking command over his own angst. Now a lifetime later, The Femmes opened their Riot set with the album’s track one Blister in the Sun to a large crowd screaming lyrics back at them. Off the bat, Gano’s voice was as stringy and character-fueled as ever, backed by the beloved minimalist bass and snare-driven percussion. Blister was followed by track 2 off that album, Kiss Off – which might just be one of the greatest songs ever written and most fun to witness performed. When Kiss-Off was followed by the album’s track 3: Please Don’t Go, then again followed by Add It Up, it became apparent that the Femmes would be playing their perfect debut album in it’s entirety. Upon realizing this, I became ecstatic in my anticipation of the inevitable track 8: To The Kill, which contains more than a few lyrical nods to Chicago, such as “I ain’t no kid-Chicago, I ain’t no Al Capone”. When the time came, To The Kill was received with wild cheers and more vocal accompaniment by the crowd. After the album hit its conclusion, B-sides and all, the Femmes closed with their Why Do Birds Sing hit, American Music – a song that seemed to put the whole weekend in perspective. Riot Fest – and the rich history of bands contained within – is as American as it gets and bands like Violent Femmes are specifically why I too love American music best.
Sunday got off to a damp start, with rains casting a gloom over the first half of the day. But unlike many fest attendees, I didn’t let the dank prevent me from catching the stellar opening bands of the day that eventually saw the likes of The Pixies and the unthinkably awesome reunion of The Replacements. The rain proved to be the perfect setting for Peter Hook, the former Joy Division turned New Order bassist, who tours now with a band called The Light. On the one hand, Hook is surely one of my all time favorite bassists, and is responsible for writing some of the most influential bass lines of all time. On the other, things like his surly refusal to play nice with the remaining members of New Order and his cryptic quotes from the JD doc and elsewhere, make him a less than palatable character. To my surprise, Hook’s voice was pleasantly similar to Curtis’ and he was able to do justice to the Joy Division tracks they played. Despite his resentments, he thankfully treated the crowd to a reluctant and dickishly-introduce performance of New Order’s Ceremony – which I’ve often cited as one of the best songs ever written. Hook’s set, which closed with a better rendition of Love Will Tear Us Apart than New Order currently plays, was unexpectedly moving.
Still spitting rain, I rushed to the Rock stage, determined to catch every second of the brief 25 minute Mission of Burma set. Though Burma sounded excellent, the set’s mood was literally dampened by an insane looking, obese clown (unaffiliated with the official riot clowns) clumsily falling around the nefarious mud pit in splashes of dirt. Even worse than ‘Indie Fat Clown’ was the punk who thought he’d mix it up by throwing scoops of mud into the air. His incentive may have been in the riot spirit, but its not hard to relate to Burma’s “better you than me” looks to those running from the mud-slinger’s brown rain.
The wettest set of the fest would unfortunately be Bob Mould, but his three-piece lineup which included Superchunk’s smiley Jon Wurster on drums and Jason Narducy on bass, made the downpour seem secondary. Mould was in top form playing a grab bag of songs from his varied career. He seemed happy, enjoying himself almost as much as the crowd, many of whom were beside themselves to hear Sugar and Husker Du favorites.
After Mould there was a large gap of time before the next act I was anticipating – Pixies, so, I welcomed the opportunity to check out the Rebel Stage, which was the smallest of the five, showcasing smaller, more up and coming bands such as Twin Peaks – the local teenage rockers who put on quite a show for the eager crowd of devoted young fans. For me, the highlight of this stage came with the unpredictable performance of Japan’s Peelander-Z – a power-rangers-like outfit that demanded the crowd shout how they take their steak. The instructional bristol boards displayed that we were to shout “medium rare”. Their sound was punk but foremost was their ridiculous stage persona of broken English insanity. Peelander’s hard riffs and colorful lyrics had everyone chanting Rioto Festo!!!
As the day faded it became time to prepare for weekend heavyweights. Conflicted as to which stage to hit next, I thought about Riot Mike’s reluctance to take Riot Fest into the outdoor realm. Sadly his concerns came into fruition for me personally during The Replacements set. The problem here is that under any ordinary circumstances I would’ve gladly sat out any competing set to acquire the necessary spot for a show as holy as a Replacements reunion. In the case of the remarkably strong Riot lineup, the temptation to see The Pixies was simply too hard to resist. Riot Fest marked an especially intriguing, if not historically significant, Pixies set. On the one hand the band has just released a 4 song EP alongside the single Bagboy, their first new work in over 20 years. It also marked the first occasion when the band would replace a band member. After the recent departure of bassist/vocalist Kim Deal, The Pixies recruited Kim Shattuck, the throaty former lead singer of The Muffs to take over backup singing duties. Shattuck skeptics were concerned that her throaty vocals would not be able to replace Deal’s sweeter voice – a staple of the band’s sound from day one – but she kept her screaming capabilities in check, in favor of a more appropriately serene singing style. Her vocals on tracks like This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven demonstrated that the new lineup just might work out. It was especially cool to see new songs like Indie Cindy performed live, which with its satisfying foray into the band’s loud-quiet-loud formula, is a welcome addition to the Pixies repertoire. Sadly I cannot comment on how Shattuk fared during the Pixies’ set-ending favorites, as I had already left in an attempt to secure Replacements real-estate.
If I could do Sunday night differently, I would have chosen to either watch every last song of the Pixies set, or forego the show entirely. My plan to outsmart other Replacements fans by getting an advanced jump on my spot was the least intelligent decision I made all weekend. Thousands of fans were literally way ahead of me. When The Replacements finally took to the stage, I was so far back that the show felt frustratingly unattainable. But though I had zero visibility, it was clear from the large screens that The Replacements were in top form, as they were when I’d first seen them two weeks prior at Riot Fest Toronto. As for Chicago, while technically I was at this show, The Mats were simply not within’ my reach. Even sound was tough to gauge on account of the overwhelming din of crowd voices shouting every last lyric. While it’s always nice to see this type of enthusiasm, the unrelentingly zealous sing-alongs, which at no point let up, were a potent buzzkill. For this reason, the Chicago Mats show is virtually un-reviewable. Instead, allow me to focus on the Mats’ first show after a 22 year hiatus.
Of that epic night in Toronto, I recall thinking on the walk home that the most memorable aspect of the reunion wasn’t the setlist, as almost any variation of songs would’ve made for an amazing night – even one of their infamous sabotage cover shows would have been a treat of sorts. The detail of the reunion that I’ll hold especially dear and secure in the memory banks is the spirit of the evening itself. Even in their heyday, The Replacements never received the type of appreciation they were treated to in Toronto on that late August night. Tommy and Paul looked like they were on top of the world, trading jokes and playing their parts with unadulterated whimsy. Everyone in the crowd seemed genuinely privileged to witness their present-day chemistry, and perhaps most elating, to watch them enjoy playing their beloved material. Even Riot Mike himself had this to say of the uniquely epic Toronto set. “It was just such a great vibe. I mean I just wish I could recapture that in a bottle and put that in every show. I mean I think the world would be a better place if that happened. But we knew it was a moment in time and that it was really special. There was something in the air.” It was easily one of the best shows I’d ever seen. But even though Riot Fest Chicago didn’t provide the best Mats show I’d ever seen (I still can’t believe I can now say that), the weekend as a whole was among the best music fests I’ve ever attended.
These days it’s getting harder to endorse outdoor music fests but Riot Fest, in its annually stellar lineup, it’s sardonic personality, and most of all, its genuine interest in above all throwing a hell of a party, will be a fest I’ll be going out of my way to attend in future years. And though it’s hard to imagine Riot Mike ever landing an act as impressive and shocking as The Replacements, next year the fest does have a 10-year anniversary to consider. Be there.