Riot Fest Chicago 2014: Top 20 Sets + Photos

Festival Review


In its 10th total year and third at Chicago’s Humboldt Park, the 2014 Riot Fest & Carnival was kind of a mess. From its humble beginnings as a multi-venue series of shows to its current incarnation as a sprawling, multi-city, three-day bonanza, the festival is growing at a breathlessly fast rate. With a new, much larger area that’s roughly four times the size of 2013’s, festival organizers went all out for their 10-year anniversary, almost to its detriment. With its semi-circular lay out and winding sidewalk, the time it took to move to stages at opposite ends gave me Lollapalooza flashbacks, a jarring experience I’m not sure I want to have again.

Also, the festival’s early September placement always tempts fate with the Windy City’s fickle weather gods. Sure enough, like last year, there was rain. However, instead of a torrential downpour closing out the festival, 2014 festivalgoers were treated to sporadic but still potent showers throughout the opening day, making Humboldt about 90% mud, with the other 10% composed of bees on Saturday and Sunday. Jesus, can we talk about the bees? I embarrassed myself more than a dozen times avoiding those things. Wu-Tang Killah Bees, indeed. Those pesky things aside, Saturday and Sunday were beautiful days and perfect for the music, which is what we’re all here for.

Riot Fest

Photo by Debi Del Grande

All the whining aside, it was still an incredible music experience. Fortunately, that’s the most important part of a festival, and one that Riot Fest always nails. As the dude who runs the Riot Fest twitter snarkily wrote earlier this month, “Sorry we booked so many bands that you like.” While nothing in my heart will ever top last year’s top billing of The Replacements, this year’s selection was even more spectacular. They enlisted 10 bands to perform 10 classic albums, including the Get Up Kids taking on Something to Write Home About, Chicago legends Naked Raygun performing Throb Throb, Descendents revisiting Milo Goes to College, Weezer reintroducing Jonas with The Blue Album, and more.

The rest of the festival featured a number of surprises from bands both young and old. Chicago made a nice showing, with energetic sets from rising rapper ShowYouSuck and garage rock newcomers The Orwells. The Cure’s Robert Smith sang everyone into what can only be described as a sad euphoria, while Lucero’s Ben Nichols brought his gravelly and literally whiskey-soaked growl, and The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli howled like it was 1993. The festival also branched out into more socially aware territory, with a panel featuring Pussy Riot, Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, and even Henry Rollins, who surprisingly seemed to be in a good mood.

Riot Fest // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Going forward, the festival might really get ahead of itself. While the volume of tickets sold might demand the larger space, I hope things are slightly pared down for next year. Despite some of the logistical missteps, Riot Fest still maintains its charm and its overwhelmingly friendly crowd repping every single brand of punk imaginable. As I watched a guy with liberty spikes mosh with a dude in a The World Is a Beautiful Place hoodie during PUP, I remembered how beautiful a punk rock festival can be.

As we watched all these great bands, rode some carnival rides, were chased by bees and those terrifying zombies outside the Haunted House, laughed at the Flaming Lips’ power outage, and ate deep-fried Oreos that made us question every decision we ever made, we also made a list of our top 20 musical moments from the weekend.

–Josh Terry
Staff Writer

Pussy Riot Panel


Photo by Debi Del Grande

Friday, Riot Fest Speaks – 5:45 p.m.

The most bizarre part of a bizarre festival came appropriately early, setting its tone on a stage that would be used for one event all weekend. The Riot Fest Speaks discussion panel, consisting of Pussy Riot’s Masha Alekhina and Natasha Tolokonnikova (with Tolokonnikova’s husband, activist Pyotr Verzilov, serving mainly as translator), Riot Fest organizer Mike Petryshyn, Rise Against singer Tim McIlrath, Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin, BUST Magazine co-founder Marcelle Karp, and Henry Rollins as moderator, seemed a little crude in concept and wasn’t totally controlled in execution, but was fascinating and positive nonetheless.

For about an hour, the conversation bounced freely and somewhat erratically between Petryshyn and Rollins’ impassioned but very, very broad ideas on feminism, punk rock, and dictatorship, and Pussy Riot’s far better-humored but no less-serious responses. (McIlrath, Graffin, and Karp spoke of personal experience and their gratitude to be included when they did, which was not often.) That mainly meant clarifying their story for everyone (why they were incarcerated, exactly, and why they didn’t expect it) and defusing the tone that got testy a couple of times.

In one intriguingly telling moment, Alekhina explained that the reason they “love irony” and were often seen smiling in court was because of how ridiculous they thought it was to treat feminism so reverently. Another one was Tolokonnikova’s last word of the discussion, which she delivered without a translator: “You are all heroes,” she said, “for standing out in this rain and listening to our boring speeches!” –Steven Arroyo

The Orwells

The Orwells // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Saturday, Riot Stage – 12:50 p.m.

“Carve the air with your dick.” An acting teacher said that to me about a decade ago, but I didn’t grasp the concept until this past Saturday around 1 p.m. That’s when Orwells frontman Mario Cuomo stalked the stage, nearly every ounce of the singer’s considerable energy emanating from his cock. It makes sense; there’s something simultaneously sensual and predatory about songs like “Southern Comfort” and “Gotta Get Down”, two examples of the don’t-give-a-fuck punk The Orwells do so goddamn well. Those stompers joined other cuts from this year’s Disgraceland (“The Righteous One”, “Blood Bubbles”), as well as EP cuts like “Who Needs You” and a cheeky cover of “Build Me Up Buttercup”. As usual, Cuomo reveled in his trademark bad boy behavior by flipping off security and clocking bassist Grant Brinner with a swinging microphone, but the dude’s such an honest-to-god rockstar that it resonates as more badass than charming. Credit the cock. –Randall Colburn

The Dandy Warhols

Dandy Warhols // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Saturday, Riot Stage – 2:15 p.m.

Celebrating their 20th year as a band this year, the Dandy Warhols’ sound has held up remarkably well. The group used their mid-afternoon set on Saturday to prove to everyone that despite not making huge waves with their most recent releases, they still rock hard. The crowd gave the energy right back to the band, jamming along to hits like “We Used to Be Friends” and “Bohemian Like You” and not letting up on the zeal for some of the band’s deeper cuts. Courtney Taylor-Taylor doesn’t appear to have lost a step since the group’s humble beginnings in Portland, and Zia McCabe’s keyboard skills are only matched by her humility when thanking the audience for coming and hanging out with the band. This was one of a few sets I caught this weekend that if not for the fact that it was the middle of the day, you could’ve sworn it was a headliner-worthy performance and audience. –Pat Levy


Television // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Saturday, Rise Stage – 2:50 p.m.

Even in the absence of Richard Lloyd and half of Tom Verlaine’s voice, there was no better deal all weekend than witnessing a few of history’s finest electric guitar compositions at 2:50 in the afternoon amidst a moderate crowd. With comically little fanfare in comparison to 80 percent of the bands in Humboldt Park this weekend, Verlaine and Television (with a porkpie-hatted Jimmy Rip in place of Lloyd, who left the band a few years ago) walked out, stoically delivered the goods — “1880 or So” followed by five cuts from Marquee Moon, including, of course, “Marquee Moon” to close — and then said goodbye. Nothing else needed to be said; the jolt of hearing “WE’RE FACE TO FACE FROM SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA” screamed from the adjacent stage immediately after the last notes of “Marquee Moon” settled into ears, roughly two seconds after Television walked off stage, said it all. –Steven Arroyo

The Afghan Whigs

The Afghan Whigs // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Saturday, Roots Stage – 4:30 p.m.

“I fell apart, that’s what I always do,” Greg Dulli sang through gritted teeth on Afghan Whigs’ “Debonair”, a clear fan favorite and a highlight of their explosive set. The grizzled aggression that’s grown in his voice since that song’s original 1993 release (on the superb and soon-to-be-reissued Gentlemen) gave that line, the rest of the song, and the rest of the set a stark intensity — perhaps best seen in Do to the Beast highlights like “Algiers”. Even a stretch of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” got some of that dusty darkness, Dulli and co. roaring through their set seemingly without pause to the delight of the masses. –Adam Kivel 

The Get Up Kids

The Get-Up Kids // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm
Saturday, Rise Stage – 5:55 p.m.

“This is the fucking emo moment of the millennium!” Matt Pryor shouted, and my aging emo brethren roared. Here we were, singing along to deep cuts like “Long Goodnight” and “The Company Dime”, songs we thought we’d never hear live until it was announced the band would be playing its seminal Something to Write Home About in its entirety early Saturday evening. Though 1997’s Four Minute Mile is the more influential and 2002’s On a Wire only grows better with age, Something to Write Home About is the most accessible, the album that bridged second- and third-wave emo and best balanced heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentality with emphatic musicianship.

And, as “Holiday” gave way to “Action & Action” gave way to “Valentine”, I couldn’t help but be grateful for this trend of resurrecting seminal albums in a live setting. The Get Up Kids didn’t get famous off singles. People may scream a bit louder during the opening chords of “I’m a Loner, Dottie”, but there’s no mass exodus when it’s done. Every song matters, and even though they joked about never playing a deep cut like “The Company Dime”, GUK gave every song its due, with Pryor screaming against his own lyrics as they were belted back at him by the crowd.

“If somebody didn’t just get engaged on the Ferris Wheel, then we’re not doing our job,” Pryor said after the romantic, borderline cheesy “Valentine”. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hundred couples did. It was perfect. —Randall Colburn

Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Saturday, Roots Stage – 6:00 p.m.

This was my third time seeing the Wu in the last 16 months, and for the third time there were mic issues that plagued most of the set. This time it was the GZA that suffered the brunt of those issues, but thankfully and as usual, the RZA was more than willing to carry the show. As the de facto leader of the posse, it often falls on RZA to keep the show at a high level of energy and precision, and rarely does he, or any of the other members, disappoint. The throngs of Paul Weller fans attempting to evacuate the scene as Wu-Tang kicked into gear made for one of the most tightly packed crowds of the weekend, and it was not a crowd ready to be pushed too hard. While waiting for the group to arrive (only 10 minutes late, which is great for the Wu), I saw three different fights break out within 50 yards of me, and I was nearly halfway back in the enormous crowd, so I can only assume there were more. But leave it to the Wu to alleviate the situation, bringing their show to a friendlier place with a bit of The Beatles’ “Come Together”. Keep your W’s high if this was your favorite show of the weekend, because it sure was mine. –Pat Levy


Metric // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Saturday, Riot Stage – 7:00 p.m.

Shout-out to the cameraman during Metric’s Saturday evening set. Video’s not something I typically notice at festivals, but Emily Haines, cast in gauzy ivory light, looked downright ethereal onscreen, like the tough-as-nails heroine of a futuristic sci-fi flick. As stage lights swirled, Haines and co. cycled through crowd-pleasers from the band’s last two albums (with a detour into “Dead Disco”), each buoyed by Haines’ synth mastery and the stunning guitar work of stalwart axe man James Shaw. Before closing with “Breathing Underwater”, Haines took a moment to recall an ages-ago gig at Chicago’s Empty Bottle and the kind samaritan who gave them shelter and bagels. That simple story resonated throughout the chorus of “Breathing Underwater”, when Haines sang: “Is this my life?” As she stared over the undulating masses of Humboldt Park, her bandmates at her side for an a cappella rendition, Haines basked in the sound of the thousands upon thousands of voices throwing that question back at her. “Is this my life?” For a moment, none of us were sure. –Randall Colburn


Descendents // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Saturday, Rise Stage – 7:55 p.m.

“Dude, you’re in this class too?” Milo Aukerman, backpack slung over the shoulder, asked drummer Bill Stevenson as the Descendents took the stage. Ever the imp, Milo introduced Milo Goes to College with a backpack slung over his shoulders, wearing a UC San Diego t-shirt (the college Aukerman actually attended), by asking whether this was the correct location for Punk 101. Original bassist Tony Lombardo returned to play with his classmates for this classic album throwback and sounded as if he’d never left. After tearing through the classic LP (with particular crowd appreciation for the smash of “Suburban Home”), Lombardo was replaced by current bassist Karl Alvarez, and Descendents jittered through a handful of other standout tracks. From the manic quick-twitch of “I Like Food” to the open-hearted “I’m The One”, Aukerman leaning forward, all elbows, knees, and glasses, clearly more master lecturer than attendee of that Punk 101 class. –Adam Kivel 

The National

The National // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Saturday, Riot Stage – 8:45 p.m.

The National deserve a golf clap, if only for the cool-headed recovery from what was very nearly a festival organizer’s nightmare. As if the Flaming Lips suddenly blowing out all power on their stage at the climax of opener “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” — with no certainty that they’d successfully get it back up and running — wasn’t threatening enough, the audience wasn’t even yet aware that the next band they came for, the National, was running extremely late. But Wayne Coyne recovered, and then after more than a 20-minute delay, Matt Berninger still found just enough time to apologize, crack two quick jokes at their own expense, and complete a respectable 12 songs, the last of which looked like this: “This Is the Last Time”, “England”, “Graceless”, “Fake Empire”, “Mr. November”, “Terrible Love”, and a resounding collective exhale. –Steven Arroyo 

The Menzingers

The Menzingers // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Sunday, Roots Stage – 11:55 a.m.

“This is by far the most sober we’ve played Chicago,” joked Scranton, Pennsylvania’s The Menzingers as they blitzed through their Day 3 kick-off set of emphatic and melodic punk. When they played Chicago earlier in the year at the Bottom Lounge, they were still tight, but were obviously enjoying their tequila as well. Here, the band showed no signs of a hangover with the early time slot. Charging in with the soaring power chords kicking off opener “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore”, the four-piece jumped around energetically. It was punk rock’s shot of espresso, with frontman Greg Barnett’s yelp sounding better as each song started. Perhaps the highlight was “Good Things”, arguably the band’s best song. It’s the kind of earnest anthem that’s so compelling because it’s so relatable. Those opening lyrics of “I’ve been having a horrible time, pulling myself together” and it’s rousing chorus of “why all good things should fall apart” found its sizable early audience fist-pumping, crowd-surfing, or both in unison. –Josh Terry 


PUP // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Sunday, Revolt Stage – 2:00 p.m.

Ask PUP frontman Stefan Babcock his role in the band outside of a show and he’ll modestly say, “I play guitar and I sing … kinda.” But see him onstage, and he’s basically a punk rock animal. During the final minutes of closer “Reservoir”, one of their debut album’s best and most hard-hitting songs, Babcock jumped into the crowd and surfed without missing a riff. Touring in support of PUP, the Toronto-based, ‘90s pop culture-obsessed punks also played noisy and aggressive renditions of “Guilt Trip” and “Back Against the Wall”, complete with feedback-laden guitar theatrics from Steve Sladkowski. Along with the relatively poppy “Dark Days” and the old car ode “Mabu”, there was also a new, as-yet-untitled song. One of their most straightforward punk crunchers yet, it features yelping, spitfire lyrics like “She thinks I drink too much.” For a band that played Edward Fortyhands in one of their music videos, this is pretty on brand and also makes for great punk rock. A good sign of things to come for LP2. –Josh Terry 


Superchunk // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Sunday, Riot Stage – 2:55 p.m.

This set, above all else, felt like a headlining set stuck in the middle of the afternoon. Superchunk has always had some of the more die-hard fans in the indie rock world, and plenty of those Chunk-heads showed up ready to belt out their favorite tracks in harmony with Mac McCaughan. Dressed like a band of dads and with matching dad humor in their banter, the group remained effortlessly youthful, jumping around the stage in ways you don’t even see most younger bands trying to. When McCaughan led into “Driveway to Driveway”, it seemed as though it was every single audience member’s favorite song, the entire crowd launching into a passionate sing-along. Shows like this, with so much rapport between the band and the fans, make Riot Fest special. It’s a connection that has lasted years, and when the band is still willing to come out and give it their all, the audience gets what they want. But you can always tell the band is enjoying it just as much. –Pat Levy

Naked Raygun

Naked Raygun // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Sunday, Roots Stage – 3:35 p.m.

Chicago punk legends Naked Raygun were one of the bands tasked with playing their classic album in full, namely their excellent 1985 debut, Throb Throb. After the band got through that, though, vocalist Jeff Pezzati seemed a little less than excited by the prospect. “You wanna hear that again, I recommend you go home and do it on your own fucking turntable,” he said, before the band tore through a handful of other gems, including “Vanilla Blue” and “Walk in Cold”. But the big draw, both for the excitable 16-year-olds on one side of me and the maybe-more-excitable 40-somethings on the other, was clearly Throb Throb. Even if Pezzati vowed that Raygun would never be doing that again, getting to sing along to “Rat Patrol” and “No Sex” this one time was more than enough. –Adam Kivel 

Cerebral Ballzy

Cerebral Ballzy // Photo by Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Sunday, Revolt Stage – 4:00 p.m.

A few months after the release of their second album, Jaded and Faded, Cerebral Ballzy has it all figured out. Their live show is a finely tuned machine, operating at Trash Talk levels of thrash and coming closer to sounding more like the album versions than most punk bands have any business doing. Firing through their half-hour set with little banter between songs, there was never a break in the action, never a cease-mosh in the pit. This must have been one of the rowdiest shows of the festival. From song to song, the pit would grow, and I saw dozens of people leaving their friend-groups and spouses to thrust themselves into the fray. For a skate punk group from Brooklyn who primarily play venue shows, Ballzy’s music works extremely well at an outdoor fest, and their brief set proved that in spades. –Pat Levy


Lucero // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Sunday, Rise Stage – 4:20 p.m.

Lucero shows are always rowdy, and as their Riot Fest set proved, sometimes they get messy even during the mellow numbers. Just as the Memphis-based country punks launched into “Summer Song”, a hidden gem and slow-burner off The Attic Tapes, a fight broke out in the audience. “This is our slowest song,” said a stunned Ben Nichols, who kept joking and strumming his guitar until the asshole in question was taken out of the pit. “We have a full 45 minutes.” On the heels of the release of their four-LP live album Live in Atlanta, Lucero played to their strengths as a live band, with a healthily balanced setlist, drawing on new horn-laden bangers (“On My Way Downtown”) to crowd favorite, debut record ballads (“My Best Girl”), and hard-hitting openers (“That Much Further West”). There was also, of course, some whiskey and hangover wit, with Nichols channeling his inner Paul Westerberg by joking about the afternoon time slot: “I’m usually waking up at this time.”Josh Terry 


ShowYouSuck // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Sunday, Radical Stage – 4:30 p.m.

There might not have been anyone more excited to be playing Riot Fest, let alone in the park premises this weekend, than Chicago rapper ShowYouSuck. He looked out, eyes incredibly wide in disbelief, and shouted it out unabashedly: “I’m playing Riot Fest!” He proceeded to give his bona fides, of coming up at hardcore shows, of attending Riot Fests past in order to see Iggy Pop and Elvis Costello. He was so excited by the weird (but “non-awkward awesome weird”) experience of achieving this dream that he led the crowd in a sing-along of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” complete with remixed outro. Show and fellow Chicago MC Auggie the 9th stalked the stage with a ferocity, bouncing and raging as hard as any of the other punks on the lineup. ShowYouSuck’s insanely energetic set featured highlights like “Big Gulp”, a truly hardcore wall of love (not wall of death, per Show’s instructions), “80s Boobs”, speaker-climbing, “Girls and Nachos”, and silly string, Halloween candy, and honest-to-god slices of pizza getting launched into the crowd just before the One-Man Pizza Party himself launched onto the outstretched hands as the only logical way to exit the stage after such a triumphant hometown set. –Adam Kivel

Modern Baseball

Modern Baseball // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Sunday, Revolt Stage – 6:00 p.m.

“Oh, hello, circle pit,” Modern Baseball’s Jake Ewald said Sunday evening, sounding genuinely shocked at the throng of moshing bodies that ignited during “Apartment”. I was shocked, too, not at the circle pit, but that it happened during that song, a sweet, semi-romantic number from this year’s near-perfect You’re Gonna Miss It All. It would’ve made more sense, perhaps, during the sneering “Re-Do” or “Your Graduation”, but nothing about Modern Baseball is easy to peg. Songs zig when you think they’ll zag, lyrics self-deprecate the moment they earn empathy. And the guys onstage? They’d laugh in your face if you called them rock stars. Thing is, they are rock stars; I’m not sure I saw a more amped crowd at all of Riot Fest. The band members don’t act like it, though. Instead, they crack inside jokes, make silly voices, and pal around like the best friends it’s so apparent they are. Ah, the spoils of youth. —Randall Colburn

The Cure


Photo by Debi Del Grande

Sunday, Riot Stage – 7:45 p.m.

With their two-hour-and-fifteen-minute slot Sunday at the Riot Stage, The Cure were onstage at least an hour longer than the festival’s other headliners. Judging by their characteristically sprawling and career-spanning set, it’s for good reason. After opening on a slightly bum note — not because of anything the band did wrong, but the fact that the volume was a little too low — the sound guys and the alt rock legends more than righted the ship after the wistful fan favorite “In Between Days”. From then, there was a mix of the expected crowd-pleasers (“Love Song”, “Pictures of You”, “Friday, I’m in Love”) along with some pleasant surprises (“alt.end” and “Hot Hot Hot!!!”). Perhaps the best moment of the night came during “Close to Me”, where Robert Smith started dancing without any reservations during the song’s bouncy instrumentals, definitely egged on by the crowd’s enthusiasm. He’s proven not to be much of a talker in between songs or even much of a smiler, but seeing that clear moment of connection between Smith and the audience added a lasting warmth as the festival concluded. –Josh Terry 


Weezer // Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Photo by Jennifer Roehm

Sunday, Rebel Stage – 8:40 p.m.

On Weezer’s new single, “Back to the Shack”, Rivers Cuomo makes references to settling down with the girlmaking up with dad, and rocking out “like it’s ’94,” and it’s maybe their funniest troll on crabby Blue Album loyalists to date – Chamillionaire guest verses be damned. In fact, I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced that “Shack” wasn’t conceived for the express purpose of serving as a grand overture, some type of opening-credits theme to this production that co-closed Riot Fest: a two-part show in which they play singles in reverse chronological order until arriving at 1994, at which point they play the Blue Album front-to-back, Cuomo all the while insisting this whole thing is a time machine like we’re goddamn kindergarteners.

“Shack” led into “Pork and Beans” from 2008’s The Red Album, “Perfect Situation” and “Beverly Hills” from 2005’s Make Believe, “Island in the Sun” and “Hash Pipe” from 2001’s The Green Album, and “El Scorcho” from 1996’s Pinkerton — and, finally, big Blue. Cuomo’s over-the-top seriousness while narrating the Weezer timeline (“the dark years,” he called the period between Pink and Greenwas a beautiful bait that dared us to question his seriousness, only to magnificently render anyone who did foolish by the time he reached the no-more-questions closer “Only in Dreams”. –Steven Arroyo


Photographers: Debi Del Grande, Jennifer Roehm