“No one here released an essential album this year,” said one of my colleagues as we baked in the scorching sunbeams skating across this year’s Riot Fest, waiting for the third, fifth, or eighth act of the day to take the stage. He wasn’t criticizing the year’s booking, really, just making a point. And it’s a good point, and also one that’s key to unlocking what makes Riot Fest so special.
As other festivals hemorrhage money, fail entirely, or find themselves the subject of think pieces portending the bursting of that oh-so-fragile festival bubble, why has Riot Fest remained both relevant and successful? When the festival movement is more or less headed towards curated “conferences” that pair live music with thought leaders, innovation panels, and branded experiences, why has Riot Fest scaled back its extracurriculars? In 2013, the festival’s carnival attractions snaked through every corner of the fest, while speaking panels and live wrestling offered copious distractions from the music on display. Now, the rides are cordoned off to their own area of Douglas Park, and the non-musical experiences include the long-running freak show and a few other carnival acts. Riot Fest grew, then contracted. And it’s all the better for it.
See, “curation” is the real buzzword in the festival world now. Any festival that isn’t already one of the major players needs to know that the proliferation of music festivals means that a smattering of popular bands won’t cut it anymore, especially not when bands are doing “the festival circuit,” essentially making every festival’s look the same. What this means is that, for many burgeoning music festivals, the music itself is simply a gateway to the real experience being offered.
But Riot Fest is different, because music’s always been its most important component. Where most festivals book by algorithm, Riot Fest curates. They don’t book popular bands, they book your favorite bands. They don’t book bands for their singles; they book bands for their albums. These audiences aren’t here for one song, they’re here for the whole set.
And that was more clear this year than perhaps any other. Here we get a nasty, subversive set from electroclash queen Peaches and a showcase for Mike Patton’s new band and reverent crowds for outfits like Ministry, GWAR, and Pennywise, bands that remain somebody’s sanctuary despite the mainstream music community’s complete disinterest. Hell, Riot Fest closed out this year with a headlining set from a mostly forgotten, yet wildly influential, punk band from the early ‘90s. Find one other festival that would do that. I’ll wait.
Okay, I won’t. Riot Fest isn’t all brass balls. Crust punks and Leftover Crack shirts clash with the Hot Topic cognoscenti, and the appearance of these Deluxe VIP “cabanas” doesn’t bode well, but for now it still feels as if we’re all united by a general sense of sarcastic sleaze. That, and that there’s not one person here who isn’t excited at the prospect of seeing at least one band. That may seem like a low bar to hit for a music festival, but the industry is changing. The world is getting smaller. As it does so, we burrow into our niches.
And Riot Fest, well, it’s just filled with niches.
Most Crowd-Pleasing Passing of the Aux Cord
Judging by the reactions from festivalgoers headed away from Mike D’s Saturday night DJ set, the once and eternal Beastie Boy gave the crowd exactly what they wanted. But given the generic assemblage of songs played, it’s hard to consider the set anything more than a legendary artist having fun messing around onstage for an hour. Along with his DJ, Mike D worked through a surprisingly low amount of Beasties material through the hour, and instead of flexing any of the group’s famously music-literate sampling acumen, he simply played the most crowd-pleasing hits possible, from Chance the Rapper to “99 Problems” to “Ms. Jackson” and onward. It’s arguable that Mike D has earned more than enough clout to do slight remixes onstage and be paid for it, but his hour felt more like a politely enjoyable night at a club than a mid-evening festival performance before long. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Fuck, That’s Delicious (And Too Early in the Day)
Action Bronson cuts an imposing figure for more than just the obvious reasons, and even in the context of a set like his early Friday performance at Riot Fest, that fact is indisputable. But the energy of some of his best live shows has always been derived from the crowd returning it in kind, and only those near the very front did so on Friday. Bronson’s delivery commanded attention in fits and starts (particularly on “Actin Crazy”), but much of the audience seemed content to let his primarily laid-back beats dominate the hour. Combine that with a noticeable number of mid-song cutoffs, and the fact that the crowd visibly thinned out as soon as he dropped his portion of “Baby Blue”, and it was a generally underwhelming set despite how, as Bronson mentioned onstage at one point, “I’m trying my best.” –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Best Veteran Presence (With the Worst Sound)
Riot Fest has always put together a solid assemblage of veteran punk acts to go with the newer, frequently genre-bending fare. As such, elder statesmen Bad Brains were welcomed by a massive crowd on Saturday afternoon, as the band commemorated their 40th year. However, despite the festival’s known sound issues being largely minimal this year, Bad Brains got perhaps the worst of it all weekend, with frontman H.R.’s vocals frequently dissipating beneath the instrumentation. The energy might have been in lacking supply onstage, but Bad Brains are nevertheless a band where the music goes a long way in speaking for itself. “Let them hear you all the way to Washington” may have fallen on some deaf ears on a sunny festival day, but Bad Brains’ message is as essential as ever. In fact, these days, it may be just a little bit more so. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
The Agony and The Ecstasy…of the Guitar Solo
Built to Spill
Built to Spill are an amazing festival band … depending on when they’re playing. Because what you’re getting with a Built to Spill set is a series of dizzy, hypnotic guitar solos from frontman Doug Martsch with a few choruses peppered in; prolific as they are, your mileage may vary. That can be a boom on a lazy late afternoon on Friday or Saturday, when Martsch’s melodic noodling and mild psychedelia pair perfectly with a long toke. On a Sunday, however, when that sun-baked skin is scraping uncomfortably against your weary bones, it has the potential to expound that creeping exhaustion and make you wish you were listening to his practiced hand beneath cool bedsheets.
And, to some degree, that’s how it felt during Sunday’s set, which found the band playing their 1999 masterpiece Keep It Like a Secret in full. The album has some of their best pop songs in “The Plan” and “Carry the Zero”, but both were prolonged into elaborate jam sessions that tested the patience of those craving hooks. That said, Martsch’s magical, whirling work on “Else” might’ve been the most beautiful work I heard all weekend. And album standout “You Were Right” resonated as less satirical and more melancholy in this rendition, a shift that I found deeply satisfying.
And that’s really the joy of seeing Built to Spill live—the songs are never quite what they are on record. Sometimes that’s for the better, sometimes it’s, well, not. –Randall Colburn
Least Snowflake/Most Antifa
Ministry may now be in their fourth active decade of recording and performing, but credit is owed where it’s amply due for consistency. With a new song from their forthcoming album AmeriKKKant, the industrial dynasty that Al Jourgensen built has maintained their unsubtle means of railing against vulgar power in all of its forms. “Antifa” declared that “we’re not snowflakes, we are the Antifa,” complete with an Antifa demonstrator in full regalia raising the red and black during its Riot Fest performance. From that new outing to “Punch in the Face” to “N.W.O.,” Ministry’s muscular rock harkened back to a very different era of heavy music on a sunny, early-fall evening, but the utter sincerity of their aggression is as clear as ever. And in a festival that saw a number of overt political gestures, the Chicago act reminded a surprisingly large crowd how it’s been done for years. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
The Start of Something
Though Matt Pryor and Josh Berwanger came to prominence in the Get-Up Kids and The Anniversary, respectively, they’ve each gone on to forge fruitful solo careers. Berwanger’s namesake band pushed his signature brand of power-pop further, while Pryor’s solo work has encompassed everything from folk to electronica to children’s music. Now, the pair have teamed up with one-time Get-Up Kid Jim Suptic and drummer Adam Phillips to form Radar State, a lo-fi outfit that aims to recall their early days in the Kansas City punk scene.
They’ve done it, too. During their Friday afternoon set on the small Heather Owen stage, Radar State debuted a sound both harsh and melodic, with Pryor and Berwanger’s pop songcraft bleeding through the band’s wall of distortion. Songs like “Spinning Wheel” and “Defender” evoke Four Minute Mile-era GUK, while Pryor and Suptic’s practiced harmonies will no doubt recall the warmer moments of Something to Write Home About. Not every song pops just yet and their live show is understandably still under construction, but the emo veterans seem to have tapped into something exciting here. –Randall Colburn
Best Early-Day Wake Up Call
Black Pistol Fire
Some festival days are harder to get going than others, and the unseasonably hot weather on Saturday (despite it being a nice change from the annual Riot Fest rainstorm) made getting too rowdy seem like a tall order. Luckily, Canadian/Texan duo Black Pistol Fire made more than enough noise to rouse even the most Malort-abused bodies from their repose. Kevin McKeown and Eric Owen may not take up much space onstage, but their fuzzy, blues-tinged, no-bullshit rock offered a perfect start to the fest’s middle act, tearing through withering tracks with bracing energy. Not even the accidental unplugging of McKeown’s guitar during a crowd surf attempt could diminish the noise they managed to make in 40 minutes flat. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
The Set From Hell
“Is it fucking hot enough out there for you?” “Fuck, it’s bright out here.” “[Irreverent bellowing]” Shocker: Glenn Danzig’s all-black wardrobe was no match for Saturday afternoon’s spectacular heat. For over an hour, the stocky frontman stomped around the Roots stage, seething with rage as radiant oranges, yellows, and pinks scorched his band like one of his song’s spooky demons sizzling in hell.
Still, that didn’t stop them from putting the boogie in boogeyman with a full performance of 1992’s Danzig III: How the Gods Kill, save for “Sistinas” as Danzig argued Riot Fest didn’t want to pay for an orchestra. (It’s a shame Cypress Hill wasn’t playing this year.) This meant that fans saw the first live performance of closing track “When the Dying Calls” and rare deep cuts like “Anything”,” Heart of the Devil”, and “Bodies”, all of which haven’t been played in over a decade.
But nobody cared for any of them as much as hearing “Mother”, which obviously closed the set, hilariously when the sun began to dwindle over the horizon. It was like God was laughing at the fallen angel from above, but really, the joke was on Him. Because, while, yes, it was a little fucking weird seeing Danzig in broad daylight, it was also kind of cool feeling like we were burning in hell to the sounds of “Devil on Hwy 9”. Besides, we might as well get used to the burn, seeing how we’re headed down that highway anyways.
Get those devil horns up, people. –Michael Roffman
We Learned That Harry Dean Stanton Died During This Set
Death From Above
Get as close to Death From Above (no longer 1979) as you can if you really want to appreciate them live. Their drum and bass dance punk reverberates to such a degree that the physical sensation of their sound is almost as appealing as the songs themselves. As such, their impact is lessened somewhat by a festival setting, where much of their audience is at such a remove that the visceral nature of their music can float into the ether. That said, it’s still a wonder to marvel at how much mileage the duo has culled from its limited palette. Sebastien Grainger’s vocals have a sinister quality that’s never not appealing, while Jesse Keeler’s distorted bass is a booming cannon of sound—almost too much of one; rough mixing during their Friday set found Keeler’s contributions dwarfing the drums and vocals. But new single “Freeze Me” sounded like a dream, as did You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine standouts “Little Girl”, “Romantic Rights”, and “Black History Month”. An hour is a bit too long to spend with them—they whipped through an exhausting 16 songs—though I may just be saying that because I found out Harry Dean Stanton died during their set. –Randall Colburn
Quadrupled Doubt Mortality
At the Drive In
Energy and volume have never been an issue for At The Drive In. Even now, frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez are two of the most entertaining musicians to watch in the genre, a blitzkrieg of chaos that’s always unpredictable and consuming. But, it’s different in a festival setting, where if you’re not within at least 200 feet of the band, it all starts to crumble into a garbled mess. That’s kind of what happened on Saturday night, when the Texas outfit arrived fully armed with favorites at their disposal, from “Arc Arsenal” to “Pattern Against User” to “Napoleon Solo”.
By all means, they brought their A game, only that A game doesn’t exactly translate to the great outdoors like it does in, say, a small venue such as Austin’s Mohawk, where we caught them earlier this year, and they splattered our brains with ease, all with essentially the same stage show. Of course, it worked for The Mars Volta, namely because they had broader spectacles that could afford the vast, dizzying landscapes that festivals provide. But At The Drive In has always leaned more on that primal rage from within, and that rage has certainly allowed for a little ignorance on the listener’s behalf.
Because, from afar, everything starts to look exactly like how everything actually is: a bunch of 40-somethings screaming their heads off over songs designed strictly for 20-somethings. And really, when you’re not evolving that sound, and only trying to live in it again, as they did with this year’s mildly disappointing comeback album, in•ter a•li•a, that reality hits a little too close to home. You start to wonder why you should still connect with these songs as you did 15-20 years ago, back when you had all the time in the world to deconstruct Zavala’s poetry, and dream of jumping off guitar stacks.
Then again, maybe it’s just the distance. It’s gotta be that. Please be that. –Michael Roffman
Best Patterned Band Uniforms
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
At Riot Fest, it’s easy to get swept up in nostalgia; the festival’s programming invites it, and particularly in the case of the fest’s increasing interest in full-album sets, a band can take audiences back to a specific era of their choosing. But where some have failed to deliver on their albums’ classic status over the past few years, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones brought an abundance of life into their 20th-anniversary performance of Let’s Face It, which the crowd met even for all the songs that aren’t “The Impression That I Get.” Dicky Barrett’s gravelly vocals and the band’s staccato horn hits might call back to the past, but their highly enjoyable early-day set suggested that the Bosstones are still going as strong as ever, even after all these years. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Best Bang For Your Bucket List
You know what’s great about old punks? They wrote short songs. Not that we’d ever want a song like “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” to end, but there’s something to be said for a little brevity. Okay, there are a couple things to be said: For starters, the energy’s always shifting about. But also, you can jam a shit load of tracks into a setlist, and that’s key for festival sets. That’s why it was great to see Buzzcocks on Friday afternoon. The English outfit, which dates back to 1976, squeezed 19 tracks into their hour-long set, naturally leaning heavily on their 1979 I.R.S. singles compilation, Singles Going Steady. It was a definitive medley for diehards and passersby alike, especially those looking to scratch their name off their proverbial scroll of Bucket List Bands. Riot Fest is a good place to catch up on those acts, and Buzzcocks did not disappoint. –Michael Roffman
Best Story About Trying and Failing to Kiss Dan Auerbach
“Who was there at Sub-T?” Zac Carper asked near the end of FIDLAR’s scorching Saturday afternoon set, referencing an old show at Chicago’s Subterranean. “I tried to kiss Dan Auerbach from Black Keys and he wasn’t feeling it.” Earlier in the set, he described the spiderweb design on his guitar as “Tim Armstrong’s head,” a detail he must’ve regrettably told to Armstrong once upon a time as he concluded by saying “I don’t think he liked that.”
So, yeah, FIDLAR might not have the deftest hand when it comes to bonding with their heroes. That’s okay, though, because the dirty California burnouts haven’t slowed down since surfacing in 2009, having punctuated a wild history of thrilling, breathless live shows with two incredible albums of infectious, cleverly subversive punk. Their Riot Fest set was understandably heavy on songs from their party-hearty self-titled debut—“Cheap Beer”, “Stoked and Broke”, “5 to 9”, “No Waves”—and though it was as joyous as any FIDLAR set it did suffer from not weaving in at least a few of its more introspective tracks. Songs like “Bad Habits”, “Stupid Decisions”, and “Hey Johnny” are such a step forward for the band in terms of songcraft that it’s a bummer they got bumped. That said, their cover is “Sabotage” is white fire. –Randall Colburn
Most Inadvertant Commercial for An Animal Rescue
Riot Fest raised the banners on the Heather Owen stage about halfway through The Hotelier’s Friday afternoon set on it. Lord knows why it took them so long, but the banners’ melange of adorable, animated dogs (Heather Owen is involved with a Chicago animal rescue) made for an odd pairing with the band’s searingly emotive music. Lyrically and musically, songs like “An Introduction to the Album”, “Two Deliverances”, and “Your Deep Rest” throb like open wounds onstage, with frontman Christian Holden angling for those high notes as if his life depended on it (and maybe it did; he confessed to nearly passing out due to the heat). There’s nothing cuddly about the Hotelier’s music, but seeing this ad for an animal rescue during their set nevertheless conjured up the themes of “goodness” surrounding their last album. There’s an aching for care and kindness contained in the screams of their songs, and all those adorable dogs weirdly served as a reminder that there’s so many places to find it. (Heather Owen’s rescue, by the way, is One Tail At a Time. You can get involved. –Randall Colburn
Nicest Mosh Pit
Here’s something: A mosh pit that’s only purpose is to get people dancing. That’s what unfolded during The Regrette’s Saturday afternoon set on the intimate Heather Owen stage, where the four-piece outfit’s punk-meets-doo-wop sound simultaneously got feet moving and bodies slamming. What was so charming about it all was that nobody was really moshing; those that started the thing just wanted to break up the central mass, so all those hilariously gentle slams eventually transformed into a circle pit of happy dancing. The LA punks’ fierce, feminist songs certainly warrant it; “Seashore”, “Hey Now”, and “I Don’t Like You” are beyond catchy, not to mention lyrically relevant in the face of all the “mini-Trumps” lead singer Lydia Night made sure to call out during the set. Some actual moshing ignited in the set’s final moments, when Night organized a “wall of death” that split the audience in two and sent them crashing into each other. The Regrettes are many things, “punk as fuck” being among them. –Randall Colburn
Most Anatomically Correct Stage Attire
That Peaches’ early-afternoon set was the talk of Riot Fest most of the afternoon should come as little to no surprise to the initiated. Her solid, tawdry, sex-positive electroclash offers one of the rare examples of an artist whose work feels as bold and relevant years down the line as when it was initially released, and “Boys Wanna Be Her” remains a damned great rock song in the Joan Jett mold. But if the crowd came for the jams, many certainly stayed for the everything else happening onstage from start to finish. Peaches dominated the Riot stage on a hot afternoon by going for absolute broke, whether with her candid onstage costume transitions or the point at which she and her backup dancers brought a song to its climax by pantomiming anallingus in the style of The Human Centipede. Yet in all of the onstage frontal nudity and vaginal head attire lies the point that’s driven her work since the beginning: everybody is a little nasty, bodies are bodies, and we spend far too much time obsessing over genitals as a culture when we could just as easily dance around in them, pay musical tribute to orgasms, and lighten the hell up once in a while. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Beach Slang’s James Alex was toasted by the time he took the stage just past noon on the final day of Riot Fest. Naturally, he began with “Noisy Heaven”: “The night is alive, it’s loud, and I’m drunk” go those now-iconic lyrics, and he punctuated that ode to intoxication with a delivery of donuts to the hungover crowd. That alone would’ve been enough to make Beach Slang’s set one of the weekend’s best, but Alex and his band—which now includes guitarist Aurore Ounjian, who is amazing—were chock full of bits, many of them involving Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth” (Ounjian can nail that opening riff).
Between songs like “Halo on My Heart”, “Bad Art and Weirdo Ideas”, and “Ride the Wild Haze”, Alex paid tribute to Gene Simmons — “horrible man, helluva rock star” — and rolled out capsule covers of Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give it Away”. Surprisingly, Alex did play an excellent cover of Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” and ended by singing a snippet of Hüsker Dü’s “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” in tribute to a mixtape that “changed everything” for him as a child. This dude (and his music) is seriously so fun. –Randall Colburn
Queens of the Stone Age
There are few rock bands better suited to a sticky late summer night than Queens of the Stone Age, and their massive set bore that out. Consummate students of the hard rock and punk game, Josh Homme and co. shouted out other performers like GBH and Mike Patton, dropped a snippet of Danzig into their set, and made sure to give the riff-hungry crowds something to sink their teeth into. The 14-song set felt a little brief (and came in under the allotted time), but every song hit hard, ranging from 2000’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” all the way to jams from their latest album, Villains. The four Songs For the Deaf tracks garnered massive support, “No One Knows” chief among them. Homme’s voice sounded great, supported by tight harmonies, but his ripping guitar was the star of the show. Era Vulgaris highlight “Make it Wit Chu” proved that perfectly, building pieces of metal, rock, and a massive hook into a crowd-pleasing roar. Many were expecting an encore, but considering the rock heroics on display and the way the band left everything on the stage, the set was more than enough. –Lior Phillips
Most ’80s Set From a Non-’80s Band
Two truths about Paramore’s sendoff for the fest’s Radicals stage on Sunday night:
01. It was an absolute blast for the sizable crowd in attendance, and;
02. Your enjoyment of it was pretty hugely dependent on how into their newest album After Laughter you are.
With their newest release, Paramore fully (and, arguably, finally) leaned into the pop hooks that made them one of the bigger bands of the mid-aughts emo boom. About half of their Riot Fest set featured material from After Laughter, and even hits like “Still Into You” were lent some of the album’s synth-pop flourishes. Bookended by the disco-heavy “Hard Times” and the equally retro-danceable “Rose-Colored Boy”, Paramore’s set added several additional musicians to the core trio and bounced its way through a memorable hour on a warm Chicago night. Hayley Williams, ever the consumate frontwoman, stepped right into the role of an older-time rock star even when delivering some of the band’s most candy-coated material to date, and in a festival full of older rock postures of various kinds, her glossy pop-rock stood out as especially bold in its own way, against a backdrop of delightfully garish pastels.
And hell, nobody’s too punk to bop around to “Still Into You” anyway. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
No Past, No Present, No Future
Nine Inch Nails
Photo by Heather Kaplan
It’s fitting that “The Fireman” would tip off Nine Inch Nails’ headlining performance on Friday night. Moments before the whole gang arrived — so, frontman Trent Reznor, multi-instrumentalist Atticus Ross, guitarist Robin Finck, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini, and drummer Ilan Rubin (drummer) — Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy composition, off this month’s Twin Peaks: Limited Event Series Soundtrack (of which the band was a part of), set the tone for the evening. Similar to the scene the track scores in “Part Eight” of this past summer’s exceptional revival, it felt as if the tens of thousands that were gathered around the Riot Stage were being whisked away to another dimension, possibly a Black Lodge, maybe even the White Lodge, or perhaps the purgatorial Red Room. Whatever the case, it wasn’t reality, because for a good hour and a half, there was no present, there was no past, and the future seemed irrelevant.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Maybe it’s because Nine Inch Nails seem a little edgier this year than in recent memory, or that Reznor’s feeling spiritually in line with his cutthroat Broken phase (ahem, the EP turns 25 this week), but it felt as if the industrial juggernauts were removed from any sense of time. This wasn’t a set steeped in nostalgia, even if he did play a stack of hits (“Wish”, “March of the Pigs”, “Head Like a Hole”, “Closer”, “Hurt”, et al.), and yet it also wasn’t a set about the future, despite the wealth of new material (“Less Than”, “The Background World”, “Branches/Bones”, “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)”). No, it felt like a tangent, some sort of spectral commodification of time itself, where you simply existed — nothing more, nothing less. Similar to past tours, it felt as if Reznor and co. were operating with abstract imagery, only this time they recused themselves of too many splashy, gluttonous effects.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Heady analysis aside, this was a triumphant moment for the festival. Booking Nine Inch Nails, particularly at this moment in time as opposed to their forgettable 2013 run with Hesitation Marks, is a major coup for the Chicago festival. What’s more, the scheduling was simply genius, a third left-hook after the two-hit punch of Ministry and New Order. Those legends were not lost on Reznor, either, who expressed his honor at following them, even calling the billing “intimidating.” Rather than bask in the nostalgia by revisiting their Joy Division cover “Dead Souls”, he pivoted and paid homage to his former Lynch collaborator David Bowie, covering “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, the final track off Blackstar and arguably its finest. It was a moment not only of reverence, but of further meditation, a time for us all to weigh on everything that has been lost and yet everything that has been gained. It was a damn fine show. –Michael Roffman
Best Antidote To The Clusterfuckery
TV on the Radio
TV on the Radio just want to make sure you’re okay. Throughout their set, Tunde Adebimpe checked in with the ecstatic crowd, asking how everyone was doing in the midst of the “clusterfuckery” of the world. On the glistening “Trouble”, he kept repeating, “Everything’s gonna be okay,” trying to reassure us as much as he was consoling himself. At another point, he let loose a particularly comforting line: “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not it’s not the end.” Their songs felt especially charged by that righteous feeling in the face of darkness, “DLZ” and “Golden Age” burning like a supernova of empowerment. Kyp Malone’s vocals on “Province” carried that raw strength even in their clarion tenor, while “Wolf Like Me” was the runaway train it always has been all this time. The latter was a speedy, euphoric blast that united the crowd in a fist-pumping mass, howling like animals as the sun faded. Those songs from 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain were written in another particularly turbulent time in the country, amping their impact here. After all that, “Staring at the Sun” proved the ultimate closer, the inescapable oblivion coming for us all — but at least we’re all staring together. –Lior Phillips
Fly the W
The Wu-Tang Clan
Perhaps more than any genre, rap shows can be incredibly hit or miss; both factors only double when you’re talking about the biggest names in the game. Kendrick Lamar, Chance, and others are of the most charismatic stars in the musical stratosphere, while other sets are notorious for their sleepwalking play-to-a-backing-track nature. When it was announced that the legendary Wu-Tang Clan would be performing 36 Chambers in full, the potential for either outcome remained. And, in the end, there was a little of both mess and joy — and luckily a little more of the latter.
Rather than get stuck into paint-by-numbers, the Shaolin crew ran through snippets and chunks, letting their personalities do the talking as much as the classic album. That said, the first burst of “Bring Da Ruckus” is a spine-tingling thrill even just listening to the album on your commute, and those highs were present this night. Some of the loose intersections between tracks got a bit messy and the churn of At the Drive In could be heard from across the park — but hell, when do you get to see this assemblage of talent together like this?
Photo by Lior Phillips
They led the “Wu-Tang is for the children” chant, burned on “C.R.E.A.M.”, honored ODB, and even brought a young girl on stage who had been dropping every word from the front of the crowd. There wasn’t a ton of flash and dazzle, but the substance that made 36 Chambers essential in the first place still felt crucial, an amazing accomplishment now two-and-a-half decades later. –Lior Phillips
Retreat Into the ’90s
Sunday was all about the ‘90s. Jawbreaker headlining. Dinosaur Jr., The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones, GWAR, Built to Spill, and Pennywise further down the card. None of these bands, though, sound as much like the ‘90s as that dog., the LA four-piece that released three albums of clever, deliciously angsty power-pop between 1993 and 1997 that cultivated a cult but never became a household name. Because goodness is real, the band reunited in 2011, announced the creation of a new album earlier this year, and, at Riot Fest, played their 1997 swan song Retreat From the Sun in its entirety.
First off, Retreat From the Sun is an incredible album, brimming with radio-ready hooks, gorgeously layered vocal harmonies, and smartass lyrics that no doubt went on to inspire the likes of Jenny Lewis and Kimya Dawson. Secondly, the band still sounds amazing. Anna Waronker is as wry and inviting as ever, and Rachel Haden’s harmonies still have the ability to imbue pathos into her slacker-chic vocals. that dog. still resonate because, despite the laissez faire, post-grunge air on the surface of their power-pop, the band took such great care to also imbue a whimsical beauty into their work, be it through those vocal melodies or their incorporation of symphonic instrumentation.
Photo by Lior Phillips
That much was clear throughout their entire set, but the arrival of a four-piece orchestra to properly score album closer “Until the Day I Die” was a surprise I didn’t think we’d get. And it’s such a simple beauty; these are songs about crushes and concerts and middle fingers, but they carry a nostalgia now that we’re older, a chance to slip on the scuffed denim of your slacker years and idealize all those dumb, delightful nights that we never thought would mean anything at the time.
Also, they played a new song. It was very good. –Randall Colburn
Has Anyone Seen My Tambourine?
Cap’ N Jazz
“Who was at Riot Fest today? How far away is the stage from the crowd?” Tim Kinsella asked at Cap’n Jazz’s pre-show on Friday night. It didn’t really matter what the answer was; the frontman’s manic energy and antics would make that distance negligible. “We’re Queens of the Stone Age, thanks for coming out,” he smiled as an intro at their proper festival set, and not long later he found his way over the swarm of security guards at the railing and into the welcoming arms of the crowd. Still fresh into their latest reunion, eventually pausing to take a photo of the crowd and suggesting everyone smile in case their moms saw it.
“I wrote this song myself, I’m the guy that wrote this song,” he deadpanned during their always-riotous version of “Take On Me”. The intense energy of their club show didn’t wane at all, shouted questions from the crowd about the absent Davey Von Bohlen notwithstanding. (“Who is Davey? Where is Davey? He wasn’t interested.”) When he was tired of tossing his tambourine into the audience and then immediately asking for it back, Kinsella once again dove into the crowd. “Take me to the sound stage!” he screamed. “Oh shit, my mic can’t go that far.”
The interlocking guitars of Nate Kinsella and Victor Villarreal showcased what made Cap’n Jazz such a foundational act, Sam Zurick’s bass pushed everything forward, and Mike Kinsella’s pummeling rhythms highlighted songs like “Little League”, “Basil’s Kite”, and “Oh Messy Life”. But at the end of the day, it was hard to keep eyes off of Tim, bouncing back and forth over the barricade, shirt on, shirt off, crowd-surfing, tambourine-on-head. At this point, if you haven’t scratched Cap’n Jazz off your bucket list, you better do so before it’s too late. –Lior Phillips
With a few key exceptions, the Riot Fest lineup felt disproportionately tilted towards the male — the American male to be exact. That fact alone would have made M.I.A.’s set a breath of fresh air. The fierce dance troupe, border-crossing beats, nimble avant rap delivery, and irascible energy that followed made that even more thrilling.
As M.I.A. entered the stage, she slowly took off her white coat and gloves, dominating the stage with every swaggering step. “Chicago, where’s your head at?” she asked. For someone so associated with politics and controversy, it was good to see M.I.A. enjoying herself and bringing the crowd together in a ravenous dance party. Though to be sure, the songs that got all the feet moving were still powered by her outspoken beliefs, as jams like “Borders” and “Born Free” pumping up the underrepresented.
“This is what festivals are about,” she smiled as the beat to “Bad Girls” dropped — and she couldn’t be more right. On one hand, the big beats and bigger hooks are essential for a set like this, but so too is an outsider who pushes her way into the center and changes the conversation. After a brief disappearance, she re-emerged atop the video screen. There is no limit to M.I.A.’s transcendent personality, and ending the night with “Paper Planes” still circling my head will never be anything but perfect. –Lior Phillips
Biggest Danciest Joyous Tutti Frutti
Thankfully, the summer sun finally faded by the time New Order took the stage; though their classic songs would’ve been just as stunning in the sunlight, their shimmering lights, disco ball guitar, and fluorescent synths made their set a much-needed dance party. “So nice to be here in Chicago, as always,” Bernard Sumner smiled, his effortless delivery as cool and slippery there as it was on “Blue Monday” or Joy Division cut “Disorder”. New Order only played two songs from their recent, excellent Music Complete, but those tracks got the crowd moving just as much as their more legendary brethren. That said, there will always be electricity in the air when “True Faith” or “Ultraviolence” pour out across a crowd. That verve doubled as the group returned to the stage for an encore of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, the words “Forever Joy Division” burning bright on the screen behind them. The crowd bounced up and down giddily, the chorus sung back at Sumner as loud as any through the weekend. By the end, he thanked Riot Fest, Chicago, and Manchester, and at the moment, the two cities didn’t feel very far apart. –Lior Phillips
A Little Miracle
Riot Fest does reunions. It almost became a gimmick. In 2013, the Replacements played their first U.S. gig in 22 years there. Last year, Riot Fest brought Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only together for the first time in 33 years as “The Original Misfits.” Naked Raygun, Screeching Weasel, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Blue Meanies—at some point, they were all brought together again beneath the ferris wheel.
And yet there’s something different about Jawbreaker, perhaps because the possibility always existed that they could fade away. Their breakup felt definitive, coming after frontman Blake Schwarzenbach and bassist Chris Bauermeister came to blows after the release of 1995’s Dear You, their major label debut. That album went out of print, and the others began disappearing from record stores. Before streaming surfaced, it took real effort to find Jawbreaker records, which of course only served to make us covet them that much more. Those cassettes and CDs felt rare, and so did the feeling they conjured in you. Jawbreaker was the band we had to keep loving, to keep sharing and praising in order to keep their legacy alive, because whatever it was they created was never coming back.
Yet here we are. And, as Riot Fest counted down the hours until Sunday night, Jawbreaker shirts appeared on more and more of its artists. The young punks of RVIVR gushed about them during their set; ‘90s-era rockers that dog. reminisced on their relationship with the band; and Beach Slang’s James Alex, standing on the same stage Jawbreaker would play later that night, nearly came to tears in excitement. And what that all makes clear is that this isn’t just a band that people love, it’s a band that inspired people. These bands we’re seeing are here, at least in part, because “Boxcar” somehow found its way into their Discman.
And, on Sunday night, when Jawbreaker’s crowd wasn’t nearly the size of Misfits or the Replacements, it was okay because everyone there was there not because it was an event, but because it was Jawbreaker. And that’s why, when the lights erupted with the opening chords of “Boxcar” to reveal dozens and dozens of screaming, bouncing fans crowding the wings of the stage, it was enough to transform these short, gritty, fist-clenching songs into something mythic and grand. The set was never better than it was during those first few minutes, if only because it truly felt like two decades of anticipation finally being unleashed.
“The Boat Dreams From the Hill”, “Jet Black”, “Want”, “Accident Prone”, “Chemistry”, and more followed before the band broke hearts (not jaws) with sprawling closer “Bivouac”. It was loud and it was good.
“A leaf falls alone in winter unnoticed,” Schwarzenbach said, contextless, at one point between songs. I’m not sure what he meant, but I know that so much goes unnoticed and that it’s good when the good things don’t. –Randall Colburn
Click ahead for our complete gallery of photos.
Photographers: Heather Kaplan, Lior Phillips