Slayer Kills Chicago: Riot Fest 2019 Festival Review

Bikini Kill, Ween, and Patti Smith also captivated Chicago audiences this weekend

Slayer at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan
Slayer at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Beyond the Gates: It’s difficult not to compare last month’s Lollapalooza and this weekend’s Riot Fest. While the former operates on a far larger scale and runs an extra day, the two festivals take place only five miles apart (a mere hop away on I-290 West), both signal the dwindling days of summer in the city, and each one has become a Chicago institution.

But apart from similar technology in outdoor plumbing, the resemblances really end there. Lolla attendees skew younger and descend upon Grant Park from the suburbs in body stockings, basketball jerseys, and head bands, ready to partake of all a festival weekend in a major metropolis sans parents has to offer — as if a music festival were a micro-brewery sampler or a Netflix scroll. It’s become the go-to music event for an indecisive generation who have grown up with unlimited choices.

Riot Fest, celebrating its 15th year, couldn’t be more different. One look at the grimy legions of tattoo-calfed, potbellied, tallboy-nursing masses tells you all you need to know. These aren’t tourists out for a weekend stroll through Douglas Park. For them, Riot Fest isn’t about trying out reggaeton, taking selfies in the pit, or catching a glimpse of a celebrity during a set from the latest Top 40 pop sensation. These are festivalgoers who appreciate guitars, prefer songs performed in rapid-fire succession, and, more than anything, love hearing the anthems of their youth live for the hundredth time. It’s the reason that the hot dog and funnel cake line dwarfed the wait for crepes and vegan noodle bowls. These folks know what they want, and they aren’t about to change now.

Fuckin’ Slayer! (responses echoing in the distance: Slayer! … Slayer!! … Slayer!!!)

“This is Warped Tour for dads,” my fellow writer Samantha Lopez noted early on, an observation underscored by several graying men wearing Rancid and Descendents tees while pushing strollers across the grounds. (But a newborn wearing kiddie safety earmuffs, really?) They were grounds that bottlenecked, muddied, and proved too small at times (both to hold certain audiences and prevent terrible sound bleeds), with a stinging atmosphere that became eye-watering at some point mid-Saturday. But these motley, veteran festivalgoers weren’t going to let that stop them from a weekend that promised the opportunity to hear several classic albums played in their entirety, a last chance to bid farewell to an outfit of thrash metal pioneers who helped make so much of the music at Riot Fest possible in the first place, and, most importantly, three days of head banging rather than life’s headaches.

It’s with this mindset that we swarmed to Douglas Park this past weekend.

Oh, yeah. Fuckin’ Slayer!

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director

Best Bites: If you came to Riot Fest for fancy fare, you were either sadly disappointed or paid someone to smuggle it in for you. With a few exceptions, the booths and food trucks at Douglas Park this weekend catered to the carnival crowd (there was a Ferris wheel, after all) and those who had had three or four too many Lemmy cocktails (an Arnold Palmer with a kick). Cheesie’s Pub & Grub was there to serve up grilled cheese concoctions that typically get eaten around two a.m. on a liquid-filled stomach, and tents offered carnival staples like corn dogs, cheese fries, funnel cakes (delicious), and, for those wanting to clog a major artery or several, deep-fried Snickers bars and Twinkies. Hands down, the best fare of the festival goes to the good folks from El Asador for their mouth-watering burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. I’m not sure if one can fall in love with a burrito, but I came pretty damn close this weekend. –Matt Melis

El Asador Chicago

El Asador Chicago

Festival Fashionista: Riot Fest is just Warped Tour for aging hardcore kids. So, with that comes a lot of Vans (who were even sponsors of the festival), Doc Martens, and hi-top Converse. It’s a phase nearly every one of us went through at some point in our youth, but to these folks, it’s the one they didn’t quite grow out of.

Where Lollapalooza is a fest for the bros and everything is glittery and pastel, Riot is for their counterpart, with a lot of black, stripes, fishnet, and leopard print. Except, you could tell this crowd wasn’t going out of their way or dropping a couple hundred on “festival wear.” These were just a few of the staple items in their closet. Okay, maybe they dusted off the special black mesh top for the occasion. Regardless, they looked sensible, they looked flawless, and they looked hardcore.

However, the real fashion winners of the weekend were those aging hardcore kids’ kids. Yeah, that’s right. Dad’s Warped Tour showcased some of the cutest hardcore babies, complete with miniature versions of the aforementioned shoes, little bandannas, and even tiny, spiked bracelets. Trust me when I say that nothing is cuter than a couple toddlers running around in little Vans while wearing Descendents t-shirts. –Samantha Lopez

Douglas Park, We Have a Problem: Douglas Park is a pain in the ass to get to and leave from. Let’s set that problem aside for a moment. While the staff and grounds made Friday a comfortable evening, the park just wasn’t spacious enough to accommodate the larger crowds on Saturday and Sunday. Forget minor issues like bottlenecks, multiple sets at the Radicals and Rise Stages weren’t able to hold all those who wanted to see acts like Bloc Party, Wu-Tang Clan, or Taking Back Sunday. Sound quality was also an issue for much of the weekend (see: Blink-182), but the bleeds were excessively bad. Each night, the headlining Riot Stage absolutely drowned out Choice B at the nearby Rise Stage. Especially terrible was watching Bloc Party try to get a song or hook in edgewise against a Slayer performance that reigned down noise throughout the park. –Matt Melis  

Bucket List Bingo: Some may call a lineup like this year’s safe, but it sure as hell offers younger fans — or Riot Fest first-timers — a chance to cross some major rock and roll items off their bucket lists. Nobody ever forgets the first time they hear “Blister in the Sun” (Violent Femmes), “Time Bomb” (Rancid), or “Gloria” (Patti Smith) from within a sea of singing thousands. There was the opportunity to hear classic albums from several bands like Ween, Blink-182, and Taking Back Sunday in full, not to mention the opening stretch of 36 Chambers (Wu-Tang Clan). Hell, just to find rare acts like Bikini Kill and Jawbreaker back on a stage, spot Scott Ian and Kerry King’s radical goatees, or witness Wayne Coyne’s hamster ball all make for must-sees over the course of a concertgoer’s lifetime. Just because you’ve seen it a dozen times doesn’t mean it’s any less awesome for the virgins. –Matt Melis

Spry Sexagenarians: If Lollapalooza now functions as a teenager’s My First Festival kit, and Pitchfork remains the refuge of our nation’s hippest twentysomethings, then Riot Fest is the natural domain of the graybeard. That’s not just an assessment of the crowd (although it certainly does skew the oldest of Chicago’s three major festivals): some of Sunday’s most energetic sets were performed by artists over 60. That includes two of the biggest crowds of the day for both the Village People and The B-52’s, whose farewell Chicago set prompted a shoulder-to-shoulder squeeze that extended almost all the way to Riot Fest’s iconic Ferris wheel.

While those acts used their sets to showcase their formidable catalog, others reminded those assembled that they’re still cranking out new stuff: Nick Lowe continued his surf-twang reinvention with Los Straightjackets during a criminally short 40-minute set early in the day, and Guided by Voices sprinkled in choice cuts from 2019’s Zeppelin Over China and Warp and Woof amidst a greatest-hits set that even included a reworked arrangement for “She Wants to Know”, which appeared on their 1986 debut, Forever Since Breakfast EP. At 61, Pollard maintained the festival’s highest song-per-hour rate, blowing through 21 hits in 55 minutes with the type of energy that inspired the band’s upcoming 100-song New Year’s Eve show in Los Angeles this winter. Guess we finally know what “endurance like the Liberty Bell” means. –Tyler Clark

Disco Demolition: In July, Chicago marked the 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night, the infamous Chicago White Sox promotion turned riot that found local DJ Steve Dahl detonating some innocent vinyl while the city’s meatheads stormed the field around him. Pitched as a good-natured prank that got out of hand, the stunt has also come to represent the misguided rockist case against disco and dance music, as well as the undertones of racism and homophobia that accompanied scenes of white teens destroying art often made by and for the LGBTQA community and people of color.

ymca large Slayer Kills Chicago: Riot Fest 2019 Festival Review

With all this in mind, the Village People’s appearance at Riot Fest felt less like a novelty booking and more like evidence that times have changed for the better. Group co-founder Victor Willis made the most of the opportunity; flanked by a new generation of construction worker et. al., Willis ran through hits from “Macho Man” to “Y.M.C.A.” and drew one of the biggest crowds of the early afternoon in the process. Watching a park full of punks bop along to “In the Navy” felt a little like an olive branch and a lot like further proof that the punk ethos is at its best when it’s at its most inclusive. –Tyler Clark

Ride at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Ride at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Most Underrated Set: The last time Ride appeared at a Chicago festival, sound gremlins resulted in an uneven, muggy late-afternoon set at Pitchfork 2017 that failed to convert any passersby to the shoegaze legends’ cause. As do-overs go, the Oxford foursome’s appearance at Riot Fest was a vast improvement and likely the highlight of the weekend for the relatively few diehards who skipped Less Than Jake to see it. For those who didn’t, here’s what you missed: a) the crackingest singles from Ride’s two latter-day records (in particular, “Future Love” and “All I Want,” made even sweeter by the on-point harmonies between Mark Gardener and Andy Bell, b) a pair of classics (“Leave Them All Behind” and “Vapour Trail”) that felt like a slow-motion walk through 1990, and c) Bell and bassist Steve Queralt repping two of the Midwest’s best music stores (Indianapolis’ LUNA Music and the Chicago Music Exchange, respectively) via their well-curated t-shirts. Trust me: you wish you’d been there. –Tyler Clark

Blink-182 at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Blink-182 at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

What’d You Play Again?: “Finally back at Riot Fest,” Blink-182 bassist Mark Hoppus joked, referencing the band’s postponed 2018 Riot Fest appearance following drummer Travis Barker’s medical issues, “We made it!,” he yelled. The California punk trio were set to play a full-album performance of their biggest hit record, 1999’s Enema of the State, no easy feat since founding member Tom DeLonge’s departure from the band. He was replaced in 2015 by Alkaline Trio guitarist/vocalist and Chicago native Matt Skiba. Nevertheless, for a lot of people in that crowd, old fans and new ones, this was sure to be a bucket list performance to remember — if only they were able to hear it.

I was standing comfortably around the back-center of the Riot Stage, the biggest stage at the festival and equipped to hold a crowd of a few thousand. I wasn’t in the immediate pit/vicinity of the stage (I was trying to avoid the inevitable mosh pits), but considering the size of the crowd that was in attendance, I was pretty damn close. However, as soon as the band counted off to presumably play “Dumpweed”, the first track off Enema, the entire back half of the crowd realized the sound was completely off. Instead of the punks’ notable gurgling screeches, we were met with a muffled, toned-down rendition of Blink-182.

Blink-182 at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Blink-182 at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

The band shredded through cuts like “What’s My Age Again?”, “Adam’s Song”, and “All The Small Things”. Except the performance felt more like a fan karaoke session, considering all you could hear in the back was the voices of the fans, with Skiba and Hoppus just faintly in the background as guides. The less patient fans began chanting, “Turn it up!”

Equally frustrated, I decided to retreat from the center and make my way out of the massive crowd to meet my partner. To my surprise, the further away I was from the stage itself, the better I could hear. So, it took me walking to the other side of the merch tents, where I could barely see Blink on the giant screens, to be able to hear them okay.

Now, I wish I could be mad at this, but when I finally could hear the trio on stage, I heard Hoppus yell out, “We’re gonna play some old songs. You know why? Because we’re contractually obligated to.” The band then fell into playing the iconic “Dammit”. It was hard to stay mad after that. But Riot Fest get your shit together. –Samantha Lopez

Patti Smith at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Patti Smith at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Patti Smith: In case anyone was worried that the 67-year-old “Godmother of Punk” might be losing her edge, Patti Smith’s Riot Fest performance should have put any doubts to rest. The legendary singer-songwriter, poet, writer, and artist launched into an epic rant on war, corporate greed, and politics as her and her band finished opening with one of her best-known tracks, “People Have the Power”. Smith continued, “We do have the power! Our governments, our corporations would like us to feel defeated, but we have it with our numbers if we use it. Don’t forget it!”

Smith’s set felt extremely personal; she went on to tell the crowd how this was taking place not far from where she “breathed her first breaths” and a day shy of the birthday of her late husband and former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, to whom she went on and dedicated her most loved track, “Because the Night”, and a cover of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”.

In the midst of all the riot at Riot Fest, Smith’s performance was a breath of fresh, melancholy air. It was nothing particularly new, but that’s kind of what you want from Patti Smith. –Samantha Lopez

Ween at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

Ween at Riot Fest 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

You Big Weeners: “They asked us to play The Mollusk, and we were like: sure?”

Thus began the full-album portion of Ween’s Sunday night Riot Fest appearance, which closed out the Radical Stage for the year. If nothing else, it was a relief to hear that the trepidation was shared. At first blush, The Mollusk feels like a strange choice for one of these full-album sets; of Ween’s catalog, it’s not celebrating a big anniversary (like 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese), nor is it the record where many longtime fans joined the party (like 1992’s Pure Guava). Instead, it’s half-prog concept record about the sea that’s probably the only album in the world to feature both an 15th century Child Ballad and a track about waving one’s dick in the wind.

That probably shouldn’t work on an audience at the end of a three-day music festival, but somehow, it did; in particular, the record’s nautical classic rock dirges (“Polka Dot Tail”, “The Golden Eel”) and surprising moments of sweetness (“It’s Gonna Be (Alright)”) seemed tailored for the oncoming fall and its ever-earlier sunsets. Dean and Gene kept things interesting for themselves, as well, delivering a self-described ska version of “Waving My Dick in the Wind” and amping up “Johnny on the Spot” with fast-forward guitars and vocals sung through a megaphone.

The Mollusk occupied the middle of Ween’s marathon two-hour set (the longest of any band at the festival by a full 30 minutes). Bookending it were spirited hits from across the catalog, from the redneck stank of opener “Big Jilm” to GodWeenSatan: The Oneness classic “I Gots a Weasel” to Chocolate and Cheese standouts “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” and “Roses Are Free”. That last one came as part of a rare festival encore, which Gene explained with chuckling candor.

“Hey you guys!” he said as the band reemerged. “I had to pee, because I’m 49.” –Tyler Clark

Forward, Girls: The riot grrrl proclamation hit the Riot stage like a punch to the face Sunday night for Bikini Kill’s headlining and closing set. The quartet, including new guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle, created a ferocious and infectious soundscape that facilitated Kathleen Hanna and the crowd’s yowls and bounces. Bikini Kill haven’t performed in Chicago since 1995 and haven’t released a new record since 1996, but the band’s catalog, which includes tracks like “Reject All Americans”, “Candy”, and “Star Bellied Boy”, is filled with plenty of bass-heavy punk spurts, each of which complete with Tobi Vail’s unabated drumming, which was met with eruptive applause, plenty of moshing, and crowd-surfing.

In true Bikini Kill style, Hanna took time between songs to pepper in anecdotes on sexual harassment and assault, and the importance of feminism politically and in the music world, as well as representation for women and women of color. She even went on to share a somewhat inspiring story of how her “shitty teenage writing” is something she now performs for crowds of thousands all over the world to hear, going on to say, “Girls, save your writing, save your diaries, people want to hear your stories!”

It wouldn’t have been a Bikini Kill set without it leaving you a little pissed off, but also completely empowered and motivated to tell some Cisgender white male to “Shove it!” –Samantha Lopez

You Can Slay That Again: You didn’t need to know every riff off Reign in Blood or have a tattoo in Slayer font to make your way over to the Riot Stage towards the end of Saturday night. Just curiosity and maybe a little historical perspective. As announced, this would be thrash metal pioneers Slayer’s final show in both the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. And while farewell tours have almost become a joke when it comes to rock bands, longtime Slayer fans and relative know-nothings (like myself) all sensed that this set shouldn’t be missed.

The band screamed, blazed, and pummeled their way through 90 minutes of businesslike metal mastery. The normal favorites like “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood” flowed as fireballs burst and red lights tinged the stage a bloody red. There weren’t many words from lead singer Tom Araya other than some simple thank yous, and that was fine. There was no need to manufacture the drama as the reality slowly sunk in that we might never see these guys leave it all on the stage like this again. But that’s really what stuck out about Saturday night’s farewell set. Slayer said goodbye in the same way they had gone about their business for decades on stages around the world: as conquerors.

Oh, what the hell. Fuckin’ Slayer! –Matt Melis

What Did We Learn? While the Lollas of the world rely on splash gets, news-breaking surprises, and celebrity drop-ins, the Riot Fest website sums up its ethos in far simpler terms: “I’m sorry we didn’t book the exact bands you wanted in the exact order you wanted, in the exact location you wanted, for free.”

It’s an old-school festival operating on the simple premise of trying to give its core audience what they came for while knowing full well that Jagger had it right all along: you can’t always get what you want. And, yes, there were scheduling issues and sound issues and planning issues that made for some minor headaches this weekend.

But when you look around at a Riot Fest crowd — hardworking folks who have lived long enough to see both the wonder and the shitshow that life can be — you sense they understand that nothing’s perfect. (Hell, that’s why half the bands we saw began in the first place.) By the end of the weekend, though, whether or not we got exactly what we wanted, most of us at least got what we needed.

Horns up, Riot Fest. Here’s to 15 more! –Matt Melis

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