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Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Misfits, Death Grips, The Julie Ruin, Morrissey, and Ween took over Douglas Park

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    Brethren, take a deep breath. Riot Fest Chicago has a home again. Last year was tumultuous, with nobody quite knowing if Douglas Park, a punk-free haven in the Windy City’s southwest side, would suffice after the festival was booted from its beloved home in Humboldt Park. It did, but it still felt wobbly, with buckets of rain and shoes of mud feeding into a general sense of instability. Here’s the good news: 2016 was Riot Fest’s smoothest, most organized outing since its early days at the Congress Theater. Crowds were manageable, lines flew by, and Morrissey actually showed up (30 minutes late, but still). Morale was high.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    That said, something’s changed. Riot Fest’s always anchored itself on a carnival and freak motif that dovetails with the event’s punk roots. In previous years, red-and-white carnival games lined walkways alongside wrestling rings and the rides of our childhood, providing ample distraction for those with weary ears. Now, you’ll see a glowing ferris wheel near the entrance and a vintage car or two, but the carnival experience has been mostly relegated to a dedicated area near the back of the park. What was once a motif is now just another attraction.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Frankly, I prefer the streamlined design; in Douglas Park, there’s no bottlenecks or clogged walkways, making it easy to march from one stage to another. But there’s no denying that character is in short supply. Thankfully, there were enough characters in the audience to make up for it. Where Lollapalooza and Coachella’s crowds have essentially devolved into a collision of crop tops and cultural appropriation, Riot Fest’s arrive in search of kindred spirits, whether that be through studs, denim, or obscure t-shirts. If anyone’s going to appreciate your Throbbing Gristle tank (or, hell, even your Enema of the State tour tee), it’s here. Props also to those brave enough to go off-brand — I’m looking at you, Soulfly jersey.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

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    Because no matter how much Riot Fest continues to expand its programming, it will always be a haven for the freaks, geeks, and scumbags, the nerdy and passionate. Lollapalooza’s great, but no one’s there for the music. At Riot Fest, music is everything, even if much of it suffers under the spectres of our accumulated nostalgia. Still, it’s cool as fuck that over the course of a single weekend you can see hip-hop icons like GZA and Nas light up the same stages as the weirdos in Ween and NOFX, or get misty as Julian Marley honors his father across the lawn and Sleater-Kinney teaches a new generation that Carrie Brownstein is more than “that girl from Portlandia.”

    kaplan cos riot fest sunday misc 1 Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    Dig deeper and you’ll find the acts that have no hits to coast on — the teensy Storyheart and Rebel stages hosted a bevy of promising up-and-comers, from Jess Abbott’s post-grudge throwback, Tancred, to the blissed-out pop of Virginia’s Turnover to the hometown wunderkinds The Walters, whose midday Sunday set in the intimate StubHub Sound Stage was one of the best things I saw all weekend.

    kaplan cos riot fest saturday brand new 17 Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    So, who needs the carnival? Or fashion? Or gourmet concessions? Riot Fest grew so fast that, for a spell at least, it seemed like the music was almost lost in the morass. Last year, Associate Editor Collin Brennan asked where Riot Fest will go next. In 2016, it sorta went backwards. But in doing so, it seemed to rediscover itself.

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    Oh, and The Misfits reunited. Keep clicking if you wanna read about that.

    –Randall Colburn
    Senior Staff Writer


    Too Theatrical For Their Own Good

    Underoath

    “Coming up next is … someone else,” Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin said as the legendary punk outfit wrapped up their Sunday afternoon set. He was referring to Underoath, a post-hardcore band of earnest Floridians whose entire raison d’etre seems stamped on the opposite side of Graffin’s coin. Yeah, their music is heavy as hell, but it’s also grotesquely weepy and super corny, which isn’t helped by the band’s overwrought onstage theatrics. It’s like they’re all battling to see who can spasm the hardest; I’d give the trophy to the band’s keyboardist, who leaps between his kit and laptop like he’s trying to disarm 10 separate bombs. Starting your set 10 minutes late doesn’t help, either, especially when you were inexplicably given 15 more minutes than Bad Religion, who came out on time. –Randall Colburn
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    I (Don’t) Wanna Rock

    Dee Snider

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    “I tried to get my hair to lay back, but it always thinks it’s the ’80s,” Dee Snider observed as he whipped his bleached blonde locks around, entertaining his faithful followers early Sunday afternoon. The Twisted Sister frontman and Strangeland actor was in good spirits, thoroughly enjoying the sun with enough positivity to turn every stewing Misfits fan into a puckish idiot. “When you get a day like this at the end of September, you look above and thank the fucking rock gods,” he exclaimed. “Thank you, rock gods! And thank you, mother nature for not being a cunt!”

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Which is why it felt wrong to rag on Snider’s tired, mediocre, and embarrassing assembly of tunes, but hey, what can you do? When the guy wasn’t curiously covering Nine Inch Nail’s “Head Like a Hole” or stripping down “We’re Not Gonna Take It” into a rote Kindergarten sing-along, he was busy trying to shill his new solo efforts, specifically his latest single, “Rule the World”, which came fully stocked with pandering millennial whoops. Of course, things didn’t get any better when he asked everyone if they’re “against vaginal dryness” or referenced women’s “cooter(s).”

    I wanna … vomit. –Michael Roffman
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    Done Dirtiest by the Storyheart Stage

    White Lung

    “I apologize for this performance. I can’t hear myself at all,” White Lung’s Mish Barber-Way told the audience at the end of their set at the Storyheart stage, a performance mixed so ear-piercingly loud that the singer had to leap down into the photo pit to escape the volume. Barber-Way’s vocals have never been meek, but on record she never yells herself hoarse and occasionally off-key the way she did at Riot Fest. There was something wrong, and the crowd knew it, judging from their lukewarm responses (and a beer can hurled onto the stage). This seemed to frustrate Barber-Way, who usually cuts an authoritative figure, but this time preferred to stride around onstage, sinking to her knees at one point to ignore the criminally small crowd. It was an off night for White Lung, and you couldn’t really blame them. –Karen Gwee


    Better Late Than Never

    Joey Bada$$

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    By the time Joey Bada$$ finally took the stage over 15 minutes into his allotted time, it was clear something was amiss. The beginning of the NYC rapper’s set was plagued with sound issues, for which Bada$$ repeatedly (and publicly) held Riot Fest over the fire during his abbreviated set. Despite this, the rapper (and recent Mr. Robot star) put on a DJ-driven, agitated half hour of the kind of emotionally raw hip-hop that’s made his name; Bada$$ went heavy on material from his 2014 LP, B4.Da.$$, but pulled out a couple of favorites from his earlier mixtapes, including a tribute to the late Capital Steez with “Survival Tactics”. Though this might not have been an all-around ideal set, the crowd was invested (particularly in the late going), and before closing with his new single, “Devastated”, Bada$$ promised more new material in the near feature, which probably means some other, less embattled shows as well. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    Curiously Underwhelming For What Should Have Been a Landmark Show

    Motion City Soundtrack

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    When Motion City Soundtrack stepped on the Roots stage on Saturday, they probably realized this was going to be the largest audience any of them would see for a long time. It was their penultimate show — the Minneapolis pop punk band, which would have turned 20 next year, announced they were calling it quits back in March — but there still seemed to be an air of hesitancy. “Lots of emotions up here, I’m trying to keep it together,” frontman Justin Pierre admitted, his clipped banter at odds with the erudite lyrics that diehards have memorized.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    He wasn’t alone. The audience also took a few songs to get into the show: Crowdsurfers only began propelling themselves forward during “LGFUAD”, which kicked off a string of favorites from Commit This to Memory and Even If It Kills Me. Motion City Soundtrack did little wrong, but the set lacked a momentousness you’d expect from their final festival performance. Then again, they probably had their minds on their farewell show at the Metro Sunday night. –Karen Gwee
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    The Sound of Settling

    Death Cab for Cutie

    kaplan cos riot fest saturday dcfc 5 Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    After a hot, sunny Saturday, the sky softened into a deep, rich mauve as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and his merry band of melancholies welcomed us with a rousing rendition of “I Will Possess Your Heart”. Across 10 minutes, the massive crowd swayed in the warm breeze, savoring how the twilight chill dovetailed with Gibbard’s silken croon. “The New Year” followed and fists pumped. Then came “Crooked Teeth” and something resembling dancing. And then, well, we all started to lose interest.

    kaplan cos riot fest saturday dcfc 11 Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    There’s just so little surprise to Death Cab shows these days; Saturday night’s setlist sounded like pretty much every other Death Cab setlist I’ve seen. The best live bands are the ones that keep you on their toes, that entice you to keep coming back with rotating sets of singles, cult hits, and deep cuts. At a Death Cab show, the setlist feels assembled by a Spotify algorithm. It doesn’t help that the band’s never been the most dynamic live act, with the spastic light scheme doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of spectacle.

    Anyone else up for another Postal Service reunion? –Randall Colburn
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    Hardest Enunciations of the S in Illinois

    Method Man & Redman

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Last year, Riot Fest had the Wu-Tang Clan (or at least the primary crew) for a packed, rowdy hour of favorites. Some of those songs came around yet again at the 2016 iteration as Method Man and Redman played a set that leaned heavy on nostalgia, similar to much of the festival’s hip-hop presence on Saturday. From the moment the DJ dropped a medley including “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and other classics, or when Method Man asked the crowd “Do you wanna hear some ‘90s hip-hop for the next hour?” — the game became clear: East Coast sounds, bass-heavy beats, and frequent invocations for the stoners in the audience to identify themselves. The interplay between Meth and Red hasn’t diminished over time, leaving the set’s better performances to their collaborative material (“City Lights”, “How High”), and that interplay slightly elevated a set that was otherwise pretty familiar for anyone who’s ever caught a Wu-Tang Clan gig — or even a solo one. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    Whitest Light, Whitest Heat

    Social Distortion

    As Social Distortion took the stage on Friday night, just a few hours remained until the proper 20th anniversary of White Light, White Heat, White Trash, making their stage-closing Riot Fest set something of a victory lap. At times, the low end overwhelmed everything else; the band sounded fine, but Mike Ness’ vocals were coming and going, seemingly due less to any error of his than to the stage’s sound, which was a struggle to hear in various parts of the crowd. That said, their performance was strong overall, playing through all of White Light and even bringing in their beloved cover of “Ring of Fire” for a pleasing closer. While White Light may not have some of the band’s most memorable songs, the snarling return to form that it offered 20 years ago still resonates today. It’s just not possible to hear “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” or “When the Angels Sing” too many times. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
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