There’s something to be said for predicability, especially when it comes to Riot Fest. Like, how you know they’re going to bring back Andrew W.K., GWAR, and all those freaks from Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue. And how, yes, there’s going to be some overlap with pretty much every Warped Tour lineup from 1998-2006. But, there’s also going to be a vastly different set of headliners than any other summer music festival out there, and a middle card that’s unorthodox to say the least.
For Chicagoans, though, Riot Fest is like that mysterious carnival that used to come around town every October. The one Ray Bradbury wrote about in There’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, where the ferris wheel creaked, the carnies stared at your mother a little too long, and the cotton candy clung to your fingers in really far out ways. But, everyone was there, your friends, your classmates, your neighbors, your family. Nobody was immune to its tacky mystery and that was the fun of it.
Well, that feeling has always been the case for Riot Fest, starting way, way back in 2012, when the fringe festival first touched down in Humboldt Park, long before the aldermans and suits decided thousands upon thousands of festivalgoers weren’t good for the surrounding businesses. [Insert Rodney Dangerfield GIF] Now that they’re seemingly fine and dandy over at Douglas Park — admittedly, a gem of a find, despite being a shlep for everyone who doesn’t live near Douglas Park — they’re good.
This year, they’re very good. Once again, Riot Fest has pieced together another enviable weekend for those who prefer six strings at their festivals, and there isn’t a single line on its poster that comes close to derailing their original spirit. Maybe it’s not as varied as last year’s offerings, per se, but having Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, and a reunited Jawbreaker at the top speaks volumes during an era when major festivals have turned deaf ears on the rock genre.
To quote Bradbury himself, “Beware the autumn people.”
Queens of the Stone Age
Photo by Philip Cosores
Everything is starting to come into focus for Queens of the Stone Age. First it was a billing at Fuji Rock in Japan, then at Outside Lands in San Francisco. Now, with their first headlining slot at Riot Fest, plus word of an imminent single and expected new album, the sunburned hard rockers are gearing up to be in full swing. It’s a good time to be Josh Homme, as their last release, 2013’s …Like Clockwork, was a return to form in both critical esteem and commercial interest. And let’s not forget that Homme spent his time between releases recording with both Iggy Pop and Eagles of Death Metal, plus playing guitar for Lady Gaga. In short, if the new Queens is as good as we hope it will be, seeing their name at the top of festival lineups could become much more common. –Philip Cosores
Photo by Lior Phillips
When New Order came through the Windy City to support 2015’s Music Complete, they opted for the Chicago Theatre. Don’t get me wrong, the place is nice and all — iconic even — but it’s not the right fit for the Manchester legends. With them, you need to dance! You need to jump up and down! You need to be lost in a sea of people! You can’t really do that in seats, and so, this writer passed on seeing them. (Dick move? Maybe. Maybe not.) Whatever the case, they’re coming back to the right setting, and while it’s not a headlining slot — $10 bucks says they draw a bigger crowd than Jawbreaker — it’s likely going to go down as the sun sets over Douglas Park, a perfect setting for, say, a “Bizarre Love Triangle”. Thank you, thank you. –Michael Roffman
Nine Inch Nails
Photo by Philip Cosores
Each time Nine Inch Nails has appeared on a North American festival bill this year, it’s felt both like a risk and a revelation. The riskiness is in the fact that they aren’t a band for the masses. Despite some huge alt hits that span several decades, the bulk of their music is difficult for the casual fan, which has been evident for anyone that’s seen them headline a fest to modest crowds in the past five years. But what works is where the band is playing. Events like Panorama, which boasts two headliners a day, FYF, which features a less traditional festival audience that appreciates the more esoteric, and now Riot Fest, a festival built on aggression, are ideal venues for Trent Reznor’s avant nostalgia. They’re a titan in music, and at least we know that at Riot Fest, they’ll be treated as such. –Philip Cosores
Photo by Allyce Andrew
Prediction: Paramore is going to draw the biggest crowd at Riot Fest. It’s been four long years since the band released their self-titled fourth studio album, which was both a critical and commercial smash, and it’s no coincidence they announced its followup on the same day the festival dropped its lineup. It also helps that lead single “Hard Times” is a summer-friendly jam that’s probably going to be on every radio station and sand-covered boombox from now until September. Toss in the fact that Hayley Williams is an unstoppable ball of energy on stage and you have a performance that could easily shut down the park on any given night. One request, Ms. Williams: It’s a heavier fest and all, but please don’t forget “The Only Exception”. –Michael Roffman
It seems like out of all the festivals Riot Fest tries the hardest to nail down reunions. So, it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see they followed through this year again. But … Jawbreaker? Who knew. It’s been 21 years since the New York punk rockers called it quits after touring behind 1995’s most excellent Dear You. Similar to Misfits last year, this is so-far a one-off performance, which bodes well for Riot Fest, and continues their humble streak of not-so-humble bookings. Get there. –Michael Roffman
Photo by Philip Cosores
The last few years for Bad Brains have been dominated by major health issues, both for guitarist Dr. Know (heart attack and organ failure) and frontman H.R. (a neurobiological disorder, which is about the saddest irony ever considering the band name). Sure, there was talk about possibly returning to make new music, but when two members have dealt with such traumatic health issues, it’s hard to be optimistic. So, Bad Brains’ billing at Riot Fest isn’t just a cool get celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band. It’s an affirmation of survival in a punk scene that’s often brutal to its artists. That’s a reason to celebrate. –Philip Cosores
That Dog is often considered an also-ran of 90’s alternative, but only by those that weren’t paying attention to the group. They disbanded in 1997, right after the release of their only charting single “Never Say Never”, and remained broken up until 2011 when they played a handful of shows over a couple of years. Word is that they might even have a new record coming out, which would be their first in 20 years. Regardless, That Dog is an example of what Riot Fest does so well, digging deep into rock history and bringing back some nearly forgotten gems. –Philip Cosores
Photo by Heather Kaplan
In hindsight, we should have seen Vic Mensa on this lineup. Riot Fest has been welcoming more and more hip-hop over the years and the Chicago MC is a solid get for the festival. If you recall, Vic’s 2016 performance at Lollapalooza saw the former Kids These Days frontman go Full Kanye, delivering a totally woke performance to a bunch of Northsiders and tourists who probably came to hear “Down On My Luck”. Full disclosure: This writer was definitely one of those Northsiders, and while he did walk away reeling from the SWAT-themed spectacle, he was bummed out to not hear his 2015 banger. Perhaps Vic brings both the club and the headlines to Douglas Park come September? Either way, it’ll be worth seeing. –Michael Roffman