“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