Riot Fest returned to Chicago, Friday to Sunday, September 11th to 13th. Now moved to Douglas Park, right off the California stop on the Pink Line, this meant for no uncomfortable bus ride from downtown as in prior years. A change of location can spell trouble for a festival, but everything was tight – including the stages, which were relatively close together, meaning no huge hikes to catch the next act.
Before the gates opened at Riot Fest 2015, the rain came down. It thankfully stopped by the time the music started, but it did make for some muddy grounds throughout the festival (it rained Saturday morning as well). Not as muddy as they could have been, but hardly clean and dry.
Opening up the festival musically was The Coathangers on the Riot Stage, the female punk trio’s screams waking up the early arrivals. Meanwhile on the Roots Stage was Mustard Plug – Riot Fest is, if nothing else, where you can see a ska band that you like in high school. Their sound hasn’t changed a great deal in the twenty years since debut Big Daddy Multitude, but they still did their tribute to mentor/serial killer, “Mr. Smiley”.
A slightly curious aspect of the Riot Fest schedule was that three afro-punk bands played back-to-back-to-back. First was band of brothers Death on the Rock Stage, a revived seventies proto-punk/metal act from Detroit, with Bobby and Dannis paying tribute to late brother David, who knew that the band would come back around. “Life is about more than flesh & bone & sticks & stones.”
Right after them on the next-door Riot Stage was Fishbone. Clad in jumpsuits, they were a great mix of genres, with just the right amount of agit. But the special moment came when the photographers all filed out to leave the pit after the standard first three songs, and singer Angelo Moore was surprised, demanding that they stick around. That was for a cover of Sublime’s “Date Rape”, a group influenced by Fishbone who have gotten more attention than Fishbone (and more than they really deserved), but of course Fishbone pulled it off, along with their own pieces like the appropriate “Everyday Sunshine”.
While punk group The Bronx put on their mariachi outfits as Mariachi El Bronx on the Roots Stage, Living Colour came to the Rock Stage. Singer Corey Glover was as active as Moore (though Moore had his trademark cane), close to the crowd & in the pit from the start. He called out Anthrax bassist Joey Belladona, who was watching from the side of the stage, “Fuck [Anthrax bassist] Frankie Bello…” Glover & guitarist Vernon Reid tied their shoes on stage, but it was bassist Doug Wimbish who exposed his armpit to Glover during a song, fell over, and then played while seated.
On the smaller Revolt Stage, Skinny Lister Irished it up, very Dropkick Murphys/Flogging Molly. God bless Against Me!’s transgender hearts, though it was absolutely packed in the pit for them at the Rise Stage, as singer Laura Jane Grace is the second-most famous transgender person out there (and transgender is so ‘in’ right now…).
The actual Flogging Molly followed the decently fun (if not inspired) Mest on the Riot Stage, with the prog-metal of Coheed & Cambria between them on the Rock Stage. Molly singer Dave King announced, “As Monty Python said, ‘And now for something completely different…’” They weren’t the only Celtic punk act at Riot Fest, but were still a nice change of punk flavor.
A real stand out on Day One of Riot Fest was Rock Stage’s Faith No More. Their revival has been something to behold, with new album Sol Invictus (QRO review) and a stellar live show (QRO live review). The festival set was similar to the live show, but that’s a good thing. They opened with Sol Invictus’ “Motherfucker”, as its anthem of “Get the motherfucker on the phone!” really only works at the start of a set (the hand signal for a phone would be a great alternative to the devil horns hand signal for FNM, if the phone sign wasn’t also the surfer sign…). And they still killed it with old classics like “Be Aggressive” and “Epic”.
Riot Fest did have some seriously unfortunate conflicts as headliners came on. For Day One, it was No Doubt on the Riot Stage vs. Motörhead on the Rebel Stage vs. Ice Cube on the Roots Stage. The popular choice was clearly No Doubt, with a huge crowd swarmed well beforehand (and an over-capacity photo pit); young women absolutely love showwoman Gwen Stefani (who’s “Just a Girl” – but not a “Hollaback Girl”…). Ice Cube was doing an ‘N.W.A. Remix’ to go along with the biopic, and was an interesting artist to have at the punk Riot Fest. But there’s a special place in every rocker’s heart for Motörhead, especially now as singer/bassist and living legend Lemmy has been canceling shows due to illness (including during a show in Austin – QRO photos), but he was in full power in Chicago. While the conflicting stage times meant that one had to choose, they also did show Riot Fest stretching, with three big artists of differing styles, all at once.
More morning rain meant more muddy ground on Day Two of Riot Fest, but it was ameliorated later on – thankfully, as it was a lot harder to dodge patches of wet mud once the sun went down.
It was suitably wild on Riot Stage & in the crowd for FIDLAR, an act perfect fitting for Riot Fest. They played that always-true “Cheap Beer” (“I! Drink! Cheap! Beer! So! What! Fuck! You!”), and were flanked by what looked like mannequins in suits. There was an extended bass solo on a new song, where singer Zac Carper crowd surfed.
But there is no act more suitable for Riot Fest than the one, the only, GWAR. A Riot Fest regular, the spectacle on Rise Stage included Oderus the Elder, father to late singer Oderus Urungus, coming on stage and attempting to claim GWAR for himself in inheritance – he then pissed blue onto the crowd, and was kicked in the nuts in defeat. Was this mocking the band’s actual dispute over the remains of the real Urungus, Dave Brockie (QRO interview), with Brockie’s actual father? Other events included new singer Blothar raping a baby, “Meat Sandwich”, and the group fighting a giant (actual) internet troll, ripping out its single, giant eye. They closed by dedicating the final song to Oderus/Brockie – “Hail Oderus!”
Anyone would seem lower key after that, but The Joy Formidable always bring their energy. Actually, at first the audience at Riot Stage seemed a little lethargic – but who wouldn’t, compared to the energetic trio of Ritzy Brian, Rhydian Dafydd (QRO interview), and Matthew James Thomas. And the crowd did warm up with “Cradle”. The Welsh group also said it was a good day in Britain, praising new Labour leader (who’s decidedly not ‘New Labour’), Jeremy Corbyn, before playing recently revived rarity “The Leopard & The Lung”.
Riot Fest headed into punk icon territory from there. First was The Dead Milkmen on the Rock Stage, who interestingly didn’t wait to play their biggest hit, “Punk Rock Girl”, doing it second on their set list. This year’s reunion of Babes In Toyland came to the Rebel Stage, while The Thurston Moore Band played the Riot Stage. The ex-Sonic Youther (who had fellow SY Steve Shelley on drums) sounded louder, and more metal, but perhaps that was just osmosis from the rest of Riot Fest.
It’s really surprising that Conor Oberst, of the preciously heartfelt artist-your-girlfriend-likes Bright Eyes (QRO live review), not to mention terrible country side (QRO live review) and Monsters of Folk (QRO album review), not only has a punk band, but also has one that’s actually good – Desaparecidos. What’s more is that he’s really into it; he could be making more money doing other things than agit-rocking at Rock Stage.
One of the outliers at Riot Fest was Echo & The Bunnymen. A seminal new wave act out of Britain in the eighties, they should have been playing at night, not before 6:00 PM at the Riot Stage, but still were great with classics like opener “Lips Like Sugar”, “Bring On the Dancing Horses”, and of course the much-covered “Killing Moon” (original’s still the best…).
While The Devil Wears Prada fit Riot Fest with their screamo sound on the Roots Stage, an even bigger outlier was Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band. The member of Parliament/Funkadelic and Deee-Lite, it was a funk parté at Rock Stage, including “Brick House”.
Finishing up with the out-of-genre surprises on Day Two was Merle Haggard on the Riot Stage. But how can anyone not enjoy some outlaw country like “Tonight, the Bottle Let Me Down”? Meanwhile on the Roots Stage, The Academy Is… played their emo Almost Here in what was billed as a final performance by the band, but after Riot Fest they announced an Almost Here tour. Your twenty-something girlfriend will be happy.
Like Day One, Riot Fest was topped with some conflicts. First was Rancid on the Rise Stage vs. Billy Idol on the Rock Stage. However, Rancid’s return to Riot Fest (QRO photos at Riot ’13) was to play the twentieth anniversary of punk hit record …And Out Come the Wolves, so you knew where on the set list they were going to play hit singles “Roots Radical” and “Time Bomb”, third and fourth. That enabled one to then head over to Billy Idol to catch him close with his own, even older hits, “Rebel Yell”, “White Wedding”, and “Mony Mony”.
Saturday night ended with System of a Down on Riot Stage vs. Iggy Pop on Rebel Stage. Iggy Pop is obviously the bigger icon, but this wasn’t billed as with The Stooges, and we’ve all seen him without his shirt on by this point. But there was chaos over at System of a Down. Even before the show started, fans of the alt-metal headliners were climbing the barrier into the photo pit, forcing security to prohibit photographers. This was a rare show by the band, and the crowd was psyched, but multiple times during the performance the group had to stop to enable security and EMTs to help people who were getting crushed and trampled. “We love playing these shows, but it’s not worth one person getting hurt,” singer Serj Tankian said at one point. But despite the stoppages, the show did always, eventually, go on.
After two hard-hitting days, early on Sunday it was time to take it a little easier at Riot Fest. There was the intimate Kevin Devine at Riot Stage and the sunny Alvvays at Rise Stage. There was nineties throwbacks Hum and De La Soul and the Riot & Rock Stages (respectively). There was the soul-baring Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness on the Riot Stage – but there was also still time for Yelawolf to throw his mike & mikestand into the crowd at the Rock Stage.
Manchester Orchestra came to the Riot Stage with “friends in all the wrong places.” Their mix of heavy, emo, and rock is the right balance for Riot Fest, as well as their ability to be either indie for the mainstream, or mainstream for the indie-sphere, depending on how you look at them.
But maybe the most appropriate act for Riot Fest – other than GWAR – is Andrew W.K. Of course, the self-proclaimed apostle of partying is pretty appropriate anywhere that there is a good time happening, but his blend of rock, punk, and party worked very well on the Rebel Stage. He thanked sweat for being a “built-in shower,” and advised the crowd not to take that for granted.
Hip-hop took a larger role than perhaps ever before at Riot Fest ’15, in artists like Day One headliner Ice Cube or Cypress Hill on Day Three at the Rock Stage. The artists chosen from the genre all have crossover appeal, which accounted for the big crowd for Cypress Hill – but they did once play Hullabalooza with Peter Frampton, Smashing Pumpkins, and Homer Simpson…
The second Riot Grrrl reunion of Riot Fest ’15 came on Sunday with L7 at the Rebel Stage. Meanwhile, The Airborne Toxic Event delivered effective uplift, with a grand, polished sound.
How is it that only in 2015 Tenacious D finally played Riot Fest? The ‘two kings’ of Jack Black & Kyle Gass took the Rise Stage by force, opening with “Tribute”, “The Pick of Destiny”, and “Rise of the Fenix”, a track each from their three records that pretty much tell the story of The D in three parts. After picking some “Low Hanging Fruit”, Black mocked Chicago’s nickname as ‘The Second City’, saying it was number one, “And I won’t say that in any other city…”
But after “Throw Down” and “Kickapoo”, Black informed the audience that they hated all of those songs, and only played them because they were contractually obligated to, as the band has moved on to “Simply Jazz”. The semi-free-form seven-inch Record Store Day single saw Black scatting to ‘The Jazz’ and Gass playing double-flute. But then Black pulled a hammy and needed “The Metal”. This brought about Black acknowledging and joking about the band’s recent Grammy win for “Best Metal Performance”, and “better luck next time” Mastodon, Slipknot, and the rest, before going into their tribute to Ronny James “Dio”.
Black’s second t-shirt change of the performance brought his nod to his roadie Perry and “The Roadie”, but then he & Gass noticed that their guitarist John Konesky was possessed by Satan, a.k.a. “Beelzeboss”, before introducing the entire band during “Double Team”. While there was no “Ballad of Hollywood Jack and Rage Cage” (which your correspondent wanted), they closed with a song for the ladies, but to the fellas, “Hard Fucking”.
The final big crossover appeal hip-hop artist at Riot Fest ’15 was the one with maybe the biggest crossover draw, the one-and-only Snoop Dogg. Unfortunately, the D-O-double-G came on to the Rock Stage a half-hour late, and despite a whole lot of hype work by his crew, the crowd was not happy, and while he closed with your favorite songs of his, he was still cut off for the headliner.
Because many people love Modest Mouse. Lots of young people consider the act to be their foundational band, in the vein of Arcade Fire or even (for a different age group) Nirvana. This year they finally put out a new record, Strangers To Ourselves (QRO review), though Isaac Brock & co. closed with their breakthrough hit “Float On”, they did manage to do an encore with “Spitting Venom”.
After all of the rigmarole leading up to Riot Fest 2015, with the festival moving to Douglas Park and even a last-minute lawsuit to stop it from happening from the next-door festival (thankfully resolved amicably), the actual festival was pulled off great. Okay, having to buy ‘food tickets’ to buy food (so wait in an extra, usually long, line) seemed utterly unnecessary, and one couldn’t completely dodge the mud, but this wasn’t some fancy pants EDM rave. It was ‘just’ a great festival with some great music.
(and special thanks for the free beer & candy in the press tent…)
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Ester Segretto