2021 has not been a normal year, and this was not a normal Riot Fest. Not that any Riot Fest is really ‘normal’, but Riot ’21 was particularly unusual. It was coming after having cancel last year like every other festival. It faced numerous artist cancellations this year, even with a headliner. People wore masks for safety, not style. There was a bonus ‘preview party’ on the Thursday. Yet the Riot Fest persevered, for a big ol’ party, Thursday-Sunday, September 16th-19th.
When Nine Inch Nails cancelled their 2021 tour, including a stop headlining Riot Fest, instead of the festival collapsing, Riot expanded to a special Thursday ‘Preview Party’. Yes, there were those who complained (fans complaining about Riot Fest line-up?!? Never…), and it was a little odd to add another day that you could only get tickets for by having a Sunday or three-day ticket (there were some Thursday tickets on sale for charity – possibly Riot Fest didn’t have the permits for a regular ticketed extra day at Douglass Park). It was only the two main, alternating stages, but carnival rides like the chill Ferris Wheel were free, and if you could make it, it was great.
[like if you were your correspondent, staying in Chicago after the prior weekend’s Pitchfork Festival – QRO recap – and had something bonus to do as opposed to another day at his Airbnb. But your photographer couldn’t make for the extra early day, thus photos provided by Riot Fest]
California’s Joyce Manor played their self-titled 2011 debut on the Roots Stage, joking that it was from the Obama era. Riot Fest has long specialized in artists playing an old record in full, from The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles Pink Robots in 2019 (QRO photos) to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Let’s Face It in 2017 (QRO photos) – both artist playing this year – but only a few for 2021 (enough difficulty setting up the festival in general). The crowd knew the songs, and yes, there were crowd-surfers.
Sometimes punks don’t respect their past. Sometimes their past doesn’t deserve respect. Patti Smith deserves respect, and received it at her Riot Stage – along with just general cheers & enjoyment. Started with, “Happy Mexican Independence Day – another strike against colonialism!” (and no, frat boy, Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexican Independence Day, but rather a celebration of their defeat of an invading French Army that’s been completely appropriated…). And then into “People Have the Power”, naturally. Smith has earned her activist credentials – and has also made more great songs than you remember, such as “Because the Night”. She & her band played her “Redondo Beach” the way Thursday headliner Morrissey covers it, “It’s sort of our Morrissey tribute to our own song, but that’s okay, I’ll pay my Morrisey tribute.” She joked that she was wearing glasses not because she was “trying to look scholarly,” thanking the sun, “But you’re shining in my fucking eyes!” She was upbeat, but noted that we’re living in a global crisis, “Take care of yourself…”
It’s no wonder that Alkaline Trio is a Riot Fest regular. They’re locals and totally appropriate, just the right age/level of experience (and punk). If you were just coming to this ‘preview party’ because you bought a three-day pass, and are that level of Riot Fest fan, you would be happy to see them having fun on the Roots Stage.
During Joyce Manor’s set, the singer asked who was psyched for Morrissey, and as many people booed as cheered. That’s the way it’s been for Moz in recent years, what with his anti-Covid precautions statements, flirtations & more towards English nationalism, on top of his already notorious proactive/pushy stance on vegetarianism, and indeed cancelling shows himself. There’s also been his general perceived antipathy towards his days fronting arguably the greatest British band of the eighties, The Smiths – at Riot Fest 2016, he only played one Smiths song in his entire headlining set, and came on a half-hour after his schedule start (QRO recap). He’s even had anti-mask/vaccine murmurs during the pandemic.
But at Riot ’21, Moz started with “How Soon Is Now”, one of The Smiths’ biggest songs (and the theme song to the original WB’s Charmed, kind of randomly). The set included other hits such as The Smiths’ “Shoplifters of the World Unite”, his own “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, and even a cover of The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang”. While projected above his head were political images seemingly disconnected from whatever he was playing, Morrissey refrained from his usual diatribes, even stopping himself at times – his most pointed might have been about flying in on United, “Somehow, I survived…” Yes, the food stalls were all vegetarian (as opposed to just shutting down early, like at ‘16), but they weren’t vegan, so you could still get a jumbo slice of pizza for ten dollars.
It was almost like Morrissey understood the nature of the assignment. Of course, he still ended early at 9:25 PM, five minutes before the night’s already early end, and while the crowd wanted more Moz, he did not return. Leave ‘em wanting more, I guess…
The first full day of Riot Fest ’21 started big and emotional with the likes of Envy On the Coast at the Riot Stage, along with bringing Oxymorrons to the Rise Stage and Señor Kino to the farther Rebel Stage. For this year, the alternating Riot and Roots Stages were no longer next to each other, but rather facing each other over the wide general crowd area. The Radicals Stage was still out perpendicular to the two, close the food stalls corner. However, the Rise Stage now was almost right next to the Roots Stage, albeit facing the other direction. This didn’t look good on paper for Rise & Riot, but the opposite directions, plus long alcohol bar extending the break in the crowd between the two, actually kept the sounds rather separate, with a kind of neat moment going around the bar where the music you heard changed rather abruptly. The smaller Radicals Stage was located among the carnival rides and foods, which did bring people to it for its smaller acts, but often not that interested.
It was usually kind of essential to have a big sound at Riot Fest, even more than most festivals. That’s what it was notable that Meg Myers on the Riot Stage, who seemed like an outlier when the schedule was announced, actually fit in, even going straight-up hard rock at times. It was less surprising with Sweden’s The Sounds, who were playing the Roots Stage rather early in the day for them, but still had tons of energy. Frontwoman Maja Ivarsson effused about missing audiences and playing shows, still totally engaging & compelling. The Sounds were followed on the Roots Stage by the big, emotional hard rock of Circa Survive.
One of many people’s favorite discoveries at previous Riot Fests, Radkey, played the festival for a third time at the Rise Stage. The Afropunk continued on the Radical Stage, first with Fishbone performing the thirtieth anniversary of The Reality of My Surroundings in full, which included their two classic singles, “Everyday Sunshine” and closer “Sunless Saturday” (it was very sunny at Riot Fest). Then came Living Colour, who were truly in color and brought their own brand of funksmanship. Before “Time’s Up”, singer Corey Glover asked, “How about a mosh pit, once, for old time’s sake…” – and got one. And leading into their final song, pro wrestler – and famously banned from Riot Fest – CM Punk introduced it, their big hit “Cult of Personality”.
There was one act who played it less in-your-face on Friday, New Jersey’s own Pinegrove on the Riot Stage. Reminiscent of Band of Horses in their alt-country/rock twang without being too twangy, they had more skilled emotion – and bonus points to frontman Evan Stephens Hall for his special thanks to the Active Sign Language interpreter (and bonus-bonus points to Riot Fest for having them this year). Meanwhile, Eyedress brought smoother synthy sounds, though still with some punk elements, to the Rebel Stage.
Riot Fest is always littered with veteran acts in the punk vein, maybe you know them well, maybe you don’t. Motion City Soundtrack’s reunion (they broke up after Riot ‘16) brought their own big emotionalist rock back to the Riot Stage, and one could appreciate their enthusiasm and happiness at playing again (plus delightfully awkward tribute to playing the same stage as headliner The Smashing Pumpkins). Meanwhile on the opposing Roots Stage before them was Thrice, while after Motion City on Roots was the professional Coheed and Cambria doing what they do best, even amid a rainfall that saw people go for cover, but lifted soon enough.
And then there are the veterans from another era: the twentieth century. Sublime With Rome is technically just the bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh, after singer/guitarist Bradley Nowell’s premature 1996 death, but a decade ago the recruited Rome Ramirez to revive the band. That included new songs, but the crowd at the Radical Stage were there for the old songs (to be fair, there are multiple Sublime tribute bands out there with careers, so no wonder Gaugh & Wilson would want to reclaim their material). Meanwhile, O.G. punks Circle Jerks were just punk as fuck on the Rise Stage in their own latest reunion, including Keith Morris and many, many crowd-surfers.
The big Riot Fest ’21 headliner (who never canceled) was The Smashing Pumpkins, because this was a hometown gig. Yes, they throw back to the nineties (the set included “Drown” from their soundtrack to 1991’s so-nineties-it-was-set-in-Seattle Singles), and have had their own break-ups & reunions, but currently three-quarters of the original line-up is back, frontman Billy Corgan with guitarist James Iha & drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Their first show since August of ‘19, that meant some first-time-ever-live performances off of last year’s CYR (QRO review), including “Ramona”, “Wyttch” and “The Colour of Love” – plus playing “Quiet” (from 1993’s seminal Siamese Dream) for the first time since 1994!
Indeed, the set largely eschewed the years that The Pumpkins were just a Corgan operation, but that meant so many great from back when, like “Today”, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, and “Tonight, Tonight” with its reference to, “City by the lake,” which got tons of cheers. For “Eye” (off of the Lost Highway soundtrack), Meg Myers joined them, and later local guitarist Michael Angelo Batio came on for “United States”. Corgan joked about how, in his younger days, he would play an obscure song and piss people off, but now would play the classics. He was also wearing an odd outfit that looked a little like a muumuu, but as he said, “I’ve always been an arty fuck.”
It was a bit unfortunate that a very different local, Lupe Fiasco, played at the same time on the Radical Stage, but pulled his own crowd. And then there was NOFX on the Rise Stage, frontman Fat Mike joking about everything (like how, if he lost weight, he could join earlier-in-the-day-on-that-stage Anti-Flag).
A hotter Saturday at Riot Fest started with the punk-rock-pop overlaps such as Joywave on the Roots Stage, Citizen at the Rise Stage, and Bearings on the Rebel Stage. But it was the theatrical that took center stage in the middle of the fest. There was Riot Fest regular GWAR back to once again defile on the Radical Stage (QRO photos at Riot Fest ’19), including a mock-Taliban beheading a mock-Biden, anointing the crowd with (fake) blood, and declaring, “Chicago, we are fucking sick of you!”
At the Riot Stage, Big Freedia brought the New Orleans bounce up the Mississippi, including some killer dancers (unlike the massive mainstream fests, Riot Fest does lack in dancers). She did “Goin’ Looney” from the Space Jam 2 soundtrack (perhaps the only thing worthwhile about Space Jam 2), plus call-and-response “I got gin in my system / Somebody’s gonna be my victim!”
But no one out-wilds Tim Harrington and Les Savy Fav. Of course, the singer went into the pit on the very first song (sending photographers scrambling…), and shirtless into the crowd on the second song, lying atop a lying-on-a-blanket couple (sending your correspondent next to them scrambling…). He swapped a hat for a wig, later put on a fur skin, pulled a fan into the pit to ride him, went all the way to the soundboard (picking up a fan’s fan and some ski goggles along the way) to having security surf-carry him back to the stage on top of a folding table. It’s been a long time since the band’s last studio record, 2010’s Root For Ruin (QRO review) – bassist Syd Butler & guitarist Seth Jabour are busy as part of The 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Meyers – but they’ve lost none of their live skill.
The late afternoon, just as the heat of the day has really baked in, favors more relaxed bands, as opposed to the in-your-face. Best Coast are a very relaxed band, sometimes too relaxed, but for their Riot Stage performance they wisely upped the rock. Meanwhile on the Radical Stage, Hepcat not only sounded like what you would expect/want from a band named “Hepcat,” they even looked it, inviting specific punks in the crowd to dance with their ska. They were also a great act to be playing nearest to the food stalls & their long lines, easy to enjoy while waiting or eating.
It’s kind of tragic that the immigrant punk message of Gogol Bordello has become so relevant these days, but they delivered it – and their music – so well back at Riot Fest on the Roots Stage. Not a crime! Unfortunately, they overlapped (always an issue with the ever-stacked Riot Fest) with Bayside on the Rise Stage celebrating “21 Years of Really Bad Luck,” The Bollweevils on the Rebel Stage, and fellow Riot veterans The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on the Radical Stage, who showcased why they’re the biggest name in third wave ska, and another act perfectly suited for Riot Fest. Admittedly, they probably played more from this year’s When God Was Great (QRO review) than the crowd wanted, since they’ve got a deep well of classics, but this is their first time to play it on the road. And even newer songs can become classics after a while, such as 2018’s “Green Bay, Wisconsin” from While We’re At It (QRO review) and 2011’s “They Will Need Music”, to go with “A really old song … Probably written before you were born,” “Hope I Never Lose My Wallet”. And there was still the oldies like “Hell of Hat”, their cover of Bob Marley’s “Simmer Down” (“This is a song written by a man who wanted unity & hated division”), and close with “The Impression That I Get”.
On paper, an outsider would think that hip-hop would be an odd fit at best at Riot Fest, but in reality, those that are game reap the rewards. Case in point was Chicago’s own Vic Mensa on the Riot Stage, returning to the festival (QRO photos from Riot Fest ‘17), and not just because it’s a hometown event. He played his debut mixtape Innanetape in full, including “Holy Holy”, in tribute to murdered-at-seventeen brother Cam, and “16 Shots”, inspired by the death of another seventeen-year-old, Laquan McDonald, at the hands of cops that occurred not far away from Douglass Park.
The rest of Saturday was similarly rocked by acts that just love playing Riot Fest. Rancid nicely came after The Bosstones & Hepcat on the Radical Stage, the ska shifting into ska-punk – still with the upstroke, and still wanting your “Salvation”. Chicago’s own Rise Against filled in last minute to play the Roots Stage, joking that the nice local weather wasn’t always like this, and just giving it their all. Meanwhile, Andrew W.K. made the Rebel Stage the Party Stage, actually kind of fitting with the carnival rides (he’s since been dubbed the #PartyThor on Twitter, as he’s engaged to Kat Dennings, a.k.a. MCU scene-stealer Darcy Lewis).
Another rap Riot returnee was returning headliner Run the Jewels on the Riot Stage. It’s just great to see El-P and Killer Mike so enjoying being as big as they are, while also not losing touch from where they came, Mike paying tribute to Chicago’s own Alice Smith, who taught the very politically active musician all about organizing. And dropkicking Saturday to a close were the Dropkick Murphys on the Radical Stage.
Going into the long weekend, Sunday at Riot Fest ’21 seemed the most troubled, after Nine Inch Nails dropped out and there was really no act that could replace them (just, in general). But it became a ‘bullpen game’ of many strong artists.
Admittedly, it wasn’t the highest-demand start, as the likes of dance act 3OH!3 at the Rise Stage was a weird fit for Riot, while back-to-his-original-name Alex G wasn’t memorable on the Roots Stage. But Radical Stage’s BLACKSTARKIDS impressed on the Radical Stage with their hip-hop/pop style and young, upbeat way at what they said was their first-ever festival appearance. Another good, if raw, hip-hop act on the final day was KennyHoopla at the Radical Stage.
Okay, so you only know of Body Count because it’s frontman is rapper/actor-turned-actor/rapper Ice T of the ultra-long-running Law & Order: SVU, which has been on the air longer than some Riot ’21 attendees have been alive. Or if you’re older than that, you might remember Body Count’s infamous “Cop Killer” that got nineties killjoy Lovejoys all in a huff. But just this year they won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance, and were a great act to see at Riot Stage that you wouldn’t have seen on their own.
Especially if you were in press tent and saw them take photos with fellow Riot Stage performer DEVO, because that’s what twenty-first century music-of-any-era/genre is all about (just as long as it’s not Lulu – QRO review). Ohio’s own pre-post-punks masters of devolution started with a 40-year-old mock video of their manager trying to get them to sell DEVO dolls and more, then showed him now, still joke-denouncing the art-punks for not selling out so they could be playing stadiums like Kid Rock. They started with “Peek-a-Boo”, and unlike the requests from the subterranean freaks on Futurama, they also played hit “Whip It”, and in the middle, after which they stepped off stage for another video, describing their galactic insignificance. Admittedly, they did lose some of their audience at that point, but it’s just amazing that they’re still playing live shows, despite never answering the age-old question as to whether or not they are men?
While those who wanted their emotionalism more straightforward headed to the Radical Stage for Simple Plan or Rise Stage for New Found Glory, The Roots Stage closed out its 2021 with The Flaming Lips. Another act that came on last minute to help out a festival they love (QRO photos at Riot ’19), the band didn’t come empty-handed. Yes, there were still their giant stage theatrics, including a massive inflatable “FUCK YEAH RIOT FEST” balloon (do you think they reuse it?), a giant inflatable pink robot for “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (do they just have a ‘balloon guy’?), and frontman Wayne Coyne got in his own human-sized inflatable hamster ball, though didn’t surf the crowd as he noted that the group is being more careful right now (earlier this pandemic, they played a whole show where everyone, band members & fans, were in their own individual clear plastic balls). Coyne advocated scream-therapy, at least at this moment, advocating encouraging the person next to you to scream.
The last of the last minute Riot ’21 fill-ins was Slipknot, and while obviously disappointed no Nine Inch Nails, bringing them and The Flaming Lips in was a pretty great move. Plus, the Iowa act has been wearing masks since before it was fashionable. If you’d been put off by all their horror-theatrics before, it was notable to see them at this festival both being so into what they are, yet also not excluding. Like hearing frontman Corey Taylor talk, and he sounds like a normal guy under that scary mask. They play from their first record – but also have another set of giant drums up on another level of the Riot Stage.
Meanwhile, just around the corner to close the Radical Stage was rapper-turned-rocker Machine Gun Kelly. At this point, his own pretty mainstream punk performance has been kind of eclipsed by his celebrity persona. And this time, not for dating Megan Fox (who appeared side stage at his surprise Lollapalooza set a month-and-a-half ago – QRO recap), but at Riot Fest for taking a shot at Taylor & Slipknot for, “Being 50 years old, wearing a fuckin’ weird mask on a fuckin’ stage.” Kelly added, “Turn the lights up. Let me see who chose to be here instead of with all the old weird dudes with masks.” This was not unprovoked or out of nowhere, as Taylor had previously said on a podcast that he doesn’t like people who, “Failed in one genre and decided to go rock, and I think he knows who he is.”
[note: the following weekend at Louisville’s Louder Than Life, which Slipknot didn’t play but a lot of other heavy rockers did, Machine Gun Kelly’s set was booed, some fans jumped the barricade and one even tried to confront Kelly in pit, with which the singer threw a punch, but they were all still well separated by security]
There was so much line up against Riot Fest in 2021, from general COVID fear of crowds to specific cancellations. Not to mention that the independent punk rock festival has always had the decked stacked against it. Yet the people behind it worked tirelessly, friends contributed where they could, and it not only persevered, not only reinvented, but succeeded against the odds.
[and special thanks for always treating the press so well…]
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Thursday provided by Riot Fest; Friday-Sunday by Amelia Baird