Last year, Chicago’s Riot Fest somehow managed to return after COVID canceled everything, even after losing two headliners. Well, those two headliners & many, many more came to Douglass Park in ’22, with everything from hip-hop to a Ukraine tribute, for another great festival, Friday-Sunday, September 16th-18th:
It was a beautiful Friday to start Riot Fest, and great acts to kick it into gear. On the Rise Stage, Foxy Shazam were suitably wild and glam, along with some of the best facial hair at Riot Fest (and that’s saying something). Meanwhile, Lagwagon’s Roots set was strong, active, even frenetic punk rock, fitting for not just the festival, but also the time of day. Jeff Rosenstock had some early technical issues at the Radicals Stage, leading the crowd on sing-alongs to nineties hits like Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So”, until thing got right and he could rock.
Riot Fest certainly knows how to draw on punk past’s deep well, and that could be seen in acts like Rocket From the Crypt, who played 2001’s Group Sounds at the Rise Stage, or Riot vets Descendents on the Roots Stage, who drew from their seminal Milo Goes To College, which just turned forty (but does Milo still have student debt?…). But Descendents also have newer material that fits right alongside Milo, if not reinventing, then doing what they do, well. Sparta brought out Trust the River, “A record that we released in March 2020 that we thought was going to stop the world in its tracks,” more epic and emotional on the Riot Stage.
Pop-punk has always gotten a bit of frosty reception from punk purists, but Riot Fest nicely mixes it in. Admittedly, pop-punk wonder kids The Wonder Years sounded more punk their reputation would imagine on the Radicals Stage, playing off of out-the-next-Friday’s The Hum Goes On Forever. Emo can similarly clash with punk, but is also welcome at Riot Fest (particularly on the day My Chemical Romance was headlining), such as Taking Back Sunday playing their umpteenth Riot at the main Riot Stage, frontman Adam Lazzara often remarking how still-into the festival they are (and how psyched he was for next-on-that-stage MCR). There was even a couple in the crowd who got engaged, after having had their first date at an earlier TBS Riot Fest set.
While the likes of Cloud Nothings and Destroy Boys rocked the small side Rebel Stage, Alkaline Trio returned to Riot Fest with the right level of epic rock at the Roots Stage. They dedicated “Save Me” to late local Chicago author Michelle McNamara, who wrote I’ll Be Gone In the Dark.
Yet Riot Friday wasn’t all about returnees & old acts. Portugal. The Man are usually the one rock band at a Gen Z pop fest, so couldn’t stand out quite as much on the Rise Stage, but the festival let them be themselves, including starting with Native American women singing (originally from Alaska, Portugal has long championed America’s indigenous, such as single “Who’s Gonna Stop Me”, that featured none other than Weird Al Yankovic in a rare non-comedic role), as well as covering everyone from Nirvana (“In Bloom”) to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Charlie Day (“Day Man”), but also hit singles such as “Feel It Still” and “All Your Light”. Meanwhile around the corner at the Radical Stage was Jack Antonoff and his Bleachers. Whatever one thinks of him as a pop producer of leading ladies such as Taylor Swift & Lorde (to say nothing of having once been the guitarist for the once-hit, now-forgotten fun.), his own band is quite enjoyable. Yes, clearly neo-Springsteen, but he loves it, saxophones and all.
Just judging by the crowd, the day clearly belonged to headliner My Chemical Romance. It’s been two-and-a-half years since they announced their reunion, only to have to delay & delay it, including the last two years of Riot Fest, so anticipation was particularly high at the Riot Stage, even for this highly-anticipated tour (QRO photos the weekend prior). It was a massive crowd, singer Gerard Way often having to ask people to take a step back to ensure safety. And Way (wearing a headscarf, oversized glasses, a dress, and heels, as he’s been challenging traditional masculinity since before Harry Styles was one of One Direction) still has his voice, always important in a reunion, but particularly for such a near-screamo act. As they have all tour, they started with their new “The Foundations of Decay”, just in case you thought this was just nostalgia, but there were still girls crying to songs from Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge or The Black Parade. Kind of the perfect band to reunite to Riot Fest, and well worth the wait.
Though the skies were overcast, no rain fell on Day Two of Riot Fest. Instead, after an epic early set by The Joy Formidable on the Roots Stage, there was a special Ukraine Tribute on the stage, orchestrated by Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz (QRO interview at Riot Fest ’22). The war in Europe has been going on long enough, and just far enough away, to forget about it all, or just give nominal regards (like still having a Ukrainian flag in your social media bio), but Riot Fest has gone the extra kilometer. Music stopped on all stage for the tribute, which included a local troupe of traditional Ukrainian dancers (the festival drawing on Chicago’s long & deep well of Ukrainian immigration), and promoting aid organization United24.
While Riot Fest has long been a festival of older acts, there was a nice mix of younger artists as well on Saturday. For instance, while O.G. punks FEAR did their hardcore classic The Record for its 40th anniversary on the Riot Stage, The Get Up Kids played the 25th anniversary of their own pop-punk touchstone Four Minute Mile on the Radicals Stage (made in Chicago) – and the more youthful pop-punk jxdn even had some thrash energy on the Roots Stage. Post-hardcore came to the Rise Stage with Movements, while vets 7 Seconds played eighties classics & new songs (and even cover “99 Red Balloons”) on the Riot Stage.
One rising young act that’s been playing all sorts of festivals this year has been YUNGBLUD, the kind of artist who could play Atlanta’s Gen Z-skewing Music Midtown last year (QRO photos) – the festival that should have happened this same weekend but was cancelled because they weren’t legally allowed to ban guns at the fest, in case you think politics never effects fans – to an older-skewing Riot. Aughts emo fans probably feel about him the way nineties alt-punks felt about aughts emo fans, derision fueled by seeing that you’re not the young generation anymore. But he had a particularly charming presence on stage, undoubtedly boosted by (surprisingly) being British – “yungblud” sounds much better in a British accent.
It’s interesting watching young punks grow up. While Alexisonfire wasn’t that memorable on the Radicals Stage, The Front Bottoms there aged well from their youth-fueled start. Too often that snarky teen energy dissipates or becomes tired, but these no-longer-kids are doing well in their second decade.
In their like fifth decade or so are the original erudite punks, Bad Religion. They’ve got a deep well of songs going back to the eighties and even seventies, so they did play a number that you didn’t know, but then they’d pull out something like “No Control” or “I Wanna Conquer the World”. “21st Century Digital Boy” pretty much predicted this millennium – oxycontin hadn’t been unleashed on America yet, but the line, “Mommy’s on valium” gets pretty damn close. And singer Greg Gaffin not only called out the always-awesome Active Sign Language interpreters (worth the price of admission at any festival, but particularly to watch when signing someone as verbose as punks like Gaffin – or some of the dirtier, funnier punks Riot Fest also pulls in), but he also got her on the big screen.
After The Story So Far played their third Riot Fest on the Rise Stage, it was time for an absolutely amazing set by Gogol Bordello. They’ve played Riot many times themselves (QRO ’21 photos), but this year, despite being a late add, they were probably the standout of the whole fest. Yes, it was fueled by the catastrophic war in lead singer Eugene Hütz’s native Ukraine (where the band had just played with the military defenders), but they brought it out very well. Highlight of highlights was when Hütz announced, “Let’s make it a real Ukrainian party!”: the return of the local traditional Ukrainian dancers, who kicked (literal) ass, totally having fun, and were well integrated into the gypsy punks. Classic “My Companjera” was dedicated to, “All those people whose lives have been fucked up by the war in Ukraine”, but they also got to bring out some from released-the-day-before new record SOLIDARITINE (QRO review).
Six years ago, “The Original Misfits” reunited – Glenn Danzig, Jerry Only, and Doyle with second guitarist Acey Slade and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo – and reunited Riot Fest ’16 (QRO recap). So, perhaps this latest reunion wasn’t quite as special as that one, or fellow Jersey goth-punks (of a decidedly different generation) My Chemical Romance the day before, but it was still a giant show, from playing Walk Among Us in full for its 40th anniversary to the giant Halloween decorations on stage. Playing Walk in total meant the band played some songs for the first time in this reunion, adding a nice bonus to this appearance. Yes, Danzig vocals didn’t come out the best at times, and he can be kind of a jerk (from disappearing “cancel culture” to not allowing any photographers shoot their impressive stage set), but overall, it was just the massive experience you wanted from The Misfits.
The heat finally came for Riot Fest on the final day, roasting early acts such as Mom Jeans on the Rise Stage & Jawbox on the Roots Stage, the latter showing why they are one of those, ‘respected & influential vets, if never widely successful’ acts – a.k.a. the perfect for during the day at Riot Fest.
While the emo-punk of The Juliana Theory was relatively run-of-the-mill at the Radical Stage, it was fine for Riot Fest. The gothic sounds of Zola Jesus were a little bit odd to watch under the sun at the Riot Stage, something even she admitted (along with that she’s from Wisconsin), but made it work.
The Lunachicks brought fun NYC glam-rock to the Roots Stage, but it was a bit crowd at the same time around the corner at the Radicals Stage for Less Than Jake. The ska-punk vets have kept it going since in the nineties, and there were lots of nineties kids who’d had ska phases back then at Riot Fest. LTJ still wish they “Had My Own Flag”, but did pull out toilet paper shooters – combining that with a speech on the history of anti-racism, because of course they’d do both.
Like Zola Jesus before on the Riot Stage, it was another ‘kind of should be playing at night’ up there with Poliça, who lacked the former’s stage presence (and crowd). Meanwhile, Riot Fest did bring some hip-hop, of course old school, with Coolio, though he finished early at the Rise Stage. Better were harder hitters such as PVRIS and Midtown at the Radicals Stage.
Emo veterans Jimmy Eat World have gone from being nobody, to being a big hit, to being a used-to-be-big, to their current comfortable level – which is when you play Riot Fest. And they still love it, singer/guitarist Jim Adkins thanking for being able to just do this for a living (as well as pre-warning anyone messing with crowd-surfing girls). And yes, they ended with their forever hits, “The Sweetness”, then “The Middle”.
Riot Fest has long embraced feminism, from early Sunday acts like PVRIS to Alice Glass on the Rise Stage. Once of Crystal Castles, she has since escaped the Castle, denounced her old, controlling male partner, and instead is making her own name. And if you didn’t know that original riot grrrls Sleater-Kinney were going to mix their skilled, killer indie-rock with calls to vote & not to take away their rights, what kind of Riot Festivalgoer are you?
And perhaps the most anticipated act at Riot ’22, certainly outside of the delayed headliners, was the return of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, on the Roots Stage. Art-punks who came out of the early aughts NYC ‘return of rock’ scene, they’ve had the habit of making a great record, touring it, and then disappearing for a handful of years – and their latest disappearance was extended thanks to COVID, but thank god, they’re back, with new album Cool It Down coming out at the end of the month. Indeed, as frontwoman extraordinaire Karen O announced, this was their “First official show back in the U.S. of A.” O had the audience in the palm of her well-dressed hand, from the new “Wolf” to the huge cheers for Nick Zinner’s opening guitar to “Maps” (up there with the guitar open to Phoenix’s “Lisztomania” in this century/millennium’s great guitar opens, on par with the start to The Beatles’ “Come Together”). They could go from, “This is The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ love song!” to the all-time tragic refrain, “They don’t love you like I love you,” to the killer dance of “Heads Will Roll”. Oh, and they had giant balloon eyeballs bouncing over the crowd to boot (plus added great guitarist Imaad Wasif – though drummer Brian Chase will always this correspondent’s favorite member…).
Last year, when Nine Inch Nails had to cancel their tour, including headlining Riot Fest, a lot of fans were angry, and directed their anger towards Riot not giving refunds (instead giving those buyers a second, bonus day with Morrissey – QRO recap). But NIN have finally returned this year, headlining a slew of festivals, like the Riot Stage (or filling in for the tragically absent Foo Fighters and the last-minute COVID-cancelling Strokes back in May at Boston Calling – QRO recap). Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross might write Oscar-winning soundtracks these days, but they, Robin Finck, Alessandro Cortini, and Ilan Rubin (QRO interview) still know how to crush it, whether with classics such as “Head Like a Hole” & “Hurt” to newer songs like the alt-rock “Less Than” or weirder, sax-powered “God Break Down the Door”.
And give credit to The Academy Is… for having to go up against NIN and still delivering on the Radicals Stage to close out Riot Fest ’22.
After everything that’s gone on in the past few years, during everything that is still going on, it was just great to have another year of Riot Fest. There may have been some issues with getting there & back (mammoth lines at the nearby California MTA stop – but cheers at the prior, actually nearer Kedzie stop when a near-empty subway train would pull in). Of course, there were artists that you wish would have played, and of course there were artists that you loved who were actually playing, but overlapping each other. But Riot Fest somehow manages to pull it off, year after year, from reunions to debuts, ultra-veterans to newbies, rabbits out of hats and rockers on stages. Once again.