While the COVID lockdown was extremely tough on music festivals, they’ve since come roaring back. One of the best to come back has been Chicago’s Riot Fest. As opposed to the big mainstream corporate fests or government-supported highbrow ones, Riot Fest is independent, and focused on a style of music not always appreciated by either the mainstream or governments: punk rock. Now yes, Riot Fest does range, because it’s not some sneering purist, but rather about having a great time with some great music. It returned to Douglass Park, Friday-to-Sunday, September 15th-17th.
Under beautiful clear skies, Riot Fest ’23 had an interesting start. While the daytime undercard at the festival had lots of acts ranging the punk rock spectrum such as The Wrecks, Oso Oso, and Code Orange, it’s also a chance for alternative acts you’ve always meant to check out, such as Portland’s Quasi, who came to Chicago behind this year’s Breaking the Balls of History (QRO review).
But of real note are the outliers, the acts you’re surprised are playing Riot Fest at all, let alone playing so early in the day. Such was the case with Parliament Funkadelic, led by the iconic living legend George Clinton. The father of funk music had a deservedly big crowd at the Rise Stage, even if he started the side stage just before 2:00 PM – perhaps to give him & his mothership more time to get funked up? Yes, he sits in a chair for good stretches of time, but he’s past 80 at this point. Indeed, he had said he was gonna do his final tour ever – in 2020, and while that tour never happened, he’s since returned to the stage with his Parliament, who can carry him from classics with their own long jams.
The Rise Stage followed with another living legend, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. She’s way better than her old bandmate who has fewer guitars than Lee Ranaldo (not talking about Steve Shelley…), but admittedly do you know any songs of hers? Meanwhile on the main Riot Stage, The Interrupters brought their fun latest wave of ska-punk, which included stories about playing Riot Fest as their first festival a decade ago (one member chipped a tooth that day), to joking after a snare drum broke, “Anything to do with Foo Fighters’ [drummer] Josh Freese watching from the side of the stage?…”
Just before 5:00 PM, there was one of Riot Fest’s perennial issues: multiple acts you want to see playing at the same time. Of course, this is just a sign that the festival has booked the artists you want to see, but still meant having to decide between the emo Bayside on the Radical Stage, strong post-hardcore punk rock of Quicksand at Roots (how many times did Walter Schreifels play at Riot ’23?), even go full-on feminist folk with Ani DiFranco on the Rise Stage.
But there were much clearer calls as the sun began to set. The Breeders brought their seminal album Last Splash to the Riot Stage for its 30th anniversary, with the original line-up. Indeed, everything about the performance was pure vintage, from drummer Jim Macpherson wearing a t-shirt that said “ALOHA” but slashed out to him and bassist Josephine Wiggs switching instruments like they did on the record when playing “No Aloha”. Guitarist Kelley Deal even got to take the mike from her sister/frontwoman Kim for “I Just Wanna Get Along”. This was part of their anniversary tour of Last Splash – next year they’re going to be opening for Olivia Rodrigo, and will be playing to a much, much younger crowd…
While the likes of Clinton and DiFranco were the outliers on Friday of Riot Fest, Tegan & Sara weren’t far behind also on the Rise Stage. Yes, they’ve played the festival before, way back in ‘14 (QRO photos), but they’ve since evolved from alt-singers to bona fide stars (including a hit memoir High School that spawned its own TV series), getting more electro along the way. So, maybe the crowd didn’t know the music of the sisters Quin quite well enough (not as much as your correspondent…), and the sonic bleed from the Roots Stage with wild punks Turnstile messed with hearing the pair’s A+ banter, but Tegan & Sara still gave it their all.
Always giving it their all is Foo Fighters. Maybe you think they’re too mainstream, maybe you still primarily think of Dave Grohl as Nirvana’s drummer, but they undoubtedly rock. Indeed, they invoked the rock gods, along with invoking bassist Nate Mendel’s old/other band Sunny Day Real Estate (who played Riot Fest last year). And their return to their big stages this year after last year’s tragic too-young death of drummer Taylor Hawkins has been life-affirming. They did exactly what you wanted Foo Fighters to do as a headliner of a punk rock festival.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Amelia Baird