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.
While Day Two faced a drizzly afternoon, the skies did clear up, and in that Saturday afternoon Riot Fest showcased its diversity. Yes, it’s first-and-foremost a punk rock festival, but its reach is wide, from the more indie Warpaint to the ska of Bowling For Soup to the electronic art-rock of Savages’ Jehnny Beth. But for real diversity, it was a huge early afternoon crowd at the smallest of the stages, Rebel, for Corey Feldman. The eighties teen heartthrob is now pursuing a musical career (along with other things), and if you were at Riot Fest ’23, you just kind of had to check it out. Indeed, it might have been the biggest audience ever at the Rebel Stage (which usually just hosts young local acts and past-their-never-that-big-prime punks), even if it was a lot of rubbernecking onlookers who before this didn’t even know that Feldman made music. Dressed like Michael Jackson (later seen in the press tent dipped in gold), he was active up there, from a song about his first marriage (“It’s not a pretty song – maybe it is…” – it wasn’t, and only days earlier he’d announced his separation from his latest wife) to yelling at his keyboardist.
In the later afternoon, Riot Fest headed more into the punk, if different strains. While White Reaper weren’t that remarkable on the Riot Stage, Rebel’s High Vis and particularly Roots Stage’s Viagra Boys were spitting fire, the latter giving a bit of Future Islands-meets-Sleaford Mods in stage presence & attitude, though with a heavy dose of sarcasm like in their crowd-loved “Sports”. While Head Automatica played the Riot Stage, Steve Ignorant of the iconic O.G. punks Crass still had his fury on the Rebel Stage. Admittedly, Death Grips ended early, but at least the band played and you could see them (issues in the past, like the latter at Riot Fest ‘16 – QRO photos). Meanwhile, comedian Hannibal Buress (the one who took down Bill Cosby) showcased his musical side as Eshu Tune on the Rebel Stage. Buress is no stranger to punk rock (QRO photos performing at a music party), and still brought his humor in his songs, such as “I’m the Tallest Person at the Mexican Party”.
When Benjamin Gibbard announced that his 2003 became-famous-after-the-fact side-project Postal Service was reuniting again, now to tour with his ‘other’ band, alt-mainstays Death Cab for Cutie, it was a match made in aughts indie heaven. But it was still a surprise that the bands included Riot Fest in the tour, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been, as both were performing their twentieth anniversary records in full, and ‘playing an album in full’ is a Riot Fest specialty. Death Cab was at the Riot Stage for Transatlanticism, and it was a perfect album to be played in full at Riot Fest, from opener “New Year” on (ironically, Day One also had a band playing the anniversary of an album that starts with “New Year”, The Breeders’ 1993 Last Splash…). Death Cab is more Gibbard-focused these days, but the once mopey frontman is now really enjoying the love from the crowd (including agreement on the inaccurate naming of the glove compartment…). Every song was as good as you remember from the days of Seth Cohen on The O.C. (QRO’s Music of The O.C.), “The Sound of Settling” & more.
“It feels weird having Queens of the Stone Age between Death Cab and Postal Service. It’s like having a rock band sandwiched between two of the wimpiest bands… but we’re here for it!” Gibbard joked about the next act up on the next door Roots Stage, and while it might have been more fitting to have had Josh Homme’s outfit play the day before with the Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl played on Queens’ Songs for the Deaf), it was still great that they played the same festival. And yes, they rocked, indeed giving some oomph to Night Two.
But the wild action was in the smaller stages. 100 gecs brought their insane hyper-pop to Radical Stage, and there was a big overlap between their fans and those of Insane Clown Posse at the Rebel Stage (maybe a full circle – though there was also the named-after-an-insane-clown punks Pennywise at Rise Stage). It was funny to randomly see people in full Juggalo make-up during the day at Riot Fest – at least when the bloody GWAR would play (missing Riot for the first time in ages), you could only recognize their front row fans after the fact. Not that ICP didn’t bring out the Faygo to spray at their set, which started late, but what do you expect? Meanwhile, nineties weird metal supergroup Mr. Bungle finally came to Riot Fest, singer Mike Patton (Faith No More – QRO photos at Riot ‘15) declaring, “Speak Spanish or die!”
Give Up by The Postal Service didn’t make many waves when it came out in 2003, just a one-off from Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, plus Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, but in the years since it has become iconic indietronica. They already did one reunion tour ten years ago (QRO photos), saying that it would be the only one, but not even Louis DeJoy can stop The Postal Service. Dressed all in white (while Death Cab had been dressed all in black), their Riot Stage performance was a celebration of an album that you probably know all the words to all the songs, and probably never thought that you’d see live. Gibbard was once again frontman (even when he got on a drum set), but Lewis was thankfully not overlooked, particularly in the huge cheers before her part in “Nothing Better” (Gibbard gracefully ceding the stage in their duet), while Death Cab’s Dave Depper passed The Postal Service auditions. And props to Tamborello for expertly playing back fiddle (including some mock-vocoder vocals).
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Amelia Baird