Riot Fest Chicago
Sept 15-17, 2017
Douglas Park, Chicago, IL
Riot Fest’s co-founder Sean P. McKeough passed away this past November 29th and as expected, lacking the manpower, the yearly festival had to be scaled back to just Douglas Park. Chicago is a city with a great punk and alternative music history with influential 80’s bands Naked Raygun and Steve Albini’s Big Black to 90’s and 2000’s bands such as Alkaline Trio, Rise Against, and Fall Out Boy to name a few. Riot Fest gets a few bands every year that are having a re-union or are playing a classic album. Years past have included The Replacements, Misfits, Weezer’s “Weezer” (aka the Blue Album), and Rancid’s “…And Out Come the Wolves”. This year’s big draw was Sunday nights influential 90’s pop-punk band Jawbreaker. My seatmate on the flight out went out specifically to see them; they have quite the cult following. With five stages and bands playing from noon to 10PM, there was a lot of music to see. I’ll focus on bands where I caught a majority of their set.
Flying in Friday afternoon, we got to the show in time to catch New Order, the prominent eclectic band formed from the dissolution of Joy Division. From their music (specifically keyboard) to background graphics, this was easily the most 80’s band of the weekend and I mean that in the best way possible. They pleased the crowd playing some of their favorites like “Blue Monday” and threw in a couple Joy Division covers with “Disorder” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Being more of a Joy Division fan, their covers of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” with a picture of Ian Curtis (the deceased front man of Joy Division who is basically post-punk Jesus) in the background was a great way to close their set. Their “synthy” sound also set the stage for Friday’s headliner, industrial rock band NIN.
I really hadn’t given NIN a solid listen in years but was nonetheless excited to see them live. They were well received playing a good mix of noisier industrial songs mixed in with some slower ballads. They played some of my personal favorites like “March of The Pigs” and also played classics like “Closer” and “Head Like a Hole”. Trent Reznor played tribute to the late David Bowie with “I Can’t Give Everything Away” which had extra meaning to it as Reznor has said repeatedly that Bowie is one of his favorite artists. NIN closed somewhat expectedly with “Hurt” which despite being a somewhat depressing song was a pleasant song to close the first night on.
The next day, with a quick trip over to the massive Lagunitas Brewing right next to Douglas Park, we were ready to catch legendary punk rock band Bad Brains. Knowing going in that their front man HR has a headache disorder, and that they are well past their prime being formed forty-years ago I had low expectations. Their music to me stands on its own so I was not disappointed by a pretty low energy almost apathetic performance. To hear them play songs like “Pay to Cum”, “Banned in D.C.”, and “Big Takeover” definitely put a smile on my face. HR left the stage (possibly due to a headache) partway through and Randy Blythe of Lamb of God song on the last 3 songs. Just as NIN set the stage for New Order the night before, Bad Brains low energy set the stage for the man who won the most likely to pass out on stage award, Glenn Danzig and his band Danzig.
Catching Glenn Danzig the year before with the Misfits at Riot Fest in Denver, I knew that he was a bit out of shape to say the least. His songs both with Danzig and Misfits are so demanding vocally and that can be tough for someone who is out of shape and recently became eligible for 75% of their Social Security benefits. “Is it fucking hot enough out here for you?” he said halfway through their set in exhaustion. He asked the crowd to sing along with him through various songs and parts of the show. Now for most artists this is to get the crowd into, but for Glenn Danzig, this was to get the singer out of it. All joking aside, Danzig as a whole was pretty great with their blend of catchy bluesy metal. They closed with “Mother” which everyone knew and enjoyed. In the future, I think Danzig may just be better of performing at night and doing maybe a 2 song set with an interlude.
Bringing the energy back from a Jeb Bush-like low was At the Drive-In who was my favorite band of the weekend. As soon as they opened with “Arcarsenal” the opening track of their seminal album “Relationship of Command” I moved from about row 100 to row 12 and was in the mosh pit for most of the set. They absolutely killed it. I love the feeling of being in a crowd surrounded by people who are just completely in the moment and have the same passion for the band you do. They mostly split their set with songs from “Relationship” and their new album “In•ter a•li•a“ but played one of my favorite tracks “Napoleon Solo” from “In/Casino/Out”. “Invalid Litter Dept.” was particularly fun as the crowd yelled in unison with the sing back part “dancing on the corpses’ ashes” and the pit went nuts for the chorus. Their set was full of emotion and was just as happy seeing them at 30 as I would have been at 16. After a much needed water and always needed beer break it was off to Saturday night’s headliner.
Queens of the Stone Age have always been such a cool fucking band for me in the sense that you can talk to someone who is a huge metal head, someone who is a punk, and someone who is more into indie rock and they all love Queens. Front man Josh Homme is just a great sensible guy too as shown with views like: “Sure. I’m very socially liberal, but I don’t think the government knows what to do with your money better than you do. If the government were a business it would be completely bankrupt. And they always put new laws on the books but they never take any away. I wish they’d just get off my fucking lawn, basically.” Just copying and pasting that gave me a semi. Despite all this awesomeness coming from Queens, their set was a bit underwhelming; I was luke-warm on it. Their songs somewhat blended into one another and there was nothing particularly exciting about them. In their defense, I was just coming off of seeing one of my favorite bands from 20 feet away but they just didn’t do it for me. Regardless, great day 2 and was excited to get some rest for day 3.
The first band we caught on Sunday was Cap’N Jazz a very influential emo band from Chicago who made their mark in the early 90’s. I am a big fan of theirs as they are one of the few emo bands I know of that can be into making this emotional music but still have a good sense of humor with album names, song names, and lyrics. Their one album is called “Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards in the Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We've Slipped On and Egg Shells We've Tippy Toed Over“ and their anthology album contains a hilariously terrible but great cover of A-ha’s “Take on Me”. Their sense of humor was on display as lead singer Tim Kinsella’s running joke was this blue tambourine he threw out into the crowd, beg to get it back only to toss it out again. They’d play a song, he’d talk some nonsense for a minute, run the microphone and wire through his pant leg, jump into the crowd, and then they’d play another song. I can see where they wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea musically though I loved them but his antics were very entertaining. When they played songs, they were intensely good. I’m very particular and often hypocritical about what emo bands I like, but this is one of the good ones. Emo can be sad without being self-absorbed, pretentious, and lacking a sense of humor.
After another beer in the all-important press tent where we ran into metal icons Gwar, it was off to see Dinosaur Jr. perform one of my top 20 albums ever “You’re Living All Over Me”. If you haven’t seen Dinosaur Jr. live, absolutely do, J Mascis is an absolute god on guitar, Lou has a very eccentric bass playing style, and Murph is just a solid, solid drummer. They also turn it up to 11 every time I’ve seen them and have to gain plenty of new fans every time they play. This set was no exception as they opened with The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” before soon getting into playing “You’re Living All Over Me” front to back. They were my favorite complete set of the weekend in the sense that I knew every song coming up and when one song ended I was excited for the next one to begin. We were positioned to not have to move very far once Dinosaur Jr’s. set ended to be able to see Prophets of Rage the last band we would catch.
For those who don’t know, Prophets of Rage is Rage Against the Machine’s guitar player, bass player, and drummer plus Chuck D from Public Enemy and B-Real from Cypress Hill who take their name from a Public Enemy song. So basically Rage with a couple slightly less awesome front men playing mostly Rage songs, so super fucking good. They opened with the aforementioned song “Prophets of Rage” before going into “Testify” which really got the crowd into it. To digress, if I could give a ballsiest move of the weekend award it would go to guitarist Tom Morello who flipped his guitar around during their set with a “Fuck Trump” sign taped to the back of it to a crowd who is 90% on board with him. There is nothing more heroic and counterculture than complaining about the president in 2017. Honestly, this was completely expected so it was just funny for me seeing him throw out red meat to the crowd. His speech to the crowd did annoy me a bit as it came somewhat from the ANTIFA playbook preaching violence as some “open-minded” “anti-fascist” waved around the flag of “tolerance”, the ANTIFA flag.
All negativity aside though, their set was great, and all of these artists have always been very political so I really can’t complain (but did anyways). Chuck D and B-Real broke into a quick DJ set doing some of their songs while the rest of the band left the stage. After “Sleep Now in The Fire”, they played homage to the deceased Chris Cornell, their former band mate of Audioslave playing part of “Cochise” without any vocalist as the crowd sung along. This was one of the most powerful moments of the whole festival. They then brought the tempo back up with “How I Could Just Kill a Man” which was really inception Prophets of Rage with Prophets covering RATM who covered Cypress Hill was done well. After closing with “Killing in the Name” our weekend was done.
I took a 10:30pm flight home, got to bed at 2:00am and my first co-worker upon seeing me said “you look like shit”. Was it worth it? Totally. With our press passes, we got free beer, got up close with Gwar, hung out with some fake news outlets, missed the opportunity to talk to my dream girl wearing a Wipers tank top, and met Seton from The Dan Patrick Show. Around Chicago, we checked out some breweries, hit up some bars, went to the waterfront, saw Cloud Gate (The Bean) which I really didn’t know was in Chicago, and met some cool people. The one thing I’d do different was stay to catch Jawbreakers set so just stay an extra night. If Riot Fest is not in Denver next year, there is a good chance I’ll be heading back! Only 362 more days until next year’s Riot Fest!
Article By: Chris Beliveau