Riot Fest is perhaps the oddest duck of the major Chicago summer music festivals. It feels something like a combination of Pitchfork, early 90s Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, and the Gathering of the Juggalos– thanks to its diverse, often random, lineup and collection of stuff: circus attractions, carnival rides, and mini golf.
What makes it really different compared to Pitchfork or Lollapalooza is it’s nearly entirely focused on a nostalgic reverence for the past. That interpretation of the past, though, could mean emo/pop-punk bands you listened to in eighth grade like Taking Back Sunday, former pop stars like Billy Idol, or more obscure bands like Drive Like Jehu. This allows for a wide variety of people to enjoy very different kinds of musical experiences over the same weekend.
While the lineup maybe didn’t come off as strongly to me personally over past years, the festival got a lot of things right this year. Let’s break it down.
Riot Fest New Location & More Bad Weather
Riot Fest has been cursed with rain the last few years, leading to lots of damage at the park’s previous location in Humboldt Park. Earlier this year, Humboldt Park kicked the festival out, but they were welcomed further south at Douglas Park. I live near Humboldt Park so it was a bit of a bummer I couldn’t walk to Riot Fest anymore, but by and large the move was actually for the best.
Humboldt Park is a beautiful public space with ponds and lots of vegetation, but its landscaping forced the festival to use a maze-like layout that made it difficult to find some stages and made you spend way too much time walking. Douglas Park was still quite pretty while having a much more open space.
This year, Riot Fest also had three areas where two stages were placed side-by-side, leading to seamless transitions. I spent less time wandering around and more time seeing bands. Food, port-a-potties, and drinks were also in close proximity to stages and there seemed to be less of the random extra stuff like wrestling matches getting in your way.
Riot Fest, similar to Lollapalooza, really wants to get your money. It may seem like its edgy and punk, and they do care about the musical experience, but they’re trying to get your money whether it’s charging $3 for water, $8 for beer, or putting in these special VIP viewing areas by the two main stages with an extensive barricade system. While the Riot and Rock stages were side by side you couldn’t walk from one to the other because there was a barricade– and that seemed really stupid.
It also didn’t seem to take into account how popular a main headliner like System of a Down would be and that people were going to try to crush into the small, closed in area in the front. And when people started moshing, they couldn’t get out, and the band had to stop so festival staff could tend to the wounded. Yikes.
The other issue was Douglas Park didn’t have a lot of lighting on site and the festival didn’t add any free standing lights. At night, it was very difficult to get around and avoid the mud pits. That brings me to:
The curse of Riot Fest struck again with more rain. While it did lead to a delay the start of the festival on Friday, most people were able to stay dry for the bulk of the weekend. Still the earlier rain caused the festival grounds to become mostly mud pits by the end of Friday. At this point, Riot Fest should be more prepared, but it didn’t seem like it until the end of the festival when they put down some scattered wood chips. Despite having to fork over six figures each year in park repairs, it doesn’t really seem like Riot Fest cares all that much about dealing with the mud.
Top 5 Riot Fest Bands
While Riot Fest has roots as a punk/hardcore festival, they’ve gotten a lot better at expanding into other genres like funk, hip-hop, and reggae. There were more minorities on stage this year and more women, though both could certainly be more prevalent.
As for the lineup, there seemed to be a lot more novelty and less of those classic punk/hardcore/post-punk bands I really like, though there were still plenty of highlights. With four stage areas I couldn’t get to everyone and I have particular tastes, so don’t be too upset with me if I missed out on your favorite set and let us know what you liked in the comments.
Drive Like Jehu
Drive Like Jehu were an early 90s post-hardcore band that only lasted for a few years before members moved on to other projects; John Reis had a lot of success with his other band Rocket From the Crypt and drummer Mark Trombino became a well known producer for the likes of Blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World. They only recently got back together, and I was very excited for their Riot Fest set.
Fortunately, they did not disappoint. Drive Like Jehu’s songs don’t follow a lot of conventional structures and for a band that hasn’t been together in 10 years, I was impressed how well they managed the unusual time signatures and quick transitions. The best part of their set, though, was the ferocity of the band, particularly the noisy, searing guitars of John Reis and Rick Froberg.
There was a brief period in the mid-90s where the Champaign-Urbana area was hyped as the next Seattle and Hum as the next Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins. Despite some catchy songs like “Stars,” the alternative rock band leaned more heavily into space rock and shoegaze to ever be way too mainstream.
The latter was definitely true during their awesome Riot Fest appearance where the sound was loud, fuzzy, and metallic, actually sounding like a rocket taking off into outer space. Hum was much more aggressive than they were on record, while sticking mainly to songs from their terrific 1995 album You’d Prefer an Astronaut. This huge-sounding, powerful set was an unexpected highlight for me and one of the best all weekend.
While I intended to see System of a Down Saturday night, I was too far away to really enjoy anything, so I made the decision to skip them for Iggy Pop. Iggy was outstanding a couple years ago with the Stooges, and he was equally impressive during his solo set. Despite his age (68), Iggy out does rockers in their 20s. He bounds around the stage, gets down into the crowd, rants like a maniac, and his voice still sounds awesome.
Iggy’s set mixed Stooges’ songs like”1969” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” newer tracks, and classic Iggy solo songs like “Lust for Life” and the “The Passenger.” I was also thrilled he paid a lot of attention to his solo/David Bowie-collaboration The Idiot, playing these droning, bizarre experimental tracks like “Nightclubbing” and “Mass Production” all the while strangely avoiding that album’s biggest hit “China Girl.”
Altogether this was a loud, outrageous set that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
I wouldn’t say this was really a favorite, but Snoop Dogg was certainly memorable. First, Snoop showed up 30 minutes late for what was supposed to be an hour-long set focused on his classic 1993 debut Doggystyle. That didn’t happen, but Snoop played an older-focused set with tracks like “Gin & Juice” and his iconic appearance on Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” with a couple “newer songs” like “Drop It Like It’s Hot;” there was also a totally random cover of “Jump Around.”
While Snoop definitely had a respect for the old songs and flawlessly rapped them without leaning heavily on a hype man, what really elevated the set was everything else going on. There were twerking dancers, a guy in a Rottweiler costume, and several breaks for Snoop Dogg to light up a few blunts. And at the end, Snoop refused to leave the stage when his time was up and made it 10 minutes before Riot Fest cut his mic and turned off the lights.
Thurston Moore Band
Following the end of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore has bounced around projects releasing new solo work, forming new bands, and briefly joining a black metal super group. Most recently, he’s been working on a new album with the Thurston Moore Band featuring former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and bassist Debbie Googe of My Bloody Valentine.
Playing a set of all new, very long songs, the Thurston Moore Band definitely drew some comparisons to Sonic Youth’s later period, though the music was almost closer to post-rock. Following a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure, most of the songs went into these jamming drone sections where the band continued to build and push different tones and sounds to satisfying conclusions. There were some kinks to be worked out like awkward tuning breaks in the middle of songs, but I was overall pretty thrilled with the direction Thurston is going.
Bonus Round: Foxing
Riot Fest doesn’t invite a lot of up and coming acts, but this year they did seem particularly in tune with the current crop of younger emo bands like Have Mercy, Joyce Manor, and Foxing. Foxing has the emotional intensity of those bands you might have liked as a teenager yet they’re approaching those feelings with much more sophisticated instrumentation and song structures. There were horns, a violinist/keyboardist, and if you removed the singing it was pretty close to a post-rock band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor at points. Foxing had so much energy that I almost wished I was still a teenager.
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