By Craig Bechtel
Riot Fest, Chicago’s best annual independent multi-day music festival, is back for its twelfth year—its fifth outdoors with the accompanying carnival accoutrements, and its third in Douglas Park. The fest bests its competitors where it counts: in the quality of the musical lineup. “Riot Mike” Petryshyn and his organization have always stayed true to their punk-rock roots, but each year they’ve also expanded the musical palette to include acts outside that generously defined genre, and this year is exemplary in terms of including not only other styles of rock, but hip-hop too. And although they’re way too classy to promote it, there’s a healthy (although never sufficient) dose of female contributions this year. And no, parents, there has never been an actual riot at Riot Fest… just some especially vigorous mosh pits.
Opening day, September 15, includes some “out there” undercard choices and crazy good headliners. Tobacco is the stage name of Thomas Fec, leader of electronic psychedelia purveyors Black Moth Super Rainbow, and based on his recorded solo output, you can expect the weekend to hit an early peak of weirdness with his set. The genre-defying Saul Williams, HDBeenDope, Warm Brew and Action Bronson will supply some much needed (ahem) diversity, but Chicago’s own Vic Mensa will be the day’s don’t-miss rapper. British originals Buzzcocks’ more recent material has been hit-or-miss, if only because their early sharp, short and shocking singles are hard to surpass. Their first three albums, released in the late 1970s, overflow with intelligent earworms. Industrial pioneers Ministry will be back for what should be a grinding maelstrom of anger, and with Nine Inch Nails headlining that night behind a new EP…though if Al Jourgensen of the former and Trent Reznor of the latter don’t team up to reprise a rendition of 1000 Homo DJs’ “Supernaut,” that will be a missed opportunity. Friday’s most danceable (not moshable) moment will be the return of New Order (without Peter Hook), but the train horn channeling SoCal roots rockers X, resurgent Massachusetts emo punks The Hotelier and sonic attack of Death From Above (sans the 1979) will also make this a day to remember.
Stoner metal rockers Queens of the Stone Age headline day two, and there will be return performances from hip-hop collective, Wu-Tang Clan (performing “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”), ghoul punk purveyors Danzig (performing “Danzig III”), and Fishbone (performing “Truth & Soul”). Another highlight—of both brutality and sensitivity—is screamo act At The Drive In, back after a long hiatus. FIDLAR’s lackadaisical philosophy could not be more different, but these teens (some of whom are sons of a T.S.O.L. member) still produce a rocking version of skate punk with a healthy dose of humor. More punk not to skip today includes local and legendary trio The Lawrence Arms performing their 2006 record “Oh, Calcutta!,” DC’s Bad Brains’ first Riot Fest appearance in ten years and GBH. Hip-hop highlights include duo Shabazz Palaces, who just released two fantastic albums simultaneously and Beastie Boys’ Mike D doing a DJ set. Also worth a listen should be Dead Cross (featuring members of Slayer, Retox and Faith No More’s Mike Patton on vocals), UK’s Slaves, Australia’s The Smith Street Band, and Austin blues-rock duo Black Pistol Fire. Chaotic punks Potty Mouth, power-pop neophytes The Regrettes and neo-goths Cold Beat have little in common, but all are led by strong female singers and craft compelling songs. And if strong female leaders are your thing, expect Peaches to “Fuck The Pain Away” and then some.
For day three, the lede is the jaw-dropping reunion after twenty-one years of emo-punk heroes Jawbreaker; but the lineup might be the most solid from beginning to end. When Boston’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones first played Riot Fest in 2008, at the since-shuttered Congress Theater, leader Dicky Barrett said it was the punkest room they had ever played. Now the ska-punk octet celebrates the twentieth anniversary of “Let’s Face It,” which featured their breakthrough single, “The Impression That I Get.” Ear-shattering (hopefully) and guitar shredding (undoubtedly) trio Dinosaur Jr. will likewise give the album treatment to 1987’s “You’re Living All Over Me,” and doing the same for 1999’s “Keep It Like A Secret” will be indie rock icon Doug Martsch’s Built To Spill. It seems like forever since NYC indie rock heroes Versus toured, and that’s another eye-popping (and ear-popping) act on today’s lineup. Taking their name from a Mission of Burma record, and with a musical range inspired by fellow Big Apple mainstays Sonic Youth, the trio have a rich (and criminally unrecognized) catalog from which to draw, replete with winsome yet winning melodies propelled by dynamic electric guitar and lyrics so sensitive they can border on brutal. Chicago kids of all ages should rock out to the smart punk of The Orwells, whereas only their elders will recognize the importance of a set by the Kinsella brothers’ original band, Cap’n Jazz. There’s a chance to get “All Fuzzed Out” with Beach Slang, soaked in sweat with Andrew W.K., covered in fake blood by GWAR or bathed in Gainesville, Florida’s post-hardcore Hot Water Music (behind a new album release). Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno will further her Cali obsession with Best Coast—even after the left coast slides into the Pacific, these songs will endure. Also on the female-led enduring California tip, that dog. is another improbable reunion, and the thoughtful power pop trio will run through “Retreat From The Sun” in observance of its twentieth anniversary. Doomtree’s dynamic Dessa’s debut at Riot Fest was 2013, and given her galvanizing performance then it would be a shame to sleep through her set. Other women-centered acts include daylight diatribes from Kitten Forever, Upset, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and sunset serenades from M.I.A. and Paramore. But in case you’re missing an injection of leftist testosterone, expect strong anti-government messaging from Prophets of Rage, the Chuck D (Public Enemy) collaboration with Rage Against The Machine.
Riot Fest runs September 15-17 in Douglas Park; a complete schedule and tickets are available at the festival’s website.