Especially after completing three days of Pitchfork, dealing with a thunderstorm evacuation halfway through and helping with load-out from the CHIRP Record Fair on the tennis courts at Union Park, I was hesitant to put myself through another three pieces of love, hate and music.
Especially after just one day of last year’s Lollapalooza nearly did me in (and it was Thursday, for chrissakes!), I was recalcitrant about putting myself through the sun, mud and blisters of another Chicago music festival, and definitely not all three days.
Especially after scanning this year’s lineup, all of whom I thought it would be nice to see, but did I have to see them?—Did I have to see the final shows of Slayer and B-52s? Did I have to see the reunited Jawbreaker and Bikini Kill? Did I have to see the return of too many acts to mention, but Descendents, GWAR, Taking Back Sunday and Andrew W.K. are a start at putting faces on this roll of bad pennies?, and thinking, “Meh,” I admit I was dragging the heels of my proverbial Doc Martens at the thought of returning to Douglas(s) Park.
I don’t know if Riot Fest feels old, but I know I do. I was there, maybe not at the first one, but at a few of the early incarnations at the legendarily ramshackle Congress Theater, and again after it expanded to add a few other venues, and then again to Humboldt Park and now to Douglas(s) Park (which may have originally been named after former Illinois Democratic state senator and pro-slavery presidential candidate Stephen Douglas—whom you may remember debated another Illinoisan, anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln,, who later won that contest—but has now been creatively rechristened Douglass Park by some enterprising graffiti artists with an excellent sense of history who believe that the neighborhood should pay homage to someone more representative of their community, namely former slave, orator and abolitionist, Frederick B. Douglass. Hence, Douglas(s) Park.
Not to go all “Losing My Edge,” but I was there at the Congress in 2008 to see the epic mosh pit that formed during D.O.A.’s raging set and hear Dicky from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones say that this was the punkest room the band had ever played in—and I can still fit into my Black President t-shirt (memorable line: “I trust my barber”).
But now, as Riot Fest celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, it’s worth asking whether it’s gotten too old. Or is that me? Monday morning came and I still had Friday night’s Descendents songs earworming through my brain, and lead singer Milo Aukerman says this was like the eleventh time his band has played Riot Fest, which he had to be reminded of in an interview. Pretty impressive, given how frequently that band has found itself in hiatus.
Maybe if some bands are there every year, once a year is enough to see a band you enjoy. But is it worth the ten-dollar slices of pizza, the three-dollar bottles of water, or the epic line to refill your own bottle, the sunburns and the blisters?
If you want to see a new band and not a legacy act, you gotta get up pretty early, which is a chore if you were standing in a field until ten o’clock the night before to see the finale of a “hitmaker” like Blink-182 or Rise Against, never mind the late-night aftershows. Despite my best efforts I missed most of Pittsburgh’s angry young punks Anti-Flag on Friday, chose not to sprint to see the last three minutes of Cherry Glazerr on Saturday, and failed miserably to shake myself out of bed in time to see stellar Chicago up-and-comers Ganser on Sunday.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of highlights among what I was able to see. It was good to see angry old punks Hot Water Music, even if it made my throat sore just listening to their version of singing; that’s what some punks do, and do well.
Following that up with Hot Snakes helped me to understand that difficult-to-define genre bridge between punk and post-punk. One of the gentlemen in the audience didn’t endear himself to certain members of the crowd when he took a moment between songs to indicate that one of the folks in attendance “could have bought that Misfits t-shirt at Walmart” (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the one that read “I AIN’T NO GODDAM SON OF A BITCH”). Too late, it occurred to me that I could have yelled back, “You could have bought that plaid flannel shirt at Goodwill,” but, alas, I am always a few days behind on witty rejoinders.
It was tempting to round out the trio of “hot” bands with Hot Mulligan and then see H20 to quench our thirst, but instead I chose to cross Violent Femmes off my bucket list, having been a fan since “high school smiles, oh yes.” The trio raced through some new ones and “American Music” from their fourth record, 1989’s “3,” but focused on their self-titled debut and their sophomore release, and at least one from their less appreciated third outing, 1986’s “The Blind Leading The Naked.” Like me, much of the crowd seemed to have their classic debut memorized, and we all sang along in gleeful merriment. While most of the instrumentation was their classic acoustic street-corner skiffle, there were some electric accents and solo embellishments on barbecue grill and conch shell, and frequent contributions via saxophone and their backing brass section, The Horns of Dilemma. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed that band back in the day,
Jawbreaker is cool and all that, but I’d seen the band before the first time its members reunited and my feet were killing me (which is the definition of “unfun”), so I watched about thirty minutes and got out of Dodge. If they could install moving walkways for VIP ticket holders I would seriously spring for some extra scratch to make that happen.
On Saturday, we missed Lando Chill, but we did see the entire sets of Prof and Wu Tang Clan, so we saw two-thirds of the hip-hop made available by Riot Fest, at least by my math (never my strong suit and there were a lot of band names on the bill I never invested in learning about, so apologies if I missed someone else). It does seem like there has been more hip-hop in past years, but you can’t (and the Riot Fest people know this, given the messages put out by their social media guy or team) please everyone every year.
Prof is an interesting character, a young white dude who alternated between jokey sexism and rapid-fire lyrical delivery deft enough to make one forgive—or at least look past—the content, if it could be discerned. He did some actual singing too, all of which made for heartfelt and well-done moments, if not characterized by unforgettable melodies. Still, Prof is an impressive presence, and seems like a talented young whippersnapper. The audience seemed to enjoy his raunchiest moments the most,I’m just not sure I should tell Tipper when I get back to the forty acres.
Never having seen Cursive, I was looking forward to their set, although a lengthy soundcheck and the presence of a cellist made me a tad nervous, given shock-metal merchants GWAR played a nearby stage and I was worried about sound (and eardrum) bleed. Those concerns were obliterated with a loud and lengthy set that was a highlight; I’m not a Cursive authority by any means (just try to read my signature some time), but I enjoyed what I heard.
I caught a bit of Microwave given there was no one else I really wanted to see for what seemed like THREE HOURS, but I thought Microwave might have some passionate rocking post-emo guitar rock thing going on the most intimate stage (which was also the farthest away). Their sound might be compared to Cursive, if you subtract the cello and paint a dope leaf on the front of the bass drum.
The boys in Anthrax sported Bulls jerseys, a nice nod to Chicago, and ran through a set list determined by fans, so a lot of their “greatest” “hits,” some of which I even recognized. But if they did “Bring The Noise,” I didn’t hear it, and I definitely didn’t see them bring up Public Enemy to duet with them, which would have been dope, but I think PE does what they want nowadays, and Anthrax on a Saturday afternoon was not it. (Does anyone ever call hazmat when they see crates marked Anthrax being loaded onto trucks?)
There was a big crowd for repeat performers Wu Tang Clan, who filled in for the annoying and thankfully cancelled Die Antwoord, and the hip-hop ensemble played some of their most well-known tracks as well as the entirety of their classic “36 Chambers” record. While it’s hard to keep track of who’s who (there are nine of them!), it was great to see Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s son (Young Dirty Bastard?) filling in for his deceased dad. I did have to pivot toward the center to move away from the sound bleed from Rise Against coming from a neighboring stage.
I’m neither metal enough for Slayer nor cool enough for Bloc Party, so I limped out after Wu Tang.
If it wasn’t for Sunday’s stellar lineup, this year’s Riot Fest would also inherit an issue that has dogged the fest in the past (and to be fair, it’s not just a Riot Fest issue): the lack of female representation on the five stages in Douglas(s) Park. Headliners Bikini Kill brought the riot grrrl to Riot Fest, Patti Smith was her iconic self and 50/50 girl group The B-52s brought down the curtain on their festive career with a carefree post-punk beach party.
Other fine examples of estrogen representation on Sunday included Ganser, Skating Polly and Ramona and Beaches, all of whom performed at the same time and were too damn early in the day and so again, I did not see.
Is any of this important? I’m pretty sure Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! would think so, and so do I. While I hardly ever miss a chance to see Guided By Voices, if you schedule them against Against Me! that’s a pretty tough choice. Besides, there’s no way Uncle Bob can drink enough during a fifty minute set before five o’clock in the afternoon, is there?
I love Ween, but I saw them back in ninety-two at the New Music Seminar in New York City when they were like They Might Be Led Zeppelin, and “The Mollusk” doesn’t really need an end-to-end replay, does it? No, it does not. Likewise, I’ve seen Ride before and believe it or not I may see them again, but I doubt I’ll have the chance to see The Village People again.
To paraphrase what one of my colleagues at CHIRP Radio said online, the whole weekend seemed like a greatest-hits parade, but what’s the alternative? There has to be a balance between the unknown, up-and-coming and less appreciated with the groups that everyone wants to hear and see, or be there for their reunion and final note.
If there is a saving grace, it’s the humor with which Riot Fest approaches their entire enterprise. “Riot Fest Sucks” is more than a slogan, more than a mantra, it’s a way of life, and every year they top themselves in terms of bringing bands together you never thought you’d see again and packing their line-ups with “must see” acts. But in a music-festival marketplace that is increasingly crowded with big draws, how can Riot Fest keep topping themselves year over year?
And how can I resist going back?
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.