Since late 2016 it was known that Riot Fest 2017 was going to feel different. For those of you that didn’t know, last December co-founder Sean P. McKeough passed away suddenly from a stroke. After that the fest decided to scale down a bit and instead of appearing in multiple locations, refocused on just the original Chicago fest. Though I’m not aware of all Sean’s responsibilities with organizing Riot Fest, you couldn’t help but feel his absence over the weekend. Things just felt different. The theme of loss was prevalent throughout the entire weekend as sets and songs were dedicated to artists and freedoms that were no longer with us, but overall it was yet another fantastic weekend for one of my favorite music festivals.
Despite the dour foundation, the weekend proved to be one of unity in the face of adversity. Voices of outrage were heard regarding the rampant racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and general fear of those who are different that has been such a dirge on America as of late. Messages of resist, fight and unite were prevalent in most sets as you’d expect at a festival named Riot Fest. The weather was beautiful, though insanely hot for September in Chicago. The music was loud and generally sounded great. The attendees were out in force, interacting positively with both bands and each other. Here’s my recap of the three days of festivities.
Day one was a bit of a slow start, though usually it ends up that way. Saul Williams was probably the artist I was looking forward to the most, but I have a feeling he left many observers wanting. For those unfamiliar, Saul got his start as a stand-up poet and then transitioned into music. He focused his set almost entirely on his poetry and only played one song, an a cappella rendition of “Black Stacy”, leaving some perplexed. His message was on point though, being one of acceptance and against the fascist state we currently find ourselves in. He still maintained a large crowd despite the lack of music, which is in large part due to his ability to command a stage. I loved his performance but questioned its usage in this setting. I feel like he could have mixed in a few more of his songs with his time that only would have helped emphasize the idea he was trying to get across.
New Order’s set was solid, though they seemed to be experiencing quite a few technical issues while on stage. The vocals seemed kind of muddy from where I stood and I found myself really wishing they exuded more energy on stage. I know they are an older band, but wish they would have looked like they were enjoying their time there. Admittedly, this was my first time seeing New Order and they aren’t really in my music wheelhouse, so I’m not sure if this was an anomaly or par for the course. Maybe I’m just not the right person to judge them. That said, they closed out with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and that pleased me.
The big standout acts of the first day were both Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Like New Order, these are two bands that aren’t necessarily my bread and butter, but the power of their sets were undeniable. Ministry was the one band that I would truly say put some “riot” into that first day with their supercharged, energetic, and politically focused set. At 58 years old, there seems to be no slowing down for Al Jourgensen, and based on what I heard, Ministry’s upcoming album is exactly what the world needs right now. This was pure ferocity in the face of adversity and I loved it.
Though I know far more Nine Inch Nails music then Ministry, they are still a band I’ve always appreciated but have never found the desire to see live. If this performance was any indication though, they have captured my utmost respect. From the moment they took the stage they commanded the attention of all that were present. With a fantastic selection of songs including a rousing tribute to David Bowie, I never stopped being captivated by their stage presence. The highlight for me was definitely their performance of “Hurt” to close out day one as Trent’s vocals seemed as good as ever.
Day two started out with the surprise set of the weekend, as Black Pistol Fire completely blew me away. Unknown to me before researching the Riot Fest lineup, this was my first band of the day and proved that Riot Fest still had a lot to offer. A blues rock duo, Black Pistol Fire took an early time slot and filled the fest with an infectious energy that would set the pace for the day. Look for more about this band in a future Wannabe.
To me the stars of day two were The Regrettes. For such a young group – lead singer Lydia Night is only 16 – they took the stage and commanded it with the confidence of a band years beyond their age. Everything I loved about their debut album was on display as they belted out song after song while never forgetting to have fun on stage. You couldn’t help but smile as you watched them thoroughly enjoy every note and realize that this band is something truly special. They even ended their set by inciting a “wall of death” dance party.
The WTF award of the weekend definitely goes to Peaches. I never thought I’d find a set filled with vagina costumes, exposed breasts and simulated oral sex that was so nonsensical. I guess this falls under punk due to the outrageousness of the performance, but even that just seemed phony and out of place at Riot Fest. I wish Riot Fest would leave acts like this to the Cochella’s of the world and stick to the music and vibe that made them who they are. All that said, she did rhyme Ralph Macchio with pistachio which was pretty awesome.
Other stand outs of the day were Gin Rummy, Fidlar, Potty Mouth, Gogol Bordello and At the Drive In. Wu-Tang Clan put on one of the better performances I’ve seen of theirs. They seemed focused and drew a huge crowd as they went through 36 Chambers, but ultimately fell a few songs short from playing the entire album. Queens of the Stone Age headlined the second night and I found them utterly meh. For a band whose live performances I’ve heard touted over and over, there was just not enough energy to keep me entertained. I constantly found myself looking at my phone or people watching instead of paying attention to the performance. Their set wasn’t helped by what I found to be a pretty clouded soundscape with vocals and instruments all blending together.
Finally, the day I had been waiting for all weekend and it lived up in every way to my expectations. In fact, it was so good that my only gripe with the day is having to make so many hard decisions about who to see. From the moment I got there every band was firing on all cylinders and you could feel that it was going to be a special day, extreme heat and exhausted bodies be damned.
Early sets by Beach Slang and Hot Water Music established the theme for the day. Here was the loud raucous punk music that Riot Fest became known for. Both sets were flawless as their energy pulsated through the crowd like a triple shot of espresso. It was weird seeing these two bands so early in the day, but they seemed unfazed by it as did the fans who were still there en masse. Both bands put on performances well deserving of more prestigious time slots that hopefully find them in the future.
The set of the weekend, in my opinion, goes without a doubt to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones as they played the entirety of Let’s Face It for the album’s 20th anniversary. As they pointed out, it’s sad that the album’s themes of racism and disparity in our country are still so relevant today. I’ve seen the band countless times over the years, and this performance was as good as any I’ve ever witnessed. The entire crowd fed off the band’s energy as the sound and atmosphere were ideal. You know something special is happening when a guy wearing a Slayer vest is skanking with a group of two tone kids. This album had such a fundamental role in making me who I am that no other band could match the sentimental narrative that this performance carried for me. I made sure to take a moment to myself, breathe it all in, shed a few tears of joy and smile as I remembered what made me fall in love with music in the first place.
There were so many bands that filled the day’s lineup with exceptional performances. The Menzingers, That Dog., TV on the Radio, Dinosaur Jr., and Best Coast were all phenomenal, fueling the midday sets with more than enough energy to allow concert goers to forget their tired legs. Pennywise also gave an extremely memorable performance including a heartfelt rendition of “Broken” that was dedicated to the late Chester Bennington.
I’d heard some questionable things regarding Prophets of Rage’s live performances, mostly reviews based on their early shows together as a unit, but I’m happy to say that the band seems to have finally gelled and figured out how all their individual elements fit together. The set was filled with renditions of songs by Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, and a smattering of originals too. The most heartfelt moment of the weekend was when yet another fallen artist was honored as an instrumental version of “Like a Stone” by Audioslave was played in Chris Cornell’s memory. I’d find it hard to believe there was a dry eye in attendance.
Finally, it was time for Jawbreaker to take the stage. Except for one small set as a warm up, this would be the first time they’d perform for a crowd in 21 years, but you’d never guess it by the way they played. From the moment they took the stage and started playing “Boxcar,” you could tell this was something special. Riot Fest has become known for its ability to reunite bands that were believed to be irreconcilable with historical performances, and they pulled it off again. Where any other night Prophets of Rage might have commanded the headliner slot, Jawbreaker came out and showed what so many of us have known for years, they are worthy of punk god status. After 14 songs, Jawbreaker said farewell with a legendary performance of the epic “Bivouac” concluding in true rock star fashion with their drums crashing off the risers. And just like that, another Riot Fest was in the books.