I’ve been going to Chicago’s Riot Fest every year since 2014 and always have a good time. Here are my highlights from this year’s three-day festival, which is focused largely, but not exclusively, on punk rock.
The Dissidents and the Kid-Friendly
I wasn’t sure if Russian band Pussy Riot would appear, as one of its band members had recently been poisoned, allegedly by people who don’t like the band’s anti-government commentary, but they made it and vowed to find the people who poisoned Piotr.
Another band we might have expected to possibly not make it to Riot Fest was The Adolescents, whose founding member Steve Soto passed away in June. But they were there, honoring Soto with a big sign that was a variation of their famous royal blue self-titled album cover. Judging by their name, you might expect The Adolescents to be a wayward youth-themed band like Blink 182 or Teenage Bottlerocket, and some of their music falls into that category, but they also have a lot of political material. Watching them was very similar to the experience I had watching Leftover Crack (who also do a lot of political songs) at a previous Riot Fest. Perhaps that’s because The Adolescents and Leftover Crack share guitarist Brad Logan (the guy Rancid wrote a song about).
Riot Fest is an all-ages event and quite a few parents brought their young kids to watch the costume-clad Aquabats. The band had a kid-focused TV show in the past and said they hope to again someday. Fans of all ages enjoyed the pizza inflatables that accompanied the song “Pizza Day.” (I will note that the Aquabats were the only ska band this year. Usually there are three to five, and I always go to all of them. Hoping the count will be higher again next year.)
Newcomers and Veterans
Swmrs have a lot of good material and a lot of energy. Front man Cole Becker is a lanky guy who is fun to watch and whose moves remind me a bit of David McWane from Big D and the Kids Table.
Songs that he co-wrote with Morrissey for the Smiths comprised about half of Johnny Marr’s set, and I liked his other material, too.
Had to watch Blondie on the big screen. But I think you can tell that Debbie Harry has got to be one of sexiest septuagenarians ever.
My Favorite Stage and An Annual Tradition
I was too far away or the lighting wasn’t right to get photos of some of the bands. But those mentioned in this section are all in my compilation video here:
The band I was most excited to see was Face to Face. They played Friday night on the Rebel Stage, one of five stages at the festival and the smallest and most out of the way. Front man Trever Keith said he was expecting about 10 or 15 people, but there was a big crowd. I had the realization that the Rebel Stage is the best place to see a band at Riot Fest because everyone who finds their way there really wants to be there and you don’t have people coming and going and walking through the way you do with the other stages. There is also a hill at the back, so you can see well from almost anywhere.
As with some other festivals, Riot Fest generally doesn’t book the same band two years in a row, but they make an exception for heavy metal band Gwar, which comes every year. The band dresses in costume and is known for spraying stuff on the audience a la Blue Man Group. I watched them for the first time this year (from a safe distance), and although I won’t rush to do it again, I talked to some people who return every year to get splattered. Guitarist Michael Derks was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer last year and the band hasn’t played much this year, but as he put it, “What better place than Riot Fest to put the emo in chemo?”
Incubus was the band I didn’t expect to like as much as I did. Their material sounds a lot different – and, in my opinion, better – live. I especially liked hearing them mix Bhangra music from India with their alternative radio hit “Privilege.”
Beyond the Music
Riot Fest isn’t just about the music. There’s also a wide range of other distractions, including carnival rides, free haircuts in exchange for an Instagram post and more, along with a wide range of beers, including one named after a song by home town punk band Naked Raygun.
The festival is on the South Side -- a considerable distance from the Loop and from where the typical festival go-er is likely to live. Like many festival go-ers, I relied on the Pink Line el train to get to and from the event. Sunday night the system was so overwhelmed that it became impossible to get on a Loop-bound train at the stop for the festival because they all filled up immediately. People started dealing with this by taking the train a few stops in the wrong direction, then getting back on a train headed downtown, which made it even harder to get a loop-bound train at the festival stop. As everyone gradually figured this out, we all started taking trains going the wrong direction, which generated a tremendous feeling of camaraderie. After finally boarding a Loop-bound train and pulling out of the show stop fully loaded, a bunch of people in our train car started singing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” complete with sound effects for the instrumental parts. Perhaps I could come up with some commentary about what all this says about how punk rock fans go through life, but instead I’ll just say it was a blast and a great way to end the weekend.