Douglas Park in Chicago was the scene of the crime, and September 14-16 marked the time, featuring icons like Weezer, Beck, Run the Jewels, Liz Phair, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the recently-poisoned Pussy Riot. (Photo gallery follows the commentary, below.)
PHOTOS AND TEXT BY ERICA BRUCE
For BLURT, mid-September in Chicago instinctively means “three days of Riot Fest in Douglas Park.” The masses were a little concerned this year that it may not happen, but, like many of the punk bands it hosts, Riot Fest has long proven itself scrappy, and scrappy doesn’t go down for the count lightly. The loss of one headliner, Blink-182, brought two other bands, Run the Jewels and Weezer, in their place. Seminal bands played seminal records in full, icons proved why they are icons, and men in kilts were the hottest fashion statement. As Hurricane Florence was throwing her mighty rain against the east coast, BLURT decided to see what was going on in the mid-west.
-Icon Who Never Ages -Liz Phair
When Liz Phair’s record “Exile in Guyville” came out in 1993, many of the Seattle women were moving the needle on feminism by sporting kinderwhore and being brash. But Liz Phair has always been the nerdy girl’s Riot Grrl. Her records said all the things the wallflower female with a feminist streak thought but felt she could never say about sex and relationships, and how it feels to be a woman in a male-dominated business like music and the world in general. She made lots of women feel 6’1 instead of 5’2 then, and, based on her Friday performance and the faces of the 20-somethings in the audience, she inspired a whole new generation to feel the same. Fairly convinced she is the female Dorian Grey as well as she never seems to age.
-Band Who Walks the Walk-Pussy Riot
There are those who proclaim themselves punk and then there’s Pussy Riot. Members of the protest punk collective have endured lengthy prison sentences for “hooliganism” in their native Russia, physical abuse, and more recently, the poisoning of its member Peter Verzilov. And yet DEFIANTLY, THANKFULLY, they endure….
Nadya Tolokonnikova, flanked with a DJ and a cadre of neon green ski cap associates, spoke out against corruption and Trump/Putin similarities. They taught via a pre-recorded 25+ set of facts about inequality and issues across the world. They even inspired a young woman against the rail to find her voice and loudly scream, ‘Listen to the message!” over and over to a tone-deaf dude being inappropriate, to which others followed. Pussy Riot is a living breathing embodiment of trying to make the world a better place. “Poisonings and assassinations will not stop us,” said Tolokonnikova from the stage. BELIEVE IT.
-Band with the Best Props: The Aquabats
MC Bat Commander of The Aquabats coined them the “world’s most mighty almost super heroes.” Considering they were wearing long sleeve tunics and masks in the sun, they are also the bravest. Thankfully the mutant land sharks that caught them off-guard that time at the beach were made into wonderfully fun inflatables that bounced throughout the crowd. Fun fact: Blink-182’s drummer Travis Barker was an Aquabat in the late 90s!
-Band with the Positive Message: Digable Planets
Seminal records/bands from 1993 seemed to be a theme at Riot Fest this year, so what better act to include than Digable Planets covering Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)? in full. The light, Consciousness, and melodious positivity that began in 1988 when De La Soul introduced us to the D.A.I.S.Y. age (Da Inner Sound, Y’all) impacted itself heavily into the Planets sound and lyrics with a message. It’s hard to be positive about much these days, but if you listen hard, you can still hear Reachin’s sweet-sounding impact in people like Kendrick Lamar, it’s just said a bit more staccato.
-Best Celtic Punk Mix: Flogging Molly
There’s punk and then there’s Celtic punk, and the latter can always make an accordion and a fiddle sound tougher than any Minor Threat cover band. That’s Flogging Molly. “I just came back from a European tour and it’s nice to be back where people can understand what the fook I’m saying. Course what I’m saying most of the time is shite,” joked lead singer Dave King.
-Band with the Darkest Lighting: Tie-Cypress Hill, Dropkick Murphys
However, someone with Cypress Hill was holding the cutest bulldog side stage, so they get a pass.
-Most Covers in One Set-Weezer
Rivers Cuomo continues to hit all the high notes and never age. As night 1 headliners, Weezer piled the big hits up in the front half of the set (“Buddy Holly,” “Hash Pipe,” etc.), and mixed in a few covers (“Take On Me” by a-ha, “Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath). They even did a nod to the had-to-cancel Blink-182 and covered “All the Small Things.” And yes, they closed with everyone’s current favorite version of that song about rain in a foreign continent.
Other notes from things seen on Friday:
-The Front Bottoms: Full of fiddle, acoustic rhythm, and earnest lyrics about delusional love and something about a sleeping bag. Seems tween girls also love lead singers who earnestly look like Jimmy Eat World’s Jim Adkins these days.
-K.Flay: Did a cover of “Flagpole Sitta” by Harvey Danger. And a guy named David proposed to a woman named Mandy onstage.
-Young the Giant: Lead singer Sameer Gadhia’s big voice is a good fit for their big athematic arena songs. That’s all I can say about them.
-Bleachers: The band really wants to sound like Springsteen but seems more like John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band with a synthesizer during their cover of “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode.
Day 2 was all about an old school tour through most 20th century music genres. We also started keeping track of all the covers being played a little more closely.
-Most Inspired Stage Costume: Gary Numan
Dressed like Alexander McQueen-inspired mummies coming for your hair gel and eyeliner, Gary Numan still obviously really enjoys what he does, and man, he does it so well. It was great to watch all the kids who weren’t born in the 80s clearly enjoying his set. His synth impact is still so relevant that Trent Reznor should pay him royalties.
-Best Voice to Melt a Heart: Cat Power
This show was the first of the world tour for Chan Marshall’s new record, Wanderer, the first in six years. The set was having a few technical issues at the start, but once it was figured out, that voice, so smoky and lovely and emotive was let loose. It’s nice on record, but live? Otherworldly.
-Best Drummer: Wolfmother
With songs about gypsies and women and guitars that go up to 11, Wolfmother is a modern-day nod to 70s cock rock. There are a lot of comparisons to Led Zeppelin music-wise, which you can agree or disagree with. But it’s fair to say if Zeppelin reunites again, they should consider Wolfmother drummer Hamish Rosser; Bonzo would be impressed.
-Most Original T-Shirt: The Voidz
The Voidz went on 10 minutes late, and for once, lead singer Julian Casablancas was without sunglasses on stage. But he looked healthy and sounded great, and is even getting a little dancey in his older age. Not many can rock a stock car pit crew button up from a guy named Steve, but if anyone can, it’s Casablancas.
-Best Health Recovery: Elvis Costello and the Imposters
It was a pure joy to see Elvis Costello back and in prime form just months after cancelling tour dates to recover from cancer treatment. The Riot Fest set was his first show post-surgery, and he told the audience, “I’m fine, thanks!” Sporting shades like those of the other Elvis during his Vegas period, Costello, the post-punk king before post-punk was a term, was a highlight of the weekend.
-Most Diverse Crowd: Jerry Lee Lewis
Along the rail for Jerry Lee Lewis’ set, the audience was like a microcosm of America: young, old, women, men, black, white, green (well hair was green), probably the most diverse audience we saw all weekend, which makes sense as who doesn’t want to see a living legend? While his backing band, composed of Kenny Lovelace, Ray Gann, and Kenny Aronoff, kicked off the set with four cover songs, an honest to God mosh pit started a few rows back. But once Lewis finally hit the stage, using a cane and wearing a purple sparkly jacket, white dress shirt, jeans, it was all eyes front. At 82, The Killer isn’t kicking back piano stools any longer, or setting the keys literally on fire, but playing like a house on fire? That he still does.
-Most Moon by the Light of the Moon: Jesus Lizard
“I fucking hate playing festivals,” said Jesus Lizard lead singer David Yow, “but they are paying us 250 million!” The band threw all of its noise and punk and thrash to a delighted crowd, as Yow gave the crowd the finger, made a heart sign, pulled up his shirt then unzipped his pants and mooned the crowd. He then jumped into the audience, literally singing upside down at points.
More cover songs and snippets from Day 2: The Frights (Prince of Bel Air theme song, “No Scrubs” by TLC, “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy); Beck (“Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, “Cars” by (and with appearance by) Gary Numan; Jerry Lee Lewis band (“You Are My Sunshine” by Ray Charles, “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley)
A day heavy on east coast bands playing great, probably really glad to be away from the rain.
-Most Songs in Shortest Set: Beach Rats
Day 3 was kicked off with D.C. punk via the NJ shore in the form of Beach Rats. A super punk group of sorts, the band is composed of members from the Bouncing Souls, Lifetime, and Minor Threat/Dag Nasty. And like traditional D.C. punk songs, the 15-minute set included 4576 songs and bass lines you felt in your chest. Good stuff.
-Most Hated by Feminists: Fear
Fear played their seminal 1982 album “The Record” in full Sunday afternoon and lead singer Lee Ving shared quite a few thoughts from the Rise stage. He spoke of old Chicago friends (“We love you guys. John Belushi RIP, brought us to Chicago and it’s been our home ever since”) and politics (“Fuck you Boris Putin (sic). Just kidding he’s probably a cool guy once you get to know him”). He also introduced the song “Honor and Obey,” as a love song. Let’s just say with lyrics like “Get up and make my fucking breakfast you lazy bitch/Yeah, you’re my wife now, don’t start whining and giving me shit,” it’s good they didn’t play before or after Pussy Riot, or someone’s ass may have been kicked.
-Coolest of the Cool: Johnny Marr
It doesn’t get much cooler than Johnny Marr, and live, it’s even better. The set was an even keel of songs from his new record, “Call The Comet” and some from The Smiths, oftentimes sounding better vocally than Morrissey himself (sorry Mozzer). In terms of scale, Nick Lowe is Jesus of the Cool, Paul Weller is the Godfather, but Marr is the only Johnny Fuckin Marr.
-Band Who Inspires Most Happiness: The Bouncing Souls
“It’s a beautiful day here, and we’re alive!” said Bouncing Souls lead singer Greg Attonito. The crowd took it to heart, and the positivity resulted in a raucous sing along to “Lean On Sheena.” The Souls live is truly pure joy wrapped around three guitar chords; it’s just simply impossible to feel anything else. Got to be something in that NJ shore air from which they hail.
-Best Sharer of Influences: Clutch
Go-Go music isn’t really well known outside of the D.C./MD/VA area, so local bands when touring seem to want to spread the word. MD-natives Clutch gave the Sunday afternoon crowd a taste with the walk-out music of “We Need Some Money” by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, and then their song, “D.C. Sound Attack!” complete with its Go-Go beats. If you were there and suddenly feel this intense desire to yell “Wind me up Chuck!” or drum on plastic buckets, don’t worry, Clutch was successful, you were bit by bug that is Go-Go.
-Most Civic Minded: Superchunk
Given the mess Hurricane Florence was unleashing on NC over the weekend, probably the happiest east coast band to be playing in the sun on Sunday was the NC-based Superchunk. They remain a well-oiled machine live, regardless of how long they go between live shows. Tracks off the new record, “What a Time to Be Alive,” especially the title track, are catchy as hell, as well as political, not the usual move for them. So when lead singer Mac McCaughan said, “Don’t forget to vote,” you knew he meant it.
Also saw: Blondie, Bad Religion, a cute dog and a pot-belly pig!
For full sets of photos from all three days, go see the photo album here!
And special thanks to Heather West, Western Publicity, for all of her help! (Amen! Heather, you rock! – Ed.)
PHOTOS: DAY 1 (FRIDAY)
Young the Giant
DAY 2 (SATURDAY)
Jerry Lee Lewis
DAY 3 (SUNDAY)