2016 promised to be a momentous year for Riot Fest. The organizers accomplished nothing short of the impossible by facilitating a reunion of the core members of Misfits, a small miracle that catapulted the Fest to a headline-making musical event. You could feel the anticipation among the attendees. Misfits apparel, never in short supply at a Riot Fest, was exponentially more evident among those assembled throughout the weekend.
But even beyond that, the insanity of the 2016 election cycle is the kind of fertile soil from which art can grow. The presidential race hung like a cloud over the entire weekend, with each artist finding a unique way to address it (but most of them coming down to some formulation of “fuck Trump.”)
It was also an event of some personal import for me; in addition to having another shot at Riot Festering with my wife, Amanda (whose stunning photos grace this very piece), my good buddy TJ — the guy who wrote all the best questions from last year’s Gwar interview — decided to make the journey from Oregon to Chicago so we could scream “Whoa-oh-oh” at Glenn Danzig.
While I’ve poked gentle fun at Riot Fest in the past for catering to the nostalgia set, they deserve recognition this year for rounding out their lineup with a solid roster of relevant current artists. Well-loved legacy acts were supported by some of the most exciting and unique voices of today, including Diarrhea Planet, Dan Deacon, Fucked Up, White Lung, Joey Bada$$, and Death Grips.
So let’s dig in, shall we? But first…
Lineup Casualties: I set out every year for Riot Fest with grand ambitions, but shit usually gets in the way. Here are all the bands I had to miss due to scheduling conflicts, unforeseen circumstances, or sheer laziness: Diarrhea Planet, Dan Deacon, Nas, and The Julie Ruin. The bitterest stroke of them all, however, was having to miss Death Grips. The festival organizers generally did an impressive job lining up the acts in a way that minimized the tough choices that usually go along with the festival experience. The great, glowing, neon-lit exception was the 7:40 time-slot on Sunday, with Rob Zombie, Death Grips, and Sleater-Kinney all playing at exactly the same time. No one should have to make that kind of choice.
I arrived too late to see Gwar initiate the 2016 presidential election cycle by decapitating the sitting president, Barack Obama, but I was right on time to witness the battle royale between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The two candidates locked in brutal hand-to-hand combat while the band ripped into “Bring Back the Bomb.” You’ll likely be relieved to know that Clinton came out on top, first peeling Trump’s face off and then disemboweling him and beating him with his own innards. It was all for naught, though, since Hillary inevitably had to die as well, bleeding out after singer Blothar performed an impromptu mastectomy. Gwar’s ascent to the presidency seemed a foregone conclusion, until, from out of nowhere came Bernie Sanders, astride his internet Troll battle-mount that sprayed blood and diarrhea all over the audience. Blothar waged bloody combat with him during the instrumental “A Short History of the End of the World” and emerged victorious, though Sanders’ troll took the worst of the beating. He rode off, perhaps to fight another day while Gwar celebrated a battle won by launching into “Sick of You.” One wonders where Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were through all of this, but who am I kidding? We live in a two-party system.
Sweden’s Refused might have been my favorite performance of the day. The band was back-lit, which rendered them as silhouettes much of the time. It caused my photographer wife conniptions, but looked amazing. Dennis Lyxzen showed he still has the best dance moves in punk rock, shimmying across the stage, kicking his legs in the air, and swinging his microphone around like a rodeo cowboy performing lasso tricks. He looked dapper in his plum suit, and his hair seemed to perpetually form a veil over his face. In between songs like “Elektra” and “Refused are Fucking Dead,” he was garrulous, discussing the vagaries of reunions (“For the longest time I thought we were too cool to get back together. But a friend told us, ‘You guys aren’t that cool.’”) and the current political situation in America and its potential impact on the world abroad. Before ending with “New Noise,” he took a moment to talk about feminism, and the disparity in female representation in the music world. While he commended Riot Fest’s efforts to involve women, he estimated the make-up of the festival line-up at about 12 percent female. Lyxzen called on us in the audience to advocate for greater parity in future festivals, so here goes my part:
Dear Riot Fest,
Here are some female-fronted bands and artists I’d be happy to see in the line-up of next year’s festival:
Pharmakon (although, Cheena might be a better fit for what y’all do)
Flaming Lips closed down the main stage on Friday. Sitting in the grass by the ATM tent, I waited for them to begin. Ween was wrapping up its set on the adjoining stage with a rambling rendition of “Buenas Tardes Amigo” and the moon was shining overhead, a great silver disc that the encroaching clouds could obscure but never fully hide. Wayne Coyne wandered out dressed in a white fur coat (which is crazy town, because even though it’s September, it’s still pretty hot here in the Chi). The stage was draped in what appeared, from a distance, to be streamers, but what were actually long, thin tubes full of bulbs. When they struck the opening notes to “Race for the Prize,” tiny points of lights shot up the tubes in a reverse-hailstorm. Soon the entire backdrop of the stage exploded into vibrant arcs of pulsing colors.
There were balloons. There was confetti. People in enormous foam sun and caterpillar costumes milled about the stage. At one point, Coyne himself came out draped in the same light tubes and started riding around on the shoulders of a guy in a Chewbacca costume. And, of course, there was the ubiquitous inflatable hamster-ball. Even as the Lips’ output in recent years has drifted towards the more atonal side of psychedelia, their shows remain a steadfastly good trip. Coyne interrupted “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” to remind the audience that we only had one chance to make the most of this night, so when the time came to yell “Hey Hey” after his declaration “She’s a blackbelt in Karate, he advised, “I would scream it at the top of my lungs.” It was good advice, both for Riot Fest and for our numbered days thereafter.
After checking in on my hometown heroes Smoking Popes and getting all woozy over “Need You Around,” I hopped over to the Rock Stage for The Hold Steady, whose performance of Boys and Girls in America remains one of the highlights of the festival. I’ve attended several album play-throughs in the past, and while they’re usually a good time, very few albums fare well when played beginning-to-end in a live setting. Boys and Girls is almost bizarrely adapted for this, though: well-balanced, ultra-high killer-to-filler ratio, and replete with an embarrassment of big sing-along choruses that are exactly the kind of thing you want to be a part of in a summer festival.
Frontman Craig Finn seemed to slip into the skins of the fast-talking losers and hustlers that populate the album. His wild gesticulations dramatized the narrator’s protestations of ignorance over whatever did or didn’t happen at the Northtown Mall on “Hot Soft Light” and heightened the absurdity of “Same Kooks.” The crowd happily provided the backing “whoas” on “Chips Ahoy” and “Massive Nights” (it was good preparation for Sunday), and Finn seemed to take particular delight in getting us to supply the phrase “bright new Minneapolis” in “Party Pit.”
One of the drawbacks to these big festivals is that you can never guarantee that the people around you are going to experience the bands you love in the same way you are, which is why I was so grateful for the dude in the Dead Kennedys shirt to my right, who never stopped moving or singing along for the whole set. The Hold Steady wrapped up the album with time for four more songs, and sent us on our way with the title track to Stay Positive.
My last stop on Saturday was White Lung, who burned through a half-hour set over on one of the side-stages. Mish Way experienced persistent difficulties with not being able to hear herself on the monitors over her band-mates, to the point where she apologized to the audience. She needn’t have been so self-conscious; there was really only one song where things sounded off. Despite the difficulties, she still threw herself full-force into the songs, belting out “Take the Mirror” and “Kiss Me When I Bleed” from the photo-pit, leaning back into the crowd.
Having no interest in hearing Morrissey deliver stern lectures on veganism or screeds against non-Western cultures, I decided to make it an early night, but TJ, who’s far more of a Smiths-head than I, kept me apprised of the goings-on through text message:
TJ: Thirty minutes late and he just started playing “Why Do You Come Here.” What a jokester.
He’s showing police brutality videos during this set. He’s like the worst Facebook friend.
So many people have left that we’re super close to the stage now.
He sang a song in tribute to Bernie Sanders. Too bad Gwar killed him last night.
Joe: Someone should let him know that the race is between Johnson and Stein now.
TJ: I’ll tell him when I’m inevitably within whispering distance.
My day effectively started with Andrew W.K., a Fest regular, appearing every year for at least as long as it’s been a single-location affair. His set was almost identical to last year: a good chunk of songs from I Get Wet, “Long Live the Party” from The Wolf, and “You Will Remember Tonight” from Close Calls with Brick Walls. The biggest alterations were a solo-guitar rendition of the national anthem and an instrumental interlude in which they threw T-shirts out into the audience. I’m pretty sure I could listen to Andrew play that set every year for the rest of my life. There’s not a drug on earth that could get me higher than that goofy grin he flashes when he’s pounding away at his keyboard, or his unflagging physical energy as he hurls himself 110% into every second of his performance. It brought the most out of the audience, as well. A kid dressed as an Andrew doppelganger went crowd-surfing. Someone else brought a giant stuffed dog that was passed from hand-to-hand through the audience. Just to my left, two young women were dancing their asses off and I did my best to keep up. After exchanging high fives, I went to find my wife, who let me know that, despite the Party God’s explicit instructions to let them shoot for the entire set (most bands only allow you to shoot the first three songs), security kicked them out of the photo pit after two songs. Not party, guys. Not party at all.
The concluding acts on Sunday were the kind of lineup that I would have diagrammed on the back of my algebra folder as a 17-year-old. Deftones eased us into the home stretch. They may have played godfather to a lot of shitty bands, but it’s pretty clear why they’ve remained one of the only groups from that era to emerge smelling like roses. Their effortless juggling of drone, atmospherics, and crushing riffs is bolder and more galvanizing than anything their nu metal peers could muster. Singer Chino Moreno was dressed in a long-sleeved black button-down shirt and khakis, and he looked a little like Guy Fierri on his way to a job interview, but he sounded great, and the one-two punch of “Change in the House of Flies” and “My Own Summer (Shove It)” towards the end of their set was a hell of a rush.
If you were to ask teenage me to give you a list of the most important bands in the world, the top two slots would likely have belonged to Misfits and White Zombie (note that past those two slots, the list would get a lot more embarrassing). To have both Rob Zombie performing Astrocreep 2000 and the original core lineup of Misfits playing back-to-back seemed more like the stuff of adolescent fantasy than a thing that could happen in the real world. We leaned against the photo-pit railing and watched the road crew set up Zombie’s stage while Deftones were playing, and it was a classic Rob Zombie fever dream. There were giant monster heads, a row of rectangular video monitors, Nosferatu mic stands, and a giant boom-box.
The stage filled up with smoke as that dry, vaguely English voice from To the Devil a Daughter intoned “Perhaps you had better start from the beginning.” The band emerged: Piggy D. on bass and Manson alums, guitarist John 5 and drummer Ginger Fish, and suddenly, there was the man himself, in full zombie-paint, clad in a silver, studded jacket trailing three-foot-long tassels from the arms. Astrocreep may be over 20 years old now, but Zombie’s grave-bellow has lost none of its potency in the intervening years.
Zombie’s pageantry was, in many ways, the inverse of The Flaming Lips. Crushing, quasi-industrial riffs and horror movie samples collided with a nonstop stream of visuals culled from trashy anime (including the ultra-violent Devilman, which served as the inspiration for “Supercharger Heaven”) and horror and exploitation cinema. At any given time you could be glimpsing gruesome surgeries, exploding animated heads, or Russ Meyer cheesecake. During “More Human Than Human,” while the monster robot from The Phantom Creeps roamed the stage, Zombie stalked out into the audience and made his way across the railing, propped up from behind by security and in front by legions of adoring fans (I even managed to get a few handfuls before he lost his balance and made his way back to the stage).
In the limited time he had between songs, Zombie reflected on the surreal nature of the evening’s festivities, telling us the story of how he had just recently recovered the jacket he wore on the cover of La Sexorcisto from a guilt-ridden fan who had stolen it many years ago, and remarking on the bizarre bit of serendipity that the opening band for the final White Zombie show in 1998 had been none other than Deftones. By the time “Blood, Milk, and Sky” was winding to a close he still had enough time for a couple bonus songs, “Thunderkiss ‘65” and “Dragula.” Zombie even managed to talk an audience of thousands into putting their phones away for five minutes to enjoy the show. “Pretend it’s the old days you all say you miss so much,” he told us.
I don’t know what it was like in the old days. White Zombie had already broken up by the time I started to get into them. But this was pretty damn good.
So, now we come to the main event, the reunited Misfits. This was a reunion I never expected, and one that I wasn’t even sure I wanted. After all, the Danzig-fronted incarnation of Misfits existed, for me, in a purely hypothetical realm of Platonic ideals. They imploded a year after I was born; my only experience of them was through their peerless body of recorded work and the second-hand nostalgia of those who had been around for their brief existence. Danzig had gone out of his way to distance himself from the band, and Jerry Only had made some questionable decisions with their legacy. What if the reunion just… wasn’t good?
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. With Danzig on vocals, Only on bass, Doyle on guitar, Slayer’s Dave Lombardo on drums, and an assist from second guitarist Acey Slade of The Blackhearts playing off-stage, the band was whip-tight. Danzig can still belt out all the lyrics with the mic clutched under his fist. Jerry can still glower over a mean bass-line. And at 56 years of age, Doyle still looks like something that an ancient Greek carved out of marble. He doesn’t so much play his guitar as pound it into submission. They played in the traditional punk mode of taking a song that was already fast and then running through it at double-time. For their Earth A.D. material (“Death Comes Ripping,” “Green Hell,” “Devilock,” and the title track) and their other more hardcore-leaning offerings like “All Hell Breaks Loose” and “Mommy, Can I Go out and Kill Tonight?,” the pacing made it a little tough for the audience to keep time, but there were ample opportunities for sing-alongs with most of the Static Age- and Walk Among Us-era songs.
And that more than anything was the reason why we stuck around to the very end of the show: for a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stand shoulder to should with thousands of other fiends and declare as one that “We are 138.” On “Hybrid Moments,” Danzig says, “If you’re gonna scream, scream with me,” so we did. We screamed along to “Where Eagles Dare.” We screamed along to “Astro Zombies.” You bet your ass that we screamed along to “Last Caress.” We screamed until we were so hoarse that we couldn’t raise our voice beyond a whisper without it cracking and then we screamed some more.
And the band was having a great time, too. Only, so overcome with the spirit of the moment, concluded the evening by throwing his bass into the audience. Danzig spent time between songs giving little history lessons (The iconic image from the “Bullet” single was ripped out of a book in the library) and talking about how things had changed (he described the enormous jack-o-lanterns flanking the stage as “cool as shit,” noting that they could never afford something like that back in the day). How strange it must feel to know that songs you wrote in high school could still mean this much to this many people.
The set-list was identical to that of the Denver show, with the addition of “Attitude” as the final song of the encore (haha, suck it, Denver). Every fiend surely has an opinion on what their ideal Misfits set-list would look like, but I certainly felt I came away from the night having gotten everything I wanted out of the band.
Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess. I’d hate to see them go the Pixies route and tour for four years before releasing a mediocre come-back album. On the other hand, I hope they at least take this show on the road for a bit so people who weren’t able to make it to Chicago or Denver could have a shot at seeing them. Everyone deserves to stand along side a good friend and declare to the universe, “I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch.”