Riot Fest 2015
Douglas Park; Chicago, IL

Amanda Athon: Since its inception in 2005, Riot Fest has moved from a modest, multiple-venue event, to an outdoor Chicago festival, to a multi-city “fest and carnival” with additional locations in Toronto and Denver. Having gotten the boot from Chicago’s Humboldt Park last year, this marks Riot Fest’s first-year at Douglas Park on the west side of the city.

I’d never been a huge fan of concert festivals, but then I had a baby. Two things happened: (1) My pain tolerance increased ten-fold, and (2) Any event where I could go away from my colicky infant for a while suddenly became fun, even if it was just a trip to the dentist.

Joe Hemmerling: I too had withdrawn from the festival circuit for a while, so Riot Fest — with its preponderance of legacy acts and heavy focus on classic punk, metal, and hip-hop — seemed like an ideal target for my wife and I to tag-team. In addition to having to contend with the newest, loudest addition to our family, I also came down with a wicked head-cold the day before, so things were guaranteed to be memorable…

Day 1

AA: Death, still riding the feel-good waves from the documentary A Band Called Death, was one of Friday’s first performers. Singer Bobby Hackney gave a shout out to his late brother, and also to his son, who helped get their 70s-era recordings noticed by collectors and eventually released by Chicago-based label Drag City (seriously, see the documentary already.) Their set was peppered with gratitude, thanking fans who purchased the album, saw the documentary, or attended their set. It was unnecessary, but added to the band’s warm and fuzzy aura. During their 45-minute set, they stuck mostly to their debut, For all the World to See, with “Politicians In My Eyes” and “Keep on Knocking” standing out as particular crowd favorites.

JH: After Death, we were caught pleasantly off-guard by Living Colour (yes, the “Cult of Personality” guys!) and a reliably engrossing show from Riot Fest regulars Against Me!, who leaned heavily on last year’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. From there, my day took a dark detour. Amanda had departed to pick up our daughter from day care. I tried to catch a breather on the astroturf (the only dry ground in the entire park), but the nasally eunuch from Coheed And Cambria proved too much for me to bear. My next idea was to camp out in front of the rebel stage to get a good spot for Anthrax, but I severely overestimated my tolerance for Thrice, who were taking an hour-long dump on neighboring stage.

By the time Faith No More went on, the band had taken on a kind of talismanic power in my fevered brain, the prize to some heroic odyssey that I had completed simply milling back and forth between a few stages for a couple hours. They delivered in spades. The Rock Stage was decked out in floral arrangements, and the band came out clad entirely in white (which made them a perfect blank canvas for their mesmerizing light show). With just their opening one-two punch of “Motherfucker” and “Be Aggressive” they had already established themselves as the best band of the night. Their set careened all across their discography, releasing the casually curious early by playing “Epic” mid-set, and leaving the rest of us with more elbow room and the ability to hear each other singing along. I’ll make myself the millionth person to point out that Mike Patton’s voice is a national treasure, equally suited to the sepulchral growls of “Midlife Crisis” and the melodiousness of Lionel Richie’s “Easy Like Sunday Morning.”

Though I badly wanted to stay for Motorhead, I was feeling pretty wiped, so I decided to head home and try to save a little for the rest of the weekend.

Day 2

JH: My still-raging head-cold and our daughter’s increasingly avant-garde approach to sleeping through the night meant that I still felt like shit Saturday morning. We had no sitter planned, so I was striking out on my own. I resolved to make it a short day and leave after my interview with Gwar, even though this would mean missing my chance to see the Godfather of Punk, Mr. Iggy Pop, that night, and probably for the rest of my life.

(AA: Joe fears with utter certainty that karma will cause Iggy to die before next summer’s festival circuit.)

JH: By the time I got to the park, the heavy rains from that morning had passed, but they left the fairgrounds a swamp land. My socks were completely soaked through just crossing from the main entrance to the press tent. I caught an early set from former Crass frontman Steve Ignorant’s collaboration with Irish punks Paranoid Visions. The group ran a lazy Susan of lead singers with Ignorant, Deko, and Sarah Bellum rotating from lead, to back-up, to standing behind the equipment when they weren’t needed. Hooky punk rock was intercut with samples of people discussing at length why Bono’s charity work is all bullshit (apparently, a recurring theme with the band).

But the main event for me was Gwar. The scumdogs were scheduled for a measly half-hour at 1:40 in the afternoon, but there was still a sizeable crowd amassed around the Rise Stage in anticipation. It was a jam-packed 30 minutes, with the band ripping through fan favorites “Madness at the Core of Time,” “Meat Sandwich,” “A Brief History of the End of the World, Pt 1” and “Sick of You,” but still finding time to leave a trail of bodies in their wake. DJs were decapitated. Keytar players were maimed. internet trolls were ripped limb-from-limb. New lead singer Blothar did battle with Olderus Urungus (a supposed relative of their late frontman) for the right to maintain his position in the band. Blood, urine, and semen were sprayed in massive quantities. It was pure magic.

I saw The Dead Milkmen for the second time at a Riot Fest event. Rodney Anonymous remained as frenetic as ever, scrambling across the stage and photo pit to interact with fans and delivering his customary improv during the intro to “Bitchin’ Camero.” I had to leave just as the group was sinking its teeth into “Dean’s Dream” to go prostrate myself before the glory of Gwar in the press area, and by the time I returned The Thurston Moore Band was playing some motoric psych from their forthcoming album.

Day 3

JH: Our childcare situation fell through Sunday, so — in a move that made us either the most awesome or most negligent parents in the world — we scraped together some supplies and brought the baby along with us. It wasn’t an ideal way to experience the fest, as we had to stay at a greater distance from performances we wanted to see than I would have liked, and we could only stay a few hours before little Avery started getting cranky from lack of sleep.

AA: But we go a lot of vocal support for bringing our baby to a festival, and we’re sure a lot of silent judgment as well. De La Soul’s set was the top act of the festival for me. The group didn’t even need their hit “Me, Myself, and I” to get the audience pumped, but it sure didn’t hurt. The trio interacted a lot with the crowd, each other, and even the pit photographers, challenging each side to prove who was more hip-hop and drawing out the interludes to build excitement.

Our second non-negotiable for the day was Andrew WK. While Steve Buscemi reigns as my eternal celebrity crush, I have an on-going fantasy of renting a summer share in the Hamptons with Ina Garten and Andrew WK. Riot Fest did nothing for the former, but it helped flesh out the latter a bit more, thanks to Mr. WK’s happy-go-lucky performance.

Although a longtime fan of his column in the Village Voice, this was my first time seeing him live. The last time Joe saw him in 2004, he was headlining a high school battle-of-the-bands, a tidbit that reinforces my image of the performer as the grown up high school kid who just wants to play rock & roll.

JH: Seeing him again was an emotional experience, even standing from what felt like 100,000 feet away. His setlist was principally unchanged since 04: heavily bookended with tracks from I Get Wet and padded out with a couple from The Wolf, with only “You Will Remember Tonight” from Close Calls with Brick Walls, an instrumental cover of “Adeste Fideles” (played on a pizza-shaped guitar), and a lengthier track that I didn’t recognize to mark the passage of time. It was “Long Live the Party,” from his oft-dismissed sophomore album that hit me the hardest. That part at the song’s climax where he sings “All we ever wanted was a thing to believe/And now that we have found it we have all that we need” took me immediately back to being 20 years old and a time when the essential truth of that statement felt irrefutable.

We managed to stave off an Avery meltdown just long enough to see him close with “Party Hard,” and then we brought the curtain down on our great festival adventure.

AA: While Riot Fest’s line-up is definitely meant for an older crowd, there’s something especially (and unintentionally) dated about some of the bands we saw, particularly some of the ones tossing out rape jokes and threatening to fuck our mom as a way to appear edgy. A festival that heralds bands whose hey-day was long ago (whether or not we wish that was the case), reveals what can at times feel like easy shtick. Bands like The Dwarves may have seemed revolutionary 20+ years ago for putting such raw violence and sexuality on stage, but so many bands have threatened to fuck my mom in the meantime that it doesn’t have much of an impact today. (And if you’ve met my mother, you’d know she could probably horrify even The Dwarves with her stories of how she spent the 70s.)

Still, we’re not really sure how many attend Riot Fest to be challenged; we want to see No Doubt play “Spiderwebs” and listen to Andrew WK party hard. We all know what we’re here for: hearing our favorite bands from high school and, dare we say it, thinking that kids today don’t know good music.

Joe and Amanda’s random observation round-up:
• Dos Equis was providing free beer to the journos at the press tent, instantly making this the greatest festival either of us have ever attended.
• Even 20 minutes after the festival begins, the port-o-potties were gross, which did not bode well for the restroom situation on Day 3.
• The map listed a taxi stand outside the fest, although at no point did we ever see any taxis there. Finding the cab stand became our own personal Moby-Dick.
• The guy with a 12-inch Mohawk getting excited about a funnel cake made us feel that everything was going to be OK with the world.
• Likewise for the white-haired man in his 50s who was bellowing “FAITH NO MOOOOOOOOOORE!” at the top of his lungs in anticipation of the band taking the stage.

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