Riot Fest 2017
Douglas Park; Chicago, IL

Photo: Amanda Athon

Looking back a year on from my Riot Fest 2016 coverage, I can marvel at my own naivety. Languishing in the jaws of the presidential election cycle, I (and many like me) thought this was as bad as it could get. Trump’s ascent to the top of his party — fueled by a complex cocktail of white nationalism, working-class rage, misogyny, and partisan inertia — had exposed some hard truths about this country that many of us didn’t want to face, but we were coming up on the finish line. November wasn’t too far around the corner, and when the dust settled, we were confident that we’d have a president who, while not universally beloved (even among her own constituents), would at least restore a semblance of sanity to federal politics.

But we all know how that turned out. This year’s festival roster responded to the direness of our present political situation in a variety of ways. Ministry’s Al Jourgensen answered with fury and exhortations to violent resistance, Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz and Pedro Erazo with calls for unity among people of good will — hell, even the happy-go-lucky Tim Kinsella of Cap’n Jazz let slip the nihilistic observation that his privileges are paid for by the murders of people all over the world. The enormity of Trump’s presidency threatens to make punk rock’s defiant posturing look hollow and inconsequential. Yet it was a challenge many of the performers were willing to meet head on, even if some of the boldest, most transgressive, and genuinely punk performances of the Fest came from outside the white male-dominated sphere of punk rock.

But before we get too far into that, let’s take care of some administrative items:

  • Despite last year being the biggest yet for the festival, Riot Fest scaled back for 2017, cutting out its Denver fest and paring back its lineup to 91 acts. This may, in part, be due to recent death of fest founder, Sean McKeough (May he riot in peace).
  • While I feel for Denver missing out, the smaller lineup was a boon. Bands got longer sets, and it made it easier and more worthwhile to cut out in the middle of a set if there were overlapping acts you wanted to watch.
  • This being our third year attending the festival (“our” being my wife and I), we tried to take in a little more of the nonmusical aspects, getting some yummy street tacos from Tica’s and witnessing the death-defying high wire acrobatics of Circus Una.
  • Security was friendly, but, like, maybe too friendly. The guards felt around my wife’s bust for that switchblade and set of brass knuckles she stores in her bra (lucky for us she stowed them back in the glove compartment). But, honestly, they could have strip-searched me and put three fingers up my asshole because (most importantly)…
  • FREE BEER WAS BACK IN THE PRESS TENT. The courteous festival staff kept the wheels of journalism thoroughly lubricated with all the Dos Equis and Heineken we could get down our gullets.

The Essentials
Saul Williams (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Genre-bending rapper and father of slam poetry, Saul Williams began his set Friday with an improvised spoken word rendition of “Coded Language,” all those lengthy clauses beginning with and punctuated by the legalistic conjunction “whereas,” culminating in a litany of radicals, artists, and martyrs. But while the framework of his jeremiad was familiar, its contents were targeted specifically at us. “A riot is not a festival,” he chided. “A riot is a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.” And to drive his point home further: “Your punk rock isn’t that punk rock if it doesn’t make fascists explode.”

It took a moment for me to realize that the stage behind him was bare of equipment and that no band would be joining him. This drew hostility from some in the crowd, at least one member of which repeatedly shouted, “We came to hear music!” as he trudged off in the direction of the main stages. Williams was undaunted, taking aim at targets as large as the Catholic Church and Silicon Valley and as small as the Trump-supporting members of his audience. He attacked the gender binary, the digital revolution, and the sharing economy using the “Hack into…” lyrical framework of “Colton as Cotton,” before launching into an a capella rendition of “Black Stacey.”

It was probably the gutsiest performance I’ve seen in my life, standing on that stage all alone and putting to lie the late capitalist notion that we can spend our way to a revolution, to call each member of the audience to account for their part in the oppressive structures that weigh us all down (albeit not equally). Unlike the Prophets Of Rage, who on Sunday asked their audience if they were ready to have a good time, Williams was there to educate, not to entertain. Next to him, even the most radical declarations of resistance seemed like kids’ stuff.

Cute Riot Fest audience members (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Friday’s other highlight was industrial metal pioneers Ministry. Uncle Al was eager to tell his audience how happy he was to be home, joking, “You all know I’m from here. Some of you have probably ripped me off on cab fare.” They played a relentless, career-spanning set, including a brand new song from their forthcoming album, “Antifa,” celebrating the anarchist resistance network. Watching masked dancers parade around the stage waving red and black flags filled me with a curious sense of unease.

The uncritical acceptance of vigilante justice that I see coming from certain corners of the left is alarming for a variety of reasons that I don’t have the space for here, but suffice to say that I personally regard Antifa’s rise to prominence as, at best, a risky development for political discourse in America. Jourgenson’s embrace of the controversial group is hardly surprising, given his outspoken leftwing politics and heavy metal’s enshrinement of ideological, as well as sonic, extremity. In fact, a Ministry show seems like exactly the place where buttoned-up lefties can crow over fascists chowing down on a knuckle sandwich. I guess I just never thought we’d reach a point where the kinds of things that get shouted out at a heavy metal concert were being considered as a blueprint for political strategy.

My political hand-wringing aside, Ministry was on fire. Jorgenson’s voice is as caustic as ever, and his band remains a finely honed engine of destruction. In lieu of footage from the stage, the band fed surreal psychedelic imagery into the screens: distorted pictures of nude women bleeding into news coverage, music video footage, and internet memes. They ripped through mid- and late-career highlights like “Senor Peligro” and “Bad Blood,” but aside from opening their set with “Psalm 69,” they saved most of their classics for a whirlwind four-song finale of “N.W.O.,” “Just One Fix,” “Thieves,” and “So What.”

Peaches (Photo: Amanda Athon)

If Saul and Al had to split ownership of Friday between them, Saturday belonged entirely to Peaches. The Canadian provocateur delivered a riotous and confrontational set of explicit sexuality and gender-fuckery. She opened with her ode to female ejaculation, “Rub,” wearing an absurdly bulky pink fur-suit and anatomically detailed vagina hat. During her second song “Vaginaplasty,” her backup dancers sauntered out in enormous vaginal headgear, while the artist herself stripped down to a flesh-colored leotard to which giant purple nipples and a fuzzy pink merkin had been affixed. By her third song, she was over the photo-pit rail and into the audience, and by the end of the fourth, her leotard was down around her waist.

There were no fucks given. When Peaches needed to switch costumes, she turned her back and stepped out of whatever she was wearing right in front of the audience. Her dancers shed more and more clothing as the show went on, until by the end they were topless in a latticework of fetish-gear and undulating against the singer in simulated sex acts. Peaches performed a good chunk of the time in nothing but her skivvies and flesh-colored nipple-covers. It was, by turns, hilarious, titillating, and unnerving (like, should we be seeing this? Is this LEGAL?). Despite the lack of explicit political commentary, Peaches’ defiant ribaldry felt like an act of resistance, an expression of female power and self-determination. And it was some of the most fun I had the whole weekend.

High-Wire acrobats (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Still, despite the stiff competition, my absolute favorite set of the fest belongs to Chicago’s own Cap’n Jazz. This marks the seminal Midwestern emo group’s second reunion since their dissolution in 1995. Reunions as a whole tend to reek of cash-grabbery, and usually they don’t improve in quality upon repetition, but Sunday’s performance was as pure and unique a concert-going experience as I’ve ever been part of.

Frontman Tim Kinsella may have crossed the threshold into his forties, but he remains a childlike presence, hurling his body across the stage, turning sloppy backwards somersaults, and generally jackassing around with the audience. His ebullience was infectious and his seeming disregard for his own safety and the integrity of the performance created an electric tension. Kinsella made a game between songs of requesting the return of a tambourine that he’d tossed out into the audience, and then throwing it immediately back into the crowd. During their cover of “Take on Me,” he hurled his mic over the photopit rail, but somehow managed to recover it just in time for the big final chorus, just like he miraculously recovered his sunglasses, lost early on in a crowd-surfing excursion.

His bandmates played the grownups, with drummer Mike occasionally bristling over his brother’s showboating. They kept the grooves going when Tim’s shenanigans came between him and his singing duties, like during closer “Que Suerte!” when Tim stuffed the mic down his pants, threaded it through the bottom of his jeans, only to stick it back down once more and thread it down the other leg (he needed help from the security team to get it out his second pant leg).

But if all of this sounds like the music took a backseat to the antics, you can put that right out of your head. The band was in peak form, hitting all the lurching starts and stops, tempo and signature shifts like clockwork, and all the while, they looked like they were having the time of their lives. Third Kinsella brother and American Football alum Nate stood in for Davey von Bohlen on guitar and brought a fan’s enthusiasm to the proceedings. Their set covered almost everything from their sole album Burritos, Inspiration Point… aside from “Bluegrassish,” “Flashpoint: Catheter,” and “Precious,” and they filled the rest of the set out with favorites like “Ooh I Do Love You” and “Forget Who Are.”

Bad Brains (Photo: Amanda Athon)

This is uncomfortable for me to say, so I’m just going to blurt it out. X and Bad Brains were pretty boring live. I know. I KNOW. These guys are legends. They’ve been doing this for four decades now. They have nothing to prove. They’re up there in the years, and at least in H.R.’s case have health concerns. Not everyone can be Iggy Pop, who’s pushing a thousand and still writhing around on the floor like a teenager. They still sounded great, but there wasn’t a lot of energy in their sets.

Saturday night’s penultimate act At the Drive-In had the opposite problem. Cedric Bixler-Zavala still tosses the mic around and launches himself off the drumkit with no apparent care about whether he’ll come down on his feet, but the volume they were playing at really muddied their sound and overwhelmed Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s precise guitarwork. It was still enjoyable to hear my favorite cuts off Relationship of Command, from which their set drew heavily, but years of being baited by ATDI’s reputation as a live band set my expectations at a level they couldn’t quite reach. Plus, no “Transatlantic Foe”? Come on, guys…

Honorable Mentions
Liars (Photo: Amanda Athon)

I’ve drifted away from Liars’ recorded output over the years, but there’s no question these guys can still bring it live. Angus Andrew stalked onto the stage in a white wedding dress, his long lace veil billowing in the wind. Standing before a small podium, he fiddled with dials that hellishly distorted his vocals during the bouncier electronic numbers like “Mess on a Mission” and “House Clouds,” as well as on more harrowing fare like “Scarecrow on a Killer Slant.”

The Buzzcocks made a good showing for old-head punk rock. Their hit-laden set (anyone with a copy of Singles Going Steady could do a reasonable job keeping score at home) was brisk and tuneful, and their chemistry forty-plus years in the making shined through at every turn, particularly on spacier numbers like “Why Can’t I Touch It?” Finally Nine Inch Nails brought Friday to a close with a riveting headlining performance. The fog-machines were going into overdrive throughout the set, such that the stage was constantly cloaked in billowing smoke like the steaming maw of hell. Reznor was intense, if a little aloof as he careened throughout his discography, lightly dusting his set with hits like “The Hand that Feeds,” “Closer,” and “Head Like a Hole.”

Buzzcocks (Photo: Amanda Athon)
Gogol Bordello (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Gogol Bordello brought their brand of feel-good bedlam to the fest on Saturday and convinced me that I need to revisit Transcontinental Hustle. I was left pretty cold by the album when it came out back in 2010, but goddamn if every cut they played off it didn’t bring the house down, particularly “We Comin’ Rougher (Immigraniada),” which has taken on a pointed significance in the era of Trump.

Following Dinosaur Jr.’s sublime album playthrough of You’re Living All Over Me, I crashed the angry party that Prophets Of Rage were throwing on Sunday night long enough to hear them drop a pair of RATM covers (“Testify” and “Take the Power Back”) amid some original songs from their hot-off-the-presses eponymous debut. But it was the siren song of M.I.A. that ultimately seduced me. The British emcee was in fine form, if surprisingly mute on politics. She knocked out hit after hit for her eager crowd, while a mesmerizing light show engulfed the stage. At the risk of losing all my punk cred, after that kind of spectacle, Jawbreaker just couldn’t hold my interest. Beyond one or two songs of Dear You, I’d never quite managed to find my way into them, but the die-hards in the front row seemed to be getting everything they wanted out of them, so that’s all that matters, right?

And that, in a nutshell, was Riot Fest 2017. There’s a ton I missed out on, including Shabazz Palaces, Wu Tang Clan performing 36 Chambers, Built to Spill’s play-through of Keep It Like a Secret, and festival mainstays Gwar and Andrew W.K., but some of the sets I was able to take in this year numbered among the most powerful and exhilarating festival experiences I’ve ever witnessed. As the situation in the outside world grows more dire, we continue to look to art for solace, and there was plenty of that to be found. But the bravest artists offered something we needed more: a kick in the ass to get back out there and try to change something, however small and however futile that might appear.

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