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Dedicated to punk and alternative rock in all its flavours, Riot Fest is a reminder of the days when American music festivals really were alternative

Mark Guarino in Chicago

Monday 14 September 2015 14.31 EDT

The name Riot Fest implies agitation, but at the three-day festival in Chicago the mood was more about comfort in numbers, preferably within sets timed 50 minutes or less.

Riot Fest is one of the few destination festivals in North America that travels. This summer, it appeared in Denver and Toronto before landing in Chicago, where the festival originated in 2005. Back then, Riot Fest was conceived as an alternative to mainstream line-ups that focused on current mega-pop stars and marquee veterans. Instead it presented the numerous splinters of first-wave punk – pop-punk, Celtic-punk, emo, hardcore, and on and on – as well as like-minded artists from hip-hop, ska and metal.

Ten years later Riot Fest’s mission hasn’t wavered. As one of the last festivals to wind summer down, Riot Fest is still a place where biker leather is welcome and jam bands are not. In many ways, the festival’s welcoming of the weird carries the torch of the original Lollapalooza festival from the early 1990s when alternative rock was not a meaningless brand but a description of an actual movement of music several steps outside mainstream radio. There, concertgoers were not only exposed to bands that challenged norms, but they also could dabble in fringe culture sideshows like circus freaks, piercing parlours, slam poetry performances and more.

Riot Fest indeed had its own freak show, the aptly named Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue that performed three times each day. There was also a carnival, much like the ones that roll into small towns each summer and light up church parking lots with games, death-defying rides and poker-faced carnies. At Douglas Park, a sprawling West Side park where Riot Fest took place this weekend, two Ferris Wheels rose taller than the stages and trees. And like the original Lollapalooza, Riot Fest also had a spoken-word tent. There, Henry Rollins moderated a Saturday panel discussion with members of the West Memphis Three.

What is remarkable about Riot Fest is that, despite its size, it still feels like a welcome refuge from typical destination festivals that have crowded the North American market, particularly the relaunched Lollapalooza in Chicago that has devolved into little more than a corporate bacchanal for the VIP set, with the music serving as distant cousin to roped-off party areas were expense accounts go to die.

Countering that, it would be difficult for anyone to say that Riot Fest is not about the music. Seven stages crowd the park, each one running like clockwork to keep the music going. Even legacy acts were given their marching orders to not stop the momentum. When 79-year-old reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry appeared 30 minutes late, he improvised over a hazy beat until, 15 minutes later, his microphone was cut off. Confused, he kept talking. Too bad, the next act was ready.

The cynic might suggest removing at least one stage and trimming down the bill to give those who deserve it better more playing time. There was a big sense of hurry, not just from the artists, but also of the concertgoer forced to make mad dashes to catch snippets of performances. Then there was the persistent sound bleed, creating interference from all directions. The artists noticed, especially during pauses between songs. “Tell them to shut the fuck up!” shouted Mike Patton of Faith No More as Slightly Stoopid played directly across the field.

On Sunday L7, the grunge-era all-female group blasted through two- and three-minute songs with melodic hooks, chanting choruses and snarling guitar riffs that still left time for great onstage banter. This is a reunion summer for all four original members and together they have a lot to teach about dynamics and songwriting, especially for early- to mid-career bands that filled the weekend roster that tended to gun a single tempo and howl.

Rancid, the California punk band from the same era also have plenty to teach. On Saturday they barreled through their pop-punk catalog of songs including The Wars End and Avenues and Alleyways that were unified by towering choruses, chanted along to by the crowd. Nothing about the band has aged, although when railing against the harsh realities of life, guitarist Lars Frederiksen took a comical aside: “I’m a father now. I’m sorry I just talked to everyone like I’m their dad.”

Tommy Stinson, the founding member of the Replacements, played Riot Fest two summers ago in a partial reunion under the band name with co-founder Paul Westerberg. These days he has a solo album out and on Sunday he played a small stage tucked in the festival’s corner and attended by a small crowd. “I’m playing new shit – that’s why no one’s here,” he said, half-cocked and grinning. With Steve Selvidge of the Hold Steady on guitar and Guns N’ Roses drummer Frank Ferrer, the band previewed songs from an album due next year. Those songs, tightly executed and with sharp hooks, were a blast, belying the need for another reunion of his old band.

The rumoured reunion of the weekend was to be the surviving members of NWA following the success of Straight Outta Compton, their Hollywood biopic. The anticipation was rewarded by Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella (but not Dr Dre) performing many of the group’s anthems, interrupted only by a video teaser of the movie. The menace and provocation of that group was completely absent.

Even Ice Cube preempted the classic Fuck Tha Police by saying: “We aren’t talking about them all … if you a good cop, don’t take offence.” The song, one of the most provocative in all of hip-hop, suddenly has renewed relevance following the systemic shootings of unarmed black men by police in recent years. But the Friday night performance felt more like a celebration, not the pose of an outlaw gang looking to make a point.

Riot Fest expanded its definition of punk to include Merle Haggard, the only country music performer on the bill. On Saturday, Haggard, topped by a black cowboy hat and sunglasses, played western swing on guitar and fiddle as he led his band through the jewels from his catalogue: Silver Wings, Mama Tried and Okie From Muskogee. The gentle croon and delicate touch may have sounded strange to punk rock fans, especially for those waiting on System of a Down, but Haggard’s casual demeanor reflected a lifetime of defiance of doing things his own way.

No festival with a punk aesthetic would be complete without an appearance by Iggy Pop. There he was Saturday, just the way he should be: whipping a microphone around his body, snake-charming his way across the stage, and yelling for the house lights to come up so he could tell the audience they looked so good he wanted to pee on them. The signature songs came first – The Passenger, Lust For Life, Real Wild Child (Wild One), I Wanna Be Your Dog – but later Pop slowed the set down, even resting on a chair. His sang, not howled, and left the crowd with a slow-burner: Mass Production, a funeral blues that stomped the set down until he disappeared with it.

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