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Beehives, farewells, and a Wu-Tang surprise made up the best of Riot Fest 2019

Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna closes out Riot Fest 2019
Photo: Daniel Boczarski (Getty Images)

The 15th anniversary of Riot Fest had all the hallmarks of the “most intimate, large music festival,” including farewell stops, notable reunions, chanting crowds, and dancing in mud pits (though the Riot Fest pig seemed to have sat this year out). Nostalgia is also at the very essence of Riot Fest, but this year, there were some exciting first-timers, like Chicago’s own Ganser, mixed with regulars like Descendents and Taking Back Sunday. There was a similar alchemy among returning acts: For some, the bloom was off the reunion rose, while certain alums had big tricks up their sleeves. The A.V. Club camped out for three days in Chicago’s Douglas Park, where we found that even after 15 years, Riot Fest was still capable of some surprises.


Friday

Danette Chavez

Full-album performances are almost as big a draw for Riot Fest as its great track record for reunions; they offer the same sense of witnessing something momentous, like seeing Jawbreaker, who went dormant for decades, live for the fourth time in two years on Friday The 13th in the light of the full moon. Or getting to hear Bloc Party play Silent Alarm live for the first time, despite hiatuses and frontman Kele Okereke’s very conflicted feelings about the band’s debut album. This year, I made it a point to check out a few album plays, starting with Dashboard Confessional’s overly earnest, creatively middling The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most. But the weekend really began with the The Get Up Kids, who seemed to be experiencing some sound troubles. At least, that’s how it sounded from where I was standing, which was, admittedly, surrounded by people who were much more interested in catching up with each other than hearing songs from Something To Write Home About and Four Minute Mile (the latter of which should totally be proposed as a full-album set down the road, albeit paired with something to fill out the 45-to-60-minute stage time). Which is a shame, because when you could hear “I’m A Loner, Dottie, A Rebel,” Matt Pryor sounded great.

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Technical issues aside, The Get Up Kids were actually a great lead-in for The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most—or, as several dudes in the sizable crowd seemed intent on calling it, “Play ‘Screaming Infidelities’”—having blazed the emo trail with their self-described “swinging dance numbers about crying.” Dashboard Confessional songs don’t swing, exactly, but the fervent honesty of The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most echoes that of Four Minute Mile. After the sound issues at the Rise stage, I was even more concerned that Chris Carrabba’s voice—which ranges from “sweet but tremulous” to “angsty, hardly barbaric yawp”—would be totally lost out on the field. But he got an assist from the audience, who knew just when to step in with the choruses on “The Best Deceptions” and “Saints And Sailors.” When they got their wish, the “Screaming Infidelities” contingent promptly lost their shit, but Carrabba and his band doled out all of the crowd pleasers, including “Stolen,” “Vindicated,” and of course, “Hands Down.” I actually had a great time singing along to the latter, but couldn’t shake the feeling that what I’d just seen was more of a standard festival set than an album play. Dashboard Confessional’s performance was solid, but the crowd’s excitement was driven more by the band’s hits than revisiting the album in full. Ideally, an album play is transportive, sending you back to (possibly) less cynical days; alternately, hearing a complete track listing can point to the development of a band’s sound. Weaving in later songs like “Vindicated” wound up breaking the spell Dashboard Confessional hoped to cast on that Friday evening.


Alex McLevy

After 15 years, for a lot of bands performing at Riot Fest is a little bit like a class reunion. The festival has a fair share of longstanding return acts at this point, and throughout the weekend the event played host to its own history by bringing back a number of beloved favorites. Unfortunately, the wind—and its attendant sound issues—seemed intent on causing problems for everyone.

Friday kicked things off properly with more than a few returnees turning in animated sets. The nostalgia-tweaking folk-meets-freak act Violent Femmes were greeted like long-lost relatives by a crowd eager to lend their voices to the refrains of “Blister In The Sun,” “Kiss Off,” and “Gone Daddy Gone,” but the shifting volumes emanating from the speakers meant it could quickly go from hard-to-hear to deafening. Still, the band was in fine form, interspersing the hits with weird dirges, a nearly a cappella minor-key rendition of “God Bless America,” and—45 minutes in—a jam freak-out including wailing horns (with an 8-foot-tall sax) and a conch shell being blown. Getting weird was a good way to combat the uneven sound—only Hot Snakes, performing earlier in the day, delivered a set blistering enough to fight off the wobbly levels.

But if the Femmes’ outsider-art style of pop stood apart from the majority-punk onslaught, two other acts demonstrated the pleasures and pitfalls of sticking to the house style. Rancid’s set on the Radicals stage was an all-fun-all-the-time singalong, the band’s leather jackets and West Coast-punk bravado delivered with the flair of a cabaret act. But Jawbreaker—who returned just two years after their much-ballyhooed reunion set—seemed to struggle to recapture the magic of that grand reappearance. The material is as strong as ever, but the performance felt labored, even with singer Blake Schwarzenbach’s ever-charming banter and good-natured ribbing of Blink-182’s simultaneous performance a few hundred yards away. Perhaps they, too, were sensing the ebb and flow of the tempestuous sound mix to the audience.

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Jill Hopkins

I realized earlier in the week that this year’s Riot Fest was my 12th, so I’ve seen some things. Back in the early days when you’d have to traverse the city to visit different small venues, you couldn’t have imagined that one man’s love letter to punk rock would become one of the largest independently-owned music festivals in the country. This year marks the 15th anniversary of Riot Fest and it’s grown into its rather large shoes nicely. I asked my husband, a huge Descendents fan, before the band’s Friday set on the Rise stage what he hoped they would play. He responded, “They know what we want. I’ll be happy with whatever they decide.” And, it was a treat for the fans, who got to hear favorites like “Silly Girl” and “I’m The One” live again all these years after their official reformation. The newness of seeing the Descendents in the 21st century has worn off, but they’ll probably always be worth leaving the house for—this band embodies the spirit of Riot Fest.

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Saturday

Danette Chavez

Where Dashboard Confessional struggled to set the mood for its musical reverie, Bloc Party drew one of the biggest crowds of the whole weekend with moderate effort. Kele Okereke and co. switched up the order of Silent Alarm, answering the fury of a nearby Slayer with the moody “Compliments,” then proceeding to play the album in reverse order. It was an inspired change, allowing Bloc Party to cap off the night with fan favorite “Like Eating Glass” and one of many chants. Okereke kept the banter to statements of gratitude, which was nice though not quite as galvanizing as the simple “Ohhh, shit” he let out before launching into the foot stomping and snaking guitars of “Banquet.” (Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach, who has proven himself the king of Riot Fest stage banter, had the line of the weekend when he asked “Who dares to play at the same time as us?” while Blink-182 played Enema Of The State in the distance.)

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The band’s style translated well to the festival setting, with flashing lights matching the pulsing of “Luno” and Okereke’s frantic vocals on “She’s Hearing Voices.” But then, I’ve been primed for this particular album play since it was first announced. I do wonder how well the set went over for someone who didn’t have the track order memorized and realized after hearing “Plans” that the band had flipped it; someone whose introduction to the band was the same debut album that won over a previous generation of fans. That seems to be Riot Fest in a nutshell.


Jill Hopkins

Saturday brought quite a bit of melanated excellence to Douglas Park. The Selecter, led by singer Pauline Black, was one of the rare ska revival bands that could boast diversity in both race and gender, and they wove issues relating to both into their lyrics. Black took the entire U.S. to task for electing a certain someone to live in the White House, but also managed to get folks skanking while they were thinking and drinking.

The Wu-Tang Clan remains nothin’ to fuck with, arriving at full strength to the Radicals stage on Saturday night. This was the highest number of Wu members that I’ve seen on stage at once, and it was for good reason: After opening with “Bring Da Ruckus,” they announced that we were getting a surprise full-album play with a performance of the entire Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The crowd agreed that that was a good idea. People still know all of the words to every song 26 years later, and were more than happy to have an excuse to sing along. Some folks were playing a little too fast and loose with the N-words, but that’s another story for another day.

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Slayer closed the festival on Saturday with what it said was its final performance in the Chicago/Milwaukee area ever. I never trust a rock band when it says it’s retiring, but Slayer put on a show like a band who wanted to make sure it left a lasting impression. My still-ringing ears say that it succeeded. The combination of Slayer, Anthrax, and Testament in one day brought out all of the battle vests, and thrash fans left the park knowing the kings of the genre left it all out on the stage.


Sunday

Danette Chavez

Against Me!’s double-header proved to be the best way to close out a weekend of full-album sets and trips back in time. Laura Jane Grace has never been afraid of self-reflection, and on Sunday, she revisited the anarcho-punk roots that ran deep on Reinventing Axl Rose and her own coming-out in 2012 on Transgender Dysphoria Blues. We all sang Reinventing Axl Rose’s “Baby, I’m An Anarchist!” together, but it was the latter album got a bigger reaction from the crowd, who fairly screamed when Grace did a little shimmy before sing-snarling on the eponymous track. The sense of solidarity grew as a sign reading “You’re my hero” surfaced in the pit area, eliciting cheers when it popped up on the big screens nestling the stage. It was a retrospective within a retrospective, and though there were no big change-ups or surprises, Grace’s willingness to look back on her evolution, political and personal, made it one of the more thrilling sets I’ve seen at Riot Fest.

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Jill Hopkins

I have been in a lot of festival crowds, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as enthusiastic than the one for the Village People. I am not exaggerating. The promised mosh pit and wall of death during “Y.M.C.A.” and “Macho Man” were only topped by the dude with a walker who was having the time of his life crowd surfing to the disco hits of yesteryear. Much respect to the audience members who supported that mission. It really does take a village, people.

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Like Slayer, The B-52’s are also on their farewell tour, but theirs is a dance party instead of a headbanger’s ball. The weirdos from Athens, Georgia were without longtime guitarist Keith Strickland, but the brand remained strong with both Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson donning their trademark beehives and two-part harmonies. Fred Schneider’s voice sliced through any sound bleed from the neighboring stages, and you’re reading this in his voice right now. The hits were brought, and their crowd danced that mess around from start to finish.

Katie Rife

I felt a little story for The Raconteurs, who turned in a very good hourlong set with some great guitar playing but whose own reunion-ish show (the band played on stage together for the first time in eight years earlier this year) was overshadowed by Bikini Kill’s. This was the iconic riot grrrl band’s first show in Chicago since they played the late, lamented bowling alley/punk venue Fireside Bowl back in 1995, and you could have fit a dozen Fireside Bowls into the massive crowd that gathered at Douglas Park for Sunday’s headlining set. (Chatting with fans throughout the day, I found that many of them shared my experience of getting into Bikini Kill just a little bit too late to see them the first time around.) The importance of an explicitly feminist band headlining a major festival was not lost on the members of Bikini Kill, as both bandleader Kathleen Hannah and drummer/co-lead singer Tobi Vail reiterated on stage in between personal anecdotes and political rallying cries.

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As I mentioned earlier, this was my first time seeing Bikini Kill live. But the energy on stage, equal parts playful and aggressive, was everything I expected from listening to the band’s albums innumerable times over the years. The sound issues that hurt some of the quieter acts weren’t as much of a problem for a thrashing, bass-heavy punk band, and Hannah’s dynamic vocals, which combine throaty growls, mocking taunts, and melodic singing, came through loud and clear. Vail’s vocals were similarly powerful, bringing a teenage sneer to sarcastic lyrics like, “All men are evil/ Except my boyfriend/ Said the sound of the spectacle” off of “In Accordance To Natural Law” form the band’s The Singles album.

The heat and pressure from the tightly packed crowd, combined with the smell of the mulch and fertilizer spread over the decimated field, created a volatile atmosphere as the mass of bodies began to lurch like a swelling ocean wave to the opening notes of “Carnival.” It was far too packed to slam dance, but a small group of guys tried anyway, only to be shouted down by a chant of “girls to the front!” that Hannah acknowledged on stage. She was worried the show would turn unsafe if the huge crowd started pushing, she said, but if any cisgender men were willing and able to take a few steps back, that would be appreciated.

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Sweaty and cramped, I had to tap out of the pit area shortly thereafter, and finished out the show flailing and yelling along at a safe thirtysomething distance in the middle of the field. Unsurprisingly, the big crowd pleaser was also Bikini Kill’s best known song, “Rebel Girl,” which closed out the set. But I took special satisfaction from hearing “Double Dare Ya”—a song whose bridge culminates in a shouted chant of, “Rights! Rights! You do have rights!”—live. It was something special to hear thousands of people shouting along to the lyrics I doodled in my notebooks 20 years ago, and I got a little emotional thinking about all the other grown-up teenage outcasts who were having the same moment all around me, all standing together on this muddy, slightly stinky field.

Aside from grand moments of communion like I felt watching Bikini Kill, the other best thing about a music festival is discovering new acts. I thought Riot Fest did a great job this year of grouping lesser-known acts with big names with similar sounds, and the big discoveries for me this year were Chicago’s own Ganser and Toronto’s The Beaches. Both bands are inspired by sounds from rock ‘n’ roll’s past, but put their own spins on the material that make them sound fresh and new. Ganser draws from post-punk and no wave, and singer Alicia Gaines threw herself around the stage with the same thrilling unpredictability that marks the structure of their music. It’s still accessible—if not quite catchy—music, however, especially live. The band threw themselves into the set as if they were headliners, not openers; “thank you for coming. It’s early for us too,” Gaines said at one point.

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The Beaches, meanwhile, play swaggering classic rock that conjures up images of mulleted rockers in baseball tees behind the wheel of a bitchin’ Camaro, with light touches of early-’00s dance-rock. I must admit they took me completely by surprise, and I was sitting in the grass back by the beer tent, trying to send texts that weren’t going through, when they started their set. My ears perked up at singer Jordan Miller’s vocals, which have a throaty power reminiscent of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, and so I wandered over to the stage, where the band’s stage presence and powerful musicianship blew me away. The Beaches are apparently rising stars in Canada, where they won last year’s Juno Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year. The Chicago Tribune was also impressed by The Beaches, so hopefully this will become more of an Arcade Fire than a The Tragically Hip situation.

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