While some music festivals still adhere to regimented lines—specifically those founded around a single genre like metal or electronica—most of the major players have shifted course and broadened their offerings. This year, Riot Fest threw itself a 10th birthday party, and in doing so, it highlighted both the flaws and successes of music-fest culture.
Over a decade, Riot Fest has grown from a single day-long, punk-centric show inside Chicago’s much-derided Congress Theater (whose list of code violations was so transcendently dangerous it became comical) to a five-stage, three-day carnival in Humboldt Park (plus a few other cities) starting in 2012. There have been growing pains, and this year’s incarnation put them on full display, offering a layout that was difficult to navigate, a series of carnival attractions that only got in the way of those trying to make it from one stage to another, and a few technical snafus thrown in for good measure.
In many ways, Riot Fest 2014 felt less like a celebration of its history and instead an attempt to compete with Lollapalooza, Chicago’s biggest player on the festival circuit. Riot Fest has now grown to just over half of Lollapalooza’s size, attendance-wise. Two stages were added this year (three, if the one dedicated solely to Friday night’s Pussy Riot panel is counted), and this meant taking over a much bigger chunk of Chicago’s Humboldt Park. The result was a festival that was stretching itself as far as it could in search of something bigger. The signs of wear were evident.
On Friday night, the flaws were most noticeable, and the fact that it had been raining for several hours only exasperated the struggles for both the fest and fans. After spending more than an hour in the park, I was still having difficulty orienting myself (a frustration echoed by nearly every other person I spoke to over the weekend), and the sound was noticeably thin, rendering bands limp and lifeless. A prime example was Seattle’s Murder City Devils. They put on an energetic show, but with drums that issued a hollow rattle and guitars that were muddy to the point of being unintelligible, the band looked as if it was battling itself onstage. Slayer met a similar fate, its guitars blending into mush, with Tom Arraya’s shouts being the only way to discern what section of a song the band was in at any given time.
Saturday saw the festival settling into itself, even as Humboldt Park’s now mud-slopped grounds made moving around all the more difficult. The decision to have two sections of the park feature two stages each (across from each other, with alternating bands) meant that entering and exiting these areas was difficult due to massive crowds, slick ground, and carnival fare blocking off potential outlets. Logistical difficulties aside, though, the music part of the festival improved, as bands began to sound like themselves instead of the sloppy mixes that prevailed on Friday.
The Flaming Lips’ Saturday set highlighted Riot Fest’s struggle to grow without sacrificing quality. After building up to the crescendo in “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” the band’s light show reached its apex, and at that moment the stage lost power. With lights and music now absent, the crowd waited in the darkened field for signs of life. The power was restored after a few moments of certainty, and the band finished its set with no further hiccups. Even though it recovered from this gaffe—and the Lips’ set was extended, in part because the day’s headliner, The National, was stuck in Canada and arriving late—Riot Fest never truly felt like a fitting home for such a display.
Which is not to say that festivals aren’t allowed to grow and change, but as Riot Fest attempted to compete in Chicago’s big-festival game, it struggled to put its own spin on the format. It’s the struggle nearly every festival faces at some point, and the most common solution is to house a mishmash of sounds and styles under one umbrella and hope everything will play nice.
Returning to one of the festival’s smallest stages on Sunday morning felt at first like I was orchestrating my own disappointment. While Saturday was a marked improvement, it still seemed as if another power outage, late arrival, or some other problem would be right around the corner. Thankfully, Riot Fest’s third and final day showed that the founders may have been onto something all along. Walking around the fest was still a bit of a chore, but the smaller stages boasted bigger crowds for acts such as PUP, ShowYouSuck, and Modern Baseball, with those younger audiences then spilling over toward the bigger stages for legacy acts like Patti Smith and Cheap Trick. The seemingly disparate bookings began to cohere. Fans rushed from one act to the next, as bands both big and small were presented in front of audiences hungry for something new.
While Riot Fest’s 2014 Chicago incarnation was flawed, by Sunday it resembled the perfect distillation of what a music festival could be when it brushes off specified genres in search of a more eclectic whole. In many ways, Riot Fest 2014 was a case of festival culture collapsing in on itself so it could start anew. The festival had plenty of issues, but it was hard to ignore the general enthusiasm coming from many of the bands and their fans.
Music festivals are inherently flawed. Though they make sense in theory, giving fans a lot of bang for their buck, in practice they often end up becoming an endurance test for even the most dedicated fan. That applies especially to Riot Fest, which has long been overly ambitious, dating back to the year it put a second stage in the lobby of the Congress Theater and gave fans no reprieve from the sonic onslaught during the day-long event. Attendees may be drained at the end of Riot Fest weekend—or, for that matter, any festival weekend—but it’s the moments when the festival captures its potential, like this year’s swirling, genre-transcending Sunday slate, that keeps fans coming back, happily accepting that the most punk thing a punk rock festival can do is change.