Superchunk, one of the few veteran acts playing new music the crowd actually seemed to know
Photo: Alex McLevy

Riot Fest 2018 was an oddly muted affair. No big reunions or “one time only” performances of the kind that have so thrilled festivalgoers in times past, like Jawbreaker getting back together last year or L7 in 2015. Instead, there was a comforting procession of longtime stalwarts (Bouncing Souls, Andrew W.K.) and veteran artists making their Riot debut (Jerry Lee Lewis, The Avengers). Sure, there were some exciting newer acts littered among the seasoned performers, like the thunderous rock of Mannequin Pussy and Bully, or older bands with great new records showcasing their vitality (Superchunk), but it was largely dominated by acts with nothing to prove, save to show their fans a good time. So The A.V. Club donned our rose-tinted glasses and walked happily into the past. Here’s what we saw.


Liz Phair

Liz Phair kicked things off for me with a 2 p.m. show on Friday—kind of a shitty slot for a person who was a major force in establishing the Chicago alternative music scene in the ’90s, don’t you think? But Liz Phair was definitely worth the 20-year wait. She somehow looked—and sounded—as if no time had passed at all, and fortunately filled her short set with lots of early tracks as well as her more radio-friendly hits like “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I?” The considerable crowd enthusiastically cheered her suggestion that the CTA change the Wicker Park Damen stop on the Blue Line to the “Guyville” exit. I was actually surprised to see so many big, burly guys singing along to Phair’s anthemic songs off her groundbreaking debut Exile In Guyville. Songs like “6’1”’ and “Fuck And Run” still resonated as much as they did when I was an angst-filled twentysomething, who looked to that album for both commiseration and guidance. Phair’s time-machine-fueled 2018 set confirmed that I had chosen the right guru. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Pussy Riot/Aquabats

Maybe Pussy Riot was too harsh a comedown after my lovely nostalgia time with Liz Phair. The band was certainly visually and acoustically effective, holding up a sign saying “We Will Punish Those Who Poisoned Peter Verzilov,” and donning sinister-looking green ski masks. But the band soon left after a few songs, leaving us with an endless recording of a list that must have been called “Why We’re All Fucked” (division of wealth, oligarchy, etc.). I honestly got a little worn out. I suspect this makes me a bad person, but I was inspired by a little kid I saw dressed up in Aquabats gear, and decided to leave Pussy Riot to check out the superhero band instead. I was rewarded by a flurry of beach balls and inflatable sharks, and a fun ska outfit that still seemed to acknowledge that we’re all fucked, but wanted to make sure we’re all having fun dancing to songs about deep-dish pizza and two-headed cats in the meantime. I made the right decision. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Matt And Kim

Matt And Kim’s balloon experiment
Photo: Gwen Ihnat

Matt And Kim’s set can only be described as effervescent. The pair, featuring Matt Johnson on keyboards and Kim Schifino on the drums, offers fizzy dance club songs as irresistible and energy-packed as a blueberry Red Bull. Their unmitigated thrill upon hitting the Riot Fest stage easily spilled over unto the captivated crowd. They tried to arrange the crowd in a canal to “represent the walls of Kim’s vagina”; hard to pull off in such a massive, unruly crowd, but the two walls of the crowd still had fun slamming into each other. More effective was the pair throwing out dozens of balloons that the crowd blew up, effectively turning the hot Riot Fest afternoon into a celebratory club scene. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Bleachers

The Bleachers set was such a train wreck that I have to attempt to psychoanalyze the insecurity of Jack Antonoff and what validation he wanted so badly from the crowd that he just wasn’t getting. He held off starting the band’s hit “Rollercoaster” a few times because apparently we just weren’t into it enough, frantically yelling, “Get up! Chicago, get up!” (Translation: “Like us more!”) Dude, we’re at an extremely crowded outdoor festival. We’re not on lawn chairs. We’re all up. It was an extremely frantic effort coming from a guy whose songs sound like, as Alex McLevy astutely noted, something best suited to being played over the credits of an ’80s movie like Three Men And A Baby. The band’s oft-soloing sax player sounded like a long-lost member of Huey Lewis & The News. To Antonoff’s credit, still trying to win the crowd over, he climbed up on the fence in front of the stage, almost falling right into a vast sea of people. And spirited set closers “I Wanna Get Better” and “Don’t Take The Money” translated surprisingly well to the stage. [Gwen Ihnat]

Face To Face

The old-school punk band was all smiles during its Friday evening show at the Rebel stage on the far edge of the festival grounds. With three solid studio albums and extensive touring under its belt since the band reunited almost a decade ago (at this point, it’s not a reunion anymore, just a band), the California quartet stormed through newer songs and older classic with the seasoned bravado of an act that knows its audience. Even casual lookie-loos just there to hear “Disconnected” or kill time before Weezer seemed converted into new fans by the end of the show. [Alex McLevy]

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Weezer

Like Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo has a similar need for massive crowd validation, to the point where a Weezer show is usually a lineup of the band’s greatest hits, with few deep cuts. Sure, lead off with “Buddy Holly,” why not? While assured and polished, the band’s now-routine set lacks a certain energy—granted, they were a last-minute Riot Fest add, filling in for Blink-182. This led the band to cover “All The Small Things,” along with a mashup of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” with Green Day’s “Longview.” Rivers Cuomo even threw in a Pinkerton bonus, “The Good Life.” But he seemed solidly wedded to safe fan favorites like “Island In The Sun” and “Beverly Hills.” Announcing the band’s current viral cover, Cuomo asked, “Are you ready to go to the southern hemisphere? What continent am I talking about?” Naturally, the crowd went wild, and many then headed for the exit, letting the strains of “Africa” whisk them away from Riot Fest day one. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Twin Peaks

Chicago’s own Twin Peaks announced that the last time they played Riot Fest was five years ago “when we were 19.” Ouch, man. While a lot of bands steeped in nostalgia have a hard time pushing the sound forward into a new millennium, TP’s masterful mix of Velvet Underground, Big Star, and Badfinger influences morphs into a sound that looks back but sounds wholly new, thanks to the band’s fervent energy and unbridled talent that much older bands would envy. For such a young outfit, Twin Peaks had a masterful command of the festival stage far beyond their years, effortlessly adding a horn section, and rotating out lead singers with aplomb. Their hometown crowd rightly greeted them voraciously. [Gwen Ihnat]

Elvis Costello & The Imposters

One might have expected, given his recent health news, that Elvis Costello would have put on a more subdued Riot Fest set. The musician underwent cancer surgery earlier this summer, causing him to cancel some shows. But the 64-year-old has been rebelling and kicking ass since he played the one song he wasn’t supposed to play on Saturday Night Live about 40 years ago. Naturally, he’s not about to let cancer get him down. When I saw Costello at Riot Fest in 2012, it was mid-afternoon, and with a fairly sparse crowd. That show I learned my favorite thing about seeing him live is that he’s such an amazing guitar player, a fact that I don’t think gets acknowledged nearly enough. He absolutely shreds. Although I was a little frustrated not being able to get anywhere near as close this time at his Saturday night spot, I was happy that Costello was getting the tremendous crowd respect he deserves, and his shredding ability was still far above board, and the excellent Imposters were more than able to keep up. They pulled out some great deep cuts for longtime fans, like “Green Shirt” and “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea” alongside fest-friendly hits like “Pump It Up” and “Radio Radio.” Sure, maybe I didn’t love an eight-minute version of “I Want You” near the end of his (too-short) set, but fuck it. He’s Elvis Costello. He can do whatever he wants. [Gwen Ihnat]

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The Jesus Lizard

“Thank you very much, we’re Interpol, suck a dick!” One of indie rock’s most provocative live bands once again reminded a Riot Fest crowd how it got that reputation. David Yow, now in his late fifties, dove into the crowd three seconds into the band’s ferocious set, rolling over the heads of kids 30 years his junior with abandon and demonstrating what a true I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude looks like. After the second tune, he was exhorting the crowd to scream and shout as much as possible between songs, so that “we don’t have to hear Jerry Lee Lewis.” By a couple songs later, he was mooning the audience. It was a fierce set of pummeling, aggressive noise, and it was superb. [Alex McLevy]

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Riot Fest aftershow: Mannequin Pussy/Bully/Bad Religion

While days at the festival are a sweaty and crowded affair, the series of aftershow concerts are... well, sweaty and crowded as well, but also a chance to see your favorite bands in a much more intimate venue, albeit one that usually sells out within minutes of going on sale. To wit: Bully and Bad Religion played at Bottom Lounge, and while both bands delivered strong sets at Riot Fest, there’s an appealingly insular vibe to this show, populated exclusively by die-hard fans ready to head-bang at top volume. Mannequin Pussy, a last-second addition to the bill, slowly won the crowd over, and Bully delivered a knockout set that again proved its latest record is full of absolutely triumphant anthems, but in all honesty, this was Bad Religion’s audience, and they soaked up every minute of it. Essentially a nonstop parade of sing-alongs and fists in the air, it was a cathartic and small showcase for one of punk rock’s most beloved forefathers. [Alex McLevy]

The Bouncing Souls

You knew the set wouldn’t be complete until rallying cries of “Oi oi oi oi!” and “East Coast fuck you!” filled the air at the Rebel stage, courtesy of The Bouncing Souls and their wicked sense of humor. The Sunday afternoon crowd was slowly baking in the mid-80-degrees weather, but the band’s genial good spirits couldn’t be dimmed by the heat, as breakneck punk rock anthems were interspersed with singer Greg Attonito’s cheerful admonishments to sing along and be happy “just to be alive!” Running the gamut from debut The Good, The Bad, And The Argyle all the way through to the group’s 2010s releases, the set had the crowd pogoing and smiling in sweat-drenched satisfaction—though the helpful people periodically firing blasts of cool water into the air didn’t hurt matters, either. [Alex McLevy]

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Superchunk

It’s tough to be counterprogramming to an act as beloved as Blondie, who were running through hits on the other side of the park at the same time, but Superchunk rose to the challenge, as the Radicals stage proved an ideal venue for a set of rousing, sing-along songs from across the band’s career, with an emphasis on more recent tracks from the fiercely political What A Time To Be Alive. (Although the set time wasn’t helping singer Mac McCaughan appreciate the ever-increasing numbers of people swelling in front of the stage: “It’s gonna look like I’m really into it in pictures later, but the truth is I’m squinting because the sun is blinding me,” he admitted halfway through.) “Reagan Youth,” “Package Thief,” “Detroit Has A Skyline, Too”...everything and everything from classics to newer tracks sounded as vibrant as anything else all weekend long, with the band delivering one of the best sets of the fest. [Alex McLevy]

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Dillinger Four

At what is ostensibly a punk rock festival, you’d assume bands would try to fuck with the format a bit. But as Riot Fest has become a bigger machine, that air of unpredictable danger has largely been removed. Enter Minneapolis legends Dillinger Four, a band that, no matter what venue it’s in, will turn it into a loose, drunken ordeal. That much was true from the jump on Sunday, as bassist Patrick “Paddy” Costello ambled out onto the Rebels stage and joked about how the band staring into the sun during its afternoon set was some sort of elaborate joke played by God for the band writing the record Versus God. In true form, the band spent half the time joking around with the crowd, each other, and even the security guards, while ripping through their songs whenever they got tired of bantering. The crowd reacted in kind, throwing beers in the air, sunglasses at the band, and singing along loud enough to cause the normally showmanship-averse unit to stop playing and let them sing the hook to “Gainesville” unaccompanied. It’s the kind of pure, unexpected moment you rarely see at a festival, and it’s fitting it happened to the band that almost never plays these kinds of things. [David Anthony]

Alkaline Trio

After a few years spent largely on ice, thanks to guitarist-vocalist Matt Skiba joining Blink-182, it was appropriate that Alkaline Trio’s homecoming was on a Riot Fest stage. Although the band is touring on its new album, Is This Thing Cursed?—which is marked improvement over its last few albums—the trio leaned on its classic material and the crowd responded in kind. Although there were some small flubs here and there, due in part to the band’s new touring drummer Jarrod Alexander still settling in, it was all joyous enough to compensate. Plus, it was a reminder that, as the band ages, bassist Dan Andriano’s voice has only gotten better, and when he and Skiba bellowed the chorus of “Cringe” together, it sounded just as inspired as it did back in 1998. [David Anthony]

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Bad Religion

Okay, to be fair, I had just watched the band storm through a wonderful show the night before, which had included the ostensible “hook” of its appearance at Riot Fest this year: Celebrating the 30th anniversary of Bad Religion’s seminal release Suffer by playing the entire thing from start to finish. So it was bound to possess a sense of “been there, done that,” even though I’d consider the group one of my all-time favorites. Not helping matters, though, were some early technical troubles; Bad Religion has one of the best rhythm sections in punk rock, but Jay Bentley’s bass cut out seconds into set opener “Recipe For Hate,” and it was several songs later before it seemed to be fixed. There were periodic problems with the sound throughout, with guitars and vocals occasionally ramping up or dropping out of the mix altogether. Still, no one was complaining, and even from my distant vantage point people were loudly singing along to “Infected,” “Streets Of America,” and more. Run The Jewels may have been the closer that captured the biggest crowd, but Bad Religion has the spirit of Riot Fest in its blood. [Alex McLevy]

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