Written By Braddon S. Williams aka “The Concert Critic”
My ongoing series of concert reviews, or “On this date in history” as I like to think of them, have been relatively straightforward pieces of work so far…until now.
Over the course of 3 wonderful days, my girlfriend and I attended Riot Fest in Chicago, IL. This was the 15th anniversary of the annual explosion of musical diversity, reunions, guest performances, and full album showcases.
I have been pondering how to tackle this enormous task, and have decided that this piece will serve as the introduction, and each day of the festival will receive a separate write up in order to fully explore all that we saw and heard. Part of the beauty of Riot Fest is that no two attendees will experience the exact same things.
With 5 stages spread out in the expanses of Douglas Park, often with 2 or more bands playing at the same time (with sets staggered so that viewers can sample multiple bands in any given portion of the day), the possibilities are wide open, kind of a musical buffet.
Upon entering the main gates, a map of the park and listings of performers and set times is available for all attendees, and then the fun begins.
The performers for Riot Fest 2019:
Friday – Blink 182, Dashboard Confessional, Neck Deep, I Don’t Know How But They Found Me, Yours Truly, The Flaming Lips, Violent Femmes, Hot Snakes, Caroline Rose, The Garden, Jawbreaker, Descendents, Lucero, The Get Up Kids, Hot Water Music, No Parents, Rancid, Pennywise, Cock Sparrer, Senses Fail, Anti-Flag, Pkew Pkew Pkew, Glassjaw, H2O, Hot Mulligan, Angel Dust, Mat Kerekes, Thin Lips, Can’t Swim
Saturday – Slayer, Anthrax, Testament, GWAR, The HU, Rise Against, The Story So Far, Avail, Turnstile, Masked Intruder, Bloc Party, Manchester Orchestra, The Struts, Turnover, Cursive, Surfer Blood, Cherry, Glazerr, Wu-Tang Clan, Pyris, Grandson, The Selecter, Prof, Lando Chill, Andrew W.K., Senses Fail, Microwave, The Damned Things, Elder Brother, Drakulas, Cleopatrick, Monarchy Over Monday
Sunday – Bikini Kill, Patti Smith And Her Band, Against Me!, The Beaches, Skating Polly, The Raconteurs, Bob Mould, Ride, White Reaper, Dead Swords, Taking Back Sunday, The Starting Line, American Football, Streetlight Manifesto, Less Than Jake, Frank Iero And The Future Violents, Save Ferris, Ultra Q, Ween, The B-52s, Guided By Voices, Village People, Nick Lowe With Los Straitjackets, Ganser, The Ergs!, Teenage Bottlerocket, Dave Hause And The Mermaid, Sincere Engineer, This Wild Life, Kali Masi, Ramona
On this date in history, 9/13/2019, Riot Fest opened its annual run in Chicago’s Douglas Park to kick off the 15th anniversary of the 3 day music festival.
I must give total credit to my girlfriend for initiating the conversation which ultimately led to us attending this event (and entering into a romantic relationship…Thank you, Riot Fest!). We had met at a mutual friend’s party and started a discussion on Facebook in which she mentioned that Slayer would be performing on the 2nd night of the festival. Plans for a trip for just that day quickly blossomed into purchasing the 3 day passes and our excitement grew with our American love story.
When we arrived in Chicago (my first time driving in the Windy City) we quickly determined that finding a parking spot for this event was going to be quite tricky. Eventually we found a great lot (which we used for all 3 days…run by some really cool people) and started walking to the main gate.
I remember remarking that we would be doing this only once (a decision that was quickly replaced with “We need to make this our annual vacation spot”), and suddenly we were inside the park, exploring the grounds and locating the 5 stages.
It was mid afternoon by the time we got in, so we missed a bunch of the earliest performances, but we found our way to the Radicals Stage where Senses Fail were launching into a frenzied cover of Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies.
Next up was a punk band from England called Cock Sparrer. It was bizarre to me that these guys have been around since 1972 and I had somehow never heard of them…and they were great.
I realized that I have this weird irrational idea that punk bands are young and frozen in time. The reality is that they grow older just like any other band, so seeing these guys in their 60’s playing these rousing working class punk songs with drinking chants was pretty revolutionary for me.
Pennywise were next and it was more or less the same feeling. I knew the name, but had never taken the time to listen to them, and I fell instantly in love with their energy, their positivity, and their connection to their fans. Pennywise had converted me and made me realize I have been missing out on a lot of music.
We checked out about 20 minutes of the Descendents’ set, which amounted to around 9 songs…no lie, their songs are short and fast. Their singer mentioned that they have played at 11 of the 15 Riot Fests and it was apparent to me that their style really represents the core of the festival.
Flaming Lips were our unanimous choice for the Friday night headliners. They played the album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots in its entirety. Singer Wayne Coyne was mesmerizing throughout, just emanating warmth, eccentricity, and charm; looking dashing in his white suit and making his obligatory appearance in the plastic ball that rolls around in the audience. Near the end of their set, Coyne delivered a heartfelt tribute to troubled singer Daniel Johnston, who had passed away on September 11.
The Flaming Lips played one of Johnston’s songs, and it was lovely and touching, but Coyne brought a touch of humor into it at the perfect spot, saving the tune from becoming too maudlin. Coyne also talked about the importance of living in the moment, effectively uniting all of us and elevating an enormously entertaining set.
On our way out, we heard a bit of Jawbreaker’s performance, and they sounded fantastic, too. I read another review of the festival that mentioned some problems with the sound for some of the more acoustic based acts, but everyone we heard on the first day sounded phenomenal, mix wise…great bass, crisp drums, crunchy guitars, and vocals clear & loud. As the evening grew dark, the lights were excellent, too. The Flaming Lips, in particular, had a wonderfully trippy light show which totally enhanced the psychedelic nature of their music. Well, that wraps up the first day…to be continued!
On this date in history, 9/14/2019, Riot Fest entered its second day in Chicago’s Douglas Park with our most eagerly anticipated acts, culminating in the final Chicago appearance of thrash titans, Slayer. But first, I must backtrack slightly, because I failed to provide the names of all the stages in my initial report.
The 5 Riot Fest stages were the Rise, Radical, Rebel, Roots, and Riot stages. All of these stages had set times so that festival attendees could sample performances non stop throughout the day. Saturday was the one day that we actually planned out, and it worked to perfection. As luck would have it, the Roots and Riot stages were adjacent to each other, and all the bands we wanted to see were on those 2 stages.
The first band of the afternoon was Masked Intruder, and they were simply my favorite discovery of the entire festival. My girl had told me about them, having seen them previously. She was really excited to see them (and for me to see them, too) and I soon found out why. These guys have this underlying concept to their songs, their show, and their personas (all the band members wear color coded ski masks to match their respective instruments). There is a guy dressed as a policeman who plays an important role in the show and provides tons of energy and humor to the act. Masked Intruder has a pop/punk style and high energy songs played with hyper enthusiasm. My belief is that some bands are better studio bands while others are best experienced on stage, and Masked Intruder definitely needs to be seen live. Take my advice and go check them out!
Next up were an intriguing band called The Hu, a Mongolian Folk Metal band. Their debut album was released the day before we saw them, and their music and delivery was truly outstanding, original, and deeply moving. Along with electric guitar and bass, they also utilized the morin khuur (also known as the horsehead fiddle), a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument.
The Hu spoke very little English and still managed to communicate with their American audience through Mongolian throat singing and hypnotic tribal drumming.
Another great discovery of a band I want to experience multiple times. While we waited for GWAR to set up, a band called Turnstile played on the Roots stage and failed to impress us too much.
I was stoked to see GWAR for the first time, but was caught a bit off guard by how physical the experience would become.
We were pretty close to the front of the stage, meaning we were in the “blood zone” and although the cold stage blood felt pretty good in the relentless heat of the sunny day, everyone behind us kept pushing forward and sideways in every direction in an attempt to get in on the action. It got a bit scary a few times as it felt like the entire crowd was going to collapse in upon itself. We survived and found ourselves grinning and covered in red at the end of GWAR’s onslaught. Their show is terrifically fun, but next year if they play Riot Fest again, we plan to observe from a bit further back from the stage.
As we recovered from the exertion of staying alive, Avail played an energetic and highly entertaining set from the adjacent Roots stage. I was impressed with them and look forward to seeing them again.
Next up on the Riot stage was the mighty Testament, and they delivered some old school, pulverizing thrash metal mastery, eliciting an utterly seismic circle pit from the moment they hit the stage. The entire band are like ninja assassins, with lead guitarist Alex Skolnick just burning down the place with insanely scorching feats of scalpel sharp lead guitar. I hadn’t seen Testament since 1990 and was utterly overjoyed to discover that they are better than ever.
The Story So Far followed on the neighbor stage and fell far short of Testament’s delivery.
We held our ground near the front as Anthrax brought their insane energy, good cheer, and Big 4 level thrash mastery with a set of songs voted on by their fans, so we heard a killer crop of Anthrax classics.
A personal highlight for me was a moment where lead singer Joey Belladonna and I made direct eye contact and he made sure I knew he was noticing my enthusiasm. In a pure moment of being in the right place at the right time, as Anthrax ended their fantastic performance, 2 people directly in front of us vacated their spot on the barricade and my girlfriend and I quickly secured our spots in the front row and began our wait for the band we planned our entire trip to see…the immortal Slayer! But first we had to wait through an admittedly pretty good set from Rise Against as they headlined the Roots stage.
Rise Against has had a 30 year career so far and they had a great crowd of their own. I gained a whole lot of respect for them when their singer took a couple of minutes to acknowledge the importance of Slayer and their rabid fan base. We collectively gave them a roaring sample of that power in response. Finally, Slayer took the stage and delivered a show for the ages. Standing directly in front of Gary Holt (the frenzied lead guitar player who has been on loan from Exodus since the death of original Slayer member Jeff Hanneman) was a dream come true.
Holt and Kerry King unleashed a furious barrage of vintage Slayer riffs and the psychotic back and forth lead guitar sorcery that is the band’s trademark. Throughout this magical set, Tom Araya was in the zone vocally, letting his mighty roar fill the air repeatedly on a set of all the iconic songs we have adored for decades.
The lights and flames were massively intense from the front row and we could feel that scorching heat from all that glorious fire every time it erupted from the stage. When it inevitably had to end, Tom Araya wandered from one end of the stage to the other, lingering a long time in several spots, obviously full of emotion as he absorbed the enormous outpouring of love directed at him and the others…but most of this is about him, because we all know it is Tom who is retiring. Holt, King, and drummer Paul Bostaph will carry on in other projects.
Tom eventually made his way to his microphone, thanked us briefly, and said he will miss us…then he said a simple goodbye.
I have now seen Slayer 3 times in 3 different states during this farewell tour, and Araya’s goodbye time grows longer at each show. It fills me with sadness, pride, love, and happiness that this iconic man (and band) have given us so much, and that they are leaving the game on their own terms, and as kings of their domain. Cheers, Slayer…I have one more show coming up, but nothing will ever top this one…thanks for everything, Tom!
On this date in history, 9/15/2019, Riot Fest returned for its final day of fun, sun, and musical exploration.
By the 3rd day we felt like Chicago’s Douglas Park was pretty familiar territory (although we never did find our way to the Rebel stage) and we took a little extra time to explore more of the vendor areas. Having survived the intensity of all our metal bands throughout Saturday, we made a mutual decision to begin Sunday with a much more laid back approach.
Save Ferris was the first band we checked out, and it was from a distance this time. We sat back in the shade and listened to the female fronted Ska band deliver quite an enjoyable set with a couple of surprises at the end. The singer talked to the crowd quite a bit and seemed to have a great rapport with the people up front. She informed us that they were going to play Too Drunk To Fuck by the Dead Kennedys and that was super entertaining to hear Save Ferris re-imagine that one. After that they launched into Come On, Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners…needless to say, my Ilene was less than thrilled! It was still pretty funny and awesome in my opinion!
Moving on from the Rise stage where Save Ferris was winding down, we made our way to the Radicals stage to sample a bit of Nick Lowe With Los Straitjackets and determined that we weren’t quite feeling their style. Just a bit too mellow for us, although they sounded fine, so we wandered off again in search of the Village People. I never saw them, but there was another female fronted band playing on the Riot stage as we passed by. I just looked them up and it turns out the entire band was women. I wanted to mention them because I thought the singer sounded fantastic and well worth checking out later.
The illustrious Village People performed on the Radicals stage in front of a pretty impressive mid-afternoon crowd. We didn’t plan to stay long, lingering for one song and wondering if any of the costumed singers were original members. I’m guessing probably not too many, but not curious enough to research it at this time.
As fate would have it, near the end of their set, a spontaneous circle pit and Wall Of Death broke out as they played Macho Man and Y.M.C.A.! Classic stuff, and there is video of the event out there if you are interested in checking it out. We weren’t in attendance when that happened, but we were content to be seated again for a bit as Ride played a pleasantly hypnotic set on the Roots stage. Apparently they originally formed in 1988, but this was my first encounter with them. Their music reminded me of early U2 in a good way with its pulsating, driving, vaguely psychedelic rhythms and intensity. The vocalist didn’t sound anything like Bono, so it kept their sound in that cool spot where it sounds familiar, but still freshly unknown. As we wandered off in search of food and drink, we passed by the Rise stage as Streetlight Manifesto captivated a huge crowd with their high energy Ska sound. I loved their horn section, which stretched across the entire front of the stage. They sounded fantastic and fun was literally bursting out of their sound. I will hopefully catch a whole set from them in the future.
After we chowed down, it was time to prepare for the bigger names towards the late afternoon and early evening headliners.
We arrived back to the adjacent Roots and Riot stages where we had spent our day Saturday in time for the end of a rocking set by Against Me!, and they sounded fine, but nothing I would probably go out of my way to see, honestly. Next up was Bob Mould, performing as a power trio, and delivering a blistering set of punk energy and hard rocking songs. The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar singer, guitarist, and songwriter really impressed me on all levels, and as a bonus, his drummer looks like Peter Dinklage’s taller brother! Patti Smith And Her Band followed, and we truly should have stayed for more than the two songs we witnessed, because the legendary singer/poet just sounded amazing. Patti’s voice sounded exactly as it has since her ’70’s heyday; totally glorious and full of character. She looked fantastic, too…long white hair looking like the light was emanating directly from her spirit…and perhaps it was.
We had decided (on the advice of some friends) to go check out Ween, so we regretfully left Patti (sorry Patti…hope to rectify this grave error someday!) to go see the Ween show. I have to try to carefully explain my position on the Ween experience. Ween sounded great…sound was on point, lights were adequate, but nothing revolutionary. Our problem was the crowd. The best I can explain it is that it felt like being at a party where you don’t know anyone. It was like everyone had this secret language and knew the inside jokes and gestures they were not willing to share with us outsiders. 45 minutes into a 2 hour set we started to hear loud music coming from one of the other stages. Someone yelled out, “Damn you, Jack White!” and Ilene and I looked at each other and immediately decided to bale on Ween and go seek out The Raconteurs.
Jack and the boys saved us with a blistering set of raucous, blues drenched jams just as we had reached the edge of exhaustion after 3 days of glorious good times and vibes.
My girl wanted me to hear Bikini Kill, the final headliner on the Riot stage (perhaps to torture me? lol), but I apparently don’t have the ears or patience to endure the caterwauling garbage dump of the sound coming out of their singer’s mouth. Maybe it wasn’t their night (although they had and enormous crowd who may have more of a taste for what they were hearing), and maybe it was just time to make our exit, so we did.
All in all, Riot Fest has gained two new hardcore fans, and we plan to go back for more next year. Riot Fest Rules!