I’ll get this out of the way up front. I’m a Riot Fest virgin. In fact I have only been to one festival in my life, when I covered Pitchfork this summer for Third Coast. Tankboy’s preview earlier this week served as a primer for me, it’s a great read, especially if you’re considering coming to the fest for the first time.
So what was I getting myself into? I wasn’t quite sure, but I was willing to find out. So I took the Roosevelt bus west, and strolled into the festival grounds late in the afternoon on Friday. Here’s what I found: It’s all black band tees and flannel, beards, tattoos and cigarettes at Douglas Park– it’s late summer but feels like the perfect fall day.
My first impression is like a carnival meets a homecoming weekend– Ferris wheels and tilt o whirls, fried dough and lovers holding hands. And then, off in the distance I hear screams—I manage to see Hot Snakes finish up their set, and I think I get a sense of what the evening has in store.
I wander into Neck Deep’s set, a 5 piece punk band from Wales. A mosh pit is really picking up right when I get there, with the lead singer Ben Barlow trying to conduct the swirl, screaming “It’s time to shake things up a bit!” They launch into a propulsive punk number, while I see my first crowd surfers of the day. Barlow tells us that Chicago was one of the first US shows the band played, back in the good old days when a sold out show was a room of 30 people who were willing to crawl over each other and “mosh to death.” I take a step back upon hearing this…
They keep up the energy, sliding from a hard edged cover of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” (the breezy ending guitar solo here swapped for a swirling panic of a shred) to “In Bloom,” a heartfelt number that lead singer Barlow introduces:
“If you don’t know us, this will be the song that will stick with you.”
Next door, on the Roots stage, Violent Femmes enter without much fanfare and kick things off with “I’m Nothing,” a single from their newest album released this year. The trio from Milwaukee, all dressed in black, sound as good live as they do on the radio.
When they launch into the paranoid bop of “Blister in the Sun,” the crowd erupts into a collective jittery dance and sing-along. The band is accompanied by a saxophonist who switches between a hand held to a towering instrument, well over 6 feet tall, mounted on the stage.
As they continue, I get a serious Dick Dale, surfer-rock vibe along with the punky folk rock. As they close, a whole horn section joins the Femmes onstage, as the drummer plays on a charcoal grill and the lead guitarist blows on a conch shell. “This place is pretty wild,” I think. Behind us, the sun is going down, and the air is beginning to chill.
I shift back over to the Riot Stage, just as Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional crosses from the wings, strumming the opening chords to “Best Deceptions.” He begins to sing, and in unison the crowd follows, hanging on every word. As the full band joins him, Carrabba strips down to an “Illinois Bicentennial” tank top and straps on a beat-up electric guitar.
“If you know these songs, you can sing along. If you don’t, just pretend.”
Then Carrabba launches into a performance of songs from the band’s 2001 The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. Full disclosure here: I love this record, and singing the emo-manifesto with a crowd of hundreds is practically spiritual.
“We won a VMA for this one,” Carrabba says, beginning to play “Screaming Infidelities,” and the dusky blue skies over Douglas Park are streaked with purple. I make my way to press tent and meet up with Third Coast photographer Aaron Cynic. We chat about his 15 years at Riot Fest, and what we look forward for day 2 as I hear Carrabba close out with “Hands Down” in the distance.
Aaron and I stroll over to the Radicals Stage to catch Rancid. An American flag is hoisted on a crane above the stage, the sun has completely set by now. A spotlight is trained on the good old stars and stripes as it waves in the late summer breeze. The full moon, bright yellow, is sitting low in the sky, sliced in half by stringy clouds. Behind me the midway is all lit up; in front of me the stage is bathed in blood red as the band enters. I remember that it’s Friday the 13th.
The old school punks from California announce “What’s up Chicago?! It’s always good to be back,” before launching into a set filled with retro, Clash-tinged tunes. Lead singer Tim Armstrong introduces some songs from 1995’s …And Out Come the Wolves, the band’s breakout hit.
“I want to see everyone shaking their asses. I didn’t come here to not see people shaking their asses,” Armstrong says. All the while, across the park, I keep catching glimpses of The Flaming Lips performing Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots; their stage is an acid-trip of colored lights and a giant blow up robot.
My eyes train back to Rancid as they power through “Old Friend,” and a serious mosh pit begins to form. I’m beginning to understand that mosh pits are just part of the experience. Back at The Flaming Lips, lead singer Wayne Coyne is crowd surfing in a huge inflatable hamster ball. Seeing it from a distance only adds to the absurdity.
After Rancid finishes up I wander to the midway; throngs of intoxicated concertgoers are lined up for french fries and pizza, candied apples and corn dogs, served from twinkling concession stands. The lines snake around corners and carnival rides, the sounds of separate bands clashing in a cacophony of indistinguishable noise. I’m so close to snagging some seriously delicious looking popcorn, but the line is too long, and I don’t want to miss Blink-182 close out day 1.
I have to hightail it across the park, through the leftover Rancid fans, to make it back to the Riot Stage. The crowd is huge, stretching from the front of the stage all the way to the vendor booths in the back. Shoulder to shoulder with all of Riot Fest, I barely have room to hold up my notebook and pen.
And then Blink enters and the crowd goes wild. I get a rush of nostalgia—my uncle took me to see them when I was in middle school; it was my very first live show.
Mark Hoppus yells “Finally back at fucking Riot Fest! 20 years ago this summer we released an album.”
The crowd cheers.
“Yeah, we deserve the applause. It’s a fucking great album!”
Playing tunes from Enema of the State, it occurs to me just how ubiquitous the band is with the late ’90s, early 2000s. The sound, the lyrics, the trickster South Park energy-– and they play with the same muscular intensity I remember as a kid. Especially Travis Barker; his drumming is manic and seriously impressive.
Blink drives through hits as the crowd joyously sings along, “All the Small Things,” “What’s My Age Again,” and “Adam’s Song,” which hits me with an emotional punch, and I’ll admit, causes a teardrop to fall on the page of my notebook.
And so day 1 is done. Looking around the groups of aging punks and Chicago hipsters that surround me, gleeful as they chat with their friends and lovers after hearing some of their most beloved music, I’m struck with a sense of wonder—in Chicago, no matter your taste or subculture, there is probably a place for you to commune with your fellow enthusiasts. And to have that on our doorstep is a very special thing.
All photos by Aaron Cynic.