Riot Fest 2019: Day 2 in Review

My second day at Riot Fest was another one of firsts—first time that I used the port-o-potty at the festival, first time I rode a divvy bike into oncoming traffic, first time I was called a “little bitch” by a complete stranger.

It was all great fun, and after having popped my Riot Fest cherry on Friday, I felt prepared for all that was to come. And luckily for you, dear reader, day 2 did not disappoint!

I don’t make it to Douglas Park until after 3, after filing yesterday’s story and wolfing down a breakfast burrito. I rush through the press gate and catch Gwar in full swing; from afar I can see the blood spraying into the crowd, and hear the mixture of screams and cheers.

As I approach, I rush to jot down the full scope of what is happening onstage. From my notebook:

  • Like a cross between a medieval torture scene and something out of Hellraiser.
  • The “blood minions” are in thonged loincloths, looks comfortable.
  • There’s a stout one with antlers on his back and a tall one with a cage on his head.
  • The stout one rips off the tall one’s head. More blood.

In their full costumes in the intense heat, it’s doubly impressive that they are able to shred the way they do. What I assume is the band’s frontman (the one with the antlers) yells “Chicago, you want blood?!”

The crowd wants blood.

“I don’t think they want blood. I said, Chicago, DO YOU WANT BLOOD?!”

The crowd really wants blood now.

And so Gwar appropriately launches into “If You Want Blood (You Got It),” which strikes me as a sort of twisted mix of Van Halen and AC/DC. At this point there’s a giant cannon onstage covering half the pit with a dark green spray.


When they finish their set Aaron Cynic texts me “Waiting for Avail photo pit. There’s this incredible stream of crowd surfers coming from Gwar just covered in shit.”

I push my way towards the pit to witness. Drenched in red and green, they look bewildered and exhausted, like troops leaving a battlefield. But I do catch a few knowing smiles.

I shift over to the Roots stage for Avail and manage to get pretty close. Someone in front of me is wearing a t-shirt that reads “Solo Riot 2019/You’re Never Alone Even If You Want to Be.” Thanks t-shirt, I needed that <3

Lead singer Tim Barry crosses the stage, announcing “We’re Avail from Reston Virginia! You know this means the world to us, getting to be here and getting to play. Thank you so much!”

Showcasing songs from their 1998 album Over the James, the band gives off a really unique vibe—long beards, camo shorts and tattered baseball caps, their Appalachian roots really peek through on songs like the driving, reflective “Sanctuary 13.”

I’m close enough to get a real good view of the mosh pit; I wince, practically concussed from just watching. Occasionally a red-stained hand emerges from the sea of bodies—a Gwar survivor.

Across the park at the Radicals stage I check out Grandson from Toronto. The set begins with a glitchy black and white video of politicians and celebrities with their eyes scratched out with red x’s. There’s a swarming sound, that builds into a deafening crescendo, before Jordan Benjamin bursts onto the stage screaming “Riot Fest! How the fuck are you?!”

He launches into “Oh No!!” a paranoid, infectious anthem that mixes classic rock riffs and hip-hop lyricism. Benjamin is an impassioned, energetic performer. His songs have urgent social messages, like “Stigmata,” lambasting organized religion, and “Overdose,” which trains the spotlight on America’s opioid crisis with the refrain “The drugs don’t work any more.”

I notice a tiny drone flying high above the audience; it’s pretty ironic, seeing as many of Benjamin’s lyrics seem to be indicting the surveillance state. I also notice that guitarists at Riot Fest like to spin around like cyclones during particularly rousing moments; must be a festival prerequisite.

It’s late afternoon now, and the swelter from earlier has given way to a comfortable summer heat. I grab a few slices of pizza and park under a willow on the outskirts of the grounds.  Hundreds of festival-goers are scattered around me, sipping beer on blankets and lying in the grass with friends and lovers. Across the field The Struts are playing “One Night Only,” a classic rock ballad that drenches the September scene in cinematic romance.

Back at the press tent I catch up with Aaron—we chat about the day, and he shows me some shots from Hu, which he describes as “a sort of Mongolian chant-metal.” We marvel at one band member’s instrument, seemingly a cross between a guitar and a crossbow, and then head out to catch Anthrax.

They enter the Riot stage dressed in black and red Bulls jerseys; lead guitarist Scott Ian sporting a flying v guitar, drummer Charlie Benante commanding a massive kit—but the star of the show for me is a blow-up doll, glimpsed briefly dancing above the crowd.

I’ll let Aaron tell you about this one:

“I heard Anthrax for the first time as a little kid, probably around the age of 11. I loved the band so much I even used to write my name in the style of their logo. Teachers and others were not terribly impressed with that.

Though I’ve seen Anthrax more times than I can count, I never got to shoot them until Riot Fest this year, and it was amazing. Probably the best set I’ve ever seen them play.

The little nerdy grade school metalhead in me would’ve never thought about 3 decades later he’d be shooting photos of these dudes, and I like to think he’s pretty giddy about that now.”

I think that’s part of the magic of festivals like this; so many opportunities to experience moments of musical wish-fulfillment, and the added bonus of witnessing it in others. Tangential thought I jot down while Anthrax muscles through their fan-requested set:

“Crowd surfing is an art form that requires collaborative craftsmanship. The surfer must trust the crowd, the crowd must carry the surfer, and this dance is anchored and aided by security; those foreboding, outstretched arms that signify the end of the line, but also chaos completed safely. I think I’ve had too much Red Bull.”

And so it’s off to the Radicals stage, that lone patch situated by the midway, which is beginning to light up as darkness descends on Douglas Park. A sizeable crowd is forming, throwing up w’s with their hands and cooing “Wuuuuuu.”

Before Wu Tang Clan begins their set, the trailer for the recently premiered Hulu series chronicling the early days of the band plays on the screen behind the stage. It looks like a pretty engaging show, but it’s a strange moment of corporate capitalization of a once counter-culture property. And so it goes.

Wu Tang enters, annexing the lip of the stage and launching into a performance of their iconic record 36 Chambers. It’s a hypnotic and commanding set; late-Clan member Old Dirty Bastard’s first born son steps in for his father’s verses.

I see Willis Tower slicing upwards from behind the treeline, another full-bellied moon sitting low in the sky. Yellow lights canvass across Wu Tang’s stage and into the audience, smoke pouring in disparate puffs off the throbbing crowd.

And as I make my way towards the exit, I glimpse fire dancers lighting up the soft summer night. I think to myself “Chicago. You are a one hell of a mistress.”

All photos by Aaron Cynic

Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

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