Riot Fest 2019: Day 3 in Review

There’s a noticeably chiller vibe when I show up to Douglas Park for day 3 of Riot Fest 2019. If Friday was like the final moments of the last day of school, wild with energy and promise, then Sunday is more akin to those last hours of the last day of summer vacation, bittersweet and fleeting.

As I pass by the lost and found tent, sunburned concertgoers are filling out paperwork, hoping to claim a missing purse or cellphone. I hear an insightful anecdote from a girl no older than 22: “Its too hot to be ‘drunk’ drunk.”

It’s partly cloudy and threatening to rain, but it looks like its going to hold off as I make my way to the Riot stage, where Against Me! is playing.

Lead singer Laura Jane Grace smiles at the audience and says “Hello my favorite festival,” and then a galloping drum beat kicks in, and the band begins to perform songs from their 2002 album Reinventing Axl Rose.

Before playing “I Still Love You Julie,” Grace announces “This is a song that’s ultimately about being a decent human being.”

Aaron Cynic and I hit up the B-52s next; in the photo pit line he chats with a few other photographers, trading war stories.

Referencing the Village People‘s set earlier in the day, one of them asks Aaron “Did you catch that giant wall of death during YMCA?”

“What’s a giant wall of death?” says I.

Astonished, Aaron replies “Wow, you really HAVE never been to a festival like this, huh?”

I’ll let you google a description of a GWoD if you so wish, dear reader.

I snake my way through the crowd to find a good spot just as the B52s enter the Radicals Stage. Vocalists Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson launch into “Planet Claire,” the latter two donning their signature kitschy dresses and exaggerated hairdos.

I have to hand it to them– the band has never strayed from their retro-wackiness, and they still sound damn good live. And of course, the crowd goes wild for hits like “Roam” and the iconic “Love Shack.”

Back at the Riot Stage, I make friends with some middle age Patti Smith fans, eager to tell me about seeing her throughout the years, most notably at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

“You know, she’s the most underrated rock pioneer of our times. She’s practically the grandmother of rock and roll” one tells me.

“GOD mother,” another one says.

“Well, that too. Grandmother AND godmother. You’re gonna really enjoy this, Matthew.”

And I do. Patti and her band, including longtime guitarist Lenny K and son Jackson Smith give a masterclass in classic rock coolness and command.

“Chicago is where I took my first breath as a human being. It always feels so good to be back” Smith tells the enthusiastic crowd.

Between songs like “Because the Night,” Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Smith strolls casually, almost skipping, smiling brightly and waving at the audience, pausing to sip a mug of tea she’s brought onstage with her.

I’m able to make it to Ween just as they are beginning their performance of 1997’s The Mollusk. Opening number “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” sounds excellent live, the quirky dance hall vibe causing the whole crowd to start grooving.

Gene and Dean Ween are really fine musicians, and their set is littered with some awesome sonic moments. The goofy, nerd rock concept of The Mollusk is backed by intricate guitars and psychedelic keys. And with bubbles flying through the crowd, and blue lights piercing through onstage fog, it’s a highlight of day 3.

By now there is a storm north east of us, so the park is cast in a dusky purplish-brown haze. A group of friends has reunited next to me, all smiles and kisses, ecstatic to have found one another in the confusion of the crowd.

“Patti Smith was amazing!” one of them says to the group.

My heart is warmed watching the scene, and again I’m recalling the whole nature of my time at Riot Fest. The grab-bag quality of the festival, your favorites and my favorites coming together and becoming something of a shared experience, altogether unique.

And so I make my way to the last set of the night, Taking Back Sunday, performing their first and third albums in their entirety. It’s a mostly youngish crowd, stretching from the lip of the stage all the way to the fenced off edge of the grounds.

Dozens of couples and groups are lounging on the sloping ridge towards the back, underneath willows and the darkening sky. The clouds have parted and there are a few twinkling stars. I spot the fire dancers again, this time spinning flaming hula-hoops.

Lead singer Adam Lazzara has a propulsive, magnetic performance style, and he leads the band through rollicking renditions of hits like “Cute Without the E” and “You Know How I Do.” Glancing around the crowd, all singing along to this early 2000’s emo rock, I’m struck again with the same homecoming vibe I noted from day one. Fall has crept closer, the midway is once again lit up with its beckoning nostalgia, and for the past 3 nights I’ve been surrounded by declarations of youthful rebellion and angsty love and manifestos of hard won independence.

I was raised (no less passionately) on music with less of an edge, and my tastes have settled somewhere in the grey area between Bob Dylan and Taylor Swift. Familiar with many of the bands at Riot Fest’s 15th anniversary, most by name and reputation only, I was still entering a territory that was mostly foreign to me. And what I found was a community of die-hard, loyal fans supporting a lineup of fiery, dedicated, word-class performers. I feel initiated into the world of punk, of emo, of hardcore. And I feel like I’ve earned the right to say what I read on so many t-shirts as I strolled through Douglas Park with my fellow music lovers–

Riot Fest sucks.

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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