Riot Fest 2021: Preview Party in Review

It felt good to riot again. I’ll admit it, after two years away I wasn’t sure my rusty festival skills and pandemic jitters could handle a fourth day of Riot Fest. The punk rock carnival kicked off Thursday night with a preview party. Yet walking the grounds of Douglass Park I realized that it was the perfect way to ease back into the festival circuit, allowing me to get the lay of the land and enjoy live music with slimmer crowds and no conflicting acts on other stages.

WDRL – Photo by Jessica Mlinaric

The security line at the front gate was well organized and included showing my ID and proof of vaccination. Unvaccinated attendees must show a negative COVID-19 test on-site and there is rapid antigen testing onsite. As I walked in, the familiar smell of grass, weed, and sweat hit me. I heard WDRL covering the Daria theme song, and I instantly felt back at home.

Joyce Manor – Photo by Jessica Mlinaric

Getting back into the photo pit was a rush of excitement. A fellow photographer and I shared a moment, “I can’t believe we finally get to do this again!” Joyce Manor got the crowd bopping as they celebrated the 10th anniversary of their self-titled debut album by playing it in full. The Torrance, Calif., natives ended with a cover of “Helena” by My Chemical Romance, the band who was supposed to headline Riot Fest this year but has postponed until 2022.

Photo by Jessica Mlinaric

Between sets, I watched acrobats show off on the lawn and cartwheeling attendees mimic them. I even saw a couple get married! Riot Fest added a wedding chapel to the grounds this year, complete with an ordained minister.

Patti Smith – Photo by Jessica Mlinaric

“Happy Mexican Independence Day. Another strike against colonialism,” Patti Smith greeted the crowd before launching into “People Have the Power.” The always magnificent Godmother of Punk and her band including longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye and son Jackson Smith played a captivating set. Smith dedicated “Redondo Beach,” to Morrissey who has covered it, and “Because the Night,” to her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. “Please take care of yourselves. We are still in the center of a global pandemic—don’t forget it,” she said before launching into “Grateful.” She even signed a copy of her LP Horses for a fan who passed it up to the stage from the crowd. “I feel bad for you having to cart that fucking thing all night long,” she joked.

Alkaline Trio – Photo by Jessica Mlinaric

It was a happy homecoming show for Chicago natives the Alkaline Trio. Dan Andriano introduced “Blackbird” with “Fuck yeah Chicago! You’re even more beautiful than I remember.” Matt Skiba announced that he ran into a tree branch and puked backstage, but he didn’t miss a beat. As I raced to grab a corn dog, I heard one of the frontmen wax nostalgic, “I was looking at those blue spires—that’s the Sears Tower, I don’t care what you want to call it. And yeah I got a little emo. It’s nice to be home.”

Morrissey – Photo by Jessica Mlinaric

Morrissey was on his best behavior. The controversial elder statesman was refreshingly punctual after stepping to the stage over 30 minutes late at his headlining set in 2016. He did have a fun challenge for us photographers, cramming us into the far back to shoot over each other. A fan joked to me, “I used to be jealous of you guys for getting to go up front but not any more.” “We’re in the trenches.” I laughed, “Be jealous of the people in VIP.”

Morrissey – Photo by Jessica Mlinaric

Moz kicked things off by giving the people what they wanted with “How Soon is Now.” You never know what you’re going to get with Morrissey, but he offered up a couple other Smiths favorites throughout the set like “Shoplifters of the World” and “Half A Person.” Dressed in a New York Dolls tee and blazer, he crooned to perfection and the polished band nailed every note. “Happy Independence Day,” he said in a nod to fans celebrating Mexican Independence Day. Yet his trademark angst was palpable underneath the agreeable set. In front of a backdrop of images of persecuted artists like Oscar Wilde and James Baldwin, Morrissey opened with a sample from Sinatra’s “My Way,” singing, “Should he say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels?” Images of Frankenstein accompanied the words “Dairy is Scary” on the screen. He played the consummate showman while protest imagery rotated behind him with an image saying “Art is not a crime.” The crowd belted along to a setlist that included “First of the Gang to Die” and “Every Day Is Like Sunday.” He dedicated “The Loop” to Chicago’s Loop, “Because it goes round and round as you well know.” The moment that got me dancing was his cover of the Pretenders “Back on the Chain Gang.” After closing with “Jack the Ripper” he told the crowd, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Whatever else he might say, it was all that mattered to them.

All Photos by Jessica Mlinaric

Need more Riot Fest coverage? Check out our thoughts on Friday at the fest here , then head over to check out how Saturday went here, and finish off with Sunday’s incredible photos and review!!

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Jessica Mlinaric
Jessica Mlinaric

Jessica Mlinaric is a writer, photographer and cat mom. Her first book on the strange and secret corners of Chicago is forthcoming from Reedy Press. Jessica founded in 2010 to share stories about cities and their cultures. Right now, she is probably at a concert or volunteering at 826CHI. She tweets at @urbnexplorer.

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