Despite the threat of rain looming over the headliners on day three, Riot Fest prevailed! The was no rain during the festival, instead it was the hot late summer day that showed up.
While Saturday was filed to the brim with punk acts, Sunday was destined to rock with the alternative and indie icons taking over the Riot Fest Stages. Returning headliners Nine Inch Nails reigned supreme and the rest of the schedule was backed by a solid lineup including The Linda Linda, Less than Jake, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater Kinney, and more!
Riot Fest has always excelled at curating an eclectic lineup with some truly out-of-nowhere bookings. Sunday afternoon was no different when Coolio (a late addition to the lineup) took the stage. The West-Coast rap legend, best known for the anthem “Gangsta’s Paradise” was greeted by a massive crowd gathered around the Rise Stage. Nostalgic hip-hop has always been a staple at Riot Fest and Coolio’s major hit was such an institution during the formative years for the event’s core fanbase that it was inevitable that the crowd was buzzing with excitement to hear it. It was obvious that the majority of those in attendance were there to hear one song, and without a doubt the performer was certainly aware. But nonetheless, Coolio showed up with a full backing band, and launched into a number of songs that showcased the outfit’s underrated musicality. There were frequent saxophone solos, and the backing vocalists flanking Coolio had legitimate chops. Fans of alternative hip-hop and jazz certainly walked away with a new appreciation for the performer.
Coolio’s banter between songs also displayed his charisma as a performer, giving nods to his 90’s rap contemporaries and taking every opportunity to whip the crowd into participating and having fun. When Coolio finally played it, the crowd erupted. They hung onto every lyric, every hook, every beat. There wasn’t a single person in the crowd not singing along. Like so many legendary moments in Riot Fest’s history, it was a triumph for nostalgia, and not taking yourself too seriously.
As the sun started to retreat and temperatures began to cool, the Riot Grrrl legends from Olympia Washington took the Riot Stage on Sunday afternoon to kick off the final stretch of the festival. Their set got off to a slow start, with technical difficulties being overcome before the crowd were treated to hits like “Dig Me Out” and “Modern Girl.” It was an energetic performance filled with more peaks than valleys, and it certainly kept the crowd’s attention for the full hour.
Carrie Brownstein made sure to give props to early-afternoon performers the Linda Lindas, which is a group of (very) young musicians that have undoubtedly taken inspiration from Sleater-Kinney’s illustrious career. If you were able to make it to the festival early each day, you’ll find the schedule was brimming with bands that have used Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney as models for creating their own compelling feminist rock. The veterans may be influential, but even after 30 years, the duo of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker feel as vital as ever. While their most recent albums haven’t quite reached the heights of the seminal album Dig Me Out or their comeback No Cities to Love, the title track off their 2019 record “The Center Won’t Hold” proved to be one of the set’s best songs, and a brilliant closer.
Riot Fest has a habit of frequently booking the same bands every few years, including Sleater-Kinney who closed a side stage in 2016. After the crowd’s response to Sunday’s performance, it’s abundantly clear that this band belongs on the main stage, and should most certainly be back at Riot Fest sooner than later.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sparse touring and legendary catalog of dance-punk hits made their Sunday night set one of the most highly anticipated performances of any music festival this summer. The last time Chicago fans were looking forward to seeing the New York legends was for Pitchfork’s canceled 2020 festival. Undoubtedly, the majority of Sunday’s crowd had either never seen Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or haven’t witnessed the spectacle of Karen O live in years. So when the band finally took the stage, the moment felt monumental. Karen O’s outrageous technicolor stage outfits are legendary. Equal parts playful and edgy, her stage persona resembles a peacock that you absolutely do not want to get in a bar fight with. Karen O is one of the most compelling examples of a larger-than-life lead singer, and her gravity could be felt as their set began with slow-builder “Spitting Off the Edge of the Word.”
While her much-anticipated stage antics had to wait for the rowdy bangers later in the set, the glitzy synths of newer explorations created a pleasant vibe that hung in the finally-cool air around Douglas Park. A few new tracks dotted the setlist, which paved the way for the dance-friendly “Zero” to get the crowd going. Once the band had fully established their authority over the growing crowd clustered around the two main stages, casual fans and die-hards alike were treated to massive hits like “Maps” and “Heads Will Roll.” These highly anticipated songs didn’t quite exhaust the crowd, because when closer “Date With The Night” raged on for an extended jam, it seemed the whole park was definitely dancing and singing, as if their raucous joy could make the weekend last forever.
Given the bottomless pit of despair that the music of Nine Inch Nails evokes, it makes absolutely no sense that Trent Reznor and co. are one of the most sought-after festival headliners in music today. In 2017, Riot Fest landed its largest-ever booking when NIN took the stage in Douglass Park. That show will live in infamy for anyone lucky enough to have been there. Fortunately for the many who were there for both 2017 and 2022’s performances, Sunday’s set did not disappoint. Far from it. Pitch-black lyrics rarely make for Festival-headlining party-anthems, but the quietly-charismatic Reznor is one of those rare talents that can compel thousands of fans to scream “God is dead and no one cares!” at the top of their lungs on a Sunday. *clutches pearls.*
To call Sunday’s show a “career-spanning set” would be an understatement. Their 90-minutes featured cuts off of 10 different albums, all of which provoked immediate responses from the crowd. Whether it was their infamous classics like “Closer” or “March of the Pigs,” or newer tracks like “Less Than,” each song was treated like it was the best the crowd had ever heard. To put it plainly, Nine Inch Nails are kings at Riot Fest. It helps that their live sound is as pristine as any in the music industry. There is enough space between the icy synths, prickly guitars, and bludgeoning percussion to build the tension that makes Nine Inch Nails’ music so urgent. The pristine production wasn’t only focused on the sound. Their visual presentation, outfitted with smoke machines and racks of lighting, created an eerie, unsettling backdrop befitting a Nine Inch Nails concert. The camera work even evoked a 90’s-era music video.
As the weekend wound down, Nine Inch Nails left the crowd after a particularly energetic rendition of breakthrough “Head Like a Hole.” The die-hards in the crowd understood that this would absolutely not be the last song played by Nine Inch Nails, and only the casual fans now worrying about trying to find an Uber budged from their places. The NIN faithful were treated to live rarity “Reptile” before the set came to its logical conclusion. At this point it should feel tedious when “Hurt” inevitably marks the end of a Nine Inch Nails concert; it’s been their obligatory closer for years now. But it works. It will probably always work. It certainly worked on Sunday when it closed down a very successful Riot Fest.
This post was written by guest author Patrick Daul and all photos were taken by Jessica Mlinaric.