All photos by Judie Vegh of OyVegh Photography

During the past few years, the music festival has evolved. Smaller fests like Pitchfork Music Festival and Crucialfest have grown considerably. Meanwhile, the important staples such as Lollapalooza and SXSW have become entirely different beasts altogether. Of course, it’s fun to brag about attending a trendy festival via Instagram or pseudo-discover a new act but what about the music? Believe it or not, some people still go to festivals for good times found in music. For those people, there’s Riot Fest.

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Year after year, Riot Fest proves it’s the most satisfying music festival in the Midwest and arguably the U.S.

With acts ranging from local dive bars, immortal legends, and unfathomable reunions, there’s plenty for us Chicago natives to gush about. As I stated in my coverage last year, Riot Fest is the music festival for people who hate music festivals. No doubt there are tons of people, minimal parking, city traffic, and over-priced accommodations. But at the end of the day, it’s an event aimed at those who legitimately care about having a good time more than social media validation.

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While trying to come up with a coverage gameplan, I made a conscious decision to refrain from reveling in nostalgia for too long. Classic acts like That Dog, Danzig, Wu-Tang Clan, and Dinosaur Jr (among others) were all playing their respective classic album as their set but I didn’t want to stay entirely in the past. I strive to move forward and that proved far more difficult than I imagined. The occasional overlap in schedules are a given but sometimes Riot Fest has a tendency to make it cruel. Especially during the acts before the headliners.

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As with many festivals, the opening performances are often the low-key weekend winners. This year was no exception.

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Day one’s Skating Polly kicked things off in a bit of foreshadowing. Their brand of Pixies meet Nirvana garage rock captured the essence of my struggle of new versus old. Musicians in their infancy harnessing the vigor of 90s juggernauts. Day three’s opener Beach Slang presented the exact opposite: battle tested musicianship showcasing ageless energy. A band who should’ve been higher on the lineup but perfect for setting the mood before noon.

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During each day, I tried to check out acts I hadn’t seen before. Much like the tactic I used while covering Pitchfork. However, as a testament to Riot Fest’s curators, each band scheduled yielded the question “When are they playing?” and rarely “Who are they?”. Which even caused more anxiety wanting to see bands playing at the exact same time. Nothing wrecked me like trying to decide on seeing the original line-up of Taking Back Sunday or Queens Of The Stone Age. Eventually, I decided to divide the sets. Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzara made plenty of jokes about not being able to see Queens Of The Stone Age. Twice he ran to the edge of the stage to see which song they were playing. “Go With The Flow?? Aww man!” he lamented as the audience laughed.

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With so much music I grew up with, it was extremely difficult not to give in to the temptation of nostalgia!

Seeing Dinosaur Jr‘s monumental album You’re Living All Over Me in it’s entirety was fantastic. Hearing an album that inspired some of my favorite bands, was also very surreal. Their impromptu mini-cover of Husker Du’s Diane” snapped me back into reality though. With the recent passing of Grant Hart, these artists may not be around forever. Witnessing these monumental albums could be a once in a lifetime experience.

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Liars brought my kind of weirdness to their strangely early 2:15 pm set. Frontman Angus Andrew commanded the stage in a flowing wedding dress. Twisting knobs on delay pedals, between frantically gyrating on the Riot Stage like Iggy Pop doing interpretive dance. The sexy goth of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black added a layer of visual stimulation, and once-Beastie Boy Mike D gave a much appreciated Hip-Hop history lesson with his DJ set. Speaking of Beasties, FIDLAR‘s explosive rendition of “Sabotage” was an unexpected highlight of Day 3.

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What festival in 2017 would be complete without its share of political statements and punk rock outcries?

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The Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy mash-up Prophets Of Rage took every opportunity to speak out against racism and police brutality between a few original songs sandwiched between RATM covers including a touching instrumental version of Audioslave’s “Like A Stone” in tribute to the late Chris Cornell. Never one to skip on political trolling, Al Jourgensen’s Ministry bashed not only the current president but his legion of clueless followers. Playing a new song “Antifa”, black-clad stagehands marched around the stage waving black and red flags while Jourgensen mocked neo-nazis. It was predictable but welcomed across the board. Also my favorite performance of the entire weekend.

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Spoken word genius Saul Williams used his set to get philosophical, making the attendees question the motives of the movements they claim to be part of. Williams played only one song and managed to be the most punk performance the entire festival. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones even took time to address thoughts on loving one another despite what society says. Frontman Dickie Barret mused about songs of their classic album taking a new meaning in today’s social injustice. The politics were there but never once felt pretentious or phoned in for the sake being relevant.

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There’s no denying the festival scene is in the middle of a cultural shift. To be fair, just how punk can a festival really be in 2017?

A John Stamos art gallery, infants with protective ear-wear, and elevated VIP cabanas don’t really seem very punk does it? Despite the overabundance of upper-class accommodations, somehow Riot Fest remains true to its rock n roll roots. Nine Inch Nails closed the first night of the festival, turning in one of the best performance I’ve ever seen from Trent Reznor. There was something warm and fuzzy about hearing Reznor proclaim his affection for sharing the stage with New Order and Ministry.

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Meanwhile, Jawbreaker closed the final night. One band is one of the most influential acts of the 90s and the other could be the decade’s most criminally underrated. Yet the seeds planted by both Nine Inch Nails and Jawbreaker are still growing in today’s scene. I don’t know official numbers, but Riot Fest just may have been the biggest audience Jawbreaker has ever pulled in.

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Riot Fest grows larger in scope each year but instead of booking bands on the ‘festival circuit’, the powers that be offer the festival goer’s favorite acts. Monumental albums and unthinkable reunions are super cool, but nothing compares to being in a festival event where most people are there for the same reason. If Lollapalooza and Coachella are Greatest Hits, Riot Fest is the classic album in everyone’s collection.

For that reason alone, it will always be my favorite festival.

More Pics from Riot Fest 2017 in the Slideshow Below

Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.