As the summer of 2018 slowly comes to a close, so does another festival season. While most writers theorize the inevitable burst of the festival bubble, not many know where to place Riot Fest. Not as hip as Bonnaroo but definitely more ambitious than Pitchfork, Riot prides itself as Chicago’s Anti-Lollapalooza. Let’s be honest with ourselves here; does it take much to achieve such goals? This year was no different. Even when faced with adversity, Riot Fest once again proved they’re the unstoppable music festival.
Riot Fest rarely suffers the same mistakes as other festivals but that doesn’t mean it’s impervious to its own set of issues.
In fact, many were concerned Riot Fest would even happen this year. Not long after the announcement of artists, Riot was the subject of a Ticketfly hack putting thousands of people at risk of identity theft. Scheduled artists had passport issues preventing them from attending. Elvis Costello battled cancer, and Blink 182 had to pull out from their headlining spot due to the health of Travis Barker. Not to mention single day passes and lineup scheduling didn’t get released until a week before go time. It wasn’t the usual smooth sailing Riot Fest or its patrons were accustomed to.
However, the second I witnessed the triple threat of Direct Hit, Speedy Ortiz, and Liz Phair early on Day One, I felt the collective sigh of relief from thousands of festival goers in Chicago’s beautiful Douglas Park. Those three opening artists represented what the festival has always been about: something new, something current, and something classic. Riot Fest was happening alright and it was everything we hoped it would be.
Day One seemed to be all about taking those insecurities of Riot Fest’s future and putting them to bed.
Despite having no standout reasons making this Riot Fest seem special like previous years, the lineup played to the strengths of the target audience. Where else could one see Gwar, Jerry Lee Lewis, Underoath, and Cat Power all on the same bill? From new artists to legendary staples, Riot Fest has always been a mixed bag of artists. However, the mixture is far more fun and exciting than the inconvenience Lollapalooza usually offers. There’s something magical about witnessing the Robert DeNiro-meets-David Lee Roth antics of Fear’s Lee Ving the same day as Run The Jewels and one of the kids from Stranger Things.
There was a comforting sense of nostalgia in the air by the time Taking Back Sunday took to the Rise Stage. Frontman Adam Lazzara was in top form as he shuffled about like a Michael Jackson/Jim Morrison hybrid. With songs from their emo days through the Tom Petty-esque Tidal Wave album, it just felt right to have Taking Back Sunday play again.
The same could be said for Weezer (Blink 182’s replacement) closing out Day One. I give that band a lot of trash for being terrible for the last 20 years but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have fun during their set of non-stop hits. Well, don’t get me started on “Africa” or the five other Dad-Rock covers such as Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Green Day’s “Longview”.
I was beaming with nostalgia but perhaps I was feeling a little guilty for entertaining the idea my beloved festival could be dying?
All 3 days came correct with heavy hitters. Health had the guts to experiment in real time with their blend of Liars-meets-Ministry noise while Killing Joke reminded us old goth bands can have just much as fun as the pop-punk teens seeing Sum 41 or The Districts. On the vulnerable side of things, Cat Power sounded just as beautiful as the first time I heard her 20 years ago and K. Flay brought a fan on stage who proposed to his girlfriend. But it was Elvis Costello who made me appreciate Riot Fest persevering the setbacks leading up to opening day. He opened his set poking fun of his cancer scare by saying “I’m doing well, thanks!”. I suppose if we didn’t laugh at our problems, we’d be crying.
Early into Day Two, most people had completely forgotten about the hiccups. Riot Fest was firing on all cylinders.
Gary Numan’s post-apocalyptic flavored set was things Trent Treznor and 90s Bowie dreamed of. Plus he did it in broad daylight without atmospheric lighting or smoke machines. Later that evening the last of the OG rock stars, Jerry Lee Lewis answered the much-asked question “Didn’t he die?” with an insanely fun set of classic gospel-flavored rock n’ roll. Finishing Day Two was everyone’s favorite Scientologist, Beck. Being equal parts Prince and Napoleon Dynamite, Beck proved he’s worthy of headling any festival. His set played like a greatest hits collection or a summertime playlist. He joked about the lingering scent of cannabis, brought Gary Numan back on stage for a cover of “Cars” and even had time for a brief Owen Wilson impression before playing “Wow”!
Day Three had the rapid-fire schedule. From the endearing garage rock of Beach Goons to the retro swagger of JD McPherson (who wanted to cop my Danzig hat in the media tent) I had little time to take a break. After nearly passing out due to heat exhaustion during Fear, I was forced to sit in the shade during Johnny Marr’s set. That small recharge was enough to get me through the intensity of Suicidal Tendencies right after. Next up it was back-to-back sets of Blondie, Clutch, and Chicago heroes Alkaline Trio. Thankfully I was able to take a real break when Father John Misty did his thing (and that’s a thing I’m not the least bit interested in, but I digress.)
Without an outrageous reunion or once-in-a-lifetime gimmick, Run The Jewels closing out Riot Fest could’ve felt a little safe.
But as soon the first beat dropped, the entire park was on its feet. No matter how you feel about hip-hop, there’s no denying El-P and Killer Mike are the best at what they do. Jumping in and out of each other’s lines and never missing a beat, El and Mike were all about having a good time regardless of age or race. Outside of a few acts, I’ve never been a big fan of mainstream hip-hop in a live setting. It’s no disrespect to the genre, but a lot of rappers rely on hype men and that sort of thing takes from the experience for me. Run The Jewels offered little variation of their songs, but still felt unscripted and spontaneous. This was my first time seeing them live and I’ll definitely catch them on future solo tours.
Plenty of writers will continue to talk about the death of music festivals and I’m sure I’ll have my own issues with lineups next year. But even with hacks, health scares, and losing headliners, the team behind Riot Fest faced adversity and won. Admittedly I wasn’t blown away by the first wave lineup announcement but as soon as the first band played, I forgot all about my complaints. Even without a big reunion or my favorite artists playing, I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun at a festival. Despite what people may have said in the past, I have a feeling this festival isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
See you next year Riot Fest.
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.