In previous years, it’s sometimes been hard to find the right angle to present a fest in a new light. No such effort is required this time around. This year’s Riotfest was miles away from any previous incarnation of the annual Chicago punk fest. Scaling back on the 5 night multi-venue smorgasbord the fest had grown into, to a two-day, Lollapalooza style outdoor festival of punk was possibly the best change Riot Mike has made to Riotfest yet. The crowds I saw throughout the weekend were unlike any other punk fest I’ve been to. Imagine a fest with attendance akin to Coachella ten years ago with nothing but punk bands. That was the scene at Humboldt Park for Riotfest weekend. It’s possible that after nearly a decade, Riot Mike might have found the perfect format and niche for Riotfest.
Issues of previous years were all addressed with the new format. Previously, participating venues were spread all over town, and could take hours to get to. Now, the furthest jaunt was a ten-minute walk from one end of the park to the other. Sound was always an issue at the Congress, as there was never a satisfactory space to set up a second stage. There was adequate space at Humboldt to accommodate the four stages, and stages in close proximity had staggered sets to avoid crossover. The 4 or 5-day format could make it difficult for grown, working folk to get the necessary time off work, potentially limiting out-of-state attendees and lowering overall attendance. The new and improved Riotfest allowed for an easy weekend getaway. I actually saw other people from Columbus there. This never happened in the past unless I brought them personally.
The music was nothing to shake a stick at either. Nobunny was the absolute perfect opener for the fest, tearing it up at 12:45pm and winning over the crowd with lofi punk rock goodness. I’d been on to my friends about Nobunny since Love Visions was released in early 2009, but had never quite sold them. Post Riotfest, CDs have been purchased and he is on regular rotation in their stereos. Gwar was, well, Gwar. This was the first set of the fest to really draw the entire fest crowd. The other stages, although not deserted, struggled to find listeners while Gwar performed to an ocean of people, only the tide of which could get close enough to the stage to get covered in fake blood. Frank Turner gave a roaring performance to a crowd of appreciative festgoers, and managed to get nearly everyone dancing. The highlight of The Gaslight Anthem’s set came when they took me by surprise with a great Nirvana cover.
Off With Their Heads can be added to the list of bands for which band whore Mikey Erg has been an honorary member. They were up against GWAR, but still put on a great set for the punk rock faithful. Teenage Bottlerocket was stellar, breaking into Lillington High mid song, performing extended versions, and mixing in a good dose of new material with the sing-along classics. Slapstick was probably the highlight of the fest for me. I never saw these guys back in my ska punk days, and it was a long time coming getting to see these songs performed live. The only thing that could make this set better was Brendan getting really trashed, slurring his speech, forgetting what band he was performing with, and generally being hilarious. Considering that he did, in fact, do all of the above, I’d say it was perfect.
There were some less awesome moments though. Hot Water Music was a letdown, Andrew WK was so bad we walked off (this coming from lovers of his albums – he was the star of the show at Krazyfest 6 in 2003). I am now a believer in the switcheroo conspiracy (if you aren’t aware, there is a big theory with some credible weight that the Andrew WK performing today is not the original Andrew WK). Shit was weak. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen the Dropkick Murphys at least six times and they played during dinner, so yeah, didn’t catch them.
If you’ve seen enough aging rockers perform, you know some are incredible and some are awesome. Cocksparrer, the Buzzcocks, Joan Jett, the Adicts, and a host of other beyond-their-prime-but-still-touring acts – all incredible live. Unfortunately, you can throw the Descendents alongside acts like the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains, all of whom I find disappointing live. Even my friend Matt, who had never seen them before, and at whose request we all stuck around to watch instead of eating, was so bored after about five songs that he turned and ushered us off. Not even his favorite tune, Bikeage, was enough to change his mind. Only one of my crew was interested in seeing Rise Against, then I reminded him that they were dicks when we met them many moons ago, so we were able to leave nice and early to beat traffic.
And omguguise, that’s just fucking Saturday. Sunday’s lineup was considerably less must-see (for a gang who’d seen most of the acts before, leastways), so my fest posse and I strolled in extremely late, taking the early day to see some of the city. I actually wanted to see the Promise Ring and Built to Spill, neither of whom I’ve seen in the past decade, but hopefully other opportunities arise. We arrived just in time for NoFX. Fat Mike had been sick all weekend, but it took nothing away from their set. This was, for shame, my first time seeing Elvis Costello, who seemed to cater to the audience. Most of his televised performances I’ve seen over the years have been pretty chill, but Sunday’s set was anything but. I’m told the Alkaline Trio played, but I just ate dinner instead. Been there, done that.
Gogol Bordello was incredible. They really stole the show. Any of my friends would tell you this. But I’m going to shoot you straight, dear readers. I can’t say this because my friend Jerry snuck in a bottle of Captain Morgan and shared it freely. I slept through most of the set (while standing up, mind you), and awoke just in time to not remember most of Iggy and the Stooges. Just as the band broke into I wanna Be Your Dog, the crew and I decided to get a head start on the mass of people who would soon be flooding the streets. With guitars churning true raw power out of the sound system, and Iggy strutting around the stage with a swagger lost on today’s youth, we made our way to the front gate, laying rest to our Riot Fest for at least another year.