Riot Fest: A Review

Riot Fest took place last weekend and it was quite the show. Usually, my thoughts on festivals are such that they are almost never worth their pay-grade, and if you treat live music with any more importance than a gigantic partying ground, then you’re better off paying for individual concerts. But Riot Fest really set itself ahead of the pack by creating a well-crafted lineup that appeals to vivacious fans of several diverse subgenres of music. There were more festival-goers in band shirts than any other event I have seen.

Here’s a day by day breakdown of who I saw and my experience as a whole.

Day 1:

I arrive just in time to catch the last 20 minutes of New Order. I’ve never been a big fan of the band and this didn’t do much to change my mind. The sound seems more dated than other bands of the era and when their best track was covering their previous band Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, I redirected my attention to becoming excited for Nine Inch Nails.

And that excitement was not misplaced. Trent Reznor came roaring out with “Branches/Bones” from their first 2017 EP Not the Actual Events… creating a complete sonic envelopment that carried through the end of an absolute slough through his discography.

An incredible 20 track run through several different Nine Inch Nails projects able to switch moods and textures on a dime. At times, these mood changes were a bit disjointed but others created a necessary break from the chaos tracks like “March of the Pigs” and “1,000,000” could create. The standout track of the set was a cover I was unfamiliar with but has been apparently been circulating for a while now of David Bowie’s absolute swan song “I Can’t Give Everything Away” which is an incredibly beautiful and haunting rendition. Someone needs to start the petition to have them release a studio version.

The end of Day 1 marked one of my few problems with the festival in the direction for vacating. Rushing to get into the festival to see as much as I could, I did not keep great track of where the entrance to the festival was located. It seemed that many different places could work as entrances/exits.

However, the crowd was funneled into one exit after many people were swirling around the border of Douglas Park with pretty much no direction. Not a big problem the following night, but it wasted a good 20-30 minutes and was exhausting with the heat of the festival.

Day 2:

Day 2 I finally saw the festival in the light and the scope shrunk to a more manageable level. Perhaps, too much light though was given. The sun was punishing throughout the day, but thankfully Riot Fest had great accommodations with many areas for shade and a very fast water line. Past Riot Fest patrons made comments about a noticeable improvement in this area and it was much appreciated. The other comment they made was on the festivals growing popularity. The artists this festival boasts are impressive, but some of the non-headliners could be considered a bit niche.

One of the niche artists that I was excited to see was experimental hip-hop artists Shabazz Palaces whose performance created an incredibly intoxicating vibe perfect for a pleasant midday soundtrack. Their fusion of bongo beats mixed with sparse and distinct samples and synths made me excited to check out their recent double album effort.

Before seeing FIDLAR, I wanted to find the food vendors as I had heard many good things about them but could only seem to find carnival food. The stands were a bit out of the way if you were not interested much in the Rise Stage which hosted mostly pop-punk and post-hardcore bands but once there, I was greeted to a whole host of delectable foods. Being vegan, I was worried there would not be many options for my diet, but before I could even look over the soba noodle stand’s menu, I heard someone say bbq “pulled pork” seitan sliders and I instantly gave a 5-star rating to Riot Fest’s gourmet. While over there, I could hear on the outside the band Bayside who were very nice subdued background music for my slider snack on a grassy knoll.

At this point, I was due for a water refill and since the water line was close to the Heather Owens Stage I caught the band Gin Rummy who made me a fan with their interesting blend of punk and what sounded like ragtime, sang out of a tinny mic, complete with a cabaret dancer.

With all these distractions, I ended up not even catching FIDLAR. This led, however, to a very noticeable musical drought for myself in the festival. After FIDLAR, there were the options of Bad Brains, Potty Mouth, and Danzig and a little later The Lawrence Arms. I was excited for the prospect of seeing Bad Brains but unfortunately, the age of the band has showed in the vocals. The energy level was certainly there with a very amped up frontman but it appeared to me that it was not their usual frontman H.R. I never really was close enough to notice but it seemed like he was not the one singing and hopping around the stage.

I returned to Heather Owens to see Potty Mouth who were probably the best option at the time but seemed very middle-of-the-road. So I tried Danzig and well, I recant my statement about the vocals showing in the Bad Brains. The performance was almost comical. Thinking it couldn’t be any worse than that, I headed over to the Rise Stage and I was swiftly proven wrong once more. I am not completely adverse to post-hardcore groups but this group left an actual aura of distaste to my ears.

It was at this point that I jested with my friend that we needed to have Mike D of Beastie Boys fame show up to “save music”. Waiting patiently at the Radicals Stage, it was hilariously apropos when Mike D showed up and blasted a Dolby THX surround sound noise. Mike D, however, did not really save music with a very mild DJ set where he could never quite make up his mind on what he wanted to play.

He really should have just stuck to playing his Beastie Boys material (which everyone wanted) but instead played some current tracks like Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem” and Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” and some good tunes that he would repeatedly cut short before the crowd could find the groove.

The closing of Day 2 though was immaculate. In the interim between Mike D and Wu-Tang Clan, a talented group of Chicago schoolchildren gave an acapella rap performance about their struggles, trying to inform the crowd of the ongoing violence in the city. It may have been a mismatch for the tone of the crowd at first but I feel the crowd was swayed by a recurring motto of the night that Wu-Tang is for the children. It was welcome to have a performance while waiting for the eventual ruckus that was about the be brought.

Before the performance, my friend had heard doubts from another person that Wu-Tang would be as good live with different members. Those doubts were absolutely shattered though by the confirmation that as long as Wu-Tang has the RZA, they will never lose their tempo. RZA’s production seemingly lifted the crowd’s feet from the earth and never let them down. Each member was larger than life and their interplay created a seamless flow that made the performance fly by.

I left early to ensure that I would see the start of Queens of the Stone Age. And at first, I was a bit underwhelmed being further back than I had been at Nine Inch Nails. It felt as if the sound was half as loud which I could not tell if it was because of the distance, the difference in instrumentation, or the audio system itself. Regardless, I was still driven in by “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar…”, the opener for the set and their most beloved album Song for the Deaf, so I headed further into the crowd.

When I finally closed in on the stage I was met with an unforgettable performance. Easily the highlight of the festival. I was surprised to look over the set list and see 14 songs listed as I could only really count 7. This was because Queens really did not deliver a set list, they delivered an experience. Each song flowed into the next with no hesitation, showing utter mastery of their craft. An epic drum solo in fan favorite “No One Knows” was on the lips of everyone walking out of the festival. Almost none of the songs I was looking forward to hearing them play were played and I could not be happier. It did seem to end 10 minutes early but was worth every second.

Conclusion:

I was unable to stay for Day 3 but I cannot imagine Built to Spill and Dinosaur Jr’s full album sets being anything less than excellent. The weekend chosen for the festival is a bit of a bummer for us college kids but that probably contributed to the more mature audience which did make for a more pleasant experience overall.

Riot Fest delivered on its title to incite one hell of a good time for those who like to rock and then some.