If you follow live music, you have to admit that the mega festival movement is getting a bit stale. Every year we get massively overhyped announcements from the likes of Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo that have music blogs buzzing for a few days before everyone realizes the lineups are basically the same and tickets, flights, and hotels would cost a small fortune.
Riot Fest is by just about any definition, a mega festival. This year’s edition featured some big names (Fall Out Boy, Blink-182), some even bigger reunions (The Replacements), four different stages, and thousands and thousands of attendees who packed Humbolt Park in Chicago over three days.
What makes Riot Fest special however, is what it lacks in comparison to its counterparts. For one, the festival isn’t all that diverse. It was created to celebrate Chicago’s proud punk rock tradition, and while its lineup now stretches to include more mainstream acts and a few oddballs (Public Enemy, anyone?), it continues to have a more focused lineup than most other major festivals.
It also lacks the commercialism of many of today’s larger festival. Local food trucks and vendors provided the food, and there was plenty of booth space for independent record labels, local clothing startup-ups, and charities selling bottled water for a buck. The tickets were cheap as well, especially if you bought early. My three-day pass cost a whopping $70.
Riot Fest also lacks the type of party atmosphere that defines so many major festivals. This isn’t to say that attendees weren’t ready to have a good time, but for most part, the primary focus was always on the music. Artists repeatedly marveled at the enthusiasm of the giant crowds that came to sing along, even in Sunday’s pouring rainstorms.
Friday’s lineup got things off to a good start as fans searched for the best vantage points and learned the lay of the land. While a number of small acts took the stage early, some attendees played speed pitch at the carnival located just behind the main stage, while others hopped on the Ferris Wheel.
On the “Rise” Stage, Andrew W.K. made at least one reference to partying between every song and was followed by GWAR, who showered the crowd in fake blood and defeated Giant Zombie Jesus (seriously).
Later that night, Fall Out Boy used every trick in the book to captivate the hometown audience, with ramps, a giant light show, and a piano that magically appeared from underneath the stage. Their set was capped off by a visit from Chicago Blackhawks executive Danny Wirtz, who happened to bring the Stanley Cup along with him.
Saturday welcomed the festivals biggest crowd, with many in attendance gathering at mid-day to watch back to back sets from punk stalwarts Pennywise and Flag (featuring members of legendary hardcore outfit Black Flag).
Blink-182’s headlining set that night had fans lining up as far as the eye could see, and their hour and fifteen minute performance was impossible not to sing along to.
Sunday started with an 11:30 set from Hot Water Music’s Chuck Regan. Despite the early start and drizzle that had began falling, hundreds of die hards still showed up to appreciate the master at work.
The rain began to pick up as more and more fans arrived, but slowed slightly during a thirty minute set from Connecticut’s Hostage Calm, who made a good impression on the large crowd that had gathered in anticipation of the Wonder Years set that was up next. The Philly crew, led by lead singer Dan “Soupy” Campbell put on one of my favorite sets of the entire weekend, with their energetic live show receiving a huge reaction. Campbell later said the day was one of the best of his life. High praise indeed.
Saves the Day took the stage for a set filled with older fan favorites as the storm hit it’s peak. I couldn’t see lead singer Chris Conley very well around all the umbrellas, but he did sound pretty good.
As the Saves the Day set ended and the rain began to lighten, what seemed like the entire park converged on the “Roots” stage for one of the weekend’s most anticipated sets. While the Brand New camp has been relatively quite over the past few years, the band remains a huge cult favorite and a “can’t miss” live act. I felt bad for anyone trying to compete with them on one of the other stages.
After opening with three tracks from 2009’s polarizing Daisy, the band strung together some of the most recognizable tracks from across their catalog. After group closed with an epic version of “You Won’t Know”, a large portion of the crowd rushed over to the main stage, where AFI had just kicked off their set.
The final performance of the festival belonged to the Replacements – a band that had played exactly one show in the past 22 years, with that coming only a few weeks earlier at the Toronto edition of Riot Fest. Their return has generated an unbelievable amount of excitement from their fans, and a whole lot has been written about their Toronto performance (google it if you don’t believe me).
My first impression was that this didn’t look or sound like a band making a much hyped comeback. There was no flashy stage setup, and lead singer Paul Westerberg even stopped mid-song to admit that he couldn’t remember the verse on more than one occasion. Despite these miscues, the band sounded good and was able to captivate not only their longtime fans, but also an entirely new generation of fans that had the chance to observe the historic return.
The Replacements’ set was a good representation of the festival as a whole – it may have lacked the polish and shine you expect from such a happening, but if you were there for polish and shine, you were probably in the wrong place to begin with.
A cynic might see Weezer’s six city “Memories Tour” as a type of peace offering to their longtime fans who have suffered through the release of six subpar albums since 1994’s iconic Weezer (the Blue album) and 1996’s beloved Pinkerton. A cynical fan might also view the tour as a shameless attempt to cross-promote their newest single, appropriately titled “Memories.”
However, both cynics and non-cynics alike can agree that the “Memories” tour was a tremendously enticing idea, with the band playing two nights in each city, performing the Blue album in its entirety on the first night and Pinkerton the next night, along with a number of the band’s other hits. The tour made its final stop at the cavernous Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, and as expected, the results were spectacular.
Night One: The Blue Album
Much like Weezer, the Aragon Ballroom is strange. It has certainly seen better days (insert Weezer joke here), but it’s size and general admission floor made it a good fit for a tour that was certainly in high demand, yet deserved a more intimate setting than an arena or seated theater. The venue features a Spanish villa theme, with Terracota balconies, private boxes, and even castle spires. All of this sits below a ceiling painted like a nighttime sky, complete with twinkling stars.
Both nights began with an unimpressive set from electronic rock act, the Limousines. They sounded like a cross between Metro Station and MGMT. Needless to say, the crowd was not into it. On the second night, the band failed to even mention their name until after their last song.
Weezer kicked off their set with “Memories” from 2010’s Hurley, which received only a luke-warm response from the crowd. The band would play the first half of the show as a five-piece band, with drummer Pat Wilson stepping down from the kit to handle the guitar work normally covered by frontman Rivers Cuomo. Cuomo was therefore free to work the crowd and make his presence known throughout the venue.
The band would then work backward through their catalogue, playing their biggest hits from Raditude, The Red Album, and 2005’s Make Believe. When the band made their way back to 2002’s “Keep Finishing,” Rivers literally scaled the balcony and made his way up a private box, and then to visit a large groups of fans seated to the side of the stage. All the while, guitarist Brian Bell handled the singing duties.
Rivers would return to the stage as the band turned their attention to Pinkerton track “Falling for You.” The crowd loved the spectacle of the set, especially when Cuomo ventured down on to the floor to share the mic with those in the front row.
The band would then leave the stage for an unexpectedly long “intermission.” This period would feature its own brand of entertainment, as a group of pre-teens from “The School of Rock” made their way onstage to perform “Photograph” and “El Scorcho.” I’m not sure what this says about the complexity of Weezer’s songs, but they sounded pretty much spot on. Next up was a slide show presented by the band’s longtime roadie Karl Kotch. Kotch took the audience on a quick tour of Weezer’s history, showcasing show flyers at classy venues such as Club Dump and an early show review that bashed the band’s poor live performance.
Weezer would then make their way back to the stage, having changed clothes, and apparently their demeanor. They were now all business, functioning once again as a quartet with Pat Wilson returning to the drum kit.
With very little between song banter or stage movement, the band would power through The Blue Album in sequential order as those in the crowd basked in the moment. Each song sounded perfect pumping through the Aragon’s powerful sound system. The show built to an epic crescendo, with “Only in Dreams” acting as the grand finale. The fan favorite, which has rarely been played live in recent years, received a huge reaction from the crowd that inspired the group to lock arms and take a bow at the front of the stage.
Night Two: Pinkerton
While the first half of Weezer’s night one set had been quite enjoyable, the band hadn’t exactly displayed much creativity in choosing to play a radio hit or two from each record. Going into night two, I was expecting more of the same, but luckily, I was wrong.
After the Limousines set, Weezer took the stage and once again began with “Memories.” They then skipped over Raditude and went straight to the huge hooks of 2008’s hit “Pork and Beans.” Rivers would then make his way out into the crowd during “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived.” “Perfect Situation” and the excellent Maladroit track “Dope Nose” would follow. The band then took a surprising turn into b-side territory, playing three rarely heard tracks in a row, those being “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly,” “Susanne,” and “Jamie.” Weezer would then close the first half of the show with “Only in Dreams,” which once again had the crowd up in arms.
During this night’s intermission, The School of Rock kids returned, all be it with a different cast to perform Blue Album favorites “In the Garage” and “Say It Ain’t So.” Karl would then take the stage with an amusingly updated slide show as well.
Finally, Weezer would return for a forty-five minute set that would completely overshadow everything that had come before it, including the previous night’s Blue Album performance. Beginning with “Tired of Sex” and continuing straight up to the moment that Cuomo would strum the closing notes to “Butterfly,” the band turned in the type of performance that would have even the most jaded longtime Weezer fans tipping their hats.
Songs such as “Getchoo” and “Pink Triangle” exploded from the speakers and enveloped the crowd, while “El Scortcho” inspired the type of pushing and shoving that is rarely seen at Weezer shows. The highlight of the night (at least for me) was “Across the Sea,” with the band conveying all of the song’s twists and turns perfectly. Much like the night before, the band moved little on stage and talked even less, letting the music speak for itself.
While the show’s closing number didn’t quite pack the same emotional punch as “Only in Dreams,” Cuomo’s solo performance of “Butterfly” still provided a poignant ending to the “Memories” tour.
As the crowd slowly (and I mean very, very slowly) made their way out of the venue, it became clear that fans had seen something they probably won’t get the chance to see again. It was the closest we’ll come to stepping into a time machine to see Weezer in their prime. The set provided forty-five minutes to forget about “At the Mall” and a Lil’ Wayne cameo, and be reminded of why we fell in love with Weezer in the first place. Was it worth the airfare, the hour long wait for the coat check, the Chicago winter, and even having to hear songs from Raditude? You bet it was.