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.