Before we get into highlights of day two of Riot Fest, one gripe.
Dear Riot Fest organizers,
Fucked Up are one on the greatest bands of their generation. They have two classic albums to their credit. They’ve pushed the boundaries of what their genre is capable of, are critically acclaimed, and amazing live. Don’t give them a 1 p.m. slot again. No earlier than 3:30 p.m. I did everything I could to get there on time and still only saw the tail end of their last song “Glass Boys.” That hurt. No disrespect to Hippo Campus, Night Riots, or the Walters, but there are plenty of other bands that could have opened the day. Now, here are some sets I did see in full. (Except for one).
The Hold Steady
I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. The Hold Steady made two solid records with a handful of great songs after Franz Nicolay left, and they remained a very good live band. They were doing fine. But man oh man, I forgot just how much I missed that guy. He seriously just makes this whole band so much better, just by dropping some sweet keyboard rolls at just the right time and then looking justifiably pleased with himself. Nicolay has changed since leaving the band after Stay Positive. He’s lost the mustache and hit the gym, and has traded in the natty suits for a muscle t-shirt. But he still knows how to play the right part at the right time and then no more, and his dance moves are nonpareil. (He packs so much into his “play the riff and then back away quickly” routine). This set was a run through of the almighty Boys And Girls In America in its entirety plus a few other hits, in celebration of the album’s 10th anniversary. (God, I’m old). The band sounded energized and seemed galvanized by Nicolay’s presence, (Craig Finn was even more smiley than usual) and the second guitarist didn’t have to compensate for a missing keyboardist anymore, so the whole thing flowed together well. I have no idea if Nicolay is just playing these anniversary shows or what, but since this band isn’t the relentless touring and recording monster of a decade ago (It’s cool, priorities change when you get older), surely there’s room for him to stay onboard and still make the weird solo albums he likes to make in his spare time.
Be it a new song like “The End of Things” or “The Descent,” or a classic from the Sugar or Hüsker Dü catalog, Bob Mould and his crack-backing band attacked everything at full velocity, making it all sound like the work of a scrappy basement punk band determined to break through and conquer the world. There was barely any between song banter, and every song led right into the next, with only lighter numbers like “Changes” acting as a chance to catch your breath, and even that version was a thousand times more raggedy than the original. Though he could easily kick back and rest on his laurels, Mould is on a hell of a run in both the studio and on the stage at the moment. His song craft and energy shame most younger acts and most of his veteran peers. Don’t miss him next time he comes to town.
It’s very easy to look back on the matching costumes and absurd hype and write the Hives off as early century gimmick, another would-be savior that didn’t save shit. I personally haven’t thought about them in years, but Riot Fest is a forgiving place, and since I had time to kill between sets, I walked over and caught the last part of their set. The band members were all dressed in black and white checkerboard, and their roadies were in either head-to-toe white or black. The poor sweaty bastards. During “Tick Tick Boom,” Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, sporting shoulder length hair, demanded the audience sit down. “You can squat too, that’s all right.” He then made it clear the band wasn’t going to play another note until they did as he said. He stared them down, and eventually most of the field relented. Then he demanded everyone jump right at the last “Tick, tick, tick, boom!” Honestly, it was kind of incredible to watch, the sort of moment only the craftiest of showmen can provide.
The Long Island emo overlords easily drew one of the largest and, if gesturing towards the stage, hitting your chest and singing along is any indication, most passionate crowds of the weekend. It was hard to not to wonder, actually, if they could have headlined this thing if they’d dropped an album since 2009. After all, they recently headlined Madison Square Garden. Their fans are legion these days. But if they weren’t defiantly idiosyncratic and always doing things their way no matter what, then they wouldn’t be Brand New, now would they? Opening with a run through of Déjà Entendu numbers and closing with “Jesus Christ” and “Yeah (Sowing Season),” they were downright jammy at times, goosing their crescendos with extra solos and as much explosive noise as they could muster, all to thunderous approval. This audience was clearly there to love these guys no matter how difficult they got, which has been quite difficult indeed throughout their career. Even the new song went over pretty well. If rumors are to be believed, they might be done in 2018, and we’ll probably never know what their deal was, but they had a hell of a run and made emo and guitar rock a much more interesting place while they were around.
Death Cab For Cutie
This was the first time I’ve caught these guys since Chris Walla left. Actually, this was my first show of their’s I’ve seen since the Narrow Stairs days. I used to love the hell out of these guys (sensitive dudes gotta sensitive) but the albums since then didn’t do it for me. Though it was odd to see them in their current form at first, this new line-up, featuring Dave Depper and Zac Rae on guitars and keyboards, has jelled together nicely, and it’s clear this band really needed a full-time second guitarist. The new line-up wasn’t afraid to put their mark on things, giving closing number “Marching Bands of Manhattan” an Unforgettable Fire type of slow rolling grace. I’d never write a songwriter of Benjamin Gibbard’s talent off, and I liked the singles from Kintsugi better than I remembered. But even if they have the live show down, this is still a band trying to find a way forward. But a few setlist quibbles aside, (Seriously, not one song from We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes?) they gave the people what they wanted, and if my Twitter feed is any indication, the acoustic “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” flooded Douglas Park with tears.
You’d think that with only an hour and 45 minutes to play, our man Moz would be content to just show a few minutes of the video mood board he plays before ever set. Ha. Ha-ha-ha. As ever, Morrissey has gotta Morrissey, so we got the full half hour of Ramones, New York Dolls, Andy Warhol, and Ralph Baldwin clips, much to the audience’s challenged patience. (Twitter was displeased). He also insisted that the food vendors stop selling meat during his set, which is a bold move in Chicago, a town that takes the carnivore lifestyle seriously. He then proceeded to play a set heavily tilted towards the albums released from his 2004 comeback onwards, saving one Smiths song (“What She Said”) for the end and opening with with the classic single “Suedehead.” But would anyone even want a user-friendly Morrissey? If he didn’t force us to sit through the truly laughable spectacle that is “The Bullfighter Dies,” instead of, like, playing “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” then his fans just wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. It’s a difficult relationship we have with this diva, and it’s how we want it. But for his part, he was in fine form last night, sounding as vulnerable and exasperated as you could possibly hope during “The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores” and “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” shouting out Bernie Sanders on “Irish Blood, English Heart” and playing some truly disturbing police brutality footage during “Ganglord.” (People got super weirded out by that, though it didn’t stop one couple from slow grinding in front of me). That said, perhaps Morrissey is starting to feel his age, as he didn’t throw his shirt into the audience once, thus depriving us of the spectacle of grown men fighting each other for the honor of catching his garments.