5 Memorable Sets From Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Sunday

No one does exit polls at the end of music festivals or anything, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that for a lot of people, seeing an artist you truly love doesn’t really factor into the decision to attend a fest. We’ve all heard about the Coachella Diet and read heartbreaking stories of [insert hallowed alt icon here] playing to no one while some glorified pool lounge DJ packs ‘em in, and Lollapalooza has a growing reputation for being a giant party for teenagers that just happens to include bands. So it’s life-affirming that the crowds at Riot Fest actually seem to like music, if crowd sing-alongs and fists in the air can serve as accurate barometers. (And of course, they can.)

The third day of a music festival is always the hardest. Your feet hurt, you’re dehydrated, and your mind has started to believe that this is what life entails now: seeing a bunch of bands in a hot public park while surrounded by overpriced beer. Fortunately, the organizers, much like that dude Vanessa Williams once sang about, saved the best for last.

Thursday

I’ve known Geoff Rickly for several years, so I’m not even going to pretend to be objective about this set. I know how much this meant to him and how hard the band had to work to get to the place where they could play together again, and just seeing how happy my friend looked to be onstage made me feel emotional before a note was played. Again, I’m not an objective source, but I think Geoff has made a lot of great music since Thursday split in 2011, but I also think it’s clear that these guys just belong together, and it’s only right and proper that they’re back out there saving lives. I didn’t make it out to the warm-up show the night before (these write-ups don’t write-up themselves), so I missed an evening of deep cuts and experimental stuff (sigh). I guess I have no right to complain that they didn’t play some of the more expansive stuff off their later albums. But why would I complain, when they instead unleashed the most crowd-pleasing set possible, heavy on tracks from War All The Time (not their best album, but a sentimental favorite) and early singles like “Jet Black New Year.” The band sounded tight and enthused, and the crowd seemed thrilled to have them back, shouting the choruses whenever Rickly needed to catch his breath. They capped their entirely too brief set (really Riot Fest? Just 40 minutes?) with “Understanding In A Car Crash,” which Rickly introduces as a song “you might have heard if you accidentally wandered into Emo Night” at your local bar. This was always the most serious of bands in the early ’00s emo boom; it’s good that time has taught them how to laugh at themselves a little.

The Julie Ruin

Like nearly all music festivals, the line-up for Riot Fest is overwhelmingly male, but booking both Sleater-Kinney and the Julie Ruin (not to mention Worriers, Laura Stevenson, Eskimeaux, and others) is a good faith effort to correct that. As one would hope, the iconic Kathleen Hanna didn’t mince words with her banter, calling out some douchebag who was rating women at the Taco Bell (Him: “You, you’re a seven.” Her: “You’re an asshole!”), internet trolls, and all other manners of modern fuckery, and then dedicated one song to anyone who grew up with alcoholic parents (“It’s so much fun!”) and another to identity politics, (“The ’90s are back!”), urging her fans to find solutions rather than just point out problems. The band played a packed set, which included many songs from their great new album, Hit Reset, and all of them sounded like a punk-rock beach blanket party skit from a ’60s drive-in movie, thanks to the groovy organ and keyboard skills of Kenny Mellman. Also, holy shit! They ended the set with “Rebel Girl.” I had no idea they did this! (Setlist.fm seems to indicate this is the first time this has happened, but take that with a grain of salt.) Since a Bikini Kill reunion is both extremely unlikely and something you wouldn’t even really want anyway, this was the next best thing, and the sight of Hanna singing “In her kiss, I taste the revolution!” was the best surprise of the entire weekend.

Deftones

9.18.16 Chicago, IL #riotfestchicago2016 #riotfestchicago

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There’s more than a bit of a comfort food vibe to Riot Fest. You can go check out new artists on the Rebel Stage if you want, but this is not a festival that has any shame about giving you exactly what you want, year after year. And I’m fine with that. Most of the artists I saw today were old favorites that I’d seen before and was happy to see again, which is a tribute to how packed Sunday was. Though their new album, Gore, was met with praise and helped spark a bit of a reappraisal for the often unfairly maligned California shoegaze-metal group, the Deftones stuck mainly to the earlier material at this stop, which is at least a bit of a shame. (I would have been there for “Prayers/Triangles.”) The audience didn’t seem to mind, chanting along to every “shoooooveeeee” on “My Own Summer (Shove It).” Fortunately, they still crafted an adventurous setlist, pulling out hypnotic White Pony deep cuts like “Digital Bath” and “Knife Prty,” which fit the early evening setting-sun mood and gave ballast to more aggressive moments like the bone-breaking Around The Fur pep-talk “Headup.” Also, it makes me happy to know that Chino Moreno still does his lead onto the monitors, hold hands up, leap off, leap into the crowd maneuver. If he abandoned this signature move, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

Sleater-Kinney

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The reunited (seemingly permanently, thank God) heroines are only playing two shows this year, and this seemed like a relatively low-key affair for them: a chance to stay limber and see their fans without the commitment of a full tour. Based on the grins they flashed each other, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker were happy to log some stage time this year, and Tucker took a moment to praise Riot Fest’s detailed anti-harassment policy, which seems like a large-scale version of the initiative undertaken by Speedy Ortiz last year. (The often quite chatty Brownstein didn’t have any between-song banter this time around. Hope she’s not working too hard.) I’m a big fan who saw them three times last year, but while the setlist was solid and the band was locked-in as ever, it was hard not to notice that they didn’t hit the godlike power level we know and love them for until the closing run through of “The Fox”/”Words And Guitar”/”Dig Me Out”/”Entertain,” but when they finally got cooking, it made me wish they had another hour to destroy the crowd, but such is the peril of festivals.

The Misfits

I missed the Misfits as a teenager. I can’t explain it, but somehow they never got on my radar as a Band You Have To Know the way the Smiths and the Clash did, which meant I missed the prime opportunity to get into them at the right age and level of maturity. I bought one of their compilations shortly after I graduated college, but more out of a sense of filling a blind spot than anything else. I enjoyed the self-titled comp a lot, but I hadn’t listened to it or thought of the band in years, and like many people, I’d come to view Danzig as a bit of a punchline recently, and the revolving-door membership of the Misfits as beyond sad. But I revisited the hits collection to get ready for this show, and was surprised by how many songs I remembered and loved, many seemingly just because they’ve always been around me as a fan of punk and metal, and when the raves rolled in from the band’s inaugural reunion set at Riot Fest Denver, I began to think this might be more than just the sad spectacle of old men cashing in on their legacy.

Misfits T-shirts, in their many, many iterations, were by far the most popular apparel the entire weekend, and the ‘Fits were the only artist to play opposite no one, drawing the biggest crowd of the festival. However much Riot Fest had to fork over to convince Danzig, Jerry Only, and Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein to get over their hurt feelings, it was worth it, because the crowd ate up every whoa-whoa. For their part, the band sounded well-rehearsed and didn’t seem to hate being there, somehow avoiding coming up like embarrassing 60-something men trying to be teenagers. Not only does Only look like a UFC fighter, but their set made a convincing case for the expert pop songwriting and enduring themes of their work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it sparks a critical reevaluation of this band’s legacy and the enduring impact of Danzig. Yes, “Last Caress” and “Teenagers From Mars” and all their other songs are basically about comic books and horror movies, but at their heart, this band is about being young and alienated and only finding solace in the junk you like, an idea that never gets old.

They played every song you might want to hear, from “Where Eagles Dare” to “We Are 138,” and they actually sounded like the Misfits, not some phoned-in karaoke, which was a big concern. There were a few hiccups, of course. Danzig’s voice was mostly in fine form, though he understandably couldn’t hit the high notes and clearly got winded between songs, and while former (sigh) Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo is one of the best to ever do it in any genre, he couldn’t help but sometimes sound heavy-handed when reproducing their ’50s hot-rod rhythms. But these are minor quibbles, especially when you factor in the glory of Danzig’s stage banter. (“Look at these fucking pumpkins.” “I bet a lot of you have kids you take trick or treating. Scream your ass off if you take your kids trick or treating.” “Do you ever want to kill your girlfriend or boyfriend because they pissed you off? That’s what this next song is about…”) Danzig mentioned many times that people “thought this would never happen” and “you’re watching history,” which is true, I guess. After the Replacements, this Riot Fest’s second big reunion get, and at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if they scooped Coachella for the inevitable My Chemical Romance and Rilo Kiley relapses. (Dare to dream with Jawbreaker, I suppose.) Both parties are getting a huge visibility bump after this weekend, but it this was just a paycheck gig for the Misfits, they clearly worked hard for the money.