My last Warped Tour was ten years ago this past summer, and even then I knew I was probably too old to be there. I used to never miss the skate-punk festival turned emo incubator when it rolled into town, but eventually I no longer recognized most of the bands on the line-up, and most of what I sampled led me to believe it was better off that way, and that it was for the best I’d let my subscription to Alternative Press run out. But I guess somewhere in my heart I longed to once again find myself submerged in a sea of Doc Martens and Bad Religion t-shirts, because when I saw the line-up for this year’s Riot Fest, none of the other festivals could remotely hold my interest.
Started in 2006 in Chicago as sort of a small-scale multi-club punk answer to CMJ before becoming Chicago’s third, I believe, major annual music festival in 2012, Riot Fest has been described as Warped Tour for people with mortgages. It’s a charge that is hard to dispute, in that much like Warped Tour, it seems like Rancid, AFI, and NOFX play every other year. (Is it still like that on the for real Warped Tour? I honestly have no idea.) But this actually sells the more-adventurous-than-it-seems-at-first-glance Riot Fest a bit short. Look beyond the mall-punk trappings, and you’ll see that the organizers have always had a healthy respect for the history of underground music (they landed the first Replacements reunion gig, and have gotten Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Blondie, Television, and Elvis Costello to play), and they’ve also given crucial early support to some of the most important young punk and emo bands working, including the Hotelier, Beach Slang, Joyce Manor, Pup, and Cayetana, when most other American festivals can’t be bothered to pretend this scene even exists. (Though to be fair, the festival has also booked embarrassing shit like All Time Low and Sublime With Rome, but Limp Bizkit played the first Warped Tour I ever went to, so wading your way through the trash is also kind of a tradition in this scene.) In an era when most music festivals amount to “flavorless EDM DJ” + “BNM Picks” + “Major Label Horse Trading” + “Whoever Released An Album In The Past 18 Months,” Riot Fest continues to have a distinct aesthetic, which makes it both rare and valuable. Here’re a few highlights from the first day.
Though it’s clear Riot Fest respects its elders, the inclusion of this legendary country-folk-punk band was still a bit of a surprise, though in a year in which indie has finally come around to embracing the Grateful Dead, perhaps it made sense to book the most hippish band to ever record for SST. Though I wasn’t sure what to expect, the Kirkwood brothers were clearly happy to be there (Cris Kirkwood even did the goofy dad thing where he used his bass as a gun and pretended to shoot the crowd), opening with “Up On The Sun” (the title track to their 1985 classic) and running through the traditional folk song “Sloop John B” (you probably know the Beach Boys version). Though they were able to do “The Whistling Song” justice (it’s exactly what it sounds like), their voices started to crack towards the end of “Lake Of Fire” (AKA one of the ones Nirvana covers on Unplugged In New York), but that just gave the brothers an excuse to bust out some extended (but not too extended — this was still a punk festival) solos that would have done Weir and company proud.
Bleeding-heart hardcore softies Touché Amoré (celebrating the release of their great new album Stage Four) and math-metal spazzes the Dillinger Escape Plan (playing one of their last shows before breaking up, apparently, and already making me miss them) were a way to start the day with some energy, but after watching Gwar use a more life-like than strictly necessary penis canon to coat the audience in … something (I prefer not to know what), I needed to sit down and take a testosterone break. Performing on the Rebel Stage (which is far enough away from everything else that sound bleed isn’t as much of an issue) Eskimeaux, the most-high profile and artistically rewarding project to emerge from the folkie Brooklyn collective the Epoch, delivered the driving jangle-pop that I needed at the moment. Gabrielle Smith has become much more comfortable on stage since the last time I saw her, and the soaring new song she performed was the best of the set, always a good sign. The second best song was “Broken Necks,” which lead to a mass sing-a-long of “I was breaking my neck/just to stick it out for you.” Riot Fest probably doesn’t have to book small, interesting bands like this to sell tickets, but they make for a more interesting festival.
Though Refused would make a good effort, this was definitely the most #woke hour of Riot Fest, which should come as no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the songs of the legendary ska group. Singer Terry Hall begged America not to vote for Donald Trump (considering the many, many, many anti-Trump shirts I saw, he needn’t worry too much about this particular demographic), and singer/guitarist Lynval Golding declared both “Black Lives Matter” and “Native American Lives Matter,” before playing “Stereotype.” Golding also dedicated one song to recently deceased ska innovator Prince Buster and another to Rudy Giuliani. (You’ll never guess which one.) Ever the mensch, he also told us he was going to demonstrate proper skanking technique during “Rat Race.” (He didn’t pick it up all the way, but the thought was nice.) Their set was a joyous occasion, filled with the most awkward white person skanking in one place since 1997, but as Hall and Golding traded lines on “Why?” (“We don’t need no British movement/nor the Ku Klux Klan/nor the National Front”) it was a necessary reminder of how far we haven’t come from the days of strife and racial violence that inspired this band to make their songs of unity in the first place.
Jimmy Eat World
Admit it, you’ve been taking Jimmy Eat World for granted. I’ve been doing the same. Maybe it’s time to stop doing that. They have at least three classic albums under their belt, but the past few have all missed the mark in one way or another. But “Sure And Certain” is the best song we’ve heard from them in a while, and when played right before the one-two set closing punch “Sweetness” and “The Middle,” it sounded like it belonged. Which is no small feat, because those are the best singles from the Emo Goes Big Era and don’t even try to argue with the whoa-hos. (This crowd certainly didn’t.) Perhaps frontman Jim Adkins is aware that his band is a huge influence on the new crop of punks, and he knows there’s a new wave of fans out there waiting for him. Or maybe he just wants to impress the people who saw the Taylor Swift commercial. The Arizona emo pioneers played like they had something to prove in the early evening slot, with Adkins telling the crowd the band formed 23 years ago and he’s still grateful that people keep connecting with his art. He then did his best to sell every “whoa-ho” that he could. “Big Casino” and “Pain” sound better than you might remember. “My Best Theory” sounds worse. The Clarity diehards will be pleased to know they still play “Blister.” I still get uneasy at the “I hope for better/in November” line from “Futures” even as the riff engulfs me. Don’t jinx us, Jim.
Look, that last Refused album gets more guff than is strictly necessary. Was Freedom on the level of The Shape Of Punk To Come? No. Come now. That was never in the cards. But there are several jams on it, and that’s more than enough for a reunion record for a band at it this long, and Freedom opener “Elektra” is a hell of a way to kick off a set. The slow-build from “down in the dirt/nothing has changed” to “NOTHING! NOT! A! THING!” is just going to get the pit where it needs to be. Sticking to highlights from both above mentioned albums, the reunited art-core legends kept the intensity levels at fever pitch, but the intellectual and emotional seriousness of this group continues to clash amusingly with Dennis Lyxzén’s natural showmanship. He has perhaps the best dance moves of anyone in punk, and is an absolute master of the ol’ throw-the-mic-and-grab-it-in-the-air gambit. But lest anyone accuses him of not taking the job seriously, before the last song he bit the hand that fed and pointed out that while he could tell that Riot Fest was making an effort to book more women and was trying harder than most of the festivals (true), 12% of the bill was simply not enough (also true), and the audience needed to push the festival to encourage more women to play, and to also dismantle our ingrained sexism “so we can look at our sisters in the eyes as equals.” (This is also true.) He then told us to dismantle the patriarchy and capitalism and dedicated “New Noise” (the most important punk song of the past two decades) to this struggle. That’s, uhm, easier said than done, but Refused specializes in music that makes you feel like you can conquer anything.