I’ve been really in the weeds with work lately. Just completely buried in it. Call It Freelancer Syndrome: I just say yes to everything. Recently when I was talking about my schedule with someone, I ended the conversation with “and I think I’m going to Riot Fest. Maybe. Not sure if it’s still happening.”
In an increasingly homogenized festival landscape, the Chicago-based festival has developed a nice niche for itself by staying true to its punk and alt roots while keeping an open mind about what that ethos can contain. This is a festival that treats Sleater-Kinney, Fucked Up, Andrew W.K., Julie Ruin, and the Hotelier with equal levels of respect, and one with a pretty smart take on the kind of hip-hop that people who mostly listen to rock get down with. (Wu-Tang, Nas, and Danny Brown in previous years, Run The Jewels this year.) I had a blast at the last two Riot Fests. The bills are mostly well chosen, the age-spanning crowd generally seems like they are actually there to enjoy music and chill, and it’s never too crowded or overwhelming.
But there were a few strange hiccups this year. First, the lineup wasn’t even announced until May, which is pretty damn late, as the festival season had already started. Then, they had to deal with a security leak at the ticket distributor, Ticketfly, when a security breach left festival-goers’ information vulnerable; the festival responded by offering discounted passes for this year and next. Then the second set of bands wasn’t announced until mere weeks before the festival began, and the festival had to hustle to find a new headliner after Blink-182 had to drop out for medical reasons. Not all of this is the festival’s fault, but it did create an impression of a festival that is struggling to stay on top of everything in an increasingly crowded market. It also didn’t help that there wasn’t much online buzz about this year’s lineup. After previously scoring reunion coups with the likes of Jawbreaker, the Misfits, and the Replacements, this year was content to rely on old-standbys and previous headliners like Weezer and Taking Back Sunday.
In fairness to Riot Fest, things moved pretty smoothly this entire weekend. You would never know that even a week ago, people were tweeting at the official account, asking them if the festival was even still happening. That said, why was Blink-182 headlining again, anyway? They’ve done the festival a million times before and they just played Lollapalooza. Wasn’t a fresher offer available?
I’m not trying to be hard on Riot Fest. It’s one of the few festivals that is still tolerable. They have a nice mix of reverence for the legacy of punk, college rock, metal, and so on, and a feel for where it’s going. Part of the Midwestern charm of the event is that it gives you exactly what you want: deep-dish pizza, beer, and, in previous years, full-album renditions of the Hold Steady’s Boys And Girls In America and White Zombie’s Astro Creep 2000. This punk-dad late-summer camp is always going to be a place where you can expect to see either Bad Religion or Social Distortion every year, and that’s fine. But like Coachella before it, Riot Fest also became a little too reliant on big-time names. And, well, we’re running out of past. Who’s left that can get this audience excited? Look, it’s just not going to happen with Bikini Kill, Operation Ivy, or Fugazi. It’s too soon to expect Girls, My Chemical Romance, or Rilo Kiley to reunite. I wouldn’t rule out Hole, but otherwise, we’ve tapped this resource. If Riot Fest wants to continue to thrive in its role of Music Festival For Adults That Don’t Get Post-Malone And Find EDM Repetitive, it needs to work on building up the next generation, as it probably can’t get way with pivoting to pop.
Now, the festival has booked the sort of smart, passionate acts that show there is still plenty of life in underground rock music. But there’s a frustrating tendency on the festival to give acts like Speedy Ortiz, Fucked Up, Beach Slang, or Touché Amoré early afternoon sets, often at 1PM, when these are acts that would benefit from the larger platform and exposure and would help confirm the festival’s dedication to nurturing the next generation.
Don’t get me wrong. They chose the right standbys, for the most part. Though it was a strange decision to put Liz Phair so early in the day, before most people had arrived, it was amazing to watch Elvis Costello proving he can get back on his Angry Young Man Shit anytime he feels like it with a languorous slow-fuck version of “I Want You.” Or see Blondie segue into chunks of Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby,” or Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart,” or see Beck turn “Loser” into a festival-wide sing-along like the professional showman he’s aged into. I wish I had half the energy of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, pogoing across the stage joyfully during “Hyper Enough” and attacking every line of “What A Time To Be Alive” with the venom of a guy who can’t believe we’re still dealing with the same shit. The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow could still kick my ass, and yours. Even Jerry Lee Lewis kinda killed it on “Great Balls Of Fire.” Weezer played some bullshit I wasn’t feeling, but when those Pinkerton jams hit I was in a forgiving mood. (Rivers Cuomo still looks stiff onstage, but I’ve started to become endeared by his goofy dad vibe.) Even visits to the recent past were charming, with Cat Power delivering a beautiful, restrained set featuring versions of “Cross Bones Style” and “Manhattan” that felt so delicate they almost fell apart onstage, and Interpol injected a little extra swing into new cuts like “The Rover” and “If You Really Love Nothing.” And I don’t know, I bet Bad Religion doing the classic Suffer all the way through was cool, but you can’t see everything.
But while some of those acts in that previous paragraph can still produce good work, they’re all veteran acts. The festival can rely too much on standbys, and has a tendency to let anonymous Warped Tour types like Bullet For My Valentine clog up the bill when they need to be fostering new talent. I know it’s not helpful to carp at a festival for not booking the bands that I like, but there’s so much exciting stuff going on in the underground, from Camp Cope to Turnstile to Car Seat Headrest to Ought to War On Women to some cool stuff on Bandcamp that I haven’t caught on to yet that would go over well here in a prime spot. Hell, give the 1975 or Twenty One Pilots a shot and lure in the next generation of rock radio listeners. Or reach out to the punkier end of the internet rap explosion; I’m sure Rico Nasty would kill.
But while the festival needs to work harder to push things forward, it wrapped up with a promising sign on Sunday night. Curiosity overcame me and I watched a few minutes of Incubus set, because I wanted to know if they still had a DJ (they do) and “Privilege” still goes. (Also, I never realized until now how much Brandon Boyd wanted to be the rock boy Ani DiFranco.) But then I caught back-to-back sets by Father John Misty (who pointed out that he was wearing a white suit and playing an acoustic guitar at a punk festival, a punk move) and Run The Jewels. Both of these acts are festival mainstays, and not exactly mind-blowing gets, but they’re both undeniably in their prime and delivered big-time, with the erstwhile Josh Tillman delivering an operatic “Pure Comedy” and continuing his public-image course correction by keeping the hip-swinging shaman himbo charisma to a maximum and his banter to a minimum, and Run The Jewels showing they can punch any audience in the face and make them like it. Mike and El have been creeping up the festival bills in the past few years, but they closed it out last night, ending the night on an emotional high-point by dedicating “Thursday In The Danger Room” to the late Mac Miller and Camu Tao, and “Down” to anyone feeling suicidal or anyone working at a suicide prevention hotline.
These acts aren’t punk in sound, but they are in spirit, and it’s encouraging that Riot Fest didn’t just recognize it, it still gave them the biggest slots. There’s a place for nostalgia, even from punks, but there’s a difference between celebrating the past and living in the past, and the smart festivals know this. Hopefully.