Riot Fest Diary 2023: Hunger, Tinnitus, & Crying To The Cure

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Riot Fest Diary 2023: Hunger, Tinnitus, & Crying To The Cure

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Saturday — 2:30PM

“The day I thought of ‘Rock And Roll Crosswords,’ I threw open the door to my apartment and ran to my computer to check USPTO. Nothing. I filed a patent and, baby, at that moment we were a-go.”

This guy looks like Breckin Meyer circa Garfield: The Movie. Apparently he’s 49. Danielle lowers her sunglasses and raises her camera as he shows her the inside of his book. In between the crosswords, after the introduction by Art Alexakis of Everclear, there are pages and pages of rock stars he has photographed with his puzzles: Tom Morello, Lisa Loeb, Warren Hayes, Grouplove, etc.

“I can’t spend all my time at rock shows though. You have to have festivals on flat ground, but, really, I’m a guy who needs to live in the mountains. Snowboarding is my art,” Todd — his name is Todd — continues, suddenly turning from my 21-year-old sister to the 30s-ish woman sitting beside him. She looks surprised to have been acknowledged but quickly nods to confirm that this is true. “Songwriting, that’s my other art, but I can’t really sing. It’s tough to be a songwriter who can’t sing.”

We’re sitting in the press area because Danielle wants to rest and look at her photos. Cool. They have endless free IPAs in here — also two chiropractors, though supposedly you have to visit them both. One “massages.” The other “adjusts.” Todd shows my sister a photo on his phone, a dude with one arm holding his crosswords. He says it’s Aaron Ralston — the guy James Franco played in 127 Hours. Todd ran into him at a Phish concert the other night. He says he’s cool — you can even say the word “stub” to him. Aaron doesn’t mind.

I get a text from a guy I know who’s at Corey Feldman across the field:

“He came out in a full Michael Jackson hat and outfit and quickly left to put on a sparkly jacket and eventually got shirtless. Besides the drummer the band was a trainwreck like super super amateur players and he was mega cocky and super into it and doing rock star moves so it was really everything we were all hoping for.”

@posh_spice666 Corey Feldman does Riot Fest 2023. Truly a memory I will never forget 😂 #fyp #riotfest #coreyfeldman ♬ original sound – Judy Bloom

Shit. We shoulda been there. Wrap it up Danielle. We can hear Jehnny Beth though; she’s playing one of the big headliner stages right outside, although there weren’t a lotta folks watching when we walked by. Do people still care about Savages? I remember thinking they were gonna conquer the world after I saw them at Pitchfork Fest 2016. Pretty sure Jehnny was the first frontperson I ever saw security lift up so they could sing on the barrier. That blew my teenage mind. I should send my sister “Husbands.” That’s a classic track. Haven’t heard this solo stuff before. Sounds kinda slow and industrial and artsy. Her drummer was wearing a shirt that said “Sexual intellectual.” Haha.

That British folk-punk guy comes into the press area — Frank Turner. Todd points him out and says Frank loves his crosswords. In fact, he might be the biggest Rock And Roll Crosswords fan there is. I ask if he’s gonna wave hello, but Todd says “nah.” He said hi to Frank earlier.

Danielle glares at me. “Why do you have to be so judgemental?” her eyes say. She asks Todd if we can have a copy of his book. “No,” he says. The physical books he’s gotta save for the rockstars. If she gives him her email, though, he can send her scans of the puzzles. My sister smiles and says that’s okay.

“Think about it, though. Everybody here is selling something,” he says, gesturing to the motley crue assembled around us beneath the hot Chicago sun. “The publicists are selling their clients, the musicians are selling their art, the label people are selling stock, the Riot Fest photo people are selling Riot Fest, you guys are selling your journalism. But I’m giving these books away for free. This is pure passion.”

“What? Of course you’re selling stuff,” I say. Danielle shoots me another look. Shit. “Not the books, literally, obviously. But you’re getting photos and quotes that’ll sell the next book… and putting your face and brand out there…I mean there’s no shame in it. It’s cool. It’s just… y’know… I’m sorry dude. That was rude.”

Todd says no, no, I’m right. That’s a good point. He excuses himself a few moments later to talk to the musician who has just entered the press area. I don’t recognize him but he’s wearing a scarf. Sick.

The 30s-ish woman very sweetly asks if me and Danielle are twins. I’m flattered. My sister looks horrified. That’s fair. I’ve got a few years on her; she’s still a senior in college, younger than pretty much anyone else here with a camera strapped to them. Danielle’s department at GW leant her the Bond-movie-briefcase-bomb-looking thing that rests on her sternum. A Fujifilm GFX 50R. Honestly, it’s like twice the size of my sternum. Apparently an old photo dude in the Origami Angel pit yesterday told her she had the wrong lens on. Joke’s on him and the rest of journalism. My sister’s an actual artist. Or… at least… so she says.

“Music photography is so boring. Fuck stage photos. So what? They’re up there sweating? You can get that from AP. I’m interested in people,” Danielle explains to the 30s-ish woman, showing her some of the photos she’s taken of the Riot Fest crowd. My favorite so far was this punk with real cool earrings — heart-shaped with a hundred sharp, stabby little sabers around their edges. “So, y’know, like real hearts,” the punk had said. She was joking, probably, but I convinced myself I could see her entire life flash in her eyes as she said it.

“If you’re not gonna show me something new, then give me the boring thing abstract. Give me the boring thing blurry,” Danielle continues. “The first rule of photography is if you’re standing with a bunch of other photographers it’s not gonna be a good photo. By definition, that’s a photo that doesn’t need to exist.”

I wonder to myself if the drummer in the Sexual Intellectual shirt would agree with my sister. We say bye. My sister goes to the bathroom while I dig through a Dunkin Donuts bag that I realize too late to be for Riot Fest staff only. Oh well. On the way out, headed for Rival Schools, I glance behind me. Todd is now sitting with one of the Loyola college radio girls we met yesterday. Behind his head, the 30s-ish woman smiles at me. At least I’m pretty sure she does. Checking the stopwatch on my phone it says it’s been 32 hours since I’ve eaten. Yeah. She definitely smiled at me. I put a Splenda packet in my mouth.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Friday — 1:15PM

My sister is off looking for people to photograph. I meet up with this Minneapolis dude “Mookid” who I’ve texted with on and off for about two years now. He’s sort of a celebrity on that website Rate Your Music — listens to like eight albums a day and has written about every show he’s ever gone to. Mookid’s wearing a gnarly, stomach-churning grindcore shirt and it turns out he’s like nine feet tall with crazy unkempt Dan Bejar hair. Cool dude, but he spends our whole conversation looking around the field and not at me. It’s sort of uncanny talking to someone so tall without getting any eye contact. Makes me feel like aliens are about to land or somebody is about to sneak up and drive a knife through my back. Mookid asks me what I thought about Origami Angel.

“I dunno,” I say. “I have immense respect for all the eclectic, technical decoupage they graft onto their mall-emo foundation — think I heard a bar or two of bossa nova guitar there between one of those Relient K choruses, that was cool — but I’m a miserable, anxious person so all the style-hopping fun makes me feel like being hit in the chest…by a cannon…shooting T-shirts…with, like, the word ‘GENRE’ on them. That said! I do enjoy their earnestness and find myself relating to the core of aughts-era suburban nostalgia undergirding a lot of their songs. I also miss eating Count Chocula at 2AM and fantasizing about trading Tamagotchi pets with my playground crush. But I also wasn’t listening to pop-punk while I was doing those things. Maybe that’s key?”

“Okay,” he says. “I thought they shredded.”

“Yeah,” I mumble. “Really talented musicians.”

Mookid leaves to go check Hawthorne Heights. My sister comes back. She asks how my right ear is feeling. I tell her my right ear is feeling fine. Origami Angel didn’t have a bassist.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Sunday — 4:30PM

My sister is seeing Anthony Green for the first time after hearing L.S Dunes from across the field.

“Oh my god, that’s a dude,” she exclaims.

“Yeah. Guy’s got a really high voice,” I say, silently marveling at how hot Anthony Green is. “Kind of a post-hardcore legend.”

Many in the audience clearly agree. Collectively, a pocket of people near the center right crowdsurfs a jumbo piece of pizza to the stage. Literally it’s the size of like half a pie. Anthony picks it up; my heart quickens with suspense as to whether this beautiful, physically immaculate man will eat this giant food item. He looks grateful but says something about Covid.

“This next song is called Covid Pizza Rebellion,” he says continuing with the bit.

@massbroadcast L.S. Dunes crowdsurfing a pizza to the stage at Riot Fest. #riotfest #lsdunes #crowdsurfing #anthonygreen #frankiero #riotfest2023 ♬ original sound – Mass Broadcast

The band sounds really great and tight. It’s sort of incredible to have all these iconic musicians together in a new project. I’m having a very hard time hearing Anthony’s voice, though, to the point where I’m wondering how Danielle was even able to confuse him for a woman.

“There’s some sort of distortion on his microphone, right?” I ask her. “Like, it’s crackling, right?”

My sister says yeah, a little. She looks concerned though. A few moments pass.

“What exactly are the terms of your tinnitus?” She asks. “Like what’s the precise diagnosis?”

I tell her there isn’t one. There’s a sort of constant whooshing but the intensity of it comes and goes. Sometimes it feels sort of pleasant — like being in a wind tunnel. Other times it’s a bit like somebody is playing air hockey against the surface of my cochlea. When I wake up in the morning I sometimes can’t hear anything at all for a few minutes.

“I only got it confirmed a week ago. We’ll see where it goes,” I say. “It’s gonna progress across my life, I think.”

“That’d be like if I went blind,” she says. I shrug.

“Not really. You need your eyes more than I need my ears.”

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Friday — 8PM

I wouldn’t say I owe Dave Grohl anything, but my 8th grade science teacher being a massive fan of him and Jack White does have something significant to do with the timing of my entry into serious music fandom. Maybe their self-styled stewardship of FM radio canon appealed to her pedagogical sense, because she let me bring some of the rock books she kept around the classroom home with me, and boom: Suddenly I’m listening to Los Lobos’ How Will The Wolf Survive because it’s on the 2003 Rolling Stone top 500. None of that ever translated into caring about Foo Fighters — I only listened to The Colour And The Shape in full for the first time like a week ago — but I respect how many rock documentaries Dave Grohl has been in. He’s like the white Questlove. Ambassador for RAWK. Also that one Killing Joke album he drums on fucking rips.

You know what. Fuck it. I’m optimistic. This will be the show to convert me. Turnstile set the right mood. Before they went on an hour ago, I felt similarly to them as I do Foo Fighters: sick of hearing about how they were the biggest band in the world and wishing that somebody else — a little less respectable and a lot more overtly political — would step up to do the job. Yeah, I’d seen them before, even reviewed the show super positively for my local alt-weekly, but I dunno. Was probably just excited to be reviewing a show.

Turnstile probably played the exact same set tonight. The difference at Riot Fest is there are a lot of fucking children here, on shoulders, in strollers, and, randomly, a bunch right off stage (it looked like Franz Lyons gave them some guitar picks right before going on). I barely focus on the massive mosh pits my sister is photographing at the front of the field and spend the whole night instead thinking about how great a first rock band Turnstile would be — how causally instructive they are to the greater ritual of rocking out. The gibberish lyrics, the goofy mid-air leaps, the friendly all-pink everything of their lighting rig — all their energy is directed purely into the present moment. Counter-intuitively, that makes the ritual of rocking out feel much larger and more spiritual than itself. Surely David Grohl, white Questlove, would do the same.

David Grohl points at an imaginary guy in the front row. “This is for you motherfucker. Are you fucking ready?” David Grohl plays the “Crazy Train” riff.

Huh. What I neglected to factor into my earlier assumption is that Turnstile don’t actually say anything on stage. (Brendan Yates just looks sort of artfully dazed. He makes the occasional non-verbal whoop when he wants to acknowledge the audience). Dave Grohl, meanwhile, cannot, will not stop annotating the ritual of rocking out — laboriously connecting his band to all who have rocked out before them. Their energy is directed into the past. Counter-intuitively, this makes the ritual of rocking out feel small, petty, and sort of emptily egotistical.

“Y’all know Foo Fighters music? Who knows Foo Fighters music?” He asks the crowd. Ugh… Okay. Sure. I get it. He’s a showman and he’s putting on a show. But c’mon. Everybody here knows Foo Fighters, dude. Except for Danielle. Earlier today, she was asking me, “Foo Fighters. They do that one song right?” Then Danielle had started singing “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. God, I love my sister.

Trying to focus on Grohl again. Trying to understand him. Trying to connect with “The Pretender.” Why is it that this dude — who cannot sell any emotion other than rocking out — feels compelled to write all these songs about grudges and vendettas and proving himself to the haters? I guess he really does not like Courtney Love. Live Through This is better than any album you could assemble from Grohl’s best songs.

“Learn To Fly” now. How is it possible that such an irrepressible cornball huckster wrote this riff? Insanely fucking beautiful and weirdly melancholy riff. Can’t explain it, but kinda sounds like how it felt to watch Notre Dame burn down a couple years ago. I wonder if the speakers are fucked up or if this is just one of those weird butterfly songs that my tinnitus will make sound deeper and more resonant for the rest of my life.

God, look at this dude. How is it possible that his hair is already stringy and sodden with sweat like two songs into the set? Maybe he does feel like he has something to prove tonight. The terrible weight of tragedy is admittedly behind the Foo Fighters this year. He goes around one-by-one introducing his bandmates by letting them do a bar or two of a classic rock song. I zone out. Someone does a bit of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Was that Pat Smear? Incredibly cool dude, Pat Smear. Great look to him. Nate Mendel plays the riff from “Sabotage.”

“Wow,” Grohl faux-marvels. “I love that the guy from Sunny Day Real Estate wants to play a Beastie Boys song.”

What. Why are you talking about a guy who has been your bandmate longer than I have been alive like he’s a wax figure at Madame Tussauds? The band launches into “My Hero.” That song also has a fucking beautiful and weirdly melancholy riff, but not tonight. They’ve slowed down the arrangement into a lame weepy beer commercial thing, turning it into a nostalgic tribute to itself. Ugh there’s still an hour left. I text Danielle. “This sucks, right?” “Yeah.” We can get out of here. It’s okay. I wonder to myself, as I so often do at shows, if maybe I would have figured out a way to enjoy this if I had actually paid to be here.

Riot Fest has all these amusement park rides around the field this year. There’s a big-ass ferris wheel. A vomit comet. A merry go round. She wants to go on one tonight and take some god’s eye shots of the festival, but I’m not into it. Probably super expensive. She can go by herself another day.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Saturday — 1:50PM

Mookid and I are at Snapcase. Their album Progression Through Unlearning has this really legendary trash-can drum sound: sorta like St. Anger but awesome. When they come on Mookid and I both yell, “Let’s hear that fucking SNARE!” Can’t really hear it, though, obviously. Sounds just like normal drums. They still have the riffs, though, and the guy still almost has his shout. In fact, it’s kinda a clean vocal in a way that reminds me of Brendan Yates; over those chunky, alt-metal guitars his voice has that same sort of base-jumping-into-a-canyon exhilaration to it. Probably the best metalcore band of the ’90s, I’d say. (Sorry Earth Crisis, who are also playing this weekend. I’m also sorry Riot Fest has put you, the ultimate vegan hardcore band, on the stage closest to all the meat stands.) Can’t really find an unpretentious way to explain why though.

“They shred,” I say, turning to Mookid

“They rip,” Mookid corrects.

“Right, they rip.”

I like Mookid a lot. I wanna know why he doesn’t give me eye contact though. I ask him what that’s all about. He looks a bit embarrassed. He says he’s always scanning for other people he knows from going to shows.

Oh. Cool.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Friday — 3:20PM

I was thinking this new Code Orange material seemed a bit more straight ahead metalcore, less industrial butt-rock — but nope, spoke too soon. Here comes the Deftones dream-gaze vocal over an atmospheric drum ‘n’ bass thing. Lol. Now Jami Morgan is spreading his arms as Reba Meyers sings this goofy post-grunge chorus: “Spread your winggggsssssss.” Haha hell yeah.

People in hardcore seem to hate this band for wearing jumpsuits at their shows and not being on a cool label anymore, but I think all their tough-guy poses are pretty faux-edgelord and tongue-in-cheek. They wanna be the genre’s wrestling heels. Like, Jami is wearing a shirt that says “I’m a Barbarian.” That’s gotta be a gag. They make a great stage picture too. Like, damn, their bassist looks like he could eat me and Reba’s hair is just crazy long. My sister says it has to be natural too.

I gotta ditch ’em after a couple minutes to go check Kim Gordon, though. Can’t think of anybody else playing the fest I admire more. But…hmmm… why? Sonic Youth are maybe the best band of the ’80s, but… the words are failing me. I get there and she’s on stage in silver shorts and sunglasses. Her band is about as surprisingly young looking as Kim Gordon is unsurprisingly young looking.

“Check check, yeahhhhhhh,” her voice still has that laconic drawl, too. Totally un-aged. Pure cool. The immense weight of so much icon and history. But all that comes to mind when I try to articulate it are para-social Twitter-isms like “Oooooh, Kim Gordon, run me over with a tractor. Ooooh, scoop my flattened guts up from the side of the expressway, Kim Gordon.” Why is it so much harder to venerate my creative heroes than to explain why I find Origami Angel meh? I dunno. Her new music — avant-trap or whatever — totally rocks by the way. Suffocating and claustrophobic, but she’s singing on it so it’s also funny and badass.

I meet up with my sister. She’s just come back from photographing the band Say Anything in the press area. Neither of us have heard a note of their music, but when Danielle got added to the Riot Fest email list a few months ago alongside me their publicist just happened to be the very first one to pitch her.

“Their email started like ‘hey Danielle, hope you’re having a great friday’ and I just felt so guilty,” she explains. “I didn’t realize it was like a form letter thing and you were allowed to ignore them.”

Apparently the main Say Anything dude was cool though. Danielle says he recognized her Greet Death shirt. Hell yeah. We leave Kim Gordon and hear Code Orange finish their set from across the field. Jami’s really going at it.


Lol. Danielle points out that Jami’s scream-y voice kinda sounds the way our parents’ Welsh Corgi does when she barks. And she only barks when she’s mad that nobody’s playing with her.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Saturday — 6:57PM

I like Death Cab For Cutie. They’re good. Not a band that resonates very deeply with me, but We Have The Facts has this bleary eyed, waterlogged atmosphere I kinda dig. Transatlanticism — the album they’re playing in full here — is a little slicker but probably their best after that one. Sounds really good tonight, though. Great, even. Still, 3.5 out of 5 is what it says on my high school Rate Your Music account. Okay. I guess.

My sister is off in the photo pit. I have full autonomy to leave the main field and go check out 100 Gecs. But each time I try to round the corner, a stray lyric catches me and brings me back. “I am waiting for that sense of relief. I am waiting for you to flee the scene.” That’s a heavy sentiment.

I’m doing laps, walking over and over past the same picnic blankets and canoodling couples. My sister has been obsessed with capturing the perfect “punk rock couple” all weekend. I don’t know if I’m about it; the idea feels fetishistic to me. What’s an authentic human connection and what’s just two people who look good together in a photo? Does she really see these people? Imagine being made to stand in for something you don’t actually feel. I think about Dave Grohl and that imaginary dude in the front row.

Oh no. “Tiny Vessels” starts, and now my mind is really starting to spiral. “You are beautiful but you don’t mean a thing to me.” Now that’s a really heavy sentiment. There’s a person in my life who I have to try very hard to not be in love with. It will end badly.

A burly guy with a beard and a little kid calls out to me. Shit. I’ve walked past them like six times now. Probably made all kinds of uncomfy eye contact. He’s gonna tell me to buzz off.

“Hey. Come here,” he says, so I do. He asks if he can put his hand on my head. I say sure and bow forward slightly. Slowly, gently, the man fixes my beanie. It was crooked, he says. It’s better now.

“You’re like 20, 21 years old,” he asks as I turn to walk away.

“Yeah. 20.” It feels good.

Ben Gibbard again. “Less like a lake and more like a moat,” he sings. Huh.

Friday — 9:15PM

We’re walking beneath the underpass with the rest of the early escapees from Foo Fighters, and I’m listening to Danielle geek out about how she locked eyes with Kim Gordon in the photo pit (“It made me think about how I’d like to age: not giving a fuck and wearing tiny little booty shorts”). Suddenly, a skinny, pale kid with glasses muscles past us. He seems in a hurry. I recognize him.

“Yo,” I call out. “Pool Kids right?”

The kid lifts his arms above his head in a pose of triumph.

“Pool Kids!” he yells back. “I’m Caden.”

My sister squeals. Not that there are a lot of options, but they’re easily her favorite young band playing the festival. Besides Greet Death, they might be her favorite band period. I like them a lot too. Really great math-y emo. They do some metalcore stuff for fun as well. Lead singer is a total star — incredible energy and charisma; Danielle really looks up to her, I think. We tell Caden we’re big fans.

Caden says he had to leave Foo Fighters early to get the van or something. He seems kinda bummed about it. My sister and I have just spent the past 20 minutes talking shit about Dave Grohl, so I don’t really know what to say.

“You played with Ethel Cain, right?” I ask. I’m a music nerd. I know it’s an empirical fact that this dude has played with Ethel Cain. But, yeah I don’t know what else to say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Pool Kids are from Florida and so is Ethel Cain.”

“Sick.” I say.

My sister tells him we’re from Stereogum, which makes me cringe a little. She asks if maybe she could take a photo of Pool Kids tomorrow. “Yeah,” he says, “totally.” Cool guy. Super sweet. We gotta say bye, though, so Danielle can go get something to eat. Me, I’m not hungry. My phone says it’s only been 18 hours since I last ate.

McDonald’s seems the obvious choice but somehow the doors are already closed. Drive-In only. Maybe we can walk it. My sister places an order and everything seems to be a-go, but when we get to the Pick-Up window they tell us that legally they cannot give us the food. It’s not safe.

Danielle’s pissed, just completely fuming. I say better she go hungry for 10 more minutes than some poor pick up window lady get fired. Besides, one day, she’ll treasure the memory of walking through the McDonald’s drive through with her brother. Danielle rolls her eyes and says that’s dumb. As we reroute to a taco place, she starts talking through her thoughts about the great canon of American photographers; y’know, Patti Smith falling in love with Robert Mapplethorpe and not realizing he was gay, Sally Mann sticking to her guns even after being accused of exploiting her children, etc. I know these stories, but I don’t think I really understand them the way she does. She’s an actual artist. I’m just a nerd. Pretty goofy of me to cosplay as the wise older sibling. McDonald’s. Lol.

On the drive back to our parents’ house — sorry, no, our childhood home — we pass the Christ Temple Apostolic Faith Church. It has one of those electric signs out front. Right now it says, in big blinking yellow letters, “The fact that there’s a highway to hell and only a stairway to heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.”

I wonder what Dave Grohl might make of that.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Saturday — 9:15PM

I’ve told Danielle our plan should be to see the first two songs on that Postal Service album and then head over across the festival to see Insane Clown Posse. Y’know. For journalism reasons. Okay, she says, what kind of music is Insane Clown Posse again? I tell her it’s like Eminem but with guitars and no accumulated critical cachet of importance. She seems skeptical. “The first two songs on the Postal Service album are the only great ones,” I say. “Oh yeah, totally,” she says.

But now we’re actually watching the Postal Service. They’re dressed all holy and in white, bathed in this beautiful blue cathedral stage lighting. Really, I’m watching Danielle’s face watching them. The band finishes “Such Great Heights” and goes into “Sleeping In.” That’s the one with the goofy John F. Kennedy line. I’m all ready to make fun of it as we exit the field. But wait, what’s this — Danielle is actually singing along. The kid right behind us with really excellent Hanson hair — he’s singing along too. Actually the whole crowd is singing along. “On that day in November.” But only Danielle’s eyes have caught a little bit of that blue light.

“Wait,” I ask her. “Do you know this whole album?”

“Yeah…. Honestly, I fucking love it. The whole thing. It’s one of my favorite albums.”

“That’s so wild. I’ve never sent it to you,” I say.

“Yeah, well, sometimes it be like that.”

Huh. I guess we can stay. None of these Ben Gibbard songs resonate with me like the Transatlanticism ones. You’d think they would. They famously come out of the same period of time. I guess the tone is different. A little more optimistic. A little less bitter. I go on a very long, myopic monologue about the person in my life who I try very hard to not be in love with.

A tap on my shoulder on the last song. I turn around. It’s the Hanson hair kid. Seems like he’s been by himself this entire time. I smile at him. He’s not smiling.

“Do you have an off switch,” he asks me. “You’ve been talking the whole fucking show.”

Oh. God. Shit. I should apologize. I reach out for his shoulder, some words on my breath about how “I’m sorry. Being emo is a full time occupation.” What? Cringe. He slaps my hand away.

“Don’t you fucking touch me.”

My sister and I nod. Leave.

“What a prick. You should have told him I was your sister and that we haven’t spent any time together in like three years.”

“Yeah,” I laugh. “Weird guy.”

I don’t actually think Hanson hair kid is a prick though. He’s probably been waiting for this show for half a year. Maybe Give Up is even his favorite album. I find it very easy to see myself through his eyes. I am the eternal enemy of truth and beauty. I am the monster in the cave.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Saturday — 8:15PM

I have some photographer friends in Austin who know the woman Josh Homme kicked in the face back in 2017. They tell me the incident was less cut-and-dried than the media made it seem. Okay. Still seems fucked. I told my sister earlier in the day not to be in the pit. Made me feel all righteous and older-brotherly. “Okay,” she said.

Pretty sure that incident was the first time I started paying attention to Queens Of The Stone Age, and I’ve always wished their music was as dickish as Homme apparently is. They have some great tunes for sure, but their general vibe is a lil’ too cute and precious for my taste. All those dinky single-note piano riffs and loop-di-loop guitar solos. Naming an album Rated R. I dunno. Thought their LP this year was straight terrible too — just a sickly, unlistenable mess of shag-carpet affectation, thump bass, and Berlin trilogy cosplay. Whatever. I adore that one Kyuss song. “Demon Cleaner.” Properly lascivious.

Gotta admit Queens sound pretty good tonight. I dig Josh’s beard too. Good look for him. Halfway through “My God Is The Sun” I head to the press tent to meet up with my sister. Huh, she’s not there, but that 30s-ish woman from earlier is. She smiles at me and I say hello. Apparently Todd is off watching Pennywise at the Radical stage. She asks if they’re good and I say I’ve never heard of them. That’s a lie. Last week I listened to two Pennywise albums in a row on the elliptical and logged both of them on Rate Your Music. 3 out of 5 stars for each. Solid Bad Religion worship.

She asks me if my name is Julian and I say yeah. Her name is Sarah. We shake hands. Sarah says she teaches elementary school in Seattle. She asks what I do. I tell her that I’m a host at a fancy steakhouse in Austin. It pays better than any other job I’ve had in my life.

“Your sister is really impressive,” she says. “She’ll go far.”

“She’s the coolest person I know,” I say. “Though sometimes I think she’s full of shit.”

“We’re all a little full of shit,” she says.

I tell her that Todd gave me permission to write about him in this article and that I probably will. Something about him speaks very deeply to me. He’s a quintessentially American character, I say. Quixotic. Sarah asks what quixotic means and I don’t have a very good definition.

“He’s a little self-obsessed, but he’s also a very passionate person. I love him a lot,” she says. “You know, when you said that thing earlier about him selling himself… he doesn’t actually make any money on this book. Actually, he loses money.”

“Oh,” I say.

“He works in restaurants too,” she says.

My sister and I got our wires crossed. She’s actually still at Queens Of The Stone Age. When I get there she’s talking to a set of parents who have brought their son along.

“Y’all are setting them up with great music taste, you know that?” she tells them. “Our father only ever played us Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, but you’re introducing him to punk rock. That’s a gift.”

I love my sister more than anybody else alive. I still have to stop myself from saying Queens Of The Stone Age is not punk rock.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Sunday — 5:50PM

I’ve been yelling “SHE BURNNSSSSS” at my sister all weekend, so we gotta make it in time to see Finch play “What It Is To Burn.” Thankfully we do and it rocks. Main singer guy asked the audience if anyone saw Mr. Bungle last night and if they were any good. Interesting. Neither of us know the Dresden Dolls, but we camp out there so we can have spots for the Cure. Totally blows our mind, though. Gotta check this band out when I get back home. Incredibly infectious cabaret-punk that handily demonstrates the difference between performing music and just playing it. Danielle reads facts about Amanda Palmer off Wikipedia that are juat crazy. She was married to Neil Gaiman? Until last year?!?! She’s 46?!?! Looks incredible. An organization called Punk Rock Saves Lives has volunteers for DKMS scattered throughout the audience. Danielle brings me over so we can submit ourselves as potential blood donors and we get our cheeks swabbed (I put the wrong end of the cotton wand in my mouth at first, Jesus lol).

Mars Volta are soooooo sick when they do their whole Spaghetti Tornado thing with the crazy psych guitar and the rhythm section hustle that feels like it’s gonna sprain an ankle. Less of a fan when the big Cedric choruses fade away and they settle into 10 minutes of wonky avant-skronk. Seemed like that was most of their performance tonight. Oh well, still happy to have caught them. Texas Boyz.

My sister realizes she has to go to the bathroom like four minutes before the Cure are about to go on. Shit. No way she’s gonna be able to get back to me after she dips. Oh well. I’ll catch the first couple songs up close and then meet up with her at the back of the field. They get about two songs in before I realize Robert Smith is wearing an Amy Winehouse shirt. Maybe it was Danielle being gone, maybe it was the person I should not have fallen in love with, maybe it was “Pictures Of You.” But, no, I think it was that — the shirt — that made me cry. Good to cry. I really need to eat something.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Friday — 1:30PM

It’s hilarious and cool that Janet Weiss is on infinitely better terms with her ex-husband Sam Coomes than the members of Sleater-Kinney. I only heard their music as Quasi for the first time less than a week ago in direct preparation for seeing them today. Wish I’d been a fan for years. It’s urbane, sorta self-consciously meek chamber-garage with depressive-comic lyrics and weird chord progressions. Sometimes it’s pert and melodic like the American Office theme. Sometimes it’s skronky and wild like Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era.

The two of them are set up on stage to face each other but still come off like they’re playing in their own little worlds. Coomes kinda makes me think of a Gen X Donald Fagan; singing these sarcastic wimp-misanthrope anthems and hammering away at his fried-to-shit organ. Weiss is wearing a sleeveless polka-dot top and has this sick pipe-length upper arm tat. I find their interplay — musically chaotic, but linked spiritually — far more appealing than the clockwork precision of the two Origami Angel dudes. I’d also like to see the bookshelves in their apartments.

It’s here that I notice that the Riot Fest video screens are totally rad — way more engaged and creative than your normal, perfunctory stage coverage. Weiss and Coomes go into a crazy passage of freeform jamming, and the playback editors match them by cutting manically between every available camera feed.

I link up with Danielle again. She’s happy because she found a couple in Pussy Riot-style face-masks to photograph. When two minutes of silence pass and she says “I wish they were our parents” I have to ask her who she’s talking about. She says she’s talking about Quasi. Sick.

We head off to Parliament-Funkadelic. Probably the best band of the ’70s and they’re scheduled for 1:50 in the afternoon. Whatever. George is surrounded by like 30 musicians up there. You look down, look up, and there’s like six more. Half of them are apparently his direct descendants. Good for George. He’s taken good care of himself. He sounded like Tom Waits doing the Cookie Monster voice in 1972, and he still sounds exactly the same today. We left when they started to cover “Jump Around,” which was cool but also not really a thing I had to hear. Danielle says watching their energy in the photo pit was incredible.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Sunday — 1:45PM

Rain delay wipes out the morning schedule, doors not opening till 2:00 P.M. So many great bands booted from the schedule: Just Mustard, Nothing, that Biffy Clyro mathcore side project with Dave Lombardo. Danielle takes photos of the crowds lined up alongside the sidewalk. There’s graffiti on the fences that say stuff like “GET OUT OF DOUGLASS PARK” and “NO PARKS FOR PROFITS.” That’s all very true and righteous; kind of ridiculous how they spend a third of the summer setting up for one weekend and then suddenly it’s winter and nobody wants to be in the park anymore. At the same time, I have to admit to myself this is probably the best organized and most well-spaced festival I’ve ever attended. No crowd crush. Good views of the main stages no matter where you are in the field. Clean bathrooms.

They’re allowing people with wristbands to come onto the grounds, so we hang out in the press area waiting for the gates to open. I listen to some veteran photo dudes talk for a bit. It’s stuff like “Oh, what bass was Sergio playing in Quicksand?” and “Brian Fallon’s solo material seems like it’s kinda edging into the new Gaslight Anthem material.” Cool. I love old dudes. Sometimes I think it’d be healthy If I had a relationship to music that was more like the relationship most people have to sports. Who’s in the lineup? What are the stats? Cool.

Thursday are playing as they let the general public into the fest. That seems like the right choice. Even if you’re not into their super verbose, sincere emo, Geoff Rickly is a very easy guy to like. My friend Conrad in Austin knows him; he’s told me some pretty harrowing stories about his addiction issues back in the day, but you’d never know it to look at him. Incredible energy. Halfway through the set, he tells a fun story about the band driving cross-country to make it home to New Jersey for Christmas. Feels off-the-cuff in the moment, but at the punchline end of it the band immediately launch into a song, so I guess they must do it a lot.

We hear Cults play “Go Outside,” from across the field, which is pretty much exactly what you want when there’s a band like that on the lineup. I check out Earth Crisis while she sticks around to watch them. Not nearly as into ’em, but gotta admit this dude’s voice has held up a bit better than the Snapcase dude. My phone says it’s been an hour since I’ve eaten. Had one of those jumbo pieces of pizza. Stupid.

Danielle and I link back up for Balance And Composure. There’s a Notes file on my phone from a year ago that says “Title Fight: Nirvana, Turnover: Pearl Jam, Citizen: Stone Temple Pilots, Balance And Composure: Soundgarden.” Lol. Meaningless. To be honest, I’m not sure how that movement of grunge-y emo from a decade ago is gonna age or where it really sits in the broader history of both genres. I was listening to Deerhunter and Grizzly Bear when it was happening. Citizen and Turnover barely play emo anymore. Title Fight got massive through TikTok, but they’re basically broken up.

Balance And Composure, at least, still sound the same as they did in 2013. Nice midtempo rock tunes that smuggle the pleading, cringe-risking yearn of emo through the gruff, downtuned remove of ’90s alt-rock. Can’t say they seem really excited to be playing music for the first time in six years, though. I keep it to myself at first because I know Danielle is excited to see them, but she points it out herself. The guitars sound kinda muted, and the main guy just isn’t giving off a lot of vocal presence or charisma. Having seen Geoff Rickly on the same stage just an hour or so earlier really drew that into stark relief. Oh well. “Reflection” is still one of the best songs of all time.

We head over to Ride. This guitar sounds a little weak to me as well; I can barely hear that earthshaking riff on “Leave Them All Behind.” Maybe it’s just my ear. They’re completely incredible, though — silently staggering and quietly humble in the way a lot of old bands are. Danielle says it might be her favorite set of the festival so far. After the Postal Service. All traces of rain are gone now — the sun is high in the sky again, and the ground has hardened up enough for my sister to sit on the ground looking at her photos. A juggalo woman in an American Idiot shirt walks by. Seems like the kinda thing people in 2005 would have thought was really funny. I smile at her and she smiles back. I feel good about myself for a second but quickly realize the hollowness of the feeling. All I am doing is congratulating myself for being born at the end of the Clinton administration. I am a bitter and cruel person.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Friday — 4:30PM

I come out of the press area bathroom. Danielle is talking to the only people in the vicinity who seem to be about her age — two girls who are doing interviews for Loyola college radio. She’s telling them about the tattoo — our first — that we have scheduled for Monday before we fly out of town; each of us is getting one of the owl hands from the cover of Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co.

“It’s our favorite album,” she says. “R.I.P Jason Molina.”

I ask the girls if they’ve had a good time doing interviews thus far. They say, yeah, totally. That British band Yard Act especially was super cool. Danielle looks at me with fear in her eyes. We left their set early after I complained about the vocalist.

“Oh, neat,” I say. “Who else do you have planned for the weekend?”

Flogging Molly and Bowling For Soup, they say.

“Oh… neat. Flogging Molly, wow,” the words fall out with acid on them. “You chose those bands yourself?”

My sister hastily wraps up the conversation.

Off to Quicksand. Amazing band. Walter Schreifels is playing in three groups this weekend playing three different albums. Insane. What a legend. We only stay for the first few songs of Slip, though (it is a pretty frontloaded album, to be fair). As we head across the field to Screaming Females, Danielle says he looks amazing for a dude well into his fifties. I say that he’s really into long distance running. By the time we get to the other stage Danielle and I are talking about how I haven’t eaten. Hmm, maybe I won’t eat either, Danielle says. The whole weekend, no food. Why not? We’ll save lots of money, and we’re walking so much that we’ll be really skinny when the festival is over. Uh oh. I change the subject to Marissa Paternoster’s voice. Isn’t it amazing, I ask her. Danielle says yeah, damn. This gives me permission to say the word “vibrato” and pretend I know what I’m talking about.

We only hear a song or two before it’s off across the field again for the Breeders playing Last Splash. Braid are at the stage we just left, so I tell Danielle we’ll catch “Cannonball” and then come right back. There’ll probably be a ton of people who will see “Cannonball” and leave right after. We get there and, sure thing, Kim Deal — looking real cool and iconic. She says “Good Morning” even though it’s like 6PM. Haha. “Cannonball” rocks a whole lot, but when it’s over Danielle and I are literally the only people who leave. Shit.

We come into Braid right at the end of “A Dozen Roses.” Shit. That’s their best song. We’re close enough to see them now; it’s just four dudes up there. Great music, obviously — really fascinating how they bridge the gap between post-hardcore and Midwest emo. But, yeah, they’re not much to look at. It’s funny. Braid are probably the band I spent the most time prepping for. There’s so much more to their catalog than just Frame & Canvas. Their first album especially is super bizarre. Has all these weird interludes on it. We watch them do maybe half a song more before I ask Danielle if she wants to go back to the press tent and get another IPA.

Jami from Code Orange is in there being interviewed. As we walk by, he literally stops what he’s doing to say “what’s up” to her. Oh shit. Dude seems chill as hell.

“Do you think he was hitting on me,” she asks. “He’s really hot. When I was in the photo pit I was like, damn, you sound like a dog kinda but you have incredible legs. Maybe he has a girlfriend.”

“Danielle, I dunno,” I say. “All I know is that if you wanna shoot your shot you gotta do it or you’re gonna regret it the rest of your life.”

She hems and haws by the exit for several minutes before finally heading back his way. Jami’s moved over to the chiropractor’s bench now. Looks like he’s getting an adjustment, not a massage.

“What’s up?” Danielle asks him. “Can I take your photo?”

“Sure,” he says.

I strategically wander away. When I link up with her again and ask her how it went she shrugs.

“Kind of a non-event,” Danielle says before looking at her camera. “Got a beautiful photo out of it though.”

We wander back outside and Danielle runs into a high school friend who’s attending the fest with her mom. They really just want to see Foo Fighters. As the friend freaks out about Danielle doing journalism and the amazing photos on her instagram, the mom asks me what all those people in clown paint are all about.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Saturday — 3:30PM

Pool Kids have entered the press area. The bassist and singer are wearing matching pink pants. Sick. After much goading from me, my sister makes her move.

“Hi. We’re with Stereogum. I think you’re so cool. Can I take your picture.” My sister is totally gushing. The Pool Kids ladies seem pretty nonchalant about the praise, not nearly as effusive as their drummer was last night, but they say “sure.” Sick. Kinda wish I wasn’t standing by, though, because as they walk away together the band’s publicist approaches me.

“Oh… are you Julian?” Shit. I’ve ignored so many pitches from this woman.

“Oh, hey, yeah. Jamie right?” I mumble something about how I’m not really trying to be a career music journalist or anything, and apologize if I’ve ever led her on. God. The ego on me.

“It’s fine. That’s the job. You send emails.” She seems really nice.

Danielle comes back from her photoshoot. There’s a sour look on her face. I ask her what’s up as we exit the press area.

“They were sorta mean to me,” she says.


“Like here I am like ‘I love you so much’ and they were just very cold and distant.”

“That doesn’t sound like ‘mean’ to me. Danielle, people tell them they’re incredible like 87 times a day,” I say. “Would you still think they were mean to you if they were not your favorite band in the world?”

Danielle ponders on this for a second. “No. You’re right. They were normal…. I just think I have potential to be a hot, inspiring female, and I guess I just want other hot inspiring females to see that.”

A little later we see the Warpaint women roll through. Danielle had a good joke for them. “Lo-Fi Fleetwood Mac to study to.” She should be writing this article.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Saturday — 1PM

When Turnstile blew up a couple years ago everybody was like “oh shit, the rising tide that lifts all boats, we’re gonna see a bunch of hardcore bands ride the wave to the top as well.” But here’s the band that headlined the biggest hardcore festival in the world last year, and here they are playing at the smallest stage of the festival at 1PM. Oh well, moshing to DRAIN is pretty much the best time you can have at a show these days, and the kids are totally going at it.

Not me, though. Right now I want to watch my sister in the photo pit. It’s funny, all the other photographers — all dudes, all old — have their cameras aimed at the stage, but she’s facing the audience right from the jump. And of course, this is DRAIN, so within 30 seconds of the first song Sammy Ciaramitaro has stage-dived into the crowd. My sister’s already snapping away while the other dudes are spinning around scrambling for her leftovers.

“They fucked up giving me a wireless,” Sammy yells.

I never want to die.

Danielle Towers/Stereogum

Sunday — 4:50PM

We have some time to kill. Neither of us like any AFI songs besides “Day Of The Phoenix.” Sure, okay, let’s go on a ride and get your photos Danielle. She brings us to one of those air carousel things that spins you around 85 feet above the ground. I pull out the schedule. Let’s see who’s playing the stage right beside — oh, Flogging Molly, hmm. Alright. We get a little closer. The tinnitus is acting up, but those definitely be some fiddles and tin whistles. Certainly cannot deny that. At the ticket window now. $20 for one ride. Insane.

The ride attendant is a skinny little guy who compliments Danielle’s camera. I can’t figure out how to buckle my seatbelt so she does it for me. Then I hold up her lap bar and give her a yank so she can get into her seat. Up we go. Wow. Everybody in the Flogging Molly crowd is waving their arms. Danielle immediately starts snapping pics. I don’t understand how she can see anything. Everything is a blur up here.

The ride lowers and the skinny guy comes over. He clocks Danielle’s camera and asks if we’re journalists. I want to say no but Danielle says yes. The dude says if Danielle needs more material we can keep riding till she gets it. Sick.

Up we go again. Flogging Molly are playing a new tune now. Sounds the same. Another arm-waver though, damn. Literally everybody in sight wobbling back and forth like a drunken sailor. Incredible. Maybe they are good. Maybe I should try listening to the actual music. But, no, I can’t focus. As we go round and round, my left ear switches off with my right, and clarity trades places with distortion. It’s only possible to latch on to a second or two at a time. A tin whistle here. A fiddle there. A more o’er the merry-o’e.

But that’s alright. Hot takes and critically informed opinions don’t have to be for me anymore. My senses are fading, and it’s only gonna get worse. Perhaps now is the time for me to begin relying upon the aesthetic judgements of others.

I look to my sister, but I can’t gaze through her viewfinder and see what she sees. So I turn my head down. Damn, shit. That’s a lot of people. All across the field. Sometimes it’s good to have a thought like “Damn, shit. That’s a whole lot of people” — a thought as simple as it is big. Maybe it’s okay that every Flogging Molly song sounds the same; that just means each Flogging Molly song is gonna make the people wave their arms. If Flogging Molly are the people’s favorite band, they can be my favorite band too.

The ride attendant asks if we’d like to go a third time. My sister says thank you, but we’re good. He tells us that he’s open till 10 if we want to come back. Maybe if we come during the Cure we’ll be the only runs on the ride. What a wonderful man. As we walk away, he scampers on top of one of the benches to fix something. I wonder if that could be a good life for me. Are there schools you need to go to for that? I think about Todd again. Maybe I’ll be thinking about Todd the rest of my life. It’s very cool and beautiful to be driven by a passion.

My sister is looking through the photos she just took.

“No. No. No. Oh.”

“What?” I ask. “You got a good one?”

She nods and passes me the Fujifilm GFX 50R. I peer through the viewfinder. The image makes my heart stop. She’s captured the bench in front of us at an angle that makes it look like it’s been suspended from the sun. I put the camera down and gaze all googly eyed at her.

“It was too easy,” she says, shaking her head. My sister — the young artist — is skeptical of her aesthetic judgment.

That’s cool. I’m not.

“No. You’re too good.”

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