In its 10th total year and third at Chicago’s Humboldt Park, the 2014 Riot Fest & Carnival was kind of a mess. From its humble beginnings as a multi-venue series of shows to its current incarnation as a sprawling, multi-city, three-day bonanza, the festival is growing at a breathlessly fast rate. With a new, much larger area that’s roughly four times the size of 2013’s, festival organizers went all out for their 10-year anniversary, almost to its detriment. With its semi-circular lay out and winding sidewalk, the time it took to move to stages at opposite ends gave me Lollapalooza flashbacks, a jarring experience I’m not sure I want to have again.
Also, the festival’s early September placement always tempts fate with the Windy City’s fickle weather gods. Sure enough, like last year, there was rain. However, instead of a torrential downpour closing out the festival, 2014 festivalgoers were treated to sporadic but still potent showers throughout the opening day, making Humboldt about 90% mud, with the other 10% composed of bees on Saturday and Sunday. Jesus, can we talk about the bees? I embarrassed myself more than a dozen times avoiding those things. Wu-Tang Killah Bees, indeed. Those pesky things aside, Saturday and Sunday were beautiful days and perfect for the music, which is what we’re all here for.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
All the whining aside, it was still an incredible music experience. Fortunately, that’s the most important part of a festival, and one that Riot Fest always nails. As the dude who runs the Riot Fest twitter snarkily wrote earlier this month, “Sorry we booked so many bands that you like.” While nothing in my heart will ever top last year’s top billing of The Replacements, this year’s selection was even more spectacular. They enlisted 10 bands to perform 10 classic albums, including the Get Up Kids taking on Something to Write Home About, Chicago legends Naked Raygun performing Throb Throb, Descendents revisiting Milo Goes to College, Weezer reintroducing Jonas with The Blue Album, and more.
The rest of the festival featured a number of surprises from bands both young and old. Chicago made a nice showing, with energetic sets from rising rapper ShowYouSuck and garage rock newcomers The Orwells. The Cure’s Robert Smith sang everyone into what can only be described as a sad euphoria, while Lucero’s Ben Nichols brought his gravelly and literally whiskey-soaked growl, and The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli howled like it was 1993. The festival also branched out into more socially aware territory, with a panel featuring Pussy Riot, Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, and even Henry Rollins, who surprisingly seemed to be in a good mood.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
Going forward, the festival might really get ahead of itself. While the volume of tickets sold might demand the larger space, I hope things are slightly pared down for next year. Despite some of the logistical missteps, Riot Fest still maintains its charm and its overwhelmingly friendly crowd repping every single brand of punk imaginable. As I watched a guy with liberty spikes mosh with a dude in a The World Is a Beautiful Place hoodie during PUP, I remembered how beautiful a punk rock festival can be.
As we watched all these great bands, rode some carnival rides, were chased by bees and those terrifying zombies outside the Haunted House, laughed at the Flaming Lips’ power outage, and ate deep-fried Oreos that made us question every decision we ever made, we also made a list of our top 20 musical moments from the weekend.