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Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

on September 19, 2016, 1:00pm
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Brethren, take a deep breath. Riot Fest Chicago has a home again. Last year was tumultuous, with nobody quite knowing if Douglas Park, a punk-free haven in the Windy City’s southwest side, would suffice after the festival was booted from its beloved home in Humboldt Park. It did, but it still felt wobbly, with buckets of rain and shoes of mud feeding into a general sense of instability. Here’s the good news: 2016 was Riot Fest’s smoothest, most organized outing since its early days at the Congress Theater. Crowds were manageable, lines flew by, and Morrissey actually showed up (30 minutes late, but still). Morale was high.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

That said, something’s changed. Riot Fest’s always anchored itself on a carnival and freak motif that dovetails with the event’s punk roots. In previous years, red-and-white carnival games lined walkways alongside wrestling rings and the rides of our childhood, providing ample distraction for those with weary ears. Now, you’ll see a glowing ferris wheel near the entrance and a vintage car or two, but the carnival experience has been mostly relegated to a dedicated area near the back of the park. What was once a motif is now just another attraction.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Frankly, I prefer the streamlined design; in Douglas Park, there’s no bottlenecks or clogged walkways, making it easy to march from one stage to another. But there’s no denying that character is in short supply. Thankfully, there were enough characters in the audience to make up for it. Where Lollapalooza and Coachella’s crowds have essentially devolved into a collision of crop tops and cultural appropriation, Riot Fest’s arrive in search of kindred spirits, whether that be through studs, denim, or obscure t-shirts. If anyone’s going to appreciate your Throbbing Gristle tank (or, hell, even your Enema of the State tour tee), it’s here. Props also to those brave enough to go off-brand — I’m looking at you, Soulfly jersey.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Because no matter how much Riot Fest continues to expand its programming, it will always be a haven for the freaks, geeks, and scumbags, the nerdy and passionate. Lollapalooza’s great, but no one’s there for the music. At Riot Fest, music is everything, even if much of it suffers under the spectres of our accumulated nostalgia. Still, it’s cool as fuck that over the course of a single weekend you can see hip-hop icons like GZA and Nas light up the same stages as the weirdos in Ween and NOFX, or get misty as Julian Marley honors his father across the lawn and Sleater-Kinney teaches a new generation that Carrie Brownstein is more than “that girl from Portlandia.”

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

Dig deeper and you’ll find the acts that have no hits to coast on — the teensy Storyheart and Rebel stages hosted a bevy of promising up-and-comers, from Jess Abbott’s post-grudge throwback, Tancred, to the blissed-out pop of Virginia’s Turnover to the hometown wunderkinds The Walters, whose midday Sunday set in the intimate StubHub Sound Stage was one of the best things I saw all weekend.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

So, who needs the carnival? Or fashion? Or gourmet concessions? Riot Fest grew so fast that, for a spell at least, it seemed like the music was almost lost in the morass. Last year, Associate Editor Collin Brennan asked where Riot Fest will go next. In 2016, it sorta went backwards. But in doing so, it seemed to rediscover itself.

Oh, and The Misfits reunited. Keep clicking if you wanna read about that.

–Randall Colburn
Senior Staff Writer

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Too Theatrical For Their Own Good

Underoath

“Coming up next is … someone else,” Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin said as the legendary punk outfit wrapped up their Sunday afternoon set. He was referring to Underoath, a post-hardcore band of earnest Floridians whose entire raison d’etre seems stamped on the opposite side of Graffin’s coin. Yeah, their music is heavy as hell, but it’s also grotesquely weepy and super corny, which isn’t helped by the band’s overwrought onstage theatrics. It’s like they’re all battling to see who can spasm the hardest; I’d give the trophy to the band’s keyboardist, who leaps between his kit and laptop like he’s trying to disarm 10 separate bombs. Starting your set 10 minutes late doesn’t help, either, especially when you were inexplicably given 15 more minutes than Bad Religion, who came out on time. –Randall Colburn
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I (Don’t) Wanna Rock

Dee Snider

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

“I tried to get my hair to lay back, but it always thinks it’s the ’80s,” Dee Snider observed as he whipped his bleached blonde locks around, entertaining his faithful followers early Sunday afternoon. The Twisted Sister frontman and Strangeland actor was in good spirits, thoroughly enjoying the sun with enough positivity to turn every stewing Misfits fan into a puckish idiot. “When you get a day like this at the end of September, you look above and thank the fucking rock gods,” he exclaimed. “Thank you, rock gods! And thank you, mother nature for not being a cunt!”

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Which is why it felt wrong to rag on Snider’s tired, mediocre, and embarrassing assembly of tunes, but hey, what can you do? When the guy wasn’t curiously covering Nine Inch Nail’s “Head Like a Hole” or stripping down “We’re Not Gonna Take It” into a rote Kindergarten sing-along, he was busy trying to shill his new solo efforts, specifically his latest single, “Rule the World”, which came fully stocked with pandering millennial whoops. Of course, things didn’t get any better when he asked everyone if they’re “against vaginal dryness” or referenced women’s “cooter(s).”

I wanna … vomit. –Michael Roffman
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Done Dirtiest by the Storyheart Stage

White Lung

“I apologize for this performance. I can’t hear myself at all,” White Lung’s Mish Barber-Way told the audience at the end of their set at the Storyheart stage, a performance mixed so ear-piercingly loud that the singer had to leap down into the photo pit to escape the volume. Barber-Way’s vocals have never been meek, but on record she never yells herself hoarse and occasionally off-key the way she did at Riot Fest. There was something wrong, and the crowd knew it, judging from their lukewarm responses (and a beer can hurled onto the stage). This seemed to frustrate Barber-Way, who usually cuts an authoritative figure, but this time preferred to stride around onstage, sinking to her knees at one point to ignore the criminally small crowd. It was an off night for White Lung, and you couldn’t really blame them. –Karen Gwee

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Better Late Than Never

Joey Bada$$

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

By the time Joey Bada$$ finally took the stage over 15 minutes into his allotted time, it was clear something was amiss. The beginning of the NYC rapper’s set was plagued with sound issues, for which Bada$$ repeatedly (and publicly) held Riot Fest over the fire during his abbreviated set. Despite this, the rapper (and recent Mr. Robot star) put on a DJ-driven, agitated half hour of the kind of emotionally raw hip-hop that’s made his name; Bada$$ went heavy on material from his 2014 LP, B4.Da.$$, but pulled out a couple of favorites from his earlier mixtapes, including a tribute to the late Capital Steez with “Survival Tactics”. Though this might not have been an all-around ideal set, the crowd was invested (particularly in the late going), and before closing with his new single, “Devastated”, Bada$$ promised more new material in the near feature, which probably means some other, less embattled shows as well. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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Curiously Underwhelming For What Should Have Been a Landmark Show

Motion City Soundtrack

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

When Motion City Soundtrack stepped on the Roots stage on Saturday, they probably realized this was going to be the largest audience any of them would see for a long time. It was their penultimate show — the Minneapolis pop punk band, which would have turned 20 next year, announced they were calling it quits back in March — but there still seemed to be an air of hesitancy. “Lots of emotions up here, I’m trying to keep it together,” frontman Justin Pierre admitted, his clipped banter at odds with the erudite lyrics that diehards have memorized.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

He wasn’t alone. The audience also took a few songs to get into the show: Crowdsurfers only began propelling themselves forward during “LGFUAD”, which kicked off a string of favorites from Commit This to Memory and Even If It Kills Me. Motion City Soundtrack did little wrong, but the set lacked a momentousness you’d expect from their final festival performance. Then again, they probably had their minds on their farewell show at the Metro Sunday night. –Karen Gwee
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The Sound of Settling

Death Cab for Cutie

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

After a hot, sunny Saturday, the sky softened into a deep, rich mauve as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and his merry band of melancholies welcomed us with a rousing rendition of “I Will Possess Your Heart”. Across 10 minutes, the massive crowd swayed in the warm breeze, savoring how the twilight chill dovetailed with Gibbard’s silken croon. “The New Year” followed and fists pumped. Then came “Crooked Teeth” and something resembling dancing. And then, well, we all started to lose interest.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

There’s just so little surprise to Death Cab shows these days; Saturday night’s setlist sounded like pretty much every other Death Cab setlist I’ve seen. The best live bands are the ones that keep you on their toes, that entice you to keep coming back with rotating sets of singles, cult hits, and deep cuts. At a Death Cab show, the setlist feels assembled by a Spotify algorithm. It doesn’t help that the band’s never been the most dynamic live act, with the spastic light scheme doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of spectacle.

Anyone else up for another Postal Service reunion? –Randall Colburn
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Hardest Enunciations of the S in Illinois

Method Man & Redman

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Last year, Riot Fest had the Wu-Tang Clan (or at least the primary crew) for a packed, rowdy hour of favorites. Some of those songs came around yet again at the 2016 iteration as Method Man and Redman played a set that leaned heavy on nostalgia, similar to much of the festival’s hip-hop presence on Saturday. From the moment the DJ dropped a medley including “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and other classics, or when Method Man asked the crowd “Do you wanna hear some ‘90s hip-hop for the next hour?” — the game became clear: East Coast sounds, bass-heavy beats, and frequent invocations for the stoners in the audience to identify themselves. The interplay between Meth and Red hasn’t diminished over time, leaving the set’s better performances to their collaborative material (“City Lights”, “How High”), and that interplay slightly elevated a set that was otherwise pretty familiar for anyone who’s ever caught a Wu-Tang Clan gig — or even a solo one. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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Whitest Light, Whitest Heat

Social Distortion

As Social Distortion took the stage on Friday night, just a few hours remained until the proper 20th anniversary of White Light, White Heat, White Trash, making their stage-closing Riot Fest set something of a victory lap. At times, the low end overwhelmed everything else; the band sounded fine, but Mike Ness’ vocals were coming and going, seemingly due less to any error of his than to the stage’s sound, which was a struggle to hear in various parts of the crowd. That said, their performance was strong overall, playing through all of White Light and even bringing in their beloved cover of “Ring of Fire” for a pleasing closer. While White Light may not have some of the band’s most memorable songs, the snarling return to form that it offered 20 years ago still resonates today. It’s just not possible to hear “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” or “When the Angels Sing” too many times. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
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Hail to the Trailblazers

The Specials

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Here’s something special: hearing “Ghost Town” live. Everyone should at least once. And if there’s any reason to go see The Specials in this day and age, it’s to hear that and “Do Nothing” and “Stereotype” and, ya know, the hits. Like it or not, The Specials are essentially a nostalgia act these days; the songs still sound good, but, as happens when you get older and lose key members, the tempos start to lag, and some of that fire just isn’t there anymore. The band’s political spirit still burns, however; midway through the set, frontman Lynval Golding proudly proclaimed his support of Black Lives Matter, causing a few crust punks in my vicinity to mutter obscenities and wander off. But this was mostly a chance to sway in the afternoon sun and sing along with songs that meant the world to you when you were young. –Randall Colburn

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Shut Up And Play (Other People’s) Hits

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes

As late-day bands on a festival Sunday go, you can’t get much more reliable than Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The long-tenured punk covers band offer a simple, easily digestible pitch: “Come see members of Swingin’ Utters, NOFX, Lagwagon, and more sing the pop standards of yesterday.” On Sunday, those included but weren’t limited to: George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and many more. And while busting out R. Kelly covers in Chicago might bring a few more collar tugs than it used to, their rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” is every bit as snottily fun as ever. Me First are a great, quick festival diversion, and probably less corrosive to your overall health than another funnel cake. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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Know Your Audience

Juliette Lewis and the Licks

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

For her early Sunday afternoon set with her backing band the Licks, singer and actress Juliette Lewis chose to channel yet another type of performer, one who must have served as some sort of spiritual blueprint to Riot Fest: the late, iconic stuntman Evil Knievel. Not only did Lewis perform in an Evil-esque stars-and-stripes-adorned jumpsuit, but she did all of her own stunts, too. They included the physically-flashy — strutting, sashaying, and tumbling headband-over-boots while crowd-surfing — as well as the setlist-flashy, playing to the audience’s brand even further by closing with supercharged covers of “Proud Mary” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. –Steven Arroyo

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Party Through the Hangover

Diarrhea Planet

“We almost didn’t make it in,” one of Diarrhea Planet’s four guitarists said midway through their furious Friday set. “Sleeping in, hungover.” And, yeah, 12:45 in the afternoon probably is pretty early for the noted party band, who’ve built up a fervent cult following in no small part due to their notoriously rowdy live shows. And though songs like “Life Pass” and “Bob Dylan’s Grandma” totally ripped, the early set and 30-minute runtime felt constraining, with the band having to dial down their onstage antics and stage banter (“Sorry we’re being terse,” one member apologized). The muddled sound mix didn’t help, either; it wasn’t until about halfway through the show that the band’s four guitarists began to individually emerge from the morass, Still, a seismic joy arose amongst the crowd during “Separations”, when the band launched themselves into the crowd, pinwheeled with abandon, and nailed a few signature dance moves. That’s the band we came to see. –Randall Colburn

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Best (Drummer-Fronted) Super-Cover-Group

Chevy Metal

Going on just ahead of the San Francisco cover goofs Me First and the Gimme Gimmes one stage over, Taylor Hawkins’ nostalgic passion project Chevy Metal kicked off 45 minutes of cover songs for Douglas Park — its own set comprising nothing but ‘70s-era hard rock staples, as always. Hawkins, his band (which featured fellow Foo Fighter Chris Shiflett), and his outrageously wind-sensitive hair ripped through nearly a dozen hits like the “wedding band on crack” they professed to be. They glided through Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”, David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, The Faces’ “Stay with Me”, and to close out, with help from Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” and Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down”. –Steven Arroyo

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Wrinkles, Veins and Blood

It’s GWAR for the Course

Why does Riot Fest keep booking GWAR, who’ve been on the lineup for four years straight now? As I watch rows of screaming fans get sprayed with (fake) blood squirting from frontman Blothar’s flaccid udder, a decrepit Bernie Sanders puppet ride onstage on what appears to be a troll walking on its hands, an onstage disembowelment, and an impressive sing-along to the 1990 single and set closer “Sick of You”, the answer comes to me: GWAR are great, fucking hilarious, and a perfect act for Riot Fest’s carnivalesque side. GWAR at Riot Fest 2017. Let’s go. –Karen Gwee
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Partying and Patriotism

Andrew W.K.

By now, Andrew W.K. is the patron saint of Riot Fest, the crusty arcangel of this particular corner of heaven. “I’ve officially lost count,” W.K. said as he pondered how many times he’s played the festival, tossing the question into the ether as he and his band of cock-rockin’ merrymakers launched into another one of his signature party-starting anthems. As usual, they did exactly what they set out to do, which is get blood and fists pumping in equal measure. What I love about Andrew W.K. is exactly what I love about professional wrestling: everything we’re watching — the body-slamming theatrics — is scripted, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Andrew W.K. exists to make people happy, and his particular brand of piano-flanked hair metal never fails in that department. Kudos also to his Hendrix-aping “Star-Spangled Banner” on the electric axe, which he segued into the uplifting “She Is Beautiful”. That’s my kind of patriotism, people. –Randall Colburn

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Let’s Do The Time Warp

The Hives

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

For those who were unfortunate enough to grow up as a teenager in the late ’90s and early aughts, The Hives on Saturday afternoon at the Rock Stage probably came off as an absolute delight. Remember the Rock ‘N’ Roll Renaissance that lasted, what, two months back in 2002? That short window when The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives, and The Vines were all lumped together as the would-be saviors of mainstream music? Laugh all you want, but this writer worshiped that era, embracing it as a short gasp of vindication after slumming through four years of miserable garbage, thanks to The TRL Generation.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

But that was in the past and The Hives … well, they’re still doing their thing. Unfortunately for them, the Swedish rockers aren’t nearly as celebrated as their peers these days, but hey, they still got a leg up on The Vines — and they drew a sizable crowd. Frontman Pelle Almqvist, who now looks less like Jagger and more like Iggy, took advantage of this and paraded about like a rabid animal, climbing up the stage’s struts and hurling himself in the crowd during cuts off Veni Vidi Vicious and other select hits. Did you also forget about “Walk Idiot Walk”? Or “Tick Tick Boom”? Thought so; they still rip. –Michael Roffman
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Best Classics, Delivered Well

Nas

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Nas has always carried himself with a gravitas beyond many of his contemporaries. It’s not as though the rapper/producer/all-around mogul doesn’t have an empire of his own at this point, but it’s a more modest one and one that’s positioned the 43-year-old as the antithesis of the “other rappers” in the game.

His closing set on Saturday drew a notable crowd even before Morrissey’s delay began, and fans hardly walked off disappointed. Nas’ career has lent itself to exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing festival performance that festival attendees were probably looking for: a tight hour of hits without too much fluff or performative fuss.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

That said, it was also remarkably similar to the festival shows he’s been playing for a few years now; there weren’t any surprises to be found, and the notable majority of his setlist drew on Illmatic material. But then, given the pop of the crowd every single time one of those iconic introductions kicked in, it’s clear that few in attendance minded.

Though the tight, live drumming was drowned out somewhat in the overall mix, Nas put on a mercifully engaging hour at a point in his run where he could come out and play the exact same setlist, with less effort, and still probably draw a house. But if he’s going to declare himself as one of the true gatekeepers of the genre, upholding the value of bar-for-bar rap shows is just part of the job. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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Underrated Pioneers

Smoking Popes

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

The only people under 30 at Smoking Popes’ Saturday afternoon set were being pushed in strollers by their tattooed parents. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it is indicative of how their music, despite its influence on pop-punk, hasn’t persevered into the modern age. That made flannel-clad rockers like “Rubella” and “Megan” a welcome addition to Riot Fest’s nostalgia buffet; these are songs most of us legit haven’t heard in 15 years. Immediately following the Popes’ set was Motion City Soundtrack’s second-to-last show ever, and this juxtaposition really helped hammer home for me just how much of Josh Caterer’s crooning, sensitive vocals can be heard in MCS and other bands that followed. Theirs is a quiet influence, but a notable one. –Randall Colburn
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Simply Words and Guitar

Sleater-Kinney

With Rob Zombie blaring next door and people bleeding out of the crowd to get ready for Misfits, Sleater-Kinney were in a rough spot. But the rock ‘n’ trio got onstage and did their jobs with little fanfare and zero song introductions, keeping the (frustratingly lukewarm) crowd on their toes. They jumped between albums and career points, never announcing when they were playing songs off last year’s No Cities To Love, unbeholden to the marketing instinct that directs artists touring new material. Corin Tucker, who’d been on a panel about sexism and safe spaces in live music the day before, gave props to Riot Fest’s no-tolerance policy against harassment and called for everyone to have each other’s backs. Otherwise, Sleater-Kinney kept to themselves, eliciting the most cheers from the audience when Tucker and Carrie Brownstein turned to rock out with each other. –Karen Gwee

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Underrated Reunion

The Hold Steady

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

One of the more overlooked reunions as of late has been Franz Nicolay’s much-needed return to The Hold Steady. When the eclectic multi-instrumentalist jumped ship back in 2010, the Brooklyn bar rockers were never the same. For awhile, they fiddled around with replacements, amidst early tours behind Heaven Is Whenever, but eventually they made the fatal mistake of shelving the keys altogether. That’s not to say they were awful — frontman Craig Finn could read Ulysses all night, and it’d be better than half of the acts on any given festival bill — but they lost a part of their soul. Songs like “Hot Soft Light”, “Massive Nights”, and “Stuck Between Stations” sounded almost lifeless. You know, they felt hollow. Which is why every fan should raise their cans of cheap beer in honor of Nicolay’s triumphant return for the band’s 10th anniversary performances of Boys and Girls of America.

Not all was well, though. Things sounded pretty rough for the boys at the Rock Stage on Saturday afternoon. The mixing sucked, to be blunt, and Nicolay was still a little rusty behind the keys and at the mic — to be fair, it was the band’s second gig in 18 months. Technical issues aside, there was no way anyone who ever came to champion the band through anthems like “Chips Ahoy” or “You Can Make Him Like You” walked away disappointed. Even diehards who’ve seen ’em religiously in recent years had to get a kick out of hearing rarities like “Citrus” or “Chillout Tent”, the latter of which featuring the vocals of High Waisted frontwoman Jessica Louise Dye. Hell, they even tossed out post-album goodie bags like “Girls Like Status”, “Constructive Summer”, “The Swish”, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”, and finally “Stay Positive”. It was a party pit, alright. –Michael Roffman
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Leaders of the Urgent, Unsubtle Musical Fight For Justice

War on Women

Got some patriarchy that needs smashing? Call War on Women. The Baltimore band launched a vicious attack on bigotry at Riot Fest with roaring hardcore punk, uncompromising in both sound and ethos. In a time when sexism endures, dressed up in words, it was thrilling and important to hear vocalist Shawna Potter yell to a responsive audience “Say it, say, it, I was raped!” (in “Say it”) and “Give us the pill!” (in “Roe v. World”). The latter, proclaimed after Potter had just ripped a Donald Trump piñata apart with a baseball bat, was especially and understandably memorable. –Karen Gwee
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Fear and Loathing at Riot Fest

Brand New

The most noticeable thing about Brand New’s stage setup at Riot Fest was the wilting flowers tied to all the mic stands — a touch of decaying beauty that felt apt for a band on its farewell lap. “This is a new song that’s soon going to be an old song,” frontman Jesse Lacey said before the recently released “I Am a Nightmare”, which comes off much better live than it does in your earphones. Otherwise, Brand New gave the crowd little indication of what their next and probably final album will sound like, predictably sticking to the old favorites. There was “Mix Tape” off Your Favorite Weapon (the Morrissey line elicited a rare chuckle from Lacey), a few Deja Entendu tracks, and a solid chunk of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, all delivered with little pomp or fanfare, as one expects of the sullen and fairly private Long Island band. –Karen Gwee

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Fewest Surprises, Thankfully

Bob Mould

Taking the stage on the second afternoon of a festival with a precedent of unpredictability, Bob Mould broke the, um, mold when he started playing at the listed time and packed in as many songs as possible with hardly a word of audience interaction, delivering each one in full, sans surprise. Granted, it was a set that’s more or less the same as every one he’s played recently: a smattering of Hüsker Dü and Sugar tracks anchored by solo material. Even his chosen backdrop image of Chicago’s de-facto mascot sculpture, Cloud Gate, was about as pedestrian as possible — but a fitting visual complement to Mould’s songs in how its grand, unblemished edges always seem to retain huge power no matter how many times you view them. –Steven Arroyo

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Best Ongoing Presidential Outrage

NOFX

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Given that NOFX have now been active for over 30 years, it’s almost a little depressing how relevant their inflammatory, all-targets brand of crass political punk remains in modern society. That’s not to disparage the band in the slightest; you’d just think that the self-loathing, exhausted apathy of “Franco Un-American” wouldn’t feel truer 13 years after The War on Errorism was released than it did at the time, but here we are. Wherever there’s an America being consumed by consumerism, NOFX remains to bellow in the opposite direction. And, y’know, talk a little shit about everything they come across on the way.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Despite the continued sound bleed over the Rock stage, the stalwart So-Cal punk legends delivered what, by the wildly fluctuating standards of NOFX’s live history, should be considered a successful, raucous hour. Fat Mike’s trademark banter hewed more toward humorous than vicious, to the show’s benefit, as he opined between songs on how the Misfits’ first Denver show was “okay” and loudly demanded that some “fucking asshole” near the front of the crowd go see the Flaming Lips instead. Eventually he also ended up wondering aloud if there’s a better person in the world to assassinate right now than Donald Trump, but that’s just a NOFX set for you.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

But this particular 21-song set was relatively light on grandstanding and heavy on old standards (“Linoleum”, “Bob”, and even a reggae take on Rancid’s “Radio”), and aside from a couple of songs off their upcoming First Ditch Effort, this was a time for punks both young and old to yell along with a band that have become legends of the genre without ever taking any kind of dramatic hiatus or going through major reinventions. NOFX is and always has been NOFX, and if Friday night is any indication, they’ll leave the Earth that way: loud, sometimes sloppy, fun, and maybe fucking around on an accordion for the last few minutes of the set just because they can. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
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Most Welcome Reprieve of Day 1

Eskimeaux

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Seeing Eskimeaux on the Riot Fest lineup was a pleasant surprise — their hushed, earnest indie rock pegs them as a band more likely to play indoors at a DIY venue, and they knew it. “We’ve never played wearing sunglasses,” remarked guitarist and vocalist Gabrielle Smith. Despite that incongruence and the fact that they had all of 20 seconds to soundcheck, Eskimeaux did beautifully, their concise and uplifting set a mix of songs from their 2015 album, O.K., and their April EP, Year of the Rabbit. They charmed the audience, who’ll hopefully remember the band after the hue and cry of the weekend is all over. –Karen Gwee
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Grade-A Trolling

Morrissey

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

On Saturday night, the folks behind Riot Fest had every reason to pop some champagne once Morrissey finished singing “What She Said” — which, by the way, was his only cover of The Smiths. After all, their relationship with the notoriously finicky singer-songwriter has been nothing short of a madhouse, starting back in May when he publicly denounced his involvement with the festival only to backpedal days later. Things picked up on Saturday, of course, when every nearby food vendor was forced to halt any sales involving meat during his performance. Or when Moz decided to spend over 30 minutes testing the remarkably patient crowd around the Riot Stage with his bookmarked YouTube videos, featuring performances from Ramones to Alice Cooper, some crappy hip-hop kids to Tina Turner, before he finally graced everyone with his presence.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

You just have to laugh, but at the same time, also respect that he’s able to get away with such shenanigans. (Okay, the meat ban is a legit concern, but 30 minutes of nonsense, dude? That’s just wasteful.) Plus, there’s something remarkable about how he was able to top an achingly nostalgic weekend and only play one track from the band that originally put him on the map. Because of this, he didn’t drag out an extended version of “How Soon Is Now?”, dazzle everyone with a punchy send-up of “This Charming Man”, or bring thousands to tears with an emotional rendition of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”. Rather, he beautifully sang his heart out with his own catalog, tagged Gustavo Manzur for a Spanish rendition of “Speedway”, and offered his two cents on all things political, whether it was through visuals on screen or something he explicitly stated.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

During “Ganglord”, jarring footage of real-life police brutality splattered across the screen, highlighting multiple incidents where cops have severely beaten submissive citizens. It was pretty rough to watch, and several festivalgoers had to look away in horror or disgust or both. Fortunately, Moz kept things much lighter thereafter, offering a ridiculous MS Paint meme that included low-quality images of Prince William and Princess Kate with the words “United King-dumb” sprawled across. “In England, we have a new Prime Minister that nobody voted for,” he shrugged before “Irish Blood, English Heart”, adding: “Well, you know the game.” We do, which is why he played to our own fears: “As for November … you knew very well that they’d have to get rid of Bernie Sanders because he was the only one who said no more war.” Not bad for a guy who wears cats as hats.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

All in all, it was everything we expected from Morrissey: ridiculous yet serious, disappointing yet thrilling, and frustrating yet hilarious. He’s a polarizing fellow, but he’s unlike anyone else. An anomaly, you might say. –Michael Roffman
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Lights. Colors. Flashes. Action

The Flaming Lips

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

The power failed when The Flaming Lips first plugged in at Riot Fest two years ago, but on Friday the Riot Stage was prepared. Wayne Coyne and co. began their headlining set with the spectacle one expects of a finale — streamers, confetti, huge balloons, an ever-expanding nuclear sunrise on the screens behind, light skittering up the hanging strings of LEDs that looked like a curtain of jellyfish tentacles. Incredibly, every song after brought something different: two huge blowup caterpillars midway through their metamorphosis into monarch butterflies and a sun for “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1”; Coyne garbed in a technicolor dreamcoat of LED lights, sitting on the shoulders of a Wookie, a gong outlined with lights that flashed whenever it was struck.

By the end of the set, some of the magic had worn off — ”Do You Realize??” actually felt short and underwhelming — but the way The Flaming Lips strove to keep their performances varied could have been an education for any lesser band. They kept it shambolic, not bothering to hide the moving parts that made the show possible. It was easy to see even from a distance the stagehands leading the caterpillar-butterflies offstage and the crew zipping Coyne up into his famous hamster ball, from which he would sing “Space Oddity”, standing atop the audience with the bright harvest moon miles above him. The tribute, which came without fanfare or fawning, was heartfelt, ethereal, and sorely needed. –Karen Gwee

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Stick Around, Nostalgia Won’t Let You Down

Jimmy Eat World

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

That lyric from “A Praise Chorus” captured exactly why the audience, eager to revisit their high school days and young adulthood, turned out the way it did for Jimmy Eat World at the Riot Stage early Friday evening. But the Arizona band have never been one to rest on their laurels, scattering newer songs like “My Best Theory” and “Get Right” throughout the setlist for much needed respite from the raucous response to anything off Bleed American or Futures. “There’s a lot of you,” frontman Jim Adkins commented, and more than once he expressed gratitude that people still paid attention to them, a reminder of how unassuming this band can be, almost to a fault. Instead, they let the music do the talking, although they hardly had time to delve into their more emotional material, like “Hear You Me” and “23”. –Karen Gwee
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Best Unrehearsed 20-Year-Old-Album Performance

Rob Zombie

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

A great many circumstances surrounding Rob Zombie’s set — a revisiting-in-full of Astro Creep: 2000, the final studio album of his original band, White Zombie — had the makings of, in his own words, a weird dream.

For instance, the last time that he performed with White Zombie, 21 years prior, the opener was Deftones, who had only just walked off the neighboring stage when he shared that bit of information. What a weird dream must look like for someone such as Zombie, not even the Riot Fest clientele can conceive, but what materialized onstage was every bit as fun and celebratory as it was over-the-top in its morbidity.

With the help of his longtime solo bandmates — drummer Ginger Fish, guitarist John 5, and bassist Piggy D. — Zombie reflected on White Zombie’s ’85-’98 run, and the weirdness of re-inhabiting it, and then pulled off what was perhaps the most visually dominant stage production of the whole weekend. And then he revealed that they hadn’t held a single rehearsal for the album ahead of time. –Steven Arroyo
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Accidental Longest Set

Ween

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

By the time they finished their set on Friday night, Gene and Dean Ween had played 50 different songs of theirs in total over the course of two nights. This manic catalog coverage is far from the only reason that Ween’s several-months-deep reunion run sits right up there in Riot-Fest-sacredness with those of the Original Misfits, Sleater-Kinney, and the Franz Nicolay-featuring Hold Steady, but it’s absolutely what separates it from the field.

With Dean at fine sharpness on his wandering solos, Gene kept the pleasant surprises flowing, opening with “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” and later breaking out the bullhorn for “I’ll Be Your Jonny on the Spot” — post-hiatus debuts for both songs. And though they currently have no other Chitown dates on the books as of yet, he gifted further hope of a prolonged active stretch when he signed off with “Thank you, Chicago. We’ll see you soon.”

Fun fact: Ween also played for the entirety of its 90-minute slot, thereby surpassing the 30-minute-postponed Morrissey for the weekend’s longest performance, justly. –Steven Arroyo

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When They Talk, You Hear The Revolution

The Julie Ruin

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Photo by Debi Del Grande

It’s a joy to see Kathleen Hanna perform; the riot grrrl pioneer does not settle for less. On Sunday evening, The Julie Ruin’s set might have seemed unpolished for all the technical problems they experienced, but not for Hanna’s lack of trying — she light-heartedly revealed her dance move that was also a signal for more vocals in her monitors and even jogged over to the sound engineers to emphatically demand changes to the mix.

Their abbreviated set was dominated by Hanna on vocals although keyboardist Kenny Mellman offered up a memorable turn on “South Coast Plaza”, which they cheerily introduced as a song about euthanasia. (Mellman’s Lisa Frank shirt couldn’t have been more ironic.) Joking aside, the band openly acknowledged the trauma and pain that their danceable punk pop exorcises. “It’s such a pleasure to say what I want, such a fucking pleasure,” Hanna proclaimed, chewing on identity politics, abusive households, and sexual harassment, before concluding with a jubilant rendition of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”. –Karen Gwee

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Most Thrilling Sprint to the Finish Line

Touché Amore

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Touché Amoré’s set was a goddamn blitzkrieg. That’s where having a catalog of ultra-short burners comes in handy, I suppose. Frontman Jeremy Bolm and his band of merry shredders cycled through an LP’s worth of hits during their short set, the crowd screaming along with early career highlights like “Amends” and “Home Away from Here”.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Also of note was “Rapture”, a cut from their brand-new Stage Four, which dropped that day and showed the band continuing to inch towards a more melodic and fully formed sound without sacrificing a shred of aggression. Touché Amoré finished as strong as they started; after being told they only had five minutes, Bolm boldly announced as much before launching into a marathon finale that found him clambering into the audience for a cathartic sing-along of oldie “Honest Sleep” and the emphatic “~.”

Everyone was heaving for breath after this one. –Randall Colburn
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The Headliners That Weren’t

Deftones

“Are you ready for the motherfucking Misfits?” Chino Moreno asked the raving crowd a few songs into the Deftones’ mighty set at the Riot stage Sunday evening. The Sacramento band could hardly be called benchwarmers, though, ripping through a set of both old material, particularly from Around the Fur, and newer songs from Gore and Koi no Yokan. Moreno was relentless, bounding and leaping from end to end of the stage. Anchored by his bandmates — particularly, rock-solid guitarist Stephen Carpenter and bassist Sergio Vega — Moreno was free to scream straight into the crowd at one moment and stand atop an amp like a messiah the next. He paid tribute to both Glenn Danzig and Morrissey, acknowledging the oddness of that combination: “That might be corrupt and wrong, but those motherfuckers made me wanna sing. I love them both equally.” In this writer’s opinion, Deftones gave Misfits a solid run for their money, the students clearly outperforming the masters. –Karen Gwee
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Best Wall of Assaultive Noise

Death Grips

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Arrive. Blast beats. Leave.

Given that Death Grips had already no-showed two other Chicago festivals in recent years, some were still curious if they’d actually make it to the Rise stage’s final set of the weekend. It’d also be one possible explanation for the unexpectedly small crowd present for the avant-rap collective’s set. (The same-time conflicts with Rob Zombie and Sleater-Kinney offer another, likelier explanation.) Though DG’s various provocations have lost them as many (if not more) admirers as they’ve gained over the past six years, their Sunday set was exactly what somebody who came to see Death Grips would want. Which is to say that it was an overt, system-pushing, assaulting hour that appeared to prematurely end more than a few weekends.

But here’s the thing: In a fun but especially nostalgia-heavy year of Riot Fest, Death Grips’ set felt genuinely transgressive in a way that seems increasingly rare for most festivals. The bracing immediacy of their no-bullshit performance was a far cry from the crowd work that characterized many of the festival’s rap sets, or the sing-along appeal of many of the main stage acts. MC Ride, Zach Hill, and Andy Morin simply took the stage, bathed in purple light, and simply went off. Transitioning seamlessly from one song into another, there wasn’t a break or a word to be had with the crowd. Just a blasting wall of refined noise, never as atonal as passersby might assume, dealt with astounding precision by a trio of musicians who continue to turn out some of today’s most interesting music even as the hype train has slowly begun to move on. If it means less overall nonsense and more shows like this, that’s probably just as well. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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Biggest Reason To Celebrate One’s Teenage Angst

Misfits

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

The Bible tells of the Wandering Jew. A soul punished to spend all of eternity waiting for the Second Coming. I can say I know the pain: I’ve spent much of the last few years in just such a purgatory. I could only watch as fans were shepherded through their own deliverance as The Replacements, Refused, American Football, and a few dozen other bands reunited over the last few years. Finally, though, the gods chose to shine their light on my band, and after 33 long years, bickering ad infinitum, and a couple of lawsuits, the Misfits reunited at Riot Fest.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

As I walked into the grounds of Douglas Park, I wondered if my childlike expectations would be adequately matched. Whether years of walking around in a busted Fiend Club hoodie would be paid in kind. The reality was just as beautiful as I could have ever hoped. It’s true that the years haven’t been kind to Danzig and co., but it’s only enhanced their craft. Danzig’s shrinking frame and mutilated vocal chords brought new rage to “Die Die My Darling”. Meanwhile, his sense of old-man paranoia finally lived up to a bonkers song like “Who Killed Marilyn?” Similarly, the fact that each member is no longer a “Teenager from Mars” only makes the creepy cling tighter to your rib cage. Even songs like “Skulls” and “Death Comes Ripping” breathed heavier then they’d ever had in my headphones. The whole setlist felt darker, and something as meaningless as “138” was cult-like while bathed in white light and belted by thousands of punk acolytes.

RIOT FEST 2016

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Meanwhile, Jerry Only and Doyle were mostly on board for the ride, happy to chug along and let Danzig steal the spotlight with the intermittent bitching about his monitor and microphone placement between unleashing a string of “motherfuckers” that’d make a whole navy blush. The band’s dynamic didn’t seem like a diva stealing the attention away but rather a way to get back to a moment in time, where Danzig was a blacklight god and the Misfits were the scariest damn band around (which might explain the Only-Danzig fist bump and not any bickering). For one night they were all that and more, a terror so spellbinding that this normally timid writer didn’t mind getting carried backwards by a mob of people the entire length of a football field. It was “Halloween” after all, motherfuckers, and you gots to play along.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

I started to exit the park to the maniacal sounds of “She” during the encore. Leaving the grounds felt like that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she got pulled out of Heaven — cold and dark and like I’ll never return again to that happy place. Still, just one evening validated every moment I felt had passed me up as a fan. Every hour I sat in my room as a teenage boy and drew primal strength from Danzig’s words. All the trash talking and drunken assholes and burning sunlight and possibly bruised ribs. With any luck, the band can keep it together enough for a full tour. But if this was just a one-off deal, then for a single night I got to go home. –Chris Coplan

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Riot Fest Chicago 2016.

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Gallery

Photographers: Debi Del Grande, Heather Kaplan