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Riot Fest 2017 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Most Crowd-Pleasing Passing of the Aux Cord

Mike D

Judging by the reactions from festivalgoers headed away from Mike D’s Saturday night DJ set, the once and eternal Beastie Boy gave the crowd exactly what they wanted. But given the generic assemblage of songs played, it’s hard to consider the set anything more than a legendary artist having fun messing around onstage for an hour. Along with his DJ, Mike D worked through a surprisingly low amount of Beasties material through the hour, and instead of flexing any of the group’s famously music-literate sampling acumen, he simply played the most crowd-pleasing hits possible, from Chance the Rapper to “99 Problems” to “Ms. Jackson” and onward. It’s arguable that Mike D has earned more than enough clout to do slight remixes onstage and be paid for it, but his hour felt more like a politely enjoyable night at a club than a mid-evening festival performance before long. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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Fuck, That’s Delicious (And Too Early in the Day)

Action Bronson

Action Bronson cuts an imposing figure for more than just the obvious reasons, and even in the context of a set like his early Friday performance at Riot Fest, that fact is indisputable. But the energy of some of his best live shows has always been derived from the crowd returning it in kind, and only those near the very front did so on Friday. Bronson’s delivery commanded attention in fits and starts (particularly on “Actin Crazy”), but much of the audience seemed content to let his primarily laid-back beats dominate the hour. Combine that with a noticeable number of mid-song cutoffs, and the fact that the crowd visibly thinned out as soon as he dropped his portion of “Baby Blue”, and it was a generally underwhelming set despite how, as Bronson mentioned onstage at one point, “I’m trying my best.” –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
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Best Veteran Presence (With the Worst Sound)

Bad Brains

Riot Fest has always put together a solid assemblage of veteran punk acts to go with the newer, frequently genre-bending fare. As such, elder statesmen Bad Brains were welcomed by a massive crowd on Saturday afternoon, as the band commemorated their 40th year. However, despite the festival’s known sound issues being largely minimal this year, Bad Brains got perhaps the worst of it all weekend, with frontman H.R.’s vocals frequently dissipating beneath the instrumentation. The energy might have been in lacking supply onstage, but Bad Brains are nevertheless a band where the music goes a long way in speaking for itself. “Let them hear you all the way to Washington” may have fallen on some deaf ears on a sunny festival day, but Bad Brains’ message is as essential as ever. In fact, these days, it may be just a little bit more so. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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The Agony and The Ecstasy…of the Guitar Solo

Built to Spill

Built to Spill are an amazing festival band … depending on when they’re playing. Because what you’re getting with a Built to Spill set is a series of dizzy, hypnotic guitar solos from frontman Doug Martsch with a few choruses peppered in; prolific as they are, your mileage may vary. That can be a boom on a lazy late afternoon on Friday or Saturday, when Martsch’s melodic noodling and mild psychedelia pair perfectly with a long toke. On a Sunday, however, when that sun-baked skin is scraping uncomfortably against your weary bones, it has the potential to expound that creeping exhaustion and make you wish you were listening to his practiced hand beneath cool bedsheets.

And, to some degree, that’s how it felt during Sunday’s set, which found the band playing their 1999 masterpiece Keep It Like a Secret in full. The album has some of their best pop songs in “The Plan” and “Carry the Zero”, but both were prolonged into elaborate jam sessions that tested the patience of those craving hooks. That said, Martsch’s magical, whirling work on “Else” might’ve been the most beautiful work I heard all weekend. And album standout “You Were Right” resonated as less satirical and more melancholy in this rendition, a shift that I found deeply satisfying.

And that’s really the joy of seeing Built to Spill live—the songs are never quite what they are on record. Sometimes that’s for the better, sometimes it’s, well, not. –Randall Colburn

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Least Snowflake/Most Antifa

Ministry

Ministry may now be in their fourth active decade of recording and performing, but credit is owed where it’s amply due for consistency. With a new song from their forthcoming album AmeriKKKant, the industrial dynasty that Al Jourgensen built has maintained their unsubtle means of railing against vulgar power in all of its forms. “Antifa” declared that “we’re not snowflakes, we are the Antifa,” complete with an Antifa demonstrator in full regalia raising the red and black during its Riot Fest performance. From that new outing to “Punch in the Face” to “N.W.O.,” Ministry’s muscular rock harkened back to a very different era of heavy music on a sunny, early-fall evening, but the utter sincerity of their aggression is as clear as ever. And in a festival that saw a number of overt political gestures, the Chicago act reminded a surprisingly large crowd how it’s been done for years. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
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The Start of Something

Radar State

Though Matt Pryor and Josh Berwanger came to prominence in the Get-Up Kids and The Anniversary, respectively, they’ve each gone on to forge fruitful solo careers. Berwanger’s namesake band pushed his signature brand of power-pop further, while Pryor’s solo work has encompassed everything from folk to electronica to children’s music. Now, the pair have teamed up with one-time Get-Up Kid Jim Suptic and drummer Adam Phillips to form Radar State, a lo-fi outfit that aims to recall their early days in the Kansas City punk scene.

They’ve done it, too. During their Friday afternoon set on the small Heather Owen stage, Radar State debuted a sound both harsh and melodic, with Pryor and Berwanger’s pop songcraft bleeding through the band’s wall of distortion. Songs like “Spinning Wheel” and “Defender” evoke Four Minute Mile-era GUK, while Pryor and Suptic’s practiced harmonies will no doubt recall the warmer moments of Something to Write Home About. Not every song pops just yet and their live show is understandably still under construction, but the emo veterans seem to have tapped into something exciting here. –Randall Colburn

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Best Early-Day Wake Up Call

Black Pistol Fire

Some festival days are harder to get going than others, and the unseasonably hot weather on Saturday (despite it being a nice change from the annual Riot Fest rainstorm) made getting too rowdy seem like a tall order. Luckily, Canadian/Texan duo Black Pistol Fire made more than enough noise to rouse even the most Malort-abused bodies from their repose. Kevin McKeown and Eric Owen may not take up much space onstage, but their fuzzy, blues-tinged, no-bullshit rock offered a perfect start to the fest’s middle act, tearing through withering tracks with bracing energy. Not even the accidental unplugging of McKeown’s guitar during a crowd surf attempt could diminish the noise they managed to make in 40 minutes flat. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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