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Never Tell Me the Odds: Riot Fest 2018 Festival Review

on September 17, 2018, 6:46pm

Beyond the Gates: The lead-up to Riot Fest’s 2018 installment was riddled with perils, at least on the part of longtime fans and attendees. Rumors circulated about headliner cancellations and lineup changes, the single-day schedule didn’t come out until just a few days before the festival itself, and some skeptics wondered if time had caught up to the festival at long last. After all, Riot Fest has always been a bit of an unlikely proposition; in a Chicago landscape currently overwhelmed by two-and-three-day music festivals, Riot Fest stands alone in its unique dedication to serving as a last bastion for rock festivals in the Second City.

As Lollapalooza further embraces its modern pop direction more with each passing year, and the Pitchfork Music Festival now largely defines itself as a cross-genre “see it first” tastemaker event, Riot Fest is left to carry a number of torches. It has to house rock bands, punk bands, hardcore bands, metal bands, old bands, new bands that don’t automatically slide into some kind of SEO-friendly taste vertical, reunion acts skipping the arena circuit, unlikely festival faces, and at least a couple artists a year that will still genuinely surprise people who’ve been to every Riot Fest since it became an outdoor event in Humboldt Park in 2012. Before that, it was a multi-venue indoor event from 2005 onward, so there are at least some in attendance who started going to Riot Fest as kids, who now bring their own kids along in turn.

Needless to say, a festival cycles through a lot of acts in 14 years and counting, and it then makes sense that this year’s Riot Fest was full of a few familiar faces alongside the latest batch of surprises. However, don’t be fooled; just because Riot Fest has its stable of bands it brings back, doesn’t mean it’s done putting on an entertaining show. For all of the gossip and concern following the 2018 festival, Riot Fest brought the thunder once again, assembling a fascinating and especially veteran-heavy lineup of punk bands from every era, and a handful of other genres to boot. Sure, Blink-182 had to pull out as a headliner at the last minute (after canceling their entire fall tour due to health concerns), and there was talk of at least one more mystery headliner being forced to back out late. (Google it.) Regardless, it’s still just about the most fun you can have in a single Chicago weekend every year. The festival’s big anniversary might not come around next year, but for all of the tumult leading up to it, Riot Fest 2018 still felt a lot like a celebration.

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Riot Fest 2018, photo by Heather Kaplan

Festival Fashionista: The funny thing about this year’s festival is that the demographics changed wildly by the day, even more than usual for Riot Fest. The accessible, pop-friendly rock of Friday (Weezer, Bleachers, Matt & Kim) gave way to the older-leaning melodies of Saturday (Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Beck, Cat Power, Interpol), which in turn opened up for the abrasive sounds of Sunday (FEAR, Suicidal Tendencies, Run the Jewels). As such, any sartorial trends were dependent on which set you were at; you could drift from hippie couture to mod leathers to bright punk mohawks to the latest in comfortable dad fashions, all within an hour or so on any given day. Riot Fest is an outdoor festival for all peoples, and the plethora of looks on display only drove that home.

Stay Hydrated. Apply Sunscreen. Get Consent.: When people say that movements like #metoo or the Our Music My Body campaign are shedding a light on assault in artistic communities and performance spaces, it always feels like just a bit of a misnomer. After all, these things were happening (and being talked about) long before there was a cultural buzzword for them; people are simply refusing to let up the pressure for the sake of some concertgoers’ comfortable feelings of escapism.

As such, talk of consent was front and center at Riot Fest’s 2018 outing. Numerous acts took time out of their sets to call for mutual respect among audience members, with Run the Jewels even taking a couple minutes out of their headlining set to lay down the RTJ rules for enjoying a show: keep your hands to yourself, make sure you’re looking out for the people around you no matter how wild you’re getting, and seriously, keep your hands to yourself. It’s not like EL-P should have to say that, but he does, and everyone does until people not only learn the lesson, but actually start to abide by it in their own lives.

Even the placards around Riot Fest offered a third reminder, one which should be every bit as much of an “oh, duh” for audience members as the other two: stay hydrated, apply sunscreen, and get consent. And if you’re one of the people this writer overheard during the weekend, whining about how people don’t need to be told that, congratulations on being the exact reason that people still do.

Sharper With Age: Riot Fest has been friendly to veteran touring bands for a long time now, but even on that basis, 2018 was the year of Riot Fest revivals. Sure, there wasn’t a high-profile union on this year’s lineup on the level of The Replacements or Jawbreaker or The Original Misfits, but plenty of other acts filled out the early, middle, and late parts of each day with an assured, tenured onstage presence.

The fun part was just how many different kinds of musical histories and legacies were honored throughout this year’s fest. Hardcore legends FEAR performed their 1982 classic The Record in full to a wild, appreciative crowd. Chicago’s noise-punk scene got some love on Saturday night when The Jesus Lizard ripped through a characteristically abrasive, in-your-face, angular set for a small but vocally dedicated crowd. Blondie returned for the first time since 2013 to an even bigger crowd than they drew last time.

Hell, even Jerry Lee Lewis closed out the Radicals stage at 82 years of age, leading to the distinctly Riot Fest spectacle of a polite circle pit breaking out to his high-key piano theatrics. Riot Fest was full of “old bands” this year, but it served notice that there’s a reason these acts have stuck around for decades, long after so many comparatively polished rockers have come and gone.

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Johnny Marr, Riot Fest 2018, photo by Heather Kaplan

Please, Please, Please, Let Us Get What We Want: When Johnny Marr broke into “How Soon is Now?” during his midday Sunday set, it was yet another reminder that half of the original Smiths lineup has now performed Smiths music at Riot Fest, and yet, no Smiths set yet. Please? Please. We’ll even put up with Morrissey shutting down all the burger stands for the duration of his set again if you can make that one happen.

Pop Riots: Riot Fest has always been open to pop-punk bands and the more accessible corners of the scene, even as it’s become a standard-bearer for bringing in and/or reuniting legends. But on Friday, more than in any other to date, Riot Fest embraced the poppier side of things in 2018. Festival stalwarts Matt & Kim blasted DMX samples and synth-pop hits against a blinding sun. Jack Antonoff brought Bleachers along for a lively set full of aggressively polite music. Sum 41 played the uptempo punk that briefly made them stars around the turn of the millennium. Weezer stuck strictly to the hits (and hit covers). Young the Giant played a tight hour of accessible, single-ready modern rock. All of the above are regulars on what’s left of Chicago rock radio, and the crowds for all of those sets suggested that it was a fairly smart booking.

That said, not all of the looser bookings paid off. Anybody passing by Hobo Johnson’s Friday afternoon set was treated to a winkingly bad set so utterly incompetent that even the punk ethic of knowingly snotty live performances can’t account for it. It was like watching the hackiest band at your high school’s weekend show get a plum Riot Fest slot.

Kick Out the Jams: As Riot Fest often does, the festival allowed for a number of bands to flex their improvisational skills on the jammier end of the live performance spectrum. Digable Planets, invited in to perform Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) for its 25th anniversary, turned hits like “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” into extended sessions, allowing every member of the recently reunited act a chance to take the midday spotlight. It’s a perfect fit for Digable Planets’ material, particularly on that record, and at points their set invoked a looser, older-school version of member Ishmael Butler’s performance here last year with his latter-day project, Shabazz Palaces.

Curiously, one of the loosest sets came from Elvis Costello and The Imposters, who many in attendance worried wouldn’t make this year’s festival after Costello had to cancel his European tour dates this summer in the wake of an operation to remove a “cancerous malignancy.” The performance was fairly meditative for the often raucous performer; an extended play on “I Want You” turned that already eerie song into an unsettling, lingering piece of ska-flecked balladry. Costello and his band riffed a good bit throughout the set, particularly in its languid (in a good way) second half, before picking back up into a never-more-prescient take on “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” to close out. Truly, Riot Fest is a home for every corner of rock, now.

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Elvis Costello, Riot Fest 2018, photo by Heather Kaplan

A Note on Shutting Up and Playing the Hits: Weezer’s Friday night set was a late treat for festivalgoers, a solid enough substitute for the last-minute removal of Blink-182 as a headliner. However, it also drew out a fairly sharp contrast with the band’s 2014 set, which saw them work through a handful of hits before performing The Blue Album in full. During that 20-year anniversary cycle, Weezer seemed genuinely engaged, bringing the kind of youthful exuberance to those songs that made them feel so geekily revelatory in the mid-’90s.

Their Friday set, however, felt a lot more like a band who’s been at it for decades playing the hits without a whole lot of verve. And look, it’s probably splitting hairs to an end to look beyond what people were there for: the chance to sing along to “Buddy Holly”, “El Scorcho”, “Pork and Beans”, and the rest of the band’s most recognizable hits. Hell, Weezer even leaned into the fact that their biggest song in years is a cover by performing five of them throughout their set.

In addition to “Africa”, the band also reached back for covers of “Take on Me”, “Happy Together”, “Paranoid”, and even the night’s second consecutive take on “All the Small Things” after Young the Giant did the same an hour earlier. However, that doesn’t shake off the impression that the band are riding their most well-known material into the ground while sidestepping the slept-on number of genuinely good songs they’ve put out in the 2010s alone, and yes, those do exist.

That One Performance: As this year’s headliners went, if Weezer gave everybody a nice evening and Run the Jewels energetically sprinted through a set many festival audiences have seen recently (more on that in a bit), it was Beck who brought the perfect mix of surprises, singalongs, and breakneck joy to the Riot Stage this year. Sure, it was structurally similar enough to Weezer’s set in terms of collating some of the best-loved songs from his discography for maximum recognition, but it’s the eccentric energy Beck consistently lends to his live performances that sets him apart from so many other acts.

On Saturday night, he brought the kind of confident, put-together performance that many festival nuts expect out of their headliners, if not necessarily always at Riot Fest. Pulling cuts from all of his LPs (up through last year’s Colors), Riot Fest largely got Beck the outsized stage performer. While the one-two shot of “Lost Cause” and “Blue Moon” brought some of the ethereal calm of his more muted albums to the set, this was by and large about the most riotous set you could build out of Beck’s work without plumbing for deep cuts. “E-Pro” still effortlessly fills a packed field, “Loser” is one of those rare pop hits that’s somehow at once a complete product of its time and completely timeless in its appeal, and the set at large was a demonstration of why Beck has outlasted so many of his more well-publicized contemporaries. He’s just really, really good at this, and has been for years.

Also, the weekend’s best cameo took place during his set, when during an encore cover medley including Phil Collins, Talking Heads, and Gary Numan, the latter took the stage to join Beck for a reprise of “Cars,” which feels appropriate given that Beck’s as great a successor as any for the weird pop crown Numan has held for years solely because of that song, despite most of his material being far less accessible.

Unsafest of All: Speaking of Gary Numan, the general consensus from people leaving his Saturday afternoon set was that they didn’t just just how industrial all of his stuff was. After all, aside from the weirdo aural satire of “Cars,” Numan’s been in the business of harrowing synth tone and blast beats for years. He was a goth icon before a lot of the goths present at his set were even born, and his Saturday set was among the best weekend’s best in the way it was able to hearken back to the Wax Trax days without ever feeling aware of its veteran standing.

Even a lot of the weekend’s great sets by long-tenured bands carried a bit of acknowledgement about how long they’ve been at it, but Numan made his abrasive, dissonant songs feel as immediate as ever. A friend of mine once told me about seeing Nine Inch Nails perform at the very first Lollapalooza, and the cognitive dissonance between Trent Reznor’s unbridled aggression and the 1 p.m. soundstage setting around him. Watching Gary Numan play under a cloudless early-autumn sky was kind of like that.

Bring the Bass Drum Back: If there’s one area where Riot Fest felt just a hair underdeveloped this year, it was in hip-hop, which has had an increasingly consistent presence at the festival since its outdoor phase began. Riot Fest has always largely chased after throwback acts, whether it’s assorted members of the Wu-Tang Clan or Digable Planets this year. However, aside from Atmosphere and Cypress Hill (both of whom have played the festival before) and Run the Jewels as a last-minute headliner, the 2018 lineup was largely missing any of the lower-card options that Riot Fest usually puts together so well. Particularly in a city where hip-hop is already having a substantial cultural moment, it felt a bit like a missed opportunity.

The Kids Are Alright: Calpurnia might be rocketing to genre prominence because of the little fact that one of its members is on one of the biggest TV shows in the world right now, but if their Sunday afternoon set was any indication, they may well stick around for a while thereafter. While they very much looked like a young punk band thrust to the main stage level at points (their set was cut off early due to their running long), their jangly, garage-flecked songs felt right at home at a festival especially full of that sort of thing this year. It’s not every day a young band carries itself with enough authority to try a Beatles cover (“Don’t Let Me Down”), but Calpurnia seem like they’re more than up to the challenge.

Chicago Pride: In any case, Chicago rock was front and center at this year’s festival at both the veteran and newbie levels. (Liz Phair, Twin Peaks, Archie Powell and the Exports, and a host of other locals took up prime real estate throughout the weekend.) Alkaline Trio might be in the thick of a summer tour supporting Is This Thing Cursed?, but at Riot Fest they were as much invested in showing love to their roots as selling a new record. They sported three different banners throughout their subheadlining set on Sunday, the last of which was the locally famous image of the Chicago stars and bars with the band’s spiked heart worked in. The band looked all the way back to Goddammit for its set, and even if it was one of a number of sets at this year’s fest that went the career-spanning route, it was among the absolute best.

For Whom The Riot Fests: After nearly 15 years, Riot Fest has gone from an assemblage of shows at the dearly departed Congress Theatre and smaller venues to perhaps Chicago’s most consistently interesting music festival. What’s perhaps even more remarkable is that every year, the dialogue is the same (“it’s all old bands, a bunch of them have played before, it’s all nostalgia stuff”), and every year the festival continues to deliver on its reputation. There’s not a better laid-out festival operating in the city right now, whether from a perspective of logistics or of artist arrangement. The booking of the stages felt curated rather than assembled, aside from the places in which hasty decisions had to be made, and Riot Fest still feels like a more thoughful and customized kind of festival.

To expect a “big get” every year is to misunderstand the true value of Riot Fest. Sure, people show up for the splashy reunions and the full album sets and even just to feel like the dream of Warped Tour is still alive for three more days. But what makes Riot Fest so different is the Chicago punk scene that’s informed it. Even if it’s gone much broader in scope than the days when Naked Raygun and NoFX would headline the individual Riot Fest shows, Riot Fest still feels something like an open-air approximation of going to a Chicago punk club for a show. There’s a manic camaraderie in the air that makes you feel right at home no matter where you came from, and that’s what keeps people coming year after year.

That, and the hope that this will finally be the year they get the Op Ivy reunion. 2019, everyone, we can feel it!

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