Riot Fest 2015 Recap

TC0A2781 Riot Fest 2015 Recap

Photos by J. Frank

A new location didn’t stop Riot Fest and Carnival from feeling the effects of rain, as Douglas Park was a muddy mess for most of the weekend. But those in attendance powered through it to see more than 24 hours worth of music over three days. The tastes and ages of festival goers were as diverse as the artists themselves over the seven stages, and the result was as pleasurable to the ears as it was painful to the feet. Here is my recap of the weekend’s performances.

Day 1


Chicago’s own Evan Weiss continues the city’s long emo tradition with a touch of indie singer-songwriter. Friday’s brief moment of gorgeous weather was perfect for absorbing his melodic sensibilities and nostalgia-tinged lyrics. There was occasional sound bleed from Death, playing loudly over at the Rock stage, but when the full band was going, it wasn’t noticeable.


I caught the end of the cult Detroit band’s set, revived after decades of obscurity and now as famous as ever. This meant hearing the legendary track “Politicians in My Eyes,” with its dazzling post-punk bassline that predates punk rock by several years. The new songs didn’t amaze quite so much.


The long-running ska/funk/metal/gospel collective really brought things to life on the Riot stage, although Angelo Moore’s opening sermon/slam poetry piece felt ill-advised. Once the music kicked off, though, the septet was on fire. They had the first (and maybe only) bass solo I heard all weekend with the classic “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” energized the crowd with a cover of Sublime’s “Date Rape” and even got a theremin in there.


I may have been the only person under 30 who was excited for Living Colour, whose debut Vivid was one of my first albums. So it was a treat to hear them play three songs from that record (including the hit “Cult of Personality”) during a 45-minute master class in hard rock performance. The band played strictly heavy stuff for this set—no “Love Rears its Ugly Head” or “Glamour Boys.” Corey Glover, age 50, still has the vocal range that he had in 1988, with some truly piercing shrieks that few singers can dream of achieving. But the best performer was of course Vernon Reid, who makes up for a lack of theatrics with his blazing solos. Reid showed why he’s one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history.


The metalcore act brought the wild energy that they’re known for, spending as much time in the air as on the stage, but they suffered from poor sound (a recurring problem for much of the windy day). Keith Buckley was pretty much unintelligible as a result, but the riffs and fun were still there. Fans started throwing mud on stage from the pit, which led to Buckley applying it like war paint and guitarist Andy Williams smearing his whole face with it.


One of the best sets of the whole weekend came from these punks, who played much of last year’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues but still found time to reach back to their folk-punk era with electrified version of songs from Reinventing Axl Rose. No matter the style or level of commercial appeal, Laura Jane Grace has always had a penchant for hooks. That’s why the audience was able to sing along so passionately to songs like “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “True Trans Soul Rebel” despite the majority being totally unable to relate.


I only watched a bit of this set because I had other priorities, but I did take the time to note how weird Coheed’s place in the music world is. They are the only band on earth that can open a set with an eight-minute song featuring lines like “man your battle stations” and still have females ages 13-25 make up a significant portion of their fanbase. They also had some of the same muffled sound problems that Every Time I Die experienced.


Thrice’s hiatus was so short, especially in this era where every band comes back, that it’s easy to forget that they ever went away. That doesn’t mean it’s not nice to have one of the world’s premiere post-hardcore bands back. Despite being slotted a full hour on the Rise stage, Dustin Kensrue rarely paused to talk, as his band burned through 13 songs in a little over 50 minutes. The set spanned their entire career, but noticeably featured five songs from 2003’s The Artist in the Ambulance. There was also some dude who creepily stared at me smiling who asked if I wanted to crowd surf. I said no thank you and he tried to convince some other random guys to do the same thing, despite being toward the back. Please don’t smile at strangers without warning.


The lone thrash metal representative of the Riot Fest, Anthrax came on about six minutes late and only played seven songs, but once the unmistakable opening riff of “Madhouse” kicked in, their tardiness was forgiven. I willingly went into a mosh pit for the first time in three years during, of course, “Caught in a Mosh,” and there might have been a hundred other people in there with me. Needless to say, it was wild.


Decked out in all white, the eclectic Faith No More sequenced their setlist to be as jarring as possible. The bizarre, aggressive “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” went straight into their famed cover of Lionel Richie’s “Easy.” The band knocked out the hit “Epic” somewhere in the middle, meaning serious fans could enjoy a second half featuring a few songs from the this year’s Sol Invictus and old favorites like “Midlife Crisis” and “Introduce Yourself.” No matter what they played, FNM sounded great.


After Faith No More, I had a decision to make regarding which of the night’s headliners to see. I never cared for No Doubt, but Ice Cube and Motörhead were both appealing for different reasons—Cube was supposed to play the classic Straight Outta Compton all the way through, and Motörhead appealed to my metalhead sensibilities (plus, this was probably the last chance to see them before Lemmy’s health problems overcome them). I decided to see half of each, starting with Cube, as the best songs on Straight Outta Compton are toward the front.

Thing is, Ice Cube did not perform the album as advertised. Instead, he started with some lesser solo tracks (none from Death Certificate or AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted) and clichéd hip-hop routines — “Are y’all gonna keep it gangsta tonight?!” his DJ asked. “Yeah!” screamed thousands of white Midwesterners — then showed a trailer for the Straight Outta Compton movie (as if a bunch of people there to see a member of N.W.A play their landmark album all the way through had no idea that there was a movie out). Eventually he brought out N.W.A cohorts MC Ren and DJ Yella, as well as his son O’Shea Jackson Jr., and played a few songs from the album (the title track was a highlight), but I left before they even played “Fuck Tha Police.”


I should have stayed at Ice Cube. Seeing Lemmy struggle was like visiting a dying relative in a nursing home. He slurred his speech, messed up his basslines, and couldn’t even play “Ace of Spades” at anything close to speed. You’d think he’d be able to do that song in his sleep. I never walked away from a concert sad before Friday. I’m just glad I didn’t stick around for the encore. Instead I trudged through a crowd as No Doubt played “Spiderwebs” (their only song that I enjoy) and headed home.

Day 2


I made my first trip to a side stage to see this Canadian heavy rock duo, and at first it looked like I was one of a dozen people preparing for their set. But the crowd seemed to grow with every new riff (of which there were a lot), while still remaining small enough for the band to talk directly to audience members. It was great to see something sludgy as opposed to a run-of-the-mill punk band.


I was surprised that GWAR played so early and only got 30 minutes for their elaborate stage show, but they managed to pack in at least three executions, four audience sprays and one fight with a giant “Internet troll” while still finding the time to play music. Blothar (a.k.a. Michael Bishop) did an admirable job filling in for the late Dave Brockie/Oderus Urungus, to whom they dedicated the closer “Sick of You.”


One of the original British punk bands, the sexagenarian group was forced to start late as Millencolin went over time on the next stage. I only had time to catch a few songs, but they seemed pretty energetic for their age—clearly not just coming for the paycheck while pandering to the nostalgia market.


The riot grrrl trio brought some serious aggression to the middle of a sunny day. Kat Bjelland’s vocal fury is almost unmatched, particularly on songs like “Bruise Violet.” The Babes spent 45 minutes making some beautifully ugly music (and some bad jokes, courtesy of drummer Lori Barbero). Definitely a highlight of Saturday.


I’ve never been a fan of Conor Oberst’s more well-known projects like Bright Eyes, but the straightforward indie/punk of Desaparecidos is right up my alley. The band barreled through their set with high energy, occasionally pausing while audio of things like a McCarthy-era guide on how to identify Communists.


Bootsy Collins was 10 minutes late for his set, but the few minutes I did see him and his Rubber Band play were a joy. Every festival should have a built in break for people to enjoy some P-Funk, as the Parliament legend worked in snippets of that group’s classics “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” as well as his Rubber Band material.


On a very different note from Bootsy, reunited post-hardcore/math rock group Drive Like Jehu brought their jagged attack to a somewhat small crowd at the Rebel stage. John Reis appeared to be at war with his guitar the entire time, coaxing chaos out of his instrument. Rick Froberg’s yelp was as furious as ever, too. This was a memorable performance for sure.


After pop-punkers Teenage Bottlerocket went over time, Iowa’s finest had even more fury to release on stage as they tore through Witness, one of the best hardcore albums of this century. Vocalist Jeffery Eaton spent as much time in the crowd as on stage, making the outdoor show feel like a packed VFW hall as fans clamored for the microphone. It was a tough decision to skip most of Rancid’s set, but this was easily one of the best sets of the whole weekend.


I did get to see the last 20 minutes or so of Rancid’s set, but unfortunately they had already gotten through all of my favorites from …And Out Come the Wolves, which they were playing in its entirety. Still, every song on that record has at least one big hook to sing along to, and the crowd belting those choruses stretched all the way to the carnival section of the park.


How this man is still in such amazing shape at 68 while I struggled to walk around Douglas Park all day is beyond me. The only headlining option for the over 30 crowd, Pop’s set was more energetic than most of those by bands a third of his age. It’s a little weird to watch a senior citizen repeatedly scream about wanting to get fucked hard, but that’s Iggy Pop for you. My only complaint was the lack of Stooges songs (only three, two of which opened the show), but it was the best nightcap of the weekend.

Day 3


A day full of hip-hop got started with this afternoon set from one of the genre’s best live acts. Doomtree’s passionate fanbase filled up the front of the Rock stage having already memorized every line of this year’s All Hands, and they never stopped bouncing as the five emcees traded rhymes.


Hum’s guitars aren’t quite as lush on the outdoor stage as they are in the studio, but one of Illinois’ best contributions to the ’90s alt-rock movement still put on a solid show, pulling mostly from their sophomore album You’d Prefer an Astronaut.


The most purely fun set of the weekend belonged to the crew behind “Me Myself and I.” Posdnous and Trugoy mostly played with old-school hip-hop routines (such as pitting one side of the audience against each other) and really didn’t perform that many actual songs, but they still had everybody dancing. They even made sure the photographers and security guards had a good time.


This was a pretty standard ska show to me. The Floridians spent much of their set joking around with the audience, but still found the time to knock out a fair amount of songs. I was mostly indifferent.


Over at the side stages, one of the best bands in the modern emo scene delivered an impassioned half-hour performance. Listening to the crowd attempt to match Conor Murphy’s high notes was amusing, but didn’t take away from the emotional core of the band’s music, with its gorgeous post-rock sections and simple but effective hooks.


The highlight of my Riot Fest people watching came during this performance, which had one of the most surprisingly large audiences of the weekend. A 40-year-old woman brought her 11-year-old son to this for his first concert, and proceeded to spend the whole time rapping along to songs like “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Hits From the Bong,” often in his face. She also took a hit of a stranger’s joint while her son wasn’t looking. I watched about half of the show (they had already played everything I wanted to hear after half an hour) and it was a good time, but I’ll mostly remember that mom.


This Replacements-aping young band have gotten a lot of buzz in the punk press lately, so I figured I should catch the second half of their set. I wasn’t in love with them, but they certainly had an infectious energy and are earnest enough to root for. But still, “Dirty Cigarettes” just sounds like something off of Tim.


The most metallic riot grrrl act (right down to Donita Sparks’ flying V guitar), rocked the Rebel stage as the sun went down, as throngs of Gen X women sang proudly along to “Shitlist” and “Mr. Integrity.” No, Sparks did not throw any tampons thrown into the crowd—this was an older, more reserved L7, although the music is as fiery as ever.


Much like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg was supposed to play a classic album in its entirety (Doggystyle), but didn’t even attempt it. Unlike Ice Cube, Snoop was half an hour late to his set. When a DJ and a female rapper appeared 28 minutes after the listed 7:45 start time, people booed mercilessly. They got over it when Snoop finally took the stage and played “Gin and Juice,” and he was genuinely pretty entertaining for about 25 minutes, mixing in a cover of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” among other things. Then somebody told him he had only three minutes left and he threw a faux-badass tantrum on stage, telling security to stop the sound guy from cutting him off. No dice. Snoop went five minutes over, but in the middle of his closer “Young, Wild & Free,” the lights went out and the music went off, while Modest Mouse took the stage to an excited crowd on the other side.


I was so exhausted by the time Modest Mouse came on that I spent their set in a bit of a daze, but Isaac Brock and company put on a strong performance. Long time fans were disappointed that they played nothing from before 2000, but songs from Strangers to Ourselves and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank translated better to the stage than an album. I didn’t watch the encore, but singing “Float On” with a large crowd of people is as good of a finale to a weekend as one could ask for.

Travis Marmon

Travis Marmon

Travis Marmon moved to Chicago from Clarkston, Michigan in 2014. He is a freelance music writer who has contributed to Noisey, Alternative Press, The Good Men Project and Chicago Music’s sister site, Ruby Hornet. He plays bass in a doom metal band, Flesh of the Stars.

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