(Header Image: The Flaming Lips – Timophy Hiatt)
Back in 2018 I was introduced to the world of Riot Fest a home for punk and the more alternative genres of music in the heart of Chicago. They’re renowned for incredible reunions and album play throughs and this year’s lineup is a doozy. With the reformation of Bikini Kill, final shows from Slayer and the B-52s and album play throughs from The Flaming Lips, Blink 182, and Taking Back Sunday, there’s no doubt that the lineup is eclectic – there’s something for everyone.
Arriving on the Friday the festival starts for me with San Diego’s Hot Snakes – the post-hardcore legends playing an incredibly lively set although some of that was lost in the wind – a curse that seemed to hit the festival on the Friday. Everything sounded great up front but even as far back as the sound desk it kept washing out. A real shame as Hot Snakes played a great set. Thankfully the wind didn’t seem to be hitting as hard during Violent Femmes set, an interesting set of acoustic but lively tracks, held together by an eclectic array of percussion (I’ve never seen a Webber BBQ on stage anywhere else…). I shamefully wasn’t that aware of the band before this set but I was impressed by the whole thing – and it seemed to draw a considerable crowd, which is always a bonus.
The penultimate band of the night, The Flaming Lips, could (and likely usually would!) be a headliner in their own right – their theatrics are magnificent; the giant Fuck Yeah Riot Fest balloon certainly takes up a lot of space, the zorbing through the crowd never get’s boring. Given that they seem to be playing a lot of Soft Bulletin shows at the minute it’s interesting that they’ve chosen Yoshimi for an album play through at Riot Fest. Playing most of the album, with a Daniel Johnston cover in the middle in dedication to the singer songwriter who sadly passed away two days prior, the highlight had to be ‘Do You Realise?’, a huge, emotional, singalong which could have perfectly wrapped up the day. Headlining the night is the job of Blink 182, albeit the current iteration of Blink that features Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba, an Illinois native on his home turf. There’s something odd to me about the band playing one of their iconic records without one of the main song writers – it was fun in places but there was just a bit of an odd feeling to the whole thing. It’s even more odd to hear a song like Aliens Exist – could that song be any more Tom DeLonge? I choose to leave after the album playthrough, hearing the band play in the distance as I leave. There’s no doubt that Blink 182 played a key part in a lot of people’s musical upbringings but I personally didn’t really feel it – it’s nostalgic but it sounded so dated in some places and, without their previous frontman, it just feels like the band have held on a bit too long.
Saturday for me was a nightmare of clashes, something that’s mildly irritating but also completely inevitable when a festival books so many excellent bands. It also had the band I was most excited about seeing, Cursive. Cursive are a band who, unfortunately, don’t play the UK that often but they’re also behind a bunch of my favourite tracks and, on that front, they didn’t disappoint, with The Casualty, Big Bang and Some Red Handed Sleigh Of Hand played during the set. They also introduced some new music in the form of Barricades, an exciting example of what’s to come, with a new album on the way soon.
The most brutal of clashes came early evening, when Manchester Orchestra faced off against the Wu Tang Clan and Andrew WK – running from stage to stage it was good to see Manchester Orchestra playing at their loudest and most intense and as always it was lively as hell for Andrew WK as the countdown for Party Hard rolled to a close but the slight winner were the Wu Tang Clan – possibly for the slight contrast from the rest of the lineup but, also, the set list was incredible – Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit into C.R.E.A.M, Shimmy Shimmy Ya into Got Your Money, an Al Green Cover? What more could you want.
The headliner choice was a difficult one for me too; Slayer have always been a band I’ve wanted to tick off the bucketlist, whereas Bloc Party were one of my favourite bands as a teenager and Silent Alarm, the album they played in it’s entirety was one of my favourites. That said, short of standing directly in front of the Rise Stage during Bloc Party’s set, Slayer were pretty audible all over the park. So Bloc Party first – the intricate parts of the set were lost slightly to the almighty chug of the stage behind it but there were plenty of stunning moments that made up for it. I just wish they’d been put on the Rebel Stage – yes, it’s a smaller stage but the distance may have helped that sound bleed. Having done half of that set, I head over to see Slayer. It’s fair to say I’m not that knowledgeable with their music; I played a live version of Angel of Death to, erm, death as a teenager, so much that it warped the tape, and Raining Blood is a classic but, outside of that I couldn’t help but think that everything sounded somewhat the same. The pyrotechnics were a nice touch, the subtle flaming inverted cross adorning the stage and it was great to get a chance to see them before they call it a day but it felt like the set just repeated the same songs over and over again.
Sunday was the fun day, starting promptly with the Village People. Could I get anywhere near the wall of death? No. But that’s fine, the crowd was lush, everyone was dancing and singing along and it was just cheesy fun really. They weren’t bad as performers either the backing band working perfectly considering I was expecting a backing track setup. I left thee Radicals stage a little early to catch the end of Less Than Jake and instantly regretted not heading down to see them earlier as what I saw was incredible.
American Football sounded amazing too – one of my favourite bands of all time I’ve been lucky enough to catch them twice in Illinois (the first time being Pygmalion) but, with new material to show off the set was a little different this time. The new songs worked perfectly live although unfortunately I missed the end of the set so I could catch the end of The B-52s (when will I ever get a chance again), as they played classics like Love Shack and Rock Lobster. Another fun act for a Sunday afternoon!
Another difficult choice towards the end of the day, Taking Back Sunday played through Tell All Your Friends and Louder Now (following their aftershow set the night before in which they played Where You Want To Be in completion – that’s a lot of songs in 24 hours!). A captivating set of sing along song after sing along song, it’s amazing the strength of their albums – there weren’t any tracks where you couldn’t hear the sound of the audience chanting along. After the first album, I split my time between TBS and Bikini Kill, the legendary 90’s Riot Grrrl band. I, shamefully, am not that clued up on Bikini Kill’s music but their set was great – noisy and uncompromising, much like their in-between song talk. The lineup seemed to rotate throughout the set, seemingly everyone in the band playing every instrument, which made the vocals interesting with plenty of variation. I finished my evening catching the tail end of Taking Back Sunday, one last sing along before the weekend came to a close.
My second Riot Fest, the lineup this year was nothing short of incredible – I wasn’t planning on going but, the second that poster came out, I felt obliged to buy flights. For me the lineup’s strength was in those bands that I’ve heard for years but hadn’t had the chance to see. It was great to see Cursive live finally as well as Slayer, a band I’ve wanted to see but perhaps not enough to goto a headline show. In the context of Riot Fest they worked perfectly. Sure, there was a fair bit of running from stage to stage but that’s really a testament to how strong a lineup Riot Fest have achieved.