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MUSIC Looking back at this year's Riot Fest
by Vern Hester
2019-09-19

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The 14th Annual Riot Fest invaded Douglas Park in west Pilsen Sept. 13-15 and proved that you can please all of the people all of the time. The hard rock/heavy metal/punk festival didn't actually offer anything new outside of it's dependable formula; it just managed to improve on it as it has in the past.

As expected, there were hard-rock arena-fillers ( Blink 182, The Raconteurs, Slayer, Anthrax, Rise Against, Rancid ) with an array of eclectic offerings ( Taking Back Sunday, Ween, Wu-Tang Clan, Jawbreaker ) but the must-see attractions, which were mostly listed in lower case, stole much of the thunder. In fact, this edition of Riot Fest will likely be remembered as the year where women and queer acts moved to the front of the line.

Original riot grrrl rockers Bikini Kill ( who are enjoying a reunion this year ); punk priestess Patti Smith ( now 70 ); the iconic Pauline Black and her legendary Two Tone band The Selecter; and a host of fresh female voices and faces ( Caroline Rose, Mikaila Delgado of Australian band Yours Truly, Nadia Garfalo and Alicia Gaines of Ganser, the all-female The Beaches, and Peyton Bighorse and Kelli Mayo of Skating Polly ) played in front of massive and appreciative crowds the entire weekend.

Although the event did not advertise itself as a celebration of the Stonewall Riots, there were plenty of LGBTQ and queer faves on the bill, and they came in a variety of flavors. The reliable Bob Mould offered a thunderous set of punchy hardcore while Kele Okereke and his band Bloc Party reunited to kick off a national tour at the festival. Oddball booking The Village People ( led by vocalist Victor Willis, the only member from the original line-up ) drew curiosity-seekers in droves but the B-52s' final Chicago show proved to be the hottest ticket at the festival. The band not only celebrated its 40th anniversary but also the 20th anniversary of the best-selling Cosmic Thing ( Reprise Records ); as expected, the band's Sept. 15 set was packed with sweaty happy fans doing the Jerk.

Pansexual rocker James "Buddy" Nielsen led his band, Senses Fail, through two of the most kinetic and incendiary sets of the festival. The sets featured his microphone-slinging skills and his sartorial elegance ( including a turquoise suit ). On top of all that, hometown trans goddess Laura Jane Grace and her band, Against Me!, were greeted by a packed and ferociously loud and happy main stage crowd.

With all that, I still found much to enjoy throughout the weekend and, at times, this edition of the festival was almost too much to absorb. Weird psychedelic darlings The Flaming Lips lit up the mainstage on opening night like a Christmas tree from outer space as the act played its Grammy-winning album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots ( 2002, Warner Brothers Records ), for an overjoyed audience. Chris Carraba and his band Dashboard Confessional delivered a set so steeped in blues and intensity that it seemed to defy the very definition of rock 'n' roll. New Wave godfather Nick Lowe— with backing from Los Straitjackets—offered a lightly rocking set of country, pop and surf that went down easy while Ween's set was both hard rocking and hilarious. Only the B-52s' set could approach the joy and dancing inspired by Black and The Selecter as the act sailed through the classic Too Much Pressure ( 2 Tone Records, 1980 ) album in its entirety.

Then there were the new faces who made the festival more than memorable. To name just a few, slightly nerdy Caroline Rose and the band Yours Truly started the festival with some refreshing hard pop. Androgynous glam rockers and identical twins Wyatt and Fletcher Shears turned their art rock into pungent metal disco under the guise of The Garden while newly formed "supergroup" The Damned Things pounded through a furious set that had their audience screaming for more.

There were favorites and new attractions at this edition as well. Andrew W.K. and GWAR made their annual appearance, as did the carnival rides and attractions. Instead of zombies, this year featured a crew of smiling clowns and harlequins juggling and walking through the throngs on stilts adding a gentle playfulness which contrasted nicely with much of the music. There were also fire dancers and breathers as well as a wrestling ring that was very popular. ( At the fight I saw a Donald Trump-like figure go up against a hardcore Mexican female wrestler. To say the least, things did not go well for him. )

I don't think I'm stretching things by calling Riot Fest 2019 the blueprint for future festivals. Ironically, this event as been labeled in the press as a "nostalgia binge," but I beg to differ. This is a place where twentysomethings can actually see decades-old legends ( I, for one, had never had the chance to see The Selecter ) next to current headliners while checking out new music and unheard artists without breaking the bank. Oddly, the 2019 Lollapalooza hosted a multitude of new and hot artists for four days but could not break even at the box office. As a large-scale music festival, Riot Fest still moves like a sleek perfectly oiled machine and has become the standard for events of this size.

Heads up: Brit pop queen Charli XCX—who has been heralded as "the pop star of the future" by Pitchfork—hits Chicago's House of Blues for a show Saturday, Oct. 12. For a taste of something different, Portland-based Roselit Bone—a trans femme fronted "apocalyptic Western music" band—plays Reed's Local Friday, Sept. 27. Local queer flavored cut-ups Lollygagger celebrate the release of their new video album, The Lollygagger Family Fun Variety Hour ( on Midwest Action ) Saturday, Oct. 19, at The Liars Club.


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