Saturday in Humboldt Park marked the first day of the eighth year of Riot Fest, the first of which to take place as an outdoor festival. The Descendents, Rise Against, GWAR and more all performed across four stages Saturday afternoon...
Riot Fest started in 2005 as a way to celebrate punk music in the city of Chicago. It began as an excuse to reunite bands like Naked Raygun and the Blue Meanies. Since its humble roots across a varitey of local venues like Cobra Lounge and Double Door, Riot Fest has grown to include major headlining acts like Iggy Pop in one of the larger city parks.
What I've always admired about Riot Fest, and what sets it apart from other punk festivals like Warped Tour, is the festival's goal of including many different types of genres. Pop punk, hardcore punk, skacore, metal and more are all represented this year with an attitude that seeks to turn its nose at the conventional notions one comes to expect from the typical punk fest. Is the music good? That seems to be the question bookers ponder when deciding what artists to target for the festival.
And it's an attitude that seems to have trickled down to concertgoers. This afternoon, I watched fans walk blood soaked from GWAR's set to Hot Water Music's set without batting an eye. There was no petty head shaking and everyone truly seemed to be having a good time.
While I left the festival earlier than I wanted to (I left midway through Andrew W.K.'s set to catch the end of the Hideout Block Party), I was nevertheless struck by the fact that the artists performing caught this notion as well. Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan acknowledged the fact that there were people in attendance who might not usually be checking out a Hot Water Music show. Following GWAR's set... he was right. He thanked those fans for giving his band a chance.
But the casual atmosphere wasn't the only aspect of the festival that I enjoyed. Fun is really the underlying theme throughout the entire festival. Where else can you ride something like the Gravitron while GWAR's Oderus Urungus sprays those closer with fake blood? Where else can you rock out to Andrew W.K. in the distance while getting a picture taken with WWE eighties sensations like Tito Santana or Nikolai Volkoff?
Riot Fest is that place. With ample space in the near northwest side's Humboldt Park, Riot Fest features not only live music on four stages but also a full carnival, games midway and professional wrestling in a ring set up in the middle of the festival.
Unlike Pitchfork and North Coast in Union Park, festival grounds here are spread out just enough to not be cramped but are close enough to make for an easy trip between stages to catch the maximum amount of music throughout the day.
Saturday was a blast and I can't wait to explore further on Sunday. Festival organizers report a Saturday attendance of 30,000 with the possibility of more expected on Sunday. And with a stacked Sunday lineup including artists like the Reverend Horton Heat, Built to Spill, Alkaline Trio, Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop, there's no reason to expect otherwise.
While it's by no means a stranger to Chicago's festival season, Riot Fest is certainly new to the outdoor festival circuit. And typically, one never knows what to expect from an outdoor newcomer... But as far as I could tell early in the afternoon on Sunday, the fest was well organized and things ran about as smoothly as can be expected.
Onto the music...
GWAR - Saturday afternoon on the Roots Stage, GWAR did what GWAR does best as they delivered sludgy, heavy metal riffs that completely took a backseat to onstage theatrics, off color humor and fake blood set upon a backdrop of insane costumes and extreme satire.
While familiar with the band, I had never seen them live until Saturday but knew enough to follow one important rule of thumb: stay away from the front of the stage if you ever want to wear the clothes you wore to the concert again.
- Photo by Jim Ryan
Fake blood spews from countless gadgets, geysers and appendages throughout the course of a GWAR set like beer from overserved frat boys at a Dave Matthews show: From the characters' mouths, from phallic objects... you name it, blood was probably sprayed forth from it between 2:45 and 3:30PM Saturday in Humboldt Park.
Off-color humor was popular too. The band left no stone unturned as they moved swiftly between onstage banter that included the Holocaust, homosexuality and the potential injury of a fan up front in the pit.
And while clearly, it's "all part of the show," GWAR shared a softer side too taking time at the end of the set to make reference and dedication to band member Cory Smoot (AKA "Flattus Maximus") who passed away in November.
Despite the focus on extreme theatrics and satire (I feel the need to again reiterate that GWAR is quite keen on satire) the metal was present and accounted for early on Saturday.
Hot Water Music - What a humble band, refreshingly so. As mentioned above, they thanked those in attendance who might not usually find themselves at a Hot Water Music show for giving the band a chance.
Taking the stage to the sounds of a radio scanning the dial past artists like Joe Strummer and Bob Marley, the band made reference to Hot Water Music's early days cutting its teeth touring, hitting Chicago venues like the Fireside Bowl and the Empty Bottle before tearing into a fiery version of "Trusty Chords."
Touring in support of their first new album in eight years, material from May's Exister was amongst my favorite on Saturday. "Drag My Body" showed a growth in songwriting during the band's hiatus and was powered live by Ragan and Chris Wollard's growly vocals but especially by the killer bass fills of Jason Black. Black's bass playing was a pleasure to hear on Saturday.
Larry and His Flask - Here's a band that I was completely unfamiliar with entering the festival and one that epitomizes the festival's goal to include many different genres of punk music with its meshing of both punk and bluegrass.
Everything from trumpet to tuba and standup bass to banjo was present onstage Saturday alongside both Gretsch and acoustic guitars. This band culls from a lot of different music: rockabilly, punk and folk were all front and center at different times.
The band's sarcastic attitude as they asked fans not to slam dance during the music only fired up the packed crowd more Saturday in a fitting slot on the Rebel stage.
Andrew W.K. - "This is not a concert. We are NOT playing a concert! THIS IS A PARTY!" screamed W.K. to open his set on the Roots Stage Saturday afternoon.
And that quote sums up the Andrew W.K. live experience nicely if not the festival itself because Riot Fest is most certainly that.
There was no shortage of fist pumping or keyboards during W.K.'s set. Flanked by the massive backdrop of his bloody visage from the cover of his 2001 album I Get Wet, W.K. proceeded through a set with his surprisingly large band that was equal parts pop, rock and party.
When you see Andrew W.K. live, "party" is a word you hear a lot. I think it's in at least half of his song titles. And from the opening notes of "It's Time to Party," on Saturday, Riot Fest was exactly that.
I've never been a huge fan... but catching him in the live setting, it's pretty difficult not to have a good time at an Andrew W.K. concert... I mean party.