Concert Review: Riot Fest 2013 (Day 2 - Saturday, September 14 in Humboldt Park)

Concert Review: Riot Fest 2013 (Day 2 - Saturday, September 14 in Humboldt Park)

Despite the late night arrival of about thirty ambulances to Humboldt Park, the music went off mostly without a hitch on day two at a jam packed Riot Fest 2013 that featured performances by Kitten, X, Dinosaur Jr., Pennywise, Guided By Voices, Blondie, Public Enemy, Rancid, Violent Femmes, Taking Back Sunday, Blink-182 and many more... 

According to the Chicago Tribune, at least six people were transported to area hospitals late Saturday night following a headlining performance by Blink-182 at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park.  Early rumors initially indicated that the ambulances were called to handle overdoses but those rumors appear to be unfounded as the Tribune reports, and the Chicago Fire Department's News Affairs office confirms, that the ambulances were actually called to handle minor injuries associated with the mosh pit.

Riot Fest 2013 - Ambulances - CFD tweet

In only it's second year as an outdoor festival, Riot Fest is now second in size only to Lollapalooza as major, outdoor, summer, music festivals in Chicago go (the others being Pitchfork, North Coast, Spring Awakening and Wavefront).

Regardless of whatever took place in the Blink-182 mosh pit Saturday night, it's worth noting that, at least on Saturday, for the second straight year, the Riot Fest crowd was, without question, the most well-behaved, easygoing  crowd that I encountered at a summer festival in Chicago (and this summer I hit all of them: Spring Awakening, Wavefront, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, North Coast and Riot Fest).

But amidst rumors that some of the injuries Saturday night were sustained not in the mosh pit, but in exiting the festival itself, it's also worth noting that Riot Fest was absolutely packed Saturday night.  For the sake of comparison, Humboldt Park checks in at a size of over two hundred acres while Union Park (home to both the North Coast and Pitchfork music festivals) checks in at just over thirteen acres.  So Humboldt Park is uniquely suited for hosting a major festival and Riot Fest does a great job taking full advantage of that space.

That said... last year, it was easy at any time to find a spot in the shade to lay out, avoid the crowds and have plenty of room to yourself.  And while I don't have the attendance figures to prove it (Riot Fest humorously avoided the question when it was posed to them on Twitter earlier this morning), by about 5PM on Saturday night, it appeared that wasn't the case this year as hordes of people seemed to be pretty much everywhere.

Riot Fest 2013 - Chicago - Tweet

Last year, forty-seven bands performed on four stages over two outdoor days at Riot Fest.  This year, closer to eighty bands performed on five stages over three outdoor days in Humboldt Park (In 2012, the opening night of the festival took place at Congress Theater).

The uncomfortably crowded conditions up front that multiple fans reported to me following Blink-182's closing set certainly beg the question, can Riot Fest possibly expand any further (has it expanded too far already?)?  The amount of space left in Humboldt Park would certainly seem to indicate they can so 2014 ought to be interesting.

I heard the word "sell out" tossed around frequently Saturday and not in regards to attendance but in regards to the price of alcoholic beverages:  $7 for Old Style, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Dos Equis, Magic Hat and more put Riot Fest atop the list of most expensive festival beers in 2013, a dubious honor for a festival with such fan friendly roots.

Onto the music though... because there was a lot of it Saturday, and most of it was really, really good (Riot Fest's admission price certainly provides the most bang for your buck of any Chicago festival - in my opinion, it easily surpasses the quality level of Lollapalooza).

One thing I love about Riot Fest compared to something like Lollapalooza is the fact that the stages are setup in a manner that allows fans to catch portions of multiple sets regardless of whether they're taking place at the same time.  In that regard, Riot Fest is structured with the music fan in mind and if your goal is to catch a lot of live music or discover new acts, it's easy to do (Though if you get there at the early gate opening hour of 11AM, you should be aware that there's no re-entry - So charge your phone and bring plenty of cash).

I arrived at the festival at 11:45AM to catch an opening set by rock oriented, synth driven, L.A. dream-pop quintet Kitten.  Coming on the heels of increasingly higher profile Chicago shows opening for The Joy Formidable at the Vic and Paramore at the Chicago Theatre, Riot Fest was the icing on the cake for Kitten in a stellar summer here following the August release of their second EP Like a Stranger.

A logical songwriting progession from 2011's Cut It Out EP, the new EP is catchier, highly danceable and more immediate than its predecessor.  With a stronger emphasis on keyboards and the, at times, sultry vocals of eighteen year old frontwoman Chloe Chaidez, the EP features a new sound - not a drastic change but a progression from their 2011 effort that leaves me excited to hear their forthcoming, full-length debut.  Saturday afternoon, Kitten closed their set with a gorgeous take on Prince's "Purple Rain."

Surfer Blood attracted one of the larger early crowds Saturday.  "This is my favorite song.  It's about being on tour with your friends" said frontman John Paul Pitts as the introduction for "Take it Easy."  The band's jangly guitar driven take on indie rock was on full display over the course of a tight, half hour set that hit on songs like "Floating Vibes" from their 2010 debut Astro Coast, "Miranda" from the 2011 EP Tarot Classics as well as material from their sophomore effort, June's Pythons.  Pitts worked the crowd well throughout, jumping down off the stage to join those along the guardrail during "Miranda."

"Playing in the sun is like jerkin' off in front of your Grandmother" said T.S.O.L. frontman Jack Grisham, oh so eloquently, of the band's early afternoon Riot Fest slot on Saturday.  "We are really glad to be here... We're happy to be alive" continued the highly quotable singer.  From there, the band tore through a half hour of hardcore, politically influenced punk rock via songs like "Property is Theft" and "Abolish Government" (which followed a Grisham rant on the power of social media in regards to recent U.S. decisions on Syria).

Influential, first wave punk rockers X had forty-five minutes with which to rock and kept the chatter to a minimum, choosing instead to plow through hits like "Los Angeles" and "She's Gone."  The juxtaposition of the band's punk rock roots and Billy Zoom's occasional rockabilly laced guitar blasts combined with Exene Cervenka's still solid vocals for a rewarding set.

From there, Environmental Encroachment provided a very cool change of pace - a local marching band/art troupe consisting of about a dozen members that actually left the stage and finished it's set out amongst the people, toward the back of the crowd.  Rare is the music festival where within a span of about five minutes you can ride a ferris wheel, see legendary punk rock, catch a circus sideshow sword act and then see a live marching band.

I caught brief portions of a number of bands Saturday that I'd like to check out further at some point - acts like The Lillingtons and most notably The Sidekicks.  The Lillingtons take on punk rock is in short and sweet bursts, the way it was meant to be.  The Wyoming punks had a full hour and songs like "War of the Worlds" and especially "I Need Some Brain Damage" prove they've listened to a fair amount of the Ramones, Misfits and Face to Face over the years.

The Sidekicks on the other hand are an Ohio quartet with a decidedly more pop-rock leaning slant (think along the lines of Nada Surf and Fig Dish with vocals not unlike those of Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell).  Dedicating their riffs to J. Masics of Dinosaur Jr. (who would take the stage momentarily across Humboldt Park), the band tore through songs like "Incandescent Days" and "Grace" from last year's Awkward Breeds album during one of my favorite sets Saturday.

Riot Fest Chicago - 2013

(Photo by Jim Ryan)

One of the sets I was most looking forward to, as were The Sidekicks apparently, was that of Dinosaur Jr.  It's unfortunate that sub par sound at the "Roots" stage was an issue all day.  In my experience Saturday, if you're not close at the "Roots" stage, then it isn't loud (which is saying something when you're talking about one of the loudest bands in rock - Dinosaur Jr.).

Nevertheless, the cutting, incisive guitar licks of J. Mascis (one of rock's most underrated guitarists) were on full display for forty-five minutes Saturday at Riot Fest.  Not afraid to rehash the hits, the band hit on crowd favorites like "Out There" and "Feel the Pain" en route to a set closing cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven."  But before that, it was Lou Barlow taking the lead vocal on the driving "Rude" from the band's 2012 effort I Bet on Sky.  Barlow and Mascis also teamed up on "Training Ground," a cover of a song by their former hardcore punk band Deep Wound resulting in one of the fastest, shortest songs of the day (despite the fact that Barlow said it was just about Deep Wound's slowest song).

"Let's see... We've got the Crown [Royal], the tequilla..." mused Robert Pollard upon taking the stage for a typically inebriating hour set by his band Guided By Voices.  Songs like "Wished I was a Giant" and the excellent new "Xeno Pariah" sounded great despite the sound at the "Roots" stage (though it was the straight forward, power pop performance of 1999's "Teenage F.B.I." that was my personal favorite).

Debbie Harry neither looks nor sounds her sixty-eight years of age and an hour just isn't long enough for a Blondie set.  Saturday afternoon, as the sun began to fall on Riot Fest, Harry shook and shimmied her way across the stage and through hits like "One Way or Another" (to open the set), "Call Me" (which featured a keytar solo... serioulsy) and "Heart of Glass" (though it was Harry's iconic rapping and Chris Stein's guitar solo on "Rapture" that provided one of the set's best moments as it moved seamlessly into a cover of the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep till Brooklyn").  Newer fare like "Winter" held up well amongst the cavalcade of hits.

One of the biggest surprises for me Saturday night was a set by California punks Rancid that started out so strong that I didn't want to leave to catch the end of Public Enemy.  With WWE superstar CM Punk watching from the side of the stage (sans the Stanley Cup), Rancid got things moving from the start with a very appropriate rendition of "Radio" to start ("When I got the music, I got a place to go" sang Armstrong, no doubt echoing the sentiments of thousands in attendance Saturday night).  From their 1995 breakthrough album ...And Out Come the Wolves, "Roots Radicals" came early on too.

Following a shout out to Black Flag and Rancid (who were performing at the time across Humboldt Park), the always musically aware Chuck D guided hip-hop legends Public Enemy through a typically high energy, propulsive set, complete with a backing band, artfully weaving elements of rock and rap into the hour.  DJ Lord spun Nirvana and Flavor Flav sat down behind the drums but it was the still relevant performances of "Shut 'em Down" (with Chuck on harmonica) and "Fight the Power" that carried it.

The usual Violent Femmes trio was augmented several times Saturday night during a full performance of their self-titled 1983 debut album.  Gordon Gano (vocals and guitar) and Brian Ritchie (stand-up bass) are now joined by Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione.

As one of the architects of the alternative music revolution that was soon to follow them, songs like "Add it Up" and "Gone Daddy Gone" remained both urgent and relevant thirty years later as did deeper cuts like the stellar "Promise."

Gano moved to violin late in a set that was bolstered at times by a horn section and local blues harmonica wiz Matthew Skoller, Saturday's set was outstanding from start to finish, straight through to an encore that included hits like "American Music."

Finally, after ten hours of live music, it was time to close out day two of Riot Fest 2013 with a performance by Blink-182.  Love them or hate them, it's hard to argue the fact that they're one of the most popular and successful punk acts of the past twenty years - and the immense crowd present at the "Rebel" stage served as testament to that Saturday night.  One of the biggest crowds that I've seen in Riot Fest's two years as an outdoor fest, from my vantage point, far away about three quarters of the way back (near the bleachers and carnival ride in the dirt infield), things were pretty calm (though we'd all later learn that that wasn't necessarily the case).  Fans eventually scaled the backstop in the softball field south of the stage just to get a better glimpse.

And while the trio joked with one another in their trademark fashion, they seemed to actually cut back a bit on their usual sophomoric shenanigans focusing instead on the music in a polished, professional seventy-five minute set.

The hits came early with both "The Rock Show" and "What's My Age Again" coming back-to-back.  Nineties nostalgia continued later with "Dumpweed," the opening track of the band's massively successful 1999 effort Enema of the State.

- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)

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