Concert Review: Riot Fest - Saturday, September 12, 2015 in Douglas Park - GWAR, The Joy Formidable, Babes in Toyland, The Dead Milkmen, The Damned, Echo and The Bunnymen, Bootsy Collins, Merle Haggard, Billy Idol, System of a Down, Taking Back Sunday, Iggy Pop and more

Concert Review: Riot Fest - Saturday, September 12, 2015 in Douglas Park - GWAR, The Joy Formidable, Babes in Toyland, The Dead Milkmen, The Damned, Echo and The Bunnymen, Bootsy Collins, Merle Haggard, Billy Idol, System of a Down, Taking Back Sunday, Iggy Pop and more

Rain continued again Saturday morning as a saturated Douglas Park hosted Riot Fest sets by GWAR, The Joy Formidable, The Dead Milkmen, Babes in Toyland, Pennywise, Thurston Moore, Echo and the Bunnymen, Bootsy Collins, Merle Haggard, Teenage Bottlerocket, Billy Idol, System of a Down, Taking Back Sunday, Iggy Pop and more… 

There are times when it seems Riot Fest can’t catch a break.  For the second consecutive day, rain fell early on Saturday, before festival gates opened, with nary a drop actually falling during the festival itself.

Sunshine, once again, dominated the majority of the afternoon… but the damage was done.  Two days worth of rain have left the park a muddy mess.  Even worse, standing water left for an often rancid affair especially in one of the festival’s busiest corridors, through the midway connecting both sets of main stages.  Another costly, lengthy cleanup and repair process seems likely.

But Riot Fest attendees are used to the mud, seasoned by several years of it across multiple city parks on both the west and near northwest sides.

What concertgoers aren’t necessarily used to is exactly what awaits in the streets of North Lawndale only blocks from Douglas Park on the city’s west side.  The open air drug market my cab driver and I marveled en route to Riot Fest Saturday was a depressing reminder of exactly that.

But there’s no denying the strength of Riot Fest’s lineup – arguably tops in the U.S. in 2015 – or their desire to transcend the typical concert experience, offering fans an education in the second year of the outstanding “Riot Fest Speaks” series of panel discussions.

Last year, Riot Fest scored an American festival coup in their booking of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina.  Saturday afternoon “Riot Fest Speaks” featured a fascinating panel discussion moderated by Henry Rollins featuring Damian Echols and Jason Baldwin.

Echols and Baldwin, better known as two of the “West Memphis Three” were tried and convicted of murder in 1993 and served over eighteen years in prison before being released in 2011 following Alford pleas upon the presentation of new evidence.

Despite little initial, actual evidence against them, the three were fingered for the brutal murder of three Arkansas boys due largely in part to the fact that they stood out as different with their long hair and love of loud music in a Bible Belt town where that simply wasn’t accepted.

“One of the easiest ways to mobilize people to a cause is through music” said Rollins of the role music can play in activism.  Rollins himself, as he went to great lengths to explain (almost too far), played an integral part in organizing artists and raising funds to aid in the three’s mounting mid-90’s legal bills.

Baldwin, who at the time was singled out during the trial for the fact that he owned twelve Metallica t-shirts, painted an exhausting picture of the ill effects the case had on his immediate family in the ensuing years.  But somehow he never lost hope.

“I didn’t necessarily see hope in the system… I don’t know how, I don’t know where [help is] gonna come from… But we can’t give up” said Baldwin of his mindset while incarcerated as a variety of artists, most notably Metallica, began to ask questions, ultimately raising both funds and awareness toward the case.

“That could’ve been me!” said Rollins summing up the mindset of a number of musicians and music fans in a mid-nineties world that was far less tolerant of anything, like punk rock, which didn’t fit the Bible Belt idea of the status quo.

“We felt like sheep being led to the slaughter” added Baldwin, a scary reminder of just how intolerable the world could be a mere twenty years ago.

Saturday’s music lineup featured another impressive array of artists, skewing more toward “legends” than at any point thus far in the weekend, given performances by the likes of Bootsy Collins, Merle Haggard and Iggy Pop.

Early Saturday sets featured artists like The Joy Formidable.  Finishing up work on their new album, the trio tore through their biggest hit “Whirring” to close a forty-five minute set.

Meanwhile, the Dead Milkmen, reunited since about 2008 and still featuring all living, original members, launched into a forty-five minute set of sophomoric punk rock that, at times, was nearly unbearable.

Notable Milkmen cuts like “Punk Rock Girl” were present and accounted for early but by their fourth reference to an “Emmanuel Lewis handjob!” it was time to move on.

Echo and the Bunnymen got rolling with one of the strongest opening numbers all weekend in “Lips Like Sugar.”

Despite the sub par sound that has plagued the Riot Stage all weekend (see “Molly, Flogging”), the group tore through forty-five strong minutes that included a dedication of “Villiers Terrace” (a version which meandered into The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”) to Metro owner Joe Shanahan (who himself moderates a “Riot Fest Speaks” panel at the festival Sunday afternoon).

“Anyone on drugs out there, you’re gonna love this” asserted frontman Ian McCulloch as the band launched into “Over the Wall” before closing strong with a slew of hits including “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and “Killing Moon” as well as a cover of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

One of Riot Fest’s strongest attributes this year is the diversity of the lineup.  No where was that more clear than heading directly from an Echo and the Bunnymen set to see Bootsy Collins.

In the grand Parliament Funkadelic tradition from which he came, Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band featured eleven members onstage Saturday afternoon.

Drawing from his time as a member of James Brown’s band, Saturday’s set was rich with horns, most notably on Parliament’s “Mothership Connection,” one which acted as almost of a bit of a mashup with Parliament’s “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up).”

Ultimately, it was the band’s long, meandering sonic exploration of Bootsy’s own 1976 hit “I’d Rather Be With You” that highlighted both an entertaining and musically satisfying set of funk from one of the genre’s best.

“This song is about marijuana!” declared country legend Merle Haggard to the delight of a massive throng assembled at dusk for a forty-five minute country and western clinic.

Closing with the classic “Okie From Muskogee,” Haggard, 78, proved just how strong an asset a tight backing band – quite possibly the best to grace a Riot Fest stage – can be.

Continuing an afternoon full of diverse bookings, Saturday went from country to rock at a moment’s notice as Billy Idol took the stage only moments later for a triumphant set despite another bevy of sound issues (the sound cut out what seemed to be entirely multiple times during the performance).

Drawing on the finer moments of his latest release (the aptly titled “Can’t Break Me Down” from 2014’s Kings and Queens of the Underground), Idol filled a set with some of the biggest hits the eighties decade has to offer in “Eyes Without a Face,” “Rebel Yell,” and “White Wedding.”

Guitarist Steve Stevens was sharp as always and focusing on the hits across only an hour led to one of the weekend’s most focused and fun sets.  Idol clearly has as much fun onstage as anyone in the crowd and that becomes contagious fast in the festival setting.  Long live the fist pump.

But Saturday night belonged to Iggy Pop.  Returning to Riot Fest following a headlining 2013 set as a member of The Stooges, Pop focused this time around on his solo work.

At 68 years of age, one keeps waiting for Iggy to lose a step – he still hasn’t.  Pogoing across the stage with reckless abandon, Pop tore through “The Passenger” early on (the one solo track he performed with the Stooges two years ago at Riot Fest) before heading straight into “Lust for Life,” perhaps the strongest one-two punch festivalgoers will see all weekend.

Stealing back “Real Wild Child (Wild One)” from the depths of eighties production hell, Pop clearly reveled in the adoration of the massive crowd.

“Aw, f—in thanks!  Hit it mother f—ers!” Pop demanded of his solid band, skipping nary a beat upon launching into “Sister Midnight” before leaving the stage to join the crowd, as always, for “Nightclubbing.”

But despite the emphasis on the solo tracks, it was The Stooges’ “1969” that stood out as one of the set’s finest moments, it’s more rocking treatment forty-six years after initial release a testament to Iggy’s enduring punk rock legacy.

Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)

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