Last weekend was the 10th anniversary of Chicago’s punk-rock festival, Riot Fest. Walking around the perimeter of Humboldt Park, I mused about the festival’s rampant growth. Initially, the festival hosted a handful of acts, subtly strewn across the city in cheaply rented-out music venues. Now, the festival unfurls itself upon the city. In typical punk rock fashion, it unabashedly spans multiple blocks of expensive city real-estate, temporarily creating a nebulous of gnashing guitars and angst-driven lyrics.
It turns out punk rock isn’t dead after all. Here is a list of top acts from Riot Fest, 2014.
Title Fight was one of the first acts to preform at this year’s festival. I stumbled upon their set while walking around aimlessly in an attempt to get my bearings after I had just arrived. The setting was downright gloomy. The temperature had dropped at least 15 degrees during the night and the sky was promising cold, cold rain. I heard their music wafting across the park before I saw them and their moody, circling guitars and deadpan vocals were the perfect soundtrack for the environment. The lead vocalist, Jamie Rhoden, looked as withdrawn and forlorn as the bobbing crowd. Watching Rhoden shout out into the air with a pained expression stretched thinly across his face, I realized that sometimes it’s good to be uncomfortable. I don’t think Riot Fest could have asked for better weather.
Pussy Riot Panel
I didn’t know what to expect from the highly anticipated Pussy Riot discussion panel moderated by Henry Rollins of Black Flag. I knew that they are a band of Russian political advocates that had been jailed for speaking out against the policies of Vladimir Putin, but that was about the extent of my familiarity. Still, I was hanging on every word as one many hundreds of bodies huddled around the small pop-up stage, eager to get a sense of the international political phenomenon.
Alongside Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina, the panel included Bad Religion’s Greg Gaffin, Rise Against’s Tim Mcilrath, writer and activist Marcelle Karp, and Riot Fest founder, Michael A. Petryshyn.
While the panel did touch on the socio-political climate of Russia, the majority of the discussion centered around the role that punk rock plays in society. Rollins recognized the Clash for first inspiring him to challenge authority while describing his personal relationship with punk music, continuing, “there’s not necessarily political music. There are political people that make music.” Tolokonnikova shared a similar view, seeing punk rock as a vehicle for change. As a political activist, first and foremost, she spoke about how the group decided to form a punk band because it was something people would pay attention to. Mcilrath agreed, drawing attention to the bravery of Pussy Riot members, who she calls “the newest software update of punk.”
This group of “Gypsy Punks” gave the performance that one might have expected: exotic, eccentric, and simply wild. The eight piece ensemble is as diverse ethnically as it is instrumentally. It features an Ethiopian bassist, a Belarusian accordionist, and an Ecuadorian percussionist. Still, the soul of Gogol Bordello is Romani-Ukrainian lead vocalist Eugene Hütz. The singer’s skinny frame seemed an unlikely vessel for the spastic bellowing that ensued. The wide-eyed and mustached frontman banged on his guitar while spinning around in one-legged circles. With up-tempo marches to match chaotic chants and cheers, the performance was part Fugazi basement show, part Cirque du Soleil, and part post-Soviet revolution.
Saturday kicked off with one of the weekend’s more unique acts. The Pizza Underground is a Velvet Underground cover band with a comical spin: all of their songs are about pizza. Where Lou Reed croons over sexually adventurous vagabonds in “Walk on the Wild Side,” the Pizza Underground sings of a Sicilian culinary traditionalist encouraged to “Take a Bite of the Wild Slice,” or more specifically, Pizza Hut’s intimidatingly greasy cheesy crust. Their wit shines both in their lyrics and the intermittent stage chatter, which included a humorously controversial argument about pandering to Chicago deep-dish lovers despite their openly unapologetic favor for New York thin crust pizza. Many know the band for featuring former Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin; the kazoo-wielding performer has come a long way, having successfully established himself as a laidback, wild-haired, and wide-smiling rocker who can amuse fans by doing more than just foiling goofy home invaders. Dressed in the original all-black outfits of the Velvet Underground, the band sings to the rhythm of the pizza box (their percussion centerpiece) with an almost unparalleled loose stage presence conveyed by their groovy dancing and literal tongue-in-cheek expressions in no way veiled by their black sunglasses. Pizza Underground’s medley of saucy tunes are especially fun for fans of the original music, yet the band’s appeal extends to all lovers and haters of America’s favorite cheesy delight.
The Die Antwoord performance was easily the most punk performance I saw all weekend. DJ Hi-Tek came out first and, for a good five minutes, assaulted the crowd with bone shaking bass blasts. When Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er finally hit the stage in matching orange jumpsuits, it was clear that they had something to prove. Their entire set was manic, filled with middle fingers, pelvic thrusts, stripping, and grimacing stares. I was brought back to an interview I had seen where Ninja spoke about the initial formation of the group. He talked about how they were tired of trying to get people to listen to what they had to say, so they decided to make music that demanded peoples attention. I, for one, couldn’t peel my eyes from the performance. I think it is safe to say they were successful.
The Wu-Tang Clan
Like many other acts at Riot Fest, the Wu-Tang Clan is a force from a past era. The group’s influence has spread immeasurably far and wide. Since their 1993 release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), widely regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, several members of the nine piece hip-hop collective (and the peripheral Killer Bees) have proven that they can hold their own individually. Each member has gone on to release solo albums, each reaching various levels of critical and commercial success. Still, there’s nothing like seeing the group’s chemistry when fully assembled. Each member brought their idiosyncratic tendencies to the stage, seamlessly flowing back and forth between one another as they vowed to “Bring Da Ruckus.” Interspersed with their famous Kung Fu film samples, the set featured most of the Wu-Tang classics that fans had come to expect. The concert hit a high point during a sincere tribute performance of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” the major hit from Wu-Tang Clan’s fallen member, Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips are known for their eccentric performances, and this one proved to be no different. Wayne Coyne strode confidently to center stage in a body suit that illustrated the human musculature (with silver streamers covering his groin). In the backdrop, men and women dressed like mushrooms and rainbows danced. When the second song kicked in, the blinding visuals and hanging lights blew out a fuse. The band took the set-back in stride, singing along with the crowd's chant asking for “one more song.” When the power came back on, the band continued where they left off, segueing into Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The rest of the set went swimmingly. The band was even able to make up for lost time, by playing an extended set to make up for The National’s untimely flight delays.
The National may seem an unlikely headliner for a punk rock festival. However, like the Wu-Tang Clan’s rebellious flavor, The National’s dark angst and melodic forcefulness are not without strong thematic ties to the festival’s other artists. The show started about half an hour late due to the band’s flight issues from Canada, but an extended performance from the nearby Flaming Lips accentuated the crowds brooding anticipation. When lead singer Matt Berninger stepped on stage the delay was immediately forgiven. The initial stiffness of the performance reflected their inability to prepare during a literal rush from plane directly to stage. Nevertheless, after a few songs (and a few swigs of wine), they found their groove with performances of early classics such as Boxer’s “Fake Empire” sporadically mixed in with songs from the recent album, Trouble Will Find Me. Writhing and turning in dark silhouettes before mystic lights, the National performed each number as if they were experiencing the cold torments of which they sang. The show climaxed with Berninger being carried in the arms of cheering fans—at no cost to the powerful baritone’s intense vocal inflections. “I owe you ten minutes of music,” Berninger apologized before being forced to close the set early. Although he was being facetious, I don’t think anyone could cut loose from such an emotionally evocative performance—of any length—without needing more.
Patti Smith came out in true Patti Smith fashion, taking photos of the crowd with an old Polaroid camera. The crowd, instantaneously taken by the singer-songwriter, fell into hushed reverence. Smith wears her age impressively. While some of the stoicism of her youth seems to have been replaced with serene contentment, she still retains an aura of abject strength. It’s hard to watch Smith preform without acknowledging where she came from. Living in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, Smith played an instrumental role in the emerging music and arts movement of the time. Seemingly at peace with her accomplishments, Smith provides a challenging model for a life well lived.
The last performance of a music festival tends to be a jarring experience for me. After a week of emotional see-sawing, it can be difficult to return to the grind of daily life. Fortunately, the Cure put on a performance fit to give everyone a little sense of closure. Their set was at least an hour longer than other Riot Fest headliners, which provided ample time for the band to meander through their lengthy discography. The crowd was utterly enthralled. Even the more up-tempo hits, such as “Friday I’m In Love,” carried a tone of comforting nostalgia. As the band sauntered of the stage at the end of the night, I watched tear stricken fans embrace. The headiness of the concert faded slowly as I walked to my parked car.