Riot Fest, like America, is huge.
That’s the first impression you get from the rock festival that was founded in Chicago, Illinois ten years ago and has since expanded to include two other locations, Denver, Colorado and Toronto, Canada. Looking at the lineup is dizzying – it’s packed with eager up-and-comers, niche bands, nostalgia acts and absolute legends. Meticulous planning is required; you’d exhaust yourself trying to get to them all. There’s metal, hardcore, rock, punk, industrial, rap, hip-hop, and a sprinkling of pop. There are seven stages.
We’ve made our point, but just to make it clear: Singapore has nothing like this.
Singaporean festivals also have nothing on par with the politics that accompanied Riot Fest Chicago this year. After three years in the neighborhood Humboldt Park, the alderman or local official of the area publicly opposed Riot Fest’s return, which forced the festival to move to Douglas Park.
And just a week before the festival, a hospital in the vicinity of Douglas Park actually sued Riot Fest in an attempt to block it from the neighborhood (it was swiftly and quietly settled and the festival went on as planned). Sounds alarming, but for festival goers, these controversies often amounted to nothing but minor annoyances or occasions to break out the popcorn and see the mud fly. It was also kinda exciting for us: after all, you don’t get this kind of media circus around festivals back home.
At the end of the day though, all politics subsided, and all that was left was the music. Check out what we thought of the various acts that played Riot Fest Chicago from 11 to 13 September.
True Trans Soul Rebel: Laura Jane Grace was a sight to behold, with her mighty pipes, blacked out (read: completely tattooed) arm, long hair blowing into her face, and her Lennon ‘n’ Yoko-referencing jersey which read "Gender Is Over (If You Want It)".
Sing-alongs Galore: One of the first bands where singalongs kicked off from the very beginning with “True Trans Soul Rebel". And they just kept coming, with “Fuckmylife666,” “Black Me Out” and the songs that made Against Me! famous: “Thrash Unreal,” “White People For Peace” and of course, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist.”
Pints of Guinness Make a Crowd Strong: Against Me! drew a diverse crowd (more women, more punks) who weren't afraid to dance and crowdsurf.
Wobbly Start: The Massachusetts rock band led by Sadie Dupuis started off their set with shaky sound with the bass too clanky and the guitars too soft. The mix came together three songs in and you could finally hear the band like how they’re meant to be heard – loud and clear, with Dupuis’ raw, powerful yet sweet voice emerged through the wall of fuzzy guitars.
Girl Power: Towards the end of the band’s set, Dupuis began expounding about the festival industry and its disproportionate amount of male bands in a line-up. We couldn’t agree more. Riot Fest is stepping in the right direction with having more female-fronted bands.
(575) 404-SAFE: You’ve probably read in the news about Speedy Ortiz’s hotline for the audience to text whenever they feel like they have been harassed or feel unsafe at any of their shows. Dupuis showed her sincere concern for the well-being of the audience by reading out the hotline number to the crowd before the band played their last song.
Faith No More
Best Stage Setup: The legendary alternative metal band – and their crew – appeared all dressed in white on a stage generously decorated with colorful flowers. Clearly Mike Patton and friends don’t give a shit about perceptions of what a metal band should be.
Genre Benders: What sets Faith No More apart from the herd is the way their songs gleefully tumble from genre to genre: heavy metal, hardcore, reggae and rap are all bedfellows in their universe. Mike Patton sounds like a guy who’s inspired both Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and Future Islands’ Sam Herring. Their setlist was thrilling, filled with oldies but goodies (“Epic,” “Easy,” “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”) and newer cuts (“Motherfucker,” “Separation Anxiety.”)
F*ck You, No Doubt: Towards the end of their set, Patton and equally irreverent keyboardist Roddy Bottum decided to take the piss out of the curious crowd waiting for No Doubt at the adjacent stage. “Are you with us or with them? If you’re with them, don’t fucking look at me!” Cue a mighty Patton middle finger.
Cholo-Goth: The two-piece electronic rock band made up of vocalist Leafar Seyer and beatmaker Dave Farley appeared on stage clad in black leather jackets, more than eager to perform their unique brand of dark and bass-driven music inspired by 80’s minimal wave. The first band to label their genre of music cholo-goth, the band proved how gangster they were as Sayer performed while showing his knife wielding skills with his switchblade.
“San Diego’s Finest”: Exclaimed Seyer as he walked onto the stage. The Prayers frontman never lacked confidence and swagger throughout the entire set, owning the stage with his aggressive movements. Leafar went on to announce “we’re not the best but there’s no one better” – a declaration that the audience agreed with.
Young Gods: Prayers performed songs from their latest record Young Gods, which was produced by Blink-182’s Travis Barker. The title track of the album was a crowd favourite – synth-heavy melodies matched with a heavily-reverbed snare sound – which was a perfect complement to Seyer’s howling vocals.
Old School Stage Tactics: Ice Cube and the rest of N.W.A. are legendary pioneers of gangsta rap. They’ve inspired pretty much every rapper on the block today. So when he, DJ Yella and MC Ren – the only members of N.W.A. to reunite at Riot Fest – resorted to some good ol’ fashioned “Which side of the crowd is louder?” and “Chicago is better than Denver” hype tactics to get the crowd going, we decided to cut them some slack.
Opportunistic Publicity: After a few Ice Cube songs (which included “Go to Church” and the meme-spawning “Check Yo Self”), Mr O’Shea Jackson asked the crowd the obvious: “How many of you heard of a little movie we put out this summer called Straight Outta Compton?” That "little movie" has since become the highest-grossing music biopic of all time.
Straight Outta Riot Fest: Luckily, Ice Cube didn’t hold the goods back. He unleashed what we had all been waiting for: “Chin Check,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Dopeman,” and the song that propelled the group to infamy and continues to resonate today: “Fuck Tha Police.”
70 and Going Strong: There is no stopping Lemmy, the man behind Motörhead. Despite having health problems and cancelling previous concerts after not being able to perform, he continues to commit himself to his craft and he proved that he still has it during the band’s set at Riot Fest. His voice might have been slightly worn out and his movements restricted but he was still rocking his signature Rickenbacker bass guitar the way he always has.
Solo After Solo: It was clear that Lemmy needed breaks during the set to recuperate and the band did a smart move by adding long guitar and drum solos for both Wizzo and Mikkey Dee. Wizzo’s sentimental guitar solo before “The Chase is Better Than The Catch” wowed the audience who took it as a break from headbanging. Mikkey Dee’s mighty drum solo during “Doctor Rock” was met with a resounding response from the crowd.
Throwback: Riot Fest is well known to be the festival that books reunited bands or bands that have been around for a very long time. Motörhead, being one of those bands, attracted a crowd mostly between the ages 40 to 60. We were surrounded by moms and dads who definitely came down just to watch their favourite metal band from their past perform their classics such as “Rock It,” “Metropolis,” “Ace of Spades” and more.
Josh Homme unfortunately didn’t come to party with his pals in Eagles of Death Metal. Sigh.
Ex-Das Racist member Heems played a short, scattered set, but closed out with the heartfelt “Flag Shopping” off his new album Eat Pray Thug. The date – 11 September – made it all the more poignant.
Excuse Our Technical Difficulties: After a guitar problem left frontman Zac Carper without an instrument for "Drone" off their new album Too, Carper threw himself atop the crowd. When he surfed back to the stage, distinctly muddier than before, a security guard grabbed him in a bear hug to make sure he wouldn't go for round two. The band's manager intervened, angrily telling the guard to fuck off. Carper laughed through it all.
Sobriety is Strange: After crashing and burning on cocaine, alcohol and all manner of addictive substances, Carper is now sober. Watching the crowd bellow choruses like "I drink cheap beer, so what, fuck you" and generally go batshit to songs about drugs and addiction with the knowledge that this kind of recklessness was Carper’s undoing was weird, to say the least — even if it was fun.
Overheard: "It's pronounced FID-LAR! I hate it when people say 'fiddler'!"
Homegrown Talent: Chicago’s very own Meat Wave weren’t strangers to the local crowd who turned up for their set. The three piece no-nonsense rock band have performed all around the Chicagoland area as well as gone on a number of tours nationwide. Their brand of rock is in your face, mostly due to Chris Sutter’s raw and aggressive vocals.
Surfing the Meat Wave: Being familiar faces in the city, it wasn’t surprising to see many of the band’s friends and fans getting pumped during their set, dancing away, singing along and on many occasions body surfing to their hard rock anthems.
New Album: The band performed a few songs from their upcoming album titled Delusion Moon comes on September 18, which is one you should definitely check out. The title track is straight up rock with a tinge of punk, perfect for a festival like Riot Fest.
Metal and Science Fiction: There is no band like GWAR. Not only did they perform one of the tightest sets at Riot Fest, they did so while wearing the most elaborate and terrifying costumes. The band played fan favourites such as “Sick of You,” “Saddam A Go-Go,” “Meat Sandwich” as well as newer tracks like “Madness at the Core of Time,” effortlessly entertaining the crowd with their satirical and political brand of heavy metal.
Bloodbath: When GWAR performs, there's plenty of audience participation, even when it is involuntary. The band opened their set with blood (fake, of course) gushing out of a decapitated head of one of the characters on stage. You could see the audience in the front rows of the pit just ducking for cover while some just ran for their lives. This happened several times throughout their set — with blue and pink blood spurting out of various body parts.
Scarred for Life: One of us witnessed GWAR doing an interview at the press tent and being just 5 metres away, hearing their vicious voices and seeing them up close is disturbing. Off stage, the members still manage to stay in character to stay true to their identity as a band.
Babes in Toyland
Purging Male Mediocrity: Seeing the legendary proto-Riot Grrrl grunge band do their part to cleanse Riot Fest of some sausageness was a beautiful thing.
Best Moshing: Babes in Toyland don't really do straight up mosh tunes but a pit erupted nevertheless. It was remarkably equitable (plenty of women in the pit), sustained (lasted through the whole set) and... happy (there were far more grins than grimaces).
All Hail Kat Bjelland: The extraordinary frontwoman led the charge through a sun-soaked set, jumping from growls to screams without a single sip of water. Babes in Toyland released their last album 20 years ago, but the force of their music endures.
Dramatic Entrance: It’s been a few years since Alexisonfire have performed together and in their first and only appearance in the United States since their breakup, the band spared no expense in making their comeback as memorable as they could for their fans. A huge backdrop with the band’s logo slowly rose up from the back of the stage accompanied by an emotional orchestral piece before the band launched into “Accidents".
Best Vocals: Hearing Dallas Green sing again with Alexisonfire is not just a throwback experience for a lot of the fans. He actually sounded the same, or maybe even better, more mature. He definitely won the award for best vocals hands down.
Possible Reunion: Vocalist George Pettit told the crowd that he wanted to “squash the rumors” about why the band is performing again, getting everybody excited about the possibility of the band reuniting or possibility releasing new music. Of course, it was merely a tease as the band did not confirm any future plans.
Wordy Punk: Desaparecidos, the political punk band best known as the side project of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, surprisingly didn’t get as rousing a crowd reaction as you’d expect their fiery politics to incite. We put that down to the sheer wordiness of Desa lyrics, which Oberst acknowledged: “You probably can’t hear everything we’re singing up here,” he said at one point.
Conor Oberst, Cold War History Nerd: Desaparecidos segued from song to song with voiceovers like a McCarthy-era speech on how to identify a communist and the perky song from the “Duck and Cover” film, an American 1950s PSA on what to do in the event of a nuclear explosion.
Desa’s Got Friends: New York punks The So So Glos joined the band onstage for “Backsell” off Desaparecidos’ new album Payola. Happily enough, it was also So So Glos frontman Alex Levine’s birthday!
Rancid played one of Riot Fest’s most enjoyable throwback sets with a 20th anniversary celebration of …And Out Come The Wolves.
System of a Down’s headlining set was so brutal that photographers were yanked from the photo pit before any shots could be taken and at least two fans were pulled from the crowd for fear of injury.
Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness
Suit Up: Andrew McMahon was all dressed up in collared shirt and tie for his set, accompanied by his backing band. True to his style, McMahon performed on a grand piano with two microphones for singing as he often moved back and forth during songs. His stage presence and vocal performance was spectacular, as he owned the stage and jumped on his piano at one point in the set.
Love Hope Strength: In 2005, McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and announced to the crowd that he has been cancer free for 10 years after a stem cell transplant by his sister. He urged to crowd to sign up to be donors to help save the lives of those who are suffering from the same illness he had. He was clearly successful as many headed in the direction of the Love Hope Strength Foundation booth after his set.
I Woke Up In A Car: The fans were treated to a few Jack’s Mannequin songs but the biggest cheer was when McMahon performed Something Corporate’s “I Woke Up In A Car.” We could hear everybody sing along and felt that acute sense of nostalgia from listening to a throwback song. Or maybe it was just plain ol' goosebumps.
Dem Riffs: Manchester Orchestra have plenty of tunes designed for crowd singalongs in their discography (see “I Can Feel A Hot One” and “Pensacola”) but they stuck to burly riffs for their Riot Fest set with songs off their latest release Cope and Mean Everything to Nothing, their most popular album (and for good reason).
Goddamnit, Andrew WK: Many of Manchester Orchestra’s best songs make good use of the classic Nirvana dynamic between loudness and quiet, especially those off Mean Everything to Nothing. Those songs played live are affecting enough to give you goosebumps, but less so when the sounds of Andrew WK partying at another stage bleeds over into the lulls.
Shake It Out: What Manchester Orchestra left out in stage banter, they made up for with energetic movement. All band members – keyboardist included – did a huge amount of hair swinging and headbanging, so much so that frontman Andy Hull lost his baseball cap by the third song. Hull also displayed his wry sense of humor when he said goodbye to the crowd before the last song and signed off as Fitz and the Tantrums.
Many Instruments Make Difficult Work: Like many bands who played at the smaller stages in Riot Fest, Foxing could only afford to do a quick line check before their set which prevented them from having the best sound possible, especially with their multiple instruments: trumpet, guitars, bass, drums, samples, keyboards, violin and saxophone. Fortunately, the sound got better three songs in and we were treated to a cathartic performance by the St Louis natives.
Unrestrained Delicacy: Foxing is the rare band that comes up with music that is perfect for listening on record and to experience live. On record, lead singer Connor Murphy’s naturally husky voice skews more delicate, but live, he is far less restrained. From start to end, we witnessed a passionate and ferocious performance that left the crowd in awe.
New Album: Foxing’s anticipated upcoming album, Dealer, will be released October 30 on Triple Crown. The band used their set at Riot Fest as an opportunity to give the crowd a taste of what’s to come by playing their lead single “The Magdalene” as well as a couple of new tracks.
Good Ol’ Grunge: The Los Angeles band thrilled the audience with their riff-driven brand of grunge. All members of the band held lead vocals at some point in a setlist dominated by songs off their most notable release Bricks Are Heavy. Frontwoman Donita Sparks also dedicated "Fuel My Fire" to “foxy band” and the following act The Prodigy.
Incredible Irreverence: L7 had the cheekiest stage banter of all the bands we saw at Riot Fest. As photographers exited the pit, bassist Jennifer Finch quipped, “The photographers are leaving! I can take my butt implants out now!” Sparks then deadpanned, “No double chin shots, please.”
L7 Forever: Although the crowd wasn’t quite as active as L7’s performance merited, the diehards more than made up for it. Sparks pointed out two fans who made a pilgrimage from Mexico City as well as a fan with “L7” shaved into their hair.
Not Cool, Snoop: It was 8.45pm and everyone was stoked for the arrival of the Doggfather, but he was nowhere to be seen. 20 minutes into his scheduled set, his DJs came on stage and started the set but only after 5 minutes of warmup music and rapping from his posse did Snoop appear on stage, lacking in enthusiasm and energy, blunt in hand. But hey, it’s Snoop Dogg – at this point of his career, he can pretty much do anything he wants to and get away with it.
Drop It Like It’s Hot: We witnessed a couple members of the crowd pass out while waiting for Snoop to arrive on stage. The Sunday heat combined with an excessive amount of blazing definitely didn’t help those two poor individuals who were probably too hydrated and/or toasted.
No Doggystyle: Snoop’s set was marketed as a performance of songs exclusively from his debut multi-platinum album Doggystyle, but Snoop being Snoop decided to play only a few cuts from that album such as “Gin and Juice,” “Lodi Dodi” and “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?).” He padded his setlist with other crowd favourites like “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “That’s That Shit.”
A True Headliner: Of the acts chosen to close out Riot Fest, only The Prodigy could live up to the absolute rampage System of a Down led the night before. The big beat pioneers make music to dance and destroy to, and the sheer energy emanating from the Rebel Stage that night was tremendous. Obligatory .gif because no .jpg could sum up the insane levels of energy these guys bring to the stage, even after decades of touring.
The Electronic Exception: Riot Fest is quite multi-genre, but if there’s one type of music you won’t find at the proudly rockist festival, it’s electronic dance music. That said, The Prodigy came the closest to EDM, epilepsy-inducing light show and all.
No Subtlety: You can listen to The Prodigy’s music through your headphones on a laptop, but it takes a live show to truly understand why The Prodigy makes music. They’re not easy or cerebral listening. They sound like a malfunctioning spaceship, a warehouse rock concert turned up to 13 and an industrial apocalypse all at the same time. The Prodigy make no bones about it: they’re out for blood.
De La Soul tried and failed to keep things family-friendly and joked about setting up a swear jar to stop the f-bombs from flying.
The classic House of Pain track “Jump Around” was performed twice that day, by Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg.