16 Sep 2012: Humboldt Park Chicago
Every day of a festival weekend can be exhausting, but the feeling on Sunday morning can be soul-crushing. Being hung-over, dehydrated, and sore is bad enough. Mustering the strength to do it all over again, with Monday waiting on the other side, requires a certain level of motivation. Thankfully Sunday’s lineup at Riot Fest was worthy of such heroics, including potential once-in-a-lifetime shows like Jesus and Mary Chain, Iggy Pop, and Elvis Costello, as well as nostalgic heroes of my youth like Built to Spill and Less than Jake. While Saturday’s headliners ranked high on the entertainment meter, Sunday’s lineup promised musical—not just theatrical—greatness.
A hurricane of nostalgia swept me up as ska-punk band Less Than Jake rolled out on stage and the giddy, brace-faced kid inside awaited the signature trombone and growling vocals. I wanted to skank and dance to the soundtrack of my 6th grade year and, turns out, I would have that chance. Less Than Jake played the perfect festival set: all killer and no filler. Losing Streak, their sophomore breakout record, was front and center and the band sounded as youthful as ever for a band that is now in its 20th anniversary year.
Lead singer Chris Demakes walked out on stage and happily called out, “I’m glad I’m finally at a festival where people know how to wake and bake,” recognizing the fragrant smell of pot smoke floating up from the crowd (and this was the case all weekend). The crowd was surprisingly young but went wild for Losing Streak classics like, “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts”,”Automatic”, and “How’s My Driving, Doug Hastings?”. The trombones pumped like pistons and sounded studio quality in their precision, a rare feat in a live setting, especially on a hot day. Demakes commented that Chicago is the band’s early adopter; the first city to “ever give a shit about [them],” and the locale where they shot their first video for “Automatic” in one of the city’s seminal venues, the Metro.
Songs off their most commercially successful record Anthem were equally fun and well-received by the crowd. One of the funniest moments of Riot Fest occurred during “Ghosts of Me and You”. Demakes and bassist Roger Manganelli spotted a man wearing a realistic horse mask. Naturally, he was called up on stage to dance, ride on trombone player Buddy Schaub’s shoulders, and act like a weirdo. It was excellent. A chilled-out, introspective performance of “Science of Selling Yourself Short” was a nice complement to the naturally upbeat set, and the band closed with the raucous, circle-pit inducing “Plastic Cup Politics”. The day started off light and fun, and next on my agenda was an indie rock group from Boise, Idaho.
Built to Spill doesn’t tour often—one of the main reasons their set was on the top of my list—and I was a bit surprised to see them on the lineup at all. While many bands emphasized presentation over substance this weekend, Built to Spill’s set couldn’t be more different; minimalist in showmanship but beautiful and enthralling musically. In all honesty, it was refreshing to have a group take themselves seriously after Saturday.
Built to Spill
Built to Spill is a more of an indie rock band than a punk outfit - their songs begin emotive and introspective then spiral into total madness by way of shredding guitar solos and darkly scintillating lyrics. With songs that often eclipse five minutes and a deep catalog of albums from which to choose, to experience their show is an exercise in not getting everything you want.
Built to Spill
Dressed in a Dead Moon tee shirt, half-gray beard and dark sunglasses, Martsch remained introverted throughout the set, inaccessible to the audience for the most part—until he wasn’t. During the chorus of the anthem “Stab”, as the audience was drawn into the ethereal madness of their sound, Martsch seems finally affected, exposed—his head rolling and gyrating as he delivered his nasal yelp amidst the storm of guitars. It was moving to see the singer unhinged, especially as a fan wept in the front row. The band ended their set with “Carry The Zero”, a true closer—a grand, sweeping epic with high-flying guitar.
Soon afterward, the Roots Stage hosted a band that probably fits the connotative meaning of the word “punk” more than almost anyone on the lineup. NOFX’s snarling front man Mike Burkett promised “less talk, more rock,” an ironic declaration considering the constant flow of banter during their show. The back and forth was a big part of the fun though, making for a more intimate set. I often felt like a guest in their living room, listening to a couple of old friends shoot the shit with each other the morning after a big party.
NOFX are grizzled veterans in the midst of their 29th anniversary—a long time for anyone but certainly for a skate-punk outfit—but just recently released a new album Self-Entitled on September 11th. I think if there was an underlying message at this year’s Riot Fest, it is this: we will grow old but we don’t have to grow up.
Lead singer “Fat” Mike Burkett certainly didn’t shy away from showing his age, mentioning his daughter and responding to the flying projectiles thrown from the audience by saying, “If you’re going to throw something our way, let it be a lower interest rate!” The band still managed to rage against “the man,” playing their song “Franco Un-American”, a hate letter to George W. Bush introduced in hilarious fashion. “This song is about George W. Bush, a man who is, unfortunately, still alive,” he jeered.
The band played a massive 25-song set, pulling many songs from Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing (including opener “60%”) and So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes. During their set, a strange echo developed off the scaffolding at the back of the park that gave the band a ghostly presence on crowd favorite “Bottles to the Ground”.
While Riot Fest’s lineup was full of bands with twenty plus years in the business, Sunday evening showcased the true old guard - bands whose members have at least fifty years on earth and an undeniable influence on punk music and all the diffused versions of the genre. Jesus and Mary Chain were on stage first, a band credited with defining the post-punk sound of the 80s and influencing many of the bands today who fall into the psych-rock and noise-pop category.
Jesus and Mary Chain
The elder statesmen of Jesus and Mary Chain waltzed on stage with no sense of urgency, their lead singer Jim Reid dressed coolly in a tee shirt and black blazer. The band may be getting old, but they don’t fight it; they own it. The band played a set full of hits—in part because there isn’t new material to plug—inspiring the crowd to remember the 80s. “Head On” was one such song and as Reid sang, “Makes you wanna feel / Makes you wanna try,” I couldn’t help but feel the ghost of John Hughes nodding his head in approval. The band unsurprisingly played “Just Like Honey”, their biggest commercial hit that Scarlett Johansson joined them on stage for at the 2007 reunion show at Coachella. They had no problem shaking off the cobwebs for their set at Riot Fest.
Jesus and Mary Chain
Buzzing bass guitar and reverb define their sound, which is why psych-rock bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club often cite them as a major influence, and “Blues from a Gun”, off 1989’s Automatic, was a prime live example of this aesthetic. The band ended their set with “Happy When It Rains”, a song with a powerful rat-a-tat snare drum intro and drawn out chord strokes that are just so 80s.The band may use dark, thundering noise, but bright hooks claw their way out of the fuzz.
Elvis Costello looked regal in his purple suit and fedora, and so he should. His music career is long and esteemed; releasing twenty 23 solo records over 33 years, collaborating with a slew of relevant musicians in the studio and onstage (including The Strokes) and even marrying Diana Krall at the home of Sir Elton John.
Just writing these words seriously bums me out, especially since My Aim Is True is one of my “desert island albums,” but Elvis Costello’s set was tiresome. Part of it may have been that he followed Jesus and Mary Chain (whose sound was perfection), but Costello’s vocals sounded feeble and shaky. The reggae jams were too long and drawn out; the siren usage, unnecessary. His songs are best served punchy with immediate payoff. It was obvious the crowd was starting to get distracted and tired. It was late evening on Sunday, after all.
The actual set list included a number of greats including “Red Shoes”, “Watching the Detectives”, “Radio, Radio”, and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”. But these songs couldn’t save the crowd’s attention and Elvis’s voice just isn’t made to carry that kind of air space anymore.
The sun started to set with two shows left on the docket: Gogol Bordello and Iggy & the Stooges. I overheard Alkaline Trio at Riot Stage, a show overrun with adoring fans, entering to Public Image Ltd’s “Rise”, which is a cool song for the beginning or end of anything. But I had alligator sausage on my mind and I never really got on their bandwagon anyways.
By the time Gogol Bordello walked on stage, it was dark—and that’s the only way it should be. The lights illuminated a band resembling the gnarled crew of a pirate ship and they played like they were possessed—fully intending to plunder our souls and commandeer our ears before making the crowd walk the plank. I had never seen Gogol Bordello before Riot Fest, a fact that when admitted aloud, would usually result in a gasp. Falling into the hard-to-define category of gypsy punk, the band throws punk attitude, cabaret aesthetic and vagabond nature into a blender.
Their instrumentation is diverse, nomadic even, which is probably why “gypsy punk” is such an apt term. Bongos, accordion, fiddle, and more compose a sound that can travel a wide spectrum. I stood, mouth agape, under the violinist as they kicked off their set with “Ultimate”, the lead-off track of 2007 hit record Super Taranta. He crowed unabashedly, looked the crowd dead in the eye, and exuded attitude. Lead Singer Eugene Kutz ran around stage half-crouched like a vicious, even-more-sinewy version of Gollum, if Gollum was on speed. His movements were primal and he sang like the world was ending.
Their sound fluctuates between raucous punk and sauntering folk; the boom of the ship’s cannon and the late-night card game below deck. On “We Comin’ Rougher (Immigraniada)”, the crowd went wild, singing along and clapping to the beat before the band slowed things down with “Tribal Connection”, a song with an island, reggae feel. “Start Wearing Purple” is Bordello’s version of “She Don’t Use Jelly”, which is to say that it is goofy and popular. The crowd had a collective mid-tempo careen in the lawn area during this track. By the end, I was overwhelmed in a good way.
Sunday night is the premier headliner time, but it’s also a trough in the energy flowchart. Passed out partiers and deflated blow-up apparatus’ were abundant. Iggy Pop’s wail pierced the sky almost immediately after Gogol Bordello ended, causing a mass exodus towards his stage under the hue of the Ferris wheel.
Iggy Pop is 65 years old—and an original innovator of punk rock—but he sure goes out of his way not to act like it. He posed on stage shirtless, exposing folds of tan, saggy skin, and canvassed his space like a madman. Imagine Mick Jagger if he were foaming at the mouth. The band launched into “Search and Destroy”, which is both immediately recognizable and decidedly excellent. Upon completion, Iggy addressed the crowd. ”Thank all you fucking, fucks for coming. You’re here to see Iggy and the badass Stooges.” And we were.
The set continued, madness erupting in the area in front of the stage: EMT’s rushed in to rescue an injured cameraman and an idiot yelled, “But I’m VIP,” before getting thrown into the ground by security. The pit was getting out of control, but Iggy paid no mind. “Bum rush this shit,” he advised, inducing 20 or so people (mostly girls) to get on stage and dance. He was kind enough to take a picture with a few girls on stage, with his pants undone, of course. As I started to walk away, the band launched into “Funhouse”, a true punk song. I squeezed my way through a chain-link fence, heading East on my scooter soon after.
Riot Fest 2012 was a major success. Though I’m sure a man in a green visor is holding a long receipt and hoping to put a more quantitative assessment than that together for the event planners, I’d have to imagine that there’s no going back to the old, indoor format. The lineup was special and the setting enhanced the experience, somehow leaving behind the typical downsides to major outdoor festivals.
By excluding the ever-growing electronic contingent, Riot Fest returns its fans to that time when attending a music festival meant hearing the purity of real, live instruments and vocals that are sometimes endearingly off pitch (and certainly not corrected by a machine). On Sunday I ran into a guy wearing a tee shirt that read, “Fuck your status update.” There might be a point here. What if rebellion in the 21st century means not getting swallowed by the technology wave? Maybe that is the new frontier for the punk attitude, the true place we should direct our discontent. The government has been done, but technology - maybe that’s the real enemy. I’m about to update my Twitter followers on the festival, so I guess I’m a big fat hypocrite, but one can dream.