Typically there is a subtle, but palpable, change in Chicago weather around mid-September; the hours of sunlight dwindle noticeably, jackets slowly emerge from our closets, and the 95-degree scorchers of Lollapalooza become a distant memory. Mother Nature offered a continuance for the 8th annual—but inaugural, carnival-inspired iteration of— Riot Fest, the punk rock celebration that was born in Chicago and has since spread out to various cities across the US.
Typically Riot Fest is held in local Chicago clubs—much like Austin City Limits on a much smaller scale—but this year the event planners had a very different notion: why keep it contained? Why not let the music rip a hole in the sky? The dates of the fest were pushed up to the weekend of September 14th and, while the festival still opened that Friday at Congress Theater, the bulk of the action was on Saturday and Sunday at Humboldt Park. With temperatures in the mid-80s and blue skies for the most part, fest-goers were in for a treat: one more weekend of summer.
On Saturday, September 15th, myself and at least three generations of music fans made our way to Humboldt Park—an area on the West side of the city with a reputation for gang violence and affordable rent—to check out a wide range of artists that represent many forms of the term “punk rock,” mostly classic but some up-and-coming. Around 1:20pm, I headed westward toward the park, arriving with enough time to pick up my press pass from the booth and sell off a two-day pass to a kid for less than face value (because I’m a gentleman). The day would start off quiet and then descend into chaos.
The aforementioned calm before the storm was Frank Turner, the former lead singer of post-hardcore band Million Dead turned solo, folk troubadour. Armed with an acoustic guitar and backed by The Sleeping Souls, Turner pulled from four records worth of material, most notably his recent effort England Keep My Bones—a solid folk punk album rooted in English nationalism. Highlights included the introspective “I Am Disappeared”, the rollicking hometown anthem “Wessex Boy”, and “I Still Believe”, his song that graced the soundtrack of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The mood was upbeat, as is usually the case early on Day 1 of any festival, and Turner told the crowd that “[Chicago] definitely comes first in the dance competition.”
The band closed their set with “Photosynthesize”, a call-and-response sing-along that had the crowd chanting, “I won’t sit down / I won’t shut up / But most of all I will not grow up”. These words could easily serve as the battle cry for the festival’s older crowd and the still-standing-after-all-these-years bands that brought them here.
Walking around the festival grounds with the map/schedule in my hand, I came to a realization: the negative traits of large, outdoor festivals were noticeably absent. The trek between the stages and the vendor area was very manageable; a 15 minute break betwixt sets was enough time to eat, drink and ride the Ferris wheel. There was no major set time overlap; I saw every major band that I cared to with no tough choices. Even the food and drink vendors were superior. Rather than drink Bud Light and eat pizza, one could drink Magic Hat and eat catfish nuggets. And that’s exactly what I did before heading to a set that one should probably see on an empty stomach.
As ludicrous as it may seem, GWAR—the masked shock rock band from space—have carved a niche in American pop culture over their 29 year career, even appearing on talk shows like Joan Rivers and Jerry Springer. The band is legendary for their live act, a disturbed rock play of sorts, and this was not something I was about to miss. The press pass got me into the photo pit below the stage, an unexpected luxury and a ”mistake” on the part of security (one that would thankfully recur throughout the weekend). As a cackle rang out over the loudspeaker and my pit-dwelling comrades scrambled to cover their cameras in plastic, it hit me: I was without a poncho and, there would be blood.
GWAR was introduced by a cloaked skeleton (who, it is of note, spurted fake blood on my khaki shorts), an ominous beginning to a set that was not quite as evil as it was hilarious. But that’s kind of the point. The band certainly understands the idea that they are here as entertainers first and musicians second.
The stage filled with perverted, fantastical costumed characters, the most recognizable being Oderus Urungus, the band’s lead singer and chief spokesman who looks like something out of a nightmare. He brandished a large sword, and an equally massive strap-on phallus, as he asked the crowd, “Would you like to watch me abort Snooki’s fucking disgusting fetus?” Then, he went ahead and did it.
The music was…well, not good; each song is nearly indistinguishable and the lyrics a garbled mess, though it should be noted that I am not well-versed in the intricacies of the speed-metal genre. But there were dragon creatures and ass-less chaps and a fetus on stage! Eventually though, despite all the oh-so-shocking imagery, the shtick began to tire: theatrics only get you so far (KISS toes that line because their music is still listenable). The crowd started to tune out around the 6th song, at which point Oderus, perhaps unintentionally, addressed the kernel of their appeal, “As I stand up and look out on you people, I’m reminded of the great music festivals of Europe…they suck…[because] they take their metal so seriously, don’t they?” The band’s self-awareness regarding their lack of musical prowess is somewhat endearing. To be offended by GWAR’s antics or annoyed that they continue to tour and sell records is to take it all too seriously and that seems to be their point—taking anything seriously is stupid. The joke is on us.
As I left the show, I turned to a friend of mine (a German metal fan) and asked him about Oderus’ moment of clarity. “How do you feel about GWAR and what he just said about how Europe takes their metal seriously and [GWAR] obviously do not?” I asked. He replied, “I’m having an absolute great time. I really like heavy metal, but not so much that I can’t make fun of it.”
I’ll see GWAR at any festival, for about 15 minutes. I’ll wear the fake blood like a badge of honor for the rest of the day, just as I did on Day 2 of Riot Fest.
Next up was Andrew W.K., the white knight of party rock that performed this past spring at Riviera Theatre for the 10th anniversary of seminal record I Get Wet. The Riviera show left me drenched in sweat/beer and shirtless, so it’s fair to say my expectations were high for the energy portion of Mr. W.K.’s set. For songs that are about—and hope to inspire—partying until you puke, they are surprisingly melodic. He is, after all, a classically trained pianist (which is hilarious). One by one, his guitar-toting firing squad filled the foreground of the stage, as well as a woman in a shiny black jumpsuit who would serve as more of a dancer/singer/hype-woman—which is to say that her presence was distracting and made the show too much of a glitzy Super Bowl halftime act.
As a guitarist took a ceremonial shot of liquor, W.K. yelled, “This isn’t a concert, it’s a party.” These words, when delivered by a man that would soon be donning a guitar shaped like pepperoni pizza, should be taken very, very seriously.
Whether his foot was arched on his monitors, organizing call-and-response with the crowd, or his hair was hanging all over his keyboard as he pounded away, Andrew W.K. left it all out on the stage. Draped in his signature all-white uniform—a raggedy t-shirt and white jeans—he fired through a series of songs that included opener, “It’s Time To Party”, and other old “classics” like “Ready To Die”, “She Is Beautiful”, and, of course, “Party Hard”. “If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing enough,” W.K. said, delivering another bit of tongue-in-cheek advice to his fans before diving right into “I Get Wet”, the title track of his 10th anniversary record.
The band peppered in some new material, ending their set with an instrumental speed-metal burst that slowed into a head-banger before stopping abruptly. The band’s vibe suffers slightly in an outdoor space, the sound rings and disperses into the sky instead of banging off walls and buzzing your chest cavity, so he may not be the ideal festival act, but he’s certainly going to inspire everyone to have a good time.
I wandered around the festival for awhile; taking discreet pictures of absurd tattoos (see also: tramp stamp that read “YOLO”), trading one dollar bills for cigarettes and lighting five dollar bills on fire at the “throw the football through the hoop” game in the carnival area. The planners went to great lengths to promote the carnival aspect of the show, even going so far as to hire fire-blowers, contortionists, clowns, etc to wander the festival. Ever since Pinocchio’s jaunt on Pleasure Island when he drinks, smokes, breaks things, and basically becomes a punk fan, I’ve always associated carnivals with a certain level of seedy fun. The motif is quite fitting for a music festival celebrating a genre whose ideals are based in rebellion, anarchy, and good times (and not necessarily in that order).
I got accidentally corralled into the VIP area, which is not a bad place to be, so I slugged back three free Magic Hats and made my way back to my friends as Dropkick Murphys opened their set with a moment of Irish balladry; a woman serenaded the crowd as the band took to their instruments. Dropkick Murphys have been doing what they do for over 25 years, a rare achievement in the music industry, but surprisingly a common theme at this year’s festival. The band’s unique form of Irish-American punk is achieved by utilizing a variety of instruments: guitars, banjo, tin whistle, accordion, and, of course, bagpipes.
Each band thus far paid tribute to Chicago in some small way and Dropkick was no different. Lead singer Al Barr clutched the microphone and traversed the stage, belting the lyrics to “Which Side Are You On”, a union song he dedicated to the Chicago Teacher’s Union who were on strike at the time of their performance. No band has been more supportive of the union cause, both in their music and personal lives, so this was a sincere moment.
“The Gauntlet” off Sing Loud, Sing Proud got the crowd going and the pit thumping; we raised our fists in the air and sang, “Stand up and fight and I’ll stand up with you!” This record marks a turning point in my opinion; the records became progressively more commercial after its release. The latter half of the band’s set, while newer, played tribute to their Irish roots. They played “Shipping Up from Boston” (which is probably their best-known song thanks to The Departed), a new folk ballad called “Rose Tattoo” and a cover of AC/DC’s “TNT”.
I got punched in the circle-pit at Dropkick Murphy’s 13 years ago and immediately picked back up by the same guy, which was about as cool as it got for a young punk fan. Since those days, Dropkick Murphys have garnered much more mainstream attention; their songs play before Boston sporting events and appear on the soundtrack of major motion pictures, the band has toured with Bruce Springsteen and released records on Warner Bros. Needless to say, their circle-pits are a little bit tamer. If you’ve ever heard Al Barr speak about their rise, it’s clear he always had aspirations of being bigger than a counter-culture punk band, and who am I to fault them for that? I was just hoping for more off Do Or Die and The Gang’s All Here, that’s all.
I am not a Rise Against fan, so I opted out of that show and left a little early; a friend had a keg on their roof and I hate turning down an invitation.
The Gaslight Anthem