This year Riot Fest evolved from a collection of shows spread out among several venues to a full-fledged festival in Humboldt Park, with four stages, circus performers, and carnival rides and games. (The fest technically kicked off Friday night at the Congress, but that night's four-band bill was really just a warm-up for the dozens of acts playing in the park on Saturday and Sunday.) Combining music and carnival entertainment is hardly novel; Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements did it last year (and will do it again next weekend), and in our Riot Fest preview founder Mike Petryshyn compared his new baby to a state fair. But unlike most state fairs, Riot Fest is about punk, and the mix of rowdy bands and brightly light attractions proved to be a winning one.
Any good carnival combines youthful rambunctiousness with grown-up nostalgia, and the Riot Fest lineup provided for plenty of both as well. Take California punk act NOFX, whose juvenile sense of humor seems to defy the aging process; on Sunday afternoon they traded playful, self-deprecating jabs between fast-paced punk tunes. Four hours later Iggy & the Stooges burst onstage, churning out their brutal classic protopunk while Iggy thrashed and yelped, using his mike to mime shooting heroin or jerking off (among other things). He's certainly showing his years—his veins covered his leathery skin like creases in tissue paper—but he doesn't lack for commitment, running around shirtless even as falling temperatures had some fans reaching for extra layers.
On Saturday I saw Andrew W.K. and his small battalion of guitarists rip through a set focused on his breakthrough 2001 album, I Get Wet, extolling the virtues of partying with unrivaled enthusiasm. On Sunday the Promise Ring didn't miss a step revisiting their catchy, upbeat 90s emo, and later that evening NYC-based Gypsy punks Gogol Bordello delivered a set that felt less like a collection of songs and more like a buoyant extended celebration. Boise indie act Built to Spill did just enough guitar noodling to sound like a jam band next to the more traditionally "punk" groups on the bill, which made for a pleasant but relatively low-energy show. Iconic Scottish alt-rockers the Jesus & Mary Chain sounded fantastic, spreading warm layers of guitar reverb across the crowd, but their stoic stage presence wasn't nearly as compelling—I found it easy to cut away for a moment to catch a few songs by the reliably thrilling Screaming Females.
It wouldn't be a punk fest without some sort of political statement, and this year the Chicago teachers' strike provided an obvious outlet. Concertgoers got to hear the Dropkick Murphys dedicate a song to "teachers" and Rise Against throw their support behind "the kids" and "the future"—easy sloganeering that in the latter instance barely made it clear whose side the band was on, and in both cases did nothing to lead fans deeper into a complex issue. (I was actually so annoyed by Rise Against's empty rhetoric that I left their set.) Given how vital politics are to many punk acts, it was sad to see even one band eagerly attempt to present itself as "political" without saying much of anything.
Thankfully, there wasn't much of that kind of posturing going on. Even the oppressive atmosphere that tends to hang over large festivals was absent. Maybe it was the pleasant, totally nonsweltering weather, the shady greenery of Humboldt Park, or the remarkably well-behaved crowd, which certainly never felt like tens of thousands of people.
The best part had to be the carnival, though—or rather the marriage of punk bands and a carnival. The side attractions functioned as a welcome respite from the sometimes overwhelming festival experience—being stuck in a mass of humanity for eight or ten hours can make any sane person feel claustrophobic. This year at Riot Fest folks could take in a wrestling match while halfway listening to Elvis Costello & the Imposters, or catch an impromptu performance by the Environmental Encroachment marching band in the middle of Hot Water Music's set. Sometimes the juxtapositions were perfect: I never thought I'd get to watch fire jugglers while the Descendents played. It almost felt like a campfire sing-along, only instead of busting out "Kumbaya" around a heap of smoky kindling, people were belting out pop-punk songs about flatulence while circus performers twirled balls of fire on chains just a few feet away.
In other words, even when the bands couldn't keep you amused, there were plenty of other activities within reach. Fortunately some acts really could deliver—like Gwar. The intergalactic scumdogs dismembered a hideous array of alien creatures and sprayed much of the audience in vivid fake blood, using their heavy tunes as a soundtrack to their ongoing quest for new and utterly tasteless spectacles. Timely spectacles too, at least sort of: front man Oderus Urungus brought out a pregnant Snooki effigy and announced that he would abort her fetus, a provocation that comes a bit late given the fact that the real Snooki gave birth three weeks ago. (Come on, Oderus, I know you're up on TMZ.) But I suppose factual inaccuracies have never stood in the way of their gross, over-the-top jokes before—something tells me nobody has ever believed that the band grinds up people in the pit to make "Gwar dog food."
If this year's Riot Fest has proved anything, it's that every music festival could use a Ferris wheel. And Gwar.
Check out slideshows of this year's Riot Fest below:
Riot Fest, Sunday, September 16