Can Riot Fest turn nostalgia into a renewable resource? | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Can Riot Fest turn nostalgia into a renewable resource? 

Maybe it’s possible to book amazing reunions forever—but only by building current bands into tomorrow’s back-from-the-dead headliners.

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Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker, who reunited after two decades to play Riot Fest last year. - ALISON GREEN
  • Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker, who reunited after two decades to play Riot Fest last year.
  • Alison Green

Over the past decade, Riot Fest has made its name by pulling off the impossible. By now it's almost a given that its lineup will include reunions of long-defunct bands that fans never thought they'd get another chance to see: the Replacements, the original Misfits, Drive Like Jehu, Jawbreaker. It's what has made Riot Fest a destination, drawing people from around the country—or from even farther away.

But this year, when Riot Fest announced the bulk of its lineup at the end of May, it felt underwhelming. Though Blink-182 have since canceled their headlining set (drummer Travis Barker is suffering from blood clots in his arms), their Riot Fest booking didn't feel as significant as it had in 2013—and the fact that they'd closed out a night at Lollapalooza last year didn't help either. Because the Blink reveal didn't carry the same weight as a surprise reunion, many folks assumed Riot Fest still had a big secret up its sleeve. That made them antsy about the eventual second lineup announcement, but Riot Fest delayed the release of that information till a week before opening day, provoking anxiety and confusion among fans and journalists.

Faced with Blink's last-minute cancellation, Riot Fest unsurprisingly tapped bands that it's already booked repeatedly to fill the void. Of the three replacements, only Run the Jewels are appearing for the first time (this was one of the last major festivals they'd yet to play). The other two, Weezer and Taking Back Sunday, demonstrate how difficult it's getting for long-running festivals (especially those defined in part by genre) to make their offerings feel fresh. Weezer headlined in 2011, when Riot Fest shows still took place in the Congress Theater, playing their Blue Album in full, and three years later they did the same thing in Humboldt Park. And Taking Back Sunday has only skipped one Riot Fest since 2013.

These replacements join other top-billed acts making a return to Riot Fest. Some of those repeaters—Blondie, Elvis Costello & the Imposters—would be welcome no matter how often they showed up, but their earlier trips have nonetheless taken some of the punch out of their 2018 appearances. Perhaps the only genuine surprise was Jerry Lee Lewis, but at a punk-leaning festival he seems likely to attract more curiosity seekers than genuine fans.

When Riot Fest debuted in 2005, it was already peddling nostalgia—even though it couldn't yet deliver the way it can now. It brought out the Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, and the Germs, all without their original front men, setting the stage for the 2016 booking of the original Misfits, complete with Glenn Danzig. Riot Fest's focus on the past isn't unique among music festivals, but it's started to feel like a crutch—it relies heavily not only on big reunions but also on full-album sets that help fill out the undercard. Bringing aboard Bad Religion and Fear to run through fan favorites is a tacit acknowledgment that you're not necessarily concerned with whatever shape punk is currently taking.

Festivals certainly don't bear sole responsibility for putting over new talent—despite their best efforts, few fests have been able to crown younger acts in an effective way. And that's leaving aside the possibility that structural changes in the music business mean it's simply producing fewer bands with the kind of gravitational pull that will have fans clamoring to see them 20 years after they break up. So what happens when the nostalgia runs out? Riot Fest can't afford to treat reunions and classic-album performances like a renewable resource, because every time another beloved band decides to give the old reunion thing a go, that pool of headliners—and "impossible" gets—shrinks a little bit further. And then it's only a matter of time before Weezer gets booked for a third play-through of the Blue Album.

Not every festival relies as heavily on the past as Riot Fest, but plenty of them are suffering from the crowded marketplace. In 2017, two Chicago festivals, Get in It MusicFest and Common's Aahh! Fest, called it quits. This year, Los Angeles's FYF Fest pulled the plug, and long-running Washington State festival Sasquatch announced it won't return in 2019. Each one collapsed due to its own distinct set of factors, but it's not hard to see a trend emerging. Riot Fest has always done a good job carving out its own niche, but it's already spent 14 years mining punk's history. Now that Warped Tour has packed it in after its own 24-year run, maybe it's time for Riot Fest to get a little more invested in where the genre's heading.  v

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