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Riot Fest Chicago 2015: Most Valuable Performances

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September 11-13, 2015 @ Douglas Park-Chicago, IL: On Friday afternoon at Douglas Park in Chicago, Laura Jane Grace of the punk band Against Me! took to the stage at Riot Fest and performed one of the most inspirational, fetching and soul-purging sets in the history of Riot Fest. Opening with "True Trans Soul Rebel" and tearing through "Dear Friend", "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" and the finale of "I Was a Teenage Anarchist", Against Me! exhilarated the crowd with a set of songs where they raged against the confusion the feel, the consolation they seek and the pathway to the other side. These short but ever so sweet set sums up everything I love about music. Those who attend Riot Fest do so because they wish to feel something, experience the music in a larger community and for three days, feel like we are part of a larger family. It's a family of many colors, sizes, shapes, t-shirts, shoes, hair colors, musical tastes but above it all, we're there to not just be entertained but a little enlightened as well. Riot Fest with its carefully curated lineup succeeds year-after-year because of the authenticity each act brings to the festival and this is why in four short years, has become the second biggest festival in Chicago next to Lollapalooza.

Riot Fest is an independently run festival, covering three cities and delivering a bevy of acts with roots in the punk aesthetic. The founder, Mike Petryshyn, has expanded the punk line-up in recent years and has incorporated more hip hop, roots, reggae, electronic music and punk-pop, but in the end, its toes are steeped in music that is countercultural. This is music birthed in damp basements, weathered garages, bedrooms whose walls are covered with posters and cramped apartments. Is it about attaining a level or fame and success? Yes, but it's an expression of one's being. Riot Fest has never had it easy and yet that is what makes it such an endearing music festival. In its eleventh year, it's endured its fair share of controversy in multiple cities, cancellations and venue changes, but above all of that, it delivers a robust hodge-podge of musical styles that is tired and true (punk, metal, hip-hop, ska, surfer rock) which the fans welcome with open arms. How did the 2015 Chicago edition fare? Pretty damn well; the festival found a new home which appeared to be well received on all accounts.

The Venue: Douglas Park
Riot Fest has always managed to have a bit of controversy since starting in Chicago eleven years ago. One of its core venues for the first several years, the Congress Theatre, is no longer operational and last year's venue, Humboldt Park, was not available for the 2015 festival, a decision that came just in May. Humboldt had been the home for the last three years and the aldermen bowed to pressure to pull the festival this year, despite the fact that Riot Fest ensured the park was in better shape after the festival than it was before. After flirting with a suburban location, it appears to have found a new home on the West side of the city in Douglas Park. It was a decision that wasn't without controversy, but in the end, I can say that I hope this is its permanent location on a go-forward basis. During its three days, there was one arrest despite having more than 120,000 people attend over three days. To put that in perspective, Lollapalooza had thirty-four arrests in the same timeframe.

One of the struggles of Humboldt with the ever expanding festival was the navigation between stages. In recent years I took off my writing hat and went as a fan. The previous setup didn't allow for one to see multiple acts during the same hour and the conflicts were brutal (Janes Addiction vs. Slayer, Weezer vs. The Cure, etc.). The layout of Douglas Park was a colossal improvement that allowed fans to navigate with ease between stages. What last year could take upwards of thirty or forty minutes to move stages, now took minutes, even during the heaviest periods. The layout allowed me to see three headliners of Friday night, which alone made me love the park. The neighborhood around the venue was staffed with security and a steady flow of fans, so there was never an issue of being alone. Parking lots while expensive at thirty-dollars provided easy access to the park and were all less than a ten-minute walk. The venue was laid out well not just for the seven stages of music but for food and beverages. The only snag people encountered was the need for tickets for the food from vendors. In a bit or irony, cash was required for all alcoholic beverages. By Saturday lines for the tickets had subsided and the process was seamless.

The stages each had a video screens utilized to full use and helped immensely for those further back. Sound was strong at most stages with varying degrees of wind affecting a few but never to negative effects. There was bleeding between the stages, but it was only noticeable in between songs. If a tiny amount of bleeding sound is the result of superior navigation between the stages, I will take it. So how was the music? It was nothing short of spectacular. While the lineup didn't include a jaw dropping inclusion like the reunion of the Replacements in 2013 or as many full album shows as 2014, it was not without its astounding heights. Below you will find the most valuable performances from thirty-hours of music over three days.


The 2015 MVP's of Chicago's Riot Fest

Against Me!
I've always found artists who break apart the human condition to be the most endearing. I love good entertainment, but I want to see art that does more than makes me forget about the world for a few hours, I want artists who guide me in dealing with the world head-on for a few hours. Laura Jane Grace along with James Bowman, Atom Willard and Inge Johansson from Against Me! Reminded me of why I love music, why I listen to it every day and above all else, why I write about music. If you take anything from this review, it is to discover their music and find a way have it transform and move you the same way it captures my heart and imagination.

Iggy Pop
Anytime Iggy Pop is on a concert stage it can be argued he's giving the greatest performance in the world at that very moment. Despite being sixty-eight years old, Pop moves and shakes his body into a gnarly thing of beauty that is impossible to take your eyes off of. Saturday's headlining set featured a heavy dosage of his time in Berlin with David Bowie and it was eye-opening to see how transporting songs from the pair of albums released in 1977, The Idiot and Lust For Life, remain to this day. How many acts that have topped the charts in the last fifteen years will be able to dutifully perform those records nearly forty years later? Pop's time with Bowie was one of transformation for him as Bowie pulled him from the brinks of destruction and paired it with the most influential and creative period of his career which besides the two Pop records also birthed Low, "Heroes" and Lodger). It's always been viewed that The Idiot was a Bowie record in every way except name, however, Pop changed my mind on this during his Riot Fest performance. When I saw him with the Stooges five years ago, he gripped and grinded the music and audience into a fantastic fury that no one could mimic even if they tried.

The Douglas Park performance found Pop relinquishing his leather jacket after one song, "No Fun" but what I took from this performance was different than his inexorable Stooges performance. This time around, his carefully curated set was one of rebirth and renewal. Half of the set consisted of his 1977 work with Bowie and Pop relished performing these songs. "Sixteen" and "Lust For Life" were ragged and raw, "Some Weird Sin" and "Sister Midnight" were representative of dark streets where someone goes to lose themselves only to be found again. As I watched him sing "The Passenger" with poetic punk poise, I couldn't help but be caught in the moment. Punk music at its best is a furious combustion of one's soul, whereas most of Pop's solo set proved to be languid and lush as it gripped the audience, not so much from his presence, but by the way he sang these songs. When the sets final song, "Mass Production" rang throughout the park, Iggy Pop surpassed mere performance art, but transcended space and time and reminded us that redemption is possible for all of us.

Anthrax
Anthrax, one of the Big-Four of thrash metal (also including Megadeth, Metallica and Riot Fest alumnae Slayer) should have called it quits fifteen years ago. But dwindling record and ticket sales be damned, Anthrax endured and kept plugging away with John Bush on vocals. But after a flirtation with a third singer, the band reunited with Joey Belladonna. They've been on fire ever since and they hit the Riot Fest stage and roared like an untamed beast. They were unrelenting on the opening duo of "Madhouse" and "Caught In A Mosh". Then it was the 1990 Joe Jackson cover of "Got the Time" cannonballed the crowd. The set was crushing and had a physicality no other act during the weekend could match.

No Doubt
No Doubt are a band that confound me. In the last dozen years they have released only one studio record and done two proper tours (one with Blink 182 in 2004 and another headline jaunt in 2008). My frustration lies with the fact that they're one of the supreme rock-pop-ska bands of the last two decades. Tragic Kingdom, No Return From Saturn and Rock Steady are more than single fueled delicacies, but intricately crafted pop records that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best pop-rock albums of their time. Their Riot Fest set was easily one of the most well attended of the weekend and while it didn't delve into any deep cuts of their catalog, it was an onslaught of hit-after-hit. "Hella Good", "It's My Life", the nod to reggae "Underneath It All" and the manic "Ex-Girlfriend" opened their powerhouse set that never seemed to waver. Stefani as a frontwoman is as assured as ever but what really helps elevate her performance and her star power is the band behind her. She has had staggering success with a clothesline, a solo career and even flirts with TV stardom as a judge on The Voice, but drummer Adrian Young, guitarist Tom Dumont and bassist Tony Kanal ensure that this band has been and always will be her home.

De La Soul
Any punk snob who feels violated by the inclusion of hip hop at Riot Fest should see De La Soul, because they would be silenced. Despite being an early pioneer in the hip hop field and one who enjoyed some significant success in the late 1980s, the three-piece group has always had a presence in music and that experienced showed on the concert stage. "Me Myself and I" signaled a sing-a-long but the set was a vivid and gripping remind of the power of a musical community. Some joked that Posdnuo, Dave and Maseo spent more time testing the crowd's loyalty and loudness than performing, but it also endeared them to the crowd. It was pure joy and I hope they return to Chicago soon.

Living Colour
A member of the freshman class of Lollapalooza from 1991, Living Colour has managed to still be a pertinent force in the rock world despite very few new records. They were a breath of fresh air to the late 1980s with their politically driven anthems and that feel as fresh and relevant today as they did more than a quarter of a century back. The Friday afternoon sun shined down on them as the four-piece delivered a blistering showcase proving they had not lost a step. Corey Glover, dressed in a white collared shirt and tie, was charismatic and fueled with a mission. Their all-too-brief set was alive, special and magnetic. They may have started their set at 2:45 in the afternoon but they played like headliners. Closing the set was the ripping guitar of Vernon Reid on "Cult of Personality" and a notable cover of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go".

Faith No More
When Faith No More returned to the Concord Music Hall this past May for their first Chicago area performance for more than two decades, it was one of the toughest concert tickets in recent memory with scalper prices reaching $300. Their return has been welcomed by diehard fans with the release of Sol Invictus. Their set was a confounding one for many of the crowd. Despite their 1989 record The Real Thing reaching platinum status, it was the albums that followed, notably 1992's Angel Dust that the fans bow to. Their set started late but they made up for it with the thrusting mosh dance beat of "Epic", arguably their signature song and it elicited the strongest reaction. "Midlife Crisis" was especially affecting with singer Mike Patton and the rhythm section bassist Billy Gold and drummer Mike Bordon interlocked in a groove that was nothing short of pure madness. The principal curveball was the impeccably splendid "Easy", where Patton delivered the Commodores classic with equal amounts of sincerity and goofiness.


Merle Haggard
On paper this looked like a wild card, a country legend at a punk rock festival, but it also proved to be one of the fests defining sets of music. Haggard is a man in control of his craft and an enormous crowd came out to see him and he didn't disappoint with an hour long set big on jangly guitars, violins and twang that was downright terrific. Haggard may be pushing eighty, but on his set closing "Okie From Muskogee", few had left for other stages as they hung on his every word. He chatted up the crowd, played the violin on one song and with his supreme confidence showed the crowd what punk rock truly is.

Motörhead
Originally scheduled to perform at Riot Fest in 2013, Motörhead had to cancel to due issues with Lemmy Kilmister. He had to back out of his scheduled performance at Denver's Riot Fest and the years of hard living appear to be catching up to him. So how did he answer this? By hitting the stage with guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee who proceeded to attack the crowd with an assaulting metal blend of gory guitars, bone crushing bass and kinetic drums. Dee was most impressive with a merciless mission, to ensure every member of the crowd left their set breathless. The set truly found its groove in its closing trio; "Just 'Cos You Got the Power", "Ace of Spades" and a walloping "Overkill", the latter which was a trance-like roller-coaster of roars that left your ears ringing long after you made it home.

Jimmy Cliff
Next to Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff may be the world's most influential reggae artist. Two years ago, he headlined the Concord Music Hall in Wicker Park and it was one of those evening's when you had to pinch yourself to see if it was real. The man doesn't shy away from political pointedness in his work (emphasized by his brilliant 2013 record Rebirth produced by Rancid's Tim Armstrong) but this Riot Fest set was high on giving the audience a joy ride like no other. "You Can Get It If You Really Want" and a cover of the Cat Steven's classic "Wild World" had the audience swinging-and-swaying and most importantly singing. Backed by a robust eight member band, they meticulously heightened each song to new levels and brought the crowd to their knees during the final numbers; "Many Rivers to Cross", "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" and "Reggae Night". Cliff is a treasure and the audience at Riot Fest seemed to be aware of this and cherished it.

Taking Back Sunday
TBS deserves a special mention for performing all three days at the festival; an after-show on Friday, a headline slot on Saturday and a surprise performance on a side stage on Sunday. It was the Sunday performance I witnessed, which on the official festival app simply had "????" until 15-minutes before their set. Their fans were in on the secret and the band delivered a hard edged thirty-minute set that was propelled by lead singer Adam Lazzara. "A Decade Under the Influence" and "Cute Without the 'E' (Cut from the Team)" with their surging tempos is undeniable punk-pop songs with a mighty bite. The set's biggest surprise was a cover simply introduced as "We didn't write this next number" before tearing through an impressive cover of Nirvana's "Territorial Pissings" which surged throughout the crowd. It wasn't their longest set of the weekend, but it was good enough to make me wish I had seen the others.

Fishbone
The ska-punk-rock and hailing from Los Angeles, really took control of the crowd on opening day with a boisterous and riotous set that an arms-open crowd embraced. Horns punctuated songs like "Everyday Sunshine" and "Alcoholic" as singer Angelo Moore even hopped into the crowd, Riot Fest officially took off as Fishbone shook the crowd to the beat like few others could on its opening day.

Ice Cube
NWA were one of the most controversial and confrontational bands to ever emerge and their life as a touring entity was short so seeing Ice Cube on stage with DJ Yella and MC Reb isn't something you take lightly or dismiss thinking you will go see them when they hit Chicago on a standard tour stop. Sets like these could only occur at an event like Riot Fest. The knock against the set was it was an advertisement for his film career (images of his films were sprinkled on the video screens). They may have only performed a handful of songs from Straight Outta Compton, but each one was a potent reminder of the power of NWA and how their music and message will be timeless for as long as there are oppressed people.

Joy Formidable
Hailing from North Wales, the Joy Formidable are a big, loud and crashing band. Led by Ritzy Bryan, she sings and performs her guitar with gusto. She exudes charm at every step, most notable on the set opener "The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade" where the guitars glided under the rich afternoon sun. The seven song set, notably the ripping "Cradle" navigated the lanes of alternative music with an unbreakable backbone few acts could touch the entire fest.

The Dead Milkmen
Some say there is no point to living if you can't laugh a little. The Dead Milkmen should be a house band for Riot Fest, with their satirical blend of punk rock music. It should be noted, this is not a band for everyone, but I enjoyed the spastic simplicity and they tore through nearly twenty songs in less than an hour. Their rudimentary riffs were played with tongues firmly planted in their checks.

Manchester Orchestra
They performed a mouth gaping set at the 2014 edition of Lollapalooza and their heavy Led Zeppelin influences with a bit of Slayer thrown in for good measure. There is a concentration of power in the way each song was delivered. Lead singer and guitarist Andy Hull looks like a fan from the crowd, but watching him play his guitar, you realize this is a man possessed. The band steers closer to the hard rock realm with lineage to Black Sabbath. Their record Cope was a reinvention of the band under weighty circumstances and out of it, they created their most enduring work. Their Riot Fest set wailed with vulnerability, crashing cymbals and guitars that channel their struggle to the masses.

Rodrigo y Gabriela
I was brought to the Mexican acoustic guitar duo's set by a friend and I walked away wanting more. Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero come off as unassuming, but the crowd that gathered to see them was in awe of them. They didn't merely come out and play, they conveyed so much without saying anything. The music spoke for itself and in the spirit of Riot Fest they covered Megadeth and Metallica. "Orion", Metallica's greatest instrumental led by bassist Cliff Burton's indomitable bass, was a highlight as the two guitars interplayed with one another and provided the rowdy blaze of a metal band with twelve strings. They followed this with the equally concentrated cover of Metallica's "Battery". The duo gripped the crowd as intensely

Billy Idol
Idol's set was entirely too short, but he didn't waste a second of it. With a best-selling autobiography in stores, he simply had to show up and play the hits, which he did with great fervor, but more importantly, he snuck in a few new songs that felt like classics. "Postcards From the Past" and "Can't Break Me Down" never slowed his set down. The 2014 release of Kings & Queens of the Underground is one of those records that's infinitely better than anyone will ever give it credit for. "White Wedding" began unplugged before the full band kicked into overdrive, "Dancing With Myself" sent a bolt of reverberation throughout the crowd while Idol went back forty years to his band Generation X to perform "Ready Steady Go" before closing his set with his definitive cover of "Mony Mony".

Bootsy Collins
Big fun, big horns, big soul, big fun.

Airborne Toxic Event
The last time I saw ATE was at Lollapalooza in 2014. Anytime they play live, they have the clout to astonish because few probably understand what a power they are on the concert stage. They're more than a great festival band but one that needs to be sought out as headliners as well. The highlight of any of their sets is their defining number; "Sometime Around Midnight", my vote for the single greatest song of the last few decades without a chorus. It's a spine-tingling tease of a number where the band leaves nothing to the imagination as they tear down their own emotional walls with their instruments. This is a broken hearted anthem like no other as it leaves deep impressionable cuts that leave a mark. It swings and swirls in you the way few songs ever can hope. The performance proves to be an exorcism not just for the band but the crowd as well as the chant, wail and scream not for the band's attention, but because the music inspires a haunting howl.

Echo & the Bunneymen
Ian McCulloch has always been a controversial figure in music being outspoken and biting in interviews. The Bunneymen have gone through a steady stream of lineup changes with only guitarist Will Sergeant being a consistent member, which is why it was shocking to hear them come right out of the gate with their biggest hit, "Lips Like Sugar". Over nine songs McCulloch soulfully swaggered as he engrossed the audience and never let go. Clever mashups of "Villiers Terrace / Roadhouse Blues" and "Nothing Lasts Forever / Walk on the Wild Side" inspired singalongs before the band devastated a crowd with a heart wrenching performance of "The Killing Moon". McCulloch was persuasive and concentrated throughout their entire set which seemed to surprise everyone. This wasn't a passive performance but one that burned slow and etched itself in your mind.

Desaparecidos
Conor Oberst isn't someone who takes music lightly and truth be told, I had forgotten this band ever existed before the Riot Fest announcement. Surprisingly, this was a set that enthralled me with its melodic fuzz and haunting echoes.

Riot Fest Chicago Runners up:
Snoop Dogg may have made the MVP list except he showed up thirty-minutes late for a set that was hitting its groove when the power was cut. Flogging Molly and their Celtic punk rock charm ignited the Friday crowd while the metal core band Atreyu performed a heavy and inspired cover of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love A Bad Name". Coheed and Cambria's melodic guitars illuminated the sunny skies, the Eagles of Death Metal cued up foot stomping music of the heartland with heavy power chords, Doomtree inspired crowd with their hip hop rhythms and enthusiastic reaction from the crowd, ditto Cypress Hill who more or less filled an hour set with little but were still effective. Hum gave the best shoegaze performance of the weekend with a pool of fuzz and distortion and Damien Marley challenged his father's music and message.

The third edition of Riot Fest 2015 takes place in Toronto on September 19-20 and tickets are still available.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter

Riot Fest Chicago 2015: Most Valuable Performances

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