The fifth annual Riot Fest took over five days and several venues and clubs in Chicago last week. From old school punks to newer acts playing, it was hard to choose which acts to see and which venue to see them at. Skipping Wednesday and Thursday night, I started off my first Riot Fest experience on Friday and saw the rest of the weekend through.
Deals Gone Bad and The Aggrolites
Deals Gone Bad is a local Chicago act that gets a lot of love from local radio. Too bad I have never heard them till now. Their set was composed of love songs that remind you of Motown. It’s no surprise then that they do describe their sound as soul. Singer Todd Hembrook’s voice resonates as he carries out notes. Don’t let that confuse you though. Their music has steady bass and is pure rocksteady and ska. Deals Gone Bad had a great response from the crowd all night at the packed venue. Their song “Mess Around” turned into a full sign-a-long. Couples were sprinkled throughout the crowd and danced together and one girl literally walked up to a stranger to dance and make-out with. It was definitely a night for love because Deals Gone Bad almost make you want to get your lovers named tattooed on your neck. The Aggrolites took the stage next to close out the night. The crowd was receptive as they launched into their set of dancehall and reggae (a.k.a “dirty reggae”). It bothered me that they seemed to group songs with similar sounds together. There wasn’t much variation in their set and after awhile it felt as thought I was in church listening to an organ play because they kept having their songs lumped together. On the end of it, people did have their hands in the air as if it were church. Maybe it was meant to like some sort of transcendent experience. If church was at a bar, The Aggrolites would be the choir. They ended well into the next morning. I’m not into dancehall or reggae as much as a fan would be but by the end of The Aggrolites set, they did have me going.
Saturday, Congress Theatre
Cock Sparrer and NOFX
My first year of college was at an art school in Chicago. My advanced English class didn’t have us reading any great works. Our studies consisted of reading books on punk and trips to the Art Institute. That’s when I first heard of Cock Sparrer. They are punk royalty. Hailing from London, Cock Sparrer invaded the Congress Theatre with open arms and Chicago flags welcoming them in the crowd. They were pure street punk and commanded the stage with their presence. Every song had the crowd jumping on stage just so the security could through them back down. It’s impossible for me to give an accurate description of their set because I was really out there enjoying it too much. If there was ever a punk band deserving a stadium, it’s Cock Sparrer.
NOFX took the stage next. There was definite anger in the crowd at the amount of talking and that they headlined. Fat Mike came out with his face painted like the Joker. After several minutes of banter he said, “Oh, we’re playing music right now, music!” If you’ve ever seen NOFX once, then you’ve seen them a million times. The set was full of stage antics from Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio getting on stage dressed as a clown, to racist jokes, to a song and dance skit at the end. At one point, they even yelled at a child that was backstage and described a sexual act to him. One has to wonder why any crowd would let the band get away with all of this and it comes down to the simple fact that they’re a really good band. Their songs cover over several genres of punk and in the end, it’s fun.
Sunday, Congress Theatre
Screeching Weasel and Alkaline Trio
Despite being billed as the headlining act, Screeching Weasel played before Alkaline Trio. At first, there didn’t seem to be much to the performance. The entire band just seemed to stand still and Ben Weasel was just kind of meandering back and walking back and forth. Even so, they garnered the most crowd reaction I had seen all weekend. From thrown cans and bottles to handstands in the center of the crowd, no one in the crowd looked like they were having a bad time. As the show went on, Ben seemed to feed on the crowd energy and his performance showed. Skipping the usual encore ceremony they just kept playing and said “this is our fucking encore.” It’s hard to imagine that Ben and co. have been doing this since 1992 but he reminded us before going into “Second Floor East” that we don’t even care anymore if he jumped around on stage or not. The crowd was a mixture of old and new and for the new kids, it was a treat.
Headliners Alkaline Trio had three nice banners hanging down with “agony” and “irony” written on them. They opened with “We’ve Had Enough.” Immediately I could tell that the sound wasn’t too great from where I was standing so I walked around to find a good spot and found that the sound was pretty distorted throughout the entire venue. It’s a shame, too. I have seen Alkaline Trio several times and this seemed to be a pretty ambitious show. With each new song, punk kids tried to navigate through the crowd to get to the pit for their favorite songs. Every two steps seemed like a struggle for them. For a midwest band that is heavy on melodies, Alkaline Trio seemed to have a pretty fierce circle pit going for “Private Eye.” My favorite song, “In Vein” ended with Dan taking a bow, very classy. They did announce that they had finished their new cd and played two new songs off that album. “Die Die My Love” and another that’s name I couldn’t understand due to the bad sound. I surveyed the crowd and it was titled either Mason Dixon, Miss Addiction, or Mister Dixon…no one really knew but it was definitely better than “Die Die My Love” which just seemed a bit too generic. They ended out their set with “Blue in the Face” and the crowd kicked it back old school for a minute and pulled out their lighters, not cell phones.
Coming into this show and finding out that Screeching Weasel isn’t headlining, you wonder why. Then you see the crowd for Alkaline Trio and you just know. These kids love them. Screeching weasel may do great punk but there us something special about Alkaline that makes you feel God came down and blessed this band himself. No anger or disestablishmentarianism here, this band is about love. And more imply, the music these guys make is the evolution of punk in the midwest. (Editor’s note – Screeching Weasel is better haha)
Riot Fest has come into it’s own as a punk mecca. It takes a huge leap of faith for the venues and promoters to put that many people in enclosed spaces and have punk be the soundtrack. The energy from the crowd just vibrates off the walls with each band and everyone leaves with a little sweat on their sleeve. This is surely an event you’ll want to check out at least once in your life.