In theory, Red Bull's Riot Fest East Sept. 24 at Philadelphia's Festival Pier should have been a perfect punk festival. Acts spanning punk's origins (X, Descendents) up through the latest up-and-comers (the Menzingers, Larry and His Flask) shared two stages, with the set times designed to allow concertgoers to catch at least part of every performance. In application, Riot Fest East was more like Warped Tour for grown-ups, replete with dubious sound, overpriced food, and corporate sponsors galore. That's not to say the day was a bore–there were some mighty-fine sets performed throughout–but it wasn't exactly a perfect day either.
While the pier offered two stages to cut down on set-up times, they were not equal. West Stage, which really was the main stage of the day, was outdoors. The sound quality got worse the closer you got to the stage, as the sound guy really wanted to make sure people could hear the low end in the back. East Stage was located inside a hot 'n' sweaty tent, which cut down on crowd capacity, meaning every band from the Menzingers (3:40 p.m.) through X (9:10 p.m.) kind of got the shaft. If you weren't within the first, say, 20 rows of bodies to catch Hot Water Music or Samiam, you did not see a good show, as the speakers and acoustics were crap. Getting closer meant getting a whole lot more guitar noise in the ears, but at least the energy came through.
But the lineup was still great. No offense to festival openers the Heels, but my day didn't start until the Holy Mess took to the East Stage at 2:40 p.m. The group ripped through a funny, sloppy set of feel-good punk tunes in the vein of Lawrence Arms and Lifetime. All the hits from their recently released EP compilation cropped up ("I Think Corduroy is Making a Comeback", "A Soulful Punk Tune About a Working Class Dreamer"), as well as a couple of new tunes from a forthcoming full-length. The new material has a heavier sound to it, especially the unreleased track the band closed with. It's a great direction for the band to pursue all the same. While the Holy Mess sometimes got a little too sloppy, even by punk standards, they still certainly entertained. I know the kid with the shiny new tHM ice cream tattoo was stoked.
The Holy Mess essentially kicked off a string of sweet, coveted sets. The Menzingers generally stuck to their most excellent sophomore effort, Chamberlain Waits, although older tunes like "Sunday Morning" and "A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology" made appearances. Right now, the Menzingers are the best band in Philadelphia and, next to maybe Banner Pilot and the Flatliners, the most promising punk band in the freaking world. Their cover of the Clash's "Straight to Hell" used to just sound cool; now it sounds prophetic. The crowd sang along with every word, and watching the members dance and writhe on stage left me ecstatic.
Meanwhile, on the West Stage, some reunited bands from yesteryear were flubbing it up. Weston, Excitebike and Naked Raygun played limp sets while Samiam, 7 Seconds and Suicide Machines wrecked crowds in that stupid tiny tent. Simply put, the organizers should have swapped out this entire chunk of the show; they would have gotten better results. Nobody puts Hot Water Music in a corner.
The first truly revelatory band to take to the West Stage was the reunited Plow United, and I didn't even know anything about them before they played. PU dropped three apparently crucial underground records in the '90s, avidly fought major label support systems and then broke up in 1998. Thirteen years later, the group reunited specifically to play Riot Fest East, which apparently got the ball rolling on their complete discography getting remastered and a new album being written. Bands like Excitebike belong to their era and should be left there; Plow United chose a pretty darn good time to come back and teach the masses about punk rock. Their tunes were short and sweet, crammed with all sorts of spastic movements. The banter was witty (and even, in a truly controversial move, critical of venue sponsors Miller Light!). They also brought out Exene Cervenka from X to play a country song, because why not. Plow United clearly appreciated the big turnout, and I immediately picked up Sleepwalk: A Retrospective soon after.
The lone downside to catching Plow United's set, encore and all, was that I pretty much forfeited any chance of seeing Hot Water Music from a reasonable distance. I'm sorry, America. But they played "Trusty Chords" and "Wayfarer". It sounded OK from 100 yards away.
After HWM ended, I skipped out on Dead Milkmen (never meant that much to me) and camped out for X. The oldest band on the bill, X pretty much wrecked all comers. The crowd loved it too, going off completely while X played through its debut record Los Angeles in its entirety. While guitarist Billy Zoom had some technical issues (cut out during "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene", then way too loud for the rest of the show), X as a whole was still incredibly tight and aggressive.
I know women ("female-identified" if you please) in pits have sparked a lot of debate in the punk community (they should know what they're getting into! But they shouldn't have to fear for their lives at a communal event! But my version of punk rock is superior to your version of punk rock!), and I'm not going to pretend that I can encapsulate the entire conversation in this article, but I will say this: The chicks who came out to see X are really fucking tough, and I have the bruises to prove it. One girl punched me in the head just because she liked "Nausea" that much. Even though I was wearing glasses!
This instance of gender equality suited X's co-ed lineup. A good crowd bore witness to good music. This is where the night should have ended.
But wait, the Descendents were headlining. After getting my heart and my ass handed to me by X's bleak urban character studies and menacing music, Descendents came off a little tame. Blame it on the fart jokes. Or when frontman Milo Aukerman's voice started to give out. Maybe even blame his kids for coming out to sing on an extended version of "All-O-Gistics". But the 'dents' were too dull. And I think the crowd agreed to an extent. Plow United came out for an encore because the fans demanded it; few people cheered for Descendents to play one until they were already back on stage. Still, I got to hear "Suburban Home" and "I'm the One" live.
Riot Fest East lacked intimacy. It also lacked a decent sound system. But it brought together a ton of bands from punk rock's history. Some, like Naked Raygun, need to break up again. But then you get the Holy Mess, Menzingers, Plow United and X. Now there's a solid bill. Just spare me the $7 pizza.