When the Riot Fest Chicago daily schedule was finally released, my buddy and I took a look at the lineups and immediately decided that Day 2 was the day that we absolutely couldn’t miss. Sure, every day had a killer lineup that was easily worth the $50 allotted to it from our three-day passes. But a few of the good bands on Day 1 played at the same time, and Day 3 was a little heavy on pop and indie. Day 2, though, had X, Dinosaur Jr., Flag, Violent Femmes, Blink… so many bands that I at some point never thought I’d get a chance to see, all playing on the same lovely Chicago day. How could it not be the absolute pinnacle of musical awesomeness?
As such, we weren’t as disappointed as we might have been when due to a late start and a number of mix-ups with our tickets—as well as a healthy dose of waiting in various winding, seemingly interconnected lines—we ended up missing some bands we were hoping to see, like Masked Intruder and Andrew W.K. Likewise, we figured it wasn’t the end of the world when Day 3 was pretty cold and rainy, and we ended up taking off early to get out of the rain and get back to Madison a little early. Will I ever forgive myself for missing out on the Replacements? Probably not. At that point, however, I was still so in awe of what I’d seen and heard the previous day that I didn’t really care.
Due to a bit of hangover-induced sluggishness, we got another late start on Saturday. But there was no way in Hell we were missing X. We passed on the train and the bus, forked over the money for a cab instead, and made it to the festival just as X was starting up. They put on a great show. They played just about everything I wanted to hear, and even though the crowd wasn’t as into it as it should have been (it was still early enough that most everybody looked hungover, and it’s hard to get an entire crowd moving at a festival anyway, since a good portion of the audience at any given stage is just killing time between the bands that they’re there to see), the band were able to overcome the lack of energy by making its own.
At the next stage, I was among the people killing time between the bands I was really there to see. Although I like what I’ve heard of the Sidekicks, I’ve never bought any of their albums or checked them out extensively because they’re part of a somewhat oversaturated genre that is not my favorite type of music. However, after hearing their set, I will definitely be purchasing an album of theirs in the near future. They were really creative musically, with a great-yet-humble stage presence and a sense of humor. Vocalist Steve Ciolek was able to find that perfect pop-punk balance by stretching his pitch to its upper limits without sounding like a whiny, nasally little kid. We picked them over the Lillingtons, and I can’t say that I have any regrets there.
We took the Sidekicks’ proclamation that all their riffs were dedicated to J. Mascis as a cue that we should dip out a little early so we could see the full Dinosaur Jr. set. I missed Dino the last time they came to Madison, and since I’d never seen them before, I was pretty pumped to catch one of their shows. It definitely lived up to the hype. The guitar solos were amazing, the drumming was great, and they just looked like they really enjoyed playing their music. Again, while some people were clearly big Dinosaur Jr. fans, it seemed like others were not as enthused, and were there either so they could say that they saw Dinosaur Jr. or because they had nothing better to do. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with watching a band you haven’t heard before, but it may have skewed the feedback the band got from the crowd to some extent. There was one other weird thing: I’d always heard about how loud and noisy Dinosaur Jr.’s sets tend to be, but in this case they actually seemed a bit quieter than most of the other bands. They weren’t quiet, necessarily; they just weren’t as loud as I guess I was expecting. Oh, and I almost forgot: they played a song by Mascis and Barlow’s old hardcore band Deep Wound, and it was incredible.
After stopping for a couple more beers, we ended up back at the Riot stage for the tail end of Pennywise. I’d never seen them before, and I’m not terribly into their music, so I can’t really speak to how the changing vocalists have affected their sound, or how any new material might have sounded. In fact, we really only saw the last couple songs they played, so all I can really comment on is their banter. Says my buddy, “They sure called us motherfuckers an awful lot.”
None of the bands between Pennywise and Flag sounded terribly appealing, so my buddy and I finally got around to checking out the Rise stage, where a band called DeVotchKa were playing. They started off strong with almost a Gogol Bordello or to a lesser extent World/Inferno Friendship Society vibe, but as the novelty of their instrumentation wore off, the songs started to drag on and run together just a bit, which ended up being a perfect excuse to leave early and get good spots for Flag.
Flag were the band at Riot Fest I wasmost excited to see, and giving them a proper review seems almost too daunting to even attempt. Suffice to say that I came very close to tearing up a couple of times during their set (once after “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” and once after “My War,” although it may have had less to do with the specific songs and more to do with the fact that I was actually seeing a band, or at least a version of a band, I had loved for well over a decade and never thought I’d get the chance to see). Keith Morris certainly made a case for himself as the best Black Flag frontman ever to grace the stage. Henry Rollins may have the better rasp, but Keith more than makes up for it in his energy, his scream and even his singing voice. The guitar solos pretty much made everyone in the audience forget about ever having heard the name Greg Ginn, although Keith’s jokes about his old guitarist’s bad qualities and the still-ongoing controversies had everyone laughing at the situation. I’m really glad that I got the chance to see Flag, and although I’m sure I would have enjoyed the slower and nominally more legitimate Black Flag, I doubt they could have put as much energy into their songs as I saw this past weekend.
This review is starting to drag on a bit, so I’ll just say that the couple of songs we caught of Blondie were probably exactly what you’d expect. Deborah Harry dressing as a witch was just about the only notable part of what we saw.
Rancid, on the other hand, blew our expectations completely out of the water. I’ve always liked Rancid, and while I’ve always wanted to see them, I’d also kind of figured that they’re past their prime and that neither the band nor the crowd would have the energy they once did. Boy, was I wrong. Rancid had the crowd moving more than any other band I saw that day. They played selections from pretty much every album, and the crowd was singing along to just about every song. Tim’s vocals were actually more or less intelligible, and Lars’s guitar was always on point. Not to mention, I can finally cross “see Matt do the ‘Maxwell Murder’ bass solo” off my bucket list.
Besides Rancid, Violent Femmes were the other extremely pleasant surprise. When they started off with “Blister in the Sun,” I really didn’t really give it a second thought, since that seems to be their most popular song. It took a couple more songs for me to realize that they were playing their entire first album from front to back. I had no idea that this was happening. Apparently, 2013 marks the thirtieth anniversary of said album. The results were fantastic. Believe it or not, almost the entire crowd was singing along. I had no idea that the band had remained so popular as the days went by (pun fully intended). There really was this amazing collective energy as the crowd and the band fed off each other’s enthusiasm throughout this collective full-album endeavor. I got goosebumps. As a percussionist, I was particularly impressed by their use of three percussionists, one of whom played the drum set standing up. My buddy said that of all the bands he heard that day, this was the one he was most excited to look into further. As great as Flag was, I can’t say that I blame him.
Blink-182 was the main draw for the vast majority of Riot Fest attendees on Saturday, my buddy included. I had seen them once before, so I more or less knew what we were in for. What I did not expect, however, was for Blink to go all the way up to the encore without playing a single song pre-Enema of the State. The lack of older material was extremely disappointing. The audience was clearly pretty exhausted after a long, hot day of quote-unquote rioting, and after the first couple songs, it really started to show (the band even mentioned how completely wiped out we all looked). I really think that a couple of fast, older songs sprinkled in throughout would have upped the energy level quite a bit.
Besides the lack of older material, Blink put on a serviceable show. Naturally, they had to prove that their sense of humor was still intact, making jokes about how Travis would be giving out French kisses on the Ferris Wheel after the show—to any orifice we chose. The sheer density of the crowd led to quite a ruckus early on—newspapers the next day revealed that eight people had to be carried out on stretchers from the Blink show—and Mark rightly commented that he shouldn’t have to tell us not to trample people. The encore was easy to predict, and I did just that—"Dammit," Carousel," and one song post-Enema ("Family Reunion"). They came out to do a second encore, but either the sound got cut off, or they decided that given the crowd’s energy level (or lack thereof), a second encore wasn’t really warranted.
All in all, given the preponderance of amazing bands and the relatively cheap ticket prices, Riot Fest Day 2 was probably the single best concert I have ever attended. And for the rest of you junk-food-crazed Americans out there, the food was actually much better (and cheaper) than I expected. If you were there, I hope you had as much fun as I did. If not, I hope you’re able to attend sometime in the future. It really was a great time.