I enjoyed last year's Riot Fest but the idea of it being headlined by bands marred by the controversy of replacement singers left kind of a bitter taste in my mouth. For 2006, the streamlined, one-day version of Riot Fest would have none of these problems. Instead of falling back on last year's blueprint, the promoter engineered reunions of three of Chicago's most beloved punk rock institutions: Bollweevils, Blue Meanies, and Naked Raygun. They assembled perhaps the most solid one-day lineup I've ever come across and managed to make everything work. Somehow the mix of kids and old guys, reunions and new bands, ska and hardcore and much more didn't turn into a trainwreck. It took me a few days to sit down and write this (it's now Thursday the 9th) because I needed to collect my thoughts about one of the longest, and most fun, shows of my life.
As I walked in the doors of the Congress Theater around 1:40 P.M., Fear City was finishing up their last song. What I saw for 45 seconds was a bunch of burly, bald-headed men singing a mid-tempo song about skinheads. I'm willing to bet the rest of their set had followed suit.
Next up were the Gravetones. These guys played a decently entertaining style of horror punk with a singer that was a complete doppelgänger for Ministry's Al Jourgensen right down to the cowboy hat and a freakishly muscular bass player that looked like he walked straight out of the WWF. They had some stage presence but due to the muddy sound of the Congress I couldn't really get a grasp on their material.
I Attack were the reason I came to the show so early. When you're used to seeing a band in basements and other tiny places, the idea of them playing in an old theater that holds 3,000 people seemed too funny to pass up. I don't think it's possible for these guys to play a bad set; even with the daunting task of playing to a half-empty room (it was still very early in the day) they pulled it off. Rob, the vocalist, commented how he had never had the privilege of using a cordless microphone before, and he took advantage of it, spending the majority of their set dancing with the kids in the day's largest circle pit. For those that don't know, I Attack excel in recreating the best of early `80s hardcore with none of the baggage of extraneous breakdowns or tough guy clichés. They were definitely an early highlight of the day.
After I Attack's set I retreated to the balcony seats to relax for a little while. The next band up was Secret Agent Bill, who I had an extremely hard time getting a hold on. They seemingly tried to cram in the signature sound of every band on the bill into a 20-minute set. The short list of genres covers Irish folk, "metallic" hardcore, late `90s-style pop-punk, ska, and even a dip into funk. I was more confused than anything else while they played.
After Secret Agent Bill came the sweet ska sounds of Deals Gone Bad. I was vaguely familiar with these guys and had never seen them before but was able to get a handle on them very quickly. It was good toe-tapping music in the same vein of Westbound Train.
One of the improvements in this year's version of Riot Fest was the Ins and Outs allowed up to a certain time. As Flatfoot 56 began to tune up their mandolins and bagpipes and the skins began to wave giant Chicago flags, I exited to grab a quick meal down the street while they played. I don't have anything against their version of Irish punk, though I'm not a fan, but the rumblings in my stomach were more important. Apparently everything was going smoothly until they dedicated a song to Jesus and a chorus of boos exploded, but this is all second-hand knowledge.
As I walked back into the doors the Effigies were now on stage. I love these guys but it was easily the worst of the five times I've seen them since their reunion two years ago. Their short 30-minute set concentrated too much on the band's new songs, leaving out old highlights like "Patternless" or "We'll Be Here Tomorrow." It's not that these are bad songs but they worked better when they're sprinkled in with the classics instead of domineering over them. Even vocalist John Kezdy seemed to notice that they weren't doing too well and commented on it. The highlights of the set, as usual, included "Body Bag," "Haunted Town," and an extended version of "Security." The closing rendition of "Security" seemed to be the only time the Effigies and the crowd really hit a groove.
In the complete opposite direction of the Effigies, the 30-minute set offered by the Toasters worked in their favor. The Toasters chose to concentrate on their more upbeat material and minimized stage banter in order to maximize their effect. The size of the band has shrunken since I last saw them a few years ago but this didn't bring down the level of performance. Bucket and crew tore through classics like "Weekend in L.A.," "Two Tone Army "and" Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down" as well as one new tune that no doubt carries on the tradition of one of the longest-running ska acts in America.
After the Toasters finished up the Business took the stage. I've never really gotten into these geezers that much but the crowd seemed to be eating them up. Some of the song titles I was able to glean were "Loud Proud and Punk," "Harry Mary," and "Guinness Boys." Even though all the members looked to be well into their 50s their stage presence was decent and I didn't want to leave at any point.
Amongst the hype of the reunions, I had almost forgotten that California's Youth Brigade were on the bill. This appears to be a role that falls upon the Stern brothers pretty often; though their fans are certainly appreciative, Youth Brigade seems to be perennially underrated in punk rock history. After opening sloppily with "Where Are All the Old Man Bars" due to monitor failures, the Brigade proceeded to completely tear shit up for the next 40 minutes. The paranoid look in Shawn Stern's eyes while singing has not dimmed in more than 25 years and neither has the fire in his voice. Evenly mixing songs from the band's early `80s career and their comeback in the early `90s, Youth Brigade played the surprise set of the day. Songs such as "Violence" and "Sink with California" are just as relevant today as they were in 1982. I myself am guilty of forgetting about them at times but that certainly won't be the case any more. Just as with the last time they came through Chicago in 2003, I've been on a Youth Brigade kick since the show.
Youth Brigade set list (none of the set lists will be in any particular order):
- Where Are All the Old Man Bars (opener)
- Alright Then
- It's Not Like That Anymore
- Fight to Unite
- You Don't Understand
- You Don't Know Shit
- Sink with California (closer)
- What Are You Fighting For?
- Did You Want to Die?
- Spies for Life
- I Hate My Life
After the Youth Brigade set came Mustard Plug. As with the Business, I've never been too huge of a fan of these guys but they did manage to entertain me. I spent the majority of their set navigating the ever-more-crowded hallways of the Congress Theater in search of merchandise. $15 and a purple Naked Raygun shirt later, I wandered back into the main room to watch the last three songs of their set. Once again the crowd seemed to be eating them up so by that indicator it was a good set.
I'm going to be completely honest here: 7 Seconds are my all-time favorite band behind the untouchable Ramones. Hell, I even like the Praise
EP and Out the Shizzy
. This band can do no wrong in my eyes; when you hear Troy Mowat shout "1-2-1-2-3-4!" behind the drums and have the band launch into "Still Believe" to open the set, it pretty much puts me in my own personal heaven. 7 Seconds played the set of the day. Bobby and Steve Youth were all over the place and despite there being a barrier ten feet from the stage, Kevin was able to get the appropriate amount of mic sing-alongs necessary for a real 7 Seconds show. Though he's not the young firebrand with charcoal under his eyes anymore Kevin Seconds is still one of the most commanding frontmen in punk rock. The music and the message (get it?) still mean the world to him and you can certainly tell. The first surprise guest of the night came in the form of Toby Morse of H2O. He joined the band to sing "Not Just Boy's Fun" midway through the set. Never-ending streams of kids crowd-surfed or simply weaseled their way to the front and pumped their fists, all in an effort to get their time to sing. Even the people with photo passes were singing into the microphone between taking pictures. I absolutely cannot say enough about this band. They're simply awe-inspiring and have honestly changed my life for the better.
7 Seconds set list
- One Big Guessing Game
- Here We Go Again Kids
- Still Believe (opener)
- Your Parents' Hardcore
- Here's Your Warning
- Not Just Boy's Fun (with Toby Morse)
- This Is the Angry Pt. 2
- You Lose
- Young 'Til I Die
- Regress No Way
- We're Gonna Fight
- 99 Red Balloons
- Walk Together, Rock Together (closer)
- If the Kids Are United
After the madness of the 7 Seconds set my I had to either buy something to drink or die; there was no other choice. Three dollars down the drain for a bottle of water hurt my wallet but saved my vocal chords. The big reunions were now to take place, the first of which was Bollweevils. I believe the last time they played a show was a one-off in 2003 but you definitely would not be able to tell from watching. I'm a casual fan of these guys so I know the melodies of the songs but not the words, so I'm going to make a concerted effort to listen to more Bollweevils after Sunday night's set. Vocalist Daryl channeled the stage moves of a young HR, dreadlocks flying in the air and diving into the crowd at regular intervals. I can't recall specifically what songs they played (once again, I'm going to fix that) but they drew from both Stick Your Neck Out
as well as other songs I didn't recognize. Really good set.
Now up? The Blue Meanies. Last time I saw them remains the greatest show I have ever seen
. Obviously, Sunday night was not going to compare to the 2004 Winternationals due to the nature of the festival and the venue. In addition, trumpet player Jimmy Flame could not be present due to a family emergency. With that out of the way…holy shit! Very subtly the band waked out on stage and played the opening bass line to "Grandma Shampoo." As tempo increased the mass of bodies crushing forward swelled to almost unbearable levels. An hour of complete insanity followed. The theatrical side of the band was on full display Sunday night; instead of pummeling the crowd with one song after the next, the Meanies, Billy Spunke in particular, took pleasure in making the audience wait between songs. By this point the clock was moving past 10:00 and no one knew how much longer, because of Chicago curfew laws, the show would be able to go on. Everyone hung on the words of Mr. Spunke to see what they would play next. Unexpected highlights of the set included "I, Fitznik" and their rousing cover of the Clash's "White Riot." Spunke spent the duration of the latter doing the "walking on the crowd" thing before the excitement caught up and he fell into his adoring fans. The last ten minutes of the Blue Meanies' set consisted of the most powerful version of "Pave the World" known to man. Midway through the song two fat men in dresses walked out to help with the backing vocals; slowly the real members of the band walked off stage leaving only our cross-dressing friends. The 3,000 strong crowd sang, and more importantly, moaned the ending hook of the song for well over five minutes after the band left the stage, forcing a final curtain call and wave from surprised band. They tied 7 Seconds for the set of the night, and with a lineup like this that's saying something. The air of uncertainty surrounding the status of the Blue Meanies may be a bit cruel, but in my eyes it gives hope that there will always be another show some day.
Blue Meanies set list
- Send Help
- Smash the Magnavox
- I'm a Have Not
- Acceleration 5000
- Grandma Shampoo (opener)
- The Shit Fuck Man
- Mamma Getting High on Chardonnay
- Camaro Man
- Pave the World (closer)
- White Riot
As Naked Raygun set up their gear the buzz of excitement was palpable in the entire building. The uncertainty about the curfew situation (it ended up not mattering in the long run, magically) meant that a lot of people were even more anxious for Naked Raygun to start. Finally as the clock passed 10:30, Eric Spicer, Bill Stephens, Pierre Kezdy, and Jeff Pezzati walked on stage. The opening chords of "Home of the Brave" began and the surge of the crowd turned into a battering ram against the railing. Attempting to raise my arm and pump my fist was futile. But not all was well; 20 seconds in the band stopped because Bill's amp wasn't working properly. Uncertain looks of pure fright came over everybody's face but soon melted away as the band started up again. The level of the guitar was still a little low but at least you could hear it. In all honesty, the first part of Raygun's set was nowhere near what I was expecting. Pezzati's voice was blown out from playing two sets the night before and the weak guitar sound wreaked havoc on my brain. I found myself thinking "shit, is this the best it's going to get? Is this how Naked Raygun is going to end?"
Luckily, the band eventually found a groove and settled in nicely. It wasn't ideal but still, when it's Naked fucking Raygun playing for only the third time in nine years you make the best of what you get. By the time they played "Metatastasis" with its rousing chorus of "hey
" repeated 17 times, my mind was at peace and I began to once again freak out at the fact that I was in fact seeing Naked Raygun. Yes, Pezzati's voice was blown out but when you have 3,000 people singing every word of songs like "Treason" and "Knock Me Down" and drowning out the house sound it's not exactly a big deal. The "whoa"s alone probably shook the foundation of the Congress Theater. Midway through the set surprise guest number two came out. Pezzati went on a rant about some bands that influenced them, particularly one band from Northern Ireland called Stiff Little Fingers. If someone were to tell me that Jake Burns was going to walk out on stage next to sing "Suspect Device," I wouldn't believe you. To the absolute joy of everyone in the building that is exactly what happened
. That's right everyone, Jake Burns and Naked Raygun were on the same stage, singing one of the all-time punk rock classics. WOW!
The cries of "Free Shit" came at random intervals throughout the night and Raygun were more than happy to oblige. The free shit for the night was buttons, keychains and hand clappers
. Being that the men of Naked Raygun aren't young anymore the task of throwing this stuff went to all of their children. The rest of the set is pretty much a blur. The effects of being on my feet for nine hours and the euphoria of seeing so many of my favorite bands began to get to me. Highlights were "I Lie," which I guess the band stopped playing in 1987, and the ever-popular "Rat Patrol." Raygun needed two encores in order to triumphantly end the show with "New Dreams." I don't think I've ever seen so many grown men with idiotic ear-to-ear grins in my life as I did on the walk out the door.
Naked Raygun set list
- Home of the Brave (opener)
- Dog at Large
- Knock Me Down
- The Peacemaker
- The Strip
- New Dreams (second encore, closer)
- I Lie (first encore)
- Walk in Cold
- Suspect Device
- Vanilla Blue
- Rat Patrol (first encore)
- Surf Combat
- Roller Queen
- I Don't Know
- Hips Swingin'
Riot Fest 2006? Yeah, I had a pretty good time.