Just two weeks after hosting its annual rodeo-themed event in Denver, Riot Fest came home to Chicago this last weekend and threw a rock & roll carnival of epic proportions. Returning for the second year to Douglas Park, concertgoers were treated to three continuous days of blissful weather and incredible music. While many genres from reggae (Julian Marley), ska (The Specials) and rap (Nas, GZA and Joey Bada$$) were well-represented, Riot Fest sets itself apart from the majority of similar events across the country by styling itself as an unapologetic bastion for loud, unrelenting, guitar-based rock.
A prime example of this cranked-to-11 ethos came on the first day courtesy a dynamic 90-minute set from the psych-rock jam band Ween. The pairing of Gene and Dean Ween was only re-established earlier this year after a nearly four-year long hiatus. The band hit the stage just as the sun began to set revealing a bright, full, yellow moon low in the sky. It was the perfect backdrop to take in vibe-inducing songs like “Object,” “Baby Bitch” and the expansive set-ender “Buenas Tardes Amigo.” The Deaner is one of the most underrated lead guitarists in rock and it was an absolute pleasure to hear him fill out many of the extended musical interludes with his unique brand of wah-wah painted wizardry.
The energy was kicked up several notches the following day. Early in the afternoon, Brooklyn rockers the Hold Steady took over the Rock Stage for just their second show in 18 months and regaled the audience with a full live performance of their acclaimed 2006 album Boys and Girls in America. The enthusiasm in the crowd for the material was somehow overwhelmed by the visible joy of lead singer Craig Finn who was all smiles as he ripped into classic cuts like “Chips Ahoy!” and “Stuck Between Stations.” The addition of the bonus track “Girls Like Status” into the set was an exceedingly nice touch.
Based solely on an anecdotal tally of apparel, outside of the Misfits, no one had as many people rocking their merch as the Descendents. The enthusiasm for the L.A. punk legends was reflected later in the day when they opened their show in front of an absolutely monster-sized audience. The group hardly wasted a moment and blazed through their immense catalog of two-minute rangers. When his bandmates weren’t moving quick enough for his liking, lead singer Milo Aukerman would tersely demand “Next Song!” in the spare seconds between numbers. It was actually amazing how well material from their most recent album Hypercaffium Spazzinate, their first in 12 years, fit in alongside classics like “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” and “Everything Sux.”
The question on most folk’s minds as night fell and the masses started assembling in front of the Riot Stage was: “Will Morrissey show up?” Signs posted at the concession stand proclaiming that no meat would be cooked or sold during the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. were a promising indicator, and when he finally made his grand entrance – albeit 30 minutes late – the sense of joy and relief electrified the air. Though he only played one Smiths song – “What She Said” – the Manchester icon kept the audience rapt with a myriad of tracks from his immense solo discography, songs like “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” Before introducing the final number, in classic Morrissey fashion, the singer pleaded that audience, “Please remember, would you remember, I love you!” Always Moz! Always.
For the penultimate set on Sunday, Pacific Northwest rockers Sleater-Kinney pulled out all the stops bringing massive riffs and a fierce punk attitude. As they’ve shown time and time again since returning from a 10-year long hiatus last year, time has done nothing to dull the razor sharp dual guitar/dual vocal attack of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss is as powerful as ever on the drums. It’s a credit to the band and its viability that songs from their most recent record, 2015’s No Cities To Love, like “Price Tag” and “A New Wave” received just as much of a positive response as old favorites like “All Hands on the Bad One” and “Dig Me Out.”
The big finale, just as they had been in Denver, was of course the New Jersey-bred horror punk legends the Misfits. It was only their second show in over 30 years and the gravity of the moment was lost on absolutely no one, band included. “I hope you realize what you’re seeing here tonight,” singer Glenn Danzig told the audience. “Cause most people never thought this would ever happen.” With no other act to compete against them, The Misfits attracted by far the largest crowd of the festival. They rewarded the faithful by airing out some of their best material, including “We Are 138,” “Where Eagles Dare,” “Skulls” and “Last Caress.” Incredibly, Danzig and bassist Jerry Only seemed to be having just as much fun onstage as those down below. Guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein remained his ever-stoic, plodding self. “Because this is a Misfits set you can sing, or scream or do whatever the fuck you want,” Danzig said. “That’s why we’re fucking here!” Here’s hoping that they kick around for at least a little while longer.