The National Western Complex is the home of one of the country’s largest and longest-running rodeo and livestock shows. But last year it also began taking on double duty as the new locale for the Denver iteration of Riot Fest, where, instead of cattle, horses and other farm animals, attendees got Iggy Pop, Ice Cube and scores more rock, pop, hip-hop and electronic artists spread across three days of music. This year, the festival (officially known as Riot Fest and Rodeo) returned for its second run at the Western Complex, offering up a Labor Day weekend lineup that interspersed high-profile rap artists (Nas) and reggae musicians (Julian Marley playing his father’s classic Exodus album) amongst a horde of guitar-heavy rock acts spanning from the late Seventies to the present day.
Riot Fest is known for its big reunion gets (see: Replacements, 2013), and among this year’s crop of reactivated bands, the first to take the stage was New Jersey screamo kings Thursday. Though it’s been just five years since they’ve called it quits (and, technically, this was the band’s third reunion gig, following two shows at Atlanta’s Wrecking Ball ATL fest last month), judging by the hero’s welcome they received as they appeared on the Rock Stage early Friday evening, one might have thought they’d been gone for decades. Opening with the explosive “For the Workforce, Drowning,” the 9/11 memorializing leadoff track from 2003’s War All the Time, and closing with their breakthrough “Understanding in a Car Crash (“If you’re not a fan, this is the one song you’ve heard,” quipped frontman Geoff Rickly) the band powered through a set that showcased their at one time scene-defining mix of serrated, post-hardcore riffing and slinky, U2-like atmospherics. And much like in their early aughts heyday, it took Rickly only minutes before he was off the stage and singing from deep within the clutches of the audience. But if the passing of years didn’t appear to have taken any toll on the band’s stamina, the locale apparently did. “You guys have the altitude out here, right?” a slightly winded Rickly commented at one point. “It’s fucking crazy!”
The first night’s festivities closed out with another Riot Fest calling card – the full-album performance. This time, it was Jane’s Addiction doing their classic 1990 effort, Ritual de lo Habitual. Perry Farrell, decked out in a tailored suit, played the dapper master of ceremonies (every so often allowing himself to be upstaged by a pair of skimpily dressed dancing girls), while Dave Navarro peeled off shreddy arena-rock solos over Ritual hits like “Stop!” and “Been Caught Stealing” – the latter also visually accented by the sight of a crowd-surfing blowup doll. The highlight of the set was a mammoth take on that album’s already epic centerpiece “Three Days” that featured some show-stopping Navarro guitar pyrotechnics; perhaps not unrelatedly, just prior to their performance the guitarist had been seen warming up backstage by ripping through a medley of Van Halen tunes.
Sleater-Kinney have been touring behind their reunion album No Cities to Love for the past 18 months, but during their Saturday night set on the Roots Stage they opted to lean heavily on their pre-hiatus effort, 2005’s The Woods. “I hope you guys can handle something moderately mellow,” Carrie Brownstein, sporting a vintage New Kids on the Block tour shirt, said by way of introducing that album’s “Modern Girl.” The crowd was up to the challenge, singing along on the song’s sarcastic but infinitely sing-along-able refrain, “My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day.” But that was the only (moderately) mellow moment in an otherwise raging set. Led by Brownstein and co-singer and -guitarist Corin Tucker’s slashing six-string interplay (not to mention the latter’s earth shattering howl), the band tore through staples like “Dig Me Out” and “Words and Guitar” alongside newer Cities fare like “Bury Our Friends” and “A New Wave,” before returning to The Woods for the thunderous, nostalgia-mocking set closer, “Entertain.”
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Later on that evening, Tyler, the Creator burst out onto the Rock Stage with a few bars of “What the Fuck Right Now” and then just … stopped. “I flew all the way from beautiful Los Angeles for y’all to just fucking stand there?” he said, a half-grin plastered across his face. “I’m gonna start the song over and come out here and get fuckin’ stupid. Then y’all gonna get fucking stupid.” So he did. And the crowd did. The remainder of the hour-long set saw the rapper make his audience work as hard as he did – commanding them to shout out lyrics, kneel down in the dirt, jump up on cue, or even just take two steps back (“all the cool festivals do it”). When Tyler wasn’t barking orders or ripping into tracks like “Deathcamp” and Odd Future’s “Sam (Is Dead)” he was gleefully baiting his Denver fans. “How many of you guys are drunk bros right now?” he asked with a laugh. Before closing out with a raucous romp through “Tamale,” he thanked the crowd for going the extra mile: “That was cool, dicks.”
When it came down to it, for a whole lot of people Riot Fest was about one act only – the Misfits. The reunion of co-founding members Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only was 33 years (and several lawsuits) in the making, and it didn’t disappoint. In front of an insanely huge audience that easily dwarfed that of any other band over the weekend, the horror-punk legends appeared on a stage outfitted with coffins, oversized Halloween pumpkins (Danzig: “You like our fucking pumpkins? Yeah, they’re pretty fucking cool”) and lots and lots of “Fiend” skulls. They then ran through a ferociously played – and surprisingly tight – 25-song set that drew heavily from their 1982 full-length debut, Walk Among Us, as well as hit on defining cuts like “Last Caress,” “Bullet” and “We Are 138.” For a band barely known during its original run, it was stunning to see each song greeted by huge roars, with practically the entire audience shouting along to lines like “I want your skull” as if it were “I want to hold your hand.” “I hope you had a fucking historic evening tonight,” Danzig said late in the Misfits’ set. No doubt, we all did.