Sean P. McKeough, organizer of the popular annual festival Riot Fest, died on Tuesday, according to a statement posted on the festival’s website. He was 42. In a statement, McKeough’s rep said the cause of death was “a stroke, which has been attributed to the after effects of radiation during his successful treatment of throat cancer in 2013.”
McKeough was an entrepreneur who, in addition to working on Riot Fest owned the city’s Cobra Lounge venue and a brewery, All Rise Brewing. He also worked as a film producer, having worked on the documentary We Live in Public, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner about a dot-com entrepreneur, and Echotone, a documentary about the Austin, Texas music scene.
He first connected with Riot Fest’s Mike Petryshyn in 2006, asking to host a performance by the recently reunited Naked Raygun at Cobra Lounge. At the time, the fest was held indoors at venues around Chicago and, for Petryshyn, it was an uphill battle. “I called venues just to rent a room and wouldn’t get a phone call back,” Petryshyn tells Rolling Stone. “But Sean saw something cool about it.” They became fast friends and made a handshake deal to work together on Riot Fest.
McKeough quickly became integral in building the logistical infrastructure of Riot Fest. “He really loved building out the site, working with the crews, working with community groups, doing permits and all the stuff nobody thinks about when they go to a festival,” Petryshyn says. “He just had a knack. If he was doing something that had a standard way of doing it, he could say, ‘Nah, there’s an easier way and better way to do it.’ And he’d just do it. Nine out of 10 times it would work.”
It was McKeough’s idea to break Riot Fest out into the open and become an outdoor event. “I was against it,” Petryshyn says. “I was scared to death of it. It was OK to me to be in clubs, but he saw something bigger for it and, looking back, he was 100 percent right about it. It was much more impactful.” The Chicago Fest has since become known as Riot Fest & Carnival, and the organizers have since held Riot Fests in Toronto and Denver, often hosting unique reunions by punk bands and artists performing classic albums.
“I would always throw bands in and do things that I wouldn’t tell him about until we announced them to surprise him,” Petryshyn says. “Even last year, Julian Marley doing Exodus, that was for Sean. Fu Manchu playing Cobra Lounge during Riot, that was for Sean. We did things like that for one another. He took me to Jamaica for the first time, and I’ve been back five times since.
“I’ve seen partners blow up, and Sean and I never had that,” he continues. “He was an incredible guy and he lived 40 lives in one. He accomplished so much. He had this ability to bring people together and I’ve never met anybody like that. He’s done more in 42 years than anybody I know. It’s too young. He’s going to be so missed.”
In a statement released earlier in the day, Petryshyn said, “Sean was Riot Fest’s pillar of strength. I loved him. I admired him. And to lose him is a lonely and barren feeling. I miss my friend immensely. Without Sean and his belief that a little fest could make a positive impact on people’s lives by doing things differently and left of the dial, Riot Fest would have never become such an intimate family.
“His Herculean-sized heart and volition made that all possible,” Petryshyn added. “Anyone lucky enough to have witnessed his kindness and compassion knows Sean’s muddy work boots will never be filled. It’s impossible … he cared when no one else did. He worked when no one else did. And, he believed in Riot Fest when no one else did.”
Founded in 2005, Riot Fest began as a multi-venue event in Chicago focusing on punk, metal and their numerous offshoots. The festival attracted an eclectic array of acts, including Weezer, Danzig, Bad Brains, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Social Distortion. In 2012, Riot Fest moved to a single space in Chicago, Humboldt Park, and expanded to other cities, including Brooklyn, Toronto and Dallas. Over the past few years, Riot Fest settled in Chicago and Denver and has become known for both its diverse lineups and ability to reunite acts like the Replacements and the Misfits with Glenn Danzig.