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Riot Fest – Average Guy Review

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In the Midwest, the beginning of September can remind one of a few different things – the end of summer, the coming of autumn, winter right around the corner, and school back in full swing. For alternative music fans, it means Riot Fest is near, and nothing says ‘keep summer going’ than a giant public park in Chicago filled with tattoos, loud music, and beer at every avenue.

I had a chance to attend Riot Fest all weekend, this year from the 13th to the 15th, and although my feet are still screaming at me, I like to think they’re saying, ‘let’s go back next year.’

Riot Fest is spread across five stages and 173 acres, and If you’ve gone to a music festival of this size and scale, you’d know it’s virtually impossible to see every band you want in full. There was a lot of time spent watching the first half of sets only to rush to the opposite side of the park to see the second half of other sets. I didn’t see every song from every band I was watching, but I saw most songs of every artist I was looking to see.

DAY ONE

My friend group and I welcomed Friday with open arms after a long workweek, and the first set we watched was Mat Kerekes, at 3pm on the Rebel stage. Mat’s acoustic work is a stark departure from his primary project, alt-emo act Citizen, but his raw and emotional vocals and lyrics manage to work perfectly with both acts. Highlights included album singles ‘My Lucky #3’ and ‘Ruby,’ the 2012 deep cut ‘2am,’ and even a proposal (she said yes) just before love ballad ‘An Ode.’ Overall, the performance set a great vibe and primed us nicely for the rest of the day.

Senses Fail. Photo by Katie Kuropas

The second Mat Kerekes finished, we hurried over to catch the tail end of Senses Fail, who spent day 1 of their Friday-Saturday residence playing their 2004 breakout album Let It Enfold You in full. From what I could tell, the band performed excellently despite vocalist Buddy Nielsen being the only remaining original member, but the poor mixing of the Radicals stage slightly detracted from what would otherwise have been, in terms of audio, a dynamic experience. Nonetheless, the songs sounded as fresh as they did in 2004 when I first heard them.

While walking seemingly the entire acreage of the park to get to the food vendors, I managed to catch The Get Up Kids performing their classic ‘I’m a Loner Dottie, A Rebel,’ which was an unexpected treat. Personal schedules didn’t allow for us to watch the full set, so I’m happy to have been able to watch a favorite in the short time we had.

Hot Mulligan. Photo by Madison Stern.

I’ll admit the possibility of having a slight bias in favor of Hot Mulligan – they share a drummer and a guitarist half the time with my band – but I’m not one to let band-family nepotism get in the way of watching a performance with a level and clear head. Regardless, the young band from Michigan sounded as tight as ever, and they looked just as excited for their first Riot Fest appearance as the sound of the live set implied. To me, the brightest spots of the set were ‘Dary,’ ‘The Soundtrack To Missing a Slam Dunk,’ and ‘How Do You Know It’s Not Armadillo Shells,’ – these tracks showcase the energy and enthusiasm the band brings to its live shows, and also the way they connect with the crowd.

Dashboard Confessional. Photo by David Kindler.

It pains me to say this, but Dashboard Confessional at the ill-fated Riot stage was one of the lowest points of the day, technically speaking. For reasons unknown, the sound of the Riot stage was suffering all day on Friday. It seemed like the dynamics were blowing with the wind somehow, because one minute you could hear Chris Carrabba’s vocals clear as day, and the next minute they seemed to disappear.

Fortunately, most Dashboard sets are about 80% crowd singalong and 20% actually needing to hear Carrabba’s vocals, so all of the die-hards in the audience of around 5000 (myself included) did their best to roll with it and lean on each others’ community and perfect vocal imperfections to enjoy the set anyway. Most of the set consisted of a full-album play of the 2001 breakout album, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, which I and most others in the crowd hold very close to our chests, but Carrabba peppered in some more varied classics like ‘Stolen,’ ‘Don’t Wait,’ and ‘Hands Down.’

Blink-182. Photo by Ashley Osborn.

For many people at the festival, the seminal act and the cherry on top was Blink-182, the final act at the Riot stage. Although it was initially strange to hear the band play Enema of the State in its entirety without founding member and songwriter Tom DeLonge, I think Matt Skiba did a fine job and musically, they performed quite well. The aforementioned sound issues plagued the band through the whole set, and it was difficult not to be distracted and discouraged during some songs, especially when the band is a mere 3-piece.

A band like that relies on good sound to project guitar parts that would otherwise sound too thin for a stage of that scale. Still, Enema of the State was the first album I bought with my own money, at the tender age of ten years old, and I’d be damned if I didn’t force myself to sing along and enjoy simply being able to see the band perform songs that they’ve likely grown out of, at least lyrically. Enema shaped me as a musician and as a listener, so regardless of the doomed mixing, I enjoyed mostly every second.

Friday was a blast, I was exhausted, I spent too much money on too little food, and I slept in a recliner at my brother’s apartment. I regret nothing.

DAY TWO

One of the many unsung blessings of being a young, unencumbered adult is being able to sleep in on weekends – and on festival weekends, I do my best to sleep hard. Day 2 of Riot Fest, Saturday the 14th, was no exception. My festival crew wasn’t planning to meet me until 3, and the first band we wanted to see wasn’t until 4:45, so I had the pleasure of leisurely leaving my brother’s Wicker Park apartment and starting the afternoon (morning, on my schedule) with Stan’s Donuts, a treat I don’t take advantage of nearly as often as I should. By the time 3 rolled around, my friends and I checked into our hotel room, grabbed a quick bite at Kuma’s, and hailed an Uber back to Douglas Park. Although the day started the latest of the three, Saturday proved to be the longest and most exhausting, but in the best of ways. 

Turnover. Photo by Chris Casella.

The afternoon’s weather proved hazy, and I didn’t mind – it was matched by an equally hazy soundtrack. Turnover have exploded in popularity with indie, emo, and even shoegaze crowds since the release of 2015’s Peripheral Vision. Their reverb-laden dream pop numbers were a welcome ease into what would be a long day, ranging from slow and steady to upbeat and awash in groovy, intricate guitar and vocal melodies. The Richmond, VA-based act played a few from each album since transforming their sound with Peripheral Vision, and highlights included ‘Cutting My Fingers Off,’ ‘Sunshine Type,’ ‘New Scream,’ and the brand new track ‘Much After Feeling.’

Overall the sound was tight, the crowd was as relaxed as the band seemed to be, and the overall mood of the set helped us ease into the day with a positive and level mind. 

The Story So Far. Photo by Casey Lee.

On the other end of the alternative spectrum, sonically speaking, was The Story So Far. Whereas Turnover shines in their softest and most nuanced melodic moments, TSSF is at their peak when they’re showcasing distorted, bouncy, and dynamic guitar and rhythm sections, worthy of finger-pointing singalongs until your voice dries out. That’s exactly what happened to me – I made the mistake of trying to match vocalist Parker Cannon’s high register of his often throat-driven vocals, and even though I’m a vocalist myself, I just couldn’t maintain enough stamina to sing along at full strength through all fifteen songs. No complaints here though. The band sounded as tight and performed as exuberantly as ever during the showcase of all four albums, but especially when exhibiting songs from their latest full-length, Proper Dose. A lot of that exuberance emanated from Cannon – between album cycles, the vocalist had taken a significant amount of time to exorcise personal demons and work on himself, and it shows. The vocalist seems happier than ever – less like the angst-ridden brute of their earlier work, and more like a man who’s come out the other side of a dark time grateful for what the band is done and what’s ahead. 

When eating food at Riot Fest, my humble recommendation based on my own experience is to grab something BEFORE dinner time on the busiest day of the festival. I ended up consuming crab rangoon, which tasted about as suspect as it sounds, and a couple of corn dogs. I am fully aware of what to expect in terms of nutritional value in festival environments, but I chose crab rangoon and corn dogs because the five choices I had made beforehand were all sold out. Not my proudest culinary choice, but it had to do. 

Manchester Orchestra. Photo by Zach Spangler.

Manchester Orchestra is a group known for their dynamic, sonically enormous live sets, and this held true today, even in the difficult acoustic setting of an outdoor festival like Riot Fest. Although their set was shorter than what I was used to seeing – the last two times I saw MO were both headlining sets – they touched on all of the crowd pleasers, including ‘Shake It Out,’ ‘The Gold,’ and ‘Simple Math.’ Frontman Andy Hull has one of those unique voices that stands out, tonally, from those of his peers, and he also seems to have an infinite amount of projection at his disposal – vocals can very easily get lost in an outdoor setting, but Hull’s were as clear and piercing as ever. It’s never a bad time watching this band live, and after fifteen years, they seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as a young band on their first big tour. 

Andrew WK. Photo by Katie Kuropas.

It’s Saturday night. You’re physically exhausted, and the only thing keeping you going is adrenaline and $12 Red Bull vodkas. Everyone around you feels the same, and no one is complaining. Everyone’s ready to continue raging. How could you not end the night with Andrew WK? The man has practically built his musical career on the ethos of ‘positive partying,’ having broken into the rock spotlight with his anthemic-to-say-the-least 2001 debut I Get Wet and its lead single ‘Party Hard.’

I think what most naysayers don’t seem to understand is that when Andrew speaks of ‘positive partying’ or ‘partying hard,’ he doesn’t literally mean getting inebriated to the point of no return. His philosophy is preaching general positivity in all facets of life, where ‘positivity’ could be synonymous with ‘partying.’ Musically, AWK’s set was about as extra and cranked to 11 as you’d expect. Four guitars, four vocal mics, and Andrew switching between piano and guitar at center stage, leading the band, crowd, and flipping and flailing in ways you typically only see from one of those inflatable car dealer tube guys.

Understandably, the crowd ate it up. Andrew’s live set is one of those sets that instills any tired spectator with seemingly infinite amounts of energy, and that’s what it did for me. It was a sonic punch in the face to my entire friend group, and all of us agreed that we felt refreshed and ready to take on the town as his set concluded. The final number, which of course was ‘Party Hard,’ was preceded by a countdown from 100 to ‘build anticipation,’ as Andrew put it. The whole crowd joined in, and as the human timer hit 1, silence washed over the crowd for a few long, precious seconds, before the band came crashing back in. It was a set for the ages, and I highly recommend an Andrew WK show to anyone that’s feeling worn out or beaten down by the monotony and melodrama of everyday life. I guarantee you’ll leave feeling rejuvenated.

I think a telltale sign of a great day is the willingness to suppress exhaustion and fatigue in favor of cherishing the awesome times and hilarious moments you’ve shared with your buds. We crashed hard at the end of the night and I slept like total garbage, but I’d do Saturday again in a heartbeat. Sunday was sure to be a spectacle of a day as well, so I did my best to muster up my last bit of strength, and beer money, for day three of three.

DAY THREE

Much to my body’s relief, Sunday was set to be the shortest day of the three. After sleeping off a half dozen-beers-deep hangover I was fully aware I’d have, my festival cohorts and I arrived back at the festival grounds at around 3:30. Despite not really caring either way, Less Than Jake, Streetlight Manifesto, and Against Me! all put on fantastic live sets. It was clear that each band had long-standing dedicated fanbases, and there was a lot of mutual appreciation between the two parties. That sort of TLC can provide for a great show and a great atmosphere, regardless of if you’re into the bands or not.

American Football. Photo by Katie Kuropas.

American Football took the Rise stage at 5:30. This is a band I’d been waiting to see live for years, and with the resurgence of the Midwest emo sound – largely spearheaded by this band – American Football live shows are a lot more common than they were five years ago. AF are one of those bands whose records don’t really do their arrangements justice. Their 2019 self-titled release features many intermingling guitar tracks, glockenspiel, bells, horns, and harmonies that are simply a lot more difficult to discern from one another when listening to the record. Their live set on Sunday featured every instrument on the record, and the intricacies and interrelationships between each instrument and part are significantly easier to enjoy independently – and within the context of the whole arrangement – in a live setting. I was obviously overjoyed to hear the band close with emo anthem ‘Never Meant,’ but I was even more pleased to hear some of my favorite cuts from their newer releases, like ‘My Instincts Are the Enemy,’ Silhouettes,’ and ‘Uncomfortably Numb.’ The band didn’t speak at all between songs, and they didn’t need to. The music spoke for itself.

Another band very close to my heart, integral to forming my musical tastes, and one I’d been waiting to see for ages was The Starting Line. Like American Football, I think The Starting Line had hit their initial stride before the world was really ready for it. Although they’ve largely hung up their touring shoes, the band still pop out of hiding from time to time to play holiday shows and festivals, so when I saw they were added to this year’s Riot Fest lineup I grinned like a schoolboy. Many of the songs on their 2002 breakout album Say It Like You Mean It are very specific, lyrically, to a teenage heart and mind – the album came out when I was sixteen and frustrated with the world, so it’s really no wonder I reach for it so fondly to this day.

Nonetheless, the songs from Say It still sounded as fresh and exciting seventeen years later as they did when I first popped the CD into my wood paneled Dodge Caravan. The Starting Line’s latest release is a 2015 EP called Anyways, so naturally the live set featured songs from the EP, as well as select offerings from 2007’s Direction and 2005’s Based on a True Story. Everyone knew they’d close the set with the angst-ridden singalong ‘The Best of Me,’ and the lack of surprise certainly didn’t take from the excitement of thousands of people seemingly shouting along to the final chorus while the band sat back in well-deserved satisfaction.

Taking Back Sunday. Photo by Ashley Osborn.

We wrapped up our weekend with the almighty Taking Back Sunday, and what could be more fitting of a festival finale than the band playing two seminal albums – 2002’s Tell All Your Friends and 2006’s Louder Now – front to back, with rarely a spare minute to rest. And they didn’t need it. Each member seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd – and each other – like they needed it to breathe, and after twenty years together, that’s saying something. There are no signs of slowing down for this band. They don’t even know what slowing down means. It’s not in their vocabulary.

When a band’s debut album is something as raw, real, and vulnerable as Tell All Your Friends, one has to believe it can only get better from there. Taking Back Sunday has aged like a fine wine, which is not something that can be said for many of their peers. Where many bands have broken up, lost track of their sound, or have simply missed the commercial success boat, Taking Back Sunday have stuck around, expanded on their sound while doubling down on what they’ve already been doing well, and have maintained a level of success that many bands don’t even get to scratch the surface of. I could wax poetic for paragraph after paragraph about this band, but all you need to know is they exceeded all expectations, and hearing these two albums played front to back was all that I needed to remind me why I’m a music guy.

I anticipate going back to Riot Fest next year. Between friends, food, music, and the general enthusiasm and energy of the whole place, it checks all the boxes for me. And although not every year’s lineup is a total slam dunk, there are always enough must-see bands spread throughout the weekend to warrant spending all three days in Douglas Park, and I’ll go for as long as rock music is alive.

Zach Keenum

Music Journalism Intern at Red Roll
Berklee College of Music '20. Keen on covering all things pop/punk/rock/alternative, and just about anything else one happens to find under that umbrella. Find me wherever it's loud.
Zach Keenum

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