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Riot Fest Chicago 2016 – Friday pics & review (GWAR, NOFX, Flaming Lips, TDEP, more)

On Friday September 16th, thousands of tattooed, mohawked, black clad punks descended unto Pilsen’s serene Douglass Park to drink themselves silly and listen to excessively loud guitar music. In other words, Riot Fest Chicago 2016 started. The festival is something of an end-of-summer ritual in Chicago. After the hipsters have compared outfits at Pitchfork Fest, the suburban normies have paid their exuberant prices for Lollapalooza, and the molly-popping ravers have taken a nap after North Coast, the punks finally have the last laugh. Riot Fest takes a catch-all approach to punk music, billing indie darlings across the park from mathcore legends, and following both up with youthful pop punk.

Scranton indie rockers Tigers Jaw started off Riot Fest with a solid set, drawing a sizable crowd to one of the festival’s biggest stages as people filed onto the festival grounds. Their set leaned heavily on the band’s excellent 2014 album Charmer, but it was clear that the crowd still hadn’t let go of their more pop-punk self-titled. When the band launched into “Plane vs. Tank vs. Submarine” the crowd whipped into a frenzy with every lyric shouted back at the stage and plenty of kids getting their crowdsurfing fix early on in the day. – Zack Baker

Citizen’s post-hardcore sludge was the perfect soundtrack to fit the slowly building rain. Straight-faced and still, the band mostly ignored the crowd but they didn’t really need to engage them. When lead singer Mat Kerekes did finally address the crowd it was to (wrongly) let them know that at least they avoided the rain, the crowd quickly yelled out “It is!” and guitarist Nick Hamm smiled and joked back “No it’s not.” Fans shouted along with highlights from 2013’s Youth as well as excellent 2014 single “Silo”, and still grooved along to the less singalong-ready tracks from 2015 more atmospheric Everybody Is Going To Heaven. – ZB

Fu Manchu are rad, but weren’t particularly suited to their early day slot at Riot Fest. The band play a very meat and potatoes style of hard rock, the type that bald dudes with goatees get earnestly psyched about. That’s not a knock either, the band are rock solid, and time their guitar solos perfectly. The problem is that their tones all smear into different slabs of indistinct brown in an open air setting. A light rain dampened the mood, and also dissipated the weed stench that had slowly built up during the set. – Ian Cory

Touche Amore had the best set of the day, straight up. Only hours after releasing the best album of their career the band took the stage to a massive and very eager crowd. Lead singer Jeremy Bolm was hoarse from the outset, but that didn’t stop him from screaming his way through a set of modern classics like “Just Exist”, “Harbor” and plenty of older cuts like “Home Away From Here”. Bolm didn’t talk much (his voice was going, quick) but did take a second to smile out to the crowd and quietly grin “This is awesome. Thank you so much.” As the set wound down, Bolm took a break from throwing himself across the stage to let the crowd know that they would be closing the set out with three songs in five minutes. His voice finally gave out during the second of the three, “Honest Sleep”, but it didn’t matter. The crowd took over the vocal role he couldn’t fill himself as he climbed out on top of the thrashing fans to fill in a few key lines here and there for “~”. Everything was so heartfelt, the entire band was giving its all, it was exhilarating. – ZB

While it’s a shame that The Dillinger Escape Plan are nearing the end of their career, it’s frankly incredible that they have endured this long. Guitarist Ben Weinman and singer/v-neck enthusiast Greg Puciato burnt through several mics, leapt off of railings, and treated the audience as an extension of the stage, hurling themselves over the barrier with reckless abandon. Their live performances are exhausting in every sense of the word. While the recorded material is inhuman in its precision, their live show proves that the band are incredible because they are mortal and yet continue to perform like they are invulnerable. Their set leaned heavily on their recent material, mostly One Of Us Is The Killer and their upcoming Dissociation, which gave them plenty of room to pummel the crowd with light speed playing as well as slower and more melodic, but no less caustic, songs. As awe-inspiring as their set was, it was clear that the band were holding onto their best material for the diehards attending their after show at The Cobra Lounge. – IC

Continuing my post-hardcore tour of Riot Fest, I caught D.C. veterans Girls Against Boys. Following up that Touche Amore set was a tough task, and the older band played well but the mix didn’t seem quite loud enough, and I wasn’t feeling the sonic punch I was looking for from a GvsB set. “Super-Fire” and “Kill the Sexplayer” were the highlights. – ZB

Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott’s great new project Tancred were sequestered to the Rebel Stage, which is a shame considering how completely removed it and its sister Storyheart Stage are from the rest of the festival. Between that and being matched up against GWAR across the park, the turnout was a little lacking, but the band still played like they were on the main stage. Abbott’s banter was charming and a perfect fit for the bright but hard-edged rock they produce. Oh, and Conor Murphy from Foxing (who Tancred toured with) was hanging out at the back of the stage. – ZB

The word “rollicking” was born for the Meat Puppets. There’s no other way to put it. Meat Puppets rollicked. They didn’t necessarily rollick well, but they rollicked. I’m not old enough to know if Meat Puppets were ever a particularly tight live band, but their set was one or two steps too loose to work. Their harmonies felt rushed and unfocused, and the prolonged simplistic jam that they dropped into early on was aimless and lacked any real dynamics. After getting the jam out of their system the rollicking improved, but the tone had been set. – IC

As singer/guitarist Josh Berwanger put it, “someone had to play after GWAR.” On top of having a tough act to follow, The Anniversary also had 12 years of rust to shake off. The band are from a very particular moment in time, peaking just before big money found its way into emo. Their minimoog-heavy take on the genre hasn’t aged particularly well, especially next to the easycore pipsqueaks in Set Your Goals. Still, The Anniversary hit their marks and delivered a solid, if unremarkable set. – IC [Editor’s note: They sounded remarkable in New York though!]

Epoch member and Dbl Dbl Whammy signee Eskimeaux was a perfect oasis of sunny pop in the day’s otherwise aggro lineup. Everything about Eskimeaux exudes charm, from the weird little synchronized sways to Felix Walworth’s drumming that always feels like its seconds from running off the rails to Gabrielle’s dedication of “Broken Necks” to a fan who spent at least 20 minutes waiting for the band standing from and center against the barricade. It was a wonderful change of pace and mental reset to gear up for the rest of the night. – ZB

If you are one of the countless music fans that thinks they are too cool for ska, you might be right, but you’re definitely not too cool for The Specials. Unlike the obnoxious up-tempo, horn-inflected punk that followed in their wake, The Specials played at a pace just fast enough to dance to, but with plenty of room for instrumental nuance. At times they edged closer to the menacing half time crawl of dub, but ended the set with a run of crowd pleasing ska standards (“Monkey Man,” “Little Bitch,” etc) that kept the mood light. In between they urged the crowd not to vote for Trump, repurposing the “got to think of your future” refrain from “A Message To You, Rudy” as a de facto campaign slogan. Singer/guitarist Lynval Golding briefly paused the show to declare support for the Black Lives Matter and Native Lives Matter movements. You might find skanking corny, but this was the first moment in the festival where a band’s political stance felt like more than just a rote genre trope. -IC

Unlike The Anniversary, Jimmy Eat World sounded like they hadn’t aged a day since 2003. The band’s non-stop hit parade was a perfect match to the sun setting on the other side of Douglas Park. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jimmy Eat World are a timeless band, especially when it’s hard to imagine a song like “The Middle” being as much of a radio smash in 2016, but their songwriting chops and Jim Adkins’ crystal clear voice gave them a melodic edge over every other set I saw on Day 1. The songs are arranged so well that even the lesser known numbers, like one from the band’s upcoming album, kept the crowd engaged and carried them safely from one sticky sweet melody to the next. While “The Middle” was the obvious highlight, songs like “Bleed American” and “Pain” still worked wonders. The set’s only flaws were Adkins’ attempts at lead guitar playing, which were cute, but sloppy and ultimately superfluous to their otherwise airtight performance. – IC

Seeking sanctuary from All Time Low’s walk out song “N****s In Paris” (yes, a band of all white dudes really did use that to introduce themselves), I stumbled across the tiny, dark Stubhub Tent where electric weirdo Dan Deacon was playing for a very sweaty crowd. I only managed to catch a song and a half, but with Deacon that amounted to 20 minutes of sensory overload. Constant strobes combined with the darkness of the tent and its surprisingly loud setup made for a perfect Deacon show: an intimate dance party where it became almost impossible to focus on the guy making the music. – ZB

Leave it to the Swedes to give a civics lesson to an American crowd. Not only did Refused encourage the crowd to make the festival’s name literal by referencing the protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, they also dressed down Riot Fest itself by pointing out the severe underrepresentation of women in the lineup (only 12% according to frontman Dennis Lyxzén). Refused didn’t just talk the talk either. Their set was technically flawless, visually stunning, and fast paced. Even though their post-reunion material didn’t live up to their classic output, the band’s furious, Slayer-quoting rendition of “Deadly Rhythm” and pitch perfect performance of “New Noise” more than made up for any momentum lost. – IC

The crowd from Australian grunge-punks Violent Soho essentially just migrated to likeminded UK band Basement’s set at the stage next door, although the few who didn’t got a laughing “Where are you going?!” from vocalist Andrew Fisher. The band played in almost complete darkness and fog, using the few blue and orange lights to throw color on the fog more than the band. Fisher was all energy, bouncing and spinning around the stage any time he didn’t have a line to be singing. Closer “Covet” followed up on the energy from “Spoiled” to wrap things up in a loud, swirling burst of cathartic energy. – ZB

There was one pure moment of joy in The Flaming Lips’ headlining performance at Riot Fest. It happened early, but not early enough. After a few false starts and some awkward stage banter from Wayne Coyne, the band eased into the first notes of “Race For The Prize” at a snail’s pace, gradually building intensity until they started the song for real, simultaneously unleashing a platoon of balloons and psychedelic lights across the audience. This was briefly incredible, but quickly the bright colors and playful stage antics soured. The band dragged between songs, leaving long gaps of uncomfortable silence as they worked out the details of their elaborate stage show. Even worse, Coyne’s insistence that the crowd make more noise began to sound desperate and unwarranted. Given the band’s low energy performance and Coyne’s even more strained than usual vocals, the crowd’s lukewarm response felt appropriate. After the life affirming and legitimately challenging music that preceded them, The Flaming Lips felt hollow and condescending. -IC

Outlandish punks NOFX headlined the Rock Stage last night, and had quite a lot to say about the other headliners performing a few hundred yards behind them as you would expect. “They got balloons and a video screen, y’know what we got? A banner! We got ripped off,” Fat Mike said gesturing to the comically small NOFX branded sign above the band that looked to be made of poster board. The set was exactly what you’d expect from a NOFX show, lots of banter, straight-up punk and plenty of self-deprecating humor. The constant ‘fuck you, fuck the world, fuck everything’ comments got pretty grating over the course of the set, but maybe I’m just not punk enough. – ZB

All of those artists and more (like Dan Deacon and Diarrhea Planet!) are pictured in the gallery above. Stay tuned for review and pics from day two.

UPDATE: Day two HERE. Day three HERE.

photos by James Richards IV, words by Zack Baker and Ian Cory

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