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Riot Fest day 1 review & pics: blink-182, Flaming Lips, Descendents, Cock Sparrer, more

Riot Fest 2019 kicked off in Chicago’s Douglas Park on Friday (9/13), and day one went off without a hitch. It had rained the night prior but fully cleared up well before gates opened and didn’t really mess the grounds up much, and you couldn’t have asked for a nicer day: warm and sunny but not too hot at all, thanks in part to a nice breeze that lasted all day. And the lineup was stacked from start to finish, with never a lull in the day. The only downside was that the lineup was so stacked that it led to some very tough conflicts at the end of the day.

I started my day bright and early at 1 PM on the Rebel Stage for Philly indie-punks Thin Lips, who are still riding high off last year’s very solid Chosen Family, and who recently wrapped up a lengthy tour with Camp Cope (that we caught in NYC). They sounded as tight as ever, and made for a fine start to the day.

From there, I headed to the Radicals Stage for political pop punks Anti-Flag, who had a large and very energetic crowd despite how early it was, and who sounded airtight. I had just caught Anti-Flag at Warped Tour over the summer, and they played a very similar setlist and Chris #2 gave very similar speeches railing against bigotry, police brutality, and other forms of injustice, but even having just seen basically the same show a couple months ago, they gave me chills all over again. Anti-Flag have been writing powerful political songs since the ’90s, but they resonate even more strongly and feel even more powerful in the Trump era, and they’re still cranking out good jams too. “American Attraction” from their latest album (2017’s American Fall) is one of the best Anti-Flag songs in years, and it’s just as much a highlight of their current show as classics like “Die for the Government” and “Turncoat.” Anti-Flag’s live show translates very well to a big festival stage, but if you’d like to catch them in a small show, check out their BrooklynVegan-presented NYC show at Mercury Lounge on Halloween or their LA show a week later.

After Anti-Flag, it was Hot Water Music on the Rise Stage. Hot Water Music also stuck to a familiar formula, opening with “Remedy” and closing with “Trusty Chords,” just like the last time they played Riot Fest, but for whatever reason, they sounded extra tight at this show. They’re sadly without original co-frontman Chris Wollard, who took a break from the band in 2017 to focus on his health, but his replacement Chris Cresswell of The Flatliners did a killer job filling Wollard’s shoes. He fits in perfectly with the rest of the band, and all of them seemed especially fired-up on Friday, and really played their hearts out. During one song, Chris #2 from Anti-Flag made a surprise appearance to sing with the band, and here’s some video of that:

After watching those first three sets in full, I bounced around a bit and caught Hot Snakes whose noisy, garagey post-hardcore was as mesmerizing as you’d hope; The Get Up Kids who were playing one of their first shows without James Dewees but didn’t let that stop them from delivering a punchy, super fun set; and Cock Sparrer who have been doing it for over 40 years and haven’t aged a bit (as frontman Colin McFaull deservedly boasted about on stage). It’s not every day you see a punk band with members in their 60s who are as raucous as bands three times as young, but Cock Sparrer pull it off. Then I caught some Violent Femmes, who admittedly aren’t the most exciting band to watch these days, but who loaded their set with classics like “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” “Add It Up,” and more, and sounded just like they did on record decades ago.

One of the toughest conflicts of the day was the four-way overlap of The Flaming Lips, Descendents, Rancid, and Glassjaw, and I ended up seeing the first 25 minutes of Descendents before running over to catch The Flaming Lips perform Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in (almost) its entirety. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I couldn’t have asked for better sets. As they tend to do, Descendents front-loaded their set with classics like “Suburban Home,” “Everything Sux,” “Hope,” “Clean Sheets,” and more, which was especially nice since I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, and given the brevity of their songs, 25 minutes of Descendents is enough time to feel fully immersed in their show. As blink-182 would acknowledge on stage about two hours later, Descendents were major pioneers for the type of pop punk that dominates Riot Fest’s lineup, and even all these years later, they remain one of the best bands doing it. There’s just a certain sharpness and liveliness to a Descendents show that most of their peers and followers don’t have. They’re truly masters.

After my brief encounter with the Descendents, I made it back over to the main stages just in time to see The Flaming Lips perform their 2002 psych-pop classic Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Probably due to time constraints, they omitted two of the songs (“It’s Summertime” and the instrumental closer “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon [Utopia Planitia]”), but they also took some of that time to honor the late Daniel Johnston with a touching speech from Wayne Coyne and a gorgeous, very Flaming Lips-sounding cover of “True Love Will Find You in the End” (which they had also done a few other times this year, including before Daniel’s passing). Especially given the timing, it was a very welcome decision to work the cover into the middle of the album set, and the way The Flaming Lips reworked the song, it fit in perfectly with the Yoshimi songs.

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As for the Yoshimi portion of the set, The Flaming Lips pulled out all the stops and performed the album exactly the way you’d hope and expect. A vivid, technicolor light show, Wayne Coyne rolling around the crowd in a ball, a giant inflatable robot on stage — they had it all. And Wayne Coyne & co sounded absolutely blissful. They recreated all of the intricacies of the album’s instrumentation on stage, and Wayne’s voice was as pristine as it was on the 2002 record. They’re a perfect festival band, and if it seemed at all surprising that they would be given the penultimate main stage slot on a mostly-punk festival (or that they drew a huge crowd), don’t forget that The Flaming Lips had roots in punk before half the bands playing Riot Fest even formed.

Riot Fest attendees were then faced with another very tough conflict: see blink-182 play Enema of the State in full or see the reunited Jawbreaker. I saw Jawbreaker when they first reunited for Riot Fest and two times since, and even though I also just saw blink-182 play Enema of the State at Warped Tour, I had to go with seeing Enema of the State again. For millennial punk fans like me, it’s such an insanely classic album that the band presumably won’t be performing in full again for a while (or ever) after this 20th anniversary tour ends, and it’s even more unlikely that I’ll get another chance to see them play the album as up close and personal as I managed to do at Riot Fest, especially considering floor tickets for their upcoming Barclays Center show are currently selling for even more than a three-day pass to Riot Fest.

blink sounded great when they played Enema at Warped Tour, but that was near the beginning of the tour, and after having played the album on tour for over two months now, they were noticeably sharper at Riot Fest. Tom Delonge’s current replacement Matt Skiba sounds a lot more settled in with the Enema deep cuts than he was at Warped, and Mark and Travis are even more of a well-oiled machine than they already were. (Especially Travis — as fun as it was to yell along to every word, sometimes I just stopped and stared in awe of what Travis was managing to do behind that kit. There’s really almost nothing else like it, especially not in punk.) As evidenced by the extremely large crowd who knew every single word to every single song on the album, I am not the only punk fan who has Enema of the State embedded into their DNA, and seeing that whole album performed live just doesn’t compare to much else. I had been seeing killer punk bands all day, including bands that blink-182 themselves consider legends (like the Descendents), but none of it was on the same level as the Enema of the State set. They really tapped into something special when they wrote that album, and it clearly struck a chord with countless people, and it remains relevant and influential today. On stage they’re total pros, and with just three guys and none of the glossy production value that their albums sometimes have, they looked and sounded just as punk as anyone else did all day.

Check out photos of Riot Fest day one in the gallery above — including shots of Jawbreaker, Rancid, Dashboard Confessional and Lucero — and some videos of Flaming Lips and blink-182 below. Riot Fest continues Saturday and Sunday. Set times here. Stay tuned for more coverage.

UPDATE: Day two review HERE and pics/review of Slayer’s headlining day two set HERE. Day three pics and review HERE, and pics/review of Bikini Kill’s headlining day three set HERE.

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photos by James Richards IV

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