Riot Fest Chicago 2016 – Saturday pics & review (Morrissey, Death Cab, Brand New, Fucked Up, Hives & more)
Day 2 of Chicago’s punk-leaning Riot Fest again brought out droves of eager fans in studded jackets for another day of music in sunny Douglass Park. Even with the festival’s punk-first attitude, Saturday’s lineup showed the start of a festival with more variety. Almost without exception, Saturday’s punk bands were relegated to early set times or the festival’s smallest stages, with prime times and real estate reserved for indie rock and hip-hop heavies.
Given how sexless much of modern punk can be, Plague Vendor’s rail thin, pelvic thrusting lead singer Brandon Blaine was remarkably refreshing. While the band chugged through razor sharp post-punk, Blaine shimmied, leapt, split, and strutted with the vigor of Iggy Pop. Musically, Plague Vendor don’t stray much from what they are good at, but that kind of focus is by no means a bad thing. Maybe it’s just because of Blaine’s eye-catching stage antics, but Plague Vendor never felt dour or brooding, something that can often be a problem with these kinds of bass-led post-punk groups. Instead they came across as mean, taut, and in complete control of their small but attentive Saturday morning crowd. - Ian Cory
Mayhem ensued with Toronto punks Fucked Up's early set, with Damian Abraham immediately getting in the crowd and staying there for nearly the entire set. Fucked Up’s ambitious, expansive take on punk was at its peak with the rest of band locked-in perfectly, not missing a beat during the multiple times Damian’s antics unplugged his mic (he's likely used to it at this point). “I Hate Summer” and “The Other Shoe” were definite highlights given their simple chantalong choruses, giving Damian ample time to affix a crushed lemonade cup to his forehead for the entirety of the former and spool the mic cable around his head like a Cymbals Eat Guitars’ cover and unwind back out into the crowd for more raucous fun. - Zack Baker
When New Orleans’ rapper Dee-1 revealed that he was a former teacher, everything about his set fell into place. Not only was his subject matter school appropriate, avoiding any curse words, drug use or gun talk (with one notable exception), but Dee-1 was also terrific at winning over a skeptical crowd. Making a swarm of punks buy into a rap song about paying off student loans is no easy task. Dee-1 was all smiles and positive reinforcement, slowly getting the crowd to open up to him. It helped that his Louisiana drawl was incredibly charming and that he was just as willing to get vulnerable with the audience. The set’s highlight came during a bleak track about the murder of one of Dee’s former students. During the song’s runtime, a good chunk of the crowd drifted off, but the folks that stuck around only got more invested. By the end of the set, Dee-1 stood above a circle of fans with their arms interlocked, all chanting the chorus to his cathartic closer, “One Man Army.” - IC
I had a little time to kill and thankfully managed to catch Memphis’ Nots who make riot grrl-by-way-of-Suicide garage punk, full of anger and warbling, busted microkorg oddities. Their trancelike grooves got the crowd who had made their way to the tucked-away Rebel Stage dancing, including one guy who definitely would have crowdsurfed if given the opportunity. Their cover of The Normal’s ”T.V.O.D.” was a great fit in the set covered in vinegar. I definitely won’t miss their upcoming tour this fall. - ZB
Inexplicably, The Vandals’ snotty teenage attitude has only gotten funnier as the band has gotten older. The band cracked jokes at everything in sight, the audience, themselves, each other, a photographer that they dragged on stage, the Smoking Popes playing on the other side of the festival, before finally softening up and gushing in appreciation during their ludicrous cover of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” This kind of nonsense wouldn’t have flown if they band weren’t also extremely well rehearsed and precise, but talking about dorky musician stuff feels like missing the point. - IC
Smoking Popes hit the Riot Stage and started their set off on the slower side. As the ‘90s rockers' set went on, they clearly got more into a groove, with more outright guitar heroics. It didn’t hurt that their Smiths-influenced sound was a great match for the day where one name hung heavy over the entire park. - ZB
“We’re The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls In America, let’s have a real sad time together,” frontman Craig Finn stated before immediately launching into the 10-year-old album’s fantastic opener “Stuck Between Stations”. It’s been no secret that Finn wears the guitar more as an accessory since the band added a third guitarist a few years back, and Saturday had him at his most possessed-preacher erratic. Constantly punctuating the detail-overloaded lines with flailing hand motions and mouthed repetitions to the crowd.
High Waisted’s Jessica Louise Dye came out for the back-and-forth drug-addled love story “Chill Out Tent” with keyboardist Franz Nicolay taking the other side of the conversation. As Boys and Girls closer “South Town Girls” wrapped up, some prepared fans threw handfuls of confetti to replicate the album’s art in a way that got a massive smile from Finn. With some time to fill, the band closed with songs from albums directly surrounding Boys and Girls, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from the album prior and “Stay Positive” from the album after. Both songs crystallize the triumphant sound and mentality of Boys And Girls and The Hold Steady itself, a perfect way to close out the celebration. - ZB
“We’re not trap rappers, we don’t have a band or a hype man, we’re just two old hip-hop dudes.” Despite the lack of bells & whistles, People Under The Stairs had no problem keeping their set lively and entertaining. The LA based duo certainly weren’t breaking new ground, their style remains rooted in the rhythm-trading, turntable backed sound that they emerged with in the late 90s, but they promised a good time and delivered on it. True to their introduction, their set focused on old dude subjects of drinking beer, wearing hats to hide male pattern baldness, and a love of freestyling. This all should have been pretty corny, but the group’s sunny disposition made it hard to be cynical. - IC
Everything about Balance & Composure’s set felt like a test run for something bigger coming soon. The band opened with two new songs, both of which were less aggro takes on their mix of shoegaze and emo, and they included a third premiere near the end of the set. The older songs were equally tentative. Singer Jon Simmons toyed around with crowd participating, mostly through synchronized vaping, and joked about the band’s nervousness about playing after six months of inactivity. They cut their set even shorter than their allotted half-hour, leaving a small pack of fans chanting for an encore. This brevity, along with the inclusion of electronic drums on one of their unreleased songs, left me far more intrigued than if the band had sprawled out on one of the festival’s larger stages, but long time listeners’ frustrations with the short set were understandable. - IC
This was a tough one. GZA’s Liquid Swords belongs on the shortlist of great 90’s east coast hip-hop records, mostly on the strength of GZA’s unimaginably dense lyricism and the classic off-kilter Wu-Tang production style. Both of these elements proved to be a hard sell to the Riot Fest crowd. GZA is a rapper’s rapper, he’s incredible at stringing words together and confounding expectations, but he didn’t show much interest in opening up to the crowd. He simply moved from verse to verse whether or not the audience was capable of following along. Outside of a tribute to ODB and a few passes through material from 36 Chambers, the crowd seemed disengaged. GZA ended the set with a lengthy a cappella verse detailing the creation of the universe, likely a holdover from his rumored collaboration with Neil deGrasse Tyson, that felt like watching someone solve two Rubik’s cubes simultaneously. Technically impressive, but hard to relate to. -IC
With rumors of albums and statements of endings, Brand New drew a positively massive crowd (no small feat since they were brutally matched up against the Descendents). The band has been touring a lot recently and their Riot Fest set was the now-standard mix of Devil and God and Deja Entendu tracks you expect, with a few other treats thrown in. When they played “Mix Tape” from their debut album Your Favorite Weapon, Jesse Lacey cracked a smile before the line that got it added to the setlist: “I’m sick of your tattoos and the way you always criticize The Smiths... and Morrissey”. Later, Lacey only added to the confusion surrounding the band’s future by prefacing latest single “I Am a Nightmare” with (and this is a direct quote), “This is a new one. Well it’s almost an old one, it’ll probably be old before you hear anything else.” What does it all mean Jesse? - ZB
If you aren’t a fan of any one Descendents song, the band were happy to give you plenty of other options. At the end of each tune singer Milo Aukerman would shout out the next track (or simply “new song!” for their post-reunion material) and the band would barrel through another number. The band’s stamina was unreal, they rarely paused for over 20 seconds -- and some of their material is really, really fast -- but they never flagged or faltered. This efficiency speed up the process of warming up the crowd tenfold. Everyone was guaranteed to hear their favorite track, and newcomers were given a comprehensive review of the band’s entire body of work. By the end of the set, the Descendents had established a rapport with the entire audience, and they received one of the fondest send-offs of the festival so far. -IC
“When you come to a Method Man and Redman show, you need two things,” Method Man explained to the audience during a brief pause in the action. “Weed and energy.” I can’t speak to the former, but Method & Red’s set had the latter in spades. The duo rampaged through a collection of their collaborative tracks as well as choice selections of solo material. They refused to let the audience’s attention waver for even an instant, moving away from tracks the second they could have went stale and involving the crowd at every available opportunity. Much like GZA, the climax of the set came during a tribute to ODB, but this time the crowd responded with a more appropriate level of vigor. They then extended the shout outs to a host of other deceased stars, including Nate Dogg, Guru, Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, Big L, Tupac, etc. Eventually they started to lose track and brought up Nate Dogg again, which is where the first half of their “weed & energy” equation comes in I suppose. - IC
Death Cab for Cutie put on a fantastic set Saturday night, but it was plagued with outside distractions and the name that had been casting a shadow on the festival all day. The band’s beautiful and flexible stage setup made sure that every song got the right atmosphere, whether it was the huge-sounding bombast of “The New Year” or the solo-acoustic treatment of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” The setlist was a great mix of the band’s post-Transatlanticism catalog, although a little light on the band’s latest Kintsugi. I was about at the middle of the crowd, and even there there was plenty to distract from Death Cab. With Method Man and Redman just a few hundreds yards behind me, the quiet of “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” was hard to hear over bass thumps. And even from my relatively close spot, there were plenty of sarcastic drunken “Yeah! Morrissey!” shouts after just about every song in the back half of the set. Death Cab put on a great set, but things out of their control made it hard to focus on the show. - ZB
Here’s how cool Nas is. Nas’s drummer was also his hype man, and also sang all of the hooks during the entire set while still playing drums. Under normal circumstances I would love to know more about this dude, but I barely noticed him because he had to share the stage with Nas. Seeing Nas in concert is like living in a universe where no bad Nas songs exist. Even tracks that typically get overlooked like “Hip-Hop Is Dead” sounded like classic material in person. The actually classic material, including the requisite tour through Illmatic as well as later singles like “Made You Look” and “One Mic,” sounded transcendent. Nas’s flow and style have been ripped off and emulated so much that it’s often easy to forget how electrifying his music can be. But given his own hour to shine, Nas proved that his effortless delivery is still a vital force to be reckoned with. - IC
And now, finally, the big man himself, Morrissey. Well, a half an hour video intro came first and it was met with boos and boredom but all seemed forgiven when Morrissey finally took the stage. Suddenly the droves of people who had left angrily just minutes ago were violently shoving their way back into the crowd. After some posturing, Morrissey launched into “Suedehead” and it was like the past 32 minutes had been completely wiped from the memories of the people around me. Say what you will about Morrissey's antics (he also had the sale of all meat products banned for the duration of his set), he’s still a fantastic showman and his beautiful voice hasn’t aged a day.
This being a Morrissey set, pop and politics went hand in hand. Videos of police brutality in America were shown on the massive video wall behind him, and during “World Peace Is None of Your Business” a picture of a young black child with “rise up” written on his outstretched hands was shown. At the end of “World Peace”, Morrissey talked to the crowd about the upcoming election, praising Bernie Sanders as the only viable candidate because of his stance on stopping war. That combined with the later commentary on animal cruelty may have been jarring to random festival-goers who just wanted to see ‘The Guy From The Smiths,’ but anyone more than casually acquainted knows this is par for the course.
All said, Morrissey put on a fantastic show. He hit on all the Morrissey songs you want to hear at a Morrissey show, can still sing like he did 30-plus years ago, and even threw in a Smiths classic, “What She Said”, to close the show out. He may have made the audience work to get there, but the payoff was well worth it. - ZB
Riot Fest Chicago wraps up today (9/18) in Douglass Park with sets from The Original Misfits, Sleater-Kinney, Deftones, Bad Religion and more. Check out pics and review of Riot Fest Chicago day one here, Stay tuned for more coverage of Riot Fest Chicago.
UPDATE: Day three HERE.
photos by James Richards IV, words by Zack Baker and Ian Cory