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Riot Fest Chicago 2015 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Douglas Park provides a worthy home for the punk rock fiesta

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    This isn’t how it was supposed to be. When Riot Fest landed in Humboldt Park after seven years as a multi-venue festival, founder and organizer Mike Petryshyn thought he had found a permanent home. The honeymoon lasted all of three years, coming to an abrupt halt this spring when Humboldt Park residents successfully booted the festival out of their neighborhood.

    Three years isn’t so bad for a massive punk festival, especially considering how most DIY venues barely make it past two. But before we move on, let’s make something entirely clear: In its decade of existence, Riot Fest has lost all traces of its supposed DIY roots, morphing from the plucky underdog of Chicago festivals into an awkward, corporate giant (think Lollapalooza with a studded denim jacket). This giant spent the early weeks of the summer lumbering across the city’s Southwest Side, searching for a new address before finally stumbling into Douglas Park, a neighborhood that’s home to two major hospitals and exactly zero punk venues. One of those hospitals even tried to get the festival shut down in the 11th hour, as if it weren’t star-crossed enough already.

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    Photo by Thaib A. Wahab

    But in spite of all the political hurdles and logistical clusterfucks, one truth cannot be denied: Riot Fest persists — thrives, even. This year’s iteration was among the biggest yet, embracing a slew of hip-hop artists along with the regular cadre of punks and skins. Nostalgia remains the primary engine behind Riot Fest’s booking considerations, with legacy acts such as Motörhead, No Doubt, and Iggy Pop getting top billing despite having done nothing relevant in the past dozen years. Even so, there’s a certain power in familiarity, as anyone who got sucked into the roiling pit at System of a Down on Saturday will tell you (assuming they survived). That’s why we’re willing to forgive Ice Cube for essentially turning his set into a commercial for Straight Outta Compton. Festivals are a way for us to bond with complete strangers, and hey, everybody knows the words to “It Was A Good Day”.

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    You need that kind of camaraderie to get through three days of Riot Fest with spirits intact. The festival gods once again brought rain early on, promising a full weekend’s worth of slogging through goop and ensuring that lots of shoes would end up in the trash bin come Monday. Thankfully, the weather on Saturday and Sunday was mostly perfect, with sunny skies to complement FIDLAR’s party punk, GWAR’s hilarious debauchery, and (how’s this for a change of pace) the breezy pop of Canada’s Alvvays.

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    Photo by Thaib A. Wahab

    The true believers will probably stone me to death for saying this, but it’s nice that Riot Fest is following the same blueprint as LA’s FYF Fest and finally moving away from a majority-punk bill. Not only is that unsustainable, it’s also kind of boring. Sure, we could probably do without Damian Marley’s snooze-worthy brand of reggae, but how cool is it that you can see hip-hop pioneers De La Soul and original outlaw Merle Haggard within a span of 24 hours? I’ll take that over punk repeated ad nauseam any day. Even the Riot Fest Speaks stage, which could have used a lot more programming, was a welcome change of pace that definitely deserves to grow in the future.

    Speaking of the future, you would have had to trek over to the tiny Revolt and Radicals stages if you were hoping for a glimpse of it this weekend. It would have been well worth the short trip, though, as some of the festival’s best surprises included young bands like Cayetana (seriously melodic Philly punks), Beach Slang (think a rawer, better Goo Goo Dolls), and Foxing (emo revival for the win!). Thankfully, Riot Fest was pretty easy to get around this year, so a cross-campus hop from Joyce Manor to Drive Like Jehu wasn’t out of the question.

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    Photo by Thaib A. Wahab

    At the end of a brisk and muddy weekend, we’re left with one question: Who’s going to pick up all that trash? Just kidding. The real question is, where does Riot Fest go from here? The festival has grown past the point of no return, but Douglas Park proved as good a venue as anyone might have hoped, and it would be nice to see a return to these digs next year. As for the actual music, well, let’s hope that we continue to get lineups as strange and eclectic as this year’s, even if we’re forced to sit through one legacy act too many.

    Now let’s get down to brass tacks and rank these motherfuckers.

    –Collin Brennan
    Staff Writer

    MILLENCOLIN

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    Photo by Thaib A. Wahab

    Millencolin is like that ex you broke up with in high school but still think of fondly, probably after a few beers. Lots of people still hold Pennybridge Pioneers in high esteem, and they should: It’s a damn good record for what it is. The problem? Like your ex, Millencolin hasn’t aged especially well. Their sound seems stuck in the ‘90s, and it doesn’t help that frontman Nikola Šarčević can’t hit half the notes on “No Cigar”. Despite some good-natured jokes about Vikings, the band’s Saturday afternoon set was mostly a bummer, and a good reminder of why you haven’t heard much of Millencolin since Kingwood (which is still an underrated album, by the way). –Collin Brennan

    SNOOP DOGG

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    Photo by Thaib A. Wahab

    If anyone was going to show up to his set half an hour late, it had to be Snoop Dogg. When the perma-stoned rapper finally graced us with his presence, he did it with a joint in hand and a crew of scantily clad backup dancers in tow. Hell, there was even a dude jumping around in an actual dog costume, looking like he just stepped out of some bizarro version of Disneyland. Sure, Snoop was the guy who showed up late and high out of his mind, but he still managed to pass the blame onto the stage crew, calling one guy out as a “bitch-ass motha fucka” for telling him he had only three minutes left to play (I wouldn’t want to be that guy after Snoop got the lights shut off on him right in the middle of “Young, Wild, and Free”). Despite the weird vibes, this set hit hard when it mattered, particularly during spirited renditions of “Gin and Juice” and House of Pain’s “Jump Around”. –Collin Brennan

    BILLY IDOL

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    Photo by Thaib A. Wahab

    It’s somewhat passe to complain about sound issues at outdoor music festivals, as so many of the sonic obstacles are out of the artist’s control — wind, opposing stages, drunk sound guys, etc. But the kinks during Billy Idol destroyed what would have been an otherwise enjoyable set of greatest hits. The music cut out completely for several brief stretches in about half of the songs, with “Ready Steady Go” and “Rebel Yell” going silent for over 30 seconds. This stopped the throwback momentum dead in its tracks, and Idol never recovered, regardless of him still being able to nail the yowls on “White Wedding” and crack wise with longtime guitarist Steve Stevens. –Dan Caffrey

    THRICE

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    Photo by Thaib A. Wahab

    These days, Thrice seems more energized when playing their proggy later material as opposed to the angst-ridden, screamy stuff that made them post-hardcore heroes. And yet their sets continue to rely more heavily on The Artist and the Ambulance than Beggars, Major/Minor, Vheissu, and the multi-tiered Alchemy Index. I get that fans my age want to hear the (almost) hits, especially at festivals, but frontman Dustin Kensrue seems to have outgrown his lyrics of old, which gave “Yellow Belly” a more potent charge than “Silhouette” and “Stare at the Sun” on Friday. “Under the Killing Moon” though? It still kills. –Dan Caffrey

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