Riot Fest 2018 felt a bit rocky before it had even begun, with schedule delays sparking rumors of the beloved music festival’s cancelation. But once the gates opened at Douglas Park, thousands of diehard punks and metalheads came together to snap a picture with the devil and mosh in the late-summer Chicago heat. Mohawks and Dead Kennedys tattoos aplenty, the festival was a success, bringing in 88 revered rock acts. Here’s the best of what we saw.
So much of what makes The Frights so endearing stems from how damn approachable they are. It feels like you could have gone to high school with these guys and seen them play a basement show at a house party. And it’s that same laid back, affable charm that they brought to their Riot Fest set. Positioned between two of the wacky inflatable tube men you might find at your local car dealership, the California garage punkers busted out their high energy numbers, winning over the metalheads in the process.
With their killer grooves, pounding drums, and powerful distorted vocals (courtesy of the incredibly dynamic Marisa Dabice), Mannequin Pussy left it all on the stage. A true highlight of the festival, the Phillie punk quartet (with only two studio albums under their belt thus far) are already fully formed rock stars. Their true talents lie in the transitions, able to go from thunderous to melodic without missing a beat.
Alicia Bognanno’s unmistakable snarl always hits like a punch to the gut, and Saturday’s set was no exception. For the band’s first time at Riot Fest, Bully laid out their tight, concise rock jams, continuous proving that they are one of the genre’s most reliably hard-hitting contemporary acts. When she wasn’t ferociously ripping out tracks like “I Remember” and “Trying,” Bognanno was lamenting to the crowd about how much she missed the dog she left back in Nashville.
Cat Power’s biting, soulful ballads were a welcome break in the surge of power chords. In spite of some technical issues, her sharp vigorous voice washed over the crowd. Rather than simply check off the hits, Cat Power’s career-spanning set included a few deep cuts, a preview of her upcoming record (her first in five years), and a nearly unrecognizable cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”
There’s nothing like a killer Adolescents set to help old punks relive their youth. With more time allotted to them than was expected, the influential California punk outfit was able to dive further into their catalog, even taking requests from the crowd. Behind the band during the performance was a banner that read “SOTO,” a loving tribute to founding bassist Steve Soto who passed away earlier this year. Frontman Tony Reflex took a break from the music (and political outrage) to briefly eulogize his fallen bandmate.
On Saturday afternoon, festival favorites Twin Peaks brought their genre-bending garage pop to the Roots Stage. Between the bluesy guitar solos and brassy horn arrangements, the band had a little something for everyone. The crowd was extremely welcoming to the rock outfit in their native Chicago, and the whole set played like a victory lap around their hometown. In a sea of classic acts, Twin Peaks were certainly the standout amongst the newcomers.
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS
Despite all of his genre exploration as a songwriter, Elvis Costello is and always will be a punk rocker. Busting out a hit parade of uptempo numbers like “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Lipstick Vogue,” he proved for the umpteenth time that he simply never runs out of steam. As the set progressed, Costello’s raucous hits gave way to more expansive tracks with added instrumental jam breaks, before closing out the set with the always prescient “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Taking the stage in their standard dapper dress, the post-punk revival heroes simply exude cool. With a set positioned just after the sun went down, Interpol made great use of their impressive light display, often silhouetted against a wall of red or blue. Paul Banks stared the audience down his audience with his piercing gaze, as the crowd roared at favorites like “Evil” and “Obstacle 1.” It was surely a show to remember.
Beck alone was worth the price of admission. He certainly knows how to tease an audience, even asking for an Owen Wilson impression from the crowd while performing “Wow.” Beck’s biggest hits benefited from the added instrumentation of a full band, and an introduction of the featured players turned into a medley of covers from artists such as The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, and Phil Collins. Before the night was over, he even brought out Gary Numan to perform his signature song, “Cars.” As the show came to a close, the musicians crab walked off the stage in unison.
Calpurnia may have gained attention in the public eye because of frontman Finn Wolfhard’s run as Mike Wheeler on Stranger Things, but the teenage rockers are a band in their own right. With short, hyperactive numbers that ranged from psychedelic to twanged out, they caught the attention of festival-goers, with their modest crowd more than tripling over the course of the set. The performance was a bit sloppy, but that only makes the band all the more endearing, and Ayla Tesler-Mabe was one of the most impressive guitarists to take the stage over the weekend. As was to be expected, Wolfhard made jokes about his age, shouting “You’re all going to jail!” after removing his shirt.
Kevin Devine has always been a singer-songwriter who carried with him the spirit of punk rock. Intimate as always, his Sunday set with his Goddamn Band felt right at home on the Riot Fest stage. From the first song, he was jumping around and screaming his heart out. One of the benefits of playing to a festival crowd is the opportunity to win over those unfamiliar with your work, and it was clear that after the performance, Devine walked away with a new crop of lifelong fans.
It’s tough to imagine what the face of punk would look like without California hardcore legends Fear (and their infamous 1981 Saturday Night Live performance). With his barrelling growl and boundless energy, Lee Ving proved that they haven’t missed a beat since. Embracing the nostalgia factor, Fear churned out hits like “I Love Livin’ in the City” and “I Don’t Care About You,” before heading into their now legendary cover of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”
“We came from space via Oakland, California and we came to fuck shit up and have a good time!” SWMRS seem to have been constructed in a lab ready to play a festival setting. Such an energetic live show, the band had the audience crowd surfing almost immediately. In between fan favorites like “Figuring It Out” and “Lose It,” vocalist Cole Becker delivered a spirited PSA about stopping assault at live shows and began preaching the gospel of positivity and self-acceptance.
With his jangly brand of Britpop, Johnny Marr continues to be a truly underappreciated guitarist, and his live show is something to behold. Knowing that he was playing to a crowd of Smiths fans, his second song out of the gate was “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” before sprinkling in other classics from the emo legends such as “How Soon Is Now?” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Throughout the set, Marr littered a slew of unassuming Englishisms: “This song’s called ‘Day In Day Out.’ I hope you like it.”
The crossover thrash-punk rebels ran through their 1983 self-titled debut, giving longtime fans precisely what they came for. Although frontman Mike Muir is the only original member in the band’s current lineup, this iteration of Suicidal Tendencies is nothing to scoff at, particularly with the recent addition of drummer Dave Lombardo (formerly of Slayer). The seminal punk heroes tore the house down, proving that they haven’t lost any of their passion or ire. Mike Muir would frequently take a beat to wax poetic about police brutality and fighting the system, urging the crowd to take up arms.
No matter how you slice it, Superchunk are one of the greatest live acts in the modern era. In a setting that is more politically charged than ever before, singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan connected the band’s classic tunes to the outrage he pinned on the current presidential administration. Serving as a formidable bridge between indie rock and punk, Superchunk attracted festival attendees of all walks of life to their tireless set.
Representing the remnants of the CGBG heyday, Blondie took the stage Sunday, 40 years after the release of their landmark album Parallel Lines. The 70s New Wave vets ran through their catalog’s best-loved hits, bookmarking their set with “One Way or Another” and “Heart of Glass.” Donning neon hair and a cape that read “Stop Fucking the Planet,” Debbie Harry continues to be the epitome of cool, and she spent the banter in between songs making cracks about her age and toying with the festival’s name: “It’s good to be here. I love a good riot.”
Beloved hardcore champions Underoath are natural born performers. From Spencer Chamberlain’s dynamic pipes to Aaron Gillespie’s inhuman drum sequences, their Riot Fest set was an unforgettable experience, regardless of genre preference. Featuring some of the weekend’s most enthusiastic fans, the band had the crowd in the palm of their hands. Attendees chanted every lyric and followed along with each of Chamberlain’s boisterous rally cries: “Let me see your fists in the air!”
THE WONDER YEARS
The pop punk fans who could stand to miss the Alkaline Trio set were in for a treat when The Wonder Years took the stage. Some of the festival’s most raucous moshing happened in the circle pit as the Pennsylvania rockers kicked out spirited jams, before breaking out into tender moments such as this year’s “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be.” Lifelong dreams were fulfilled as the band ran through their cherished catalog. Frontman Dan Campbell later tweeted that the set might be his “favorite show of all time.”
RUN THE JEWELS
What a way to close out a music festival. Run the Jewels weren’t initially slated to take the Riot Fest stage, but with the announcement of their inclusion in the lineup just a week before the festival, the excitement from fans was palpable. And they did not disappoint. A pair of vicious MCs, Killer Mike and El-P make for one of the most industrious duos in contemporary hip-hop, and their Sunday night set brought the house down. Riot Fest has always dipped its big toe into the waters of hip-hop, and hopefully this will influence the powers that be to put more rappers on future bills.