The Best of What We Saw at Riot Fest 2019

Riot Fest continues to be one of the nation’s most exciting niche festivals, creating a communal platform for misfits and outcasts to find their people. And for their fifteenth year, they didn’t hold anything back. The roster for Riot Fest 2019 was packed to the gills with an impressive stable of acts, catering to the punk and metal crowd while also reaching well beyond it. This may very well be their best year yet. Here were some of the highlights. 


Gone Daddy Gone - Violent Femmes (1983)

In a set loaded with fan favorites, from “Kiss Off” to “Gone Daddy Gone” to “Blister in the Sun,” it’s clear that Violent Femmes are always having a blast onstage. And it’s infectious. Despite some sound troubles on the Roots Stage, the performance invited a surge of audience participation, getting a huge response when they pulled cheeky antics like bringing out a comically large bass saxophone. After all these years, it’s clear that the band is still doing what they love most.  


Adding a welcome splash of twang to the festival, Memphis genre-bending rock outfit Lucero laid a warm layer of their sweet Southern charm over an eager Friday evening crowd. Marrying the fuzzed-out, whiskey-soaked dueling guitars with Ben Nichols’s gravelly baritone, the band gave their all to raucous rockers and striking ballads like “Nights Like These,” that nearly make you want to drunk text your ex. The band’s reverential set was a stark reminder that punk rock comes in all shades.  


Perhaps a Dashboard Confessional set at dusk was fairly self-selective, but the crowd was more than ready to sing along as the band recreated their sophomore album The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (albeit out of sequence). Even the deeper album cuts had fans belting out the words along with Chris Carrabba’s piecing vocals. According to the Riot Fest FAQs, this was the only set where crying was allowed, which was fitting as emotions ran high for emo kids of all ages.


The seminal punk legends had one of the most memorable performances of the weekend, if only for the wave of energy coming from the crowd. Festival goers went wild as the band ripped through genre staples like “Hope” and “I’m the One.” And because every Descendents song is so short, they were able to get through a tremendous amount of requests from their catalog within the hour-long set. Riot Fest is the perfect venue for the band, and they came ready to let loose, bringing their mischievous humor to moments like “Weinerschnitzel.” 


The last time The Flaming Lips took the Riot Fest stage, the band’s elaborate light show led to a now infamous power outage, but the festival was ready for them this year. The retelling of their 2002 dreamy, neo-psychedelic space opera Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was packed with the band’s explosive color display, confetti blasts, and giant inflatables, all as a perfectly-timed full moon rose behind the stage. They even took the time to pay tribute to the late Daniel Johnston with a lovely cover of “True Love Will Find You in the End.” Their flair for the theatrical continues to make the band a festival mainstay, and Friday night was no exception


Like many acts at Riot Fest this year, Blink-182  had a full-album set lined up, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the skate punk classic Enema of the State. The absence of Tom DeLonge was felt on tracks like “Aliens Exist” and “All the Small Things,” but only momentarily. Chicago’s own Matt Skiba (who has played the festival before, fronting Alkaline Trio) adds his own hardcore personality to the beloved tracks. The set was infused with new material from their upcoming album Nine, which seems promising, as well as a few old favorites. The band had cancelled their headlining set at last year’s festival due to health reasons, but the wait only created more anticipation from the hungry crowd. And the band delivered. 


One of the standouts of the fest by far was international import The Hu. With the winning combination of traditional folk instruments like the tovshuur and Mongolian throat singing in a style the band has dubbed “hunnu rock,” the thunderous doom metal band commanded the stage with their powerhouse performance. This East Asian wall of sound was a must for metalheads. With only one album under their belt, released earlier this year, there’s nowhere for The Hu to go but up. 



One of only a few hip hop acts to grace this year’s lineup, Chicago Native Lando Chill (aka. Lance Washington) made quite a splash in the early hours of Saturday’s activities. By its very nature, the genre isn’t the easiest to translate to the festival setting, but the conceptual rapper used his natural charisma and bubbling anger to overcome any obstacles with his heartfelt, psychedelic tales of loss and wavering mental health. Most of the crowd didn’t appear to be fans beforehand, but they certainly walked away with a few new tracks to favorite on Spotify when they got home. 


Kicking off an indie rock triple bill on the Rise Stage that included Surfer Blood and Cursive, Cherry Glazerr proved once again that they have become one of the genre’s more increasingly reliable acts. Situated in front of a pair of large inflatable cherries, the Los Angeles rockers made the most of their short set, delivering fistfulls of their signature pulsating noise pop. It’s hard to beat frontwoman Clementine Creevy’s otherworldly wail, especially when she tears into “Told You I’d Be with the Guys.”


It almost wouldn’t feel like Riot Fest without an appearance by perennial favorites Gwar. The gross-out provocateurs may not have any of their founding members left in the band, but their spirit remains the same. A truly involved production, the set had possibly the most enthusiastic crowd  of the weekend. Among the gruesome stunts was a pregnant Caitlyn Jenner spraying blood out of her genitals onto the crowd before having her unborn child forcibly ripped out of her. And that was only the second song. 


As if you need another reason to love Manchester Orchestra, they continue to grow and learn and develop the tightest stage show possible. Celebrating the 10th anniversary of their second studio album Mean Everything to Nothing, the Atlanta-based alt rock quintet pulled out all the stops with their anthemic, arena-ready rockers. Not every band excels in the festival setting, but Manchester Orchestra routinely remind fans that it’s where they feel most at home, pounding away and screaming into the sea of faces. 



Even though the crowd started to get a bit antsy when the set didn’t quite start on time, there’s no denying that Wu-Tang Clan brought the house down. The game-changing hip hop prodigies are easily one of the most exciting reunions in recent years, so when it was announced that they would be stepping in to replace Die Antwoord, the buzz around their performance was palpable. And the troupe lived up to the hype as they worked through a setlist that featured many of the tracks from their groundbreaking debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)


After nearly 40 years of serving as shorthand for the genre itself, California thrash metal champions Slayer have decided to throw in the towel, and their final Chicago performance served as Saturday night’s Riot Stage headliner. And they couldn’t have picked a better venue for it. Whether it was die hard fans who were seeing the show for the umpteenth time or relative newcomers, the crowd was primed to see one of the genre’s most resilient trailblazers. It was a fitting sendoff for the band’s prolific career. 


As anyone who’s ever showed up early to a music festival will tell you, you’re bound to find some hidden gems if you get there before the big names arrive. This year, one of Riot Fest’s best kept secrets was the Philadelphia (by way of Seattle) group Ramona. First up on the Rebel Stage for the day, the garage punk trio were overflowing with a boiling adolescent angst, and their endearingly gritty set was a refreshing start to Sunday’s proceedings. In just 30 minutes, Ramona reminded us all why you shouldn’t wait until late afternoon to join in the festivities. 


When Nick Lowe first teamed up with Los Straitjackets in 2012, it was meant to be a temporary collaboration. But fortunately, the pairing stuck. The long-running protector of power pop sounds as good as ever, and classics like “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” mesh effortlessly with the new tracks he’s released with his masked compadres. Lowe’s rockabilly edge made for reinvigorated takes on selections from his impressive songbook. At one point, “the Jesus of Cool” stepped aside and let Los Straitjackets jam out on their own before returning to play the hits. It was a pub rock dream.  



When it was first announced that the Village People would be performing at Riot Fest, it was assumed to be a joke. But the disco superstars’ set was no laughing matter. The funky, lively dance grooves proved to be the perfect antidote to the mid-afternoon heat. The spirited crowd stepped into a campy, sparkling time machine and transported to an era of uninhibited bliss. A sea of punks and metalheads forming the genre-defying Wall of Death for “Y.M.C.A.” was a sight to behold.


Another pleasant surprise was hometown heroes Sincere Engineer. The Chicago outfit provided straight-into-the-vein rock vibes with their short, hard-hitting zingers. Deanna Belos’s pissed off growl provide her introspective lyrics with an unassailable resonance that struck anyone cooling off underneath the shady trees by the Rebel Stage. Also, because of a few choice lines in “Corn Dog Sonnet No. 7,” fans came with fried fair food in hand. 


No matter how you slice it, Against Me! is one of the great contemporary rock bands. For their impressive and energetic Riot Fest set, they used the live setting to breath new life into two of their greatest records, 2002’s Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose and 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. The band pulled a deservedly enormous crowd, nearly all of whom came prepared to scream along with their favorite songs. Singer Laura Jane Grace and company gave a career-spanning performance that stands among the most memorable of the weekend. The overwhelmingly warm reception from the audience was completely warranted. 

THE B-52’S

Rumored to be the band’s final Chicago performance, The B-52’s pulled a huge following for their Sunday evening set. After a ripping rendition of “Planet Claire,” vocalist Fred Schneider called out in his famed expressionist monotone, “Hello, Chicago! You’ve got some new devils in the White City!” before diving headfirst into “Private Idaho.” The showy new wave pioneers proceeded to lead the uproarious crowd in an hour-long dance session. It’s impossible not to have fun at a B-52’s show. 


Patti Smith simply oozes cool, and the years have done absolutely nothing to tamper her edge. The “punk poet laureate” drank in the energy of Riot Stage, quick to remind everyone that she was born in Chicago. And she was able to tap into something devine in the Windy City. The stunning set was heavy on covers (including Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”) but Smith comfortably made each track her own. You didn’t want to miss this one. 


After a decade-long break, The Raconteurs are back, and boy are they ever. The blues rock supergroup helped end Riot Fest on a high note Sunday night with a punch to the gut. Jack White was a barely contained ball of energy, bouncing around the stage as he laid down some tasty guitar licks. As promised, the band sounded simultaneously ahead of their time and also a welcome blast from the past. This was one of the few sets of the weekend that could have gone on for another hour and no one in the crowd would have minded. 


Fiery, riot grrrl troubadours Bikini Kill don’t get nearly enough credit. The explosive, raw Washington band didn’t just help to usher in the sound on a new generation; they also simply kick ass. Closing out the festival, Bikini Kill slayed, reclaiming a field that is overrun by men who couldn’t hold a candle to them. “I just wanted to say that we’re a feminist band and we’re headlining a festival,” said vocalist Kathleen Hanna. Let’s hope this is the start of a new trend.


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