Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Riot Fest 2012 recap: Part one

By Gene Wagendorf III

Andrew W.K. | Photo Credit: Eric Kolkey
Riot Fest got a new look this year, abandoning its week-long series of shows across the city format for that of a more traditional music festival. Things got going Friday night at The Congress Theater with a show headlined by Neon Trees and The Offspring, but the festival proper played out across two days in the absolutely gorgeous Humboldt Park. Carnival rides and games were sprinkled between four stages, with music going non-stop from about noon to ten. While the festival maintained its usual focus on punk and varying subgenres, the promoters did toss in (mostly seamlessly) enough non-punk acts to keep the show from feeling stale. My two big casualties-of-scheduling on Saturday were Nobunny and GWAR, not because something tantalizing was playing opposite them, but because I have a crappy corporate day job that I couldn't escape from in time. #ReviewFail, I know. I arrived at Humboldt Park with enough time to down a few beers before Andrew W.K., and in that short time on the ground I heard nothing but buzz about GWAR. Half the crowd seemed to be covered in fake blood from their set, and most of those people were still red on Sunday. If you want to know how that set went, odds are there are still some crimson-coated lunatics wandering around Chicago. Ask them.

Andrew W.K.

Partying. Period. This is what Mr. W.K. is all about. He sings about it. He lives it. I've heard his music at parties. I've been to Andrew W.K.-themed parties. My reaction has always been, "OK, I get it. Let's move on." That said, I couldn't help myself. I had to see it.

The set blasted off with the cocaine thrash of "It's Time to Party," from 2001's I Get Wet. The track's mindless, pachyderm chug was a microcosm of the the next 45 minutes; kind of fun, kind of stupid and totally baffling. This is what adrenaline sounds like, no doubt, but I'm not sure simply creating the sound of wanting to drink beer 'til you vomit is a worthy endeavor. It's been done, and frankly, it's been done better. What would it sound like if I smashed "Pour Some Sugar On Me" into "Too Drunk To Fuck" is a weird pitch for a song, let alone a career. That Andrew W.K. has been cashing in on that auditory nihilism for 10+ is astonishing. That he managed to sound pretty good doing it is a miracle.

Eight ball vocals boomed from the speakers, distorted guitars slammed into eardrums and the mosh pit churned. My inner Rob Gordon chastised me the whole time I bobbed along, but I simply couldn't help myself. Beneath the layers of sloppy guitar and Neanderthal-meets-Dionysus lyrics, the songs were catchy. When the singer dedicated "She Is Beautiful" to all the ladies in the crowd, my stomach turned. It's pure objectification. My tapping feet didn't seem to care. When he produced a pizza-shaped guitar and zipped out semi-indulgent, ultimately uninteresting solo, I laughed at the absurdity. Or maybe, more accurately, along with it. I simply can't tell if there was any irony in what I saw during W.K.'s set, and that proved to be it's ultimate downfall. As a performance piece, the spectacle was totally fulfilling and perfectly hilarious. Problem is, it all looked sincere. I think this guy actually believes that partying is THE answer. That his music "fuken rulez" and that he's never going to age. In looking for a comparable immortal, I turned to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Quoth Wikipedia, "The fictional Everlasting Gobstopper is a candy that not only can never be finished, but never even gets smaller." That is to say it'll be around long after its rotted the teeth right out of your mouth. The sweetest candy coating can only disguise the truth for so long. In another lifetime, Andrew W.K. might've stuck to the keys and made a truly thrilling record. He could've been the second coming of The Killer. The treat I wound up enjoying at Riot Fest amounted to little more than a guilty pleasure, and I'm not sure I'll be looking for seconds.

A Wilhelm Scream

A Wilhelm Scream | Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III
Tight arrangements and manic showmanship made A Wilhelm Scream a magnetic draw; I found myself going from an initial "meh" to "fuck yeah" pretty quickly. The five-piece melodic hardcore troupe shifted between rising, suburban punk and wild jams that channeled bits of Dead Kennedys and Iron Maiden. Not content to just craft catchy, three minute punk jams, Wilhelm flexed their considerable musicianship throughout the show. Brian J. Robinson's gurgling, vampiric bass ripple on "The Horse" would have been impressive on its own, but its tussle with Nuno Pereira's vocals was mesmerizing. "I Wiped My Ass With Showbiz" made use of the battle tested formula Brevity + Volume + Speed = Rock, but not to its detriment. Nicholas Pasquale Angelini's drums avalanched through a lasery guitar solo on the back end of said tune- a fit of slick brutality that could've fallen of a Motörhead record. 

While the set contained its share of genre-typical swells and movements, those pieces were consistently stitched to impulsive breakdowns and arresting changes in tempo. As much as Wilhelm's music had me on my heels, Pereira's between-song banter was just as surprising. Rather than spout aggressive, alpha male bullshit, he implored the crowd to join him in doing just the opposite. Refreshing, to say the least. Even more refreshing (segue!) was the group's tear through "The King is Dead" from 2005's Ruiner. Prickly, restrained guitar work built a slow tension that eventually exploded into another solarized, harmony-laden rocker that left the crowd out of breath and wanting more.

Dropkick Murphys

Dropkick Murphys | Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III
Dropkick Murphys are nothing if not reliable. For the last 15+ years these guys have been consistently delivering their fine-tuned Celtic punk stylings to growing audiences. Saturday at Riot Fest was more evidence that the only thing that changes about Dropkick is that they keep getting better. The group riled the crowd up early, tearing through a cover of Florence Reece's 1931 union rally cry "Which Side Are You On?" Though the tune was written for the United Mine Workers during the Harlan County War, Dropkick's  raw delivery and defiant swagger on it went over perfectly with a crowd more than dotted with CTU members and supporters. Equally as rousing was "Going Out In Style," the band's bagpipe-soaked "My Way"-esque tumbler. The song's celebratory chorus was echoed by throngs of drunk punks swaying arm in arm, probably spilling more than they were drinking. Quite a sight.

It wasn't all raucous shenanigans during Dropkick Murphys' set, as a couple of new songs cooled the mood. An unknown-to-me track from the forthcoming Signed and Sealed In Blood moved with an attractive vulnerability, thanks in part to some refined organ work and a softer, almost pleading vocal delivery. Another new one, "Rose Tattoo," harkened back to the band's Irish folksong influences; Giddy-up percussion galloped behind bright acoustic guitars, bagpipes and mandolin flairs. Dropkick offered the crowd one more chance to thrash about before they left, a massive, crunchy cover of AC/DC's "TNT." Probably the most fist-pump heavy moment of Riot Fest (and that's saying something), the band bulldozed from the speakers, guitars hitting all the twists and Al Barr doing a fine job in place of Brian Johnson.


Descendents  | Photo Credit: Laura Cooper
Pop punk pioneers Descendents closed out the Roots Stage with an hour of quirky, energetic tunes that went a long way in reminding the relatively young crowd just what records their New School band's are borrowing from. "Everything Sux," from the 1996 release Everything Sucks, was fresh and tight, a pleasurably moronic minute and a half that could've fit perfectly in most of the basement punk shows I've caught this year. The slightly more aggressive, bass-driven "I Wanna Be A Bear" was even shorter, and had me wondering if Descendents were going to squeeze their entire catalog into their Riot Fest set.

Frontman Milo Aukerman's voice didn't carry the same gravel live as on record, but that fact didn't negatively impact a single song. Age did make itself an issue though, first in rendering 1985's "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" somewhat comical for the wrong reasons, and later when the band brought some kids onstage to read "Punk Commandments" from prop stone slabs. The bit seemed poorly rehearsed and dragged for far too long, a strange juxtaposition considering most of the songs themselves only lasted two minutes apiece. The band just wound up looking out of touch, making it all the more refreshing when they got back to playing actual music. That music had more range than is typical of old school punk bands, with songs like "Clean Sheets" and "Van," both from the band's '97 SST release All, drawing a clear line forward to bands as dissimilar as Material Issue and Paper Mice. The twitchy, almost funk bass lines and guitar cyclones on "Van" were executed with uncanny precision, while the smooth ramble of "Clean Sheets"  conjured up images of Empire Records era makeout pop.

When Descendents busted out "When I Get Old," I couldn't help but smile. The bouncy ballad on fear of aging (lines like Will all my grown up friends say they've seen it all before/ Will they say act your age and I'm immature/ Will I do myself proud, or only what's allowed)  lent perfect perspective to the band's set, as well as their career. Descendents have not only been themselves for 30 years, an admirable feat, but they've stayed young in heart and mind. Sure, it may have taken Aukerman an extra minute to climb back onstage after running into the crowd, but the man is still headlining punk festivals in 2012. Bassist Karl Alvarez has seen bands fall apart, and even suffered a mild heart attack back in 2007. Here he was leading the charge on "I'm Not A Loser" in front of 30,000 people on a gorgeous night in Humboldt Park. As the crowd meandered off to see Rise Against, the buzz was all about how much Descendents rocked harder than most anyone expected. That's doing yourself proud.
Environmental Encroachment | Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III

Riot Fest's Top 5 Sensory Experiences: Saturday

Best Flavor: The honey, apple and goat cheese puff from Puffs of Doom.
Best Sight: Catching the end of Dropkick Murphys while riding the Super Sizzler.
Best Sound: Environmental Encroachment, the local marching band and performance art troupe that paraded around the festival grounds all day.
Best Odor: The festival Porta-Pottys. Super clean, very little stank. Well done.
Best Feel: Laying in the fields of Humboldt Park on a perfect end-of-summer day, listening to punk rock. Fuck the indoor shows, Riot Fest. Do this again next year.

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