Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Riot Fest 2013 recap: Day one

By Gene Wagendorf III 

Riot Fest| Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III
Riot Fest returned to Humboldt Park for its second year as a big, outdoor music festival last weekend, offering willing Chicagoans a chance to celebrate punk and its various subgenres. The promoters again did an admirable job of mixing in non-punk bands again, this year inviting acts like The Pixies, Saul Williams, Public Enemy, Violent Femmes and DeVotchka to jam between the carnival rides and funnel cake. 2013 also saw the festival stretch to a third day, as opposed to last year's Friday kickoff show at the (shudder) Congress Theater. Here are some highlights, followed by a Day One Sensory Recap. Enjoy!

Saul Williams

Saul Williams | Photo Credit: David Shuey
Acclaimed New York slam poet-turned-rapper Saul Williams kicked the festival off on Friday in the strangest of ways: by not playing music. Williams approached the microphone armed only with a book, and promptly launched into a psychedelic lyric poem that served as both a dark critique of mainstream society and a passionate, inspiring call-to-arms. His ability to turn words on their side and pull new meaning from seemingly every day language has long been a strength, especially when those words are aimed squarely and challenging his audiences acceptance of subjects like tradition and history. The line let you children name themselves served as Williams' crescendo; a wave of epiphany sizzling through the crowd.

After a pause and raucous burst of applause, Saul launched back into verse. The realization that there would be no music, no slam infused-punk or glam rap, divided the crowd. While some wandered off in search of a band on another stage, as many seemed to cram closer, digesting every syllable offered in ravenous fashion. Williams switched between reading from his books and spitting from memory, while moving between his trademark slam frenzy and even more impressive moments of rapping against a suggested beat. That last feat might have been the most astounding musical performance of the weekend, as Saul managed to roll and flutter his words against deliberate silences, seducing his audience into bobbing and grooving to the anti-percussion. The subjects touched on during the performance were typically Saul- race, class, politics, freedom- and were all explored with mystical intensity. Ending on one of his most famous pieces, "Sha-Clack-Clack," Williams showed his mastery of rhythm, onomatopoeia and pizzazz. The poem was a dramatic conclusion to a set that, while far from punk sonically, was as close to that movement's ideological roots as anything all weekend.

Smoking Popes

The Smoking Popes| Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III
Chicago scene veterans Smoking Popes played one of Riot Fest's most personally nostalgic sets for me; the band popped up on just about every mix tape I made every high school girlfriend. Their set of uplifting pop punk was a perfect balance of newer material and classic tunes, delivered flawlessy by a band that's become synonymous with consistency. Singer Josh Caterer's voice carried its usual mix of sincerity and desperation, while his band sounded tight and energized. Smoking Popes rarely disappoint live, and while it'd be impossible to suggest they stole the show, few Riot Fest moments felt as plainly pleasant as watching the band surge through songs like "I Know You Love Me" and "Need You Around."

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts | Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III
This year's lineup featured a combination of recently-retro and straight up vintage acts, of which the latter Joan Jett is a member. Touring in promotion of a new record (who knew?), the garage punk icon did her best to satisfy long-time fans with a setlist full of timeless hits. Jett and company tore through a cover of The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" early on, putting to rest any concerns that the aging legend might sound a little more aging and a little less legend. "Do You Wanna Touch Me" and "Bad Reputation" both played out as expected: crunchy, giddy and loud. The first and only real surprise of the set came when Jett invited Laura Jane Grace to play guitar on "Soulmates to Strangers," a new song co-written by the Against Me! singer/guitarist. The tune itself was a bit ho-hum, but Grace's mere presence sent the younger end of the crowd into an absolute fucking tizzy. Fist-pumping, beer-chugging classic "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" made the Rock Stage feel a bit like a big punk karaoke bar, which was definitely cooler than it sounds. Things cooled off as the Blackhearts fuzzed their way through Tommy James & the Shondells hit "Crimson & Clover," where Jett sounded as cool and come-hither as ever. Sadly, her huge riffs on "I Hate Myself For Loving You" were marred by the band's lame attempt to get the crowd to sing backup (as well as by the song's uncomfortable connection to Sunday Night Football). That misstep aside, Jett's performance was stellar; the kind of show that has you coming away wondering why you don't own all her records. Because you should.

Sublime with Rome

Sublime with Rome
If you've wondered what the ass-end of the current wave of '90s nostalgia looks like, it's Sublime with Rome. Formed in 2009 with two original members of the band, they actually had the balls to call themselves "Sublime" before a lawsuit from Brad Nowell's estate put the kibosh on the charade. Original drummer Bud Gaugh walked in 2011, leaving original bassist Eric Wilson as the only member of Sublime still wearing out the name. The lack of lineup continuity isn't even the real problem with the band, it's the awkward way in which they handle the old group's classic material. Rome and company sounded mostly fine handling the reggae of "April 29, 1992," and his tongue-in-cheek, showy delivery almost works on material like "Date Rape" and "Smoke Two Joints." The big problem came on Sublime's two most iconic songs, set-closers "What I Got" and "Santeria." Rome Ramirez lacks the nuance, in both his vocal performance and guitar playing, to do these songs justice. "What I Got" was left sounding flat and clunky, like a mediocre YouTube cover or a shitty Corona commercial. Worse yet, there was a high cringe-factor in hearing Rome sing some of Nowell's more personal lyrics.I found the voice in my head screaming : "That's not your dalmatian! That's you bassist's dead friend's dalmatian! Stop talking about it!" Even more depressing was Rome's take on "Santeria," a song generally regarded as the finest Nowell ever wrote. The band hammed up the reggae melody to cover for a complete lack of tenderness, and the result was something akin to hearing a cover band giddy-up through the tune on a cruise ship in hell.

I'm of the target demographic for eating up any bit of '90s reruns. Hell, I kicked myself for missing Bush the last time they were in town, and Violent Femmes performance on the second night of Riot Fest was one of my favorites. An interesting contrast to what Sublime with Rome do is actually Peter Hook & The Light, who took the stage on Sunday. Both groups operate essentially as tribute bands, but The Light succeed in keeping Joy Division's music alive and intact for new generations, staying true to the original group's sound and aesthetic. Sadly, Sublime with Rome feels about as intimate as cashing a check at the Currency Exchange.

Day One Sensory Recap

Best Flavor: The pumpkin, whiskey and butterscotch puff from Puffs of Doom. Yes, it was as good as it sounds. 
Best Sight: Checking out Fall Out Boy from the top of the Ferris Wheel. 
Best Sound: The crowd going nuts as The Stanley Cup made an appearance during Fall Out Boy's set.
Best Odor: The smell of disinfectant in the portable toilets. Most of them were kept impossibly clean all weekend. Well done, Riot Fest!
Best Feel: Skankning with a crowd of strangers during The Crombies' excellent set.

Most "Punk" Thing on Day One: Saul Williams announcing that he wouldn't be selling merch at the official tent, then hopping off the front of the stage and selling books out of his backpack.

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