Thursday, September 19, 2013

Riot Fest 2013 recap: Day two

By Gene Wagendorf III

Chelsea NoPants| Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III
Day Two of Riot Fest was loaded with sets by legends: UK ska icons The Selecter, LA punks X and hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy. Not your thing? Well, aren't you a picky bastard. Luckily the promoters had you covered, inviting the circus sideshow troupe Hellzapoppin to set up shop and freak out festival goers. A mix of gravity-defying stunt work, sword swallowing and straight luncay (glass eating, human dartboards and a man snorting popcorn kernels and shooting them out of his eyes), Hellzapoppin had the crowd buzzing cringing all weekend. After all the glass had been washed down with Windex (for real), there were plenty more great bands to catch...

Dinosaur Jr.

J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr
...Plenty more great bands, some of whom dropped really disappointing sets. I've seen Dinosaur Jr four or five times before- everywhere from Subterranean to Lollapalooza- and this was easily the most uninspired of those performances. Part of it was the muddied sound, which crippled J Mascis' voice and took the edge off his guitar, and part of it was the band's seemingly disinterested demeanor. Most of the set suffered from a fuzzy directionlessness, including hit single "Out There," a song that normally sways with desperate energy. Saturday it came off as bland and whiny, despite a couple laser-hot guitar licks. The group finally woke up when covering Deep Wound, a hardcore punk band that Mascis and guitarist Lou Barlow played in before forming Dinosaur. The song was all buzzsaw and raw energy, and in an ideal world would've been the first in a series of Deep Wound tunes. Their closing cover of "Just Like Heaven" had them ending on a high-note; its gurgling bass got people moving as they sang along. Even there though, the lead guitars felt buried in the mix, leaving me wanting more just as much as wanting something else all together.


Deborah Harry | Photo via
I once drunkenly uttered the words "Blondie did more for fashion than they ever did for rock." I know, I know, I'm a fucking moron, and Debbie Harry had a whole hour at Riot Fest to rub it in. The singer's voice sounded perfect romping through "One Way or Another," steeped in her trademark combination of playfulness, seductiveness and edge. "Hanging on the Telephone," a Nerves cover off 1978's Parallel Lines, found Harry's vocals dripping with sass against her band's magnetic bop. Blondie even found a way to jazz up what I've always considered one of their most boring songs, tacking on a snippet of "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" onto the end of "Rapture." The strutting crunch they attacked the Beastie Boys song with came off very Joan Jett, which is to say it kicked complete ass. Aside from that little surprise the group threw down pretty straightforward renditions of their songs; tightly polished but never mechanical.

Blondie ended their performance with a couple more massive hits; the disco carousel of "Heart of Glass" and high octane fist-pumper "Call Me." The former found Harry accenting the glee by nailing every ooh-ooh and ah-ah. Saving her best vocal performance for last, the singer snaked between a cooing sing-song and boisterous salvo. Pushed by charging guitars and serpentine keys, Harry sounded as invigorated onstage as on any Blondie record. The crowd was left in a euphoric tizzy, and I was left with my foot crammed way down my throat.


Rancid| Photo Credit: Daniel Boczarski
Without Rancid, and a hand full of other '90s acts like Green Day, The Offspring and Bad Religion, there might not be a Riot Fest. Not in the way we know it anyway. The punk rebirth those groups helped jump start exposed a whole new generation to hard-hitting three chord rock, mohawks, combat boots, ripped jeans and Manic Panic.  It's weird to think of Rancid as elder statesmen of anything, but there they stood in front of a packed crowd on the fair ground's north end, spreading the gospel to a crowd made up of new high school punks and 30-somethings in Chuck Taylors and dad jeans. Bands whose legacy is so tied to a specific moment in music face the daunting task of not sounding dated. To that end, Rancid succeeded where several other bands failed over the weekend, delivering a crisp, debaucherous set that sounded shockingly fresh.

Blasting through a set list that combines 20-some years worth of music, Rancid leaned into their tight arrangements and bombastic hooks, sounding more like a hungry young band than a pack of road-weary veterans. Tim Armstrong's signature frog-in-throat vocals poured over grizzly guitars, each note as infectious as it was gnarled. The crowd responded with appropriate frenzy, conjuring up one of the largest, giddiest mosh pits of the weekend. When it came time for an encore, the band pulled out two tunes from their landmark 1995 release, ...And Out Come The Wolves. Rancid's performance of "Time Bomb" is likely to be one of my fondest memories from the weekend; it's jubilant ska helped kick start a lot of new friendships by turning Humboldt Park into one big skankin' dance party. Armstrong and company ended on their most well-known track, the ultra-anthemic "Ruby Soho." Part ballad, part jam, the song perfectly captures that California punk sound in a way few other songs can touch. It was enough to make a cool, dark Chicago evening feel like a sun and beer-drenched skate park, and an excellent way for Rancid wrap up a stellar performance.

Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes| Photo Credit: Melissa Fossum
Quirky Milwaukee alt-rockers Violent Femmes seem like a weird choice to play a late set at a huge festival. There's no qualifier there. It just seems like a weird fucking move, especially for a punk festival. Violent Femmes, however, handled the scheduling as if that's what they do every weekend. Knowing that a chunk of the crowd would be splitting time between then and Taking Back Sunday, and that another chunk would be lining up to get a good look at man-children Blink-182, Violent Femmes did what few bands are ballsy enough to attempt: they played all their hits to start their set. Anyone with notions of seeing some TBS and hearing "Blister in the Sun" as they walked back to Blink had to be shocked when "Blister" kicked off the set. The jangling bass, the stuttering percussion and the drowning cat vocals were all on point. Well, as on point as Gordon Gano's vocals ever are. That right there was one of the beautiful parts about The Femmes live. No matter how the more drunk you are and the shittier a singer you are, the more comfortable you feel belting the words to these songs live. Fellow WCR writer Andrew Hertzberg was baffled at the song's end, wondering aloud why they'd play the only song he knew first.

Come on Andrew, you know more Violent Femmes songs.

Without hesitation the band started rumbling through "Kiss Off"- and the sing along was back on. Brian Ritchie's rubberband bass work is the real star of a lot of the band's material, and especially so on "Kiss." Like a bouncing ball it led the crowd right through the song's nasally tantrum before dramatically rattling off. "Please Do Not Go" was up next, a sort of inebriated funk stumble that's the musical equivalent to a misspelled late night booty text. Oh, don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about. By the time Gano starting warbling through the eerie intro of "Add It Up" the crowd had stopped moving, everyone stuck in place twisting and shouting. That track's orgasmic finish wound right into the hypnotic weave of "Gone Daddy Gone," a song that always sounded cooler with the Femmes obnoxious delivery than with the slick Gnarls Barkley treatment.

The band did save one hit for the end of the show, 1991's "American Music." If '91 sounds old for you, consider this: Violent Femmes have been a band for 33 years. That nugget knocked my socks off when I first read it, but once it sunk in it seemed to make sense. They've just always been around. Never anyone's favorite band, never tied to any particular scene, but always a blast whenever you hear 'em. "American Music" was no different: a complete blast and the perfect giddy-up finish to my Riot Fest Day Two.

Day Two Sensory Recap

Best Flavor: Grey Skull Wonder Beer, brewed right here in Chicago by the fine folks at Cobra Lounge.
Best Sight: The Butter Stamos, a bust of Full House star John Stamos carved out of butter. Because Riot Fest.
Best Sound: The aaawwws from the crowd at Hellzapoppin when Mr. Buggles, the crew's adorable French Bulldog, scuttled onstage to do some tricks.
Best Odor: The smell of funnel cake everywhere.
Best Feel: The apologetic hug I got from the security guard who confiscated my pocket whiskey.

Most "Punk" Thing on Day Two: The Himalaya operator, who didn't let the fact that Blondie or Violent Femmes were performing stop him from blaring his huge siren all evening. 

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