This may have been one of the best Riot Fests in recent memory (fight me). Let’s break it down day by day.
Many Riot Fest attendees used Friday as a spectacular opportunity to camp out the Riot Stage, including these authors: even with arriving around two o’clock to grab drinks, scope out the new punk super group L.S. Dunes and finally take their place behind the barricade to join the crowd, they didn’t miss out on a damn thing.
Riot Stage’s first standout was Australian minx Aviva, who kept rapt attention whether she was shaking her hips or using her microphone chord to mime a noose. Her stage presence evoked a black widow spider or a venomous asp, seductive with dark unknowable motives. Yet, there were times she seemed blissfully unaware of the crowd, lost in her own smoky world. *Adorable as she is threatening, Aviva is definitely a star to watch out for on all the music magazine covers.* Standout tracks “Dead2me” and “Grrrls” should be added to every goth night playlist, immediately.
When British rock band Placebo had to pull out of Riot Fest, El Paso rockers Sparta quickly stepped in; but, don’t call them a filler band. Mainstays in the scene since 2001, Sparta stepped in to provide Rioters with some goddamn great punk rock, plain and simple. Songs like “Glasshouse Tarot” and “Miracle” kept fans entertained and engaged between frontman Jim Ward stumping for Beto O’Rourke, who is currently running for Governor of Texas against Greg Abbott. With a new self-titled album coming this October, there’s plenty of time to continue their crusade while putting out great music.
Taking Back Sunday was incredible, as usual. Frontman Adam Lazzara addressed the crowd with the fervor of a Southern Baptist preacher *(even going as far to suggest that God parted the clouds to see His favorite band live)* between iconic tracks “You’re So Last Summer” and “MakeDamnSure,” among others. It’s difficult to find words to describe a band this consistently great, especially with Lazzara being as happy to be there as the fans. Whether it’s just pure nostalgia or the band’s electric onstage chemistry and passionate performance, Taking Back Sunday was a can’t-miss band this year and in years prior.
With over 90 bands on the roster, one reigned supreme. A sea of emos, elder and otherwise, baked beneath the Chicago sky from the moment the festival doors opened. Only the breeze and the promise of their favorite band kept them cool and (mostly) conscious: My Chemical Romance. This legendary quartet almost seemed mythical as the day drew closer and closer to their performance but the crowd exploded the moment members began stepping onstage, before they even kicked into their newest track “The Foundations of Decay.” The setlist included classics like “Teenagers” and “I’m Not Okay (I Promise),” as well as deep cuts “Boy Division” and “Thank You for the Venom.” Through squished toes and allegations of broken limbs from the excitable crowd, who had to be reminded between songs by Gerard himself and a prepared “pick up your friends” slide on the big screen to calm down and back up, it was a wild night be experience and behold.
Many waited anywhere from two to ten years (or more) for this moment and, while My Chemical Romance has stated the contrary, it’s safe to say they’re not men to these dedicated fans. They’re heroes.
Charlotte Sands began our Saturday before we realized, as her bombastic performance was engaging even from miles away. She was even more incredible up close, commanding the stage like a seasoned veteran with years of hits under her belt despite being just 26 with two EPs under her belt. A clear standout from her setlist was her viral hit “Dress,” which amassed over 1.3 million views on TikTok. If that’s your cup of tea, “Every Night Ever” and “Want You Like That” are two other bangers to steep because Sands is a rising star with nowhere to go but up.
The Rebel Stage was home to most of the more hardcore punk acts, so it’s no surprise War on Women wrecked house. Whether making calls of violence with “Aqua Tofana” or calling out racist politicians in “This Stolen Land,” frontwoman and total badass Shawna Potter knows how to rile up a crowd. Potter added humor to her politics by addressing the band’s Riot Fest 2016 performance where she destroyed a Trump effigy onstage…only for him to get elected. She announced she would not make such a grand political statement at the time to prevent electing someone else “who shouldn’t be elected.” It’s beyond clear War on Women knows the power they hold, as they should be.
Rocking out the Roots Stage was South Yorkshire native YUNGBLUD, sporting a bloody knee and an electric energy that ran through an audience ready to see what antics he has in store. While it could be construed to be for the show, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine YUNGBLUD taping up his knee minutes before his set time due to some wild antics backstage. Running back and forth, jumping and gyrating, this rocker really drove the girls on the barricade wild. Performing crowd favorites “superdeadfriends”, “I Love You, Will You Marry Me?” and a cover of MGK’s “I Think I’m OKAY” featuring jxdn doing Machine Gun Kelly’s part, YUNGBLUD proved that it doesn’t have to take a full band to cover a stage. Sometimes you just need a drummer, an acoustic guitar, and the energy of the Energizer Bunny to rile up a crowd.
Yungblud was followed up with easily the greatest spectacle of the weekend: Gogol Bordello. The eight-piece Ukrainian punk outfit performed a show that was powerful and political, bolstered by the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. If the inclusion of “Not a Crime” into the setlist wasn’t effective enough, folk dancers from Chicago’s Ukrainian community certainly was. Also included were crowd favorites “Start Wearing Purple” and “Wanderlust King,” led by frontman Eugene Hutz who commanded the crowd with any language and a bottle of red wine in his hand.
Yellowcard played the entirety of their 2003 masterpiece Ocean Avenue, pointing out before playing the title track that they usually use this song to close their sets. However, since they played the entire album in order from front to back, it was the third song they played. As such, they requested the crowd bring that same energy from the end of their shows to the beginning of their set. Based on Riot Fest’s energetic response during “Ocean Avenue,” I hope they weren’t disappointed.
The last day of Riot Fest was more relaxed, but no less meaningful or memorable. Jimmy Eat World rocked Douglass Park with classic after classic, including “Sweetness” and “Bleed American,” including their newest track “Something Loud.” They closed their set with “The Middle,” a song that has saved my life more times than I can reliably recall. There truly is something special about standing in a crowd of hundreds who may have felt the same.
Returning eight years from their last reunion, New Jersey punk band Midtown rocked the Roots Stage in the early afternoon. The crowd was an impressive dancing mass as they performed an even mix from all three of their albums, including “Frayed Ends”, “Become What You Hate”, and “Give It Up” among other songs. The fans in the audience showed their love, not seeming to matter that it had been so long since they’d been together. Midtown clearly has the stones and the talent to keep the music alive no matter what projects they explore.
Closing out the day were headliners The Academy Is and Nine Inch Nails, but we closed out Riot Fest by seeing The Maine. Closing out the night was “Black Butterflies and Deja Vu,” a tear-jerking love ballad evocative of every time I have to leave Chicago.
It’s impossible to see every single band on any festival, but the ones we were able to catch were beyond worth the wait. Though the future of the festival is up in the air due to protests by Chi-town locals, and likely other outside factors, the success of this year’s fest will hopefully keep the crazy alive for seasons to come.
At the end of the day, we hold the daring opinion that Riot Fest does not, in fact, suck.
Written in collaboration with @pennyraehawkins2014