Words By Kevin Brody, Photos By Nikki DeBardlebon
Stop whining. Or keep whining and stop going. You’re an adult (maybe).
Music festivals are, at best, an exercise in compromise. Is there the opportunity to see dozens of acts for a fraction of individual show prices? Absolutely. Do you run the risk of seeing a shortened set with compromised sound quality?* Assuredly. Do you also have the opportunity to have your proverbial dick (or vagina, or tits, whatever you like) blown off by a 68-year-old man you originally had no intention of seeing because you were planning on watching System of a Down and trying to figure out what all the dudes in your high school were so obsessed about? A triumphant yes. Give and take is the name of the game.
Riot Fest’s new location in Douglas Park is harder to get to than previous years’ location in Humboldt Park.
Everything is hard to get to for someone. You’ll be fine.
Grass gets muddy when it rains! It rained during Riot Fest! There was mud!
Wear boots. Bring socks. You’ll be fine.
So and so didn’t sound good!
So and so also didn’t do a full sound check. You’ll be fine.
I had to wait in line for the bathroom and it was gross!
There are never enough port-a-potties at every music festival. Use hand sanitizer. You’ll be fine.
Food was expensive!
So is producing a festival. It’s still less expensive than seeing 3 of the headliners separately. You’ll be fine.
If the problems above are too upsetting to deal with, stop going to music festivals. These are the basic complaints are par for the course.
That said, there were some logistical oddities and inconveniences that hurt the festival. Walking through a carnival midway in what went beyond mud to comprise a slurry of muck several inches deep to attempt to buy band merchandise was awful. Kudos to Brenden Kelly from Lawrence Arms for the best carnival banter, “Is everyone on that Ferris Wheel just getting their dick sucked right now?”
The stage layout made some wildly incongruous, unplanned sonic mashups. No Doubt included a two-song acoustic set for their headlining performance. An acoustic set at a large outdoor music festival is a risky enough venture alone, and it was further complicated by the bleed from Ice Cube’s simultaneous headlining set. The result? An unlistenable mashup of No Doubt’s “Simple Kind of Life” with Ice Cube’s emphatic kickoff of “Check Yo Self”. If standing at just the right point between Friday’s headlining stages Motorhead could also be heard attempting to split ear drums from across the field. The same aural pastiche occurred through the rest of the weekend, though I admit I enjoyed hearing Billy Idol’s set clash with Rancid. Billy, like Paul Rudd, appeared ageless and sounded great.
By Sunday attempting to sit was a non-starter. To be fair, there weren’t many places to sit and relax on Friday, but the level or garbage, baseball field dirt, regular mud, and inconsistent traffic made it extra difficult. Traversing the festival after sundown seemed downright unsafe, as the lack of general crowd lighting and specified pathways for directing traffic to exits was virtually nonexistent.
Riot Fest’s musical offering was an embarrassment of riches. Trying to navigate the schedule felt daunting. By the end of Sunday night there were plenty of acts who performed reasonably…but reasonable isn’t particularly exciting. Alkaline Trio and Lawrence Arms banged through sets to large hometown crowds, but I got the feeling everyone might have enjoyed those offerings better somewhere else, including the bands. De La Soul were fun, but spent an unnecessary amount of time in call and response for a short set.
Some acts were unfortunately hindered significantly by audio issues. Hum sounded like they were playing through a pair of blown out speakers, and despite their seeming orgy of band members, during Flogging Molly’s set I could hardly hear 3 of them. Bootsy Collins also suffered from inconsistent bass during his set, which is wildly disappointing considering that’s his main instrument (outside of his outer-space vocals, which were loud and clear).
Thankfully Drive like Jehu put their younger contemporaries to shame with the energy of a band half their age. They were easily my favorite “Oh, I’ve Never Really Listened to Them” discovery of the festival. Against Me! also banged through a straight-forward loud, fun set early in the day on Friday. I was pleasantly surprised by Anthrax’s ferocity and agility, though their Dio-lite vocals were still difficult to stomach. Musically though, they crushed their set.
The smaller stages were fun to drop into now and then, but their offering left a lot to be desired. Alex Wiley started a song with “Fuck my bitch, fuck my bitch, fuck my bitch” before I decided to bolt, though White Lightening seemed to be having the most fun on the smaller stages–making their set, at the very least, entertaining to watch.
Desaparecidos destroyed their mid-day, too-sunny Saturday slot with a set comprising a majority of 2015’s “Payola”’ track listing as well as some of my personal favorite cuts from 2002’s “Read Music, Speak Spanish”. Maintaining the consistent energy and intimacy of a club show within the context of a multi-day outdoor music festival seemed an impossible task. Desaparecidos accomplished it without gimmick. The band’s extensive hiatus between 2002-2010 would have made it easy to forgive a lackluster showing. I wanted them to be good. I was ready to accept that they’d be okay. I was positive they wouldn’t be great.
They haven’t been touring and playing together consistently. The songs off the first record are 13 years old. There was no way they’ll sound as good as the new ones. It’s just a side project and they might not take it seriously.
I couldn’t have been more pleased to be so wrong. The band played tighter than a number of the weekend’s other acts who toured consistently throughout Desaparecidos’ off-years. Old songs sounded (and felt) as vibrant and energetic as new ones. Any notion that the band was some sort of vanity or half-hearted side project was quickly assuaged during their 45-minute set. No light show. No crowd baiting. Virtually no stage banter (the band instead opted for soundbites from a variety of sources to play between songs). Just a straightforward approach to putting on an engaging show by playing music well. It was easily one of the best club shows I’ve ever seen—it just happened to be in the context of a massive outdoor music festival. Go see Desaparecidos.
“Is this being alive, or am I fucking missing something?” – Iggy Pop
Iggy Pop. I made a terrible mistake by underestimating Iggy Pop. I also made an easy mistake by underestimating Iggy Pop. It’s easy to assume that at 68-year-old front man known for his frantic onstage energy wouldn’t be able to hack it. Luckily I was accompanied on Saturday by friends who were emphatic about their love of Iggy and his live show. One of these friends was unaware that portable toilets have a urinal on the side to avoid splash-back—so I was still skeptical of their Iggy worship. As soon as Rancid ended their set on the adjacent stage Iggy launched into an hour of loud, tight, engrossing rock and roll. His vocals were excellent. His band was excellent. Perhaps most importantly, he was every bit as lively and engaging as his long reputation suggested he’d be. He put on a rock and roll show to rival the most bombastic of stage productions. He accomplished the feat by flipping a mic stand a few times, moving through the set like a decapitated snake on fire, and kicking everyone’s collective asses. The stage itself was light in plain white work-lights. Not a single colored gel. No strobes, no pulsing lasers, no LEDS, not even a spotlight. A brightly lit stage so every movement, every sideways owl-necked shimmy, and every shout of “FUCK ME, C’MON FUCK ME” was as bright and big as the senior citizen putting nearly every young gun playing earlier that day to shame.
I never left his set as I intended. The setup in Douglas Park made it fairly easy to catch a few songs from a headliner and duck across the fields to catch other big name draws. In the distance though I could see System of a Down’s intense, choreographed stage lighting while Iggy jumped between the barricade to scream at the front row. He didn’t need anything on that scale. Iggy wasn’t putting on a production. Iggy accomplished as much with a mic swing and a demented Christ pose as the largest production of the night. I underestimated one of the most important figures in the history of the overwhelming majority of bands playing Riot Fest. I couldn’t have been happier to be proven wrong.
Maybe that’s the most redeeming part of Riot Fest (and large festivals in general). I almost certainly would never have paid to see Iggy Pop on his own. I probably wouldn’t have seen Desaparecidos either. Despite the logistical inconveniences, the money, the inability of my 28-year-old body to stand for a few hours without being immediately sore, I experienced two of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Shows in which my expectations were medium to low and which yielded wild, amazing returns.
I might even go back.
*I spent several years as an audio engineer and worked as a stage technician for the Pitchfork Music Festival between 2008-2012. I very much understand the difficulties of running multi-band stages with limited to no sound-check. It’s a nightmare. It’s understandable that it might take a song or two for the mix to really start sounding good at the start of a set. It’s a fair compromise. It’s far less understandable when the PA drops out, feedback on vocal microphones is consistent, bass guitar modulates between being inaudible or deafening, snare drum mics appear to be off completely, backing vocals are overbearingly loud compared to main vocals…the list goes on. When those issues occur throughout an entire set it’s incredible jarring and disappointing. That’s more than “compromised” it’s poor. Compromised is reasonable.