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The cure
Photograph: Anthony Linh Phuong Nguyen/Riot Fest

Riot Fest 2023: The full recap

Riot Fest has officially become Grown-Up Warped Tour.

Jessi Roti
Written by
Jessi Roti

Yeah, I said it. Riot Fest is Warped Tour for elder millennials—complete with a skate ramp—and the last bastion of whatever an “alternative rock” music festival looked like for Gen X and hip Boomers. So much for no nostalgia in punk. It now revels in it. 

The festival and carnival returned to Douglass Park for its 17th edition with headliners The Cure, Death Cab for Cutie/The Postal Service and Foo Fighters. Since returning post-pandemic, it’s faced continued—and increasingly contentious—pushback from residents of North Lawndale and Little Village. Walking down California Avenue, protest posters listing headliners as “Yte [a stylization for ‘white’] Punks,” “The Displacements” and “Too Many Cops,” just to name a few, decorated streetlight posts and newspaper boxes outside of the Pink Line station, while “Real Punks H8 Riot Fest” and “Go Back to the Burbs!!” were spray-painted on the fencing down Ogden Avenue.

They’re refrains the fest has heard since it first relocated to Humboldt Park from the shuttered Congress Theater. Still, it has persevered when other festivals once also housed by Douglass Park, such as Lyrical Lemonade and Heatwave, have moved on. This year in particular, organizers pointed to what they view as concerted efforts to more fully embrace the community it disrupts for a solid month annually (not factoring in post-fest restoration, which some argue has never fully happened since the festival moved there in 2015). 

Apart from the music, a slight re-organization of the festival’s typical format gave way for Beyond The Fest—an immersive initiative to showcase the rich culture and talent on the West side, which included youth anti-violence advocacy organization Boxing Out Negativity, nonprofit bookstore Open Books, local eats and clothing boutiques, live murals from neighborhood visual artists and much more. 

Within the confines of the grounds, there was earnest, intergenerational joy. From the promise of upstarts like the city’s own new wave band Future Nobodies, metal act Through N Through and rapper 1300cadoe to painted-up Juggalos waiting for Insane Clown Posse, genuine rapturous applause for Corey Feldman, comedian Hannibal Buress’s rap alter-ego Eshu Tune and an unexpected cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” from The Dresden Dolls, there’s a unique spirit to the experience and camaraderie at Riot Fest compared to its summer predecessors. 

The final word on whether or not changes made, which included addressing noise levels and traffic flow around Mount Sinai and St. Anthony hospitals, were enough for Riot Fest to get into its neighbors’ good graces remains to be seen, for clean-up and planning for next year have only just begun. 

Until then, attendees have a new flurry of muddy, Malört and rain-soaked memories. Here are some highlights.

Riot fest crowd
Photograph: Anthony Linh Phuong Nguyen/Riot Fest

The Cure stole the weekend

The Foo Fighters brought straightforward, arena rock-sized anthems to the Riot Stage (and Grohl’s perennial reminder that his first concert was Naked Raygun at The Cubby Bear—we know, Dave) and Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service were bona fide hipsters, but it was The Cure who were the headliner of headliners this weekend. 

After Sunday’s rain delayed gates opening until 2pm, folks were going to need their spirits lifted. Luckily, it turned into a beautiful evening and Robert Smith, Simon Gallup and company sent everyone home on a cloud (not that rain during The Cure wouldn’t have been a vibe).

With about a two-and-a-half hour set, the seminal goth rockers proved masterful in weaving together over 40 years of music that felt like a portal into another world; playing what felt like at least one song from nearly each of their 13 studio albums, including an encore that featured “10:15 Saturday Night” from 1979’s debut LP Three Imaginary Boys

Deep cuts like “Cold” from the Pornography album, “A Night Like This” from 1985’s The Head on the Door and “Burn” (popularized by the 1994 soundtrack to The Crow) sent the crowd of truly diehard fans into a frenzy of “Oh my god” across the park. But of course, it was the big hits, the ones that bind you to strangers across the globe through sing-alongs on nights just like Sunday, that moved people to tears and twirling. 

The lushness of “Pictures of You,” eerie, seductive drive of “Fascination Street,” giddiness that rises inside you when you hear the opening riff of “Just Like Heaven” or the raw power of “Shake Dog Shake”—there were no misses, no nuances in sound lost to the outside elements. Robert Smith’s vocals floated above the beautiful, gloomy symphony to pull at the heartstrings of everyone standing in awe of one of the best bands to ever do it. 

Also, because it has to be said: Sticking Queens of the Stone Age, who ended their set with the pummeling “Song for the Dead,” between Death Cab and Postal Service was just setting the latter up to be a bummer. The dramatic downshift in energy on a Saturday, when the headliner is more or less responsible for sending guests off into the night on an adrenaline high to carry on, was a miss. I never saw a smaller crowd for a headlining set. Meanwhile, Mr. Bungle, the experimental hard rock project of Face No More’s Mike Patton featuring Scott Ian of Anthrax and Dave Lombardo of Slayer, had the entire middle of the field in a figurative chokehold of thrash metal, and they loved it. 

The cure
Photograph: Timothy Hiatt/Riot Fest

Once again, Grrrls rock

There’s something about women commanding a stage, in front of microphones, armed with instruments and words as weapons, you know? Kicking things off Friday afternoon, Woodstock, New York’s The Bobby Lees delivered their brand of snarling garage rock under the fierce sun during their half-hour set (which felt criminally short). Playing tracks from 2022’s Bellevue (one of the best albums of last year), singer and guitarist Sam Quartin’s wild-eyed presence and playful, dynamic vocals stop you in your tracks. They threw in a cover of PJ Harvey’s “50 ft. Queenie” for good measure—be still, my heart. 

Kim Gordon, Screaming Females, Ani DiFranco and The Breeders essentially played back-to-back on Friday in what should be known as one of the greatest festival blocks ever (if you committed yourself to catching all four). I mean, talk about formidable. 

There’s an intensity to Kim Gordon that intimidates me as much as it makes me want to hang out with her. It’s in the way she holds herself on stage—the tension in her arms when she holds her bass, defensive stance she takes at the mic or at whatever noisy gadget she has at the time. Whether she’s singing or painting a sprawling, sonic landscape with her band, it’s like hypnosis watching her after a certain point. 

From Gordon’s heavy soundscapes to Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster showing exactly why she’s one of the best guitarists in the country, the New Jersey trio had arguably Friday’s best set. There were no frills here. Just simply some of the best rock and roll you’ll find and they were stuck in the woods, on the tiny-but-mighty Rebel stage. The release of February’s Desire Pathway was the act’s first in five years and showed a further expansion of their abilities and influences without sacrificing any of the edge. Lead single “Brass Bell” came to life like a Dio song, while “Mourning Dove” and “Ornament” explored more earwormy melodies and highlighted the natural vibrato in Paternoster’s booming vocal. One band that really never disappoints live. 

Screaming females
Photograph: Courtesy of Riot Fest

Ani DiFranco’s acoustic guitar may have given people the wrong impression. Acoustic guitars can be punk and hers, like Woody Guthrie’s, kills fascists (or at least, her and her devoted fans think it does). Performing songs including “Little Plastic Castle,” “Do or Die” and “Untouchable Face,” DiFranco’s music remains a definitive example of communicative intimacy, a practice in storytelling rather than pop structure (though they share the power of repetition). The gentility of her sound provided a nice respite from the succession of drop-tuned guitars, though difficult to keep folks in place with the ringing bells of nearby carnival games and sensory stimulation-overload overall. The set was almost enough to make you forget how she’s really stuck her proverbial foot in “it” in recent years when it comes to needing to evolve her feminist agenda.

In one of the best full album plays of the weekend, The Breeders delivered The Last Splash in full, two-and-a-half weeks after its proper 30th anniversary. From the opening notes of “New Year,” you could feel the sense of celebration from the band and fans. The sound? Kim Deal’s voice? As if the studio recording were playing. Once “Cannonball” started, forget it. 

On Saturday, it was the one-two punch of Warpaint then Jehnny Beth that set the tone for the day. Warpaint’s electropop—two-part harmonies and jangly guitars crooning and surging with hooks abound—has been a staple of Los Angeles cool since they formed in 2004. After a hiatus, the quartet released Radiate Like This last year. While songs like “Champion” and “Hips” may be a bit too chill, they sounded exquisite in the breeze and light drizzle of the early afternoon. Live—their sets have always been captivating, thanks to drummer Stella Mozgawa—the percussive dynamo bound to the backbeat. Fan favorites including “Disco//Very” and “New Song” got the toes to start tapping and hips to sway, while breakthrough 2010 single “Undertow” and post-punk-tinged “Krimson” have come to take on a darker, somewhat haunting quality. It was so good.

The dreary sky worked for Jehnny Beth’s set. Rain and sensual industrial electronics go hand-in-hand. After popping out during Belfast post-punks Enola Gay’s set, Beth took the stage to “A Place Above” from her debut, solo album, 2020’s To Live is to Love, which features narration from actor Cillian Murphy. Since Savages, the feminist, all-female band she fronted, went on indefinite hiatus after touring their Adore Life album in 2017, Beth has continued to probe taboos in faith, religion, sexuality and gender with songs like the Portishead-tinged “Flower,” “We Will Sin Together” and “I’m the Man.” Plus, she’s a towering form on stage, unafraid to hold a gaze with the crowd until near discomfort. It all works. 

jehnny beth
Photograph: Anthony Linh Phuong Nguyen/Riot Fest

Turnstile will (and should) be back to headline

If you missed Turnstile on Friday, I’m sorry because apart from the above-mentioned Screaming Females, they had the set of the day. The hardcore outfit hailing from Baltimore, Maryland has been catapulted into the mainstream after their third LP, 2021’s GLOW ON, was released to critical and commercial acclaim and earned them three Grammy nominations earlier this year. It’s deserved, for the band’s frenetic performance solidified them as future headliners and innovators of a genre being reintroduced to an entirely new generation. Marrying traditional elements of hard rock with more groovy influences drawing upon Go-Go music and pop melodies, the sound lends itself to dancing, moshing and sing-alongs—apparent from the opening bars of “Mystery,” “Don’t Play” and “Alien Love Call.” Equal parts positivity, unity and crowd surfing, fans—both existing and newly-minted—held onto every word. 

Frontman Brendan Yates moved across the stage like a slingshot, with a relentless stamina that seemingly kept him five feet in the air at all times (except for when they played “Underwater Boi,” he stayed mostly grounded for that one). By the end, I found myself smiling from ear to ear, and wanting to hit the gym.

Photograph: Anthony Linh Phuong Nguyen/Riot Fest

Early aughts emo/screamo/hardcore reigned supreme (a.k.a. Millennials having junior high/high school flashbacks)

For this critic, the weekend came down to AFI and The Used

AFI’s Davey Havok was probably one of the most self-aware people on the mic over the weekend, joking that people who didn’t know the band probably thought they were just playing covers of other people’s songs, including The Cure, to whom Havok dedicated “The Killing Lights” to (as it’s directly influenced by Smith and company). For those who did know who AFI was, they were ecstatic to hear songs like “Days of the Phoenix” from 2000’s Art of Drowning, and “Girls Not Grey,” “Silver and Cold” and “Dancing Through Sunday” from 2003’s Sing the Sorrow, which ushered the band to new heights at the time. Their metal-edged, pop-punk sound felt full-circle, and songs from 2006’s Decemberunderground—”Love Like Winter” and “Miss Murder” chief among them—sound as good as they ever did. 

The Used had the job of battling The Mars Volta (who were, by honorable mention, absolutely incredible) as sound-bleed between the Roots and Radicals stages was inevitable. Still, the Utah rockers held their own and their fans had their back, singing every song at the top of their lungs and following singer Bert McCracken’s every instruction. One of the most beloved emo rock bands from the era when Fuse TV reigned supreme with programming like Steven’s Untitled Rock Show, the band ripped through songs from their first two LP’s, 2002’s The Used and 2004’s In Love and Death, as well as lead singles from 2007’s Lies for the Liars, including “Handsome Awkward” and “The Bird and the Worm” and newer tracks that capture a sort of adolescent irreverence even now.  Tapping into pre-teen angst in your thirties through songs like “All That I’ve Got” and “Taste of Ink” is cathartic. It’s emotional. It’s transportive. It reminds you that things can, and often do, in fact get better. Here’s to the band playing the festival again when I can sing those same songs in my 50s and 60s like original Cure fans. 

the used
Photograph: Anthony Linh Phuong Nguyen/Riot Fest

Death Grips showed up!

With a few last-minute lineup changes leading up to the festival, I have to admit I wondered if (or when) Death Grips would pull the plug on their scheduled set. It’s happened before. 

Compared to their 2010’s heyday, they’d been relatively quiet apart from unannounced re-releases of previous material and cryptic teasers featuring what is assumed to be new music (but can really be anything at this point. It’s Death Grips).

Regardless, the purveyors of bombastic, electro-clash hip-hop very quickly reminded onlookers why they developed such a cult following early on. Opening their set with the ferocious, bass-forward “System Blower,” the trio of MC Ride, drummer Zach Hill and guitarist/keyboardist Andy Morin delivered in their hour-long set. While it took a minute for the crew at the sound booth to find the right balance of noise versus vocal, Death Grips have always been more about freedom of expression, confrontation and release than pristine proficiency. “I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States” sent the crowd into a circle pit that looked more like a whirlpool. The glitchy speed of “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” into the down-tempo, sludgy industrial feel of “Anne Bonny” felt like whiplash, only to be picked back up by “The Fever (Aye Aye)” for one final round before the trio all but fled the stage. 

Heads were spinning, in the best way. 

death grips
Photograph: Jason Pendleton/Riot Fest

Bring back the Tilt-a-Whirl

Not at all music related, but Riot Fest has always had a Tilt-a-Whirl and this year it was replaced by The Scrambler, some giant cage thing that rose into the air and spun upside-down (scared just thinking about it), and a high-rising carousel of swings (very fun). Please hear my plea, organizers. Bring back the Tilt-a-Whirl, the superior carnival ride. Oh, and the sideshow performers! 

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