Rock and Roll Rising From the Mud: 10.5 Observations on Riot Fest


1. Rock and roll is not dead…but it is very dirty.

Recently, Gene Simmons asserted that “rock is dead” – this article can be considered my dissent against that statement. Sales may be dropping, and manufactured pop, rap, and metal may continue to keep their footholds in the musical consciousness, but as long as artists reach the masses with passionate, high-energy performances full of unexpected surprises, rock and roll will never die. Riot Fest, celebrating its tenth anniversary in Chicago, is the ultimate case in point, as I witnessed on the one day of concerts I attended.

Saturday at Humboldt Park proved to be a beautiful day, albeit full of mud leftover from Friday’s rain.  I wore my old sneakers to the festival and immediately threw them out on my return home. Nobody emerged with clean shoes. None of us minded. For my part, I saw nine acts and change from noon to 10 pm, some of whom I was familiar with, some of whom I love, and none of whom did note for note recreations of their studio sound. It was an experience worth every penny.


2. All child stars have a new career path.

An epic day should commence with good humor, so starting with Pizza Underground was an excellent choice. For those unfamiliar, Pizza Underground is Macaulay Culkin (yes, that Macaulay Culkin, looking healthy and exuberant) and his friends, including two female singers who imitate Maureen Tucker and Nico, covering the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed but changing the lyrics so the material is now about pizza. It’s not art, but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard five people joyously sing “Have a Slice of Crust” to the tune of “Satellite of Love,” and then sing it again opera-style, and then sing it again like clucking chickens.

3. You CAN get a mosh pit started before 1 p.m.

The Orwells, a quintet from the suburbs whose growing reputation was marked by a memorable appearance on David Letterman’s show, would have been at home on a double bill with Black Sabbath or the Stooges in the 70s. Their hard rock is deafening and lead singer Mario Cuomo possesses charisma to spare, working the crowd into the first mosh pit of the day. It was a 40-minute set that would have blown every amplifier on the premises apart, climaxing in Cuomo lying on his back, legs kicking in the air.


4. Some groups just need to get out and play.

Pop-rockers Tokyo Police Club’s most recent album, Forcefield, sounded tweaked to the point of sterilization. Live, the group transformed into a machine just as polished but much looser, the guitar and drums setting pulsing rhythms accompanied by atmospheric keyboards while bassist David Monks appealingly fronted the group. Proudly declaring “There are no days off in rock and roll,” Monks borrowed shades from a fan when the sun peaked in the sky and gleefully informed us that he now knew his band had made it because they were sharing a trailer with Wu-Tang Clan.

5. The Dandy Warhols take cues from the Grateful Dead.

Though they only got 45 minutes on stage (as all the pre-6:00 acts did), the Dandy Warhols put on a sterling performance, combining long, drawn-out – but never boring – jamming, with melodic sing-along rockers that fans ate up, including “We Used to Be Friends” (best known as the theme to Veronica Mars).

6. Gentle bearded guys can make a lot of noise.

City & Colour’s last album, the US Top 40-making The Hurry and the Harm, was a beautiful listen, featuring a production marked by leader Dallas Green’s light voice and intelligent songwriting. That songwriting gift was still evident live, but Green, clad in a black suit and hat, sipping water and a Tecate, and getting a different instrument handed to him on every song, used a triple guitar attack to sculpt loud songs with an epic atmosphere and stinging, accomplished interplay that delighted a crowd dominated mostly by teenage girls.

7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones may be middle-aged, but they bust any moves they choose without missing a beat.

Sadly, that’s my one note, for in their performance area, the mud turned into quicksand. Every time someone moved past you, you were in danger of falling over and causing a domino effect of collapses.

8. A 56 year-old had more soul than anybody.

rsz_paul_wellerPaul Weller, who comes to America once in two blue moons, is one of the eminent figures of British rock music, serving as guitarist, lead singer, and chief songwriter for 70s/80s icons the Jam and mid-80s hitmakers the Style Council before launching his own revered solo career. Having first heard the Jam in college, I was thrilled to see him live and he put on the most resonant show of the day. Silver-haired and in incredible shape, Weller played sterling guitar, sang in a rich, thick English baritone, and fronted a six-piece rock-soul band boasting two drummers and an exceptional keyboardist as he sang songs of political calls to action, love lost, love found, and simply getting down and making some noise. Weller concentrated on his solo material, with several lengthy, thrilling workouts, but also reached back to play songs by both his old bands, including “My Ever Changing Moods,”  during which a young couple did a gifted Lindy Hop, and a climactic “A Town Called Malice” which provoked my own dancing, energetic enough to loosen the mud from my shoes.

9. The Flaming Lips basically give you a live-action version of Yellow Submarine. 

9. Halfway through their first number, “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” the Flaming Lips blew all their stage’s fuses. After some troubleshooting, the band returned to put on a show so astounding that it obliterated all the hype I’d heard over the past decade of their concert excellence.

The group’s studio albums are justifiably acclaimed, but live, the band, under Steven Drozd’s direction, sounded even fuller, richer, and synchronized in their arrangements (especially on “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1” and “Race for the Prize”), while Wayne Coyne (with his pitch-perfect voice) played the gleeful, impish frontman with a joy that was all the more welcome after their last album, the admirable but immensely depressing The Terror. A nonstop light show of multiple colors and patterns was projected, toilet paper rolls hung in streams from the rafters, and the production numbers were fully realized while leaving room for Drozd and company to stretch out. Coyne was joined by happy dancing mushrooms, rainbows, suns, and aliens, walked into the crowd in his bubble, and perching on a platform against a backdrop of raining blood for a sequence from The Terror. To drive the show home, they finished by using every lighting effect and explosion while making “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sound more tripped out than the Beatles’ original.

10. Not even getting stranded in Canada–and having to cut the set short–keeps the National down.

rsz_the-national-12The National’s albums have always been marked for me by a haunting, elegant sound evident in even their most uptempo songs. I once described them to friends as “after-party” music, for the small hours when things wind down and moods turn reflective. This show was different. While their indelible melodies remained intact, elegance was tossed out the window and haunting qualities were revved up to the point of terror. The quintet, augmented by brass and occasional piano, roared through one killer hook after another, played a breakneck “Sea of Love”, and used low horns and guitar tones to make “I Need My Girl” sound downright scary.

Guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner took command on stage with triumphant lines, compacted and powerful solos, and a fervent desire to rev up the crowd. In contrast, lead singer Matt Berninger came across as something like a Bond villain – wearing his dark three-piece suit, he sang with both hands gripping the microphone stand, hunched over like Quasimodo, not looking at the audience. When not singing, he paced the stage, casually insulted the Bessners when they flubbed the riff of “I Need My Girl,” and drank nonstop from his traditional onstage concoction of mixed red and white wine over ice. After a thousands-strong, cathartic sing-along to “Fake Empire”, Berninger jumped into the mass of people, nearly shattering an unfortunate young woman’s face, started hugging or back-slapping everyone he met, and still sang a moving, anthemic “Mr. November.” He then proceeded to scream “Terrible Love” as his inspired band mates pumped up the volume, pushed the pace, and sent everyone home with the loudest, wildest echo of them all.

It was rock ‘n’ roll, alive and well.

10.5. The Bonus J. Michael Bestul Observation

I caught the second half of Metric’s set while getting into position for The Flaming Lips, and suffice to say the latter had to make a delayed start because Metric’s fans would not let them leave…especially during the mammoth finale “Breathing Underwater,” with Emily Haynes singing some of the most beautiful vocals I’ve ever heard.

(Photos by Andrew Rostan and

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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