A Day at Riot Fest 2012

The most amazing thing about the day may have been how I purchased one of 200 limited edition posters for $10, and, despite being right up against the stage for two separate shows, did not see it get creased or smushed. It now hangs proudly up on my wall.

All of the above speaks a lot to the wonderful time which was had by those at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park last Sunday. With four stages and carnival rides spread out over the athletic grounds on Division next to the very nice garden with the buffalo statues, people had plenty of room to enjoy the music without feeling like sardines in oil. Moreover, the festival was stunningly clean; volunteers spent the day traversing the fields picking up cigarette butts and such, and everyone helped out when somebody lost a wallet or cell phone in the midst of a raging dance party. Even the concessions and souvenirs were—GASP—reasonably priced!

It was an ideal environment for enjoying a very punk-and-indie-geared show. And the thousands of people in Humboldt Park that sunny, not too hot day were so glad to be there. Unlike my experience with Springsteen, there were few middle-aged people and no recognizable hipsters: jeans, goofy T-shirts, and metal and piercings were the order of the day. Indeed, I saw more flesh plugs and tunnels than I’ve ever seen in my life, including two pairs which were twice the size of the ears they adorned. (I’ve seen ones which doubled the size of the ear before but never a triple. The human body is an amazing thing.)

I went there as a single man, joined for some sets by old and new friends from the comics world, but that made it all the better to people watch, getting glimpses of happy couples and packs of delighted teenagers and lifelong fans of not that famous bands so thrilled to be seeing their heroes play for a mass audience. Similarly, I indulged in my appreciation of a good T-shirt, and my two favorites, even trumping an array of Doctor Who apparel, were one with a hammer over an arrow pointing downwards…

And the Death Records logo.

Somebody please write in on the comments if you know these references. It will be a nice change from the hair product salesmen and technology gurus who keep writing in about how we have one of the best blogs in the world.

I only acquired tickets for Saturday, missing out on Rise Against, the Gaslight Anthem, and GWAR among others. (People love GWAR.) But my day of six shows and part of a seventh was damn well fulfilling enough.

In my time getting the lay of the land, I could hear the festival opener, a last-minute addition who played for half an hour starting at 12:30. I didn’t wander over, but as the set kept drifting around my ears, I decided this band was a damn good melodic rock group. Only later did I realize they were Imagine Dragons, whose first album debuted at No. 2 in Billboard this month. They were by far the best choice to open, by virtue of being the most mellow act of the day.

My show properly kicked off at 1:00 with Reverend Horton Heat, whom I remember in my childhood guesting on The Drew Carey Show. The good reverend smiles during his solos, drinks beer between songs, and has the most no-fuss approach to setlist planning imaginable. Opening with “Psychobilly Freakout,” he proceeded to say “That was a song from our first album. Here’s one from our second album.” And so on. “This is from our fifth album, which is widely considered to be our worst.” “Which one are we on again?” It left more time to crush out gems like “Galaxy 500” and “Martini Time” and mount Nature Boy Jimbo’s bass like a statue of a proud, triumphant general.

When I was in middle school, Less Than Jake was a band I confused with other bands like Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, and other pop-punkers whose shirts my classmates proudly wore. This year, Riot Fest was a stop on their 20th Anniversary Tour, and they played a crowd-pleasing forty-minute set. It touched on their most popular tunes, “The Art of Selling Yourself Short” and “All My Best Friends are Metalheads” among them, but their true skill in crowd-pleasing came in their stunts: the dancing trombonists wearing fake balloon penises, the man in a horse mask they invited on stage to join in on “The Ghost of You and Me,” and one song in which they insisted every man who could lift his girlfriend onto his shoulders, and twenty-five (at least) obliged. For me, it was more an exercise in fond nostalgia: they’re a decent band, but after a while there’s only so much ska rhythms and two trombones can do for you. Forty minutes was just about right.

This was not the case for Built to Spill, the Idaho quintet responsible for the magisterial Perfect From Now On and other such albums.  Built to Spill’s strength is in their heavy atmospherics, building a mood over time and making an experience sound like one continuous song, with Doug Martsch’s high but earthy vocals setting the tone. I could imagine a seventy-plus minute concert being an event, but at forty the band felt like they were only just warming up and finding a groove when it was all over. Not that the fans minded: the group around the stage was one of the most devoted assemblages I’ve ever come across, screaming “We love you Doug!” at frequent intervals and exploding during the set-closing “Carry the Zero,” for by that point Built to Spill finally sounded rocking and in command.

From that point on, the show got better and better, albeit with one disappointment in my next set, that of Awolnation. Let it be clear: Awolnation (who are touring with Imagine Dragons right now) is a band made for arenas, so if they do not become major stars, it would be a great loss. Aaron Bruno has a frontman’s overpowering voice, writes guitar-and-electronica-heavy songs with a few good melodic twists in the tails, and works a crowd like nobody’s business. He inspired enthusiastic sing-alongs, crunched a neon blue axe, and got the entire audience to charge the stage during a tear-down-everything seven-minute “Sail.” It was a truly dynamic show, but my only question is…why didn’t he pull out “People,” the one number on the Megalithic Symphony album which was MADE for a live performance? I don’t create setlists, so I don’t know.

I also left with one song to go so I could get six feet from the stage for the act I had come to see most of all: Elvis Costello and the Impostors.

If that was a touch discourteous to the Awolnation, it was worth it. For in sixty minutes, Costello put on a show which I completely did not expect, and which apparently attracted a lot of attention: a picture from that night now adorns his Wikipedia page.

What Costello did…it’s hard to find a comparison, but it made me think of actors who stumble into a certain image which their fans eat up and which rakes in financial gain, and eventually they decide to have a little fun with it, joke around, exaggerate certain traits and mannerisms, and find their audience still wants more. Elvis Costello is a man who has tried and pulled off so many styles of pop-rock and proved himself one of the geniuses of music many times over, but on this night, gauging an audience who might not have been familiar with his many facets, he made what I think was a conscious decision. At Riot Fest, he played the role of the Anti-Everything Guitar God. His set included no ballads, no “Alison” or anything a mile within it, only uptempo and LOUD music, and as he switched back and forth between four guitars, one of which had his name in gold cursive printed on the neck, he continually struck poses and consciously smirked and sneered at the screaming festival attendees. But while all of this was very conscious on his part, there was no sign of disdain. He was enjoying the semi-ridiculousness of his performance and wanted to make sure we enjoyed it. His outfit, a full purple suit with matching tie, straw bowler hat, and shiny dress shoes, spoke to how he did not want to be taken fully seriously. (Bassist Davey Faragher mimicked the costume, and keyboardist Steve Nieve wore a frilly shirt of his own. Only the scowling, silver-haired Pete Thomas demurred, sticking to black t-shirt and white shorts as he bashed the drums for an hour.)

But Costello’s act would have been nothing without the music to back him up, and the music was extraordinary. He stuck mostly to songs from his early albums with their blasts of wicked humor and driving rhythms, although “Bedlam” and “Stella Hurt,” the two more recent numbers he picked out, shone in this company…a company which began with “Lipstick Vogue” and carried on raucously for the duration.

The two key things I took away were one, Costello further backed up his performance with a string of guitar solos, each compact, crushing, and lyrical within their stings, and two, he brought out an air of dark menace and fear on so many tunes: I felt shivers as he cried out in desperation during “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea” and achingly intoned “Watching the Detectives” against the staccato guitar and sirens. Thankfully, more joyous (by comparison) numbers abounded: “Radio Radio,” “Pump It Up,” an outstanding “Clubland,” and a closing “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” which the audience knew every word of…and oh, did we let him know.

It was rock and roll at its purest.

Gogol Bordello was NOT rock and roll at its purest, but something just as great: a sound I had never quite heard before which left me enthralled.

Gogol Bordello’s mix of Eastern European folk and punk is something in itself, but to see them, to see Eugene Hutz stripped to the waist, ready to break every string on his acoustic guitar, arching his back and giving the most joyous and lascivious smiles at the audience, Sergey Ryabtsev wielding his violin bow like a sword across the thinnest of skins, Yuri Lemeshev playing rapid fire accordion, Elizabeth Sun banging a God-almighty-large bass drum when not dancing up a storm, the entire band moving and yelling and consumed with the passion of making music…I could write a two-paragraph run-on sentence and still not fully capture what it’s like to experience Gogol Bordello on stage.

The audience is a little easier to describe. By now Riot Fest was full up, and there were now women dressed for a night on the town mixed in with the hairstyled and pierced and leathered crowd.  But this entire body was stirred to a frenzy by Hutz and company, and for a solid hour we pumped out fists in the air, jumped like Olympians, screamed along with the title of “Start Wearing Purple!” and “No can do this, no can do that” in “Tribal Connection,” Here was a band who more than any other could have started a genuine riot.

Ironically, Gogol Bordello also played the only ballad I heard all night. Of course, it was Hutz singing a sweet acoustic paean to alcohol, but soft tempo is soft tempo.

By now, I was two football fields away from the stage for the final show, and I also had no ride home, so I decided to leave early to beat the public transit rush. I did stay long enough to hear the eight or ten first minutes of the closer.

The darkness had overtaken Humboldt Park, except for two girls dancing with flaming sticks in the rear of the audience, and all I could see was a swarming purple-black mass of people which at that moment could have swarmed over Chicago given the right instruction to do so, and in the distance, lit by the brightest of lights, The Stooges. James Williamson played guitar which I swear had to have deafened everyone in the front row, Mike Watt and Scott Asheton kept the rhythm with ferocious precision, and Iggy Pop, topless, stringy, commanding the crowd to “bum rush this shit!” while proclaiming “We are the dirty fucking Stooges!” cut loose with something beyond abandon, something strongly melodic and yet anarchic in its message and the sharpness of his delivery, and for those nine minutes or so of “Raw Power” and “Search and Destroy,” the flames darting around my line of vision, the crowd pleading for an on-stage explosion, Pop screaming back that he didn’t give a fuck about all our apologies…

I look back at this very, very long review and realize I can cut it down to five words.

You had to be there.

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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