Thoughts and Dispatches from Riot Fest

By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but then again, when do things ever go according to plan? The plan was to go see Say Anything for the second time this year, as well as many other bands that we could manage to fit into our schedule. We had just seen our favorite band perform an electrifying set of rarities a few months ago and we couldn’t wait to see what songs they would pull out of their impressive discography next. The anticipation couldn’t have been much higher. But then, on the Tuesday before the festival, Say Anything unexpectedly dropped out of the tour, forcing us to make adjustments.

The lineup, even without them, was unbelievably strong. For what was primarily a punk rock festival, Riot Fest 2013 featured an impressive amount of variety. There were young, contemporary groups, old bands reuniting, veteran outfits still rocking after all these years and pretty much everything in between. Yes, there was plenty of punk, but there was also alternative and metal, with a few sprinklings of pop and hip-hop in the mix, as well.

As I tend to, I had a loose agenda of the bands that I wanted to see, but there are few certainties once you step foot into a music festival. Whether it’s Grant Park, Tinley, Great Stage, Coachella, or Humboldt Park  (as happened to be the venue this particular weekend) once you enter the gates, you immediately become immersed into a new reality, far removed from your own. And, for better or worse, you are stuck there for the rest of the day. You can be either turned off or enchanted by it – I tend to fall in the latter of the two categories – but there is no mistaking that it is unlike any other experience. This new world can be daunting, or even intimidating at first, but once you adjust, there is something comforting about it. You are among thousands upon thousands of strangers, but you are all there for similar reasons. You all want to celebrate the unique power of music. You are all there to get a three-day respite from the stresses and pains that come with being a human being in the real world. And, in some way, you all want to chase down a time in your life that has passed.

That is the only part that makes me slightly uncomfortable. Riot Fest, like most festivals, is undeniably and unapologetically soaked in nostalgia. People that know me that well know that nostalgia isn’t really my thing. I mean, sure, I like looking back on the good times; I especially like thinking about the various processes and paths taken that shaped the development and maturity of mine and others’ lives, but I get uneasy when people around me start yearning for the good old days. I like to think, even if it’s not always true, that all of the days are good, if you tilt your head enough. The good in the present is just as appealing to me as the good of the past. If you choose to dwell on what’s wrong in the present then you won’t appreciate what’s good about it. As much as I love many old bands, it’s hard for me not to look at some of the concertgoers without thinking about how they are probably wishing it were a different time in their lives. This, coupled with the observation that the crowds at some of my favorite punk and pop punk bands were skewing noticeably younger, gave me a little bit of a funny feeling. Could it be possible that at the still relatively young age of 22 that I was getting a little too old to appreciate some of my favorite pop punk bands in person? Riot Fest had potential to be a pretty good litmus test for me to figure out if the twinges I was feeling were appropriate or ridiculous.

Having said all that, I didn’t have any apprehensions about going. On the contrary, I was thrilled. All of these pre-concert reflections were beside the point, because nostalgia and anything else be damned, I was going to enjoy the hell out of this weekend. And how could I not? Good music, great friends, cold(ish) beers, adventure and nice weather, seriously, how could I not?

So, back to there being few certainties to a music festival, starting with the weather. Every all-day music festival I’d ever attended reached at least 90 degrees, even a stormy Sunday at Lollapalooza in 2010. Naturally, I was focused on staying cool and didn’t even consider obvious concerns like chilly fall weather or the kind of cold, pouring rain that soaks through all but the most prepared festival warrior’s attire. Of course, we encountered both of those things. Following an early set Friday evening, Brent and I succumbed to the falling temperatures and dropped $40 on sweatshirts at the merchandise tent. With limited options, Brent quickly snagged a Yellowcard zip-up, forcing me to pick a band or artist that I either wasn’t a fan of or had never heard before. I chose a black Dessa hoodie, which had on it a silhouette of a seemingly attractive profile of a woman’s face. I didn’t have a clue what or who that was at the time. Later, I learned that Dessa was a female rapper, whose face mirrored what was on my chest for the majority of the festival, but that was lost on me then. Nonetheless, it made for a funny conversation starter for the weekend. And, on Sunday, it made me a little bit warmer, if not drier, when the weather took a soggy turn for the worse.

Another thing that is pretty difficult to predict until you get to the park is how exactly to schedule everything. You have to be there a little while to first, get your bearings of the area, and then to figure out how long it takes to get from one place – or more accurately, stage – to another. It’s made pretty clear early on, that even as many bands that you can cram into a single day, you will not be able to see everything that you would like to see. Additionally, it’s hard to know how long it will even take you to get to the park on a day-to-day basis. There could be traffic, there could be violence –you just never know what could stand in your way or delay your arrival. Sacrifices must be made. However, once you get your priorities straight, the fat can be trimmed so that you will enjoy the meat that much more. I used to put a great deal of time, thought and effort into figuring out the logistics of these glorious and grueling three-day marathons. These days, though, I make a few quickly calculated snap decisions and go from there. I used to have it all down to a science. Now, I jump into it, make adjustments on the fly like an art form and don’t look back.

The first show of the weekend was Yellowcard, a band that decidedly falls into the veteran category. I’ve written about my connection and attraction to them at length before, but here’s a short version. A decade ago, I fell in love with the band when their breakthrough album Ocean Avenue was released, like so many other preteens and teenagers at the time. After the peak of their popularity, I more or less forgot about them, again like everyone else. But my interest was reignited in early 2011 when the band reformed after a four year hiatus to put out When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes. I’ve since revisited all of their albums and had the chance to see them perform three times in the past two years.

At Riot Fest, they were typically energetic and emotionally invested in the show, even if more people than not only knew the song “Ocean Avenue”. Most of the time the crowd was a little sedated for their high-energy brand of pop punk, but that’s to be expected at the beginning of the first day.  Their 10-song setlist of songs that spanned from 2003’s Ocean Avenue to last fall’s Southern Air was, for me, the perfect way to start off the fest. My personal favorite part of it was when I saw two highly adrenalized bros trying to start a mosh pit during the popular and angst-y ballad “Only One”. “This is RIOT FEST, bro!” I imagined them screaming, as everyone else swayed, sang along and ignored them.

Next, was the hip-hop group Atmosphere. Atmosphere, to me, was a little bit like the one that always got away. I’d had a couple of chances over the years to see them, but it had just never worked out. Considering that the rapper of the group, Slug is probably my favorite rapper not named Kanye, I was pretty amped to see them. And I was not disappointed. It was a little jarring switching from the intense, fast and furious noise of punk rock that was all over the park to the chill, smooth melodies and rhythms of Atmosphere’s beats, but it still felt right. Slug wowed the crowd as he hit the high points of the band’s deep discography, all the while keeping them on their toes with lyrical improvisations and occasional freestyle, not to mention complimentary references to Chicago. They closed their set after Slug teased that their last song would be one that “no one had ever heard before,” and then played the crowd pleaser, “Trying to Find a Balance,” a song that everybody had heard before.

After that was a Sublime substitute known as Sublime with Rome. It is essentially a Sublime cover band that features one of the original members of Sublime with a new drummer and singer/guitarist Rome Ramirez in the place of the legendary and deceased Bradley Nowell. From what I could see through ubiquitous clouds of smoke, they don’t look a whole lot like classic Sublime, but they sure do sound like them. It was a fun set full of all of the old favorites, with a few newer songs stuffed in there, too. I would have appreciated it if they took out one of their original songs and threw in “Caress Me Down,” or “KRS-One,” but that’s a minor quibble. The last show of the night was the headliner Fall Out Boy. I can’t say that they were too high on my list since the only songs I really like are  “Grand Theft Autumn/Where is Your Boy” and “Sugar, We’re Goin Down,” and maybe a couple others depending on my mood. However, I will say they put on a show for their adoring fans. Between the screaming girls in the front to the super stoked group of friends that joined arms and counted down, “FIVE-SIX-SEVEN-EIGHT” before belting out each chorus, I learned that some people really like Fall Out Boy. To each their own.

On Saturday, Brent and I ventured out early to explore the park and catch a few random bands before rendezvousing with our other friends that evening leading up to the main attraction of the day, Blink-182. First we caught an old school punk band called The Lillingtons, who guess what, played old school punk rock. Neither of us had heard of them before, but we enjoyed their batch of lightning-quick two to three minute jams. Next we went to check out another old band, the 90’s alternative rockers, Dinosaur Jr, followed by DeVotchKa.

DeVotchKa was one of the most diverse bands in the whole lineup. The band consists of four members, all whom play multiple instruments throughout the show. They are best known for scoring the soundtrack to the movie Little Miss Sunshine, but their other songs contain influences that range from indie folk to gypsy punk. It served as relaxing background music for the middle day at the very least and was entertaining at its best. We also saw Blondie. Yes, that Blondie, the same new wave pioneers who released their first album in 1976. Amazingly, they played all of their old hits and 68-year old lead singer Debbie Harry sounded legitimately great – and not just for her age.

Before Rancid, we met up with our friends and tried to get in a prime position for Blink. After it was over, we attempted to spread a rumor that there was a Rancid after show to encourage people to leave faster. We passed the time by infuriating people we didn’t know by saying things like, “this band sucks” and “who the hell is Blink-183?” The temperature fell again, but we stayed toasty as we squeezed between people, inching closer and closer to the stage. Once the show started, predictably so did the pushing, and after we found that sweet spot where you thought you actually might suffocate, our group was forcefully disbanded. Luckily, we escaped the rowdy mosh relatively unscathed, aside from a few scrapes and some stretched out shirts (six people in attendance had to go to the hospital).

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Blink played all of their hits, from their most recent (and most mature) album to their poppy hits of the late-90s and early 2000s, all the way back to their rawest early material. They stopped between songs and swapped crude, obviously scripted jokes just as they always have. I’ve read some criticism of their juvenile on-stage behavior; some critics have said that it was sad evidence of how little the band had matured since they burst on the scene nearly 20 years ago. First of all, I think that’s a weak case considering the evolution of each individual band member and the band’s sound as a whole. Don’t you guys think it’s possible that they were just servicing their fans as a part of the show? Secondly, who cares? Regardless, it was a terrific show that closed with an encore of the early hits “Carousel,” “Dammit” and the profanity laced “Family Reunion.” And then, when it was over, Mark Hoppus mischievously goaded fans by saying “here, it is: the grand finale” before exiting the stage.

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With the last day of the festival came the rain. My group spent the majority of the time feebly attempting to stay dry, but we did make it out to a couple shows. The first was one of my favorite punk bands, Bayside, who put on a great show, as they always do. Lead singer Anthony Raneri’s voice is one, in my opinion, that must be heard live to be fully appreciated. They played a random handful of songs that included a pair from their 2011 album Killing Time, Already Gone” and “Sick, Sick, Sick,” as well as the seldom-performed live “Roshambo”. However, the real highlight of the day was Brand New. After three-plus chilly and soggy hours of waiting after Bayside, we trudged through the mud to see one of our top all-time bands. They played a ferocious mix of new and old songs. I’m more of a fan of their older, up-tempo sing/scream alongs than I am of their more recent, heavier and even screamier stuff. But there is no denying that that material is incredibly powerful. Those dudes can seriously shred and it’s mesmerizing to witness in person.

As the weekend winded down, I wasn’t worried about if I was too old to go see pop punk bands that, for the most part, haven’t been popular in a decade. It wasn’t really influenced by any person or singular event that happened, either. The nostalgia factor also wasn’t particularly bothersome. Though I’d heard all of those songs a million times, at many different ages, I didn’t overly associate them with any one time in my life. I could enjoy the music just as much in the present as I could in the past. As much as I had loved humming the tunes to myself at work, singing along in my car and shouting the lyrics in my old fraternity basement, there was nothing more electrifying and cathartic than screaming “I HOPE YOU CHOKE AND DIE” with thousands of other people. The thrill of the moment, though, quickly passed and soon that incredible weekend, too, was over. Such is life. The good times are fleeting; they come and then they go, but the music is timeless.

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(Pictures provided by KT Zapushek. Thanks!)

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday. 

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