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Riot Fest Still Sucks, and Thank F*cking God

Riot Fest 2022 had hits (as in songs) and hits (in the mosh-pit).

By Entertainment, Featured 108

Yeah Yeah Yeahs Sunday night at Riot Fest. Photo by Anthony Linh Nguyen.

Deep in the frequently asked questions for Chicago’s Riot Fest, one can find a listing of allowed and restricted items.

“NO Selfie Sticks. NO Laptops.” Alright, fair enough. “YES John Stamos.” Uh, okay. “NO Eve 6. NO People who defend Eve 6 on Twitter.” Oddly specific, but whatever. “YES Breastfeeding pumps.” Progressive, I dig it. “YES Standard sized backpacks … They don’t have to be clear. We’re not Lollapalooza.”

And indeed, Riot Fest is not Lollapalooza — and I mean that in the best way. The 2022 edition of the Riot Fest music festival from Sept. 16-18 offered a, well, riotous return, leaning hard on heavy-hitting rock acts over whatever might be trending. Headliners My Chemical Romance and Nine Inch Nails finally got their days after the cancellation of Riot Fest 2020 and both bands dropping out of the 2021 edition due to Covid-19. The lifting of pandemic restrictions, for better or for worse, produced a festival with a sense of normalcy. It was a lot for one writer to scope out, but the following presents my best attempt at capturing the energy and music of the weekend. 

Jeff Rosentstock rocks Friday afternoon at Riot Fest 2022. Photo by Anthony Linh Bguyen.

It was 4:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 16, and I was fretting that I’d all but missed rocker/composer/neo-ska legend Jeff Rosenstock. Typical train shenanigans paired with festival-goer traffic had made for a long, arduous journey to the park. All fear was swept aside when, from 4:50 to 5:00 p.m., Rosenstock and company crammed what felt like an entire set’s worth of energy into their closing flurry. I arrived just in time for a thunderous rendition of “You, in Weird Cities” with interpolations of the “happy birthday” song. Rosenstock, in his trademark jorts, operated as a one-man wrecking crew as he bounced across the stage and sang “Cities” at something close to twice the speed of the original. In all: magnificent. So far so good!

Jack Antonoff-fronted outfit Bleachers offered the weekend’s one significant misfire — the darkness at the edge of the field, if you will. I was determined to give the ubiquitous uberproducer a shot, but within minutes I wanted out — except I couldn’t, because the pizza line I was waiting in and watching the set from was adjacent to the stage, and so for the next 30 minutes I was a captive observer to Antonoff’s antics. To their credit, the band plays well on a technical level — but what they play is little more than a series of thin Bruce Springsteen covers delivered with excessive ego. Bleachers ticks off all the superficial Springsteen boxes — the anthemic hooks, the references to New Jersey, the saxophone solos, what have you. But they fail to build on Springsteen in any meaningful ways (compare to fellow Springsteen acolytes The Killers, who time and time again have found ways to expand their sound). The storytelling, the blue collar empathy, and the rousing wails that make Springsteen great are all absent from Bleachers, as is any sense of originality; Antonoff wants to be The Boss, but comes off as The Intern.

My Chemical Romance at Riot Fest 2022. Photo by Jason Pendleton.

My Chemical Romance single-handedly endowed Friday with the vibe of a Hot Topic, for better or worse; if I had a dollar for every MCR shirt, brightly-dyed hair, or combo of both spotted, I could have actually paid for my ticket. 

The hype was set from the very beginning — excited MCR fans could be found as far out as the North Loop earlier that afternoon — and the band delivered. After returning from hiatus in 2019 only to have their comeback (and initial Riot headlining slot) foiled by the pandemic, the band resumed with a vengeance. An early-set “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” ignited the crowd into an emo eruption. 

If anything, MCR may have created too much hype — the band took lengthy pauses between each song during which frontman Gerard Way would tell the audience to calm themselves and take a step back from the stage and each other. While Way’s well-meaning check-ins did ax the song-to-song flow, the fervor and joy of the audience was able, *Gerard Way voice* to carry on.

Yungblud soars at Riot Fest 2022. Photo by Jason Pendleton.

Come Saturday, Yungblud was billed as a mid-afternoon set, but conjured the energy — and crowd size — of a festival headliner (appropriate, as the man could pass for none other than a young Gerard Way, black/red hair and all). The English pop-punk rocker brought a polished production to the Roots Stage that was aided by a tight backing band. What frontman Dominic Harrison lacks in substance — most of his stage time was spent head-banging and punctuating songs with “hyup-hyup-hyup” — he more than makes up for with his frenetic energy and skillful ability to work a crowd. 

Gwar. That is all. Photo by Rachel Zyzda.

Gwar, the metal shock rockers/sci-fi theater troupe, were done dirty, stuffed on one of the festival’s smallest stages during a crowded Saturday line-up. But it didn’t matter, as their fans — lovingly referred to as “Scumdogs” — engulfed the Rebel Stage with one of its biggest crowds of the weekend. It didn’t matter that they were about to be soaked in fake blood — the audience needed, demanded, communion with their interplanetary overlords. The heavy-hitting set, including classic Gwar fare like “Saddam a Go-Go,” married hilariously loud rock, dark banter (“Humans are killing each other? They’re taking our jobs!”), and a masked actor in a dong-thong moshing on stage. For some reason, this set also featured the largest number of children in the audience. In all: out-of-this-world glorious.

An act I missed but deserves recognition was the rapper Coolio, who tragically passed away Sept. 28., 10 days after his set at Riot Fest. A brief set Sunday afternoon included hits like “Fantastic Voyage” and “Gangsta’s Paradise,” according to Setlist.fm.

Sleater-Kinney with the dueling axes at Riot Fest. Photo by Timothy Hiatt.

By 6 p.m. on Sunday evening the sunset was looking beautiful — but its brilliance paled compared to Sleater-Kinney as they rocked the Riot Stage. The guitar chops of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, the core members of S-K, should shut down doubters, their complaints lost in the crunch and chorus of their dueling axes. Touring drummer Angie Boylan, subbing for former drummer/bandmate Janet Weiss, anchored every song with thundering beats and surgical precision. Was a good portion of their audience Nine Inch Nails fans itching to get a good spot for later? Yes. But did they also love Sleater-Kinney? Hell fucking yes.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs Sunday night at Riot Fest. Photo by Anthony Linh Nguyen.

Oh yeah… Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The New York-trio’s recent single “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” hadn’t quite won my attention when it first released, but in the live setting took on a new and exciting life (it also helped that they dropped a few extra teases from their yet-to-be-released record “Cool It Down”). Few three-pieces — well four, bolstered and enhanced  here by multi-instrumentalist touring member Imaad Wasif — can fill a space with so much wonderful, chaotic sound. Guitarist Nick Zinner strums with the force of three players, his riffs and loops giving each song gorgeous and catchy layers. And front-woman Karen O continues to carry herself with a kind of effortlessness and grace reserved for the wind and the ocean. After nearly two decades, Yeahs are still unrivaled in crafting rock music that feels alive.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Photo by Anthony Linh Nguyen.

Nine Inch Nails… This section has been edited and condensed multiple times to prevent me from turning this whole review into a dictum on the brilliance of Trent Reznor and company’s live shows. I have seen them twice before, and each occasion was a life-changing interaction. Sunday night, round three, was no different. I foolishly found myself in the frontmost rows, which from the opening ticks of “Somewhat Damaged” transformed a jovial, post-Sleater-Kinney hangout into a fucking warzone.

From then on, it was hit after hit, metaphorically and, in the pit, literally. The music: a sexy, slithering take on “Sanctified”; the saxophone-endowed beatdown “God Break Down the Door”; and the gold-standard mosh-pit anthem “March of the Pigs” (appropriate, as NIN fans proudly call themselves “Pigs”). Every era of the Nails catalog felt acknowledged as bodies slammed and surfed throughout the audience. (To their credit, fans were responsive to folks wanting out or in need of aid.)

Three notes and an old, familiar sting — that’s all it took from guitarist Robin Finck to arrest the masses as the band moved into the set-closing “Hurt.” The mosh became a morgue, as every audience member froze in place. Moshing was no more as a growing choir joined Reznor in singing. I’ve heard Nails perform “Hurt” twice before, but the catharsis in this instance, after an hour-plus in the moshing trenches, was something truly unique. Thousands of voices crying “I will let you down/I will make you hurt” conjured an indescribable unity among the audience, a shared pain that was both summoned and released as the song went on. As the closing “I will find a way” rolled around, a wave of calm enveloped the crowd, a resounding peace following two hours of sonic violence. After three days, Riot Fest had officially concluded. 

Riot Fest 2022 felt like an invigorated return to normalcy and back-to-basics rock music. At its best, the music was rough and unrefined — not the clean and quantized vibes of DJs and pop, but the sounds of amp feedback, booming drums, torn t-shirts and 30,000 people screaming “FIST FUCK” in unison during Nails’ “Wish.” After each day my body was broken, but my mind and heart felt flooded with the simple joy of live music done rough, loud and angry. “Riot Fest sucks,” as fans have lovingly described it in the past, and I am happy to report that, after a pandemic and *insert favorite catastrophe of the past two years* that, yes, Riot Fest still sucks.

Thank fucking god. 

 

Pablo Nukaya-Petralia is a huge Nine Inch Nails fan. He might also be the managing editor of F Newsmagazine, and MAAH 2023. But mainly the former. Definitely the former.

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