Words by: Fredric Hall
Photos and additional words by: Meredith Goldberg
For the third and final day of 2019’s Riot Fest festivities, punk sets were, again, on the small side. Still what’s there ain’t too shabby. Against Me! Had an awesome set, playing both “Reinventing Axl Rose” and “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” start-to-finish, while singer Laura Jane Grace was belting out every song with her unique voice that forces you to pay attention. A particular high point was “Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” with its driving, distorted bass line and disturbing lyrics. At one point, someone in the crowd held up a sign saying “You Are My Hero”, a good indicator of the effect the band had on the crowd.
Perhaps the most curious event to take place at Riot Fest’s 15th Anniversary staging in Chicago was a Wall of Death during The Village People’s performance of their most famous tune, “YMCA.” The song has long been a staple at basketball games of all levels and in all communities despite its lyrical content often understood to refer to the YMCA as a gay hook up spot in the 1970’s. Yet on Day 3, fans young, old and looking to represent virtually every demographic at Riot Fest joined in forming the 4 letters in the title. And per an organized Facebook event, many took part in a Wall of Death in the center of crowd. For the uninitiated, a Wall of Death is basically a move within a circle pit where a large group of people back off and then at the same moment run toward each other. The event even took the life of a photographer’s sunglasses (though not the DS photog’s sunglasses, whew).
Patti Smith had her brand of a slow burning performance later on. Now I know the organizers don’t pick out acts all willy-nilly and Patti Smith is a legend in the genre. However, I’m sure there is a good size of the attendees who have no idea who is she and her contributions to the punk genre. And I guess Smith knew this because she really brought it on stage. While not “punk” in regards to modern tastes, there was a energy about it that exuded a punk attitude, even with covers like Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experience”(with some “Third Stone of the Sun” thrown towards the end) and Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning”. She did close the set with “Gloria” which really brought the crowd to its knees.
Finally, we got Riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, the headliners for the final evening of the festival. Though Kathleen Hanna sang most of the set, she did occasionally switch over to bass, while the rest of the band traded instruments for certain songs. Seriously, they did so many times I couldn’t keep up. Declaring “We’re a feminist band. And we’re headlining a festival” they blazed through songs like “Reject All-American” with the abrasiveness and in-you-face attitude that put them on the map for almost thirty years.
If you’ve made it this far, so you might have the impression Riot Fest is straying from it’s punk roots. Well, here’s the thing: I get that festivals like Riot Fest have to carter towards different demographics to stay afloat. To me, this year was more of a history lesson. Teenage punks with Op Ivy back patches on their vests now got to hear Patti Smith and Bikini Kill. They also got to see Slayer which is always a treat (and also played right after Rise Against). So, this is a chance to see all kinds of genres. Limiting yourself to one thing is narrow-minded and stupid. In the end we all need to go beyond our boundaries and explore what’s out there.
Please check out the rest of our images from the final day of Riot Fest 2019 below: