Sept. 13-15 marked the 15th anniversary of Riot Fest at Douglas Park here in Chicago. Read more to see which performances impressed WLUW staffers the most.
Photos by Paul Quinn
Friday afternoon, Caroline Rose and her band took the stage as one of the few indie pop bands on the Riot Fest lineup. Caroline’s 2018 album “Loner” showcases her intense story-telling songwriting alongside catchy and bubbly beats.
Sporting her signature ruby red sweatband and running shorts, the Riot Fest crowd was unprepared to join Caroline’s contagiously dance-y performance style. Between songs, Caroline joked with the audience, demanding that there be “no smiles, no dancing, no smizing (that’s smiling with your eyes), you must be serious.” It was next to impossible to agree to Caroline’s conditions after she crushed a beer can on her forehead and jokingly announced her and her band as Blink-182, the headliners of the night.
Somehow, though, the audience found solace when she paused from the synth keyboards to sing a stripped back version of the song “Getting to Me.” Caroline explained that performing the song with less instrumentation really gets to the heart and emotion of the song from when she wrote it.
Another highlight of the set included a kazoo singalong to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” As the crowd vaguely recognized the melody of the song, we all began to laugh and sing karaoke to the tune. Caroline then seamlessly dove back into the last chorus of the final song “Money” that drove the song home.
Along with her zaniness, Caroline was grateful toward all of the attention she had drawn throughout the performance. Evidently, many of the Riot Fest attendees did not seem familiar with her music. Nonetheless, she brought a memorable stage presence to the afternoon.
The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips can sometimes feel slightly predictable. They’re weird. They’re theatrical. They’re over-the-top. This is easy to grasp when taking a quick glance at their vibrantly-colored album covers, or remembering that they once released an album that could only be listened to if you play four different records simultaneously.
And then there’s their live shows. Music fans knowledgeable of the Flaming Lips are undoubtedly aware of their extravagant live performances – complete with confetti cannons, psychedelic light shows and, of course, lead vocalist Wayne Coyne crowd surfing inside an enormous plastic bubble.
The Flaming Lips have been up to these antics for years; leading up to their performance of their critically-acclaimed 2002 record “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” I was worried that the album would feel overplayed and insincere. Fortunately, the feeling behind it was still there.
All the usual trappings of a Flaming Lips show were in place, including a giant dancing pink robot and a 15 foot tall balloon reading “F**K YEAH RIOT FEST.” Everything felt right. The band clearly wanted to be there; they were smiling as they came on stage and they played every song – some of which haven’t been played live in years – with vigor and enthusiasm. Coyne’s voice was sincere and sold the emotional, albeit silly, lyrical content. Fans sang along to every song, and even danced along with the giant robot balloon on stage. Seventeen years later, people were still excited about “Yoshimi.”
Halfway through the set the band took a break from their extravagances to pay tribute to their friend and influence Daniel Johnston, who passed away only two days prior to their performance. Stripping down to just a keyboard and Coyne’s vocals, the group performed a rendition of Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End,” pulling back the curtain to reveal the tenderness hidden behind all of their showmanship. The bittersweet moment temporarily broke the spell of their show and revealed genuine emotion for their friend who had passed, allowing everyone to reflect on Johnston’s legacy.
Blink-182 celebrated the 20th anniversary of their unforgettable album “Enema of the State” by performing the album in full at Riot Fest this year. The band was scheduled to headline the Friday of Riot Fest in 2018, but unfortunately had to cancel because drummer Travis Barker needed to take time off for medical treatment of blood clots in his arms. When I heard that Blink-182 was headlining Riot Fest this year, I was ecstatic that I would finally have the opportunity to see them perform for the third time – just a year later than I had originally anticipated.
Chicago vocalist Matt Skiba, who joined the band in 2015 after Tom DeLonge’s departure, played alongside bassist and vocalist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker, performing a combination of old and new music throughout their set. Older fans remarked that there was noticeably less banter on stage without Tom, although everyone was still excited to see the band in full. Mark and Matt interacted with the crowd throughout the show and kept the audience members excited and engaged.
While “Enema of the State” is now two decades old, Blink-182 managed to perform it in a way that sounded energetic and fresh to fans. Inflatable aliens were thrown into the audience, and fans eagerly passed them around and tried to get one for themselves. Additionally, the band performed some of their newer tracks, such as “Bored to Death,” which is off their most recent album, “California.” Blink-182 closed their headlining set with their 1997 hit “Dammit,” and the crowd went absolutely crazy.
Whether you have been a loyal fan of Blink-182 for years, or simply a casual listener, you surely would have enjoyed the band’s performance that kicked off the 15th anniversary of Riot Fest on Friday, September 13.
As Lando Chill, born Lance Washington, walked onto the Radicals Stage at a festival dominated by punk and rock bands, it did not seem like the Los Angeles-based rapper and his bandmates were in an enviable position. How easily were they going to win over the crowd?
“You feel that bass pulsing through your sternum? That is your purpose,” Washington told the crowd as the bass started to hum from the subwoofers. Washington is a fearless performer; he was stoic, preaching messages of heart, purpose and fate to the crowd, but was also fun and playful, rapping a song about love to a security guard while squatting on a speaker behind them.
Washington’s messages were positive and wholesome to the point that they felt almost cheesy, but the look on his face communicated how sincerely he felt about his lyrics. By the time the end of their set rolled around, the group had brightened an already sunny day.
The B-52’s, a new wave band formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1976, are incredibly influential across a multitude of genres and subgenres of punk. Within the hours leading up to the band’s final Chicago performance, a swarm of passionate fans engulfed the stage, decked out in their B-52’s t-shirts and other merchandise – and some even in lobster costumes, as a nod to the group’s timeless hit “Rock Lobster.”
I love the B-52’s. They are undoubtedly one of my favorite bands. Despite the fact that the three remaining original members – Fred Schnieder, Kate Pierson, and Cindy Wilson – are in their golden years, they still maintain the B-52’s’ trademark quirky party energy from when they recorded their first single, “Rock Lobster.”
Schneider was witty and warm throughout their set, which was filled to the brim with hits like “Dance This Mess Around,” “Roam” and “Give Me Back My Man.” Each song during the band’s set threw the audience into a joyous uproar of dancing and even moshing, leaving the tightly-packed crowd glistening with sweat and happiness. Upon noticing an audience member spraying the rest of the crowd with water, Schnieder remarked, “I hope it’s perfume!”
The B-52’s closed their set with their two biggest hits, “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster,” back to back. “Love Shack” has been played to death since its release, but it’s still a classic, and the crowd ate it up. Closing with “Rock Lobster,” the band gave it everything they had. The crowd bounced around lobster balloons, shouted along with the lyrics, and danced their pants off. It was a sweet farewell to a long, trailblazing career.
“We’re a feminist band and we’re headlining a festival,” lead vocalist of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, said amidst the screams and cheers that filled Douglas Park throughout the closing set of Riot Fest.
Bikini Kill is an American feminist punk band formed in 1990 by vocalist, guiarist and songwriter Kathleen Hanna, bassist Kathi Wilcox, vocalist and drummer Tobi Vail and guitarist Billy Karren. The group is known for their contributions to the riot grrrl movement, a feminist punk movement beginning in Olympia, Washington.
Riot grrrl was a movement which, as explained by Melena Ryzik in her New York Times article on the subject, “allowed women to be sexually free and simultaneously open about harassment and sexual assault, that encouraged them in pursuits traditionally thought of as male, like dancing in the mosh pit or thrashing on guitar.” Today, the riot grrrl movement seeks to be more inclusive to non-binary, LBGTQ+ and minority populations within punk circles.
Bikini Kill, historically, encourages a female-centered environment at their shows. The band was known for leading chants of “girls to the front,” a phrase which literally encourages women to move to the front of the crowd, as well as inspires women to challenge the male-dominated punk scene.
The original band was only together from 1990 until 1997, when they initially broke up, but Bikini Kill has made a comeback this year. In January, Karren, guitarist, was replaced with Erica Dawn Lyle, making Bikini Kill an all-female group – and the only female headliner at Riot Fest this year.
As Bikini Kill stormed the stage at 8:30 PM Sunday, they were met with deafening screams from fans young and old; some audience members were not even born when the band had broken up initially in 1997, and others were present the last time Bikini Kill played in Chicago – at the Fireside Bowl on Oct. 19, 1994.
The easily-recognizable opening chords of “Carnival” rang out, sending the crowd into a whirlwind of dancing and moshing. A buzz of excitement – and perspiration – electrified the crowd. Throughout the entire set, the audience dropped their inhibitions and let themselves bounce and thrash around, in true riot grrrl fashion.
Bikini Kill’s 75-minute set was bathed in hot pink lights, transporting the audience back to the 1990s amid chants of “girls to the front!,” with women grabbing one another by the hand and making their way into the widening mosh pit.
Hanna was 22 when she started Bikini Kill. At 50, her angular and dissonant vocals are equally as powerful as her early days. Hanna introduced a song which she wrote as a teenager in a fit of emotion and anger, calling it “shitty teenage poetry … which isn’t even shitty.” She lamented the tendency of young women to write off their art as not good enough, as “bad,” and calls out everyone’s readiness to accept this.
“Don’t think nobody cares. Don’t think nobody wants to listen … Keep your shit, keep your diaries,” Hanna implored. “No art starts with everything being perfect,” she continued. “How could we see ourselves up here if we started out perfect?”
“It’s the mistakes – it’s the mistakes!”
The band closed their set with “Rebel Girl,” their most popular song. The audience was alive; in every direction women were dancing, moshing, singing, screaming and crowd-surfing as Bikini Kill ripped their set to a conclusion. “Rebel Girl” feels just as central to the lives of self-identifying women now as it did when it was released in 1993, as female roles are still constantly undervalued in the music industry; not only was Bikini Kill the only female headliner, there was a shortage of female artists at all three days of the festival.
Morgan Ciocca and Allison Lapinski