The Luis Mejía Riot Fest Review: Ska Edition

Photo by Morgan Ciocca

Article by Luis Mejía Ahrens

I hate to be this guy, but let’s talk ska.

I know, it has been years since ska has reached its apogee. The mid-1990s came and went, bringing with them new and exciting forms of music, but here at WLUW we are still stuck on the sounds of suburban Orange County. At least, if not all of us here at WLUW, I am. I discovered ska rather late into my music-listening, but ever since I was initiated to the off-beat Jamaican rude boy sounds, I couldn’t look back. 

And listen, I don’t claim to be an expert of any sort. However, I probably know more than the average person when it comes to ska. And, let’s be honest, if you at least know who Reel Big Fish is, you too know more ska than the average person.

All that being said, as the self-appointed resident ska expert at the station, I found it the most appropriate to share my personal experiences with ska – especially pertaining to Riot Fest.

For the last two years, I have attended Riot Fest in a way reminiscent of a religious pilgrimage. Every year I purchase my three-day pass with the expectation that I will make my way to Douglas Park and experience the surprisingly welcoming environment that is the Midwest punk scene. But, I must admit that I attend Riot Fest with a different attitude than most people. 

The first time I heard about Riot Fest was in 2017, when I learned that my personal favorite band, Streetlight Manifesto, was performing there. I did not expect anything more than the ska-punk sound of Streetlight Manifesto blasting throughout the festival grounds. Luckily, I was able to experience the broader theme of Riot Fest: the coming together through punk music. I now see Riot Fest as the home to all of those who are outcasts within “normal society;” those who feel left out from the rest of society find a welcoming environment within the boundary fences in Douglas Park.

I will always see Riot Fest through ska-colored lenses (mostly meaning checkered patterns). Coincidentally, the very first band I saw at Riot Fest, in 2017, was the late-80s ska-punk group Fishbone. Thus, Riot Fest has always stood out as the stage for the lesser-known cult artists growing closer to their fanbases. Hell, through attending the festival over the past few years I’ve been able to see the great Aquabats! live in concert, as well as crowd-surf to the great plaid princes of New England, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

This all brings me to this year.

2019’s Riot Fest was once again located in Douglas Park, at the center of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood – the one time of the year where the epitome of Chicago ska is located in the Southwest side.

This year, Riot Fest did not have the ska presence it has had in the past. However, it was there – and still very much present – this year. I wish I could speak more on the ska featured at this year’s festival, but, since it was so limited, I will only get to speak on the few ska artists – or skartists, if I may – that were represented. 

So, with that, I introduce “The Luis Mejía Riot Fest Review” in its full glory. I will stick to the bands I had the opportunity and pleasure to experience personally. As much as I would like to review the Mad Caddies and Five Iron Frenzy, I did not have the time of my life getting beaten around in their mosh pits as I did during the bands’ sets that will follow.

This year did not include as popular acts as years prior. 2017 saw the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Fishbone take the Riot and Radicals stage, respectively, with their transformative two-tone sound. 

While Riot Fest 2019 may not have seen such revolutionary acts, it still presented one hell of a show for ska fans throughout the weekend. 

The first, most notable artist’s set was Save Ferris. This band, which takes their name from the famous John Hughes film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” has made a it reputation of theirs to put on as personal of a show as possible. Save Ferris has never quite broken out into the mainstream in the way that bands such as Reel Big Fish or Sublime have, but it is exactly due to this fact that they are able to form such close connections with their audiences. 

Starting in 1997, Save Ferris has primarily been found playing in small independent gigs or house shows over the last 20 years, allowing them to be a group that grows not only within their own band, but with their audience members as well. Bigger bands such as Blink-182 or Slayer have experienced great careers throughout the majority of their albums, but Save Ferris has acquired most of their fanbase through live performances. Thus, Save Ferris has a closer relationship with their crowd than most would, even in festivals such as Riot Fest.

Save Ferris’ set on the Rise Stage began with the group’s leading lady, Monique Powell, telling the audience, “We will become very close, very intimate by the end of the show.” As the brass rang loud and the guitar plucked those heavenly 1-4-5 chord progressions, Powell made direct eye contact with as many audience members as she could, regularly inviting the audience into the music by uttering those now legendary words forever ingrained in any rude boy’s lexicon:

“Pick it up. Pick it up. Pickitup pickitup pickituuuuuuup!”

The crowd was exactly what you would expect for a mid-90s ska group – men in their mid-30s with long cargo shorts and an endless sea of checkered clothing and accessories, all either skanking in place or in large groups forming a surprisingly friendly circle mosh pit. 

In a word: heaven.

When Powell said that the audience would grow closer to her as the show went on, she was not kidding. In between songs she would sit at the edge of the stage, often reaching out to fans and gesturing toward her body. Exactly the type of content that would get this particular crowd to “pick it up” with even more enthusiasm than usual.

What brought Powell the closest to the audience were her outfit changes throughout the show. She initially walked on the stage wearing a long black dress, contrasting with her matte red hair. After a couple of songs, however, Powell undid the zipper on her back, and, in what seemed to be a wardrobe malfunction fix mid concert, she fully removed the dress to reveal a green swimsuit top and a leopard print skirt. Some songs after that, in a true “but wait, there’s more!” moment, she removed the skirt to fully expose the green top she was wearing, which to most of the crowd’s surprise was actually a one-piece 1950s-style bathing suit. Now, here we have a Ska singer looking more and more like Poison Ivy from the Batman comics – with flowing red hair and a bright green one-piece outfit – letting out all of her angst toward 1997 Orange County. Meanwhile, a crowd of hundreds scream in blissful enjoyment.

Just when you’d think that there could not possibly be any more clothes to lose – much like a Russian nesting doll – Monique Powell surprised the audience by removing her one-piece outfit, leaving Powell with nothing on but a black slip for the remainder of Save Ferris’ set. If we were promised intimacy by the end of the show, the skanking crowd was seeing that promised fulfilled. 

The set was brought to an appropriate end when Save Ferris performed their most popular song, a ska cover of Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1982 smash hit “Come on Eileen.”  The final song was warmly welcomed by a majority of the crowd, but it was clear that some fans felt as if people cheering for the song to be played were only there to hear that one song, and not the rest of the terrific two-tone beats in Save Ferris’ repertoire. A classic “I read the manga before I saw the anime” situation.

“Come on Eileen,” however, was the perfect ending to an exciting set. The entire crowd found themselves singing along and dancing to the cover. Bodies flew over the crowd as they surfed toward the front. Open beer cans zoomed from one side of the crowd to the other. Extra security was brought in to deal with the fans. The song revealed the beauty and excitement of the third wave ska scene started in Orange County in the 1990s. 

Ska is music for celebration. Ska is music for fun. Ska is a music for the young, the old. Ska is about freedom. Ska is about love. 

“You mean everything to me!” sang Powell, bringing a triumphant end to Save Ferris’ 30-minute set.

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