By Christopher David
2023’s edition of Riot Fest hit the ground running on Friday with a multi-faceted bill topped by one of the heaviest hitters in all of rock music.
Nashville’s Olivia Jean started things off with one of the best sets of the day, and her effortless mix of rockabilly, garage, and surf went over big with a sizable crowd that early in the day. Tunes like “Ditch” and “Trouble” from her most recent LP (this year’s Raving Ghost) fit in beautifully with singles like “Night Owl” from 2019’s album of the same name, and her style, while combining classic elements of the aforementioned genres, remains quite unique, and it was a fun way to start the day.
Power-punksters Silverstein and metal core outfit Code Orange both delivered strong, by-the-numbers sets, while George Clinton with Parliament Funkadelic brought the energy one would expect, and hardcore stalwarts Quicksand delivered a perfect full-album play of Slip with no frills. One of the biggest moments of Friday came in the form of a noisy, experimental set from Kim Gordon that highlighted her successful, post-Sonic Youth career. Still the queen of indie rock chic, Gordon strutted the stage in a silver sequined skirt—a timeless figure whose musical history and influence is one of the reasons a festival like Riot exists in the first place.
The Breeders, one of the quirkiest hit-makers of the 1990s, took the stage to late afternoon sunlight, and a breezy, conversational Kim Deal introduced their full-album play of 1993’s Last Splash right off, taking the album in sequential order—a rare treat for all in attendance. Having seen the Last Splash tour in its day, it was good to see how fresh that album still sounded. The Breeders’ style was always their own, and the brief, almost unfinished feel to tunes like “New Year” and the stomp-y “I Just Wanna Get Along” still contrasted so nicely with hookier tracks like “Invisible Man” and the infectious chorus of “Saints.”
What more can be said of Dave Grohl? The Foo Fighters are surely one of the most storied rock bands of all time, and while there could have been an air of mourning around their performance, given Taylor Hawkins’ death in 2022 and his long-time role in the band, but there was none of that. In true Dave Grohl fashion, he turned Douglas Park into a giant celebration of life, delivering hit after hit— though curiously, nothing from the new album, the stellar But Here We Are, which was released earlier this summer (though “Rescued” and “The Glass” appeared on the printed setlist, but weren’t played.).
On to Day 2!
Day 2 of Riot Fest was stacked with some of the best undercards as well as headliners the fest has seen…well, okay, since last year, but it was epic, regardless.
Florida foursome Pool Kids brought some early energy to the Riot stage, and their blend of emo-pop made them a perfect kickoff to a day that saw the energy increase exponentially. Drain picked up that baton, and their short but savage set of thrashy hardcore called to mind early Sacred Reich and Pantera, with frontman Sammy Ciaramitaro making a wicked offer to the crowd before “California Cursed.”
“We’re used to playing floor shows, we don’t play on stages like this,” he shouted. “So let’s make this a floor show. There’s 2,000 of you and only eight security guards. Climb over that gate and get on this stage!” The invitation was cashed in by a wave of crowd surfers, and the large crowd so early in the day spoke to the band’s dedicated following.
Pop-punkers Bowling For Soup were the anti-thesis to Drain’s presence on the same stage just an hour before, crushing a short set that saw a Saturday morning cartoon style intro before launching into opener “High School Never Ends.” Vocalist/guitarist Jaret Reddick is one of the funniest, most good-natured frontmen out there, and the band’s first Riot Fest shouldn’t be its last, based on the audience reaction.
And while Corey Feldman offered one of the most talked about sets of the weekend, the Rebel stage was properly destroyed by High Vis, a U.K. quintet consistently producing some of the best post-punk out there, mixed with a hooky Britpop style and a lyrical focus on working-class frustration. Vocalist Graham Sayle stalked the stage like a man possessed during “The Bastard Inside” and “Walking Wires,” and “Talk For Hours” from 2022’s Blending was another highlight in a tight, crushing set, calling to mind the original punk-rock spirit of Riot Fest and a contender for the best set of the weekend.
Death Cab for Cutie led the charge of headliners on Saturday, with a solid, straightforward performance of 2003’s Transatlanticism in its entirety, and before the second half of Ben Gibbard’s domination of the Saturday slot with The Postal Service, one of the best rock bands on the planet touched down with a vibrant light show and a take-no-prisoners set: Queens of the Stone Age.
Queens’ new record, In Times New Roman, is surely a contender for best rock album of the year, though their hour-long spot (yeah, about that…what the hell, Riot Fest?) didn’t offer much opportunity for them to dig into those tunes the way they have on other headlining dates this summer. Lead single “Emotion Sickness” (my song of the year, beyond doubt) sounded phenomenal with guitarist Troy Van Leeuwan trading spacey slide-guitar licks with frontman Josh Homme. Jon Theodore has to be the most underrated rock drummer on earth right now, making everything look far too easy on tracks like opener and hit single “No One Knows” and new tune “Carnovoyeur” before closing things out with “A Song for the Dead.” There are few surer bets in the rock world in terms of delivering a stunning show than Queens – and what an end to a strong second day of Riot 2023.
The final day of this year’s Riot Fest was yet another stacked bill that almost wasn’t. It was a day that started out wet—very wet—and led to the cancellation of numerous acts at the top of the schedule like Microwave and Free Throws, much to the chagrin of the post-punk and indie hardcore contingent; it was also a day that ended with one of the most stunning one-two punches in Riot Fest history.
Things finally got going in the mid-afternoon with a blissed out set from shoegaze legends Ride, who opened with “Leave Them All Behind” to set the tone for a tightly-wound set that also saw a quick dip into 2019’s This is Not a Safe Place for “Future Love” before closing out with the timeless “Vapour Trail.” Ride’s sets are always standouts, and while they might not be on the radar of the more punk and hardcore-leaning masses at Riot, the faithful were there in solid numbers. AFI followed, with a heavier set on the Roots Stage that drew nicely from the band’s entire discography.
Now, let us discuss my headliners.
Yes, The Cure were the actual headliners, and they were…well, The Cure (more on that soon), but Day 3 was spiritually capped for this writer by the triumphant return of Brian Viglione and Amanda Palmer, the delightfully made-up punk cabaret act known as the Dresden Dolls, who reunited earlier this year after far too long out of the game. Taking the stage to a massive crowd on the Riot Stage, Palmer and Viglione tore through a hour’s worth of everything that made them unique, including a few surprises. Did anyone expect bass goddess Melissa Auf Der Maur to show up for a cover of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right”? With Amanda on drums and Brian on guitar and lead vocals, of all things? In the middle of their set? What about a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” reworked to sound like it truly could have come from any of the Dresdens’ albums as an original cut? Both Palmer and Viglione could barely keep the smiles off their faces as Palmer paused to reflect mid-set.
“We are so happy to be here, and playing before The Cure, no less,” she beamed, then told a story of seeing the Disintegration tour as a fifteen-year-old and being so overwhelmed by the power of so many people brought together by the love of a band that she cried. Who among us can’t relate to that? “Coin-Operated Boy,” the bouncy “My Alcoholic Friends,” and the frantic psychobabble of “Girl Anachronism” sounded as fresh as the day they were released, now over fifteen years ago, and with a new album on the horizon, the Dresden Dolls proved their importance to modern music time and again over the course of their slot. No other band sounds like the Dresdens, and that’s saying something in this day and age.
And, of course, the final day of Riot would never be complete without a massive headliner, and it doesn’t get more massive than The Cure, one of those rare bands that just about everyone can agree on. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of The Cure to the music world at this point; the number of bands that simply wouldn’t exist without them is impossible to count. Taking the stage to “Alone” from recent album Lost World, Robert Smith regarded what was likely the biggest crowd of the weekend, walking from one end of the stage to the other, taking it all in. Their nearly two hour set saw some deep cuts (“Play for Today,” “Cold”) as well as some of the pop confections that have continued to grow their audience for decades (“Friday I’m In Love,” “In Between Days”), and from the darker slow burns to the danceable tunes, the well-oiled machine that is Smith and Co. showcased just why they’re held in such high regard—much like their spiritual openers the Dresden Dolls earlier that evening, there is simply no one else like them and never will be. Which is a fitting end to a festival that continues to be the best of its kind—in Chicago or anywhere else.
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