The summers since Riot Fest pulled out of the Toronto region have been noticeably emptier of musical diversity, in my opinion. From 2012 – 2015 Riot Fest delivered the most radical line-up of mixed musical stylings in a festival format in two Toronto locations, and I have lamented over the loss more so than any other canceled local festival. This year, there was only one option; head to Chicago and experience Riot Fest in the very city that spawned it.
The draw for me was all loaded into day one – Nine Inch Nails and Ministry on the same stage, one after another. Two of the biggest and best bands in their genre – huge influences on my adult life, and a veritable force to be reckoned with musically in one place. Seeing Ministry in Chicago has been on my bucket list for decades long after Al Jourgensen had left the city for southern locales. Epic.
That said, Death from Above, Queens of the Stone Age, Mike D, At the Drive-In, Danzig, Bad Brains, Peaches, Bayside, Dead Cross, Paramore, Prophets of Rage, TV on the Radio, Dinosaur Jr., Pennywise, Built to Spill, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and The Orwells all added to the overall three-day experience. Jawbreaker, the headliner on day three, did nothing to pull at my heartstrings. I never really got into the band – but their reunion and live set this weekend was much anticipated. Fans and bands were buzzing about seeing them perform again.
Friday’s line-up featured Nine Inch Nails, New Order, A Day to Remember, Dirty Heads, Vic Mensa, Ministry, Death from Above, Action Bronson, X, Mayday Parade (performing A Lesson in Romantics), The Cribs, Liars, Buzzcocks, The Story So Far, State Champs, Four Year Strong, INVSN, Chon, The Hotelier, Saul Williams, Nothing More, Radar State, Tobacco, Seaway, Like Pacific, Sleep On It, Grayscale, Skating Polly, Warm Brew, and Hdbeendope. These bands were spread over five stages, and it was easy to walk from one stage to another and see music all day long. If Ministry wasn’t your bag, you could walk across the festival grounds and see The Story So Far, Dirty Heads or the Cribs. The Riot Stage and The Roots Stage were side-by-side, and the bands scheduled on these stages never overlapped each other – music often starting minutes after a set ended on the adjacent stage from 12 noon until 10 pm.
There were concessions aplenty at Riot Fest. Photo opportunities at numerous stations around the park with branding or iconic landmarks in the background. You could swing over by the VIP area and witness Eric The Lizardman Sprague acting as a carnival barker for Lizzy, EKat, & Una of Circus Una’s Motorcycle Thrill Show, performing high-wire trapeze action throughout the weekend. Fans could swing by the Rise Stage and purchase Electric Sky wine at a tent located adjacent to that stage. Electric Sky wine, an inventive solution to packaging wine for outdoor consumption, offers four individually stacked and sealed plastic glasses of wine stacked on top of each other and shrink-wrapped together into an affordable 750ml $12-$15 ‘bottle’ of wine. It was the best bang for the buck from an alcohol consumption standpoint at Riot Fest, and fans of all genders could be seen about the festival sipping on wine out of stemless glasses – many of them stacking them together into a plastic ‘staff’ after they were consumed – a badge of honour attesting to how much wine they had put back over the course of the day. There was an assortment of food, drink, reasonably-priced band merchandise, and an interesting shopping bazaar of all manners of music memorabilia. There was even some carnival rides set up on the main festival grounds through-way for ambitious music fans to be spun about, spilling beer, food and stomach contents throughout the three days of Riot Fest.
Highlights from Day One: Skating Polly (Kelli Mayo, Peyton Bighorse and Kurtis Mayo) delivered a great set – the first band of the day on the Roots Stage. INVSN (Dennis Lyxzén, Sara Almgren, André Sandström, Christina Karlsson and Anders Stenberg) impressed with a mixture of bravura stage presence, synthesizers, and heavy beats. LIARS, featuring Angus Andrew performing in a white wedding dress were both visually arresting and heavy on the synthesizers and drum beats. Seeing X (John Doe, Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka and D. J. Bonebrake) perform was a total highlight. One of the seminal Los Angeles first wave of American punk bands from the 1970s, in the flesh for an hour of music – truly amazing. Death From Above (Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger) took the Roots Stage by storm, blasting out material from their recently released Outrage! Is Now along with songs dating back to their earliest works together.
As the sun was starting to wane, Ministry strolled out onto the main Riot Stage – frontman Al Jourgensen pointing to himself and smiling as the crowd cheered his arrival. The current line-up for Ministry is Al Jourgensen, John Bechdel, Sin Quirin, Cesar Soto, Jason Christopher and Thomas Holtgreve. Along with some touring musicians, Ministry worked their way through a dozen classic songs and one new track “Antifa” off of their soon to be released AmeriKKKant album. It was one of the best live sets of the weekend. While New Order performed on one side of the field, delivering hit after hit of stellar club anthems, Nothing More delivered a bang-up performance on the Heather Owen Stage, celebrating the release day of their stellar new album The Stories We Tell Ourselves this very day by headlining this stage at day’s end. Fans not interested in New Order were treated to a banger of a set complete with Jonny Hawkins riding atop of the band’s custom-built scorpion tail drum kit to end-off their performance.
Nine Inch Nails took the stage at 8:30pm. And yes, they kicked ass. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross along with Robin Finck, Alessandro Cortini, and Ilan Rubin took the stage to the “Fireman” song by Angelo Badalamenti, a track from the recent David Lynch Twin Peaks Showtime television show revival. After playing the delicate “Branches/Bones” from the Not the Actual Events EP the band belted out “Wish”, “Less Than” and “March Of the Pigs” in rapid succession amidst a cacophony of flashing lights and smoke. It was great to see the inclusion of material from both Not the Actual Events and the Add Violence EPs performed live this evening. Add in the slathering of hits from the Nine Inch Nails back-catalog, and you wound up with the perfect end to a perfect day at Riot Fest.
The only other band performing at the same time as nine Inch Nails was A Day To Remember, who drew a huge crowd of eager fans as well. Vocalist Jeremy McKinnon took the time to thank the audience for turning out and watching them while one of the bands in the world was playing on the main stage.