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Riot Fest: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Probably one of the smoothest (and sunniest) ever: FIDLAR was commanding. Bad Brains, not so much.

FIDLAR   Photo: Cousin Daniel

Riot Fest rolled through Douglas Park this weekend with the confidence of an old Chicago standby. Now in its sixth year, the festival has worked out a number of kinks that plagued its early years, from traffic flow to sound bleed. The festival continues to attract punkers of all stripes—from middle schoolers to the middle aged—with a mix of pop-punk, ska, metal, hip-hop, and high-profile reunions (Jawbreaker in this case).

Though this year featured 30 fewer bands than in 2016, it felt like one of the smoothest Riot Fests yet (thanks in part to an unheard-of lack of rain). The weekend’s highs and lows, below.

The Good

Downtown Boys

Dubbed America’s most exciting punk band by Rolling Stone last year, Downtown Boys, a self-described “bilingual political dance sax punk party” from Providence, Rhode Island, blew the lid off their 2 p.m. set on Sunday. As she’s wont to do, lead singer Victoria Ruiz prefaced each song with a bit of political commentary, in this case voicing solidarity with undocumented young immigrants, denouncing capitalism as a form of social control, and damning the president to hell. Parts of the crowd were visibly annoyed, which only appeared to further fuel Ruiz and the band’s vitriol.

FIDLAR

Clear professionals at the mega-fest game, L.A. garage rockers FIDLAR (short for “Fuck It Dog, Life’s a Risk”) performed one of the weekend’s most energetic sets on Saturday afternoon. The band kicked things off with a cover of the Beasties Boys’ “Sabotage,” and relentlessly upped the tempo with every song thereafter. Halfway through the set, front man Zac Carper, newly sober after a well-publicized battle with heroin, demanded that the crowd clear out a space for a “girls’ only mosh pit.” A couple songs later, he told the crowd to sit down on the grass—and they did.

Hometown Heroes

As the Reader pointed out last week, one in ten bands at this year’s Riot Fest consider Chicago home—and the hyper-local ethos made their sets that much more special.

The Bad

New Order 

Painful as it is to say, New Order’s set was bad. Sure, the band knows how to craft a set list, packing 40 years of hits into a 75-minute slot on Friday night. But in the way of energy, New Order’s performance was little more than a karaoke sing-along, with the band serving as a conduit for half-drunken, nostalgic swaying. After seeing the Buzzcocks obliterate the same stage earlier in the day, it was hard to excuse New Order’s listlessness as a symptom of old age. Even their tweets were dry:

What Community?

Ever an elephant in the room for Riot Fest, mounting the event in Douglas Park means drawing tens of thousands of white people to the West Side—a move members of the community have opposed in recent years. And while organizers have made an effort to reach out to the community in past years—flyering and handing out free tickets to residents in 2016—one source told Chicago that one prominent local group had its allotment reduced to zero, and talks about future engagement have stalled. There were also fewer community organizations tabling at the event than at this year’s Spanish-language music fest Ruido Fest, which is put on by the same company. Like past years, some attendees weighed in on social media about lack of cultural sensitivity.

The Ugly

Bad Brains

The opportunity to catch D.C. punk pioneers Bad Brains on Saturday was undoubtedly a draw for many at Riot Fest. But after watching FIDLAR command the main stage on Saturday, it hurt to see Bad Brains fumble through their set. Given the band members’ well-known health issues, it’s a feat that they performed at all. But the brand of hardcore punk that Bad Brains pioneered in the ’70s and ’80s takes a copious amount of energy to perform, and watching them on Saturday felt like a present-day pickup game between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—after YouTubing reruns of the ‘84 NBA Finals.

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