After many years of covering Riot Fest at Ghost Cult, your intrepid chief of editor got to experience it for himself. The lineup was too good to be true, even the competition from the many Punk and Metal festivals all happening around the same time in the USA. Having personally covered one other festival in Chicago in the past, (RIP Chicago Open Air), I was excited to spend some time here.
Getting in a few days early and posting up in The Loop at an older but cool hotel, Hotel Congress, I ran around the city for the first day seeing some sights, eating a delicious Wrigleyville Chi-dog or three, drinking some Old Style beers at The G Man Tavern and a few other bars near The Metro, and generally prepping for the weekend to come.
Preparing for a fest is essential, in addition to my new Sony video camera, with a loner Tamron lens, new DJI wireless mics, and I needed an assortment of things to get through the fest (sunblock, chub rub, pain relief, earplugs) for the sets I want to catch up close. As Lt. Dan would say in Forrest Gump, proper foot protection with my brand spanking new Vans is key.
The media check in process for the press at the fest was easy peasy, and I met up with Ghost Cult photog Randal Hicks (Windy Brick Photography on social media, go follow him), and entered the festival. It was sunny and not too hot to start the day. In addition to the killer lineup there was activity all over the city with the Riot Fest Late Night sold-out shows from Thrice, Frank Turner, Danzig, and others.
There was a great camaraderie from the start at this fest and it was great to be treated with respect, rather than as a pest. They provided free water, Riot Fest pop (Red Bull + seltzer) free beer, massages, and a chiropractor on hand all weekend. Even before that, this has been one of the best organized and managed festivals we have ever seen. Thanks to Heather and Miranda and their team for everything! Also, there were doughnuts from Weber’s Bakery on Saturday (I was gifted one as an early Birthday treat), my fellow journalist and concert photog peers, and tons of cool people hanging out like Todd Santos, author of Rock N Roll Crosswords! He actually kissed me!
My usual festival plan is to make lists and prepare like crazy. This festival has some bad clashes, but I usually err towards bands I have never seen before, unless it’s a special case, like a full album sets, a comeback show, guest appearances and more! Over the five stages, the early bands I saw and heard that impressed me were FEA, The Bobby Lee’s, Pinkshift, Olivia Jean (the partner of Jack White, incredible voice) and some of Quasi!
Sadly, missing Hawthorne Heights (seen em a lot in the past) I caught some of Parliament Funkadelic ft. George Clinton for old times sake. They were amazing!
The first full set of the day one I watched start to finish was Code Orange. The swell of the people there to see them was huge, considering this is a band I saw at little hardcore shows as Code Orange Kids a decade ago. Most of these fans weren’t ready.
Opening up with an all out assault on the senses, Code Orange ripped everyone’s spine out of their bodies with a performance equal to any this weekend the band ran through a collection a song from their last album Underneath, and their new album the Above (Blue Grape Music). The band went hard, swapped instruments, with different people covering lead vocals and, in general the entire crowd ate it up. They felt like a quintessential Riot Fest band to me with a long history but also a tremendous amount of depth in their songs. The highlight of the day was the first ever performance of their new single “Mirror” but led by guitarist/vocalist Reba! The band was stellar, and they are still climbing. Stay tuned, since we have a sick interview coming soon with the band.
Having to run back to press and conduct some interviews in the press area, but I caught a bit of The Interrupters. Their new album is great, and they are even more fun live.
The next day one band that I was super hyped to see with my old favorite – Quicksand. Unbelievably, Walter Schreifels was doing triple duty with all three of his bands this weekend, and today we were treated to the iconic Slip (Interscope Records) album in full, which is the blueprint for post-Hardcore. The whole crowd was enthralled. Watching the band on stage, seeing them perform well, but felt very professional and almost casual and chil. Slip is a genre classic and the band had it covered. Nice to see all the hardcore heads in the house today, a sign of good things to come all weekend.
Catching two songs from Ani Di Franco, some 1990s classics by The Breeders, and a powerful turn from local legends Braid, then I saw Turnstile. The second most anticipated band of the fest from fans, and even bands who I talked to. They put on a masterful show, for only the third time I have seen them, and twice they played giant stages. The crowd was heavily into them, screaming and singing along with every word. They played all their big hits, including “Blackout” and “Holiday”
As Turnstile wound down and day became night, I caught the end of Tegan and Sara and forgot how many of these hooky earworms I know so well. Lucky for me, Punk supergroup Fake Names (Bad Religion, Refused, Boys Like Girls) went on late and after visiting a not totally horrid portapotty, I managed to see their entire set! They were incredible and truly a super supergroup. Dennis Lysen (Refused, International Noise Conspiracy) was a commanding presence as a frontman. The band discussed how they came together at a past Riot Fest, and why they get along so well. After the energetic set, I heard a few older heads grousing about not enjoying these guys, but if it’s too loud and liberal for you, then you got old and dumb, punk.
Running across the festival grounds to see most of Foo Fighters’ epic two- hour set, I saw them put on a masterful showing. This was my first show with the band since the death of Taylor Hawkins so I was a tangle of feelings. Drawing from their biggest hits, some well-chosen covers, to their new album But Here We Are (Roswell Records). Funny bits included Dave Grohl being Dave Grohl, covering Metallica, Black Sabbath, Beastie Boys, DEVO and Nine Inch Nails (the latter two as nod to new drummer Josh Freese, and in general mixing the heavy emotions of the set with the lighter moments of laughter and joy the band shared with the biggest crowd pf the weekend. They even did a fan request, “White Limo,” (Taylor’s favorite FF song apparently) which I can’t recall any band ever doing a request at a festival set. They even left a few songs off the final playlist, different from what was on the printed setlist, an indicator that as the band grows into legend status they are not a stuffy, paint by numbers band, so far.
The only drawback of the festival was trying to get out of there after day one. In addition to 50,000 plus people all exiting at the same time after the headline band, it’s very difficult to get out of there, far from public transportation and at least a several mile walk after you’ve been on your feet all day, and dehydrated at a fest. Not only is this a bit unsafe, but left me disappointed as I was exhausted from the day. Also, it was Mexican Independence weekend in Chicago, further complicating the already over-stuffed major city, full of people clogging streets and byways. This is not enough to deter me from coming back, but consider me more the wiser for the next time.
I was really eager to sink my teeth into the Saturday lineup consisting of a lot of bands I have never seen before, and a few I had mad love for too. Starting the days off with the infectious Pool Kids, this day got off to a killer start. I was hoping to hear a song or two from their side band Pool, but I don’t think we did. Other early day winners for me included Total Chaos, Enola Gay a brutal set from Drain, and Warpaint. Sadly, I could not get over to see Plosives on the Rise Stage which was one of my more favorite bands I had earmarked to see.
Splitting my time between Jehnny Beth and Bowling For Soup was tough, but I had seen Jehnny open for NIN some years back, and I felt obliged to see Bowling for Soup, after my stellar and fun interview with BfS.
After a few more interviews, I did see a flurry of bands including old school hardcore band Snapcase, which took my back to my teens, a little bit of Corey Feldman which was uh… interesting to say the least, before catching Rival Schools and High Vis. Rival Schools were phenomenal, performing their entire debut album. Hi Vis is one of the best underground punk bands on the Rebel Stage this weekend and they had a lot of energy that I really appreciated. Next we saw Enter Shikari dominate the day. They don’t get over to the US often and they absolutely killed it and had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hands. Definitely one of the best bands I’ve seen live.
Another clash that broke my heart was having to choose between Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, and Steve Ignorant and Crass. I chose Frank since I had not seen him in such a long time, and I was rewarded with a magical setlist and performance. For the second time this weekend great to hear radical politics play a role at the giant major level music fest. Along with many other subversive and radical acts of resistance I saw, it struck a nice balance for me. Even after 2022’s amazing FTHC, they are coming back with a new album in 2024.
Catching a bit of Death Grips again for the second time in a few months, I see the appeal and why so many people lose their minds for these guys, but ultimately they are not for me. I did however see a little bit of Pup who have been riding high with a bunch of success of late.
Not caring too much for the Roots stage headliners I plotted the course for the rest of my day. Getting into a good position at the Rebel Stage with the high ground like Obi-Wan verus Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, I prepared myself to take in Sleep Token. Ghost Cult has been lucky to cover the band live before, but this was my first time seeing them and they definitely lived up to the hype. However they did take a very long time to come on stage as the longest wait for a band all weekend, but once they hit it, wow! Rather than go off, their seemed to simmer to a boil every song. Generally with the crowd whipping into a frenzy, it’s not impossible that these guys might have a bigger trajectory someday than Ghost.
As if by a little punk rock miracle I managed to catch a couple of bangers from Pennywise including the classic “Bro Hymn.” Much like they were for Warped Tour 25 years ago, Pennywise is one of the quintessential American punk rock bands and they proved it in just a little showing to me.
Finally, I saw Queens of the Stone Age for the first time in a long time headline the Roots Stage. I caught the vast majority of their set, and they were amazing. I have a lot of complicated feelings about Josh, but there’s no denying the power of this band and they’re importance to Alternative Rock, Stoner, and Psychedelic music in a popular modern context.
One of the highlights of all three days was Mr. Bungle on the Rise Stage. It seems like the Rise Stage had a ton of killer bands all weekend, and it was positively packed at the ball field area stage for them. They were masterful and muscular with their command of their music, putting on a textbook performance of Hardcore Punk, Metal and some next level comedy for good measure. I feel lucky that I got to see this band three times this year, including two festivals and one headline set.
Another of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was Insane Clown Posse. It felt like a lot of the day was spent watching Juggalos wandering the fest with their faces painted. It really set the stage for ICP’s set on the Rebel Stage. It was my first time catching them live, and they didn’t disappoint. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope were filled with energy and rose above any expectation I may have had. Covered in Faygo, I left smiling and happy to have witnessed such pageantry. Talking with my brother after the set, he left me with “Welcome to the Family”
Opposite of the night before. As luck would have it, as I exited the festival and tried to figure out how to get home I saw my Bay Area homies in Haemmorage! They were posted up on one corner of the park. The thrash band that drives their mobile stage all over the city to play after metal and punk shows, and now the rest of the USA too. Having survived a harrowing accident that totaled their last van and almost cost the band their lives, it was great to see them getting ready to set up and play for the throng of fans leaving the festival after Day 2.
Applying myself a little bit better tonight, I asked a kind local for advice and they said to get the train after the festival to go downtown to the Loop, from the California Street station, also still a few miles away from the main entrance, but still this was a little more humane than trying to get an Uber to no avail, as I did the night before. That mid-western charm and kindness is real!
Weather is an unfortunate part of Festival life and Saturday night the rains came down over Chicago. I certainly didn’t think the festival would be rained out and I had adequate rain gear to boot. However, safety is a thing that can’t be underestimated or understated. We got news that the first few hours of the festival were going to be canceled (I was especially bummed to not see Empire State Bastard, and while it was definitely devastating to fans in the bands, you have to really appreciate the job Riot Fest and the Chicago Parks Department did getting Douglas Park ready for fans to enjoy the rest of the day. Just the night before on my way home I had met a young fan whose favorite band ever was Microwave, and they were finally going to see them. One of the many bands canceled because of rain. But hopefully the bands that did play brighten the spirits of the fans that remained steadfast and still came to the fest for day three.
I managed to get in early and it was quite a spectacle seeing the empty fields with no fans while the crew for the fest work diligently to get it ready to go. The crew were stellar top to bottom. Since it was my birthday, I was extra pumped up for the final day of the fest. The first band of the day was Thursday on the Radical Stage and they greeted the fans with a spirited set after catching a little of them and Cults on the Roots Stage. Balance and Composure also got to play a fine set in a primo spot early on.
I did see Earth Crisis I did see about half of of their set, and it was a great throwback to see a band that had not seen in many years. Riot Fest truly is a stellar place to see hardcore bands, and I didn’t really think this was the case until now. Other early day standouts were The Bronx, L.S. Dunes, and Ride. Sadly, seeing L.S. Dunes in their entirety meant that I missed H2O and part of AFI, but I did see the end of AFI and a bit of Flogging Molly on my way out to see Gorilla Biscuits all the way on the Rebel Stage.
Oh yeah, we saw two punks get engaged at the end of the set. It was great!
Anybody that has ever heard my interviews or read my writing knows Gorilla Biscuits is my favorite New York City Hardcore band and the entire weekend was full of people representing my hometown homies. With a crowd size that rivaled Sleep Token, the band arrived on staget with a horn section replicating the iconic Start Today first notes. They played the entire album in its entirety and it was incredible. You can’t understand my joy at seeing this band that I saw in tiny sweaty clubs 30 plus years ago, and again just a few years back. Some guys that I have personally gotten to meet and know over the years were just absolutely shining on that stage of legends. It was about as proud a moment as I have had as a New Yorker and a punk fan. I also got to see Walter Schrifels and former GB drummer Sammy Siegler (Youth of Today, Judge, CIV) in the press area and we had a nice quick reunion of sorts. Those guys knew me in my pre-band days, long before I was a journalist when they both lived in the West Village in Manhattan. (Shoutout to Bagels on the Square on Bleeker Street. IYKYK).
Heading out of the euphoria of the second best set of the weekend, I managed to catch the end of my beloved Dresden Dolls. They don’t come around much, but they always put on a sweet show. Them closing with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is still the best cover of the song, and sadly, still relevant lyrically in 2023.
Then the worst possible the of all the clashes all weekend happened with The Mars Volta, The Used and The Gaslight Anthem. How does one choose? I saw a bit of The Mars Volta due to proximity to the Roots Stage. A band I much prefer live than on wax, but it was great to see them for the first time in decades, with my own eyes.
The Cure closed out Riot Fest 2023 with a setlist truly spanning the decades. Robert Smith’s voice was as beautiful as ever while the band’s instrumentals created a dreamlike ambiance that felt like an escape from our reality. Through the never-ending hits, the crowd cheered and sang along until the bittersweet end. It was a perfect close to an amazing weekend filled with so many good tunes and good times.
One of the few saving graces of the early cancelations, Hardcore Metal band Through N Through was allowed to save their day and play as the last band of the festival. They play crushing music, are great guys, and have an new album coming out in 2024 via Riot Records.
All in all it was a tremendous weekend of music and fun. Other than logistics and some thin food choices, Riot Fest 2023 was a resounding success, and we will be back again in 2024.
Riot Fest will announced the 2024 fest soon:
WORDS BY KEEFY AND RANDAL HICKS