Sunday, September 14, 2014

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: A Tale of Two Riot Fests in One Muddy Day

Concert / Festival Review

Riot Fest
Humboldt Park, Chicago
September 13, 2014
(Fest ran 9/12-14)
Fest rating: @@@1/2

Artists seen:
Paul Weller @@@@1/2
Afghan Whigs @@@@@
Buzzcocks @@@@
Television @@@1/2
Tokyo Police Club @@@@
Face to Face @@@@
The Flaming Lips @@@ (Partial)
The Get Up Kids (Very Partial)
The Orwells (Very Partial)
Wu-Tang Clan (Very Partial)

Even with me attending just one of its three days, on Saturday Riot Fest served to reinforce why I still--and theoretically always will--love live music, and why I still largely hate festivals.

Funny thing is, the reasons I haven't loved Lollapalooza when I've attended the Chicago festival in years past largely didn't apply to Riot Fest.

I am not physically comfortable standing up for extended periods, and particularly among large crowds with no seating options, I prefer not to do so. But at Riot Fest, I found enough fences to lean against that physical discomfort in this regard wasn't a major issue.

At Lollapalooza, reinforced by friends that went this year, my perception is that at 45, I am at least twice if not three times the age of a large portion of other attendees. I never care much about feeling out of place, but I have typically sensed that many "fans" are there primarily for reasons well-beyond the music, often seemingly just to be seen and/or get wasted.

With apologies for a gross generalization, but one that others have corroborated, huge festivals often unavoidably include a substantial contingent of jackasses, if not outright assholes.

But I can honestly say that I didn't encounter--or even perceive--anyone at Riot Fest who was demonstrably uncool; in fact, just the opposite as with a crowd far closer to my demographic, I had a number of nice conversations with others waiting for bands to take the various stages. Most people seemed to be there mainly for the music.

Which makes me wonder why the organizers of Riot Fest waste space--and presumably, ticket cost contributors--on multiple Ferris Wheels and other carnival rides that seemingly almost no one even thinks of boarding.

But much more meriting condemnation were a slew of other piss-poor logistics of the Fest, one that is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but only its third held in Humboldt Park.

When I arrived after 1:00pm--the fest grounds were open by Noon--with my friend Brad, we had to initially get into the longest line I've ever seen (except for one at Lollapalooza in Buenos Aires, in which I waited for 3 hours).

Luckily, this wasn't nearly as bad as that; just dumb, for as soon as we walked perhaps a quarter-mile to get in the back of the line, the line started moving until reaching a chaotic mass of people at the entrance gates. So it's like someone decided to have everyone get in an orderly line, then just as soon decided against it. 

Appreciating that the organizers have no control over the weather, and that friends who went on Friday night faced rain and far colder temperatures than I experienced on Saturday, the physical conditions of the park were beyond atrocious, give huge amounts of mud everywhere.

There were 7 stages and you could barely walk to any of them, let alone find a place to stand, without being several inches deep in mud, on a day that was sunny and in the 60s.

A few places were roped off due to egregious amounts of mud, but almost everywhere else was absolutely uncomfortable.

This turned from a nuisance to a hazard at one point when, in trying to exit a field to get to food booths that lined a pavement path, there was no option but to wade through thousands of people essentially shoving their way through each other in both directions. All it would have taken is for someone to slip in the mud to have a catastrophe on our hands.

As it was, in the melee--more a massive scrum than a riot--I was separated from two of the friends I was with, never to see them again for the rest of the fest.

Which brings me to another gripe: completely crappy cell phone reception, which made even texting iffy at best.

I know I'm not the first to raise this issue, and I don't know what factors come into play, but it sure would have been nice to be able to contact my friends via text, phone, Facebook messenger, carrier pigeon, etc.

Ironically, in trying to find Brad after receiving a text from him that I couldn't return, I saw my friend Paolo--who I had been texting for hours to no avail--happen to walk by.

Though I still have to recap the music I heard previously, Paolo and I went over to see/hear the Flaming Lips, only to have their soundsystem blow after the first song--it was later revived--as we stood in deep mud. We soon gave up on that.

Though many of the acts sounded good, with strong audio volume heard from across large fields, punk icons the Buzzcocks' 30-minute set was largely ruined by subpar amplification.

And in trying to access a Porta-Potty around 6pm, I found lines of 15 people deep, clearly indicating the rest room facilities were far too paltry.

I decided I could wait until later.

To some readers, I imagine this may sound like an old guy whining, and to others it may sound like absolute hell.

But despite all that sucked about Riot Fest, much of the music I heard was really good, including some by acts I really didn't know except by name.

The first act Brad and I tried to see was Tokyo Police Club, which is a band of white guys from Canada. I didn't know of them until Brad had noted them before the fest, and their 2014 album Forcefield (Spotify link) sounds pretty strong.

Before they started playing, we saw and heard The Orwells perform on a nearby stage. I just now realized I had them confused with The Redwells, another band hailing from the Chicago suburbs. But what I heard sounded good enough, if not particularly memorable.

For Tokyo Police Club, we found a good spot next to the soundboard, with some matting to stand on rather than mud. In the mid-day sun, the music sounded really good and at that point, I had no complaints.

I was able to find my friend Dave before two iconic bands playing consecutively on adjoining stages: the Buzzcocks and Television.

Neither was quite as great as we hoped. For whatever reason, the Buzzcocks just weren't loud enough, though classic songs like "Autonomy," "What Do I Get," "Ever Fallen in Love" and "Orgasm Addict" were nonetheless great fun to hear.

Television--one of the great CBGBs bands alongside the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie--sounded good on songs from their 1977 classic Marquee Moon, but others that I didn't know seemed to waft in the air as I was stuck in the mud. 

After that, Dave and I found an almost dry patch of grass to sit on that didn't allow us to see a band called Face to Face--unknown to me but touted by a friend--and their punkish set sounded good.

In truth, the primary reason for my attending Riot Fest on this day was a relatively rare Chicago appearance by Paul Weller, who was the lead singer of a band called The Jam--superstars in England from 1977-82, but never big in the U.S.--who was also in the Style Council and has had a pretty stellar solo career.

More on him in a moment, but in waiting by the stage at which Weller was to play on from 5:15 to 6:00pm--far too short--we heard the Afghan Whigs playing at a stage across the field.

I've long heard of the Whigs but have never been captured by any of the music I've heard. But Brad--who at that point was not with Dave & I, but would find us for Weller--said they were great live.

Boy were they.

I can't say I loved any of their songs as much as Weller's, but just in terms of the way they sounded, the Afghan Whigs were the best act I saw all day.

Even from at least 100 yards away, they sounded absolutely phenomenal.

If it wasn't for the harrowing crush I found myself in after the Weller set, the Whigs and Weller would have in themselves offset any other inconveniences of Riot Fest.

And while finding fault with much, I have to give kudos to the Riot Fest organizers for attracting so many terrific bands.

Including the Modfather, as Paul Weller has long been known. (The Jam being the biggest and best of the London "Mod" bands of the late '70s).

This was my fourth time seeing Weller, and even with his limited time--which he himself referenced repeatedly--he was as good as I've ever seen him.

Jam-ish solo songs like "From the Floorboards Up" and "Come On/Let's Go" were terrific, the Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" was fun and the Jam's "Start" and "A Town Called Malice" had me feeling like a pig in, well, mud.

The extended jam of "Porcelain Gods" seemed a bit prolonged given the time constraints, but everything Weller played was as good as could be.

Another 15 minutes would have been wonderful.

Then came the crowd clusterfuck as Dave, Brad and I tried to make our way to food booth row, having no option but to force our way through the overflow crowd for the Wu-Tang Clan.

I'm not a big rap fan, but I have no complaints about what I heard, other than nearly dying while hearing it.

Finally making my way to a less congested area near the other field--after getting a corn dog--I liked what I heard from the Get Up Kids, another band with whom I'm not all that familiar.

As noted above, after losing Brad and Dave, I coincidentally connected with Paolo. But even beyond the mud and the power outage, we were both disappointed with what we heard from the Flaming Lips, a band we've both long loved.

Their set seemed self-indulgent and boring, and even in finding dry pavement where we could hear but not see them, we decided to call it quits before their set ended with a cover of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

I was originally intending to stay through the end to hear The National and catch a ride back with Brad to my car parked on his street.

But by that time I had had enough, and in departing with Paolo, I was able to take a bus and train and get back to my car.

After a few texting attempts, I was able to confirm that Brad got word that I had left. He was planning to stay for the National, but within 15 minutes of their taking the stage, I got a text from him saying that they were boring and that he had left.

In sum, I'm delighted to have seen Paul Weller, was blown away by the Afghan Whigs, enjoyed much else I heard but am quite unlikely to return to Riot Fest next year. 

Unless there's, say, a Talking Heads reunion. Or a Jam one.

Here's video I shot of Paul Weller performing "A Town Called Malice." Unfortunately the audio is subpar.

And a bit of the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love":

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