Oi! It’s Riot Fest eh!

It is a pleasure to have guests grace our pages but no truer words were ever uttered than having Samm Waatsen (ex-punk rocker/pre-law) write a quick synopsis of this year’s Riot Fest in Chicago. His flare for storytelling is epic! His “as if you were there” delivery is humorous yet heartfelt. Please, enjoy! 

Last year, on a grim November morning, I jumped in my wife’s car, popped in an unofficial Deathside discography, and hauled royal keister down to a West Loop rehearsal space called “the Garage.” My mission? To buy pre-sale vip tickets to Riot Fest… which would occur 10 months later.

Were the tickets worth it? Will I go vip again? Hellfire, will I go at all again?!?!

Mostly, grudgingly, and indeed.

Greg Graffin, Henry Rollins, Tim McIlrath and the rest of the Riot Fest Discussion with the members of Pussy Riot, CHICAGO 2014
Greg Graffin, Henry Rollins, Tim McIlrath and the rest of the Riot Fest Discussion with the members of Pussy Riot, CHICAGO 2014


I bought the pre-sale tickets without knowing who any of the bands would be because Riot Fest can be trusted to give me quality nostalgia. I knew that over the three days I would get my fill of bands that I like and consistently listen to- or at least loved when I was in middle/high school. Last year I bought three-day GA tickets, and while we had a great time, the crush of people put a damper on the festivities. We hung out next to our friends that had the vip’s- separated only by the viewing barrier. They stayed comfy, while we questioned our sanity (and the strength of our ribcages). “Never Again” is both a rad Discharge song… and what I muttered over three days of cracked ribs.

This year, while indeed quite comfortably hanging out with those same buddies, we were shocked to learn that the vip section was now a “lounge,” with views of the bands ranging from nonexistent to “acceptable if you don’t mind watching through a ten foot high fence.” Furthermore, there was one entrance to each of the “lounges,” and access could only be gained by wading through the crowd, making sure to dodge soundman tents and inexplicably placed barriers running from said tents to the stage. Basically, once you gained entry, you needed a damn good reason to leave.

Speaking of sound, it was hit or miss. On Friday, NOFX sounded awful. However, since they played Punk In Drublic in its entirety I was able to fill in the gaps and dropouts due to having covered the bulk of that album in various high school bands. Their banter was silly and irreverent (as expected), but rather stale and predictable.

To my ears Jane’s Addiction sounded better than reports would have you believe. They played all of Nothing’s Shocking, and were more engaged and personable than I expected, especially since by the time they went on the rain was coming down horizontally. Perry seemed extra attentive, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was trying to garner good will because he is considering (or already has) purchasing stake in Riot Fest. Despite the rain and cold, listening to the huddled masses belting out Jane Says was a great way to end the first night.

***Sonically, the rest of the weekend was much better, though still inconsistent.***

There were a few pleasant surprises… I’ve never been hugely into Billy Bragg, but it was a quite enjoyable set, filled with pro-union sentiments, pro-disUnion sentiments (re: the at the time pending vote for Scottish independence), and obscure bits of history. The soundman was thankfully on his game, ensuring that a lone dude with a guitar on a giant stage didn’t sound like a lone dude with a guitar… on State and Jackson.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Patti Smith- I saw her do a three-song acoustic set about 10 years ago, and it was not my cup of tea. However, at that point in my life anything that wasn’t blazingly, manically, and “crucially” fast was a bunch of hooey. This time around, it was pleasant music for a pleasant afternoon. I was surprised that she had the balls/integrity to play a certain song… If you think about the history of the folky protest movement, it puts that word in the proper context, and the sentiment rings as true today as it did 40 years ago. It’s an even more uncomfortable and verboten word nowadays, but using it in its proper anger- and frustration- inspired context makes it more poignant. Furthermore, this isn’t a bunch of Skrewdriver jackoffs singing along for shock value or hate- it’s art, borne out of a movement that was desperate for change.

Despite these pleasant surprises, I was actually dismayed at Social Distortion’s set. They started strong, playing Another State of Mind with due speed and urgency, but the quaaludes must have kicked in because everything else was dull, slow, and uninspired. I like Social Distortion, but I had never seen them, which is why I chose them over Cheap Trick. I should’ve cut out early to see the Rick Neilsen experience again, and I’m still mentally kicking myself in the groin for not doing so.

I was right up front for Cocksparrer, as I was the only one who wanted to see them (not having gone to the Concord the night before). As usual, they were great, but the Chelsea girl in front/next to me would not stop shaking her skinhead groove thang. Seriously, it was distracting; doing “the butt” has its time and place- endangering the safety of any future children I may have is not the proper activity while watching Cocksparrer (all jokes aside…) It was unfortunately not erotic- just really annoying. The best part of their set was when I came to the conclusion that every single person singing along (including yours truly) was doing so in a (presumably) faux-British accent. Oi, mate!!!

On a non-musical note, my friend’s soon-to-be wife gave us tickets to ride the ferris wheel, with the caveat that we make out while riding it. 35 minutes’ worth of standing in line later… done!!! Good views from up there- next time maybe I should buy GA passes and an unlimited ride pass and just watch from 50 feet in the sky all weekend!

Out of every cover band I’ve ever seen (or been in), Me First and the Gimme Gimmes reigns supreme. For one- they play fast, which gives them an automatic gold star in my book. For two- the vocals are quite good; they’re not the nasally whine that California Fat Wreck-Chords bands/style-biters are known for, but somewhere between Billy Idol and musical theatre. For three- the banter is witty, timely, and not prone to long-windedness. I also liked his insistence on pronouncing the “J” in Me and Julio Down By the School Yard.

They were the highlight of Riot Fest for me: I like them and they are fun to watch, and more importantly, my wife was having a total blast. Anything that makes her that giddy is going to be radly memorable.

The highlight for my wife was The Cure. They were awesome, they played for a long time, and I like them, but she was waaay stoked. They played pretty much everything she wanted to hear, but at the same time (perhaps fittingly), it was bittersweet, because towards the last few songs we said our goodbyes to the Detroit contingent.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I’ll spring for pre-sale vip passes again, only because those stupid “lounges” do provide a much-needed break from the thronging (and throbbing, actually) masses, and you get 12 beers; that’s $84 bucks that you won’t need to spend 10 months later. But really, I’ll continue to get them because I know my friends will get them. They were my buddies in Florida 15 years ago, and they are now my buddies from Detroit. If my wife and I only get to see them once a year, you best believe we’ll be on the same side of the fence (even if it means getting that ol’ incarceration experience).

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