Lasting for three days in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, this was the third year of Riot Fest, a music festival just beginning to carve out its identity as a counterpoint to Pitchfork and Lolla. The festival is often referred to as “Warped Tour” for adults, but it’s more than that — a little bit of everything. Riot Fest showcases the best in indie and mainstream rock from the past three decades — everything from metal and emo to surf rock and noise rock, with a bit of hip-hop thrown in. The fest has some diversity issues, as the crowd was predominantly white, male and heterosexual, but this year was a big leap forward and in a space that made room for acts as diverse as Blink 182, Atmosphere, and X, a great sign of things to come.
Here’s 10 acts you might have missed out on, all of which would be great additions to your Spotify playlist.
1. The Replacements
The biggest news of the weekend was that Riot Fest landed the first Replacements show in 22 years. The band played three weeks ago at the fest in Toronto, and the Chicago show seemed to be the one thing on everyone’s minds. Bands from Fall Out Boy to AFI mentioned how stoked they were to playing with them, and the Minnesota rock band did not disappoint — in a raucous, jokey set that toyed the audience’s anticipation. The band routinely deviated from the set list, calling out the next song to each other like a quarterback signaling an audible, and on stage it felt like anything could happen. The band was as good as they ever were, and as they played everything from “Kiss Me on the Bus” to “Alex Chilton,” it was clear from the rapturous applause in Humboldt that it was well worth the wait.
2. Public Enemy
With no offense to The Replacements, the weekend’s best set belonged to Public Enemy, the classic rap group fronted by Chuck D. Dedicated to everyone from Trayvon Martin to Michael Jackson, the whole show was a blast, the kind of high-energy set that reminds you why you go to music festivals. Chuck D and Flavor Flav got everything right, strutting across the stage with confidence and swagger. Playing hits like “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype,” they didn’t just recreate their best work. They transformed it. As much as I adore “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” as a record, it sounded even better live, when you can see how much of themselves they put into the music. Some bands show up and just play the songs. Public Enemy lives them.
3. Against Me!
This weekend’s Against Me! show was hotly anticipated, a first look for many at the new material the band will releasing after its lead singer’s recent transition. Last year, Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, diving fans of the band. As a long supporter, I was concerned about how that might play out live, but any concerns I had were quickly squelched when I heard the audience chanting her chosen name: “Laura.” The whole set was incredible and the band’s material has only gotten deeper and more interesting with the added subtext of its gender identity. “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” now plays completely different, especially its central message: “The revolution was a lie.” In addition, the songs Grace played from “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” their forthcoming record, sounded incredible, as powerful and incendiary as the band has ever been. If this is their last record, as Grace has mentioned, they’ll go out on the highest of notes.
4. Surfer Blood
This was a show I’m sad to have missed, as the fest buried it early in the day, amongst the newer bands. The Florida band’s “Demon Dance” was a Pitchfork favorite when it debuted earlier this year, expertly blending surf rock with a touch of screamo. Their music is simultaneously romantic and unsettling, with a darkness that gives an edge to their Weezer on cough syrup vibe. It’s perfect late summer pop, an ideal soundtrack for when you don’t want to let go of August but can’t wait to start something new. If anything, it reminds me of late high school, like rediscovering a band you once loved — but one whose music still feels fresh and necessary today.
5. The Pixies
Of every band I saw this weekend, The Pixies were by far the biggest disappointment live, ae their music seemed to get swallowed whole by the stage. Frank Black spent the whole set with his eyes closed, as if he knew the band were tanking. There’s a big reason for that: Kim Deal ditched the band for The Breeders’ reunion, and her stand-in was a sad facsimile for the real thing. But if anything, it was just a needed reminder for how great the Deal-era Pixies were — with albums like “Doolittle” and “Surfer Rosa” only getting better with age. When you hear “Debaser” or “Here Comes Your Man,” you don’t want to be anywhere but where you are, even if the band isn’t what it used to be.
6. Guided by Voices
Guided by Voices is one of the most prolific bands in rock music, as the Dayton, OH group has released a whopping 19 albums over their three decade career. GBV struggled to squeeze their entire discography into a set, heavily leaning on new material while pulling from their classics (“I Am a Scientist,” “Teenage FBI”). Their no-frills, workmanlike set was a testament to their dedication over the years, and GBV frontman Robert Pollard has been teasing that the new album will be their last. If that’s the case, there’s more than enough to remember them by. Guided by Voices has never gotten the credit they’ve deserved, but their incredible catalog deserves to stand the test of time.
7. Bad Religion
Bad Religion has been playing since the late 70s, before most people reading this were born, and the group has managed to stay together despite numerous personnel changes, staying as arguably popular as they ever were. Despite getting an afternoon slot, the band packed it in — with a crowd who clearly came just to see them. (Many were wearing the band’s ubiquitous cross shirt.) While debuting material from True North, their new records, it was the classics that most impressed, simply for how timeless they felt. Whereas most bands might feel like a relic today — something the Blondie set fought — Bad Religion’s social commentary is increasingly relevant in our cultural context. It’s hard to believe that “21st Century (Digital Boy)” was written 20 years ago, simply because its technological satire feels so now.
8. Best Coast
We got rained out for the Best Coast show and spent a couple hours hiding out in a tent and playing Connect Four. This is probably for the best, as Best Coast is notorious for dropping the ball in their live shows. Lead singer Bethany Consentino has a habit of rambling through her songs, as if she’s high and pulling a Ryan Adams, and Best Coast just isn’t a band meant to be heard in public. They’re diary music, the kind of songs you listen to when you’re alone in your dorm room and sulking about the state of the world. With their Phil Spektor-lite production, tracks like “Boyfriend” and “Our Deal” recall a time when love was a life or death situation — and you needed to have him, or everything was over. It’s a perfect time capsule of days gone by.
9. Violent Femmes
The Femmes came up with a brilliant idea: What do you do when the crowd is only showing up to hear one album? Play that record front to back. The band’s eponymous debut, Violent Femmes, came out thirty years ago, and Gordon Gano and compamy decided to play the album front to back as an anniversary tribute to their best-known work. However, the problem is that the album is front-loaded with the band’s best songs, with “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up” right up front. The set drifted off a bit afterward, as Gano played the back half of the record with a subdued, bluegrass sound that wasn’t right for an arena-size crowd. But if anything, Gano showed off what skilled musicians the band is, and the intimate set recalled a particularly great episode of VH1 Storytellers.
10. The Selecter
A couple bands I was pleasantly surprised by. Despite my indifference to AFI, the band plays a killer live show, an electric energy that better bands like Dinosaur Jr. could have learned from. Joan Jett, playing with The Blackhearts, was just as good as she’s ever been, and Saves the Day were unexpectedly strong, but the surprise of the weekend had to go to The Selector. I’m not a fan of two-tone ska, but I have to give credit where its due: They put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, recalling Amadou and Mariam and Gogol Bordello. The set never missed a beat — at once thrilling, joyous and funny, with Pauline Black playing a great host to the crowd. The best moment came during their rendition of “James Bond,” a track inspired by the film series that was a delight to behold. If Idris Elba ends up being our first black bond, this needs to be his theme music.
Also check out: X, The Dismemberment Plan, DeVotchKa, Dinosaur Jr. Atmosphere, Suicidal Tendencies