Through 99 bands, five stages, and in just four days, Riot Fest reminded us of everything we were missing about live music. It was joyous. It was wild. It was loud. It was everything.
The festival’s 16th annual run was an epic celebration of the return of live music, and it was nothing short of spectacular. Headliners like Patti Smith, Morrissey, Smashing Pumpkins, Run the Jewels, Dropkick Murphys, Devo, Machine Gun Kelly, and Slipknot ushered us into a new era: post-lockdown levity.
Our return to live music wouldn’t be possible without the diligence of the festival’s planning crew and staff. Riot Fest had followed the coattails of fellow Chicago festival Lollapalooza’s nearly foolproof protocol of requiring vaccines or negative COVID tests to enter. Although the vaccine doesn’t make us invincible against the virus, data determined that Lollapalooza was not a superspreader event. Safety was of the utmost importance at Riot Fest and they took all safety protocols true to heart. The staff was masked, friendly, and working hard to make sure the event’s return was a smooth ride. I have nothing but respect for the people who worked so hard to bring live music back to the ears of so many people.
Once we were safely inside, we were finally able to enjoy the live music we had been missing for so long! Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino paused their outstanding performance to remind us that their last show before the pandemic was in Chicago and this was their first show back. She spoke to the crowd about going through the pandemic together.
While we all had very different experiences, it created a huge sense of unity between her and everyone standing in front of her today. It was truly a heartfelt moment between her and the thousands of eyes and ears enjoying Best Coast under the Chicago sunshine. Best Coast also played a reworked version of their hit “Boyfriend” that lent to a GLBTQ narrative lyrically. All of the revenue from this release benefits The Trevor Project, a non-profit that supports gay youth and adolescents. Best Coast was definitely a stand out artist at this year’s Riot Fest and I felt very lucky to have caught their entire set that day.
Not surprising to anyone familiar with Devo, their set was not to be missed. Their high-energy nostalgic performance tickled all of my fancies, and surely the fancies of the huge audience spanning across the entire park; some were even sporting the classic Devo “energy domes” too! Opening with a hilarious cameo of Devo frenemy Rod Rooter, Devo stormed the stage donning their classic hats, yellow jumpsuits and keytars. Favorites included “Whip It” and “Girl U Want,” and the famed cover of Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was incredibly satisfying and a huge crowd pleaser. They also get my vote for best on-stage graphics for their bright projections featuring glimpses of past videos, lyrics, and strange ‘80s mod art.
If there was a homecoming king of Riot Fest, it would definitely be our friends in Hepcat. This was their day in their hometown and they simply shined. Just before inviting us all to dance, they preached “You do you, and you do you well.” Words that we all truly needed after a year of yuck. “Dance Wid’ Me” followed, and the crowd skanked gleefully.
Fans of The Flaming Lips were singing along to every word, and as expected, the band was anything but boring. In addition to their hits “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize,” they inflated several balloons and even a robot for “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1.” Front-man Wayne Coyne stayed masked and used his hamster ball for some of the set and reminded us, “Take care of each other.”
Body Count did not play shyly and before they launched into “No Lives Matter,” Ice-T reminded the crowd, “If you think they care about you, you’ve lost your mind.” In addition to having the crowd chant “Fuck the police,” he demanded the mosh pit go hard, and he even brought his five-year-old daughter on stage. I really loved “There Goes the Neighborhood” exploding through Douglass Park and it was definitely a rollercoaster of a performance.
The guy who has been in the press non-stop for weeks, Machine Gun Kelly, performed tracks off his latest album, plus a Paramore cover. The crowd loved him, but Slipknot might not. He took several swipes at them by calling them “old weird dudes with masks.”
Those “old weird dudes with masks” from Slipknot absolutely rocked their performance and drew a massive crowd. Slipknot was added as a replacement for Nine Inch Nails and had to have been the loudest band there. Front-man Corey Taylor dedicated “Wait and Bleed” to “Our family – past, present, and future,” and later said, “There’s no room to listen to all the shit that is flying over our fucking heads. We need to pull together as a goddamn fucking family.” Yes, we need to take advice from Slipknot!
Another late add to fill in was surprisingly… Morrissey. And he showed up! Of course, Morrissey was Morrissey with political statements and imagery. He ran through songs from The Smiths (“How Soon Is Now?” “Shoplifters of the World Unite”), his solo work (“Everyday Is Like Sunday” “Jack the Ripper”), and various covers (“Back on the Chain Gang” Pretenders).
Despite chanting fans, Morrissey did not return for an encore, which really, is the most Morrissey thing he could do.
Patti Smith was another wonderful performance, even when a fan held out her record to her while she was on stage. “You think I have nothing better to do than jump off the stage and sign my fucking record?” Smith actually did sign it though before leaving the crowd with a medley of “Land” and “Gloria.”
The Smashing Pumpkins was another amazing set at Riot Fest. They played new tracks for the first time in forever, plus classics that, per Corgan, were from “the glory days:” “Today,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “1979,” “Disarm,” and “Cherub Rock” were included. My favorite moment in the set was Corgan’s and James Iha’s screeching Fenders on Siamese Dream’s “Quiet.”
My other honorable mentions include: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ cover of Bob Marley and the Wailing Whalers “Simmer Down;” Gwar dousing the crowd with Nickelodeon green slime; Rancid doing the tracks from “Let’s Go” and “… And Out Come the Wolves;” and catching up-and-comers Airstream Futures on the Rebel Stage.
Despite a rocky start with headliners and favorites Nine Inch Nails, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Faith No More canceling their performances, Riot Fest 2021 was still amazing. There was a variety of interesting sights: butter sculptures, carnival rides, John Stamos, and perhaps most importantly, our return to live music. We will see you at next year’s Riot Fest with Misfits and My Chemical Romance!
Despite the greatness of epic musical moments in time, no show can ever be the end-all, be-all. Truthfully, with all things being equal, this was pretty damn close!