BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Riot Fest appears to have the longest, and most eclectic band line-up than any other Chicago music festival. And while there is a healthy mix of old and new, sometimes the new sounds just like the old.
That was the case of Kurt Vile and the Violators, a four-piece that played early Sunday, the third of the three-day festival. Caged behind a man of hair, Vile and his band presented thick and heavy guitar rock that moved forward with healthy pop riffs. The endearing sound was eerily familiar to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, except without the 20-minute soloing.
Billy Bragg provided the counterpoint, presenting big ideas, some good stories, crunchy guitar riffs — What else did he need? His solo set was peppered with a long joke about the bathroom at the Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville, a jab at Morrissey, and his requisite labor songs that got the crowd singing together. Bragg, now recently bearded, played the elder statesman role quite well; casting himself as “the Pete Seeger of punk rock,” he kept the audience chanting to Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists” and his own union song. Ever a British gentleman, he ended his set hoisting his mug of tea and tossing the wet bag to the crowd.
Superchunk is one of the veterans on the bill, but they ended up sounding like they started yesterday. That’s because the North Carolina band powered through songs brandishing mega-hooks that came from their early past and others that were written in recent years. Still one of the most thrilling live bands today.
Anyone who has read Patti Smith’s recent memoir knows it opens with her memories strolling Humboldt Park as a young girl. Yes, Smith is a native Chicagoan long before her childhood relocated to the east. She made special mention of her return to this West Side park with her band. “My mother used to bring me to this park when I was a little child and I’m so proud to be part of this festival now,” she said.
With her two sons now in her band, Smith dedicated many of the songs to Fred “Sonic” Smith, her husband and force behind famed Detroit agit-punk band the MC5, which she noted once performed outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The spirit of that era pulsed through her set as Smith rallied the crowd to collective political action through her most rousing songs, “People Have the Power” and “Rock N Roll Nigger.”
Mike Ness of Social Distortion gave a lesson on early punk rock: “You felt like the 1 percent, and 99 percent were telling you that you didn’t matter.” His set captured the spirit of the underdog with snarling like “The Creeps (I Just Wanna Give You)” and others that featured his rock steady guitar and sneering vocals.
Cheap Trick may have played a secondary stage Sunday but the band approached it old school, as if it was playing Wembley Stadium. Singer Robin Zander wore his full “Dream Police” suit while guitarist Rick Nielsen hopped on and off checkered platforms. The band was augmented by Nielsen son Daxx on drums and there was an appearance by super-fan Lin Brehmer, WXRT’s morning man who sang a few lines — “If it’s ‘Heaven Tonight’, it’ll be hell tomorrow,” he added. The set included both obscurities and classic hits, with the grandeur in Zander’s voice showing no sign of rest.
Speaking of Chicago area bands, one of the newest, and best, bravely played the slot between The Cure and Weezer. “Stick around, we’re going to play [Weezer’s] ‘Maladroit’ in its entirety,” said Powell of Archie Powell & the Exports. Those streaming past in both directions to get to the headliner stages were missing out— Here was a band with some of the biggest pop hooks and best energy of the weekend.
The Cure was given over two hours to close this year’s festival and it did so with a set that was more psychedelic than fans probably expected. While the band made sure to pepper the requisite hits throughout (“Lullaby,” “Fascination Street,” “Pictures of You”), the majority of the set was devoted to deeper cuts that swirled darkly, giving lead vocalist and guitarist Robert Smith an opportunity to dip into the blues. Songs like “A Forest” and “Alt.end” were slow and sludgy, but beautifully orchestrated between synthesizer and guitars, as well as a prodding bass that provided counter melodies. Smith didn’t open his mouth except to sing, but that was enough. His voice remains vulnerable, but never pleading; sad, but never morose. Instead, he commanded the lengthy set like a master, setting and releasing moods that helped provide a cool-down to a long and muddy weekend.