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From Patti Smith to Slipknot to Run the Jewels, Riot Fest 2021 must-see lineup an eclectic mix

Festival organizers upped the ante this year, adding a fourth day for the first time ever to help usher in the anticipated return of the Chicago music extravaganza.

Patti Smith performs onstage at Pappy & Harriet’s last month in Pioneertown, California. She headlines Riot Fest on Thursday night.
Patti Smith performs onstage at Pappy & Harriet’s last month in Pioneertown, California. She headlines Riot Fest on Thursday night.
Getty

Just when you thought you had seen it all at Riot Fest — a John Stamos sculpture made of butter, a circle pit breakout at a Village People set, and that current petition to nab ABBA for next year — festival organizers have gone and upped the ante yet again, adding a fourth day for the first time ever to help usher in the anticipated return of the Chicago music extravaganza.

As one of the nation’s remaining truly independent festivals (still with ever-humble founder Mike Petryshyn at the helm), Riot Fest organizers can do whatever they want. And they do it really well.

Head to Douglass Park early on Thursday for the fest’s kickoff at 2:30 p.m. — with proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours required for entry on all days — and get a first look at the 2021 edition of the festival. The day includes a headlining set by Morrissey, with additional sets by Patti Smith and Her Band, Alkaline Trio, Joyce Manor, WDRL and Kristeen Young, free carnival rides, sideshow performers, Thursday-only merch, a crack at an ‘American Idol’-style singing competiton and, for those so inclined, a walk down the aisle at the Riot Fest Wedding Chapel.

The remaining three days will be just as entertaining with a stacked lineup including homegrown heroes, tomorrow’s up-and-comers and every music genre possible (where else could you see NOFX, Devo and GWAR?).

Here’s our picks for the acts not to miss.

Patti Smith And Her Band

While everyone might be scrambling for a spot at Morrissey to see what shenanigans he will attempt to pull off this year (lest you forget the infamous meat ban of 2016), the real draw for the opening night preview party is the incomparable Patti Smith. One of the greatest songwriters of our era, imbuing poetry and activism into robust songs, rallying anthems like “People Have The Power” still take on renewed relevance decades later. The unseated “punk rock poet laureate,” Smith still oozes all the New York City rebel chic that turned heads in the ‘70s and basically gives you cool points for just having seen her. (Thursday, 6:05 pm, Riot Stage)

Amigo The Devil

Amigo The Devil is what happens when you mix true crime and folk rock. A mix of Johnny Cash’s Southern gothic appeal and Tom Waits’ wry sense of humor, the evocative singer-songwriter, born Danny Kiranos ,muses about serial killers (“Dahmer Does Hollywood”), scribes really dark love ballads (“I Hope Your Husband Dies”) and goes for Biblical sidejabs on songs like “Cocaine and Abel” that surprisingly haven’t made the Westboro flock come for him yet. But within the macabre is a beautiful talent — one who just likes it really really dark. (Friday, 1:30 pm, Radical Stage)

Living Colour

Living Colour | TRAVIS SHINN
Living Colour
Travis Shinn

Thirty years ago, the New York rock provocateurs were playing the inaugural Lollapalooza, and you can count on them to bring the same gusto to this festival appearance. With a seamless mix of alternative rock, funk, blues and punk, Living Colour may be one of the most rhythmically dynamic bands in the heavy scene, buoyed by singer Corey Glover’s honeyed vocals and Vernon Reid’s slick guitar work. Their groundbreaking and timeless 1988 hit “Cult of Personality” may be their claim to fame, coming of age in the early days of MTV by bringing much-needed diversity to the rock genre, but they’re no one-trick pony. Their latest album “Shade” levels them up with songs like “Program” and a superb cover of Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?” (Friday, 4:25 pm, Radical Stage)

The Smashing Pumpkins

Smashing Pumpkins perform on the third day of the 2019 Alive Festival in Oeiras in the outskirts of Lisbon, Portugal, on July 13, 2019. The band headlines Riot Fest on Friday night
The Smashing Pumpkins perform at the 2019 Alive Festival in Oeiras on the outskirts of Lisbon, Portugal, on July 13, 2019. The band headlines Riot Fest on Friday night
AFP via Getty Images

It wasn’t so long ago that Billy Corgan, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin were finding their footing at Metro and putting Chicago’s indelible rock scene on the map. Okay, actually it was 30 years ago, as the band just recently feted the pearl anniversary of their genre-making debut “Gish.” But with the near original lineup back together (sans original bassist D’arcy Wretzky) and playing as polished as ever, the Pumpkins are a living, breathing time capsule of a gilded era of music – and few local acts have ever done it better. Go for the hits like “Zero” and “Cherub Rock” but stay for the new zingers on latest album “Cyr.” And if you really want the full Billy Corgan experience, make a pit stop at his Highland Park tea shop Madame Zuzu’s beforehand. (Friday, 8:20 pm, Riot Stage)

GWAR

Gwar performs on day two of Riot Fest in Douglas Park in 2019. They’re playing this year’s fest on Saturday afternoon.
Gwar performs on day two of Riot Fest in Douglas Park in 2019. They’re playing this year’s fest on Saturday afternoon.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Whether it’s your first time or your 50th time — and lord knows they’ve played Riot a few — seeing GWAR on stage truly never gets old. The no-filter, blood-spurting, crass act are satire and shock rock at its finest, done by grotesque alien life forms that aim to take over the human race in very R-rated fashion. (There’s always that Ferris Wheel where you could leave the kids to be unscathed.) Celebrating 30 years of their 1990 release, “Scumdogs of the Universe,” all bets are on an album-in-full set this weekend. And if you’re hungry for more, Kuma’s is also celebrating with their GWAR burger of the month all September. (Saturday, 2:45 pm, Radical Stage)

Vic Mensa

Vic Mensa attends Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club 18th Anniversary at 40/40 Club on August 28, 2021 in New York City. The Chicago rapper performs Saturday night at Riot Fest.
Vic Mensa attends Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club 18th Anniversary at 40/40 Club on August 28, 2021 in New York City. The Chicago rapper performs Saturday night at Riot Fest.
Getty Images

Chicago as seen through the lens of activist artists like rapper Vic Mensa has been an incredibly powerful thing to pay witness to in the past couple of decades. An alum of the acclaimed Young Chicago Authors program and currently signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, Mensa is not only keenly aware of the harrowing environment around him (“16 Shots,” detailing the murder of Laquan McDonald) but is also able to vocalize it in masterful ways while advocating for how we can do better for at-risk communities (“We Could Be Free”). Though words never fail him, Mensa’s performances are art pieces of their own — and for a festival appearance of this scale, expect him to go all out in getting the message across. (Saturday, 6:20 pm, Riot Stage)

Run The Jewels

El-P and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels perform onstage at Atlantic Station on February 2, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The duo headlines Riot Fest on Saturday night.
El-P and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels perform onstage at Atlantic Station on February 2, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The duo headlines Riot Fest on Saturday night.
Getty Images

They’ve aligned forces with Bernie Sanders. “Killer Mike for president” became a thing that many, including Bill Maher, got behind. Rage Against The Machine tapped them for their reunion tour. So, really, if you’re not listening to this hip-hop super duo, are you really even listening at all? Though “woke” gets thrown around a lot, the talented sidekicks El-P and Killer Mike are the epitome of music with a higher consciousness. Often giving away their albums for free, it’s not just their accessibility (and beer and cannabis collaborations) that have brought in droves of followers, but also their on-point messaging that is ripe for the revolution. (Saturday, 8:45 pm, Riot Stage)

The Gories

The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Black Pistol Fire. Without The Gories who knows if we would have ever had those uber-popular acts today. The quintessential garage rock act out of Detroit formed in 1986 with a super minimalist approach that also incorporated a hearty dustbin of blues influences — and they in turn became inspirational to the legions that followed. Though the trio took a pause in the ‘90s, they’ve been active again since 2009, but there’s no time like the present to see them — especially in this setting. (Sunday, 12 pm, Roots Stage)

Fever 333

Though we have to wait a bit longer to get that Rage Against The Machine reunion tour, now slated for 2022, this L.A. rapcore trio is poised to follow in those big footsteps as the new whistleblowers on a whole host of important societal issues from racial disparity to police brutality and systemic abuse. Calling their performances demonstrations, there are few bands that bring the sheer energy and passion to their set the way Fever 333 does with every rafter something to climb on, everything in sight a prop as they unleash a full theatric blitzkrieg to get people to pay attention. And boy does it work. (Sunday, 4:15 pm, Radical Stage)

Slipknot

Corey Taylor of Slipknot performs at Inkcarceration Music and Tattoo Festival on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio.
Corey Taylor of Slipknot performs at Inkcarceration Music and Tattoo Festival on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. The band headlines Riot Fest on Sunday night
AP Photos

Sunday’s top billing is a crowded pool of talent and though any of the main players — Mr. Bungle, Devo, The Flaming Lips or Machine Gun Kelly — are worthy of your time and attention, Slipknot gets an official nod here for the top pick. The rowdy ensemble are not only pinch hitting for Nine Inch Nails (who recently canceled all tour dates due to the ongoing pandemic), but frontman Corey Taylor just recovered from a case of COVID himself and is primed to get back on stage. The nu metal heroes are a brutal display of power and bring out their trademark fire effects and masked personas for each show, somewhere in the middle of a haunted house and stadium showstopper, that will be the perfect finale to Chicago’s major music festival season. (Sunday, 8:30 pm, Riot Stage)

Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.