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Riot Fest 2021: A ‘grateful’ Patti Smith returns, Morrissey wins over the crowd; plus Day 1 photo highlights

Riot Fest returned to Douglass Park on Thursday with music, a carnival, wedding chapel and more.

Security lifts a crowd-surfing fan during Alkaline Trio’s performance Thursday at Riot Fest.
Security lifts a crowd-surfing fan during Alkaline Trio’s performance Thursday at Riot Fest.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Patti Smith (6:05 p.m., Riot Stage)

Patti Smith & Her Band perform on Day 1 of Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Thursday night.
Patti Smith & Her Band perform on Day 1 of Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Thursday night.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Just a month after her Out of Space performance in Evanston, Patti Smith returned to Chicago on Thursday night. Following last year’s pandemic shutdown, Smith celebrated the fest’s return with a performance at “preview party” at Douglass Park, where the punk poet laureate gave a master class in emotive original work and soulful interpretation.

“Happy Mexican Independence Day,” said Smith in celebratory voice as she took the stage in black jacket, vest and sunglasses while facing the setting sun behind the crowd. “Another strike against colonialism,” she added, as her veteran band began to play “People Have the Power.” The passionate rallying cry made Smith’s populist politics clear.

Smith dedicated the reggae-pop pulse of her song “Redondo Beach” to Morrissey, the evening’s headliner and former vocalist of The Smiths, who has covered it. When introducing “Grateful,” Smith expressed her own cautious relief at being back on the job. “We are so grateful to play,” she said. “We are still in the center of a global pandemic, and don’t forget it. Take care of yourselves.”

A fan near the front waved a battered copy of Smith’s debut LP “Horses,” hoping for an autograph. “Oh, right,” said Smith. “I’ve been out of job so f- - -ing long I can’t wait to come off the stage and sign something.” Sarcasm notwithstanding, Smith signed the album to cheers from the crowd.

“Free Money” expressed a devoted couple’s desperate dream to escape poverty, decorated with a spine-tingling guitar solo by longtime sideman Lenny Kaye. The romantic obsession of “Dancing Barefoot” began with simmering intensity that grew to fever pitch. Smith and Kaye danced together while Smith’s son Jackson played an electrifying solo of his own. “Oh God, I fell for you,” repeated Smith as the song reached its peak.

The singer dedicated the sensual “Because the Night” to her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, and the next song included another dedication. “I was 15 or 16 when I had a giant crush on the guy who wrote this song,” Smith said. The band then performed Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings.”

The show closed with a riveting medley of “Land” and the Them song “Gloria,” shaping the narrative as a call to serve Mother Nature. Smith fused the passion, power and showmanship of Van Morrison and Mick Jagger with her own poetic spirit, building from a low rumble to hurricane force.

Morrissey (8:15 p.m., Riot Stage)

Morrissey performs on Day 1 of Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Thursday night.
Morrissey performs on Day 1 of Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Thursday night.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

To the chagrin of gleefully glum devotees of The Smiths and Morrissey’s solo career, the singer’s groundbreaking roles in alternative rock, identity politics, and even advocacy of vegetarian diet have lately been overshadowed by controversial views on immigration in his home country of England, support of the hard-right For Britain movement, and controversy over statements regarding social justice groups including Black Lives Matter. Some had speculated whether more protesters might be present at Riot Fest than fans hoping to sing along to “Every Day is Like Sunday.”

While Alkaline Trio performed on the opposing Roots Stage, however, Moz’ faithful gathered at the Riot Stage in a crowd that stretched well past the midfield mixing desk. When the stage lights beamed into life, the singer strode to center stage and crooned a few a cappella bars of “My Way.” As Jesse Tobias and Alain Whyte launched into the tremolo guitar chords introducing the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?,” the crowd erupted. Every voice on the field seemed to be singing “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.” Clearly, this was Morrissey’s crowd and firmly on his side.

Smiths favorites including “Shoplifters of the World Unite” received the very strongest crowd participation. “Half a Person” had everyone including the audience’s most mature members reminiscing about being “16, clumsy and shy.” Nonetheless, material from Morrissey’s 13 solo albums spanning more than 30 years drew fervent response. Themes of loneliness and isolation in Smiths fare like “Never Had No One Ever” have continued through ensuing songs like “I’m Trying to Throw My Arms Around Paris.”

“You’re okay by me,” sang Morrissey consolingly during recent single “Knockabout World.” Afterward, he said there were a couple of exceptions. He ultimately pointed to himself.

After performing 1991 single “The Loop,” Morrissey recast it for the locals. “That song was called ‘Chicago Loop,’” he said, miming the L train circling downtown.

“I love you, Morrissey,” came a shout from the crowd after a cover of Gary Puckett’s “Lady Willpower” from Morrissey’s “California Son.” “Do you?,” responded the singer. “Do you really? I wonder.” At the conclusion of a gripping “Jack the Ripper,” the singer repeated “I love you” deliriously before stepping offstage through a blanket of fog. Fans waited several minutes in hope of an encore, despite the time having passed curfew. Morrissey needn’t have questioned his fans’ ardor.

The rest of the fest

It has been 732 days since Riot Fest packed the stages and carnival attractions following the 2019 event in Douglass Park. It would have been difficult to arrange a better day for an outdoor event to return, with clear blue skies and temperatures dipping into the upper 70s by early evening.

Looking ahead to the rest of the fest, the lineup boasts Slipknot, Gwar, the Smashing Pumpkins, Living Colour and Run the Jewels among others.

There are plenty of COVID-19 safety protocols in place for the festival including hand sanitizing and handwashing stations throughout the park, and an onsite COVID vaccination station (courtesy of St. Anthony Hospital; Pfizer and J&J vaccines only). In addition, all attendees must show proof of a full vax or negative COVID test results (the latter within 48 hours of entry date) accompanied by a valid, government-issued photo ID to gain entry each day.

A carnival provides a break from the music. And if you’re so inclined, a wedding chapel is available for those seeking to get married.

Here’s a look at some of the sights and sounds of Day 1:

Morrissey performs Thursday at Riot Fest at Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Morrissey performs before a large and poignant backdrop on Day One of Riot Fest at Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Dan Andriano of Alkaline Trio performs Thursday at Riot Fest in Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Matt Skiba performs with Alkaline Trio on Thursday at Riot Fest in Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Alkaline Trio performs Thursday during the “preview party” of Riot Fest in Douglass Park.
Alkaline Trio performs Thursday during the “preview party” of Riot Fest in Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Fans cheer as Alkaline Trio performs at Riot Fest on Thursday night.
Fans cheer as Alkaline Trio performs at Riot Fest on Thursday night.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Thousands flock to Douglass Park for the Thursday “preview party” of Riot Fest.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Joyce Manor performs Thursday during the “preview party” of Riot Fest in Douglass Park.
Joyce Manor performs Thursday during the “preview party” of Riot Fest in Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Fans cheer Thursday as Joyce Manor performs during the “preview party” of Riot Fest in Douglass Park
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Shasta Nelson, 38, and Travis Nelson, 46, on vacation from Denver, get married Thursday during Riot Fest in Douglass Park. The Nelsons had their first date at Riot Fest three years ago.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Music fans arrive at Douglass Park for Day 1 of Riot Fest, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2021.
Music fans arrive at Douglass Park for Day 1 of Riot Fest, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Fans head to the carnival at Riot Fest on Day 1 of the event in Douglass Park.
Fans head to the carnival at Riot Fest on Day 1 of the event in Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Security checks for proof of vax at the entrance of Riot fest on Thursday afternoon in Douglass Park.
Security checks for proof of COVID-19 vaccination at the entrance of Riot fest on Thursday afternoon in Douglass Park.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Fans enjoy carnival games in Douglass Park during Day 1 of Riot Fest, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2021.
Fans enjoy carnival games in Douglass Park during Day 1 of Riot Fest, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Festival-goers walk past signs at the entrance to Riot Fest on Day 1 in Douglass Park, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2021.
Festival-goers walk past signs at the entrance to Riot Fest on Day 1 in Douglass Park on Thursday afternoon.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Anyone for some Riot Fest Pale Ale?
Anyone for some Riot Fest Pale Ale?
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Contributing: Jeff Elbel