Sunday’s headliner and Riot Fest closer Nine Inch Nails had big shoes to fill — their own. That’s because no matter how many times they play Riot Fest, they will be measured against their 2017 set, which resulted in fans voting the band the No. 1 act to ever play Riot Fest in a poll sanctioned by the event two years later.
On Sunday night, they lived up to the task.
It must be hard for organizers to schedule more than 100 bands over three days on five stages, but slotting Nine Inch Nails to close out the festival was a no-brainer. Of the three headliners over as many nights, NIN brought it from the beginning of their set.
Largely the sole product of frontman Trent Reznor, the band has featured great musicians along the way — including Chicago’s own Martin Atkins. But it’s Reznor’s songs that have made NIN worthy of selection for Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 greatest artists of all-time.
The band came on stage at 8:30, when temps had cooled from afternoon highs approaching 90 degrees and the sun had set, which was fitting for an act that has always embraced the dark side of life. Luckily for organizers who may be worried about some neighbors protesting the fest, forecasted rains for the evening never showed up, thus limiting the amount of cleanup needed in the coming days.
However, if this is the last Riot Fest at Douglass Park, NIN certainly left an impression.
Reznor, an ageless wonder in black T-shirt and black leather vest, sounded large and in charge from the opening number, “Somewhat Damaged,” and through more than 20 songs.
With the stage lit only by strobe lights, it was hard to tell if the video being projected for fans situated far from the stage was in black and white or just the color of the set. Regardless, there was no confusion about the sound of the band, which sounded louder and better than any other act of the festival. Reznor was backed by Atticus Ross, Ilan Rubin and Allesandro Cortini.
During the set, Reznor limited his conversation with the crowd, but did seem to address the performance postponed last year because of COVID, saying, “This is one of our favorite festivals in the world. We’re so glad to finally be here.”
Unlike some bands that played complete albums during their sets at the fest, NIN mixed up their catalog Sunday night, and included favorites like “Head Like a Hole,” “Wish,” “Closer,” “The Perfect Drug”and what sounded like a remixed version of “Sanctified.”
They also played lesser-known songs in their catalog: “Piggy,” “Burn,” “Gave Up,” “Coldhearted Lover” and “The Hand That Feeds,” among others.
The set ended at 9:50 p.m. with “Hurt,” a hit for NIN and an even bigger hit for Johnny Cash years later. They ended with the fans wanting more.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
New York-based band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t seem to get the memo that they weren’t the headliners on Sunday night, and certainly played and looked like they were.
With a 50-minute set at the fest,they showed there is a reason why some indie bands still have a lot of fans two decades after dominating the music industry.
Just as the sun disappeared, the band, led by Karen O, came out to thunderous applause. Karen O, wearing an ensemble that looked inspired by Klaus Nomi: a multi-colored headpiece that could double as an umbrella, cape and silver and green metallic dress, and long pink glove on her left hand. A couple times before starting, she took a large gulp from a water bottle, turned around and sprayed it from her mouth into the air, creating a cool effect.
After performing the first song, Karen O lost the headpiece and then, a couple songs later, while playing “Heads Will Roll,” she removed part of what was her outer outfit, leaving behind black bell-bottomed pants and an orange blouse, with a rainbow-colored sash-like accessory across her torso that would make David Bowie proud. .
Karen O’s outfit and stage antics didn’t take anything away from the music, as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played selections from their first album in nine years, “Cool It Down,” scheduled to be released Sept. 30.
“Gold Lion,” “Heads Will Roll” and “Maps” — all huge hits between 2004 and 2009 — were favorites for those in attendance. Before launching into “Maps,” Karen O dedicated the song to the Linda Lindas and Sleater-Kinney, two bands that played the fest on Sunday, and a few other friends that she mentioned by name.
One of the new songs, “Burning,” really got the crowd going and put Karen O into full-on glam-rocker mode, putting the head of the microphone in her mouth as the crowd cheered.
While the crowd was huge, it was hard to know how many fans were there early to get a spot for Nine Inch Nails, scheduled to go on just five minutes after them on the adjoining stage. For those people and others not familiar with the band, I’m sure a high percentage were converted into fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. .
The Linda Lindas
One of the great things about Riot Fest is the diversity of genres being performed, and the diversity of the artists. Older statesmen like Lee Ving of Fear, 72; Glenn Danzig of The Original Misfits, 67; and Greg Graffin of Bad Religion, 57, appeal to the older demographic at Riot Fest and give younger fans a chance to see legends that their older siblings may have told them about.
Then there are acts like The Linda Lindas, an all-girl group from Los Angeles whose oldest member, Bela Salazar, is 18.
Salazar’s bandmates include sisters Mila de la Garza, 12, on drums; guitarist Lucia de la Garza, 15, and their 14-year-old cousin Eloise Wong on bass. (Salazar is a family friend to her bandmates).
The girls were discovered playing all-ages shows in L.A.’s Chinatown neighborhood, went on to open for riot girl legends Bikini Kill and eventually were featured in Amy Poehler’s movie “Moxie.” In May 2021 a video of them performing their song “Racist, Sexist Boy” at the Los Angeles Public Library went viral, resulting in praise by respected musicians like Tom Morello and Thurston Moore and a contract from Epitaph Records.
By April 2022, the Lindas released their debut album, “Growing Up,” and the track that got them noticed, “Racist, Sexist Boy,” was nominated for best song at the 2022 Kerrang Awards.
On Sunday, the Linda Lindas walked out to a big cheer and kicked off their set with “Growing Up.” Their innocence was welcomed by the adoring fans, who laughed when Salazar told them that they explored Chicago yesterday, seeing “The Bean” and some “cool, lion statues.”
Before they played “Vote!” they elicited more laughs, saying, “Voting is really important. We’re not able to vote yet [because of their ages] but if you can do it, you can make a difference.”
They played 10 songs in all and even though they played the Bikini Kill classic “Rebel Girl,” which they covered on their album, they bring more to concertgoers than the screeching yells that are prominent in the bands of the Riot Grrrl movement.
They did show their youth in the content of some of their songs — “Monica” and “Nino” are both about their cats — but they also touch on bigger issues with songs like “Racist, Sexist Boy.”
The concertgoers who caught the 30-minute set received a refreshing treat on Sunday.
It was appropriate that Zola Jesus played Sunday, the same day Nine Inch Nails was headlining Riot Fest. That’s because like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Zola Jesus, whose real name is Nina Roza Danilova, started out writing and recording music independently, combining elements of electronic, industrial and goth.
Unfortunately, she performed on a stage much too large for her appeal, and playing in the middle of a sunny, 85-degree day didn’t help. That’s the fault of the organizers, who have a hard time managing more than 100 bands over five stages, rather than the fault of Zola Jesus, who drew a small crowd to the Riot Stage at 2:50 p.m.
Her first album, “The Spoils” was released in 2009 when she was still a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Now, 11 years later, Zola Jesus has five albums under her belt and drew on them in her 40-minute set.
While Zola Jesus blends elements of electronic, industrial and goth, she does not blast the audience with uptempo, heavy danceable grooves like Nine Inch Nails. Rather, her music is more of a mellow mix of Kate Bush, Bjork and Sade and is best listened to in the dark.