Chicago Riot Fest: Bigger, bolder, outdoors

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Another year, another expansion of Chicago’s Riot Fest.

Last year the annual punk and indie-rock festival had grown to five venues over five days. They’d even expanded outside the city, launching the first Riot Fest in Philadelphia.

For this year’s eighth event, Riot Fest is a three-day blowout — the first night in the Congress Theater, the second and third days outdoors in Humboldt Park.

“We want to be the last big thing people remember from the summer,” says co-promoter Sean McKeough.

McKeough and Riot Fest founder Michael Petryshyn can’t be accused of lacking good ol’ DIY ambition. The bigger dreams have meant bigger acts, and this year’s lineup includes Iggy & the Stooges, Elvis Costello & the Imposters, the Offspring, Rise Against, the Descendents, Dropkick Murphys and many more.

Such ambition generates consternation, too, of course. On the festival’s website, the first question on the FAQ page is the commonly asked, “Why did you change it so much this year?” (A: “Our goal each year has been to bring a bigger and better fest than the last” … etc. etc.)

Last year’s growth spurt caused some fans — myself included — to scratch their heads when a certain energy drink went from being a significant sponsor of the event to being included in the very name of the festival itself. Suddenly Weezer was headlining, too, and this cherished local nexus of punk spirit seemed to be on the brink of selling out.

“It’s still just me and Mike,” McKeough assures. “We do strategic partnering with people, but we’re still doing our own thing.”

“Every festival needs sponsors,” Petryshyn says. “Porta-potties are f—ing expensive. [Sponsors] help cover small costs that would otherwise make it harder for people to hear the music. I think people appreciate not having to pay a couple hundred dollars a day here.”

That strategy has fueled the festival’s even bigger continental expansion. In addition to the Chicago flagship fest, this year there’s a one-day Riot Fest in Toronto, Brooklyn (both last weekend — though the Brooklyn event was rained out) and Dallas (Sept. 22).

A second Philadelphia fest was slated in July (featuring Refused, the Promise Ring and more) but then scrapped with only a week’s notice. A terse statement said the event had been “postponed due to unforeseen circumstances.”

Petryshyn lets it go now as “a bunch of conflicting stuff that happened between us and Live Nation, and decisions had to be made.” He promises Riot Fest will return to Philly next year, with news about that coming next month.

The good side of growth is that the promoters can retain control over their (sorry, gotta use this word) brand.

“We started talking back in 2009 about expanding not only to other cities but eventually moving it outside,” Petryshyn says. “We wanted to make it unique from the other festivals, keep it something that has its own flavor, its own soul. It took three more fests for us to get to that point.”

“We couldn’t grow anymore inside,” McKeough says. “We didn’t have 100 percent control over those other venues. If we’re going to push our vision forward, we want 100 percent control.”

Both promoters live in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, so it was a natural to consider the underappreciated, 200-acre space.

They got little argument from the city. Given the commercial and tourism impact of other annual music festivals, such as Lollapalooza in Grant Park and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, the Parks District is in a welcoming mood toward music event proposals. “Pop music has become increasingly important to us,” Michael Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Parks District, told us in July.

The outdoor element meant two things for Riot Fest. First, the dates were moved back from the festival’s usual October, in order to get a better shot at good outdoor weather.

Second, they’ve added carnival rides, of course.

“Plus, there’ll be jugglers and bands walking through. It’s like, drop all your pretensions at the door. There are carnival rides! I don’t care if you only listen to vinyl, I don’t care about your personal politics — this is about breaking through people’s pretensions and creating real community,” Petryshyn says.

“Our friends are married and have kids now,” McKeough added. “There’s gonna be strollers at Riot Fest. But we welcome it.”

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