by Mark Guarino
Riot Fest launched its third year Friday in Humboldt Park. On the outset, it resembled any other multi-day music festival that is now an established part of the summer landscape: rows of vendor booths, unexpected additions like carnival rides and a Ferris Wheel, and multiple stages spread over a leafy landscape in a Chicago park.
Separating this weekend from others, of course, is how the music is curated. Riot Fest is branding itself as the punk alternative under the open sky to most other genres that dominate their competitors. Which means a festival where punk is split with ska, pop, thrash metal, spoken word, alt-rock and more.
The best example of this hybrid was legendary shock-rock metal band GWAR. If you stumbled upon their stage not knowing what this band was about before encountering their brand of provocative rock theater, it’s likely it took awhile for it to soak in. The band, dressed in cartoonish gladiator gear ripped from Mad Max’s Thunderdome, did its best to ensure boundaries were crossed and offenses were universal. Besides the spewing liquids that were flung across the stage, the band ushered trolls, a beleaguered Christ figure, sexualized clergy and European royalty, and other over-the-top props to keep the spectacle big and broad.
On the other side of the spectrum was Joan Jett, the pop-rock class act who performed a streamlined set that traveled backward and forward in her song catalog, offering endurable hits (“Do You Wanna Touch Me,” “Cherry Bomb”) that had multiple generations singing along in unison, and new songs that fit right in — like “Make It Back,” a song detailing the hardships of Hurricane Sandy victims — that rang with the maturity of her years. Jett appeared frozen in time, as her signature jet-black wardrobe and hair did not belie her strictly business rock attitude. Near the end of her set, she introduced the crowd to Laura Jane Grace, the transgendered lead singer of Against Me!, which plays the festival Saturday. They sang “Soulmates to Strangers,” a song they co-wrote for her upcoming album in October that also features a contribution from Dave Grohl.
Friday also marked the return of Chicago’s Fall Out Boy to their largest hometown audience since the band paused their career four years ago, mostly due to overexposure the distraction created by bassist Pete Wentz’s tabloid celebrity. Lead singer Patrick Stump dedicated the band’s set to “anyone who was there” at a Knight of Columbus show in Arlington Heights back in 2003. Maybe everyone was as the crowd surging forced the band to stop their set twice and tell the audience to step back to create room. “We want to make sure everyone’s safe,” bassist Wentz said. Fans in the front were removed, with some sent to the medical tent.
Otherwise, the band revealed its new chapter as an electro-rock band with new songs from “Save Rock & Roll,” released in April. The new songs like “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’’ didn’t sound like too much of a departure than older fare like “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” and “The Phoenix” except for their harder rock edge and the muted presence of Wentz, who minimized his circular stage twirling, which was probably for the best. Stump once again proved to be the secret weapon of this band with vocals that soared but might be better matched by stronger material.