Summer music festivals in Chicago are often maddeningly eclectic and increasingly
electronic. This year, though, some of the best moments at the biggies were when a rare
rock band hit the stage, such as at the Pitchfork Music Festival (Ty Segall, Wild Flag)
and Lollapalooza (Jack White, Black Sabbath, the Black Keys).
Now the transformation of Chicago's Riot Fest from a late-autumnal, five-day club haunt into a last-week-o'-
summer outdoor festival stabs a sharp period on the end of the season by blaring all rock and roll, all the time. Many shades of it, to be sure, but this new expansion brings welcome focus to a city that's been getting more attention for its EDM roots than its considerable rock and punk heritage.
The weather agreed. After an opening night (with Neon Trees, the Offspring and more) indoors at the Congress Theater, the eighth annual Riot Fest stepped outside for the first time on Saturday and Sunday into sunny, cool Humboldt Park, complete with four stages and carnival rides.
Saturday's lineup featured party animal Andrew W.K., Chicago punks Rise Against and the creatures of GWAR (in a rare daylight performance).
Sunday's bill ran the gamut, too, from the basic pop-punk of L.A.'s NOFX and Chicago's Alkaline Trio to veteran new wave kingpins and local garage rockers.
Always a thrill, Chicago's White Mystery -- the redhead brother-sister duo of Alex and Francis White -- started their midafternoon set Sunday with a small crowd and ended with a throng of wide-eyed gawkers. A sharp contrast to the by-numbers pop of NOFX bleeding in from the main stage, the Whites bashed out supple but serrated grooves, with Francis beating the bejesus out of his one-cymbal kit. Alex tried to coax fans into dancing. Not the crowd for it.
Sunday spotlighted two '80s indie icons. First, the sedate statesmen of the Jesus & Mary Chain generated their usual torrents of guitar squall. I forget how sludgy they can get in concert, opening with a bass-heavy, almost country lope ("Snakedriver") and then brightening up the guitars and the rhythm for "Head On." Guy next to me: "They're like Helmet on Qualuudes."
Elvis Costello & the Imposters, on a main stage but in a sundown slot, played the most Attractions-rich set I've seen the old curmudgeon deliver. Peeling track after track from a best-of set list -- "Radio Radio," "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," "Less Than Zero," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Pump It Up," a raucous reggae take on "Watching the Detectives," on and on -- he barely took a breath as his band of pros colored the old chestnuts but kept them hot. The inimitable Steve Nieve played organ, piano, synthesizer and toy organ, and that was just one song ("Clubland").
Iggy Pop, his mane and his lumpy torso hit the stage embodying "Raw Power" and reminded the crowd that Riot Fest started out as a punk festival. He and the Stooges spent the festival's final hour reeling between jazzy-rockabilly grooves and searing punk attacks, with guitarist James Williamson the calmest one on stage but often the most ferocious, eventually ending with "The Passenger."
Pop, 65, pranced about, somewhere between a wild man and a woodland creature. After "Search and Destroy," he solicited fans to dance onstage and was quickly surrounded by a gaggle of (carefully selected) gyrating young women. "We take guys, too!" he shouted. "The other Stooges discriminate sexually, but I don't."
The biggest hit of the weekend, though, may have been Humboldt Park, which acquitted itself nicely as a festival site. (It's a hike from the L, but the CTA did a great job of lining up No. 70 buses at the end of the night.) Riot Fest reports 30,000 people attended each day Saturday and Sunday, but the park sure felt roomy and easy to maneuver. The addition of carnival rides is a great touch, and other than a few needed tweaks -- more lighting on those dark paths, some sound issues -- you'd never guess this was an outdoor debut.