Riot Fest 2021 review: a rock love-in (apart from Machine Gun Kelly v. Slipknot)

September 16-19, Douglass Park, Chicago: like all festival organisers in 2021, this event's bosses battled drop-outs – and ultimately triumphed

The fact that Riot Fest took place this year after several bands dropped out at the last-minute is affirmation of the true community spirit of the punk and indie rock music scenes, as several other acts fill the gaps by agreeing to play only days before the four-day Chicago festival began. “Every year is challenging but this one required some extra love and affection,” says spokesperson Heather West, in what may be the understatement of the year.

After losing Sunday headliner Nine Inch Nails and beloved bands Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. – who cancelled their tours because of the spike in COVID-19 cases – most other festivals might have considered pulling the plug. Mr. Bungle and Faith No More – both bands fronted by Mike Patton – also cancelled so that Patton could address some mental health issues.

Luckily – and perhaps because of solid relationships the festival has made over the years with other artists – the empty slots were filled quickly.

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Morrissey, coming off a five-show stint in Las Vegas, agreed to play (with the demand that no meat be sold on Thursday); Slipknot fill in for Nine Inch Nails; and speed-metal gods Anthrax happily grace the festival again – showing professionalism that has kept the band rocking for 40 years. Also added at the last-minute was Kristeen Young, who was in New York planning to work on making videos for an upcoming album ‘The Beauty Shop’.

Punk godmother Patti Smith – whose show in Evanston last month was cancelled after seven songs because of a storm – gets to play a full set on a beautiful, sunny Saturday; Rise Against step up for Faith No More; and Riot Fest favourites Alkaline Trio, like Joyce Manor, are last-minute fill ins too.

Because of these bands, Riot Fest, which has not taken place in more than 700 days, shows yet again why it is among the best pound-for-pound music festivals in a country over-saturated with music festivals – not only going on, but rocking on.

Thursday is billed as a “preview party” with just six acts, but is an ideal setting as one band plays after another, eliminating conflicts over which act to see when two favourites play at the same time – as inevitably happens for the rest of the weekend. Music-hungry fans, many whom haven’t seen live music in a long time (fans had to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours to enter) do not seem disappointed.

Kristeen Young, who says she hasn’t played in front of a crowd in more than two years, puts on an art-rock set that’s equal parts enthusiastic and inspiring. Young, who is getting ready to release her 11th studio album, has always been an acquired taste, and is usually better in a dark, indoor club, but here pulls off a nice set in the blazing afternoon sun. She also implores the crowd to “check out Ganser”, a Chicago-based post-punk, noise band who rock a set at the festival on Saturday.

Patti Smith starts her show by wishing the adoring crowd a “Happy Mexican Independence Day”, saying it’s “another strike against colonialism” before kicking off her set with ‘People Have The Power’ – the anthem she often holds until the end of her shows. She also dedicates her song ‘Redondo Beach’ to Morrissey, that evening’s headliner, and said she thinks of it as his song because he covers it so well.

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Smith’s set also includes a powerful cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘One Too Many Mornings’, while she dedicates her Bruce Springsteen collaboration (and most famous song) ‘Because the Night’ to her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, ending with a raucous version of the Them song ‘Gloria’, which she made her own several decades ago on her ‘Horses’ album.

Alkaline Trio, a strange choice to sandwich between Smith and Morrissey, also play Thursday and display an efficient, pop-punk energy that thrills most in the crowd. As for Moz: he plays an inspired set and stays away from controversy – a rarity for the former Smiths singer.

The rest of the weekend, which weather-wise is perfect, largely meets expectations with only a few duds. On Friday, the first full day of the festival, Living Colour defy critics who categorized them as a one-hit wonder with a great guitarist – delivering a short set that’s worthy of their 40 years, saving their aforementioned hits, 1988’s ‘Cult of Personality’, for last.

Run The Jewels at Riot Fest 2021. Credit: Getty

Sublime with Rome rock a nice set and pay tribute to their late frontman Bradley Nowell with a video montage while they play ‘What I Got’. Fishbone, playing just before Living Colour, play their 1991 album ‘The Reality of My Surroundings’ in full – and pull it off very well indeed.

The big draw on Friday is of course Smashing Pumpkins, who smash through a two-hour headlining set by drawing from their first two albums ‘Gish’ and ‘Siamese Dream’. One dud on Friday is American singer-songwriter Meg Myers, who has to restart a couple songs and ultimately cuts her set short.

Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan at Riot Fest 2021. Credit: Getty

On Saturday, longtime Chicago punk-rock outfit The Bollweevils play the smaller Rebel Stage, but – based on the enthusiasm from the crowd – should have been in front of a larger audience. The band – headed by emergency room doctor Daryl Wilson, who thanks the crowd for doing its part to stop the pandemic – play a set that sees many sing along, with a hardcore sect kicking up dirt while moshing in front; the true measure of satisfaction.

Other notables on Saturday include Rise Against, whose lead singer Tim McIlrath dedicates the band’s set to Mike Patton; Riot Fest favourites Gogol Bordello, who deliver a high-energy mix of Eastern European, folk, and traditional punk rock; and headliners Run the Jewels, who have only played three shows in the last three years but crush a politicised set that is not only timely, but also rocks.

On the final day, Slipknot headline, filling in for Nine Inch Nails, and perform in front a crowd seemingly made up of half their loyal fans, many of whom wear replica masks to the band, while the other half are experiencing the Iowans for the first time – a number confirmed when lead singer Corey Taylor asks those seeing the band for the first time to raise their hands. Their set is tight and they probably earned the allegiance of some of the first timers.

Also performing Sunday is pop-punk rap devil Machine Gun Kelly, who breaks the community sprit vibe when he seems to diss Slipknot’s Corey Taylor for “being 50 years old wearing a fucking weird mask”. A tired-sounding Flaming Lips almost lull the crowd to sleep; Devo, a seminal outfit, seem to draw more curiosity-seekers than fans; ’90s rap metallers Body Count tear shit up and show that they were always ahead of their time; and seminal Anthrax prove that when you need a last minute fill-in, the best course is to call on seasoned professionals.

Kudos to Riot Fest organizers who pulled off a solid festival in a strange time. Next year should be interesting, and hopefully more set-in-stone; already they have booked the original Misfits and My Chemical Romance. Whether that line-up stays in place remains to be seen.

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