After 15 years in the game, Chicago’s Riot Fest continues to champion the pioneers of alternative music

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The heroes of the riot grrrl movement battle the elements (the Windy City earns its name this year) at a festival which rewards those who have put in the work

Originally marketed as a punk-rock fest in a scattering of indoor venues, Riot Fest has ventured outside for the last seven years – but with high winds on the Friday, 2019 edition’s would have been better served to be back inside. Many acts on Friday, especially during the daytime hours, are handicapped by winds in the Windy City, which makes the sound inaudible at times. The biggest victims are Hot Water Music, the Chuck Ragan fronted punk rock outfit from Florida. They seem to put on a good set – but depending on where you were standing, it’s hard to hear anything at all.

Friday focuses on the festival’s punk-rock roots: Hot Snakes (who really should headline sometime soon), old pros Violent Femmes, Pennywise, Rancid, Jawbreaker, Descendents and Blink-182. Friday’s best set comes from the Descendents – another band who should be day-one headliners.

The Raconteurs at Riot Fest 2019

On Saturday, Riot Fest veers from its punk roots and goes heavy, with Mongolian rockers The Hu setting the stage for the rest of the day. From there, Gwar, who have become a Riot Fest staple, entertain predominantly through their blood-infested show and costumes. The Selector, the UK ska band from the ’70s, are a welcome change in a day heavy on hair metal, along with Wu-Tang Clan, who play later in the evening.

Additionally, Grandson offers a breather from the metal on Saturday, but unfortunately the Canadian-American singer seems a poor man’s Zach De Lo Rocha, too busy chastising the crowd to focus on the music. Heavy hitters Testament and speed-metal pioneers Anthrax play long, loud sets that thrilled their fans; it wouldn’t even have mattered if the wind had the winds been as strong as they were the day before. But the main attraction on Saturday is Slayer, who was billed as playing their last show in Chicago. Most of the fans on Saturday are here for them, and they deliver.

After the macho metal of the day before, Sunday features 10 female-centred acts, including the godmother of punk, Patti Smith; The B-52s and festival closing act Bikini Kill. But as on Saturday, the fest isnt entirely focused on one theme — interspaced between the female-centred bands are shoegazer greats Ride, who are superb; alt-legend Bob Mould; and The Raconteurs. The latter remind those tired of standing all day in the humidity while throngs of people walk in front of you, distorting or blocking your view, why festivals are indeed fun. They are straight rock’n’roll and superb, arguably delivering the best set of the weekend.

Patti Smith at Riot Fest 2019

Before that though, the Village People draw a large crowd, most punter seemingly intrigued  by the 1970s disco crossover act. The band arrives 10 minutes late (perhaps the construction worker couldn’t find his helmet?) for a 45-minute set and, after three songs – the third being the hit ‘In The Navy’ – a large portion of the crowd wanders away. They aren’t very good, although one has to wonder if they were ever really any good. Still, it’s a cheering reminder that a song about cruising for gay sex became an anthem in sports arenas around the world.

Village People also offer a sharp counterpoint to the The B-52s; Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, and Cindy Wilson are marvellous, sounding like they did in their prime.

Patti Smith opens her set – to an adoring crowd – with ‘People Have The Power’, and sticks to the music. Gone are long diatribes about politics, although she does proudly proclaim that she’s happy to be back in the city where she was born. She plays for an hour, ending with the song Bruce Springsteen wrote for her, ‘Because the Night’, and then ‘Gloria’, perhaps her best known song from her ‘Horses’ album.

The Raconteurs play between Smith and headliner Bikini Kill, with Jack White paying his respects to Smith by strumming a few chords from ‘Gloria’ and saying “That’s for you, Patti.” White’s band sound like a well-oiled machine and would have been the appropriate ending band for the festival on any other night. But perhaps no other band means as much to the thousands of women in attendance than Bikini Kill, the 1990s outfit that pioneered the riot grrrl movement, with its radical feminist lyrics and abrasive guitars.

It will be interesting to see which direction Riot Fest goes in the future, but despite some pros and cons, the fest has managed to pretty much stay close to its roots. Perhaps their main demographic is getting a little older and a few bands have played the fest one two many time, but the audience seems to appreciate the championing of alternative music’s pioneers. There’s a lot to be said for longevity, and the bands here have earned it in spades.