Believe the hype about Riot Fest – the three-day music festival was packed with talented musicians from every facet of punk rock, heavy metal, emo classics, pop punk, hip hop and more. Just outside of RiNo’s Art District at the National Western Complex, four stages hosted 80 musical acts from Friday to Sunday. From Donna Missal opening the festival Friday at noon and belting out her whole EP with pitch perfection and honey sultry tones, to the original Misfits playing until 10 p.m. on Sunday with the craziest set and the largest crowd of the entire festival, there was something for everyone at Riot Fest. But if you weren’t completely drawn in by the historic moment of their reunion and the energy of the crowd, The Misfits might not have been your favorite performance. Instead, Riot Fest was like a sandwich— all the good stuff was in the middle.
Arriving on Friday, there were small crowds mostly made up of gutter punks (think denim jackets with patches and studs, crazy hair and piercings) and by Saturday at 5 p.m., the roaming crowds had representatives of every music fan base. The seemingly different crowds co-mingled, and it was a lot of fun seeing metal heads at Death Cab for Cutie or bright green mohawks wandering around during 2Chainz’ set. Death Cab was one of the more surprising sets as the quintessential indie-pop band put on an energetic performance that proved they could hang with the rest of the rock acts at Riot Fest. Lead singer and emo icon Ben Gibbard bounced all over the stage, occasionally spitting as he powered through their more instrumental songs like “I Will Possess Your Heart.”
Scott Sturgeon a.k.a. Stza, the lead singer of Leftover Crack, was one of the most intense political voices at the festival, and his group was one of the hardest punk bands in attendance. Stza introduced his repertoire with explanations of the origins of the songs; most were FTP songs about killing cops, but there were a few whose introductions spoke to the band’s opposition of homophobia or ineffective capitalist policies.
On the softer, if not goofier, side of the revolution 1990s ska punk favorites, The Aquabats invited kids in the audience to come on stage and dance and sing along to their songs. For someone unfamiliar, the song “Pizza Day” may just sound like childish homage to pizza day being the best day of the school week; however, under additional scrutiny, the lyrics speak to how exciting pizza is until you are old enough to comprehend that you are eating welfare-provided lunch. With the kids on stage, the lead singer gestured to them and told the crowd, “Remember folks, this is the future.” Earlier in the show the Aquabats’ front man The MC Bat Commander spoke to his fans new and old: “When we formed the band it was a time of bad economy and huge political issues,” he looked over the crowd in a single dramatic pause, “I look around now, and it’s exactly the same.”
There were amazing performances that occurred outside of the political realm, but what might attract someone to Riot Fest over another festival was the realness. Riot Fest felt less like a festival for free love, unconditional togetherness or heavy drug use. Those elements were most likely present, but Riot Fest was about respect. Artists like Dan Deacon introduced the Aquabats, Death Cab for Cutie’s lead singer Ben Gibbard geeked out over the Descendants and Bleached lead singer Jennifer Francis Clavin acted like a total fan girl over the Misfits. The artists set the stage for the overall experience, and it was consistently one of equality and respect of a band’s work, their talent and their message.
For those in attendance, the motley crew ranged from teens to seniors andthose dressed for a long hike to the groups of people that your grandmother would be terrified of, but was a genuine feeling of kindness and mutual respect. Everyone was there to see real talent and most of the attendees were open-minded enough to check out some bands they had never even heard of. The real sense of community was refreshing and it opened the door to be introduced to new music, the real reason that everyone was there.
Of course, no review would be complete without a few words about headliners, another reason that attendance doubles at night. Day One severed friend groups as everyone was forced to choose between Jane’s Addiction and The Deftones. This was the hardest decision between the dueling headliners scheduled to close each day of the festival. Of course, both bands were excellent. The largest difference in the sets was the visual delivery. Jane’s Addiction, true to form, leaned more towards theatrics – costumed, heavy make-up, go-go dancers and pyrotechnics complimented the music but also gave some dated vibes, which given the career, track record and lyrical content worked for the band overall. Deftones gave a more stripped down set; the lead singer, Chino Moreno, rocked out in khakis and a long-sleeve green shirt with nothing but lights on the stage.
Day Two offered a much clearer choice for closing out the night with Ween on one side of the camp and Underoath on the other. This night divided the audience into those who wanted to jam the night away and those who were still ready to have a jacked-up heart rate on their way out the door. Ween’s performance history well-informed the show on Saturday night – a straightforward visitation of their prolific and well-rehearsed musical career. People in the Ween camp were comfortable squeezing in to get a good sight of the stage or just milling about, shopping and eating and chatting.
Meanwhile, the smaller crowd gathered for Underoath raged in a frenzy for the front row. Arguably Underoath raised the riskiest pit of the festival – the hardest, loudest and darkest, not the place you would want to fall down while moshing. Underoath was a real stand-out. Their quintessential take on metal is all the way turned up; they are everything you love about metal but quicker, better and more interesting, also they’re Christian. Midway through the set lead singer Spencer Chamberlain gave a warm and heartfelt address to his fans, then jumped right back in to rocking very, very hard.
Day Three was certainly the most interesting conundrum for the younger attendees, but both of the main acts attracted a much older crowd. Splitting the stages was 1990s hip-hop god NAS, and crossing the camp the legendary, ideal punk group The Misfits. This was certainly the most intimate viewing of NAS you could ever get with thousands of people on the grounds; maybe 100 were crowded around the stage, singing along and reaching for the stage. NAS lacked the energy of some of the younger hip-hop acts who preceded him over the course of the day, but certainly did not lack stage presence and was a welcome break for those who enjoy intimacy in an outdoor venue.
Countering NAS was the much-anticipated reunion of the original Misfits. During Gogol Bordello’s set, the last before the Misfits took stage, their stage was covered, leaving the set to be a complete surprise for the audience. More people crowded around the hidden stage than could be seen all weekend long. Getting a good view of the Misfits, even an hour before they went on, was impossible. The grounds flooded with die-hard fans young and old.
Then, the curtain dropped and the stage was aglow with crazy lights and synthetic orange pumpkins with faces and glowing green eyes, roughly 15 feet tall. There were beautiful goth-looking girls dancing and the infamous goofy skulls all over the back of the stage. The band came out and they looked amazing, with horror punk outfits and makeup, and the projector on the back of the stage started to cycle through ancient artistic renderings of ghouls and skeletons.
The band has not performed a set all together in over 30 years and the time since they have attempted this was apparent, but the excitement for them to do so was palpable. For huge chunks of the 25-song set, the excitement of the fans carried the experience. The set was littered with screeching feedback and a bit of wheezing and panting from front man Glenn Danzig. While there was certainly a little rust present, the car drove and in moments even raced. The cult following certainly has not waned in 30 years and whispers spread frantically and desperately: “What if this is only the beginning?”