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November 10, 2006

Naked Raygun is burnt out, but rekindles old hometown flame at Riot Fest

“Sweet home Chicago! Check, check, check,” blared a member of the crew preparing the Congress Theater stage for The Effigies. This year, Riot Fest attracted hep Chicagoans and seasoned scenesters as well as diehard punks from across the nation. The carefully planned bill listed such impressive acts as The Bollweevils, Youth Brigade, 7Seconds, and Chicago’s own legendary Naked Raygun, which had not played a show since 1997.

Despite the intimidating array of mohawks and leering pixies, the warmth of the atmosphere was palpable. It didn’t stem solely from steaming moshers’ bodies either. “This year, there’s a new sense of camaraderie,” affirmed Scary Larry, who made a spectacle coming on stage in a straitjacket with his psychobilly/ horror/ punk band The Gravetones. “Last year, the politics of the lineup were too thick. This year, it’s mainly Chicago bands, and it’s the best of the best. I must say, we do not miss The Misfits at all.” Indeed, the smile-to-sneer ratio was not typical of a punk show, with circle pits forming around two huge Chicago flags during several of the acts.

I was not accustomed to experiencing punk in such a large venue. The vast space created an effect much different from the usual dank and grimy basement—the bass boomed, and power chords sent waves of whiplash through to the very back seats. The mosh pits were so immense that the singer of Flatfoot 56 took it upon himself to establish deranged order. Like a mod Moses, he split the crowd smoothly in two, then instructed both sides to rush one another. It was a rat’s-nest blitz to the accompaniment of bagpipes.

Some of the most hardcore audience members were too old to enjoy the pits. An air of reverence hung over the under-the-radar notables, such as Richard Bastard of Hotlips Messiah and Daryl of The Bollweevils, who wandered around the theater. Balding, green buzz cuts and sagging tattoos could be seen in every direction. The bands seemed to appreciate this demographic. “There’s a lot of old fuckers here tonight!” Shawn Stern, singer of Youth Brigade, exclaimed happily. Later, David Kirchgessner of Mustard Plug said, “I’ve never seen so many fucking old punk rockers in my fucking life! It’s fucking awesome!”

Each band showcased a unique sound, from the ska-wailing of Mustard Plug and The Toasters to the hyper-clarity of 7Seconds (whose cover of 99 Luftballoons will be left to your imagination). As each band played longer and more energetically than the last, the anticipation became electric for the return of Naked Raygun. By the time Blue Meanies—the last act before Raygun—took the stage, the bouncers were in a state of agony, taking the brunt of the lemming-like bodysurfers who endlessly rag-dolled their way to the front of the crowd. Armed with Blues Brothers shades, a saxophone, a couple of white-haired transvestite angels, and a megaphone, Blue Meanies came prepared to engulf the audience. They certainly succeeded, thanks to their lively stage presence and ghostly sound.

Finally, a mammoth drum rumbled over the mob, and the lights dimmed. Hearts raced and mouths salivated as a glowing red Naked Raygun logo appeared at the back of the stage. Jeff Pezzati stepped out and Congress Theater erupted in a deafening roar. Perhaps it was the plethora of technical difficulties that arose during the first song, or the drunk guy at the front of the crowd who bellowed, “Shut up and play!” each time Pezzati tried to tell a story, but no one was expecting the utter lack of vigor that Raygun displayed during its set. The crowd seemed to be fairly understanding of the band’s lack of energy, but there was no real explanation for Jeff Pezzati’s pajama attire. Certainly, there was no justification for Pezzati’s statement that “ten years ago, I didn’t suck this much,” nor for the unenthusiastic expressions and body language of every member of the band.

Despite these disappointments, Naked Raygun’s set was amazing. Songs such as “Peacemaker” and “Hips Swingin’” had everyone in a trance. Guest singer Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers surprised everyone when he joined Raygun for a song. Once in a while, the offspring of the band would come onto the stage and throw loads of pins, clappers, and key chains into the audience. All too soon, the show was over, and Chicago’s crazy punk gods exited the stage for what will likely be the last time.