October 15, 2015

Rocking and raging at Riot Fest; highs and lows of a musical weekend

More than anything else, Riot Fest is about community. Every band that played Riot Fest had an above average ability to resonate with their fans. From Bayside to Speedy Ortiz to Anthrax to De La Soul, the artists inspired massive audience participation, the like of which I’d only ever experienced in tiny clubs. Only at Riot Fest can I see a bunch of my favorite bands with a bunch of people who love them as much as I do, and there’s no better feeling than that. Here are some highlights:

Oldest frontman who’s still got it:

Iggy Pop (who else?). You could say Iggy is an embarrassment: He rips off his leather jacket a minute in, revealing an equally leathery chest. He throws his mic stand around like he’s having a tantrum (his poor stage manager was having quite the time). He brought out a chair for “Nightclubbing,” only to heave it over his head and try to bash it to pieces. But for all of his bratty stage maneuvers, Iggy didn’t come across as a 68-year-old trying to be a 20-year-old: He was a riveting live performer. And of course, his performance didn’t exactly suffer from starting off with one of the greatest rock songs ever, “No Fun,” or from following it up with another great rock song, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” If anyone was put on this earth to be a frontman, it was clearly Iggy Pop.

Winner of raging egomaniac award:

Henry Rollins (Black Flag). Rollins was the moderator of the second inaugural “Riot Fest Speaks” conversation, and this year’s lineup featured members of the West Memphis Three, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), and Steve Ignorant (Crass). Rollins dominated the conversation, focusing more on his contribution to the West Memphis Three’s case than letting the actual West Memphis Three speak. He only loosely tied in Moore and Ignorant, even though Ignorant was the funniest and most interesting person on the stage. All in all, it was noble experiment helmed by a faulty leader.

Most adoring crowd:

Joyce Manor. During the panel with Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore said that the key to achieving success was to “speak the truth [and] engage the people.” The wisdom of this was apparent during Joyce Manor’s set: It was an outpouring of teenage feeling. Our prophet was lead singer Barry Johnson, who spewed velvet-voiced tales of pool parties, bad tattoos, and SoCal beaches in two minutes or less. When Johnson occasionally dropped out to concentrate on one of his careening guitar riffs, the audience handled the vocals just fine without him; we knew the tunes backward and forward.  

Biggest disappointment:

Echo and the Bunnymen. They drew a large crowd, but based on the chatting around me, I realized the size had more to do with people massing for that night’s headliner, System of a Down. The Bunnymen’s performance was an unremarkable one. Legendary frontman Ian McCulloch has a raw voice, but the high notes often eluded him, and the band was quiet and low-energy. He introduced “The Killing Moon” as the greatest song ever written, which might actually be true, but I felt no guilt about leaving once the song had finished.

Biggest “Fuck Yeah” moment:

Babes in Toyland. Babes have dedicated their career to proving anything men can do they can do better, and they can: They scream louder, play louder, play better, and spit more. Lead singer/guitarist Kat Bjelland is a marvel—she plays and shrieks and high-kicks and has what I affectionately term “Amanda Bynes crazy eyes.” Lori Barbero, the drummer, is thunderous; she plays with the butt end of her drumsticks and it’s loud. At one point, Bjelland asks the crowd, “Is it loud enough?” The answer was yes, in every way. Babes were tremendous and vital and necessary and inspiring.

Biggest “Awww” moment:

Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace brought out her adorable daughter, Evelyn, at the end of their set. You could practically see the mohawks wilt and the leather jackets melt.

Best Band That I Could Talk About Forever:

FIDLAR. At one point during FIDLAR’s set, a wild-eyed boy standing behind me started shouting “OVER HERE!!” at the cameraman. When the cameraman turned, the boy yanked up his sleeve and jabbed at his FIDLAR tattoo. This is the kind of devotion that FIDLAR inspire and rightly so. They play songs about shooting up and skateboarding until you can’t breathe, and even though I can’t really relate, somehow I can: Carper puts the worst parts of himself on display, and even though I’m not a junkie, I know his feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy, boredom, and futility. We all do—Iggy Pop does, Henry Rollins does, and most of all, the kid next to me with the FIDLAR tattoo does.

Best “Album in its entirety” performance

Ice Cube, “Straight Outta Compton.” First things first: If, for some reason, you didn’t know there was a movie about N.W.A. called *Straight Outta Compton*, by the end of Ice Cube’s performance, you would have. Not content with just performing N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton in full, Cube even showed a movie trailer for the damn thing. It was a testament to Cube’s ability as an entertainer that even blatant marketing didn’t bog down his set. His secret is his sense of humor—it allowed Cube to perform an important album all the way through without once coming across as self-reverential (case in point: The two giant inflatable hands throwin’ up the West Side gang sign). I was planning on leaving halfway through Cube’s set to check out Motörhead, one of the other headliners. I thought I was being incredibly clever—“Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck tha Police” are the first two tracks of Straight Outta Compton, and Motörhead usually does “Ace of Spades” towards the middle of their set. But when the time came, I had no desire to leave. Cube and fellow N.W.A. members DJ Yella and MC Ren were doing such a bang-up job of re-creating the energy of Straight Outta Compton that nothing short of Lemmy’s warts popping off his face could have compelled me to leave. Who knew gangsta rap could be so… fun?

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