With well over a hundred acts spread across three full days, it would be nearly impossible to fully recap Riot Fest 2016 without reaching encyclopedia-length proportions. Nonetheless, there were still some extremely clear standouts when it came to performances, atmosphere and attitudes, which kept right in line with organizers’ ongoing commitment to stand out from homogeny in an otherwise oversaturated festival culture.
The Flaming Lips and their blow-up buddies
In terms of experimentation that combined psychedelic elements, spacey sounds and an indie/alternative rock circus, The Flaming Lips were the supreme ringmasters. But Wayne Coyne and company also brought the visual allure like no others, whether it was their inflatable butterfly and walking sun pals, wall of hanging rope lights or steady flow of streamer explosions. Plus who wouldn’t love a singer crowd surfing in a giant ball to the beats of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”?
The Original Misfits make the ultimate punk rock reunion
Other than Denver, Chicago was the only city to score Glenn Danzig, Jerry Only and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein all playing together for the first time in more than 30 years. With a set list culled from the group’s classic underground albums “Walk Among Us,” “Earth A.D.” and “Static Age,” this ridiculously rare (and unbelievably packed) opportunity was nothing short of the ultimate punk rock reunion.
Morrissey goes meatless
For a guy who once proclaimed “Meat Is Murder” as a member of The Smiths, it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that Morrissey would take issue with any of his furry friends winding up on a grill. So for the two hours surrounding his delayed set (rumored to stem from making sure the animal searing had indeed ceased), Riot Fest went fully vegetarian, which caused some grumbling amongst carnivores, but could’ve temporarily been satisfied by some barbeque jackfruit or tacos stuffed with beans and rice.
A (mostly) cool crowd
Though the audience truly spanned multiple generations, having the majority of folks land somewhere between 30 and 40-years-old meant for a more mature and considerate crowd than Lollapalooza or any place EDM is played (notwithstanding the mosh pits or the surge to see The Original Misfits). Sure, there were loads of sky-high hair spikes, tattoos and folks draped in fake blood, but it was merely the alternative imagery behind a generally polite and friendly bunch with mutual interest as diverse as Nas, Gwar and NOFX.
Skankin’ with The Specials
Equal parts ska, new wave and punk, England’s The Specials delivered thought-provoking social and political statements, while managing to lead the masses in a skankin’ great time. In fact, hearing the scene-shaping likes of “Ghost Town,” “Rat Race” and “Too Much Too Young” may have been the most euphoric throwback of this entire edition.
A rockin’ Reggie’s shuttle
The concert hall/bar/restaurant/record store known as Reggie’s can now add “shuttle bus service” to its rock n’ roll resume thanks to regular trips from the South Loop to the show. Besides being a communal (and completely free) way to arrive, there was endless music blaring from the speakers along the way (including snippets of Metallica, Black Sabbath, Insane Clown Posse and surely mounds more).
Marley does Marley
“No matter where we are or how we look, we are all one,” insisted Julian Marley prior to singing Bob Marley & The Wailers’ immortal “One Love.” It was just one of many unifying messages from his father’s “Exodus” album, which was performed in its entirety alongside solo selections, all backed by one of reggae’s finest bands that even featured a long time player for the late great.
Diggin’ Douglas Park
It may be off the typical tourist path, but Douglas Park in North Lawndale is a pretty historical and beautiful place that shouldn’t be discounted simply from the negative stereotypes surrounding the neighborhood. It’s obviously spacious enough to hold an entire festival, yet still somewhat intimate for quick-ish travels to neighboring stages, merch or food, all factors that could quite possibly allow Riot Fest to finally find a permanent home.
(Ed Spinelli contributed to this review).
For additional information on Riot Fest, visit RiotFest.org/Chicago.