Walking into Riot Fest is a bit of sensory overload. Directly in front of the main gates are an array of carnival rides (including The Zipper, which I 10/10 would never ride), combined with the smell of fried food. This is all supplemented by the conflicting boom of the PAs from the festival’s five stages, three or four of which are often active simultaneously. Maybe it’s a rude awakening, but it quickly prepares you to trek through this playground for punks, where the only discussion of #festivalfashion is how spiky your mohawk is.
From its humble beginnings in 2005 as a multi-venue festival across Chicago, Riot Fest has grown into an absolutely massive undertaking that spans many acres of land in the city’s Douglas Park. Where many festivals have moved with the trend toward supposed profitability that comes with a focus on modern pop, Riot Fest remains firmly rooted in the values upon which it was founded. The 2019 installment proved time and time again that rock music is still very much alive, and there are a hell of a lot of people who want to go see it.
In the span of just two hours or so on the festival’s first day, a festival goer was able to watch the evolution of modern pop punk live, in real time, with 28-song set from the Descendents led right into a full-album play from Blink-182 of their seminal breakthrough album Enema Of The State. Since Blink-182’s formation, they have been very open about the influence of the Descendents on their music, and watching the two acts back to back made for an extra special treat for all.
More than just the music, Riot Fest also provides a sense of community, one that is often reserved for the DIY punk scene. It’s felt not only by the patrons, but the artists as well. Throughout the weekend, bands on stage were plugging upcoming sets from their friends or contemporaries or influences. Turnover shouted out their friends in Turnstile; Skating Polly encouraged their viewers to stick around for White Reaper; Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 admonished the crowd, wondering aloud why they were watching his band when they could be watching Jawbreaker instead.
But in perhaps the most striking example, the headlining set from a reunited Bikini Kill on Sunday was the only thing that stopped Jack White and The Raconteurs from playing an extended show, limiting them to only 13 songs of their usual 20 or so. Plus, included in that shortened set was a brief cover of Patti Smith’s epic “Gloria (In Excelsis Deo),” the track that had just concluded the godmother of punk’s performance on the adjacent stage.
In a cultural moment where the country seems divided as ever, the shared love in Douglas Park felt exceptionally palpable and refreshing. At long last, the weekend culminated in a riotous (hehe) performance from Bikini Kill that found Kathleen Hanna’s wails echoing into the Chicago night as thousands of fans dispersed across Ogden Avenue. The longtime punks left satisfied, while new punks were formed.