Concert review: Riot Fest 2017

Brad Keefe

“A riot is not a festival,” intoned Saul Williams during an early Friday spoken-word set that served as a de facto invocation speech for Riot Fest 2017 in Chicago.

Williams was the first of some 40-plus acts I scoped over the weekend. Riot Fest continues to be, in my book, the best-curated music festival in the country, a three-day excursion through your concert bucket list.

There are no flavor-of-the-month bookings at Riot Fest. Before 5 p.m. on the first day, I'd already checked off a couple of legends in X and Buzzcocks, both establishing that not only is punk not dead, it's aged pretty well.

And with a lineup full of more can't-miss acts than you possibly can't-miss, Riot Fest was also blessed with an open and intuitive layout with side-by-side main stages and additional stages that were easy to find (although some sound bleed was an issue at times).

I watched a rowdy crowd of Action Bronson fans answering the question, “Who brings a cookbook to a music festival?” before settling in for a Friday evening slate of acts right out of my dreams.

Death From Above drummer/singer Sebastien Grainger marveled at the evening lineup during his band's own sharp set (bolstered by tunes from DFA's new albumOutrage! Is Now, which adds more range to the two-piece's aural arsenal).

“New Order? Sure. Ministry? OK, why not? That's a good sauce,” Grainger said, furthering his metaphor by adding, “We're the oregano. And then the Parmesan on top? That's Nine Inch Nails.”

That sauce was indeed a treat right in my musical wheelhouse. I don't know if we can thank Donald Trump, but Chicago's own industrial godfather Al Jourgensen and Ministry delivered the kind of aggressively crushing set I haven't seen from them in a long time. A brutal finish of early tracks (“N.W.O.,” “Thieves,” “Just One Fix,” “So What”) basically ensured that their upcoming Columbus stop is a must-see.

With a dazzling light show and an array of legendary music, New Order effectively turned the park into a dance club with a set that made the nostalgia seem very present, including a cover of a tune by the band from which they formed. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” being played under a banner of “Joy Division forever” will get the feelings going.

Friday headliner Nine Inch Nails operated with less flair than its usual stage shows, but Trent Reznor and company are still somehow underrated as a next-level live act. I've seen them enough times that I was most excited for deeper cuts (dusting off “Something I Can Never Have”) and new tracks (the live debut of “The Background World” from the newAdd Violence EP). Pray to your deity of choice that we get a full NIN tour.

Saturday started as strong as Friday ended with UK duo Slaves melting faces in what was already a hot Chicago day by noon. The weirdest and possibly most wonderful one-two punch of the weekend was to come.

Peaches' mainstage set was the talk of anyone who saw it, which tends to happen when you come out on stage wearing vulva headgear. Her brand of sexy IDGAF electro is infectious as hell, and you weren't likely to find a better performer.

To follow that up with Dead Cross, a metal super group featuring both Mike Patton and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, was a weird mix. But if you fell in that Venn diagram overlap, it was sublime.

Energy levels took a surprising dip with a couple of acts that showed their age, as D.C. hardcore pioneers Bad Brains and the dirty-black crooning of Danzig both underwhelmed. With seemingly half the park crowding to catch Wu-Tang Clan, I left before the full crew was even onstage, opting for a little At the Drive-In leading into a perfectly slinky and groovy Queens of the Stone Age set.

If I've learned one lesson from Riot Fest 2017, it's the reality of option paralysis. On Sunday, I finally opted to let go of my FOMO and dig in for some full sets instead of doing it buffet style. I had to put out of my head some of the sets I was missing, including Dinosaur Jr., GWAR, Prophets of Rage, Paramore, Andrew W.K. and, yes, Sunday headliner Jawbreaker.

Instead I focused on two sets just for me, watching the always entrancing TV on the Radio put on a show that was somehow energetic and soothing at the same time. Then I settled in for a great spot up front for one of my own bucket list acts. I know a lot of people were waiting two decades for a chance to see Jawbreaker, but I've waited one to see M.I.A. I have no regrets.

It's my third trek to Chicago in four years for Riot Fest, and I don't see how they'll top this to get me back next year … but they always do.