Contrary to popular belief, punks are some of the nicest people one could ever meet. This was at least true of those I found at this year’s iteration of Riot Fest in Chicago, as we celebrated the festival’s 15th anniversary with more diluted light beer than should exist and a whole lot of confetti. The first day of any festival is always slightly shaky at first ― someone is looking out for something to go wrong, a band not to show up or the obligatory ferris wheel to shut down mid-cycle. But at Riot, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, a horde of people dressed in faded black jeans descended on Chicago’s Douglas Park to badly dance the night away together, screaming lyrics into the darkness as the city slept.
The first act I stumbled upon that day was the Philadelphia rock outfit Thin Lips, who, incidentally, I had already seen this year in Ann Arbor. I had completely forgotten they were playing at the festival and had to check the lineup to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating from dehydration. But no, it was them ― and they were incredible. Vocalist Chrissy Tashjian held the audience captive with her soulful renditions of songs both old and new, showcasing the group’s new album Chosen Family while remembering their earlier work as well.
The crowd was a cheerful mix of people laughing and dancing in the afternoon sun. As Tashjian yelled “This one’s for the homos!” they erupted into applause. It was a delightful reminder of the acceptance and happiness that comes with much of the punk scene ― for those who have found their own chosen family in the arms of the music they love and the people who come with it. Their set was predictably stellar, and the entire audience was jumping up and down by the time it came to an end. I couldn’t have imagined a more fantastic start to a fantastic day.
From Thin Lips, myself and my lovely companion (and best friend from high school) Kendall walked to another stage, where we could hear the thumps of a pop bass line reverberating into the crowd. Following this catchy melody, we found Caroline Rose performing with everything she had in her, jumping across the stage in an all-red athletic getup, complete with headband. Both Rose and her backing band were some of the most frenetic performers I’ve ever seen, harnessing the energy of their excited crowd to create an environment of fun and frenzy. She sang most of her newest album Loner and threw in some well-loved oldies along the way. For a relatively new addition to the indie-pop-rock scene, the songwriter is remarkably self-aware of her own brand. She knows who her audience is, but most impressively, Rose really knows who she is. It’s a great thing to see from a young musician, and it shows in every song she writes.
After dancing like a maniac to Rose’s set while carrying a five-pound camera, I was absolutely pooped. So we sat on the seemingly never-ending green grass of Douglas Park’s grounds, watching people go by. This was not Coachella, in any way ― the biggest fashion statement I saw was someone wearing fishnets over their pants ― but it was somehow better because of that. The aesthetic was not the point, after all, despite the common theme of black and red clothing across the festivalgoers. It was completely about the music, and enjoying it with everyone there. If places like Coachella and Lollapalooza are where the beautiful people get together, Riot Fest has been a place for misfits and punks alike for 15 very loud years.
The dilly-dallying eventually came to a close, and I ran to get some prime photos of The Get Up Kids’ set. Every member of the band (including bassist Rob Pope, who I am still mad at for leaving Spoon) was on the top of their game, even so many years into playing together. They were a perfect mid-day experience to begin the second wind of the festival’s first day. Sure, the set was exciting, loud, the perfect place to lightly mosh without worrying if you would break your leg. But it was also evidence of The Get Up Kids’ time on the scene ― they maintained the original stick-it-to-the-man essence of their early work while getting even better at performing, creating a fun atmosphere that was grounded in real, tangible skills. Standing near the stage, I couldn’t help but slow-clap as their set came to an end.
The highlight of the day, the piece-de-resistance of Riot Fest’s illustrious history, was when The Flaming Lips took the stage. After being on my feet all day, I was wary of how much I would be able to participate in the technicolor dreamscape of their performance, but who was I kidding. As soon as frontman Wayne Coyne took the stage, clad in a pure white suit and trademark halo of gray hair, it was like someone had gently tased me. I couldn’t stop smiling, to the point where my friend asked me if I was alright. The Lips (or Flips, as affectionate fans call them) were a force of nature, and the perfect ending to the first day of the festival. Between cannons of confetti, a giant blow-up robot and every band member wearing some sort of rainbow garb, everyone around me was having the time of their life. At one point, Coyne zipped himself into a plastic bubble and was thrust into the audience in a futuristic crowd-surf. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The group played the entirety of their 2002 magnum opus Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with the flair and intensity as if they had just released it. In addition to these songs, Coyne took a moment to remember indie legend Daniel Johnston by singing his most pure, strikingly true song “True Love Will Find You In The End.” By the end of it, tears were streaming down my face. The admiration and love in the frontman’s rendition was that of someone who had lost a close friend, and everyone in the audience could feel it. The set continued in a similar fashion, until the very last song. From hundreds of people away, it felt like they were singing to every person there individually, celebrating the night and everyone who had gathered there one by one. If there’s anything Riot Fest is perfect for, it’s that ― that you can find people just like you, no matter how weird you are.