The AUX in my parents’ old car decided not to work. So it was radio — classic rock, sunburnt pop and static — for the four-hour drive from Ann Arbor to Douglass Park, Chicago, the temporary home of Riot Fest: punk rock’s premier music festival. Three days of thunderous guitar distortions, merry-go-round moshes and forgetting myself. Three days of music you would never hear on the radio.
This is Riot Fest from the eyes of a not-so-punky college kid, trying to find his way in the punk-rock world for a three-day weekend.
The first thing I noticed was the people. The crowds were full of black clothes, black lipstick, nose rings, lip rings, neon hair, bushy beards and pale skin (I was not in uniform in my white In-N-Out T-shirt). Some were lounging on the grass, some vibing, some smoking, drinking, dancing, swinging in circles, pushing each other, smoking more, but everyone was waiting. Waiting for their food. Waiting for their friends to leave the porta potty. Waiting for their band to start. Waiting for their song to play.
Riot Fest is historically a punk and metal festival, with sprinkles of indie rock and hip-hop. Most of the music is angry, and all of it is loud. There are lots of bass, cymbals and electric-guitars-turned-fretted-chainsaws. It’s not the kind of music to play at Wednesday night bingo with Grandma, but just right for a post-adolescent like me, pent up with the mental and physical stress of yet another damn semester.
The first band I watched perform was The Descendants. “I wanna be stereotyped / I wanna be classified,” they spoke-sang on “Suburban Home” before unleashing a sandstorm of drums and noise. They were the first in a long line of middle-aged-nostalgia-groups-20-plus-years-past-their-prime that Riot Fest had brought together for the weekend.
Taking Back Sunday took the stage a few hours later, and announced between songs, “The clouds parted so God could watch his favorite band play,” seemingly talking about themselves. I couldn’t exactly tell whether this was ironic or not.
The crowd really loved these post-prime bands. When it comes to music, nothing is more powerful than nostalgia. People like songs they know much more than songs they don’t. Maybe that’s why so many people paid so much money to see bands that resembled my uncle’s old high school buddies. But instead of jamming in their suburban New Jersey garage for their bemused wives, they had landed a gig in Chicago in front of thousands of strangely attentive concertgoers.
Portugal. The Man was a little more my style, but they weren’t exactly Riot Fest’s. Their tunes were light and playful, the main singer’s voice arching high behind a riffing Stratocaster and a peppy drum kit. With over a billion Spotify streams, “Feel it Still” is far and away their most popular song. Its lyrics lend some insight into the band’s character, and why their set didn’t quite land.
“Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks,” goes the oft-TikToked hook. And that is exactly what Portugal. The Man are: rebels just for kicks. They’re from LA, and they don’t yell. These festival-goers, however, are real rebels, no kicks allowed. Being a rebel is a mainstay of the punk personality. It’s not something to mess around with, it’s something to live by. But rebels or not, the crowd did seem to love the tune. Some songs are popular for a reason.
Then there was Mr. Beloved himself, Jack Antonoff, performing with the metal-pop-punk band, Bleachers, in which he gets to play frontman for a change. They’re a really fun group. Antonoff is a doll on the stage, bouncing up and down, hamming up the sad-n-angry nice-Jewish-boy persona. Their top song, “I Wanna Get Better,” is another example of pop done right. Everyone around me was jumping and singing along, seeming to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t so moved by their newer stuff. But maybe that’s my predisposed bias again.
The big performance of the night was My Chemical Romance (MCR). MCR was the only band that did not have to compete for air time at Riot Fest this year. Every other performer, even the next days’ headliners, played at the same time as at least one or two other bands, on one of the five tightly-packed stages. But not MCR. MCR got their own time slot, and rightfully so. Almost as many people attended Riot Fest on Friday as did for the remainder of the weekend. Those people came for MCR.
By the time I left Bleachers, the crowd for MCR had amassed beyond potential watchability. My friend and I tried to squirm our way through the riff-raff to at least get a decent view of the lead singer Gerard Way’s face, but to no avail. The closer we got, the more tightly packed the crowd, and we found ourselves not a whole lot closer and angled away from the stage. So yes, we hopped the DELUXE VIP barrier and promptly got escorted back to our original distant vantage point by some particularly snappy security guards. They did not seem to appreciate my pleading banter or the fact that I was not just some vagrant adolescent, but also a reporter.
So I watched MCR’s performance from three football fields out, on the grass in the back by the porta potties. I actually spent most of their concert looking at the display screen, which videotaped the performers and broadcasted their movements live. I sang along when I could, and when I could, so could everyone else. Singing any song along with that many people is really quite a magical experience. “I’m not okay / You wear me out” was a particularly cathartic line to shout in sync with tens of thousands of people. But I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that from this far back, I might as well have been at home watching the performance on my flat-screen. It was a blast nonetheless.
And then it was over. MCR does not do encores. I found my friends, we found the exit and we left. Two more Riot-filled days to go.
Daily Arts Writer Joshua Medintz can be reached at email@example.com.