The atmosphere of Riot Fest was somehow off this year. Not that it wasn’t as beautiful and diverse as it has always been, but its usual spark was certainly missing. The past few years have always felt like a whirlwind, a rush between sets and different pits — the difference this year was tangible from the very first day, which, with the loss of Blink-182, can be traced to a lack of riveting headliners for 2018’s festival. With the past two lineups featuring the return of legendary acts such as The Misfits and Jawbreaker, this year’s top-billed acts — Weezer, Beck and Run the Jewels — struggled to hold a candle to the precedent.
That’s not to say it was a bad festival; it’s almost impossible to have a bad time at Riot Fest with its eclectic mix of acts ranging from powerhouse newcomers like Mannequin Pussy and The Arkells and fabulous veterans like Taking Back Sunday and The Wonder Years. The magic of Riot is that there’s always a little bit of something for everyone, and on that point, they never disappoint.
Friday had one of the more impressive daily lineups. Up-and-coming indie pop band flor put on a wonderful early day main stage set, featuring floating vocals and tight production from the rest of the band. Their music holds a charisma that was perfectly conveyed in the band’s performance, pulling the attention of the small crowd of early attendees with ease. The band flows with Alvvays’s ease with a bit more of a rock edge, especially in performance.
Yet shortly after, Sum 41 became the first victim of Riot’s disjointed energy this year; a legendary pop-punk band responsible for “Fat Lip” and “In Too Deep,” one would expect a blowout mainstage performance from them. The band, however, was not given a mainstage slot, instead forcing a far too large crowd to pack themselves in front of a more moderately sized stage. While the hits elicited some sing-alongs from the crowd, everything in between was drowned out by the outlying crowd, and they played a distressfully long cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” that was interesting for all of 10 seconds. Later in the evening, even the veterans in Taking Back Sunday would suffer a similar fate on the same stage, with alarming disinterest from the crowd when they were playing anything other than “Cute Without the ‘E’” and “MakeDamnSure.”
Thankfully, Matt and Kim were (unsurprisingly) able to turn up the heat a bit with their party-vibe atmosphere, full of balloons, confetti and a whole lot of dancing. Acting almost like a band-aid for day one, their foolproof performance formula lit a fire under the mainstage crowd with hits like “Daylight” and “Block After Block” and their infectiously energetic stage presence. Kim even went so far as to add in “Pussy runs everything” halfway through, eliciting a huge response from the already amped up crowd.
Saturday saw a promising return to form with an early mainstage set from The Frights, whose lighthearted punk is irresistible, especially in performance. Their musical stylings are best likened to West Coast punk with pop sensibilities, causing equal amounts of pitting and dancing throughout the crowd. The crowd engagement seemed much more promising from the start of day two, but was short lived after I had left the mainstages.
Mannequin Pussy are an undeniably perfect match for Riot — their music is a dynamic mix of hardcore punk and pop that is as impressive to listen to as it is to watch in performance. Yet they too fell prey to the disinterest of the intermediate stage crowd. However, unlike the performance from Sum 41, the band never faltered while blasting their way through their material. They joked about breaking the Riot record for most songs played in a 45-minute set and seemed hell-bent on pulling it off with their short, punchy tracks. Their set even included a taste of forthcoming songs with a performance of a song titled “Cream” that was painted with their usual ripping hardcore brush. A friend of mine went so far as to say frontwoman Marisa Dabice “raised the glass ceiling” for their dedicated, ferocious performance on stage.
One of the most head-turning performers of the weekend was obviously Blondie, featuring Debbie Harry herself in the flesh donning a neon-yellow wig and mesh black suit, looking like the fabulous star she has always been. Hits like “One Way or Another” and “Call Me” had the massive crowd singing along with everyone marveling at Debbie’s “Stop Fucking the Planet” cape. She even offered a wink at the crowd while saying “I always love a good riot.” While their set would have been better delivered at night with a flashy display, for a band that is over 40-years-old, they put on a damn good show for one of the weekend’s largest crowds.
The true saviors of Riot 2018 performed on Sunday, bringing all the emotional intensity that is expected of the festival. The Wonder Years, coming off the spring release of their newest effort Sister Cities, gave those who opted for their set in favor of Alkaline Trio’s hometown performance on the main stage a taste of what usually permeates the weekend. The most engaging part of a The Wonder Years performance doesn’t necessarily lie in the band itself, but rather in the love that their fans have for them. Looking around at the band’s fans, the intensity of everyone’s reactions is almost alarming, resounding every word back towards the stage. With a mix of new tracks and old ones (treating the longtime fans to a rare performance of “Melrose Diner”), the band perfectly exemplified the power that both nostalgia and boundary-defying rock music holds over Riot Fest, what truly keeps the masses coming year after year.
Despite some hiccups, I can’t really be mad at Riot Fest for a band’s health issues. Doing the best with what they had, the weekend was still full of sweaty crowds, some dust-filled lungs and passionate fans watching their favorite bands. Here’s to hoping next year’s headliners have the star power featured in the past.