Punk, P-Funk, and Muddy Boots: Recapping Riot Fest Chicago

A Marlins fan in ’90s Punk Paradise over the weekend at Riot Fest Chicago.
A Marlins fan in ’90s Punk Paradise over the weekend at Riot Fest Chicago.
All photos by Tom Bowker

If you graduated high school in 1989, as I did, the late-’80s, early-’90s freak flag that was Riot Fest's Chicago lineup this past weekend would make you feel right at home in your backward baseball cap and cargo pants. Unfortunately, most of those people were probably stuck at work when the festival kicked off Friday afternoon. Still, it was an excellent history lesson for the largely college-aged crowd — when their attention spans spared them some time off from their phones.

Day One

My running buddy/photographer friend James and I picked up our media passes and ventured into the pristine Douglas Park on Chicago's South Side. Acres upon acres hosted two pairs of alternating stages à la Warped Tour, one roots stage behind a soccer field and some trees, and a few smaller side stages. Our early festival wandering was cut short by 20 minutes of furious rain, which we spent half-covered by a beer-tent awning. 

Once the rain let up, we discovered our home for the next three days: the media area. A glorious shelter stocked with seating, clean port-o-potties, and free beer, Red Bull, and water, this was Shangri-La given our Spartan surroundings. We sketched out our game plan and headed to our first show of the day:


As a big fan of their documentary and their music, I was pleased to discover that it was indeed the proto-punk band from Detroit and not the metal band from Florida. Much has been made over Death's place as the "missing link" in punk rock, and while its music is as aggressive as hell, it's not minimalistic in the least. These cats can play and sing their asses off. Singer/bassist Bobby Hackney has a rich tone to his voice that could make a bad song sound good and a good song fantastic, so when they play their great songs — like "Freaking Out" — it's next-level stuff. Death was so likable, it even made a drum solo palatable at a punk festival.


I've seen Fishbone play a dozen times over three decades with very different lineups, and they always kill it. Bassist Norwood Fisher is one of the best on the planet, and everyone at Riot Fest learned that when he kicked off his tour de force with "Bonin' in the Boneyard."

Despite the fact that the 'Bone has been under a legal cloud since a federal judge ruled that a guest at one of its Philly shows contracted Lupus by way of a gentle, three-foot stage dive by singer Angelo Moore, it stayed true to form. Moore sent off one of his bandmates to do a stage dive demo for him, then proceeded to tell us all about the legal drama, "when I know I'm not supposed to talk about this shit."

Right after, Fishbone kicked into Chuck Brown's go-go hit "Bustin' Loose" and funked it hard. In keeping with its anarchic spirit, Fishbone played set closer "Party at Ground Zero" five minutes longer than they were supposed to. Running overtime is generally frowned upon at these events, but what's Riot Fest gonna do, sue 'em for rocking too hard?

Dirty Walt and Norwood Fisher of Fishbone perform on day one.
Dirty Walt and Norwood Fisher of Fishbone perform on day one.

Living Color

"We're gonna burn this motherfucker to the ground!" Living Color singer Corey Glover informed us as the band took the stage. 

Despite the worst sound mix I have ever heard at an outdoor event — which made its first four songs sound like they were being played through a blown-out car stereo subwoofer — Living Color exploded onstage. Bassist Doug Wimbash threw down so hard that he actually threw himself to the ground with his stage gyrations, never losing the groove. And while drummer Will Calhoun may have a second career playing every technical jazz lick known to man, when he's with Living Color, he uses those perfect fundamentals to smack the hell out of his kit. Watching him play with Living Color is not unlike watching J.J. Watt play football: No matter what happens, someone or something is going to get smashed.

Unfortunately, the sound issues screwed with guitarist Vernon Reid's volume so much that his great lead work was muffled and barely audible. Still, it was a tremendous performance that far outstripped Living Color's good but hungover-from-a-rock-cruise set earlier this year at Culture Room.

Corey Glover of Living Color proceeds to "burn it down."
Corey Glover of Living Color proceeds to "burn it down."

Faith No More

Their sound was easily the best of the first day. Singer mike Patton's manic energy matched that of Living Color and Fishbone. Their new tune, "Motherfucker," sounded just as good as classic "Epic," and they brought the house down with their gorgeous cover of Lionel Ritchie's laid back elevator music anthem, "Easy." It was a fantastic set by a great band who have hit their stride nearly 30 years after We Care A lot. It was wonderful to see.

Ice Cube

I marched down the soccer field to the roots stage which, smaller and at the extreme end of the park, was a curious spot for the highest profile act of the festival. Cube came on to the strains of "Natural Born Killa," his duet with Dr. Dre, and the crowd went nuts when two giant, inflatible hands throwing up Crips/Westside gang signs popped up over the stage. Cube's forceful flow has not diminished in correlation to his meteoric Hollywood career. When he rhymes, you listen — his hype man is completely unnecessary. Doubling Cube's lines is like trying to double an Eddie Van Halen Guitar solo; Most good guitarists could do it, but it's just obscuring genius.

Before it ended, DJ Yella and MC Ren from NWA graced the stage and "Straight Outta Compton" dropped to a thunderous reception. After a spirited a spirited rendition of "Dopeman," Cube brought out his son/film doppleganger, O'shea Jackson Jr.,  to perform "Fuck The Police." Offering a quick disclaimer that the infamous track was not about "all police...just the fucked up police who abuse their power," Cubes Sr. and Jr. and Ren threw it down hard. While Ren's flow was clearly a little out of practice, Cube Jr. acquitted himself nicely, and the set was banging.


I heard a roaring crowd as I crossed the park to catch Motorhead close out the day and quickly confirmed it belonged to Motorhead —  reaffirming my faith in band lead Lemmy Kilmister despite his recent string of tour cancellations due to increasing health complications.

As I got closer, Motorhead kicked into my favorite mid-tempo song of theirs, "Just Because You've Got The Power (Don't Mean You Got The Right)." The Great Lemmy's voice was in fine form, and his playing was spot on. While he struggled with mobility on stage, Lemmy has the kind of charisma to keep fans riveted, and grateful. It wasn't lost on the crowd that despite being old enough to be our grandfather and sick enough to excuse himself from touring altogether, Lemmy put everything he had into his performance. Though he seemed a little subdued during their signature hit, "Ace of Spades," the crowd screamed "I Don't Wanna Live Forever" with enough gusto to lead a calvery charge.

Emboldened by his ability to complete a second set in two weeks, Lemmy invited the audience to scream for an encore, and they screamed. Motorhead returned and tore up "Overkill" for nearly 10 minutes, and Lemmy finally gave us his signature guitar trick, turning his bass into a metaphorical machine gun and aiming it at the crowd. Never have 10,000 people been happier getting fired at.


With three big-name headliners — Motorhead, Ice Cube, and No Doubt — finishing their sets within 15 minutes of each other, the journey out of the South Side of Chicago on Friday night was hectic, to say the least. The train station at 19th and California was slammed with bodies desperately squeezing into to overfilled cars. One Irish gentleman named Rob, who'd successfully smuggled a bottle of red wine out of the festival, managed to get by the transit cop and onto the train because "My mother is on there." Things were less civilized at the Blue Line heading back to the 'burbs, where 15 teenaged No Doubt fans surged onto my already-packed train and knocked me over and putting yours truly at risk of getting stampeded by a mob of college freshmen. Luckily, I made it out alive for...

Day Two

You know you're at Riot Fest when...
You know you're at Riot Fest when...

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We all have our off days, and Riot Fest was no exception. Let's start this installment off with the good, before proceeding with the bad, and the ugly —

Iggy Pop

South Florida's Snow Bird Rock God in Residence closed out day two with a killer set that drew heavily on his David Bowie-produced, 1977-1980 material. After gifting the world a reunion of both Stooges lineups before the deaths of the Ashton brothers made that impossible, Iggy only cranked out two Stooges tunes, opener "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "1969," because it was "a year where things happened!"

Iggy frontloaded the set so hard with hits — "Lust for Life," "The Passenger," and the aforementioned "Dog" were all played within the first 20 minutes. This gave the Igster plenty of time to stretch out deeper cuts like "Sister Midnight," "5'1," and "Night Clubbing," reliving his Berlin days to an eager crowd. As a lover of all things Stooges, I would have appreciated "TV Eye," but I was lucky enough to witness a rendition with the Ashtons at Art Basel in 2007, and nothing will ever top that. This was truly an Iggy Pop, set and it was enjoyable as hell to see him merge his shirtless Jack LaLanne prance with his artier material.

The Dead Milkmen

...did exactly what they were supposed to do: Make silly jokes about minor celebrities, play "Bitchin' Camaro" and "Punk Rock Girl," and be a mashup act between lead singer Rodney Anonymous' cutting punk rock humor and guitarist Joe Genaro's oddball pop. Most importantly, Rodney pointed out that having the Damned, his favorite band, play at 2:45 is absurd because they are vampires and shouldn't be in the sun. As he put it, "I think this festival is organized by someone named Van Helsing."

And now for the bad:

The Damned

As beautifully as they played, the sun was high in the sky, and it seemed to sap my will to be a punk rock vampire. I stuck around for "I Just Can't Be Happy Today," which I dig and know all the words to, but I just couldn't handle seeing the Damned and the sunshine simultaneously. It was akin to the time I watched Jesus and Mary Chain's makeup actually melt off their faces during a set at Bayfront Park. No amount of smoke or lighting could keep them from looking like Wicked Witches of the West after a bucket flush. I love the Damned too much to watch that happen to them.

Bootsy Collins

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, poor set construction, and what was possibly the worst sound ever during his space bass solo, Bootzilla floundered at Riot Fest. The man and his band are living legends with decades of material to draw upon, and his brand of funk simply cannot be shrunk down to 60 minutes — even shorter with a late start. In a regular 90- to 120-minute Bootsy set, he effortlessy shifts between P-Funk hits he wrote for the mob and songs from his first three solo records. Here, it amounted to 10 pounds of funk in a five-pound bag.

During this 50-minute case of premature funkulation, Bootsy spent a third of the time offstage changing costumes while Rubber Band O.G. singer Gary Mudbone Cooper led the crowd in way-too-short renditions of the P-Funk hits. Bootsy barely touched his own catalog, save for a short opening of "Stretching Out" and an elongated version of "I'd Rather Be With You," where he puts his solo.

I love watching Bootsy solo. I hate hearing it get wrecked by what's supposed to be an understated line in the background; the sound engineer lowered his levels and jacked up the backup bassist's past distortion and into the realm of Death Metal Hell noise that Glen Benton of Deicide would have been proud of. If organizers can give the Dwarves a 30-minute set, surely they could have given Bootsy 90 minutes to funk it up properly. As a huge Bootsy fan, this was a bummer.

The Mud

After a few bouts of heavy rain, the park turned into a muddy wonderland after day one and it became mildly treacherous walking among the different stages. By the end of day two, the mud threatened to pull shoes off and baptize guests with a face plant at every step. Hundreds of people wore mud on their faces, and no one's clothing was spared. When I finally made it off the train (stampede free!), I had to spend 15 minutes on my shoes with a stack of newspapers just to be able to climb into an Uber without the driver's livelihood. Getting back to my accommodations, I spent 20 more minutes washing off so that TSA wouldn't flag me as a biological weapon come Monday morning at the airport. It seems that a few plywood walkways, or perhaps some sawdust, might help the situation in the future. I could only hope the mud would dry up in time for Sunday's Snoop Dogg sermon.

Day Three: Joy in Mudville

On Sunday, I woke up in a sitting position on the couch that I'm paying Air BnB $50 a night for. Apparently, I was too tired to lay down Saturday night. Two straight days of fighting off the elements and one Monty Python-like near death experience had worn me out — let alone the 10-hour rock festival days. Much of the music may have been from my youth, thus making me act accordingly, but alas. My body is middle-aged, and my recovery period ain't what it used to be. Thankfully, Red Bull sponsored the press area with its array of flavors. I'm going to need all of them to power through the final day.

The Dwarves

"Highland Park, Illinois!" roared Dwarves singer, Chicago 'burbs native and the only constant member, Blag Jesus, as he took the stage at Sunday afternoon. The set was billed as "Blood, Guts & Pussy," the name of their infamous 1990 Sub Pop LP, which featured two naked ladies and a dwarf covered in blood on its cover. While Dwarves sets are notoriously short — in 1992, they played 70 seconds at Washington Square on Miami Beach before ending their set and starting a mini riot — they brought out all their guns to play their classic album in its entirety and maybe — just maybe — fill a full 45 minutes.

Joining Blag onstage was an all-star lineup of various incarnations of the band. Guitarist "He Who Cannot Be Named" was back from his faked death, wearing nothing but his signature wrestling mask and jock strap. O.G. member Salt Peter shared bass and co-lead vocal duties with Nick Oliveri, who also had a brief stint with Queens of the Stoneage.

They proceeded to unleash blistering salvo after blistering salvo about backseat car sex, contracting venereal diseases, and doing shitty drugs. But after wrapping that portion of the set, peaking with "Motherfucker" (their dirty cover of "Surfin' Bird Returns"), the music fizzled. That, on top of He Who Cannot Be Named's final trick of the night: ripping off his jock strap, revealing a sad-looking package that will likely re-dub him: "He Who Should Remain Clothed."

Cypress Hill

I headed back to the Rock Stage just in time to catch Cypress Hill kick out their weed-infused jams like the Cannabis Cup champs they are. MCs B-Real and Sean Dog have perhaps the most distinctive voices in all of hip-hop, and their classic "Insane In The Membrane" drove the crowd absolutely bananas. When, to the strains of "I Want To Get High," B-Real lit up a joint massive enough to be identified by the back of the park, the crowd screamed in approval and, to their credit, the cops refrained from starting any trouble.

Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg was scheduled to play his smash hit album, 1993's Doggystyle, in its entirety, which had hip-hop heads clamoring toward his stage a full hour before he started. Sadly, the Dog Father showed up 20 minutes late for a 60 minute set, pulled out a half-assed cover of House Of Pain's "Jump Around," and mustered a sad medley of his hits until the plug got pulled for Modest Mouse. Way to rip off your fans, Snoop. You dropped it, but it not hot.

The Prodigy

On the advice of one of my younger friends who worships Prodigy, I trudged across the park in the dark to catch their festival-ending set. I found a very impressive light show, a spirited rendition of their hit "Firestarter," and myself, ankle-deep in the mud once again. I trudged back to the press tent for the last time and spent 20 minutes scraping toxic mud off my shoes so I could get into the after-party an hour later to catch...

Seizure-inducing lights at The Prodigy's closing set.
Seizure-inducing lights at The Prodigy's closing set.
Tom Bowker

The Damned

"It's Our last night in the States, Chicago," Singer/Lead Vampire David Vanian told his adoring crowd at the Double Door, a charmingly dingy mid-size venue on another side of town. "Let's make it a good one!"

After three days spent watching bands play daytime sets on gigantic soundstages, it was great to see the Damned in their natural environment: a packed club at the stroke of midnight. The set was flawless, relying heavily on their gothic 80s material. Despite my exhaustion, when Captain Sensible kicked into the telltale opening riff of their punk rock classic "New Rose," I succumbed to the power of rock 'n' roll, careening toward the stage into what had become a slam-dance pit by this joint.

The crowd went berzerk as David Vanian transformed into the living hybrid of Elvis Presley and Link Wray and dove into another smash-and-grab rocker, "Neat, Neat, Neat," before exiting the stage to a giant roar. They came back with wide grins, told us they loved us, and proved it with a three-song encore that wrapped with the back-to-back knockout of "Fan Club" and  their T. Rex-like guitar opus, "Smash It Up."

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