72-Hour Nostalgia-Punk Therapy: Riot Fest 2017

With a high-profile Jawbreaker reunion at its center, this year's edition of Riot Fest further cemented the Chicago party's identity.

In addition to our FLOOD Festival Guide presented by Toyota C-HR—which is available for download now—FLOOD will be at all this year’s best festivals to provide you with firsthand reports from the scene.


A muscular wave hustled through the masses as Blake Schwarzenbach, Adam Pfahler, and Chris Bauermeister boarded the Riot Stage Sunday night. For the next 75 minutes what ensued was an utterly ecumenical sonic voyage, transcending physical and philosophical division, and transforming a sea of individuals to a scrappy front united under punk ethos, fandom, and palpable anticipation.

I didn’t fight the deluge of dripping bodies and thrashing limbs that carried me three feet forward in a rib-tightening swoop at the start of the set. Neither did Eloise, the nine-year-old girl next to me who’d flown in from LA for the show, who was strapped to her father like a Jansport backpack. As the introductory riff from “Boxcar” erupted from stage, we sang and danced and never stopped—a spate of roaring undulations flowing reflexively with the impressive display of musicality and showmanship from a band that hadn’t played together in 21 years (two coastal warm-up shows notwithstanding).

The young girl next to me knew every word to every song performed, shouting alongside OG elder statesmen and millennials born too late for the band’s initial run. “You know you have the best dad in the world, right?” the man next to her posited. She knew. So did the neighboring couple who’d jetted in from Seattle. And the heavily pierced and tattooed Chicagoans in front of them. We all knew it.

Jawbreaker at Riot Fest / photo by Brigid Gallagher

Eloise and her dad exhibited the best possible outcome in the instance of ’90s-punks-turned-parents. And the group of us in the greater hoard had the added fortune of experiencing it—the striking glee passed from father to daughter and vice versa—in tandem with an unbeatable performance by most beloved Jawbreaker. It was our collective former youth passing a torch to a future generation of punk rock gatekeepers. Gatekeepers who know all the hooks and lyrics.

If Riot Fest had to choose a tagline, Never Say Never would be appropriate. The organization has made its mark by engineering reformations and reunions by rock acts fans thought they might never see again. Last year it corralled two performances by the Misfits lineup of Danzig, Jerry Only, and Doyle, the trio’s first in thirty-three years. In 2013 the fest managed for the first time in twenty-two years to get two of the three living members of The Replacements back together for a run. And this year Jawbreaker, a band that ended in fistfights in 1996, perhaps the unlikeliest punk reunion this side of The Smiths.

While Riot Fest manages to bring out universally-adored big guns, it also treads in murkier waters inhabited by mall punks, fifth (sixth?) wave emo kids, and Beavis and Butt-Head. Somehow it’s managed to transform its singular, highly unlikely marriage of acts into a sprawling festival that has maintained a reputation for consistency and relative comfort in a breezy Chicago park setting.

Dinosaur Jr. at Riot Fest / photo by Brigid Gallagher

A certain level of apathy can come with fat paycheck reunions, and particularly when a band is tasked with playing a seminal album from start to finish, leaving little time or occasion for improvising or stage banter. That sentiment was certainly expressed throughout Riot Fest’s three days in Douglas Park. Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr., and Wu-Tang Clan presented unremarkable live renditions of seminal LPs leaving no impression at all on their audiences. But there were exceptions to that trend too, in full LP sets by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Lawrence Arms, and that dog., who in addition to sharp and witty performances, seemed genuinely excited to be on stage.

Locals Cap’n Jazz lived up to their subversive live reputation via frontman Tim Kinsella’s shirtless antics and antagonistic tambourine tossing—leaving his Chicago friends in the audience to smirk and a new generation of emo fans to hang on his every absurdist word. At The Drive In’s showing was similarly confrontational, albeit more successful, given its greater tunefulness and sheer adrenaline. Both were nothing if not entertaining.

Cap’n Jazz at Riot Fest / photo by Brigid Gallagher

Luckily for us, the most herculean effort came from the band we all most wanted to see. And what could have been a shaky or self conscious set, or a propped-up cop out, was triumphant. For an hour and fifteen minutes Jawbreaker engaged in a career-spanning joyride of mutual reciprocity, providing fuel for the audience’s fire while at once feeding off the flame. Though a few old cranks still salty about Dear You grumbled at the presence of some of that record’s songs, the majority sang along to “Million,” “Accident Prone,” and “Jet Black,” an audible confirmation of its greatness. We were treated to “Kiss the Bottle” and “Condition Oakland” sing-alongs before the night ended in a curious but effective choice—a raucous version of “Bivouac” with Schwarzenbach making his guitar feed back by yelling into the strings.

A component of Jawbreaker’s success was that they managed to embrace the setting while being highly aware of it. Schwarzenbach made snarky remarks about the folks watching from onstage—many of whom he didn’t know but were by some metric considered special enough to be there. At a Q&A last Thursday the band communicated that they’d be open to playing again if the Riot Fest gig went well, explaining that they’d like to give fans the opportunity for a reunion outside of a high-price, destination festival. If this set didn’t make the case for a full-blown reunion, I can’t conceive of what would.

Jawbreaker at Riot Fest / photo by Brigid Gallagher

Over the years, Riot Fest has marketed itself as the anti-festival in its totally un-self-conscious embracing of nostalgia and eschewing of trends, which can sometimes feel like pandering to middle-aged punks and shoveling corporate punk to Hot Topic teens. At this point acts like Rob Zombie, Danzig, Ministry, and the “supergroup” Prophets of Rage—essentially a Rage Against the Machine covers act featuring Chuck D and B-Real that was ostensibly formed to capitalize on the current climate of political resistance—read as a parodies of themselves. And yet, they’ve all appeared on Riot Fest’s vision test of a lineup. There are overpriced corn dogs and $25 souvenir t-shirts, which festival-goers down and don with abandon.

By proclaiming itself to be the anti-festival, Riot Fest, and its carefully-curated, fuck all, nostalgia-driven punk aesthetic, has become sort of the quintessential festival. The Anthony Bourdain of music festivals. Peel back the posturing and it’s easy to see that it’s keenly aware of itself and its audience. By that same token, when done well, nostalgia politics can deliver in spades. There’s no greater evidence of that than last night. Jawbreaker’s set will be forever burned in my memory. And I suspect young Eloise, and her Best Dad On The Planet, will never forget it, either. FL 

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