RIOT FEST Turned 15 and Wu-Tang Brought the Best Gift

Feature photo by Dave Wittig

“RIOT FEST sucks.” They tout it everywhere from social media posts to #hashtags with a no-fucks-given, punk-rock attitude that doesn’t care what you think. In Chicago’s Douglas Park, filled with both living legends and fresh faces, nostalgic carnival treats and surprises around every mosh pit, RIOT FEST does anything but suck. Maybe they just like to manage expectations: everything is a pleasant surprise when you’re expecting the bare minimum. But the punk vets and hip-hop lovers flock in tandem every year because they know the secret. RIOT FEST rocks harder than any festival in Chicago.

Photo by Dan Wade


It’s become somewhat of a yearly occurrence that at least a few artists on the bill play one of their most famed albums in its entirety, usually one that’s celebrating some sort of anniversary or milestone. This year, RIOT FEST celebrated 15 years of its own and a handful of artists showed up ready to kick in the nostalgia in memory of the fest’s earlier days. Rock music has a constantly growing list of sub-genres thanks to inventive artists, and the representation of the full albums on the lineup goes to show just how diverse RIOT FEST can be regardless of its punk-heavy reputation.

Dashboard Confessional took us back to the early emo days with a full run-through of their soft and melancholy 2001 release The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, including a blistering rendition of “Screaming Infidelities” in the late summer sun. The Flaming Lips, accompanied by their usual antics of inflatable rainbows, caterpillars, draping streamers and life-size hamster balls, mesmerized the crowd with 2002’s trippy, psychedelic-space-rock album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Blink-182 even played 1999’s Enema of the State in its entirety and had thousands of people screaming the profanities of “Family Reunion” between songs about aliens and girls without underwear. Dude…what’s my age again?

Photo by Chris Casella

Arguably the best trip down memory lane was an accident. In late August, Die Antwoord was pulled from the lineup after a viral video surfaced revealing the South-African duo using homophobic slurs. RIOT FEST quickly replaced them with a far bigger draw, the Wu-Tang Clan. On Saturday night, a screen over the Radicals stage illuminated to show a preview of Wu-Tang’s upcoming Hulu docu-series special before the group graced the stage. The shameless self-promotion was not very punk rock of them, but when you are the Wu-Tang Clan, you can do whatever you damn well please…

Photo by Vince DeSantiago

Especially when it’s followed up by an earth-shattering display of hyper-synchronized harmonies, cutting through the silence as the crowd stared in awe. Surprise! Wu-Tang announced they’d be using their guest spot to play all of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group’s debut album that features “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Protect Ya Neck,” and 11 other historic yet timeless hip-hop tracks. Living legends are deemed as such for a reason – the stage was flooded with pure, raw talent that only 26 years of dedication can achieve.

Photo by Vince DeSantiago


At Riot Fest, the legends aren’t always the headliners. The veteran punk-rockers who walked so new-age punk could run are often the artists among the top of the bill. Rancid, Pennywise, Less Than Jake, Hot Water Music, Cock Sparrer – all bands who have been around for multiple decades – were scheduled mid-day in Chicago’s Indian Summer sunshine. Even Wu-Tang did not grab a headlining spot. However, one can’t help but think that this is out of respect for the lifelong fans who want to see them but have already paid their dues. We’re not getting any younger, and maybe we’d rather day drink to the songs of our youth than wait around all night to see them on the main stage. There’s a good chance all of them hung around to see Slayer on Saturday night anyway, who performed their “last show” in Chicago and will likely be back again for another “last show” sometime soon.

Photo by George Mulcahy


Around every cluster of tents representing local Chicago music digs and breweries, more of the fest’s bizarre personality comes to life. A large black pig decked out in a punk-rock dog collar frequents the fest every year and was once again graciously greeted like a special guest by tons of squealing girls and animal lovers. A refrigerated sidecar held the world’s (probably) largest sculpture of John Stamos made entirely out of butter. Why? Ask the guys back at the RIOT FEST office who are constantly pushing out Stamos content without mercy.

Photo by Monique Doron

The freak shows feature the classic lizard man with a split tongue and scaly skin, the bearded lady, the sword-swallowers and contortionists. Another old carny tradition is tucked in a corner where fans can scream and shout as a masked man takes on a slew of opponents in the wrestlers’ ring. The fest actually dropped the wrestling gig for last year’s fest, and fans were so disgruntled they started a rather unsuccessful online petition to bring it back. Either way, the fest listened. Let the carny games continue!

Photo by Dan Wade

Wandering past the ring and across the field led to a prime photo-op over a Van’s-sponsored foam jumping pit: a leap over the pit with arms flailing and a huge smile put you soaring over the back-drop picture of a massive crowd – aw! Baby’s first stage dive!

Somewhere centrally located between all the stages was the “Punks With Paintbrushes” tent, where musicians displayed their latest sketches, paintings and collages for fans to purchase or to idly drool over. The prices were Bob-Marley-portrait high, but beyond well worth it. Tim McIlrath of Rise Against and Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio/blink-182 were among several featured musicians displaying their vicious second set of skills on the canvas.


No matter what type of music you listen to, if you enjoy an artist who falls even slightly into the rock genre, chances are you can find some music or freaky friends who share your interests at RIOT FEST. The community defines the meaning of embracing acceptance as everyone wields their freak flags with pride, and the wide range of ages who attend carries something special as well: the old veterans who have been doing this forever are often introducing their kids to their scene and their most cherished style of music. Kids were popping up on top of shoulders over crowds day and night with buggy, protective headphones on for safety over-top their parents heads, clad with mohawks and studded vests. It’s too cool to rock out with your kids (as long as you’ve got the gear to be smart about it), and the emphasis on family and friendship in this community is something to behold.

Photo by David Kindler

Whether you’re a still a kid at heart, or you have your kid on your shoulders, everyone is family at RIOT FEST.

Photo by David Kindler

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