Riot Fest 2023

(Saturday only)

Wed Sep 20 2023

Riot Fest has been under fire the past couple years, with neighborhood residents upset about the yearly, weeks-long overtaking of Douglass Park. The only other time I went to this festival (2016, Sunday), I got close to the site, parked, and had no sense at all of the area it was situated in. This year I ended up driving around the neighborhood a bit looking for parking and it does seem an odd location for the biggest deliberately noisy festival in the country, not to mention the whole squeezing-out-kids’-sports-leagues issue.

I didn’t write about the fest in ’16, mainly because aside from some good music and great company, it was kind of a miserable experience—hot, dry, dusty, shitty sound, insufficient facilities, meager food and drink options, the list goes on. (Got to see Dee Snider though!) I went because I wanted to see the Misfits with Glenn Danzig (and Dave Lombardo?), and that rather comical end to the night was plenty to sour me on the festival forever.

‘Forever’ ends, of course, when Mr. Bungle shows up. The overall lineup was absolutely stacked this year but only the Bungle date (Saturday) was unmissable. So, fine. They’ve had seven years to make some improvements, right?

For starters, the weather was better! It was drizzling for the first few hours but the rain never intensified enough to actually get anyone wet. Also, in place of all the dust, there was that creepy waxy grass like the stuff they installed along Humboldt Boulevard, so that was a big improvement I’m sure. The beer options were SLIGHTLY improved although dominated by Goose Island aka the Chicago version of Terrapin. And there were more and probably better food options but all I ate was a hot dog. The water and toilet facilities were still completely fucked. The people who run the festival clearly don’t give a shit. Because hey, people keep coming back. Well, not me. I’m NEVER coming back.

Who am I kidding, if I hadn’t been booked to review Goose on Sunday ( I definitely would’ve gone to see The Cure! This piece is about Saturday, though. We got through the gates in time to catch the end of Snapcase’s set, a band I loved around the turn of the millennium and hadn’t thought about all that much since they broke up in 2005. Original members: none, but this was the same lineup I saw at The Globe in 2000 and they sounded great. Although Riot Fest has branched way beyond its basic punk origins, it’s set up so that aging punks could spend the whole weekend on nostalgic thrills if they wanted to. This day also featured T.S.O.L. (original members: three out of four!), Total Chaos (only Rob Chaos remains), Pennywise (also three of four founding members!), and Steve Ignorant of Crass! The Steve Ignorant Band was a highlight of the day; vocalist Carol Hodge was particularly impressive, ripping through Crass anarcho-classics with plenty of expected (but not overbearing) proselytizing by Ignorant in between. These songs have lost none of their bite and although the United States never listened back then it would be great if people would listen now. Those first four Crass albums hold up better than any of your favorite ‘80s American hardcore.

Another early highlight was Jehnny Beth’s set. I had forgotten all about Savages, the band that NPR thought was going to save rock and roll or something back in 2013. I loved that first album of theirs and then pretty much forgot about them. It turns out they’ve been on hiatus since 2017 and Beth released a solo album during the pandemic that skewed more towards the electronic/industrial edge, which I’d never heard before. She brought a fierce three-piece band for this performance (she said she’d been waiting three years to come to the U.S.—I hope it was worth the wait??) and raged the stage with an intensity not unlike Scott Weiland on a good night (he had a lot of good nights, I swear!). Plus she threw in a menacing cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, which you would’ve expected to be the climax of the set, but no: her own “I’m The Man” was an explosive noise rant that amped up the ’90s-rave vibe into overdrive and had the crowd pogoing despite the rain.

Jehnny Beth unfortunately conflicted with Corey Feldman; I didn’t catch any of his set but it IS the first recording from the entire festival to pop up on dimeadozen so I just listened to it and um…wow. Count him down, but you can never count him out. The best part is during a costume change, someone in the audience goes “Two days ago I saw Beyoncé. And now…” Anyway, Riot Fest served as a tour kickoff for Beth, who’s opening for Queens Of The Stone Age along with Viagra Boys, the Swedish band with the American ex-pat vocalist that virtually took over my radio station last year due to all the songs on their third album CAVE WORLD being so goddamn good. Sadly they did NOT play “Creepy Crawlers”! Only four songs from that album in fact, and I learned that I definitely need to check out their first album as well because the songs from it (especially “Sports”) that they played were rad. Between these tourmates we’d experienced a glorious rush of anti-machismo energy and nothing against Josh Homme but how is he gonna follow them night after night? I mean, hats off if he personally selected them for the tour but I fear the sound mix could be conspicuously subpar for them on other nights.

Death Grips were the only repeat for me from the 2016 fest (other than Dave Lombardo) and my expectations were low, because their 2016 set was sparsely attended and one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen at any festival. Also, Death Grips haven’t put out any new music in five years, highly uncharacteristic. They were the boundlessly creative chameleons of experimental music and then suddenly every hipster on social media was ripping on them and I guess this was the goal, thanks for saving the world in between zoom meetings yet again. Anyway who knows what’s going on in Death Grips land; their keyboardist Andy Morin went on hiatus this year, and they’ve brought in Nick Reinhart from Tera Melos for the tour. If they have new material they’re certainly not revealing it at this point. They warmed up with “System Blower” and “I’ve Seen Footage” and the sound wasn’t great, but starting with “Spread Eagle Cross The Block” the mix came together and the trio gelled and put on another triumphant set, though lacking the immediacy of last time for sure, and if you’re doing a greatest-hits set how do you NOT play “Hacker”??? All the same it was wild and noisy and it warped spacetime now and then just like a Death Grips show should.

This was the start of a stretch of music that could cause an unstable person to pop completely. DG may have been shocking in their heyday but far more likely to piss off your parents (of ANY age) nowadays: 100 gecs. This band makes me think about the ‘tweenwave’ episode of SOUTH PARK because I’m 47 years old and my feeble brain does struggle to make heads or tails of their music at times. However I suspect my healthy John Zorn foundation gives me a leg up on most other olds in deciphering it. That said, the first several songs the gecs played were so boring I thought maybe they’d moved on from ‘hyperpop’ altogether. In demeanor, the duo (Laura Les and Dylan Brady) reminded me a lot of Dean and Gene Ween in the early early days, nonchalance as a whole identity, and the parallels definitely don’t end at stage presence. It may be that I just needed some mental calibration to settle into the set; by “I Got My Tooth Removed” I was pretty sucked in, and then “what’s that smell” was the major turning point; the energy was infectious and dizzying from then on, no genre left unturnt (nor dwelt on for more than a few seconds at a time).

My plan at this point was to catch the beginning of Queens’ set and then head to Insane Clown Posse, because I’m curious okay? It’s unlikely that I’ll ever buy a ticket to go see ICP; this is the whole point of festivals. Sadly, the Clowns were buried on the smallest stage and it was PACKED and I waited until about 15 minutes after they were supposed to come onstage and decided it was time to go get a spot for Mr. Bungle. (I did catch the first couple QOTSA songs. They opened with that big hit they had, which was nice of them. The truth is I’m just not into them, but I still wish I’d stuck around and given ‘em another chance.)

By now a reader or two might be going ‘wait, what about Death Cab For Cutie performing TRANSATLANTICISM in its entirety, didn’t you go to THAT?’ No, I didn’t. It IS the only Death Cab album I like, and it cut deep at a crucial time in my life, so deep that I can’t have it on my ipod because certain parts if I even think about them can cause me to spontaneously cry. ‘But wasn’t that around the same time that Postal Service’s GIVE UP came out?’ Yes, it was, and that album too is like lightning shot into my arteries sometimes; the time and place I’m transported back to are eternally vivid and indescribably precious to me. These simply were not the experiences I was up for at Riot Fest. Especially when faced with the choice of Postal Service versus Mr. Bungle. Yes, even if I never have another chance to see Postal Service the rest of my life. The album will always be there for me.

Mr. Bungle on the other hand only played one song from their original run of studio albums, which is one more than they played the last time I saw ‘em. Another ever-changing entity, it’s a minor miracle that the inspired re-recording of their initial 1986 demo tape THE RAGING WRATH OF THE EASTER BUNNY has sustained them as a viable force for over four years now. They played seven of those songs (eight if you count the partial “Grizzly Adams” that began the show, which I GUESS was sufficient), plus an array of covers; new to me were 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and Spandau Ballet’s “True” (with 7Seconds’ “You Lose” sandwiched inside it, naturally). The only ballad they did the previous time I’d seen them was “Summer Breeze”, which still leaves a lot of options from my ‘blue cheese’ playlist on the table for their next tour. And although this was a truncated set (I assume Riot Fest sets such strict time limits because they’re so punk rock?), they still squeezed in a ripping version of Sepultura’s “Territory” at the end. (Although it KILLED me to learn that on the rest of the tour they included a Timi Yuro cover in the encore NOOOOOOOOO WHY DIDN’T I GO TO DETROIT.)

The key moment for me was “My Ass Is On Fire”, though. I’d watched the video of when they first busted it out in Pomona earlier this year; it was rough, but the crowd ate it up, because let’s face it, for a sizable portion of Mr. Bungle fans it would’ve been the only song in the set they even knew! Dee Snider was right all along, AAAIIEEEEEE. But those Mr. Bungle fans are idiots. The Bungle universe is so gigantic that if you’re limiting yourself to what they’ve released through a corporate record label you’re not really even a fan. Now, what I saw back in February of 2020 was a band paying tribute to its past and doing a little goofing off in the process. What I saw at Riot Fest was the same band doing a very similar setlist—but the songs were ALIVE, their breaths were reeking and their notes were screaming ‘THERE IS MORE THAT WE CAN DO’. “My Ass Is On Fire” wasn’t a token to toss us; Lombardo actually sounded like he had a feel for it and Trey Spruance’s guitar sounded like it remembered what it was once like to be in Mr. Bungle. (The guitar probably didn’t exist back then, I have no idea.)

I wish all this meant that Mr. Bungle were about to embark on a new creative journey. Perusing the setlists from the tour, it’s an encouraging sign that they’re mixing it up a bit. Still only that one song from the back catalog, still no new compositions; none of that was ever supposed to be in the cards. But how could Trey, Mike and Trevor NOT want to keep playing together? The tour is over now; is Mr. Bungle done…again? Trey and Trevor just played together in Zorn’s Cobra in San Fran earlier this month with one William Winant joining them on percussion. (Patton was on the bill but…evidently didn’t show?) The two will also be at Big Ears next March, a lineup which also includes Eyvind Kang. I wonder what might entice Danny Heifetz out of seclusion in Australia. I suspect it wouldn’t be too difficult to lure Bär McKinnon…!

Just a pipe dream. Bungle never do the predictable thing. Just please don’t put together a new lineup and do another one of the demos on tour. Nobody wants that. I can live off this memory a long time. Against all odds, Bungle capped a stellar day at Riot Fest. If I never see either of them again, I’ll live.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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