A warm end of summer weekend. Thousands of black t-shirt-clad fans marching like ants through the streets. Complaints… so many complaints. This could only mean one thing: it’s Riot Fest season, baby! And after a 2020 cancellation of the festival due to COVID and us taking a leave in 2021 (also due to avoiding the plague), Bad Copy was finally back and ready for another year of walking ourselves ragged covering bands both big and small.
Things had changed since our last year of coverage, 2019. Douglass Park, the giant park in which the festival has been held since 2015, has gained an extra ‘s’ in the name for the best reason. Also, I stopped drinking a few months into the pandemic, so I was clearly concerned what kind of bar tent shenanigans I would be missing out on this year. But photographer Mat was back for another year. And after over a year of not seeing each other due to the pandemic, we were still able to pick up exactly where we left off years ago – being sarcastic and silly and excited about another Riot Fest weekend.
Our Press Crew was also still together. The R.F.P.C. (Riot Fest Press Crew, duh) started a few years back when Mat and I somehow stumbled into a Press Tent friendship with Curtis from Broke Ass Stuart and Alex, an amazing freelance photographer from Guadalajara, Mexico. After seeing each other in all the same photo pits, at the press tent bar, in line for the bathroom, and everywhere in between, we decided we were comrades in the fight against weekend hangovers, the blazing September sun, and blisters from walking miles and miles for the trio of days. Over the years we’d only see each other for one weekend per year, but we’d always welcome the group with hugs and hangs, sharing sunscreen, snacks, aspirin, snark, and support. And this year, we got matching tattoos to commemorate our return to Riot and our forever friendship. Friendship is cute… see!
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On Friday afternoon Mat and I met up early, got our wristbands, and snuck in through a super secret entrance with no line (Note: will dispense info on super secret entrance for a fee. DM me). And suddenly, we were swept up in the festival’s ebb and flow just as if it was years before and the last 2 years of insanity never happened. There were people streaming in from the main gate, the ferris wheels were spinning, there was a street punk in full studded leather jacket garb standing in line for the Tilt-A-Whirl. It was the perfect dichotomy of familiar culture and chaos that Riot always brings. Mat would be spending the afternoon volunteering at a tent for the fabulous company he works for – One Tail At A Time – which meant that coverage was all me until the sun started to set. I ran off to the press tent and started to unpack, sort, and set up. Heather, Miranda, and the rest of the Riot Fest Press Staff were already problem solving all the issues that were being lobbed at them from all directions in record time. The other photographers and journalists started to trickle into the Press Area. I had made a list of all the bands that I wanted to see today but knew that my chances of hitting even most would be slim. The day was filled to the brim with bands and artists doing Bad Libs!
After years of ambushing artists and festival goers, we came into this year planned and ready, per the COVID guidelines. We emailed and we scheduled. And because our panama hate wearing contributor Kevin moved back to his hometown (can you feel the Pop Punk community mourning?) I was flying solo with my phone, my tripod, and our very official Bad Copy Fisher Price recording device. I grabbed a 0% Cherry Riot Pop and planned out the day as I watched Sincere Engineer opened the festival with their corndog circle pit – which had started as a Facebook event and became a successful reality.
First up on the Bad Libs roster was Jim Ward of Sparta. Holy hell, we were off to a strong start! After, I had a break from my Libs duty so I ran over to the Rebel stage. It’s the smallest stage and also the furthest from the Press Area but that stage arguably hosts the best and most important up-and-coming bands of the festival. I’ve learned about many a’new band from just hanging out at that stage annually and this year was no different. It was time for Cliffdiver! Prior to their set, a rep from Punk Rock Saves Lives came out and let the crowd know that Narcan was available and spoke about taking care of yourself and others. This Riot Fest was already feeling a bit different being post-height of the pandemic and all, but the mental health and care was quickly becoming a theme and I was here for it.
Cliffdiver took the stage and, in less than two songs, they were one of my favorite parts of the festival weekend. The Tulsa, OK band has two singers, a saxophonist, diversity, and sings about mental health, sobriety, friendship, and more. They were energetic, upbeat, and clearly having a great time. I was sold and a forever fan. Don’t take my word for it; stream their latest release below out now via SideOneDummy Recs.
It was around this time where I met up with Jessica and Jehiah, friends from LA who were in town for the week for their very first Chicago visit (and for the festival, of course). We stood in awe and smiled and danced through Cliffdiver’s set and then waited patiently for the next band, Wargasm. Jehiah talked them up and said that they had just gotten off tour with Limp Bizkit. The band is technically a duo but played what I think can be classified as the new wave of Nu Metal with a full band. I was just getting into it when my phone went off. I had to rush back to the Press Area because one of the bands wanted to Lib early! You can catch one of Wargasm’s latest videos and see what I missed here:
Back in the Press Area, I met up with Holy Fawn and then Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years. Then one of the bands that had scheduled a round of Bad Libs ghosted me. But that was okay because I got to watch Sparta play and got to sneak in a quick adjustment from Dr. Matthew Ray, the very attractive and kind Press Area chiropractor who – like the rest of us – was back for another year. Then, I got to meet Cliffdiver and geek out over their set while they played a round of Bad Libs which was followed by meeting Stephen Christian from Anberlin for some Libbing too!
With another break in my schedule, I found myself wandering the festival grounds and taking a seat on the grass to watch Descendents. While I understand their worth and value as a staple Punk band, I’ve never been a die hard fan. But just sitting on the grass surrounded by people having a great time listening to live music again, I was feeling a lot of feelings. COVID changed a lot of things for me – both physically and mentally. But I really had missed not only live music, but the specific experiences that Riot Fest weekend brings. I was really happy that they were back and that we were able to be there too. But my ruminations were cut short as I had to get back to the Press Area for the final Bad Libs of the day with Shawna from War on Women. As the sun set over the park, one of the most powerful women in Punk read a story about a “glitter-riddled and cheesy creature”.
Mat was able to sneak in a few bands throughout the day, but at dusk he was free from volunteering to shoot the last few bands of Day 1. Of course we had to meet up for Alkaline Trio. After the three song photo pit limit, he found me in the crowd and we sang the rest of the set together. Now… I’m going to nerd out for all my Trio fan friends out there. Feel free to skip ahead of it’s not your thing. They opened with “Time To Waste” which was a total shock and throw back, but that song was MADE to be an opener, so I’m glad that it’s back in the rotation. They only played one new-new song, “Blackbird,” and focused a ton on the classics including “Nose Over Tail,” “Bleeder,” “Take Lots with Alcohol,” and “Cringe.” They, of course, closed with “Radio.” And while the setlist was amazing and solid, that wasn’t even the best part. The band – all three of them – seemed to be enjoying themselves and seemed to want to be there. If you’re a longstanding Trio fan, there’s no doubt you’ve seen at least a handful of lackluster shows over the years. But it really seems like the band is back with a renewed lease on life… or at least shows.
And then it was the moment that thousands of Friday festers had been waiting two years for. It was time for My Chemical Romance! The crowd of kids in fishnets and platform boots had been growing all day giving me early 2000s Hot Topic vibes and now, it felt like every single person in the park was standing waiting for MCR. As the lights came on and the music started, it was instantly drowned out by screams and cheers. The band took to the stage and launched in to their latest release, “Foundations of Decay,” a six minute mid-tempo tune. But no matter how tame yet epic the track may have been, the crowd went wild and people were launched into the air. It didn’t help that the band played “Na Na Na” next. People were being thrown over the metal barricade and crowdsurfers floated above the masses.
Mat had been keeping track of Gerard Way’s stage outfits that he had been wearing as the tour progressed across the country. We were all wondering what he would be wearing tonight and what statement he would be making with it. While it wasn’t a cheerleader costume or full Black Parade garb, his Thelma and Louise-style trenchcoat with headscarf and glasses really spoke to me. But the statement made is beyond my grasp. If someone has any intel, let me know because I love that clandestine shit. The band sounded so great. They’ve always been a band that I was familiar with but wasn’t obsessed with. I knew a ton of songs from, but I had never seen them live. Now, today, I will say that they should be on everyone’s bucket list of bands to see. They were SO good. And their set was pure insanity, partially because of the band, but mostly because of the crowd.
Throughout the set, Gerard stopped the band and would ask the crowd to push back and make space for people to get to the front and asked security to help those who wanted out over the barricade. The giant monitors which normally displayed the bands went black and displayed a message which said:
Look after each other,
If someone falls, help them up.
Security are here to help if you need it.
HAVE A GREAT NIGHT!
I watched half the set from the crowd and then retreated with Curtis, Alex, and Mat to watch the rest from the safety of the Press Area where we sang along and enjoyed some Riot Pop, both alcoholic and non.
After the final chords of MCR’s last song, “Cancer,” rang out, we decided to take our time collecting our things in hopes that we could miss some of the pedestrian traffic exiting the grounds. We could have stayed another hour longer and STILL have been stuck in a massive crowd of people. After what felt like years, we made it out of Douglass Park and went our separate ways for the evening with a promise to meet up bright and early at the Rebel Stage for cumgirl8… whatever that was.
Check out the gallery of Mat’s photos from Friday!