Can a festival lineup be too good? The worst part of Riot Fest’s 15th anniversary edition was making tough calls between competing sets or catching only part of one band to dash off to another. The punk-rock music festival and carnival brought music and mayhem to Chicago’s Douglas Park last weekend, September 13–15.
The event was packed with reunions, farewell tours, and plenty of rock-and-roll moments. Attendees spun over the crowd on a Ferris wheel while the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and Blink-182 took the stage below. While Bikini Kill played Chicago for the first time in more than two decades, bands like Slayer and the B-52’s played their last shows in the city.
From circle pits to punk-rock royalty, check out our favorite moments from Riot Fest.
Flaming Lips / Photo by Jessica Mlinaric
On Friday night, Wayne Coyne and company brought their usual bag of tricks, including confetti cannons, a giant inflatable robot, and an inflatable wheel Coyne rolled over the crowd from inside. The Flaming Lips played their 2002 album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, in full to the delight of the crowd. The most memorable moment of the set was when Coyne honored the recently departed Daniel Johnston with a poignant cover of “True Love Will Find You in the End."
"I don't know what you're still doing here. You should all be watching Jawbreaker," Mark Hoppus told the crowd Friday night. The recently reunited punk icons weren't enough to entice a jam-packed audience away from watching Blink-182 play their 1999 album, Enema of the State in full. Hoppus and guitarist Matt Skiba led everyone through songs like "What's My Age Again" and "Adam's Song," while Travis Barker destroyed the drum kit like only he can. The swelling masses sang every lyric to an album that continues to resonate with fans two decades later.
Blink-182 / Photo by Jessica Mlinaric
Saturday got off to a ska start with the Selector performing their classic 1980 album, Too Much Pressure. Pauline Black and Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson warmed up the crowd with songs like “Three Minute Her,” inspiring them start skanking in the sunshine.
Wu-Tang brought da ruckus Saturday night with a surprise performance of their classic album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Wu members traded verses across the stage, including the late Old Dirty Bastard's son singing his verses, while the crowd sang them back. The energetic set by the hip-hop icons was a standout in a Riot Fest lineup strangely lacking in rap acts.
If you weren’t already a Slayer fan, their Saturday night headlining set made you one. The performance was billed as the band’s last in Chicago and Milwaukee ahead of their farewell tour, and they played accordingly. The thrash metal legends were on fire, their stage literally spewing pyrotechnics throughout the entire set. Circle pits formed in the crowd and a few eardrums surely burst to the sound of “Angel of Death” and “Hell Awaits.”
The Selector / Photo by Jessica Mlinaric
The security guards were probably not expecting crowd surfers and mosh pits during the Village People set. While the costumed band delivered disco onstage, the crowd treated hits like “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A” as the proto-punk anthems they are.
Godmother of Punk Smith took the Riot Stage a few hours before Bikini Kill headlined from it, establishing a clear lineage of female punk artists. At 72, Smith is as inspiring as ever. She kicked off her set with fists raised, singing “People Have the Power.” The audience ranged from quiet admiration in the icon’s presence to full-on sing-along to hits like “Because the Night” and “Gloria.”
Against Me! also played one of their albums all the way through…followed by another. The quartet started with their 2002 debut, Reinventing Axl Rose, before ripping through 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It was a thrilling set, with the band sounding as tight as ever and the crowd screaming along to such songs as “True Trans Soul Rebel” and closer “Black Me Out.”
Photo by Jessica Mlinaric
One of the weekend’s biggest crowds fanned around the Radicals Stage on Sunday afternoon to see the B-52’s play their last Chicago show. The art-punk oddballs brought the looks and the hits, harmonizing to “Roam” and grooving to “Love Shack.” The massive audience danced along as the band closed with “Rock Lobster.”
Bikini Kill’s set was the perfect way to close out Riot Fest’s 15th anniversary weekend. Watching an all-female band headline the festival and talk about the importance of feminism was a unifying end to the event. As frontwoman Kathleen Hanna said, “I just wanted to say that we’re a feminist band and we’re headlining a festival.” The Riot Grrrl icons also sounded amazing, rocking out with Hanna trading vocal duties with drummer Tobi Vail. Hanna bounced around the stage like it was 1995 again. The crowd rejoiced when the band chose “Rebel Girl” to close the show, an anthem that will keep everyone going until the next Riot Fest rolls around.