I’ve already posted about one experience I had at Riot Fest, but that was not about the music and RIOT FEST IS (despite it’s name which would imply some sort of rioting or social change) ABOUT MUSIC. So this post is about the music I listened to and enjoyed. The music that made me want to join a band and jump around on stage and jam and perform, having fun and releasing copious about of energy. How does one find people to jam with?
Regardless, sets I watched and enjoyed: Worriers, Summer Cannibals, Kitten Forever, Hard Girls, The Julie Ruin, Bleached, Dee-1, Nots, The Meat Puppets, Gwar, and of course, Sleater-Kinney.
Worriers, a melodic punk band from NYC, was cool. I’d first heard about them in a podcast interview with frontperson Lauren Denitzio and frontwoman of Against Me! Laura Jane Grace (who also produced the latest Worriers album Imaginary Life). I was kind of mesmerized by their drummer, who actually has his own band too. His glasses flew off at one point and he skillfully did not care. Guitarist Lou Hanman sufficiently shredded the solos. Overall it was a good set and I would check them out again if they were playing near me again, but alas I have no desire to go to the East coast.
Dee-1 is a rapper I had not heard of until looking at the Riot Fest line up, but after listen to only one of his songs “Sallie Mae Back” (about student loans), I was hooked. One issue I have with rap is that I enjoy the beat but detest the lyrics. His lyrics did not at all lack substance. Between songs he told a little about his life story (like each song was a new vignette in the life story). From NOLA, he went to LSU, and became an inner city math teacher before he became a rapper. He had extreme energy and positivity. During “Sallie Mae Back” he crowd surf’d twice! I touched his butt! Twice! But he’s not just fun, he’s got a positive message. He’s a Christian and denounces police brutality and rap that only talks about violence and drugs. His creed: “Be real. Be righteous. Be relevant.” I can get behind that.
I think being entertaining while playing music can be hard, but it’s so crucial. The whole weekend, you could tell the acts that were drawing new fans were the ones who were having fun (or at least appeared to be having fun for the sake of the audience). Obviously people who know and like your music will be entertained by seeing the music performed live, but for people who don’t know you and don’t know your lyrics, you’ve got to find a way to hook and entrance them.
Gwar – a band who’s music and don’t like and whose lyrics I don’t know (and don’t care to know) – entranced me to the point that I sat and watched the entire set. If you’re unfamiliar with Gwar, I think they’re whole aesthetic is that they’re these alien monsters who take over Earth with death metal. The show started with an MC explaining that the presidential election would not be in November, but right now. There would be a battle to the death to determine the next president. Obama came on stage and was decapitated. Blood shot into the crowd. Hillary and Trump came on stage and wrestled. Hillary disemboweled Trump and then had her breasts cut off by Gwar. Then Bernie Sanders embedded within a troll (an internet troll) came out but was also gruesomely murdered by Gwar. The whole show was a huge gimmick with music strung about the murder and blood splurting, but it worked! Matt and I stayed for the whole show.
Nots – on the other hand – did not seem to want to entertain. In fact, it seemed like their lead singer didn’t even want to be there. At one point she said “thanks a lot” in a way that felt very Kurt Cobain, which I enjoy, because I like Kurt Cobain. I’m assuming it was all an act, because, like, you’re playing Riot Fest. But IDK, maybe she just wasn’t having a good day. The music was on point though. I’d first heard their song “Reactor” on Dynamite Hemorrhage and their live version sounded just like from the studio – difficult for the kind of electronoise punk they do. For some reason I thought they were British, but nope, they’re from Nashville. Much like with Worriers, I was in awe of the drummer who was keeping up with the fast tempo songs for the whole thirty minute set. How do they do things like this?! What is the secret?! (Practice.)
I only caught the end of Kitten Forever, but NO WORRIES because they’re playing the opening set of the Tacocat / Dude York show at Thalia Hall this Sunday SO I WILL SEE THEM AGAIN. What I saw of them Saturday night of Riot Fest, I liked. They were, like Nots, abrasive. But with a high energy and playfulness that engaged the audience. The three musicians traded places during the set, switching between vocals, bass, and drums. I really liked the edgy sound of just bass and drums, a la Death From Above 1979.
The energy and intensity of Summer Cannibals, Bleached, and Hard Girls probably makes those three acts my favorite of the weekend (besides Sleater-Kinney obviously. Sleater-Kinney always number one. Unless Kurt Cobain comes back as a zombie and Nirvana returns, probably Sleater-Kinney will be number one band to see).
I only caught the end of Hard Girls, but would definitely watch them again if they come my way. Just a thoroughly enjoyable sound. Bleached, who I had heard before (they’re song “Dazed” popped up on my Spotify Discover playlist) was AMAZING. They had an early set time on the Rock stage, but they held the space incredibly and attracted a large crowd. They’re song “Sleepwalking” was so enjoyable that I was singing it in my head the rest of the day. Lots of shredding in the solos, lots of fun during the set (at the end the frontwoman and drummer switched places; so fun!).
Summer Cannibals – a rock-hard American band from Portland – were in trouble the whole set because of their frontwoman’s guitar problems (broken string, pedal malfunctions) that were adlib-solved in the middle of songs but not sufficient. The raw frustration was visible in her playing and singing, but in a way that added an intensity to the songs. Like a life and death to them that I imagine they haven’t experienced before, like this is their chance to shine and these fucking guitar problems… FUCK. When she got the guitar to work and the sound of her solo ripped through the amps, it felt like a victory screech. My only criticism is that while dealing with the guitar problems between songs, the bassist was at a loss for ways to entertain. “Tell a joke!” “I don’t know any jokes.” “What did you do this morning?” “Sat in bed.” “Did you watch Netflix?” “No.” Let that be a lesson to bands – always have a joke in your back pocket.
I had to watch The Julie Ruin because HOW COULD YOU NOT? Between songs Kathleen Hanna explained a little political background (e.g. identity politics, child abuse, spaces free from harassment). They started their set with “I Decide” and ended with “Rebel Girl” (because HOW COULD YOU NOT?). It was funny because she screwed up the lyrical entry into the song and then joked about it during a vocal break. I like that. I’ve heard some criticism about Kathleen Hanna that’s made me see her as egotistical, but I think I don’t really care if that’s true. Seeing her take minutes between songs explaining some aspect of identity politics, then listening to her belt out songs despite her voice not being that of a “conventional” lead singer. That may be egotistical, or maybe just the rare sight of a woman having enough self-esteem to hold space for herself comfortably. LOVE IT.
If The Julie Ruin is extremely political, the Meat Puppets are not. No politics, or over-performance, just straight up playing and reveling in the joy of playing their songs. They played sped up versions of their classics (and my faves) – “Up On The Sun”, “Lake of Fire”, “Oh Me” – with large free-form psychedelic punk solos in the middle. It was a pleasure to watch because, I assume, it was a pleasure to play.
The last act I saw at Riot Fest was the only act I HAD TO SEE. Of course, I’m talking about Sleater-Kinney. I was at the Rock stage over an hour early to camp out a spot as close to the railing as I could. I was two bodies from the center rail and two bodies from the front, stage left. The “die hards” and I stood in anticipation of the 7:40 call time. We cheered as Janet came on stage to sound check her drums. We chatted about musical minutiae, this and that to pass the time, including how Janet is 50 years old and still capable of beating the shit out of her drums in perfect time. The man next to me pre-emptively apologized to an older woman to his left in the event that he might shove her during the concert. She laughed and said: “I’m an old school Black Flag fan, so be aware. I’ll shove back.” Everyone laughed. I saw Janet set up her fan and remarked that I always thought her hair blew while she was drumming because her arms moved so fast she generated her own wind. Everyone laughed. There was a tall man in front of me and I worried I wouldn’t be able to see Corin, but when Sleater-Kinney took the stage, everyone in the audience shifted a bit and suddenly I had the most perfect view of the whole band and stage. Also, the same man I had been worrying about blocking my view turned out to know every lyric to every song and we proceeded to sing along together to “All Hands On The Bad One”.
The experience was magical. It felt endless during but infinitesimal after; while listening it felt like it could never end, but once it was over, it felt like it had only just begun. Matt (who’d only caught a bit of the set) asked me what they played and I couldn’t answer right away because it was all a momentary blur stretched into an hour. Is this how time works? I feel like this is how time works when you’re high on drugs. Who needs drugs when you have Sleater-Kinney (or insert your favorite band here)? During the hour-long set I was constantly bumping to the beat, clenching my muscles from sheer adrenaline. Carrie shredded. Corin belted. Janet banged her drums so hard, at one point it looked like her crash cymbal would topple over. I was so hyped I didn’t want it to end. But alas, it did. The techs began dismantling the equipment. The crowd dispersed. My boots crunched the beer cans and plastic cups strewn upon the shredded lawn previous filled with screaming fans. I walked away smiling, wanting to run with all the energy inside me.
I was worried that might be their last show ever, but I’ve just bought a ticket to their newly announced New Year’s Eve show in San Francisco. So… YES.