Riot Fest 2013 Day 2: Genre-Crushing Punks Cut Loose in Chicago’s Humboldt Park
If opening day of Riot Fest Chicago was all about originators -- Joan Jett, Danzig, Bad Religion -- Saturday (Sept. 14) showcased agitators and innovators, artists behind bastard sub-genres and styles difficult to peg. The theme extended from noontime openers Mephiskapheles to main attractions Rancid and the Violent Femmes, and if headliners Blink-182 aren't exactly sonic voyagers, they've found new ways to sell pop-punk to mass audiences.
But that's jumping ahead. A good 10 hours before Blink took to the main stage, Mephiskapheles stood proud in the same spot and started the day with chant: "D-o-g, g-o-d!" As the name suggests, the NYC crew does satanic ska, and amazingly, there's nothing goofy or schlocky about their approach. Featuring upright bass and a crack three-piece horn section, the band crossbreeds trad Jamaican ska with hardcore punk, sleazeball lounge sounds and twisted lyrics, barked out by a guy called the Nubian Nightmare. The highlight, as always, was 'Doomsday,' on which these weirdos gloat about mankind's demise, ensuring their good standing with the man downstairs.
Saturday's lineup also included X and Blondie, current tourmates that respectively defined -- mostly by avoiding definitions -- West and East Coast punk in the '70s. The former was first to the Roots stage, and the back-and-forth between singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka remains one of the more dynamic vocal parings in rock. The foursome focused on tunes from, 'Los Angeles,' the debut album they named for their hometown, and that meant plenty of punked-up rockabilly tunes about depraved Hollywood types. Doe prefaced 'Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,' a horrific recounting of a rape, with a news update on "four monsters" just sentenced to death for a similar crime in India. His apparent approval of the death penalty was jarring, given the band's liberal bent, but in light of the nightmarish scenario he was about to sing about, it was perhaps necessary to state definitively what should be obvious: The tune is by no means a glorification, though musically, it's a glorious thing to behold.
Blondie arrived a few hours later -- and they swooped in with gusto, singer Debbie Harry rocking Wayfarers and a flowing black wizard getup. The core trio of Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke seemed more invigorated than usual, and among their classic forays into hip-hop ('Rapture'), power-pop ('Hanging on the Telephone' and disco ('Heart of Glass'), the band proved its vitality with a handful of newer tunes.
On the indie rock tip, Dinosaur Jr. and Guided by Voices represented for the post-R.E.M., pre-Nirvana era, a magical time when punk bands drew from '60s psychedelia and '70s hard rock and skirted the kinds of rules and regulations that would define the indie scene in subsequent decades. Dino tunes -- at least the ones sung by frontman and guitarist J. Mascis -- tend to go the same speed and run together somewhat, but no one combines Sabbath, shoegaze and punk in quite the same way, and Mascis' solos are a constant source of wonder, even if the famously stoic shredder delivers them with utter nonchalance. On the 1994 single 'Feel the Pain,' the trio introduced some tempo changes, going from heavy plod to hopped-up punk and back again.
GBV are also masters of holding it steady, and as leader Robert Pollard polished off a bottle of tequila and a few stray beers, he and the ever-changing outfit's classic lineup rolled through a set of crazy-short, superbly nonsensical psych-pop tunes. Pollard was slurring by the time he'd come to 'How I Met My Mother,' from 2011's 'Let's Eat the Factory,' but that hardly mattered. Like earlier favorites 'Cut-Out Witch' and 'Teenage FBI,' 'Mother' is an oddball bleat-along that doesn't depend on precise execution.
There's something slightly tighter about Rancid's brand of punk, as the East Bay foursome builds from a framework of thuggishly rigid British street-punk. Of course, singer-guitarist Tim Armstrong and bassist Matt Freeman played in Operation Ivy, so there's a heavy punk-ska influence, and co-frontman Lars Fredriksen brings the Oi!-informed edge only a guy with bat wings tattooed across his Adam's apple can deliver. Rancid have been around for 21 years, but they know their peak time was in the early and mid-'90s, and they wisely focused on tunes from 1994's '…And Out Come the Wolves.' Their encore comprised that disc's two crossover singles, 'Ruby Soho' and 'Timebomb,' invitations to stop all the moshing and dance through the circle pit.
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