We Love Them More Than They’ll Ever Know
Photos by Alyson Coletta
Let’s start with this: In 2014, The Cure headlined Riot Fest. That’s the Cure, the massive goth-rock band that sells out venues like Madison Square Garden for consecutive nights. Keep that in the back of your head for a moment…
Riot Fest has become the preeminent alternative music festival in North America, a three-day celebration of every twisted branch of the underground music tree, including bigger acts that have maintained integrity while become mainstays of our larger society.
And make no mistake, this is an unbelievably well-run festival by members of our own tribe, highlighting everything we love about the counter culture while taking basic human decency into account.
Bands are treated well and given solid blocks for sets. Riot Fest has everything from clever push notifications to free water, carnival rides to engaging non-profit tents and vegan corn dogs (seriously though, make a few more of those next year).
It’s also a chance for folks who spend their weekends seeing Bayside or Streetlight Manifesto in rock clubs and VFWs to take in the artists who have transcended the scene like Morrissey, Weezer, Slayer, and No Doubt at a more affordable ticket price. This year, those headliners included stadium fillers like New Order and Queens of the Stone Age.
Riot Fest 2017 was curated to include nearly 100 bands from young pop punkers to the very 90s alternative acts that changed the entire rock and roll paradigm. Fishbone, Dinosaur Jr. and Prophets of Rage (members of Rage Against The Machine with B Real and Chuck D) were all on the Lollapalooza Tour in ’93.
The festivities began on Friday as punks from around the world landed at O’Hare and hopped the Blue Line toward Douglas Park for an industrial/new wave evening of Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and New Order.
Saturday saw Beastie Boy Mike D turn his DJ set into an oral history of hip hop. Heavy-as-hell Dead Cross pummeled the crowd. After the historic Misfits reunion at Riot Fest 2016, Danzig crooned all of How the Gods Kill, looking like a giant on that jumbo screen… at least 5’5 or 5’6. And unfortunately, we may have to accept that Bad Brains are now just the greatest reggae band in the world. And there was Wu Tang.
Of note, in the current political climate, both Dickie Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Angelo Moore of Fishbone, while playing 1997’s Let’s Face It, and 1988’s Truth and Soul albums front-to-back respectively, made reference to social messages that are sadly as, if not more relevant, today. The Prophets of Rage set was expectedly politically charged as well.
Sunday proved another gorgeous day under the Midwest sky. Hot Water Music made a valiant return to the Riot, although it’s strange to see them in daylight with everyone sober (a situation they would ‘Remedy’ in the wee hours of Sunday night.) The Menzingers drew praise for everyone from Gen X old timers who carried printed festival schedules to millennials who can’t read a map. Other highlights included Cap N’ Jazz and M.I.A., plus Pennywise inciting everyone within earshot.
But Riot Fest’s organizers ultimate cap feather was a band that hasn’t played a show in 21 years, an emotive Bay Area punk outfit that put out one record on a major, never went much bigger than medium sized venues, and called it quits.
But if absence makes the heart grow fonder, 21 years of listening to seminal records over and over (often alone) makes the heart fond as fuck. Though deeply personal, they were catchy songs that influenced countless bands. And it’s possible that Jawbreaker’s work, four studio albums, is all that much more nostalgic because they were released shortly before the information age, when the world was a much different place. It didn’t matter if Hendrix had been playing, the tens of thousands assembled were there to see Jawbreaker.
In 2016, rumors had swirled about the possibility that Riot Fest had wrangled Chris Bauermeister, Adam Pfahler and Blake Schwarzenbach into a reunion, but deep down, we all knew it was an impossible pipe dream. And then, last April, Riot Fest dropped the big bomb. The next five months was a swirling of excitement, conjecture and a quick San Fran warm up.
But with expectations running so high, there were so many things that could go wrong. They could be nervous and sloppy. They might play some weirdo set list or go off the rails. There was a chance of thunderstorms. Or worst-case scenario, they could come out on that stage and break our precious little hearts with insincerity.
But none of those things happened.
After 21 years, “One, two, three, four, who’s punk…. What the score?!”
“Boxcar,” “Sluttering,” “Want,” “Boat Dreams from a Hill” and “West Bay Invitational”…
There was no pretense. Pfahler smiled the entire set. Bauermeister’s basslines were perfect. Schwarzenbach was gracious and endearingly awkward. People sang along. Couples made out. It was emotional. It was communal. It was beautiful.
“Save Your Generation,” “Accident Prone,” “Condition Oakland.” And yes, “Kiss the Bottle.”
There was no elaborate light show, smoke machine or outfits. A sea of punks was fixated from the foot of the stage back to the carnival, reliving the common joys and pains of their pasts.
“Is this really happening?” Someone yelled.
Everyone broke into laughter. Because this wasn’t The Cure. All this fuss wasn’t made over some huge band that that you can see every few years. It was just a three-piece with bad haircuts playing gems no one had heard in two decades, in front of a Jawbreaker banner that was bigger than most of the venues they’d played to this point.
They finished with a dramatic “Bivouac.” For a scene that never hesitates to dole out witty critiques, Jawbreaker certainly met our expectations.