Aiming straight for the strangest of scarring, Gwar staged a mock crucifixion for its centerpiece. A better first sight upon entering Riot Fest for the weekend couldn't be imagined, but watching syrup-blood drenched fans stick to each other after the show provided plenty of laughs.
The navigation proved a bit much, as the layout of the festival was far from intuitive -- with a map of the five stages and two days of walking Humboldt Park, Sunday was still spent walking "over that way." Yes, even with a massive ferris wheel as my north star, the monotony of blue port-a-john lines and yellow food courts turned the place into a sprawling funhouse mirror.
The Roots stage, on the other hand, would be stumbled into countless times. The first entailed a Sublime with Rome encounter. The set didn't amount to much more than an iPod stuck on outtakes of a greatest hits album -- sans Bud, they've officially crossed into cover band territory. Even for a nostalgia addict, a Sublime with Rome show is a rather exorbitant cover charge to find a circle to smoke in.
Having not even earned a bruise yet, I caught Danzig, who quickly turned the night around. Doubling the age of my to-do list acts on the day -- save for the babyfaced Bad Religion -- the 25th Anniversary show ensured the best chance at thrashing with a black, stringy-haired mass. Better yet, stepping back and realizing those faces ranged from 16 to 61 years old. Glenn Danzig even tossed off the Misfits cut, "Die, Die My Darling," for the encore.
Chicago's Fall Out Boy pulled the massive crowd and I ended my stint with Danzig too soon. Despite getting an immaculate version of "I Slept With Someone in FOB and All I Got was this Stupid Song Written About Me," it wasn't enough to endure much else. The band turned had turned its national hits into bombastically enjoyable spectacles but had nothing to say to the crowd. More than a few fans found the exits as the band played out its hour. My Jim Beam-stained note: "Please tell me the crowd at Danzig is still moshing because Fall Out Boy's just started crying."
Blondie's new-wave blast began my day on Saturday. The set surprised the kids passing by -- all they had to do was recognize one of the many jukebox staples emanating from the Roots stage -- while the greybeards and wives in tow got their kicks in before sundown. Debbie Harry still commands the stage out of sheer presence -- statuesque posing and a muu-muu from Cruella de Ville's closet lended a hand. Shedding the striped shield -- to the still smooth-as-Kangol "Rapture" -- Ms. Harry's newfound need to strut revived the slipping crowd. "Heart of Glass" probably ended the set, but pole position at Rancid called me away.
That position did not disappoint.
Pockets of moshing -- festivalgoers literally had options; choose how much violence you like in your pit -- and a thousands-deep bounce got the sweat and smiles flowing. After bruising and hammering a friend yet to have experienced a punk show -- welcome to the pit, Myke -- the crowd annointed the convert with mercy. Concert heat exhaustion prevention tip: crowdsurf. "I Wanna Riot" (the necessary setlist staple) and "Radio" (the sign of the onslaught) anchored Rancid's stellar first half-hour.
Traversing the way-too-populated food stands to get to Public Enemy luckily took one attempt, as the most-known coffee whistle sample blared through the sound system of the Rock stage. Flavor Flav's decades-old kinetics in the band's natural habitat proved supreme. Meanwhile, Chuck D's eternally immolating hunger and the forever vicious kick drums crystalized the timelessness of "Can't Trust It" and "Don't Believe the Hype."
Indulging my left-over high school id, I headed for Taking Back Sunday. Alas, my enjoyment of a few songs ("A Decade Under the Influence," "You Know How I Do") was simply crushed by an unnecessary string of ballads ("Number Five with a Bullet," "Bike Scene"). I remain astonished that these talented guys have been at it this long and still think four songs about lamenting an ex won't slaughter their momentum. An awkward but lovable frontman, Adam Lazzara showed off with constant mic swinging -- he's still a distant second to Howlin' Pelle Almqvist -- and surveyed with the crowd. "John! We're vastly outnumbered," he called out. "This is incredible!"
Heading from one hopeless romantic to another, I heard Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes thank his own crowd, "Sometimes I forget how much fun it is to be here and do this...thanks for the reminder." The Femmes spazzed out on stage, unleashing the time capsule self-titled that's still as delectable as it is schizophrenic. "Gone Daddy Gone" provided the rarest of opportunities to let the xylophonist get some; the solo galvanized the crowd, band and set into a slaphappy frenzy. It was a classic extended live version. Please Gano, please, please release that set. I'll keep an eye out for the recording for years.
As Saturday night draped Humboldt Park, fans, including scores dressed as Nurse Janine, made their way towards the main stage for Blink-182. There was shock and awe all around. The telling quotables included: "Full tongue to a hole of your choice," "I'm an adult and I indulged in alcohol today" and "Ready for the big finale!?" The latter prefaced nothing but the cops herding everyone out.
The Blink show came off as expected. Tom was wasted to the point that he's incapable of nailing his lyrics. Mark annoyed yet was still funny, making up for his partner's missed beats. Travis wailed away, talented and unfazed as always. And the crowd was a writhing mass, tearing down the park's baseball diamond and passing sacrifices overhead until "Dammit" rang out.
Drenched, muddied and pressing on, Riot Fest's third day tried the passion of the fest-goers with a downpour, sudden mud pits and a palpable malaise.
But the weather couldn't stop the night's main priority: The Replacements' reunion.
One of three sets the band agreed to play this year -- their first performances in 22 years, which also coincidentally marks their on-stage break-up in Chicago -- the 75-minute slot simply needed to be relished. With Dave Minehan and Josh Freese playing the roles originally filled by Bob Stinson and Chris Mars, respectively, the guys' revered alt-rock drove the ambitious weekend to its final resting place.
The Replacements worked like the best kind of greasy spoon to overcome a hangover, replete with artisan riffs and personal, loving touches on home-cooked familiarity. A cover of Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," for exampled, recalled a Jerry Lee Lewis-like grease-fire torching a couple of sunburst Gibsons. Even when you're the marquee act, half the fun of being booked at Riot Fest must be checking out the other acts. Paul Westerberg asked how many saw Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and then swapped out out some of the original lyrics from "Achin' to Be."
"Androgynous"…just... wow, holy shit. With that song the guys made it apparent how much craftsmanship had been lacking from much of the weekend's noise pollution. From the ahead of their time lyrics -- forever beloved by those who refuse the norm -- to the building fire in Westerberg's voice, the song literally brought a few fans to tears -- including myself.
In a gregarious mood, the frontman admitted his pleasure at the reunion -- "...had the time of my life" -- while the highest praise could be overheard again and again throughout the audience: "That's my favorite song!"
"Can't Hardly Wait" and "Bastards of Young" were two more highlights for the faithful, who might as well have been handed sheet music with the way they joined in to sing.
The Replacements seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves: the guys actually counted down the minutes to the power getting shut off, gleefully taking up every second. Westerberg had already hinted at his reckless mood by tossing the curfew clock at his feet.
For me, this was love at first sight. Thank you, Replacements. I'll be waiting on the slim chance that a new album (and more shows?) isn't just a vain hope.
The Replacements setlist:
Takin' a Ride
I'm in Trouble
I Don't Know
Color Me Impressed
Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out
Achin' to Be
I Will Dare
Love You Till Friday
Maybellene (Chuck Berry cover)
Merry Go Round
Borstal Breakout (Sham 69 cover)
Left of the Dial
Kiss Me on the Bus
Waitress in the Sky
Can't Hardly Wait
Bastards of Young
Hold My Life