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Nine Inch Nails, Jawbreaker, and that's kinda it: What The A.V. Club saw at Riot Fest 2017

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images)

This past weekend, a few A.V. Club staffers headed to Chicago’s Douglas Park for Riot Fest, the marathon three-day music festival boasting approximately 90 different artists. And due to a variety of mitigating factors—family commitments, advanced age, a general dislike of crowds and heat—we saw only a fraction of them. But we did see these things!


Massachusetts band The Hotelier started things off slow for its Friday afternoon set, likely confusing the casual drop-ins at the smaller Heather Owens stage who weren’t expecting earnest, mid-tempo emo, and leading to a small exodus within the first couple of minutes. Nevertheless, the engaging group rewarded fans who stuck with it, putting on a lively show of screamingly emotive, occasionally raucous rock, all delivered with an inviting, amiably good-natured vibe. [Alex McLevy]


Full disclosure: I went to Dirty Heads’ set because I had confused them with a totally different band I once knew called Dirthead. I was so surprised they had gotten famous! I was.... wrong. I walked up expecting lo-fi garage rock, so when I instead got generic reggaeton frat-hop—complete with a long-haired white emcee who strapped on a guitar and began busting out uninspired, sub-Shaggy licks by the third song—I was very confused. A quick Google search corrected my misconception, but it was too late: I was there witnessing some Sugar Ray-level dubstep-rap. Thanks to some kids to my right, I was more or less enveloped in a cloud of pot smoke for the first 20 minutes, so by halfway through, I was nodding along, thinking, “Man, this is pretty good!” But even those good vibes couldn’t overcome the “I don’t need no pussy” song they busted out. That was my cue to exit. [Alex McLevy]

I haven’t been heavily into Ministry since I was about 15, when Psalm 69 and The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste soundtracked my scattershot adolescent rage at how everyone—the government, my teachers, my boss at the drugstore, my dad—were TOTAL FASCISTS. But that’s okay: Al Jourgensen hasn’t really evolved past that pissed-off teen either. So the industrial band’s set was still equal parts righteous and ridiculous fury, with Jourgensen’s ripped-from-the-headlines-and-carved-into-your-homeroom-desk screeds getting a 2017 update via new songs like “Antifa” (“We’re not snowflakes! / We are the antifa!”), as well as the occasional slam-poetry freestyle, such as this one from the middle of “N.W.O.”: “I remember November 2016! / And I thought it was a bad dream! / But here we arrrrrre / Let’s go faaarrrrr!” (Hey Jane! Get me off this crazy thingcalled Trump.) Still, the intense, closing barrage of that song, “Just One Fix,” “Thieves,” and “So What” was pretty unfuckwithable; occasionally silly though it might be, Ministry continues to tap into a deep well of vaguely defined anger that once more had me ready to smash the state, and maybe even smoke a cigarette. [Sean O’Neal]

New Order offered enough laser lights and screens filled with evolving geometric shapes—lots of triangles for “Bizarre Love Triangle,” natch—to turn a dirty outdoor festival into an intimate, late-’80s dance club. (Said a kid behind me: “I can’t believe this is actually happening.”) The 11-song set wrapped with a crowd-pleasing trifecta of “Blue Monday,” “Temptation,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (backed by a tear-inducing screen reading “Forever Joy Division”). I’d rank it among my top three all-time Riot Fest shows, possibly just behind The Replacements reunion in 2013. [Gwen Ihnat]

There may be no modern band better at being huge than Nine Inch Nails. The group’s Friday night headlining set was as big as it gets, but—like Trent Reznor himself these days—it was a muscular big, short on spectacle (just the requisite smoke and flashing strobes) and free of any Hello Chicagooooo rock star posturing. In fact, Reznor seemed oddly humbled, noting that he was “intimidated” playing next to living heroes New Order and Ministry, and paying tribute to a late one in tourmate and collaborator David Bowie with a faithful cover of “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” I’d have preferred the band’s reworking of “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” though that obviously would have lacked the air of mourning Reznor was aiming for. Still, it would have slotted perfectly within a playlist heavy on disaffected rage, both in classics like “March Of The Pigs” and “Head Like A Hole” and relatively newer cuts like “The Hand That Feeds” and “Copy Of A.” Like Ministry, it’s been a while since I’ve been fully immersed in NIN; I drifted away after The Fragile, and these days I’m more into the soundtrack work Reznor does with Atticus Ross and the ambient albums of its keyboardist Alessandro Cortini. (I was especially excited to see both Ross and Cortini on stage here.) That said, it took approximately 10 seconds of “Wish” before all those old feelings came flooding back, delivering a catharsis that felt timeless and—especially for a festival headlining set—strangely personal. [Sean O’Neal]



I went Saturday chiefly for Danzig’s set, but it was a pretty paint-by-numbers snooze, prompting me to wander off to the much smaller Heather Owens stage and catch The Regrettes, an L.A.-based punk quartet whose oldest member, guitarist Genessa Gariano, is barely out of high school. Nevertheless, they played with an energy that eclipsed the legacy acts across the park. Led by 16-year-old Lydia Night, the band combines riot grrrl attitude—the straightforward, audacious lyrics recall Bratmobile in its heyday—and a heavy classic rock ’n’ roll influence. (Think Bill Haley and Buddy Holly, not Led Zeppelin.) Live, the band’s punk influences are more evident than on their more polished album, Feel Your Feelings Fool!, with raucous guitars crashing up against three-part harmonies. Towards the end of the set, Night encouraged the audience to split up for a “wall of death,” leading to a teenage girl in black lipstick standing next to me to utter the phrase of the weekend to her reluctant friend: “It’s just moshing, Lydia.” [Katie Rife]


The smoke was thick during Queens Of The Stone Age—and not just on the stage—befitting the band’s stoner-rock roots, which were extremely evident during its headlining Saturday set. Heavy, driving bass tied together frontman Josh Homme’s twin tendencies toward dirty boogie and beefy riffs, and although competing sounds from the Wu-Tang Clan’s nearby set brought a hint of dissonance to the more complex material from the band’s new Villains, by the end of its set, QOTSA had locked into a serpentine groove. The coy, hip-shaking “If I Had A Tail” led into a killer closing trio: “Little Sister” off 2005’s Lullabies To Paralyze—here enhanced with a scathing dual-guitar solo—into “Go With The Flow,” which melded with the psychedelic powerhouse of closer “Song For The Dead,” whose hard-rock sound conjured a Ralph Bakshi vision of ’70s FM radio. [Katie Rife]


Although playing an unexpectedly early time slot—presumably traded, based on frontman James Alex’s rhapsodic gratitude over seeing Jawbreaker later that night, for the privilege of being on the same stage—Beach Slang nevertheless brought its nighttime show to a 12:40 p.m. set. Admittedly drunk on vodka and cranberry juice, Alex managed to hold it together with help from newish guitarist Aurore Ounjian (who joined the band back in December) and keep its sound tight. As it did for so many acts, Riot Fest brought out Beach Slang’s more punk tendencies, including ragged, romantic vocals, an accelerated rhythm section, and a running bit involving playing short snippets of uncool ’90s hits (reminiscent of The Replacements’ antics). But by the end, Beach Slang had turned—relatively—serious, offering a reverent cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” as well as a heartfelt tribute to Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart. [Katie Rife]


Amidst the ’90s surge of female-led alt-rock bands, That Dog kind of gets lost in the shuffle behind The Breeders, Veruca Salt, Throwing Muses, et al. So their return to Chicago after 20 years netted an early Sunday afternoon slot (though that’s sometimes my favorite kind of festival set: crowd small enough that you can actually see, no out-and-out drunks, Porta Potties still passable). Anna Waronker and Rachel Haden, assisted by The Bird And The Bee’s Inara George, performed the group’s final album, 1997's Retreat From The Sun, in full, at one point backed by a mini-orchestra. And while I probably hadn’t heard it since it came out, I was surprised at how many songs I remembered, like “Every Time I Try” and “Did You Ever.” (I was also surprised by the number of fratty-looking guys shouting out the words.) Those sweet female harmonies backed with buzzy guitars—a lot like those other bands mentioned above—remained intact, and they seemed so happy to be playing together again that their enthusiasm carried the set even over a few bumpy starts. The set wrapped with a catchy new cut, with Waronker teasing that they’ll have a new record next year; thanks to this show, I’m looking forward to it. [Gwen Ihnat]

Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch is that rarest of beasts—a jangly indie-pop guitarist who can also actually shred—and the group’s live performances are a fascinating combination of reserved and raw, the members’ low-key demeanors at odds with Martsch’s wailing guitar odysseys. Performing its fourth album, Keep It Like A Secret, in its entirety made it all a bit workmanlike, but the crowd was with it from the get-go, with several songs turning into impromptu collective sway-alongs. That’s especially true of the dad in front of me, who kept irritatingly nudging his kids to make sure they were appreciating all of Martsch’s sweet ax work, thereby ensuring they’ll completely turn against rock music the moment they hit adolescence. [Alex McLevy]


I wandered off during a snoozy section of Built To Spill’s set to check out the much more lively Cap’n Jazz, just in time to catch the end of a hilariously effective cover of A-ha’s “Take On Me.” The emo outfit is enjoying a new resurgence since its 1995 breakup, and it definitely seemed to be having a good time. Loud, sloppy, possibly drunk, the band’s antics were steered by Tim Kinsella, who sang while moshing, occasionally dropping the mic entirely and letting the crowd sing for him, and at one point, putting a tambourine on his head to crown himself the king of fools.[Gwen Ihnat]

The last time I saw Dinosaur Jr. at Riot Fest, it was similar to That Dog—afternoon set, half-full crowd—but here the audience was tripled, rightfully honoring the band’s holy trinity lineup. With bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph restored behind J. Mascis, the band played both as if no time had passed and with the benefit of two extra decades of experience. After kicking off with its awesome cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and a Deep Wound cover of “Training Ground,” Dino Jr. performed You’re Living All Over Me in full, still knocking you out with its musicality and those soaring guitar solos. Even better, they played to the festival crowd by closing with popular cuts “Goin’ Down,” “Feel The Pain,” and (thank God) “The Wagon.” [Gwen Ihnat]


For people like me who came up with the band in the early ’90s, Jawbreaker has been our great white reunion whale. We once predicted they’d never do it, but we should never underestimate the persuasive power of Riot Fest, which managed to reunite the Misfits, for crissakes. Having been apart for 21 years—a couple practice shows in recent months excepted—Jawbreaker was charmingly rusty as it closed out Riot Fest Sunday night. The San Francisco punk band tore through a set heavy on 1995's Dear You but was full of crowd pleasers, like the one-two-three punch of “Boxcar” (Jawbreaker’s most beloved song), “Sluttering (May 4th),” and “Want” that opened the set. It also threw in some deep cuts for super dorks like myself, who freaked out upon hearing “Parabola” (from 1992's beautifully abrasive Bivouac), beloved non-album track “Kiss The Bottle,” and Jawbreaker’s traditional set-closer, “Bivouac.” Notably absent was fan favorite “Chesterfield King,” but the sheer improbability of seeing Jawbreaker perform again made complaining silly (and, seriously, “Parabola”!). The band did virtually no press ahead of Riot Fest, played the kind of set it would have at Chicago’s Metro in 1996 (albeit backed by a giant “JAWBREAKER” banner), and put on no self-important airs. Supposedly this was it, but leaving the festival Sunday night, it was hard not to hope for more. [Kyle Ryan]

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