Riot Fest 2013: The Power of Pop-Punk Compels You
The Replacements, when they were teens.
I can report with some pride that at around 4:30 p.m. CST on the Saturday of Chicago’s Riot Fest, I befriended a teen. His name was Cameron, and he was reading an autobiography of George Soros in the middle of the crowd before Guided by Voices which meant of course I had to start talking to him. He turned out to be from the South Side and a Mormon. A high school senior, he was hoping to attend BYU upon graduation. I was impressed by his devotion to bands broken up before he was even born, but I told him to check out blink-182 later that evening—that years down the line he’d probably be glad he’d seen them. “Are you sure about that, he asked?”
I was probably projecting. I myself was here to check out all the pop-punk bands I’d seen and never seen in high school, as were thousands of others trekked in to catch a murderer’s row of bands with a lot of songs some people know really well or at least one song that everyone knows kind of well: Fall Out Boy, Atmosphere, Yellowcard, Saves the Day, Brand New, Public Enemy, Guided by Voices, the Pixies, AFI, Taking Back Sunday, the Replacements, and more. You can look up the whole thing, but suffice to say it was a little jaw-dropping to find that the most potent summer festival lineup might’ve been the one where nearly every band’s last relevant album came out at least a decade ago. I was mainly here to see the Replacements, but it was also a chance to play nostalgia, get wine drunk, and participate in a few mass sing-alongs. Any uncertainty about that was ended when, upon entering the grounds on the first day, the first song I heard filtering through was Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue,” which prompted everyone within listening radius—even those waiting in line for the bathroom hundreds of feet away—to being singing along. If the quality of a pop-punk song—or really any representative genre song—is judged by how many remember its words, “Ocean Avenue” might lay a sincere claim to being one of the best; I did see two girls wrestling each other while screaming the lyrics, if that counts for anything.
It was a place where people could instantaneously recall their teenage years and the bands they’d loved without a trace of irony. I was far back enough during Taking Back Sunday I couldn’t see the stage or the screen, but was still surrounded by packs of youngs and old-youngs belting along to “A Decade Under The Influence” with all their heart. Standing here, you’d think that Tell All Your Friends would eventually be reevaluated as one of the most important, evergreen records for the teen canon and Taking Back Sunday a crucial if misleading component of the emo emotional state. But part of pop-punk’s appeal was always believing in these bands as much as possible; to codify fandom through amateur stick-poke tattoos and marked-up notebooks.
The Replacements were that band for me. Though I’d been a baby by the time they’d broken up—their last show was at the 1991 Taste of Chicago, and trust me, I’d interrogated my mother to deduce whether I’d been a sniveling, snotty attendee—I’d come to love them in high school, motivated by my ex-punk math teacher who took time out of his lessons to make sure his students were properly instructed in indie rock. Their demeanor was bratty but their playing was sincere, hinting at subtle emotions I’d only experience as an adult, deepening my love for the band as I grew older. “Alex Chilton” spoke to the ineffable experience of being a music fan in spite of cultural irrelevance; “Bastards of Young” chronicled a generation’s entitled, defeatist angst; “I Will Dare” was the finest song about fueling yourself on alcohol and a wild, bold-hearted, possibly unrequited love. I could go on, trust me. Standing in the crowd, I was stoked to find they played like I’d always imagined: with plenty of fury and restraint, heavy on the hits but with enough deep cuts to energize a Chicago crowd waiting for them to return for over 20 years. Maybe they sounded a little like Rancid on the punk songs and the preconceived fuckups—Paul Westerberg forgetting the lyrics to “Androgynous” again—were a little theatrical, like the band trying to give some extra bang for your buck. Counterpoint: The Replacements! There was nothing to complain about as long as they’d shown up; that they tried was even better.
The only friction came when you considered that a lot of people were there to release, other people be damned. blink-182, for example. There are many types of teens and post-teens, but these are largely bullish and unaware of the personal space they’re encroaching on by lurching sweat-faced and elbow pointed through the crowd. About three or four songs into the set the crowd locked into a wave, swaying up and down as I realized I was literally unable to control the direction of my body; as it churned quicker, the highly embarrassing obituary lede—”He died as he lived: in the blink-182 mosh pit”—flared into my mind and prompted a few herky-jerky lengths backward toward a safer vantage point. Right on cue, the band stopped and asked the crowd to take two steps back. “And if you see someone fall down, help them up,” said Mark Hoppus. “I shouldn’t have to tell you that.” Were the tenets of punk community already forgotten? Later on, we found out six people were sent to the hospital.
As for the rest, it was fun. Brand New came out looking like they’ve all moved to Brooklyn. Joan Jett ripped through a brisk set of jukebox standards like “Bad Reputation” and “Cherry Bomb.” Guided by Voices leaned a little too heavily on their recent material amidst classics like “I Am A Scientist” and “Teenage FBI,” but still inspired by drinking like a million on-stage beers. Debbie Harry rapped. Saves the Day had their adherents, but most people were politely waiting for the immensely satisfying death anthem “At Your Funeral.” (Delivered at the very end, just as you’d expect.) X introduced the staunchly anti-rape anthem “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” with news of the Delhi rape trial verdict, which combined with singer John Doe’s hint to “think about that when you’re listening to this one” seemed a depressing reminder that some people still don’t get it. Public Enemy sounded crisp except for the parts where they replaced the beat with rock guitars to appeal to the crowd; Chuck D made an appeal to Trayvon Martin and helping to clean up the South Side, but he was mostly ignored in favor of laughing at Flava Flav’s goofus shtick. AFI opened with the one-two punch of “The Leaving Song Pt. II” and “Girl’s Not Grey,” followed by 45 minutes of songs I didn’t recognize and “Miss Murder.” (You will be glad to know, however, that Davey Havok’s high-kicking name remains unparalleled.) Everyone insisted on playing cuts from their new albums, but no one in the audience seemed to mind.
If Chicago’s other music festivals—Pitchfork and Lollapalooza—presented snapshots of modern, mainstream music, what Riot Fest offered was completely off that spectrum. It was “Remember when?” with “the replacements” as the organizing theme, as nearly every band appeared to be supercharged with young guns providing energy in the rhythm section. Best Coast had a second guitarist. The Replacements had replacements on drums and lead guitar, with O.G. member either dead (Bob Stinson, booted from the band at their apex), retired (Chris Mars, who’s now a visual artist), or temporarily capacitated (Slim Dunlap, whose stroke and subsequent medical requirements prompted the reunion earlier this year). Saves the Day was slogging through another configuration of Chris Conley + Some Guys. The Pixies got rid of Kim fucking Deal but found another female bassist named Kim. These bands weren’t the same as the ones you fell in love with, but they sounded the same; they sounded better, really, with individual sloppiness swapped out for hired hand tightness. Musicians who know their role. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—the youngs can’t tell the difference and the olds know the value of holding down a paycheck. Tommy Stinson’s day job is playing bass in Guns n’ Roses, after all. Maybe the responsible thing would be to admit that a punk rock band won’t ever change the world and you’ll never make a record better than the one ten years ago, but then again there’s no shame in sticking around if you've got the adjusted ego for it.
Other songs get much bigger pops, but the theme of the weekend might be Against Me!’s “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” which for being an Against Me! song from 2010 got a healthy ripple of recognition when singer Laura Jane Grace fired it up. Against Me!, a band that once endured accusations of selling out for signing to the decidedly minor Fat Wreck Chords, is now an ex-major survivor with a once-thrashing sound mellowed into straight modern rock and a set list filled with searingly unironic songs about looking for a revolution. But “Teenage Anarchist” chalks all those uncomfortably emotional leftist urges to youthful impulse, the subtext being that even Grace realized she had to make a living to keep participating in the world. “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” she asks in the song, a straw poll that would probably gather a median answer of “Yeah, definitely” if taken at the festival. But now everyone is old and comfortable or young and too precious to get it. At one point in Dinosaur Jr., a few hoodied teenagers get into it during “Freak Scene” and start bopping around in a playful non-contact way. Next to them, a grayed couple claps their hands in amazement that someone is keeping the flame alive. There’s plenty of time to figure out that guitars can only go so far—or not, even—and why ruin the fun? But the kids are alright, or at least will be alright. Cameron, my sweet Mormon teen: I hope you made your own decision.
Jeremy Gordon is a renowned Boy Journalist living in New York. He's on Twitter - @jeremypgordon