Last weekend, Riot Fest returned to Douglass Park, despite complaints from neighborhood residents, and featured artists from a variety of genres performing across 5 stages over 3 days.
Much of the hype for this year’s festival focused on the much-anticipated reunion of My Chemical Romance, who were slated to headline 2020’s cancelled fest, and then again in 2021, when the band opted to delay touring another year. Two years later, emo fans finally got what they had been waiting for, though the experience was far from ideal.
Although Riot Fest has not released attendance numbers from the fest, news outlets seem to consistently report more than 10,000 fans were present for MCR’s performance Friday night. Crowds started to gather at the stage from the time gates opened, staking out their spots for the entire day and making it difficult for fans to reach the main stages for the day’s other performers.
Several hours before the headliners, Riot Fest staples Taking Back Sunday played a solid set of crowd favorites spanning their 20+ year career. Front man Adam Lazzara brought his signature mic-swinging and showmanship to the fest, breathing life into the crowd and inspiring some sing-alongs.
Alkaline Trio took the stage next, and, despite being the hometown band of the night, failed to capture the attention of most of the crowd, which was rapidly growing in anticipation of MCR. They put on an excellent set, focusing on their tried-but-true popular songs, including the predictable choice to end with “Radio,” an angsty break-up song that piqued the attention of some of the emo fans in the audience.
Day one came to a close with MCR being forced to try to do crowd control while playing songs primarily from their “Black Parade” era. Lead singer Gerard Way had to stop after every song and request the crowd take a step back due to excessive pushing near the stage, and the band’s production manager had to come on stage prior to the encore and ask the crowd to calm down for the remainder of the set. It was a shame to see because the band genuinely put on a great show and snuck in a few unexpected songs among all of the crowd-pleasers, but ultimately the experience was overshadowed by the poor crowd control on the part of the festival and the terrible etiquette on the part of the fans.
As a bit of a throwback to the festival’s roots as a series of club shows, Riot Fest typically has after shows each night at some of the major music venues in Chicago. Saturday contained several of these after shows, including a joint performance between Midtown and Chicago-natives The Academy Is…, both of which were reuniting after nearly a decade of not performing. Former Panic! at the Disco member Jon Walker also performed a brief acoustic set to open up.
The 10pm show, which sold out in a matter of minutes, saw fans arriving at Concord Music Hall in early afternoon for VIP meet and greets, soundcheck viewing, and the opportunity to grab a spot along the barricade. Despite ongoing rumors of internal conflict among the band members, TAI seemed to have great chemistry during soundcheck, with singer William Beckett entertaining the crowd while guitarist Mike Carden took more of a lead in working with the sound team to dial things in. A highlight of the soundcheck viewing was an impromptu audition for an audience member to participate in “Bring it (Snakes on a Plane),” a song originally by Midtown singer Gabe Saporta’s other band, Cobra Starship.
The show itself was excellent. Midtown brought the pop-punk energy they were known for, while joking about how old they’ve gotten. Saporta mentioned wanting to do this reunion to show his kid he used to be cool and took a photo with the crowd and one of his son’s toys, which elicited some giggles from fans. In addition to their own songs, they did a great cover of “When You Were Young” by The Killers, which was well-received.
The Academy Is… also came out with a more aggressive swagger than they were known for having in previous performances. The majority of their setlist came from their “Almost Here” album, which is certainly a crowd favorite, but, considering their last tour was focused on playing that album in its entirety, hearing more songs from other albums would have been more interesting. They closed their set with an emotional rendition of the very-fitting “After the Last Midtown Show,” which, while heartfelt, brought the energy in the room down quite a bit. Luckily, the encore performance of “Bring it (Snakes on a Plane),” was an electric burst of nostalgia to end on.
By the time Sunday rolled around, the crowds at the festival had decreased substantially, food and merch lines were shorter, and a much more relaxed vibe seemed to have washed over those in attendance.
Florida ska-punk band Less Than Jake played mid-afternoon and riled the crowd up with a set of their most popular songs across most of their albums. They brought out their signature toilet paper cannons and encouraged a fairly large circle-pit during “Plastic Cup Politics.”
Jimmy Eat World was one of the bigger acts to have a daytime spot and they drew a huge crowd at the main stage. Their set included all of the overplayed radio hits, like “The Middle” and “Sweetness,” as well as some classics like “Lucky Denver Mint.” Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of diversity in this crowd, with just about every age and group composition present, including parents with toddlers. Jimmy Eat World brings the festival-goers together, it seems.
The Academy Is… drew a sizable crowd for their main festival reunion, even though they were playing opposite two other big name artists. They played the same set as the previous night, with the only exception being they were unable to perform their encore due to going over time on their set.
The highlight of Sunday, though, was headliner Nine Inch Nails. It was clear from the start of the set that the band has perfected the art of live performances over the last 35 years. The setlist spanned their career such that it gave fans a taste of everything without feeling like they were only playing huge hits and the way the order of the songs were arranged kept the energy up while still allowing for some of the more melodic, down-tempo songs. The lighting and cinematography of the on-screen footage were exceptional and the crowd was active and energized, but not rowdy or destructive. Standing in the sea of people as they closed out the festival with “Hurt” was an experience that made the whole weekend worthwhile.