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Photos by Jeff Elbel (please request permission for any reuse).
Premier punk rock festival Riot Fest returned to Chicago to settle in for its 15th anniversary weekend. Punk fare on the festival’s third and final day included Against Me!, Teenage Bottlerocket, Bob Mould, The Starting Line and Bikini Kill, among others. The broad lineup also featured shoegazers Ride, party starters the B-52s, prolific pub rockers Guided By Voices, punk poet laureate Patti Smith, power pop icon Nick Lowe, and campy disco legends the Village People.
The B-52s’ campy attitude and catchy dance-pop filled a festive hour with 12 of the Athens, Georgia-based band’s best-known songs spanning 1979-1989. The spooky surf-rocker “Planet Claire” was first, punctuated by carnival barker frontman Fred Schneider using a handheld Morse code generator. Meanwhile, vocalist Cindy Wilson played bongos in her retro-futuristic spacefaring outfit and blonde beehive wig. Singer Kate Pierson provided comical but agile yelps to “Private Idaho” while guitarist Greg Suran played biting single-note rhythm. David Bowie alum Sterling Campbell kept the beat hot and steady throughout the performance. Bassist Tracy Wormworth propelled the lusty and furious “Strobe Light” and “Dance this Mess Around.” “This is one of our famous ballads,” said Schneider cheekily before the band pogoed into the irrepressible “6060-842” from the band’s debut album. Wilson and Pierson sent Schneider packing for their close harmony feature during the jangling “Roam,” and Suran snuck in a quote from Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” during the outro. Schneider returned in the guise of a trouble-making party guest for “Party Out of Bounds,” but offered useful advice on the appropriate assortment of cheeses for a successful gathering. The show finished with the stratospheric funk-pop energy of “Love Shack” and the spiky surf-punk of “Rock Lobster.” During the latter, a dozen inflatable lobsters surfed the crowd along with several grown fans, reliving their youthful thrills.
Guided By Voices
Ohio-based GBV took the stage following an unusual opening act. “You just saw the Village People,” said frontman Robert Pollard. “We’re the village idiots.” The band packed 21 razor-edged pop-rock gems into its 55-minute set, beginning with the anthemic “Glad Girls” and transitioning quickly to “Cut Out Witch.” Several songs were included from GBV’s two full-length albums released so far in 2019 (with more to come), including “My Future in Barcelona” and the adrenaline rush of instant singalong “Rally Boys” from Zeppelin Over China, and “Blue Jay House” from Warp and Woof. The bulk of the set was a primer of the band’s best-known songs from Alien Lanes, Earthquake Glue, and Mag Earwhig!, although Pollard occasionally had to touch base with lead guitarist Doug Gillard to recall which songs went with which albums. “Doug knows the albums,” said Pollard while introducing “My Kind of Soldier,” insinuating that storing such knowledge accurately is no mean feat. The largest clutch of songs came from 1994’s Bee Thousand, including the muscular but gliding “Tractor Rape Chain.” Pollard spotted a young boy at the front rail, boisterously singing with his dad. “This is the new generation,” said Pollard, pointing to the kid (who got the set list after the show). The crowd joined Pollard to sing “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” wherein the band subverted a lyric from AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” The Riot Fest choir also joined the band for “I Am a Scientist.”
The set by punk poet laureate Patti Smith was a master class in emotive original work and soulful interpretation. Set opener “People Have the Power” was a passionate and inspirational rallying cry that made Smith’s populist politics plain. She paid tribute to Jimi Hendrix with “Are You Experienced,” and spoke about the desecration of Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia with a gripping cover of Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning.” During a mesmerizing “Dancing Barefoot,” Smith walked the stage waving and blowing kisses. An intimate piano-and-vocal version of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” was repurposed as a haunting and psychedelic warning of environmental calamity. “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century,” sang Smith. “Free Money” was a highlight featuring guitarist Lenny Kaye. Smith told the crowd of her roots in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, and recalled what her daughter had told her recently. “Chicago is where I took my first breath as a human being,” she said. “I’m always glad to be back.” Smith’s band featured son Jackson on guitar, and the singer dedicated the sensual and devoted “Because the Night” to her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. The show closed with a riveting cover of Them song “Gloria.” Smith fused the passion, power and showmanship of Van Morrison and Mick Jagger with her own poetic spirit, building from a low rumble to hurricane force.
Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets
Surf rockers Los Straitjackets amplified the roots and twanging Duane Eddy influences in Lowe’s tuneful pop. The set began with Stiff Records’ inaugural single “So it Goes” and closed with the banger “Heart of the City.” In between were favorites like the cartwheeling “Half a Boy and Half a Man.” Lowe departed the stage briefly to feature Los Straitjackets. Wearing black suits and luchador masks in the afternoon sun, the quartet tore into “Kawanga!” and included a quote from the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it, Black” before covering “Venus” by Shocking Blue. Lowe returned to the stage for “Tokyo Bay,” and got the crowd singing with 1979 #12 Billboard Hot 100 single “Cruel to be Kind.”
The Village People
The Village People brought the late ’70s disco craze and campy attire to the afternoon. With no small sense of irony, younger festgoers launched the day’s fiercest mosh pit and sent hundreds of crowd surfers over the front rail as the band played hits “Macho Man,” “Go West,” “In the Navy,” and iconic 1972 #2 pop single “Y.M.C.A.” Original bandmember (and “policeman” character) Victor Willis led a sharp contemporary band of seasoned funk and soul players in addition to five relatively recent recruits as costumed background vocalists (“G.I.” Alex Briley of the original 7-piece line-up departed the band in 2017). Willis paused before each of the band’s hits to remind the crowd of his key role as a songwriter.
The Raconteurs featuring Jack White and Brendan Benson honored Patti Smith with their own cover of “Gloria.” The band closed with an expanded run through “Steady As She Goes.” White exchanged call-and-response antics with the crowd, with the audience shouting the question, “Are you steady now?”
Ween’s spirited set included a full performance of 1997 album The Mollusk, with favorites including “Mutilated Lips” and “Ocean Man.”
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