Guy: Thank you.

Young Woman: For what?

Guy: You love her. Thirty years ago, I fell in love with her. I can see that you love her. Thank you.

That dialogue erupted between two strangers, one in her early 20s and the other, a middle-aged man, during Patti Smith’s early evening set at Riot Fest Chicago, Sunday. The young woman had never heard Patti live before and found the experience blissfully overwhelming. Not everyone of that young woman’s age group is familiar with Smith’s poetry, songwriting and unique place in punk/pop history, of course.

Some millennial asked: ‘Patti who?’ as she and her partner filtered through the escalating crowd and glanced at the large screen, which showed Smith flailing her arms, shouting affirmations and attacking the microphone like a beggar groping for a warm, crusty slice of bread after a week of starvation.

Patti Smith, America’s legendary anti-diva, doesn’t seem to give a flying hoot about camera angles or designer brands; she’s wearing a white, short-sleeved T-shirt under a vest with simple slacks, and are those sneakers? Yet she’s radiant; she has a youthful glow and buckets of energy. There are streaks of butterscotch in her shoulder-length hair. She still has that warm smile; like the one that your best pal from high school had, the true-blue that sat at your table though you weren’t very popular.

This ‘Godmother of Punk’ dedicated ‘Because the Night’ (co-written with Bruce Springsteen) to her late husband and former MC5 guitarist, Fred“Sonic” Smith, who, she boasted, was at “The Chicago Riots.” Of course, a lot of the younger people in attendance probably didn’t catch the significance of that aside, but her activism would become visible later in the set, when she encouraged them to participate in ‘People Have the Power’ from 1988 album, ‘Dream of Life’. Patti Smith pumped up her audiences with pleas to unite socially and politically for the common good, for all human beings, for animals, and not just for some random time in the future, but NOW, because the future is NOW.

Smith expressed nostalgia about Chicago, where she lived as a child before, ultimately, moving to the East Coast. Moved by deep thinkers, Rimbaud and Blake, Patti Smith’s reputation as expressive punk poet is one-off. But the circle of life continues – she has been a major inspiration for Pussy Riot and she has been proactive in supporting them too. So, even though promoter Riot Mike originally didn’t intend for Riot Fest to spawn political overtones, it seems to have just evolved organically, perhaps with the benefit of enhancing the artistry and vice versa.

And Patti takes the heaviness out of literature and makes it all about interaction. When she fudged a simple chord progression, rather than glossing over it with some distracting chatter, she made a self-deprecating comment rather than distancing herself. And when the crowd celebrated her natural appeal, compelling voice and passionate lyrics with cheers of appreciation and applause, she briskly interjected – “Cut the crap.” And that defiance/poetry flowed in her kick ass version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger’, just like it has in 2012’s ‘Banga’, a hybrid of poetry/rock.

But Patti Smith was not the only female who, over the three-day event, stirred up political juices. On Friday night it rained and rained and rained. And rain in a huge, city park, of course, means major mud. Fortunately many people were prepared. They slung see-through ponchos over their jackets; one man had cautiously covered his baby with one. Its tiny legs dangled from the Snuggly fastened around his chest, as he searched for a patch of semi-dry land, but where?

He, like the other hundred folks milling around, was waiting for the Pussy Riot Speaks panel. Despite the discomfort of boots caked with mud, the crowd soaked up every word. The panel consisted of Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina, Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, Tim McIlrath, of Rise Against, journalist Marcelle Karp and moderator Henry Rollins, formerly of Black Flag fame. The two Russian women described, through a translator, their aggravation with misogyny in Russia and their shock after receiving a jail sentence for “hooliganism” after staging an appearance at an Orthodox church; the resultant video was called,’Punk Prayer, Mother of God, Chase Putin Away’. Rollins, McIlrath and Karp elaborated on the domino effect that Pussy Riot’s music and activities have had on the punk movement as a whole and, in particular, Chicago’s thriving punk scene.

Puffing on a cigarette, relaxing on a bench near the main entrance, one musician said some of the neighbourhood people felt that Humboldt Park was being taken over by outsiders. Some of them wanted to know why there weren’t more Latino bands in attendance – the neighbourhood is largely Puerto Rican. The guy on the bench didn’t agree. He said it was everybody’s park and it doesn’t matter who plays. He said he’s Puerto Rican too.

On Sunday late afternoon, a man named Jesus stood grilling skewers outside a tavern on Division St. He offered his sweet smelling fare for a measly three bucks, half the price of the Fest food. Two other men walked out of the tavern, hauling a case of beer. They said Riot Fest was good for the community, good for jobs. One would be doing the thankless job of post concert maintenance. He admitted, though, “Having 90,000 people in your back yard takes some getting used to.”

On the way to the main entrance, seven amazing local percussionists sat in a makeshift circle. They ranged in age and gender and played a host of simple instruments: clave, triangle, a small drum kit. They improvised to an astounding salsa soundtrack. It sounded like the Humboldt Park scene was already in full swing but Riot Fest was just getting started -- Two contrasting cultures for whom great music is essential. How did it come about? Is it working?

Co-founder Michael Petryshyn or “Riot Mike” lives in the Humboldt Park community and loves it. Raised on the Ramones and Clash, he dreamed about establishing a punk Mecca in the middle of the city. When he and Sean McKeough started Riot Fest back in 2005, it wasn’t envisioned in this beautiful, spacious location that Jesus says rivals Central Park. It took place at multiple venues – indoors. Then in 2012, they switched gears. It became a three-day fest, deliberately held outside so that “a carnival atmosphere” could occur with the help of wrestlers, fire artists and Ferris wheels; outside so that they could accommodate massive crowds.

Riot Fest has grown enormously since its inception. Over the past several years, fans in Brooklyn, Dallas, Colorado and Toronto have enjoyed their own version, as well. (Philadelphia had a trail run but didn’t survive the cut). Naked Ray Gun, Dropkick Murphys, Rise Against and the Descendents have been steady, repeat guests. How often do you get to hear ‘Milo Goes to College’ by the biochemist, himself, these days, on a patch of oh-so-soggy grass? Weezer has also become a known quantity over the past few years at Riot Fest Chicago. Headlining at the same time as the Cure, however, riled a few fans and Weezer promised to play the contagious ‘The Blue Album’.
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Cheap Trick, from the second largest city in Illinois, Rockford, remains a worldwide influence and local favourite. When they played through ‘Heaven Tonight’ at the Rebel stage, with guitarist Rick Nielsen peacing out the sounds of psychedelia, Robin Zander performing with arena style vocals and Daxx Nielsen pounding out blasphemous beats, the answer to how pop/rock/punk has effectively borrowed from each genre became crystallised.

This year was international, too: Stiff Little Fingers, from Ireland and UK’s the Buzzcocks. The dizzying Gypsy strings of Gogol Bordello and even the non-punk/hip hop sounds of Wu-Tang Clan garnered an enviable audience. The early days of Riot Fest featured acts like Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, the Violent Femmes, Blondie, the Smoking Popes and Iggy and the Stooges. The latter played Toronto last year but Iggy seems to have disappeared from Chicago lately.

This monolithic event spread across the entire park, but it has gotten so big that one woman screamed into her cell phone at her friend, who she had been trying to locate for an hour. Another said, chuckling,“I lost all of the friends I came with.” And a friendly young man from Leeds, who had met some “scruffy characters” but had a great time and would be catching a very early flight back home, reminded us that in the UK people camp overnight at outdoor festivals, which are usually held outside major cities. There was no waiting for taxis, buses or trains that never came in the midnight hour. But this is Chicago. We figure that stuff out later.

And it was very easy to lose a friend, but then, it was also easy to make a friend because despite the congestion, people bonded whilst comparing notes about this year’s exceptional headliners and rising stars. It took stamina to keep up with the schedule and decide whether to stage surf or stay put - the seven stages were sometimes close together and sometimes pretty far apart especially after a few too many beers, pizza slices and fried Twinkies. Still, there was plenty to take in along the way: vegan tamales, a“containment house” of blood-drenched Zombies and signed guitars silent auctioned off for funding homelessness.

At the end of the day (and night!) getting lost and sinking into mud holes didn’t much matter. Everyone was there for the music. There were first time Chicago Riot Fest players like the Pups, who had a history of playing the Toronto Fest and ten of the bands would play complete albums of their choice to celebrate Chicago Riot Fest’s Tenth Anniversary.

Albums or not, the sets were enjoyable and contrasting. The Failures flaunted their bittersweet melodies, which generated waves of emotions for the fairly young attendees. There was the ferocious beat of the Afghan Whigs and the cocky, nerdy sounds of the Descendents performing ‘Milo Goes to College’ in its shutter speed entirety. There was the surprise power outage, which Wayne Coyne, of the Flaming Lips, shrugged off, just when ‘The Abandoned Hospital Ship’ dropped its quirky anchor.

Surrounded by comical, inflatable mushrooms and a beaming woman, who was swaddled inside an inflatable rainbow, Coyne, with his shoulder-length brown hair flying, took the interruption in stride, and after the power was restored he made a few acerbic comments, banged on his guitar and segued smoothly into ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1’. A first-class light show bled from the big screen. Colourful sprinkles of confetti fell from somewhere magical. (The wild stage show, the cavalier way Coyne handled the outage and his boundless, adolescent-like energy quickly became the hot topic of many Chicago Riot Fest conversations over the next few days.) The Flaming Lips concluded with the trippy Beatles tune, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ – what better way to tie their set together.

There were after shows: Billy Bragg, at Chicago’s City Winery, entertained a sold-out crowd with his witty impressions of American life, his rendition of the daring-for-the time ‘All You Fascists,’ which he co-composed using gutsy Woody Guthrie lyrics found in the Oklahoma songwriter’s archives, and stories about touring; how he survived monotonous bus rides across the prairie state whilst dreaming about his childhood American idols; begging an exhausted driver to make a pit stop into Memphis.

Bragg’s Sunday set list at Riot Fest drew largely from his dynamic, edgy early recordings: his 1983 debut,’ Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy’, which boasted the unexpectedly romantic ‘A New England,’ and then a more socio-political duo: ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ and ‘To Have and to Have Not’.

He touched more lightly on ‘Brewing Up with Billy Bragg’, his sophomore studio album but delved deeply into 1986’s ‘Talking With The Taxman About Poetry’ the year he recorded ‘There Is Power in the Union’ and ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’. Then it was on to the caustic ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ from 1991’s ‘Don’t Try This At Home’. Continuing with a strong regard to literature, he sang ‘A Pict Song’ based on Kipling’s poetry, recorded on the 1996 ‘William Bloke’ album. Bragg’s sturdy and clear voice, intense, inventive strumming and prominent stance electrified.

When another legend from across the pond, Paul Weller, entertained Friday night with a tight quintet anticipating his every move - although when he performed solo they let him shine - Weller’s reputation as a seasoned vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and flexible ensemble player was not lost on these fans, although they seemed to especially appreciate ‘My Ever Changing Moods’, of the Style Council days and the powerhouse ‘A Town Called Malice,’ the chestnut he created when with the Jam, which he saved as a killer closer.

Riot Fest Chicago Fest Chicago 2014 was a smashing success in terms of providing an amazing line-up of musicians and providing an all ages environment. But, promoters, be careful what you wish for. Maybe nobody anticipated the massive turnout, which, by Sunday evening, resembled passengers packed on a Tokyo bullet train platform with no white-gloved personnel to push them from harm’s way. In a statement sent out early the next week, however,“Riot Mike” promised sincerely to work with the City in 2015 to create more viable pathways and provide more safety measures, such as additional water stations, etc. He confirmed his commitment to working with the neighbourhood to solve any logistical problems.

But the bottom line is that people want more Riot Fest. And, apparently, some people wanted access so much this year that they got in the hard way. “I saw the shape of a body in the dirt under that fence,” snickered a passer-by, pointing to a curious bent wire Saturday morning.” And then there were some more pressing casualties. “Did you find my shoes, by chance?” hollered a bouncy redhead to maybe no one in particular the very next day, whilst scanning the mucky grass by the main gate. And when I brought my now decrepit fashion boots to Theodore’s Shoe Repair on Monday, the tradesman reacted with a look of horror.

“Rock concert…” I stammered.

“Woodstock?” he winked.

“Riot Fest.” I replied.

“These will take a while,” he said, smirking, holding each mud cake at arm’s length to avoid the stench.

Mud aside, perhaps the overall spirit of Chicago Riot Fest 2014 could best be encapsulated in this quote from a popular Descendents song,‘When I Get Old’ – Milo sings, “I don’t want to be like other adults ‘cause they’ve already died.” Thanks, Milo. We’re so not dead after three days of Riot Fest Chicago. So, not dead. But it’s great to be reminded of the alternative.


Photos by Philamonjaro
www.philamonjaro.com















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