Photos: Flaming Lips Return To Gonzo Form At Riot Fest Day 1

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 17, 2016 2:29PM


Photos by Tyler LaRiviere/Chicagoist. Additional reporting by Stephen Gossett

The first day of Riot Fest was threatened by evening thunderstorms, but in the end the steadily growing crowds were treated to lovely, clear, warm late summer breezes and sunshine. This—in addition to tweaks in the layout of the festival grounds that made getting from stage to stage the easiest it's been since Riot Fest first expanded to a multi-day outdoor affair—meant the backdrop for music was ideal. That also meant we had a chance to check out a large number of the acts playing on Friday; here are the ones that really stood out.

The Flaming Lips closed out Friday night with one of the strongest headlining sets we've seen from them in over a decade. The core trio of Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins has been expanded by additional percussionists and multi-instrumentalists, turning The Lips into a 7-man band affair. What this means is that the visceral feel of the music is amplified several times. Whereas in the past the group might have had to depend on backing tapes, they now have the manpower to reproduce their more complicated works without depending on them.

For instance, for the last couple of years, every time we've seen them play "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1" it's been as a near funeral dirge, but this time the band played it at its recorded snappy tempo (accompanied by two huge dancing caterpillars and a really happy boogieing sun), returning the bright rush of optimism that made the song special the first time we heard it on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The group eschewed their scarier, darker material, perhaps in deference to the fact that it was a festival setting—so they should send everyone home with a smile—but that didn't mean their performance was toothless.

Our personal highlight was a majestically swelling rendition of their instrumental ode to early Pink Floyd, sung by Drozd as Coyne attacked a huge gong at the back of the stage, "Pompeii am Götterdämmerung." It made us realize: who needs drugs when you already have The Flaming Lips?

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The Flaming Lips, photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy
Next to The Lips. Jimmy Eat World easily drew the next biggest crowd of the day (if not the biggest). It also sparked what was clearly the most ebullient audience if the day as well, inspiring massive singalongs as the band tore through its catalog. The band has a clear cross-generational appeal: folks that have been around the group for the last few decades feel a warm sentimentality to Jimmy Eat World, while newer fans still identify with the group's timeless emo-pop as the sound of "now." The band's entire set was met with the most nakedly honest appreciation from the crowd (that is to say, people looked so fucing happy) as the band tore through a setlist of can't fail hits including "Bleed American,""Lucky Denver Mint," "The Authority Song," and—of course— "The Middle."

Touche Amore shares a lot of cosmetic similarities with your garden-variety emo-tinted post-hardcore act: hyper-earnest vocals, whiplash tempo shifts, lyrical directness (their stunning new album, Stage Four, is all about a real-life cancer-related death). But the Burbank five-piece is probably the very best act driving that lane right now. Even with the rock underground lousy with hearts on sleeves, singer Jeremy Bolm creates an almost uncomfortably profound bond with his audience (watch and try to not think of Ian McKaye). The awe-inspiring guitar-riff harmonies also help, and so too does drummer Elliot Babin. You won’t see a better kit man all festival—and, yes, we know Dave Lombardo is playing on Sunday.

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Jimmy Eat World, photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

Oderus Urungus may be gone, but shock-metal gonzos GWAR still carried on their gleefully offensive, sanguinary ways in the afternoon sun. The punk-rock Gallaghers of course doused fans with fake blood, and GWAR fans could be spotted all day afterward by the pinkish hue across their faces or the forced tie-dye mods on their clothes thanks to a stunt during their set: Elaborately costumed stand-ins for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders all met cartoonishly violent fates as fake blood spurted into the audience. We’d cry false proportionality, but GWAR would certainly chop us down next for our pretentiousness.

The Anniversary broke up in 2004, but like most bands do nowadays, they've reunited and are experiencing a second wave of appreciation from new and old crowds alike. The band always occupied some odd middle area mixing emo, pop and twitches of new wave synths. And a healthy dose of self-deprecation. At one point singer Josh Berwanger asked someone in the crowd, "Does that hat say 'make The Anniversary break up again'? No? After this set you might want to change it to that." And based on the band's first couple songs we might have been inclined to agree. But once the group landed the one-two punch of "The Siren Song" and "Sweet Marie," The Anniversary of old was back in full effect, turning out a turbulent and highly charged, emotionally fulfilling set we'll be humming along to for weeks to come.

The charming bedroom indie of Eskimeaux provided welcome counter-programming to Riot Fest’s often demonstrative M.O. The crowd for songwriter Gabrielle Smith and band was sparse but clearly enchanted by her clever candor and low-key, sun-kissed vibe. With the band’s utilitarian setup and Smith’s wistfulness, you could call it twee, but don’t. O.K. standout “The Thunder Answered Back” had the crowd going full singalong: “You coward! You hummingbird!” So oblique, so sensible.

The Specials no longer count all original members in their ranks, but in other respects, the two-tone icons were a model of how a legacy act should be. They tore and skanked through the hits—focusing often on their self-titled 1979 masterpiece—and commanded the stage with a fun-loving style of gravitas that eludes most ska revivalists. They still have a brilliantly easy touch with politics: after the requisite Donald Trump dig, Lynval Golding sarcastically dedicated “A Message to You Rudy” to a certain for mayor of New York City, tossing in a mispronounced “Giuliana” to each chorus.

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Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy
Nineties post-hardcore heroes Refused have been back together for four years now, so the headline-generating reunion novelty has faded somewhat. Also, their big post-reformation album, last year’s Freedom, underwhelmed—a sad dud from a band that made its name as visionary bomb-throwers. But whatever misgivings we internalized were quickly laid waste by the Swedes’ vintage high-wire performance, a self-evident Day One highlight. Even most new material—especially the set-opening “Elektra”—clicked, as signer Dennis Lyxzen breathlessly deployed his James Brown knee drops, Roger Daltry mic-twirl moves, and Jagger preening in service of their sadly still-relevant indictments of late capitalism. At least since the days of The Clash, punk has had to hold competing instincts between radical politics and marketplace burdens—and that contradiction ran through as subtext here. But with the double-punch closing of “Summer Holidays Vs. Punk Routine” and “New Noise,” it was as thrilling as the contradiction gets.

We also enjoyed a particularly strong set from Laura Stevenson, and her crowd seemed caught up in her straightforward rocker about heartbreak and depression—though rarely has depression sounded so good. Early in the day Girl Against Boys took their deep, basement thrum-funk out to bake in the sunshine and still managed to sound somewhat menacing. And The Meat Puppets basked in the mid-day heat and used its power to amp up their own sun fried psych peppered with dashes of desert honky tonk.

Perhaps the most amusing set we saw was courtesy All Time Low, whose set featured jest of fire shooting off the front of the stage and such winning stage banter as "I need a blowjob. That seems fair. Blow oxygen into my penis." Their songs marked them as obvious fans of Green Day's vocal delivery, blink-182's lyrical depth and a clear swipe of some of My Chemical Romance's more theatrical moments. It was like watching some prepubescent Frankenstein's monster of every pop-punk trend over the last 20 years was grafted together into a single beast of absolute redundancy. As a palate cleanser we wandered across the field and took in Violent Soho. The band's heavy melodicism is based on an understanding of the bands that came before them, but thankfully they've forged their own identity that doesn't shamefully ape their predecessors. It was a lovely tonic and a reminder to always seek out new sounds when your at Riot Fest.