SHOW REVIEW: Riot Fest in Denver, Day 2

Mike Ness at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)
Social Distortion at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

SHOW REVIEW:
Riot Fest, Denver 2014 (Day 2)
September 20, 2014
by Adam Perry

“Mother Nature, you are a merciless lighting director,” Clutch frontman Neil Fallon said, half-jokingly, early on in the Maryland funk-metal band’s searing set at the Denver edition of Riot Fest on Saturday afternoon outside Mile High Stadium. Fallon’s face was beet red but, true to the spirit of the festival’s ostensible intent – showcasing diversely crucial alternative music with both energy and edge – the gravel-voiced, middle-aged singer’s bout with sunburn seemed to only further his impressive, eccentric resolve to act as part preacher, part Black Flag-era Henry Rollins, part Tom-Waits-in-a-Black-Sabbath-cover-band.

Other than an emo version of The Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” by Frnkiero And the Cellebration (yes, that’s the correct spelling) and a few fantastically lo-fi Dum Dum Girls numbers, Clutch’s earth-shaking 45-minute set was the first music I heard on Riot Fest’s second day after biking down from Boulder via the Little Dry Creek Path. Like a lot of what I witnessed Saturday, it took me right back to my high-school days as a punk-rock drummer and music-geek in Pittsburgh.

Clutch has added a startling amount of “Southern revival” soul and blues to the deep, heavy stoner-metal of its landmark early albums, but only a smidgen of what put the quartet on the map in the mid-‘90s – the raw power of funky adrenaline-fueled space-metal like “Escape from the Prison Planet” – has been lost in the transition. Which made Lucero, a Memphis outfit that somehow bills itself as “country-punk,” look downright soft – somewhat like Coldplay following Radiohead – when it kicked off its own 45-minute set the moment on the May Farms Stage – sort of a twin main stage – the moment Clutch finished.

Clutch at Riot Fest (photo by Ada Perry)
Clutch at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

Lucero has lost its edge over the years, even without the pressure of following a world-class heavy performer such as Clutch, and sounded out of place sandwiched between Clutch and Face to Face, another favorite of mine from high school. Singer-guitarist Trever Keith and his band struck gold for a minute in 1994 – during that hallowed time when pop-punk was more punk than pop – with the single “Disconnected,” and fit right in on the Byers General Store Stage, kicking off a remarkable three-band California punk-rock history lesson.

And “Welcome to Punk Rock 101” was exactly what 51-year-old Descendents frontman Milo Aukerman told the huge Riot Fest crowd as the legendary pop-punker took the stage, wearing a backpack and UC San Diego t-shirt and saluting some of his band’s children, who – seated stage left – could rightly be called the descendents of the Descendents.

Aukerman and Co. – whose drummer, Bill Stevenson, lives in Ft. Collins and is the co-founder of its respected Blasting Room studio – blasted off their hour-long sunset performance by playing their 1982 debut Milo Goes to College in its entirety. It only took the Descendents about 20 minutes to run through the 15 songs on Milo, following it with a greatest-hits romp, but for me it felt more like 20 years, which is the time that’s passed since, as a 14-year-old Pittsburgh kid, I played an SST mail-order cassette of the album so many times during freshman year of high school that it literally stopped working.

Even in their 50s, with Stevenson – punk rock’s Keith Moon – sounding more laid-back than ever, the members of the Descendents were admirably able to give me shivers, especially during Bikeage,” which I consider one of the great American pop songs. Aukerman, like Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, is a PhD, though Aukerman’s songwriting genius delineates romance – somehow turning the rage of heartbreak into something profoundly uplifiting – rather than politics. As the sun set in Denver on Saturday, the seamless genius of Milo Goes to College – which I considered, as a teenager, not unlike Crass’ The Feeding of the 5,000 in its strength as one connected piece of music – was also clear, along with the joyful intensity of Stephen Egerton’s guitar.

The Descendents at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)
The Descendents at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

Also notable, with some of the band’s kids seated on the stage to its right, was how Aukerman obviously – and thankfully – nixed offensive lyrics, such as “you fucking homo” and “go away / you fucking queer” from “I’m a Loser.” At the same time, choosing to forego homophobia made the Descendents’ misogynist lyrics more blatant; then again, Milo is an album written when the Descendents were teenagers and I was two years old. Hindsight is always 20/20, and Aukerman had me singing along with every word.

Social Distortion, on the other hand, struck me with the worst case of hero worship I’ve ever felt as a journalist. Standing at Mike Ness’ feet in the photo pit just beneath the stage, between Ness – his trademark gold guitar slung low – and the huge crowd, I felt like I was witnessing punk rock’s Johnny Cash, or the very least its Waylon Jennings. Ness, who was born in Massachusetts but went on to define Southern California hardcore as an iconic underage frontman, somehow seems to have lost not even a half step of his outlaw, Elvis-meets-Joe Strummer charm at age 52. And when he described “The Creeps” as “something I journaled when I was 16” and then launched into the timeless juggernaut, it was as if Ness transported tens of thousands of reverent Colorado punk fans back to a sweaty Orange County basement gig in 1979.

The impact of Social Distortion’s set had the young, pink-haired punk-rock girls swooning and stopped every mohawked guy pushing a stroller past the Ferris wheel in his tracks. On day two of Denver’s edition of Riot Fest 2014, Ness was certainly the MVP outside Peyton Manning’s home field. I even forgot about the $7 slices of pizza and $40 t-shirts for a moment.

The longevity of not just Aukerman and Ness’ talent as frontmen but their unforgettable lyrics and iconic singing styles made me – though decades younger than those two, also a dad whose kid already cherishes Joey Ramone – wonder where the impressive new punk bands at Riot Fest were. Plague Vendor moved me for a moment with music not unlike the Black Angels, or a heavier version of the Doors, but the Los Angeles group’s lyrics were disappointing. It seemed all the young bands I saw at Riot Fest possessed either edge but not songwriting skills or energy but no edge, and when Trever Keith said “This is punk rock time” during Face to Face’s set, I got what he meant. Emo is not punk rock, unless you can revel, as I do, in the emotional inspiration of the Descendents or even Fugazi’s “Waiting Room.”

Plague Vendor at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)
Plague Vendor at Riot Fest (photo by Adam Perry)

The Used, Utah’s platinum-selling emo gods, made me feel even more crotchety, listening from the press tent as frontman Bert McCracken dished out such myopic whoppers as this:

“Special thanks tonight to all our hardcore fans! I’m sure you know exactly why we’re here, and that’s because we love music! I wish I could move here and be best friends with each and every one of you!”

If it was punk rock, it was punk rock nearly as shill-centric as Justin Bieber, at times sounding like Jars of Clay with distorted guitar, almost unbelievably shallow. And when The Used got heavy, it was nü-metal not unlike Limp Bizkit. Quite simply, most of the young bands at Riot Fest belonged more aptly at what Warped Tour has become – i.e. anything but punk or rock – in the days since I saw NOFX, Pennywise, Rocket from the Crypt, et al there as a teenager.

But I’m not a teenager anymore, which was pleasurably obvious as I stood beside the May Farms Stage on Saturday night watching headliners The Cure expose me as a fraud for letting it take until Robert Smith was just feet away to give the English new-wave heroes a real chance. All these years, even as I studiously adored David Bowie’s entire catalog late in high school, and even as my bandmates in later years told me different, I saw The Cure, and specifically Robert Smith (who always looked like Edward Scissorhands to me), as a farce. “‘Boys Don’t Cry’?” I’d say. “Please.”

But I was struck on Saturday night by the musicianship of The Cure; the craftsmanship of its careful songwriting; the depth and taste of what every instrument was doing; and Smith’s romantic singing, which in person seemed more classically poetic, like a mixture of early Bowie and Paul McCartney (“torn between the light and dark,” as Bowie’s “Quicksand” would say), than something easily lumped in with Flock of Seagulls.

As The Cure masterfully ran through classics such as “Just Like Heaven” and “Fascination Street,” I was hooked. It even dawned on me how impressive it is that Smith’s songwriting, so obviously indebted to 1970s Bowie, took what it needed from The Thin White Duke and then paid the debt back by influencing much of what Bowie has written since The Cure’s emergence.

Before anyone caught me rocking out to “Boys Don’t Cry” I jumped on my bike to reach Union Station in time to catch a midnight bus to Boulder and download The Cure’s entire collection.

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