Riot Fest, Denver (Day Two)
August 29, 2015
Though one of the most iconic performances in the genre’s history–the Clash’s legendary set at Rock Against Racism in 1978–took place in a London park in front of 100,000 people, punk music is generally played at small clubs and, even better, in basements and garages. So it was wonderfully bizarre to see old-school acts like the Damned (whose scrappy 1977 debut Damned Damned Damned was the first-ever English punk LP), the Vandals and the Dead Milkmen playing on giant stages outside the National Western Complex on Saturday on day two of Riot Fest’s 2015 edition in Denver.
The Damned and the Dead Milkmen—the former hugely responsible for goth, Pennywise-style anthem-punk and horror-punk and the latter famous for juxtaposing punk with hilariously sadistic Zappa-esque satire—were in particular out of their element in the August heat at Riot Fest. The Damned’s ghostly frontman, Dave Vanian, came out in a leather trench coat, black pants and black motorcycle cap looking like a thousand-year-old vampire, but his group’s hour-long afternoon performance didn’t suffer from the intense, dry heat; Vanian’s ill-planned wardrobe; or even the big clouds of dust created by mosh pits all day.
Influential guitarist Captain Sensible—ironically more sensibly dressed in a white naval uniform—remarked as the Damned took the stage, “We may be old but we can still fucking rock.” And that was true, as the band impressed a diverse (age-wise) audience with blistering versions of classics like “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” and “Ignite,” slaying its way even through repeatedly technical difficulties that prompted the 61-year-old Sensible to crack, “We’re going professional next year.”
Dead Milkmen frontman Rodney Anonymous’ thick Philadelphia accent came through as he repeatedly stated his need for water (or “wutter”) during his band’s too-short 45-minute set, which brutally—for the not-so-healthy looking Anonymous—started in the blazing sun at 3pm. “You guys are fantastic,” Anonymous, in a black cowboy hat, told the Denver crowd, “and I look pretty fucking sexy for an old man. I’m married to a goth and don’t get out in the sun very often.”
As ever, the Dead Milkmen—like fellow Philly stalwarts Ween and Dr. Dog after them—used a two-frontman routine to make its whole way better than the sum of its parts. Big-time classics like “Punk Rock Girl” and “Bitchin’ Camaro” were sung through big-time smiles (by the band and its fans, many living out childhood dreams by finally seeing the Dead Milkmen in person) and there weren’t many in the audience who didn’t know every word to “Stuart.”
One of the strange things about Riot Fest’s 2015 edition in Denver—other than the indoor stage that would’ve been a great fit for older bands like the Damned but went mostly unused—was having two massive stages right next to each other (four total) on either side of the rodeo arena. As one band played—such the Damned, as Boston heroes the Mighty Mighty Bosstones sound-checked just feet away—thousands of people slowly gathered in front of the adjacent stage, interested in what was happening on the active stage but, because of proximity, only able to hear bits and pieces of the ongoing show.
At one point Vanian wandered to his extreme right near the end of the Damned’s set, getting the attention of the thousands waiting for the Bosstones, whose searing set (including a fiery “737” and Minor Threat’s “Think Again”) may have been the day’s highlight, and asked if they were enjoying his band. Thumbs up were given all around.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, by the way, showed they are one of punk history’s most underrated acts, unduly shrugged off because of a milquetoast mainstream hit released 15 years into a fine career mixing hardcore punk, ska and soul. The horn section was impeccable, the lead guitar sensational and charismatic frontman Dicky Barrett—with his trademark growl—bringing band and audience to a fever pitch.
The funny thing about the Bosstones in concert is the group’s dancer Ben Carr, a guy who skanks his way through every song like its biggest, most endearing fan, effectively sweatin’ to Bosstones oldies. Nary a better gig exists in rock ‘n’ roll, though one wonders what rehearsal for something like that entails.
After the sun fell, Run-D.M.C.—sans the talented Jam Master Jay, tragically gunned down in 2002 at 37—turned the dirt field in front of the Rebel Stage into an unforgettable dance party, hitting home runs with “It’s Tricky,” “King of Rock” and other ‘80s favorites. Run-D.M.C. is to rap what the Ramones were to punk, and the way the duo—with help from two DJs, including Jam Master Jay’s son—sucked in the tens-of-thousands-strong, mostly white crowd played perfectly into what Riot Fest is all about: legendary bands with an edge proving they can still pull off what made them famous.
The “edge” part was superior to last year’s festival. The 2014 edition of Riot Fest included great performances by Social Distortion, the Cure, the Descendents and others, but everywhere you turned there was the stink of emo. Saturday, however, the heavy Chicago post-punk band Meat Wave opened the Roots Stage with gusto, and whatever whiny scraps of emo I heard floating around came from the indoor Radicals Stage, which—again—was for some reason (maybe concerns over the dirt floor?) basically used as a place for over-heated concertgoers to buy beer, charge smartphones and relieve bladders.
As day two of Riot Fest neared its end, the Pixies—surprisingly powerful even without the recently departed Kim Deal—played a dark, no-nonsense set as thousands gathered at the adjacent Riot Stage for Modest Mouse. Modest Mouse opened its hour-plus set with a slowed-down, deconstructed version of version of the left-field hit “Float On,” after which lead singer/guitarist Isaac Brook complained about breathing being “a fucking task” in Denver, led the band through a couple more tunes and launched into the trademark version of “Float On.”
Though Modest Mouse quickly showed why it’s been one of the most interesting bands in American pop music for the last 20 years, missing Rancid’s run through its breakthrough album …And Out Come the Wolves and a few lively encores at the Rock Stage simply wasn’t an option.
Guitar slung low as usual, Tim Armstrong—transformed from his Mohawk days with a shaved head and big beard—looked out over a sizable mosh pit with pride as Rancid got a young, excited crowd moving to East Bay punk.
The best Rancid mixes copious amounts of Clash influence (chiefly “Capital Radio”) with early Social Distortion and of course Armstrong’s time with ska pioneers Operation Ivy. Rancid is often counted out by hardcore punks because of the quick fame the group enjoyed when the East Bay became for ‘90s punk what Seattle was for grunge, but—like the Bosstones—just a few moments of Rancid’s live show tells you why it’s a great band that hasn’t gone away.
Armstrong, whose street drawl in makes him sound like California punk’s Shane McGowan, also finished Rancid’s inescapably energetic set by treating the enormous Riot Fest crowd—many with bandanas over their faces to fight off the moshing-induced dust clouds—to the evening’s most apropos and important lyric: “When I got the music / I got a place to go.”