REVIEW: Riot Fest 2016 Denver (Denver Westword 9/5/2016)

The Misfits and their "fucking cool" pumpkins at Riot Fest 2016 in Denver.
The Misfits at Riot Fest 2016 Denver (photo by Jeffrey Perry)

REVIEW: Riot Fest 2016 Denver
by Adam Perry for Denver Westword 9/5/2016

For the past decade, Riot Fest (a three-day festival that takes place each year in Denver and Chicago) has been the place where childhood punk-rock dreams come true. For instance, two years ago outside Mile High Stadium, I got to see the Descendents tear through Milo Goes to College, which I played so many times in my Walkman as a high-school freshman in Pittsburgh that the cassette was destroyed. Last year, when Riot Fest’s Denver edition moved to the National Western Complex, I earned a new appreciation for goth trailblazers the Damned and beamed, laughed and sang along with thousands of others to the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.”

Riot Fest, which began as a multi-venue festival at clubs and theaters in Chicago, is mostly about reveling in raucous performances by edgy, legendary bands you had no idea were still around and making pilgrimages to witness long-awaited reunions. The most anticipated reunion in the history of heavy music, arguably, took place last night in Denver, but I’ll get to that in a bit. (Read the full article at

SHOW REVIEW: Riot Fest 2015 Denver (Day Two)

photo by Adam Perry
photo by Adam Perry

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.

photo by Adam Perry
photo by Adam Perry

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.”

photo by Adam Perry
photo by Adam Perry

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.”

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photo by Adam Perry

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)

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.