By Glenn Alderson
Sept. 15 – 17, 2017
Douglas Park (Chicago, IL)
Riot Fest is such a fascinating music festival. You can tell it comes from a good place. It really does. Playing on the nostalgia factor for the most part, the festival books bands that would bring even the saltiest of punks out from hibernation to relive their glory days just one more time, only they’ve been doing it year after year for more than 10 years now. This particular year, the festival achieved perhaps one of its greatest punk rock feats of all time when they brought the seminal San Francisco-based punk band, Jawbreaker, out of retirement.
Jawbreaker is a band that dissolved at an interesting and confusing time in music, shortly after their 1994 major label release, Dear You (Geffen). It was around a time when punk rock was still trying to hang on to something in an effort to maintain its ethos and identity in the face of major label consumer culture; a time where “selling out” was something you just didn’t do if you wanted to hang on to your fans. Dear You, regardless of where you sit/sat on the “sell out spectrum,” is a great album and it only got better with each passing year the band sat dormant. It was an album that built on Jawbreaker’s raw and emotive legacy they cultivated with previous full-length releases Unfun, Bivouac and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. These albums solidified Jawbreaker as a very important band to a lot of people, both before and after their demise.
Booking Jawbreaker on night three of this year’s Riot Fest had a lot of people very excited, but you also had to question whether or not 20+ years in retirement was enough to put the seminal band on the same level of sellability as the previous night’s headliners Nine Inch Nails (9/15) and Queens of the Stone Age (9/16). By the time Sunday night rolled around, it became clear that yes, 20+ years in retirement was definitely enough to prepare the world for Jawbreaker as a rival and magnificent headliner. And it came at a time when the world perhaps needed them most. Joining them on this particularly muggy evening in Chicago were their mass of cult followers with an energy that was especially freaky — Bone-chilling even. More on that in a minute though.
Earlier in the day around four in the afternoon, another important and also recently reunited emo/punk act, Cap’n Jazz, played on the very stage that Jawbreaker would later dominate and it offered a fascinating first glance at just how strange and beautiful this time-stamped genre would age. Cap’n Jazz left their short legacy with a loud and proud “fuck you” of a double disc — Analphabetapolothology (1994) — something that every crappy mall punk emo/screamo band would try to emulate, whether they even knew it or not. But I’ll be damned if singer Tim Kinsella and Co. didn’t take back what was rightfully theirs with one of the best festival sets I’ve ever seen. Cap’n Jazz is the kind of band who successfully bridged the gap between punk, emo and hardcore, all while introducing a pop element that completely redefined the way people interpreted pop music. Jawbreaker, of course, was right in there with them on this.
Throughout the Cap’n Jazz set in the blazing afternoon sun, Kinsella would dominate the crowd, pushing boundaries like the frontman of a spazzy little emo-hardcore band should, leaving plenty of room for everyone to engage in all of the sing/shout-along choruses and beautiful poetic nuggets that the he left for everyone in those songs oh so long ago. “I’m gonna need that tambourine back,” he would say after throwing his shitty $25 stage prop as far as he could in to the audience. And then, before you knew it, the tambourine was back in his hand, only for him to keep throwing it back out in some kind of bratty attempt at a back-and-forth with the audience that kept security annoyed but on their toes. By the end of their set, everyone had successfully got their ya-yas out on tracks like “Oh Messy Life,” “Little League” and even their classically too-cool cover of A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” only this time Kinsella ad-libbed all of the verses with lyrics about how he wrote the song. But like, he didn’t so it was funny, right?
“It’s just so hard for me to understand about real world problems because I have such a great life,” he kept saying in a cheeky smart-ass kind of way in between songs, but at the same time both the audience and Kinsella knew he wasn’t joking. He continued to poke fun at and acknowledge his privilege throughout their set while stuffing his microphone down his pants and then pulling it back up around through the other pant leg. It was done in a way that was equally comical and entertaining, but also so strange and relatable.
“I feel like all the people here who know me in real life are like… ‘what the fuck,’” Kinsella said drenched in sweat with his shirt off, now wearing his tambourine prop as a crown. “And everyone who doesn’t know me out there is just like, ‘yea nice one, you go!’” He certainly knew his audience and he knew how to speak to the legion of fans who had been practicing for this very moment, the potential rare opportunity to sing along with the familiar discordant songs. Kinsella and his mates played in to the part in best way possible, in a much less pretentious fashion than you might have guessed, which I think is what made this offering from one of my favourite bands from high school also one of my favourite festival sets I’ve ever seen.
Later that night, back at the “Riot Stage,” a massive JAWBREAKER banner hung swaying in the evening wind with a modest stage set up. Tension was mounting as it got closer to start time and you could feel all awkward bumbling (mostly) boys buzzing around and bumping in to each other. It wasn’t too long though before their infamous leader, emo prophet Blake Schwarzenbach took the stage with his bandmates drummer Adam Phaler and bassist Chris Bauermeister, breaking in to the all-to familiar chords of “Boxcar.” Within seconds everyone was united, transported back to simpler times and singing every word at the top of their lungs, “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone…” Easily the most popular song of the band’s career, “Save your breath I never was one.” Such a fitting statement to summarize the band’s resurfacing. If you looked close enough, there were definitely some tears as they continued right in to “Sluttering (May 4th)” while strangers held each others hands, jumping and shouting in solidarity the lyrics which defined so many people’s confused youths and now, the frightening realities of real life adulthood.
The songs were crisp and clear, more potent than ever and the band played them so well it was as if they just wrote and recorded them yesterday. When Schwarzenbach spoke in between songs, you could tell he felt a mix of pride, purpose and even anxiety, but like many of the acts at the festival he rose to the occasion and took the time to comment on the state of the world and just how much shit sucks right now. “Fuck this country” were his exact words and they really pierced the air with a heavy weight.
The amazing author, poet and activist bell hooks recently spoke in an interview with Hari Kondabolu on his Politically Reactive podcast about the sense of music as a kind of palliative care, music as something that could restore you to harmony. “Think about the blues,” she says. “A kind of music that grew out of suffering, but it became a music of solace…Many of today’s musical forms do not restore people to harmony.” On this particular evening however, you could feel the harmony and restoration coming together. Even Schwarzenbach’s shirt, which read “Gaza On My Mind” in both English and Arabic, set a special tone for how important it is to act and react and not stand for all of the injustices that everyone is experiencing under the current political administration. “Just be good to each other” was the message that rang true this night and basically every other night of the festival; through the words of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones earlier that afternoon and then Prophets of Rage (the Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy “supergroup”) who played on the neighbouring stage right before Jawbreaker. “Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me” sounds a little bit more harsh than “just be good to each other” but they both embody a similar sentiment in some twisted way.
Riot Fest’s slogan — perhaps ironic, or maybe not even — is “Riot Fest Sucks.” It’s funny because it kind of does suck. It especially does if you spend all three days at Douglas Park wandering around in the sun with all the other suckers with their dumb mohawks, wearing old band shirts and clothes from the Hot Topic outlet store. I would probably never go back but I’m thankful I got to ride the Zipper (<3) and spend a weekend steeped in nostalgia. I honestly feel like a better person because of it. So thank you Riot Fest. You suck but you don’t suck that much.capnjazz, jawbreaker, riot fest