Riot Fest

It didn’t seem like anyone else could fit into the space in front of the Riot Fest stage where Iggy and the Stooges were about to play on Sunday night in Humboldt Park. More and more people kept squeezing their way forward. But then, the stage lights came on, and the Stooges took their spots in the center of the stage, like they were guarding the drum kit from an onslaught. Iggy Pop bounded to the microphone stand, his hair flying, his torso as bare as always. Within seconds, the crowd somehow managed to surge forward, and the moshing commenced. It felt like everyone was swaying and bouncing in unison as the Stooges pounded out their proto-punk riffs and Iggy showed his miraculous powers to keep on rocking with rambunctious abandon well past the age when most people slow down.

Guitarist James Williamson, an old member of the Stooges who rejoined the band after guitarist Ron Asheton’s death, sounded even more confident than he had playing at the Riviera in 2010. Drummer Larry Mullins filled in for one of the other original Stooges, Scott Asheton, who has been ailing of late. Bassist Mike Watt pushed and pushed the grooves, while saxophonist Stave Mackay threw on a layer of grungy jazz. Iggy was more talkative than usual, urging audience members to bum-rush the stage, playfully taunting the video camera operators (“I’m over here!”), and asking everyone if they wanted to see… well, you can guess what he offered to show. (As far as I could see from where I was standing among the moshers, Iggy did not pull a Jim Morrison act onstage, despite his offer to do so.) Iggy seemed to be having the time of his life, feeding off the audience’s energy. I’ve seen a couple of Iggy Pop solo concerts and three Stooges shows now; they’ve all been thrilling, and this was one of the best.

I did not take photos at Riot Fest, alas, but you can see my previous pictures of Iggy Pop & the Stooges at Lollapalooza in 2007 and the Riviera in 2010. (And many Riot Fest photos are posted on other websites, including Time Out Chicago.)

Although things got a little close for comfort in the Stooges’ lawn-sized mosh pit, the overall scene at Riot Fest on Sunday was quite pleasant, with plenty of space for fans to spread out throughout Humboldt Park. Riot Fest has been going on for years, but this past weekend was the first time it became a full-fledged outdoor festival, with one night of music at the Congress Theatre, followed by two days of live rock and carnival rides in Humboldt Park. Based on my experiences in the park on Sunday — and the comments I heard from people who were there on Saturday, too — the festival was a well-run affair.

Riot Fest also boasted an impressive lineup of bands. As in past years, the main theme was punk rock, but Riot Fest defined itself broadly enough to include acts such as Built to Spill, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Elvis Costello and the Imposters. Those were the best of the groups I saw on Sunday up until the Stooges stole the show. Built to Spill’s triple-guitar epics were like sharply defined sonic sculptures. The reunited JAMC’s 1980s tunes were nicely crunchy and catchy, leaning more towards pop than shoegaze. And Costello raced at a breakneck pace through many of his early hits, climaxing with lively versions of “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” At first, it seemed a bit odd that Costello was playing at Riot Fest, but he reminded everyone that he used to be a punk, too.

I was less excited by the music I heard by the Alkaline Trio, NOFX, Gogol Bordello and the Promise Ring, but that’s mostly a matter of taste. Overall, Riot Fest was a winner of a festival.

Pitchfork Fest, Day One

My photos are up from day one of the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival.

The night was a cool start to the one summer festival I’ve been eagerly anticipating — cool in more than one way. Temps were unseasonably low for Chicago in July, though that was fine with me. And the music was cool all night, too. It turned out to be a great idea to let fans vote on the set lists for this “Write the Night” section of the festival. Predictably, fans picked mostly older songs by the four bands playing Friday: Tortoise, Yo La Tengo, the Jesus Lizard and Built to Spill. (Well, all of the Jesus Lizard’s songs are “older,” since the band hasn’t played in a decade.) I wouldn’t want these bands to play this sort of sets all the time, but it was nice to hear some songs you don’t always hear in concert.

I’m terrible remembering song titles in general, and the fact that Tortoise doesn’t sing makes it doubly difficult for me to name which tunes they played, but the show included several key tracks from their early album Millions Now Living Will Never Die. An outdoor festival is not really the best venue to see this subtle band, but the Tortoise performance functioned well as an introductory set to the weekend’s festivities.

Yo La Tengo played a set loaded with many of its best songs, including “Autumn Sweater,” “Sugar Cube” and “Tom Courtenay.” When Ira Kaplan moved from organ to guitar, the music became more fierce, as he really dug into those strings for some sharp, almost atonal solos. At one point, Kaplan announced, “We’re going to deviate from your requests a little bit,” and then Yo La Tengo played a track from its forthcoming album. The song was called “Seeing Double and Triple,” and Kaplan dedicated it to Ron Santo. It featured a bouncy organ riff as well as key-banging organ solo. This was one of the better Yo La Tengo sets I’ve seen in the last few years, with more emphasis on the rock than on the mellow lounge-y stuff. (But hey, I wish they’d played “My Little Corner of the World.” I can’t complain too much, since I didn’t vote.)

Within about two seconds after the Jesus Lizard took the stage, lead singer and general all-around crazy guy David Yow had leaped into the audience for some of his trademark crowd surfing. And he kept up those antics throughout the show, whenever he wasn’t pausing to get back up on the stage to spit on the floor. The band sounded loud and intense, and the fans loved it. Yow made a few very foul jokes I won’t repeat here… I did laugh when he introduced one song by saying, “This is a dance song. Everybdy, get at arm’s-length distance so you have plenty of room to dance.”

After that sort of performance, Built to Spill was bound to seem a little sedate. As much as I love Built to Spill’s records, the group has seemed less than lively during the two previous concerts I’ve seen. Well, this time, they were pretty darn good, even though leader Doug Martsch and his bandmates seemed like zombies compared with David Yow. (Most human beings do.) It was a strong set of most of Built to Spill’s best songs, coming from several albums — maybe not all that different from a typical Built to Spill concert, but when the three guitars were talking to one another in those epic solos, the sound was magnificent.

Photos from day one of the Pitchfork Music Festival.