It’s been interesting watching Riot Fest evolve over the three years I’ve been attending. The first year, it was still at Fort York. The past two years, it’s been held at Downsview. Last year, we got four stages instead of two and a corresponding larger number of bands. Toronto still lacked a lot of the pizazz of the Chicago and Denver Riot Fest shows though, and this year, the festival made up for it. This year’s festival boasted carnival rides, games of chances and a circus sideshow.
And those weren’t the only changes. The layout of the festival was much improved over last year. The stages were all in the same places, but the food, beverage and water refill stations were set up in two distinct locations instead of all being clustered near the entrance. I may be wrong, but I think there were also way more portapotties than last year. I made a point of using the ones the farthest from the entrance all weekend long, and it paid off. They were clean, well-stocked and there was never a line-up.
So, how was the music you ask? Let’s start with Saturday. I hightailed it up there in time for D.O.A’s mid-afternoon set. The B.C. punk legends did not disappoint, putting on a tight, perfectly executed set of classic, hard hitting, political punk. It took no time for a pit to form, sending showers of dust over the crowd. I wish I had gotten a picture of the guy in the pit, in full kilt, jean vest and Docs, with a little boy sporting a trihawk on his shoulders. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth was clearly visible side stage, watching the band. My only beef is that D.O.A’s set was just 30 minutes long instead of the promised 45 minutes. On the bright side, that did allow me to catch the end of the Dead Milkmen’s set and I got there just in time to hear “Bitchin’ Camaro”.
That was also my last dry moment of Riot Fest that day. Rain had been forecast, but I don’t think many of were expecting the torrential downpour that soaked Downsview Park for 45 minutes straight. Confession time – I was in a portapotty when the worst of the rain hit and I wondered briefly if it would be a total asshole move to stay there until the rain stopped.
The rain caused GWAR to cancel, and cut the Eagles of Death Metal’s set down to just 15 minutes. I almost forgot about Thurston Moore’s set and got to the Rock Stage in time to hear the last couple of songs. Then it was time for one of my favourite bands, Echo & The Bunnymen. Their mournful and yet poppy sound was a perfect accompaniment to the still-overcast skies, and having them end the set with “Lips Like Sugar”, “Bring On The Dancing Horses” and “The Killing Moon” was pure joy. Dancing had warmed me up a bit, but even so, the sun was setting and the wind had picked up. My friends and I were still soaked to the skin, and we unanimously agreed to leave early. We all desperately wanted to see Motorhead, but the thought of standing around for 2.5 hours getting colder was deeply unappealing. When I got home, I poured impressive quantities of water out of my rain boots and then took an epically long hot shower.
Sunday was bright, sunny and scorching hot. Perfect festival weather. I got there in barely enough time to catch the end of The Joy Formidable, who are always wonderful. Then it was time for riot grrl legends Babes in Toyland. I had just seen the equally legendary L7 a couple of weeks ago, so getting to see the Babes felt extra special. Kat Bjelland is easily one of the fiercest and most uncompromising performers I’ve ever seen. I had some downtime after that to chill, check out the vendors and get acquainted with some bands I wasn’t familiar with, including Airborne Toxic Event and Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls. The latter were my big discovery of the weekend – great live rock act with tons of energy.
And then it was time for Rancid, playing And Out Come The Wolves in its entirety. I confess that my mental image of Rancid was of the band of skinny young punks there were 20 years ago. When a large, bald, bearded man came out onstage, my first thought was “Where the heck is Tim Armstrong?” Turns out that was Tim. Ooops! The turn-out for Rancid was huge and the energy from both the band and crowd was electric. Best moment was when their set ended and crowd started to disperse. Then they came back for an quick encore and I raced back and almost got up to the front.
Rap and hip-hop really aren’t my thing, but I took in some of Wu Tang Clan’s set while sitting on the grass inhaling some excellent fish tacos for dinner. Then I played an amusing game of phone tag with my friends as we attempted to meet up for The Prodigy.
I’m not sure words can do justice to how good The Prodigy was. After a long intro, the band emerged into a blinding haze of strobe lights and lasers that lit up the ecstatic crowd into a sweaty dancing mass. An all-too-soon 75 minutes later, the noise-drunk crowd wandered out of Riot Fest looking dazed and delirious. Mission accomplished, Riot Fest, mission accomplished.