Though it’s tempting to think of Riot Fest as marking the beginning of autumn, days like Friday make it painfully obvious that the Douglas Park festival still exists firmly in the last gasps of summer. With 85 degree temperatures and cloudless skies, this year’s punk rock carnival got off to a sweaty start—though the conditions didn’t seem to deter anyone from showing off their black T-shirts and Dr. Martens. When we weren’t applying (and reapplying) sunscreen, here are the five best things we saw on Friday at Riot Fest.
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1. A long overdue set from Nine Inch Nails
Watching Nine Inch Nails' headlining performance, I came to the realization that there's a really good reason why Trent Reznor and his bandmate Atticus Ross penned award-winning film soundtracks—they understand how to create atmosphere and tension. Punctually taking the stage at exactly 8:30pm, Reznor and company promptly tore into a set that was perpetually drenched in thick clouds of fog and flashing strobe lights. Throughout an hour and a half of pulsing synths and melodramatic choruses, the set never lost momentum, always following the subdued balladry of a track like "Something You Can Have (Still)" with the industrial energy and breakbeats of something like "Closer." Whether you're a diehard NIN fan or a casual listener who's heard "The Hand That Feeds," the unbelievably taut onslaught of the band's live show is admirable, which explains the tightly packed field in Douglas Park. Reznor may have marked Nine Inch Nails’ comeback at Lollapalooza five years ago, but Riot Fest is the festival that this band was meant to headline.—Zach Long
2. A touching memorial to Riot Fest co-founder Sean McKeough
This year’s Riot Fest is a bittersweet one, as it’s the festival’s first edition following the death of co-founder Sean McKeough. McKeough, a “pillar of strength” in the Chicago punk scene, passed away at the far-too-young age of 42 last November. This year, McKeough's festival paid tribute to him by way of a golf cart mounted on a pedestal, covered in photographs of him (located near the Rise Stage). There's a quote from McKeough on each photo: “If we take Riot Fest outside, we have to do it differently. And we’ll surprise the shit out of everyone.” True to his word, ever since its move outdoors, the fest has been full of surprises (did anyone see a Jawbreaker reunion coming this year?) Riot Fest is a living memorial for its co-founder, but it's nice to see a thoughtful token of appreciation for McKeough’s enduring creative vision on the grounds he once traversed. —Grace Perry
3. The beautiful bride fronting Liars
Wedding bells weren’t ringing, but Liars frontman Angus Andrew took the stage dressed like a bride anyways, complete with a veil that quickly blew off his face. Accompanied by two touring musicians, Andrews largely ignored his most recent record, TFCF, opting to dig into Liars’ far more energetic back catalog instead, turning the field into an appropriately cathartic reception (sans the open bar). The frantic rhythms of "Scarecrows on a Killer Slant" bled into the eerie synths of "Houseclouds," before a climactic, driving rendition of "Plaster Casts of Everything." We couldn't find Andrews' registry (you have a year to send a gift, right?), but we're hoping his honeymoon is a blast.—Zach Long
4. A trio of motorcycle-riding high-wire acrobats
The Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow has long been a staple of Riot Fest, but this year there are a few more daring performers spread throughout the park. Just east of the Riot Fest Mall, you’ll find a high-wire with a motorcycle perched atop it, where the Circus Una Motorcycle High-wire Acrobats perform four shows each day (at 1pm, 3pm, 5pm and 7:30pm). Not only does one daredevil ride the cycle back and forth across the wire, but two more badasses swing from a trapeze bar suspended beneath it. You might want to stop by before you eat a plate of cheese fries, just in case you experience some sympathetic nausea.—Zach Long
5. New Order’s sundown ’80s dance party
Imagine the most cliché version of the ’80s you possible can, including neon lights, leg warmers and all the impossibly fun dance beats you can handle. There's a good chance that the soundtrack to your daydream is a New Order song. Not that the band is cliché; on the contrary, the group defined an era. My point being, it’s tough to not know New Order.
On Friday evening, the sun went down within 25 minutes of the new wave act's late evening set, meaning the scene quickly transitioned from “normal festival show” to straight-up dance club. Douglas Park’s lack of light fixtures (it's really dark) was supplemented by New Order’s geometric lights and laser show, which complimented the band’s synth-pop jams. I’m not a lights-and-lasers junkie, but the Smart Bar-worthy atmosphere and Bernard Sumner’s so-damn-British croons were a welcome change of pace from the punk and hard rock that dominated the main stages on Friday. New Order's playful, synth-driven songs have echoed through the decades for a reason, catchy enough to coaxing even Riot Fest's most stoic mosher to bop along to the beat.—Grace Perry