Riot Fest goes to the circus | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Riot Fest goes to the circus

Already a wild ride—with dozens of acts, including Iggy & the Stooges, Elvis Costello, Andrew W.K., and NOFX—Riot Fest's new Humboldt Park incarnation is also an actual carnival


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"We're going to have a Ferris wheel, a Tilt-a-Whirl, a Yoyo. Carnival games like throwing darts at balloons," says Riot Fest founder Mike Petryshyn. "Just picture a state fair—that's kind of what we're doing." As he describes this year's version of the annual punk-and-proud music festival, I'm able to picture it pretty clearly—right up until I remember that this particular state fair will feature four stages of bands, including the Stooges and the Jesus & Mary Chain, playing smack in the middle of Humboldt Park. That's when things get blurry.

But this is Petryshyn's vision, not mine—and it's a far cry from what he imagined when Riot Fest began in 2005 as a modest two-day bill of old-timer punk at the Congress Theater (where he's since become a head talent buyer). "I only planned on doing it one year," he says. "I just wanted some of my favorite bands to play and see how it goes. I had no real experience with any of this stuff." But when the Dead Kennedys, the Germs, and the Misfits play your festival in its first year—even with replacement vocalists—chances are you'll want to try again, just to see what you can pull off. And after Petryshyn got local legends Naked Raygun to reunite for the 2006 version, Riot Fest started to snowball.

The fest expanded to a multiple-venue wild-out in 2008, with a "hub-and-spokes" that Petryshyn says helped fans "jump on a bus and see the city through venues." House of Blues, Bottom Lounge, Double Door, and Cobra Lounge—owned by Petryshyn's partner in Riot Fest, Sean McKeough—all came aboard. The expansion turned Riot Fest fans into punk-rock nomads. No lazy camping out in a shaded sweet spot in Union Park, like at Pitchfork or North Coast—get your old bones on the bike and get pedaling, or you're going to miss Cock Sparrer.

Though Petryshyn and McKeough have been discussing taking Riot Fest outside since 2009, they were hesitant—but then the Chicago version (it exists in four cities now) got too big for its britches and forced their hands. "We always kind of knew we were cannibalizing our audience in that they had to make tough choices," he says. "Do I go see Circle Jerks or Articles of Faith?" A multi­venue approach made it almost impossible to fix that problem.

So bring on the carnies, I guess.

This year's Riot Fest occupies a mere one-eighth of Humboldt Park's 219 acres, according to Petryshyn, but it's still huge. And it will have its own logistical hurdles, including public-transit constraints. The festival's territory sits between Division and Augusta and between Sacramento and Kedzie, and unlike Union Park it's hardly in the shadow of a CTA station—the Kedzie Green Line stop is a 15- to 20-minute walk, the Division Blue Line stop nearly a half hour. Biking and walking are encouraged, and at press time organizers were in conversation with the CTA to add more buses to nearby routes.

This year's lineup, 51 bands strong, includes plenty of the usual old farts playing the classic punk they wrote decades ago. But parts of it look a bit like Warped Tour lite: A Day to Remember, August Burns Red, A Wilhelm Scream, et cetera. "Sean and I were both kind of biting our nails," Petryshyn says. "By having some Warped bands on there, we didn't know how our base was going to react. But at the same time, I don't want to be that 34-year-old guy pointing the finger and being like, 'That's not punk rock—that's not hardcore. Our scene was better.'"

On opening night, Fri 9/14, the Offspring headline a four-band bill at the fest's old home base, the Congress Theater. Everything else (sans the aftershows) is in the wild kingdom of Humboldt Park. Petryshyn hopes to keep the fest there and continue expanding.

"It doesn't have to be gloss and glitz like Electric Daisy or anything," he explains. "It just has to be something different and something cool. I think with the bands, we achieved that, but we wanted to add other elements—hence the carnival. No one else is really doing it in Chicago proper. We just want people to have fun at our fest. As innocent and naive as that sounds, that's really the goal."

Keep reading for highlights of Riot Fest's two days in Humboldt Park . . .

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