Outdoor music festivals tend to wear out their own fans. There’s only so much hot sun, crowd congestion, and spider-infested porta-potties you can take before you ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing here?” If a fest runs three days, as Riot Fest has for several years now, by the third nearly everyone will have reached that point. Even the teenagers will be dragging. But there were plenty of reasons to trek to Douglas Park for the last day of Riot Fest 2018. Run the Jewels played a transformative headlining set (I’m now a superfan, at least), and Sunday’s schedule also included two iconic bands that emerged on opposite ends of the country during the first wave of American punk: the Avengers and Blondie.
Formed in San Francisco in 1977, the Avengers were only together long enough to put out the three-song EP We Are the One before breaking up in 1979. During that brief span, though, they made an indelible impact on punk. The four-piece group opened the Sex Pistols’ final show, at the Winterland Ballroom in 1978, and Pistols guitarist Steve Jones was so smitten with their fiercely independent, politically charged, hook-driven songs that he produced a recording session for the band—some of the resulting material was released posthumously as a self-titled EP in 1979. The two EPs and a handful of additional recordings were compiled for a self-titled full-length in ’83, also known as the Pink Album due to the hue of its cover.
In 1999, Lookout! Records released a collection of unreleased Avengers material and three newly recorded songs, credited to “the Scavengers.” Since 2004 they’ve been playing live with a re-formed lineup that includes two original members, front woman Penelope Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham, plus bassist Joel Reader and drummer Luis Illades. Houston has also led a prolific solo career since the Avengers’ initial split.
The Rebel Stage was the smallest of the five at the festival, which made the Avengers’ set feel more intimate than most that weekend—and Houston’s pointed, personal lyrics about self-worth, defiance, and rebellion intensified that feeling. The midafternoon sun was ferocious as the band tore through a set of classics, including the anthemic “We Are the One” and “Teenage Rebel” (“We’re at the Rebel Stage,” Houston said, “so it’s only appropriate we play this”), so no one minded when security staff began spraying water on the enthusiastic fans up front. The Avengers don’t go in for bells and whistles, just straight-up rock ‘n’ roll and infectious energy—Houston cuts such a charismatic figure onstage that it feels empowering just to watch her.
Riot Fest often gets dismissed as a nostalgia trip, and it’s true that a large proportion of its acts are associated with earlier eras. But by the time the Avengers plunged into their final song, “The American in Me”—a jagged takedown of the powers that be—they’d left absolutely no question that their message and music are as relevant today as four decades ago.
Blondie have likewise been unfairly accused of trading in nostalgia, due to their key role forging punk and new wave in the 70s and 80s, but they’ve put out five totally respectable albums since re-forming in 1997, including last year’s Pollinator. The enormous crowd at the Roots Stage exploded in cheers when the group began to play, and when front woman Deborah Harry strutted out—wearing a black outfit with DayGlo accents, an electric green wig, and a white vest with the words “Stop fucking the planet” across the back—they got even louder. Blondie kicked off their set with “One Way or Another,” and though they’re more pop than most Riot Fest acts (Suicidal Tendencies had just finished on the Riot Stage), they can play with as much power and energy as any hardcore band. The set mixed early material and newer tracks, including “Doom or Destiny” from Pollinator, and though some fans got a little quiet during the more recent songs, plenty more sang along with every word.
Technical problems seemed to interfere briefly at the beginning of the set—during “Hanging on the Telephone,” the Nerves power-pop gem that Blondie turned into a hit single, Harry skipped a few lines, then went to talk to someone at the side of the stage—but a few tweaks later, the trouble was past and the band sounded great. Part of Blondie’s strength has always been their willingness to explore rock-adjacent styles of music, and hearing several of their boundary-crossing songs in one set—the hip-hop/punk tune “Rapture,” the reggae cover “The Tide Is High,” the driving dance number “Call Me,” which Harry wrote with disco legend Giorgio Moroder—highlighted how groundbreaking the band had been back in the day.
Harry is a formidable front woman with a striking presence and a dry sense of humor. As the sun began to set, shining directly into the band’s faces, she augmented her sunglasses with a black umbrella to shade her eyes: “Whoever planned the positioning of these stages is a genius,” she quipped. The band’s chops—and giant keytar—are equally impressive. If you’re ever tempted to write off Blondie songs as pop fluff, think again. Drummer Clem Burke can elevate any song from behind the kit—despite what my colleague Jake Austen says, he doesn’t have “Trump Face,” and he plays even better than he looks.
One of the most encouraging things I saw during the hour-long set was the number of women who brought their young daughters toward the stage to watch the band up close. The fact that a foundational American new-wave band can still inspire the kids in person 40 years later is remarkable on its face—and it suggests that Blondie’s music will continue to exert that influence long after the band have retired from the road.