Most major music festivals run fine-tuned hype machines designed to make the build-up to the big event feel like an eternity: the months of teasing out a lineup, the countdown to ticket sales, the slow crawl to announcing the schedule. But this year, due to sustained grassroots opposition in its host neighborhood, Riot Fest’s efforts to stoke fans’ anticipation sometimes felt anxious or even frantic. The 2014 festival had moved into the much larger northern section of Humboldt Park, shutting down access to many of its free outdoor facilities, and according to the city’s estimates it did around $182,000 in damages to the grounds—more than triple the previous year’s tab. This May, 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado became the face of a neighborhood campaign opposing Riot Fest’s return to the park.
Toward the end of that month, before festival organizers had shared even a shred of the 2015 lineup, they announced a move to Douglas Park on the southwest side—and though opposition has arisen there too, it hasn’t attracted any allies among the area’s aldermen. To their credit, the Riot Fest crew have tried to engage with the community while standing their ground in the park. Last month the Riot Fest Foundation held a community job fair to make sure Lawndale residents would be among the people paid to work the festival; organizers plan to hire 150 staffers from the neighborhood.
In part because Douglas Park is similar in size to Humboldt Park, Riot Fest has chosen to retain the carnival component that’s helped give it a distinctive identity since its outdoor debut in 2012. But what really makes the festival unique is the organizers’ ecumenical vision of punk, which all but ignores musical genre and often flies in the face of pop-cultural trends, artists’ album cycles, and the homogeneity of big summer festivals that all seem to book the same cluster of acts working that year’s circuit.
This year hip-hop makes its strongest showing yet—Ice Cube’s Friday “remix” of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton should be a major draw, judging by the box-office success of the uneven biopic on the group. Reggae plants its flag too, with Lee “Scratch” Perry, Jimmy Cliff, and a couple of Marleys, most of them performing on Sunday. Elsewhere on the bill you’ll find Riot Fest regulars (Gwar, Andrew W.K.), veterans who’ve been active for basically the entire history of punk (the Damned, Steve Ignorant of Crass with his band Paranoid Visions), youngbloods making some of the best new emo around (Foxing, Joyce Manor), and acts so far removed from the sound of punk that booking them here is actually pretty damn punk in and of itself (Bootsy Collins’s Rubber Band, Merle Haggard).
The main entrance to Riot Fest is on W. Ogden at Sacramento, between California and Albany—it’s a couple blocks north and west of the Pink Line at California, the nearest el stop. There’s also a smaller entrance at the park’s southeast edge, on California between Ogden and 19th. Riot Fest will maintain a bike parking lot near the intersection of Ogden and California; Chicago nonprofit Working Bikes will have staff on hand to help with minor bike repairs. At press time, all flavors of two-day passes were sold out, but you could still buy single-day, three-day, and VIP passes (which get you access to a private arcade, a fortune teller, and a massage station).
Just as it did last year, Riot Fest has seven music stages and a spoken-word stage—but whereas the latter hosted only one event in 2014 (a Pussy Riot talk), this year it’s been christened “Riot Fest Speaks” and will present several panels and readings. (Let’s hope Henry Rollins is a little less “Rollins Show” moderating the West Memphis Three discussion than he was with Pussy Riot.) Fans will have a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it in, so it’s worthwhile to plan ahead and think about which artists you really want to see. On that front, the seven Riot Fest featurettes the Reader has devised ought to range from “potentially helpful” to “ridiculously pointless.” Enjoy! —Leor Galil