Last year’s Riot Fest Credit: Danny O'Donnell

The Reader crew

Leor Galil Staff writer

S. Nicole Lane Editorial associate

Jamie Ludwig Associate editor

Philip Montoro Music editor

J.R. Nelson Freelance contributor

Philip Montoro How does the Riot Fest experience stack up against other similar festivals? What’s it like just being there, dealing with the crowds and the layout and the vendors and the security and so on?

J.R. Nelson As an almost middle-aged man, I think Riot Fest is the most comfortable overall fest experience by a wide margin. I enjoy as much space as possible between myself and other humans, and the way the fest is laid out at Douglas Park (if they maintain a similar setup this year) provides lots of space to sit and chill if that’s your thing.

Lollapalooza is a phone-booth nightmare. Pitchfork is a close second to Riot Fest, but I just think the Riot Fest layout is better for chill breaks.

S. Nicole Lane Even as a 29-year-old woman, I find Riot Fest to be the most comfortable. I’m comparing it to the other big fests like Lolla and Pitchfork.

J.R. Then again, I realize that most people go to fests for the hubbub and burble of other festivalgoers. I’m weird.

Nicole It’s also during a great time of the year, when the weather isn’t unbearable. I’ve always felt miserable at Pitchfork. So sweaty, so lazy, half asleep.

Jamie Ludwig I am (somewhat ironically, given my profession) extremely crowd averse, and even I find Riot Fest to be much less stressful than any other large-scale outdoor fest in town.

J.R. Also, with the rides, and food vendors seemingly chosen from more . . . how to put this . . . county-fair-style culinary options—I just appreciate that homier atmosphere.

Leor Galil I hadn’t spent much time with the carnival aspect of the fest until last year, when my friend brought me and her four-year-old daughter on a couple rides. And I gotta say, watching Digable Planets from a Ferris wheel is a memory I’ll hold on to for a long time.

Nicole I love taking a break on that Ferris wheel.

  • Former Chicagoist editor Tankboy shot 22 seconds of Dinosaur Jr.’s 2013 Riot Fest set from aboard the Ferris wheel.

Leor It was a touch unwieldy when there were six stages. And I won’t get into 2014, the year there were . . . seven? It was a blur.

Philip That was the year Patti Smith, the Cure, and Weezer all played, and there were pretty serious choke points when you tried to get from stage to stage.

Jamie I think more dudes at Riot Fest pee al fresco than at other fests. Or at least I’ve had the unfortunate experience of coming across a lot of them midstream.

Leor I’ve seen a line of men urinating on bushes in Grant Park during Lollapalooza—nothing will compare to it.

One thing I’ve noticed about Riot Fest’s current map is most of the food options have been pushed to the far east side of the park, which I suppose is nice, but really pulls me out of the event as a whole.

Nicole I dread going to eat, because I know I’ll be really far removed from everything (FOMO while at the event that I’m attending).

Leor I definitely ran to get a deep-fried Snickers right before the Jesus Lizard last year, but only because the stage they played on was so close to the food.

J.R. At the 2017 Riot Fest, I had one of the best micheladas of my entire life. There was a lady selling mix in a cup and tamarindo straws. You had to find your own beer for it, but wow. If I see that lady again, my fest is made.

For related reasons, I can’t remember the food I ate that year.

Leor Riot Fest isn’t expensive for an event like this, but “expensive” is relative. It’s not an entirely white, middle-aged crowd, but that’s the identity of the festival.

J.R. Riot Fest is the weakest when it comes to booking a diverse festival, especially when you think about the surrounding neighborhood.

Jamie One thing I have noticed is that the headliners can impact the demographics of the crowd. For example, the Misfits and Morrissey (pre-ultra-right era), who have large Latinx followings—I even met people who traveled here from Mexico that year.

Or if we’re talking about gender balance, No Doubt and Blondie seem to draw more women than some other artists.

Leor Last year it felt like everyone at Riot Fest was watching Blondie. Their set was mobbed!

J.R. Definitely more charmingly bad tattoos at Riot Fest. That’s my unscientific opinion!

Jamie I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’ve never had a bad experience as far as gender at Riot Fest—even in its club days, which did skew a little more heavily toward male fans (and a lot of tougher hardcore bands in general).

Nicole I feel good at Riot Fest. I’ve had more issues at Pitchfork and Lolla, because it’s more of a bro-y vibe there. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone. I will say I feel the safest at house-music festivals in the city.

Jamie I’ve spent a ton of time at male-dominated festivals, including a lot of metal festivals, over the years. I think the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt in a crowd as a woman at a fest was at Lollapalooza several years ago.

That’s not to say I haven’t been harassed and assaulted at other festivals. I have, and too many times to count.

J.R. That’s so disheartening.

Jamie But that is a part of why I appreciate that when Riot Fest has become aware of problems at their event, it’s responded accordingly.

Nicole Yeah, I’ve also felt that if someone has done something inappropriate (which hasn’t really happened . . . maybe like aggressive pushing), there’s always been several people that step in. Not that I need that, or always want that, but it has made me feel secure. I have more of a sense of community at Riot Fest than I do at other festivals. I’ve always said I’m just “hanging out with a bunch of people who are my friends” at Riot Fest, even though I don’t know any of them.

Leor Riot Fest is also one of the few (perhaps only) major local fests to post guidelines about consent (written by Our Music My Body) near the entrances.

Jamie I would tell anyone concerned about harassment at any festival to know that they can turn to security, and even sometimes other fans, rather than put up with that alone.

J.R. How have folks found public transportation to and from Riot Fest, as opposed to others?

Nicole I’ve only driven myself, so I can’t comment. Parking was easy, though.

Leor The fest manages to line up a fleet of buses outside the park for right when things wrap up. If you leave on the earlier side to catch an empty Pink Line train, it’s a hike to get around the park to the station.

Jamie I’ve found the buses easy to navigate at the end of the night.

Philip The Pink Line is the way to go, if you ask me. I’m hesitant to bike to any huge festival because large numbers of drunk people = higher chance someone will work mischief upon a locked-up bike.

Jamie When I’ve tried to go to an aftershow, I’ve had to leave considerably early in order to get an Uber.

Leor I for one am excited to see how many people try to ride e-scooters to the fest.

  • Several acts booked at Riot Fest Denver in 2016 demonstrate an important upside of carpooling.

Jamie So maybe carpooling is the best way to go—if you can ensure a designated driver, of course.

Leor The fest is . . . actually reasonably priced. Right now you can get a single-day ticket for less than $50 (without tax), which is actually competitive with this year’s Chosen Few Picnic.

Nicole Yeah, I don’t mind paying that at all. I spend that much in a weekend going out!

J.R. Their talent buy is bigger than Lolla and Pitchfork, and tickets are reasonable.

Leor And three-day GA passes are about $150, which is $50 less than Pitchfork.

J.R. I’ve had two booking agents tell me that they spend more on talent at Riot Fest than Lolla. They might have been blowing smoke.

Jamie When you consider that some of the bands who play charge $40, $50, or more for their tickets at other venues, it seems like an even better deal.

J.R. The fest isn’t letting me in to see the books, but that’s what I’ve heard!

Jamie To maximize your Riot Fest experience: bring sunscreen, wear comfortable shoes, and stay hydrated!

J.R. And don’t pee where any of us have to see you.

Nicole See ya from the Ferris wheel!  v

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.