Weezer, Beck, Elvis Costello & More Help Riot Fest Weather Rocky Lead-Up
Two weeks after having to quell doubts it would even take place, Riot Fest put on a well-attended, hitch-free showing in Chicago’s Douglas Park. The months leading up to its 14th run assaulted it with numerous obstacles typical of the 2018 festival market -- canceled headliners, delayed schedules, a ticketing hack -- yet the past three days of punk, metal, hip-hop and other alt-adjacent sounds let fans and organizers breathe a collective sigh of relief. Riot Fest did indeed happen, and once it got going, it was hard to tell anything had gone awry.
It was, however, tough to miss the absence of Blink-182. Back on Sept. 6, the seminal pop-punk band canceled its Riot Fest headlining gig (and the rest of a small tour) upon learning drummer Travis Barker, recovering from blood clots in his arms, had not been medically cleared to perform. At this point, the final wave of performers was still unannounced, and Blink’s cancellation meant two of the fest’s three evenings were without headliners. Also adding to the grim speculation was the fact that single-day schedules remained unannounced. But in came the reinforcements of Taking Back Sunday, Run the Jewels and Weezer -- the latter two joining Beck to fill the vacant headline slots. A Blink set would have been monumental for numerous reasons: Their last album was a career-reviving No. 1, they’ve been hinting at new music for over a year, and fans would’ve gotten to see guitarist Matt Skiba (who replaced Tom DeLonge in 2015) play with both his prominent bands in the same weekend (Alkaline Trio tore through a hometown performance Sunday night that might as well have been a headliner).
With Blink out of commission, Weezer paid its respects Friday night by covering arguably their biggest hit. “Say it ain’t so, I will not go,” sang Rivers Cuomo in a faithful “All the Small Things” run-through, right before cleverly kicking into his band’s own “Say It Ain’t So.” This pairing was bookended by Weezer’s now well-known cover of Toto’s “Africa” -- aka, the second-biggest alternative radio song in America -- followed by a set-closing cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” They also covered “Take on Me,” “Happy Together” and a snippet of Green Day’s “Longview,” deftly navigating the karaoke-bar-style goofiness that festival crowds lap up.
Through arguably more suited to a Lollapalooza stage (or, within city limits, even Pitchfork Festival), Beck capped Saturday’s lineup of more circle-pit-friendly sounds with style and charisma, dishing out more than two decades of alt radio hits. After the likes of “Loser,” “Girl” and “Dreams” were through, Beck finished with a jamboree of Weezer-whimsy proportions. Roughly two-thirds of the way through “Where It’s At,” he brought out electro pioneer Gary Numan (who’d performed earlier that day) for a spot-on take of the Numan classic “Cars,” followed by bits of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” before returning to one last “Where It’s At” chorus.
While Elvis Costello’s appearance was once in doubt (a cancer scare forced him to cancel several gigs this summer), the living legend did indeed perform, looking not the least bit rusty jamming alongside the Imposters. In one of his first shows back, Costello treated fans to a set packed with '70s and '80s standards early Saturday evening. "I'm doing great, thanks,” he announced upon taking the stage, before jumping into “Pump It Up.”
And then there was Jerry Lee Lewis. The 82-year-old “Great Balls of Fire” singer is one of the last '50s rock ’n’ roll icons still kicking, and he rewarded Riot Fest for having the guts to book him for a Saturday night set (alongside Interpol and the Jesus Lizard) with a massively entertaining performance. Lewis doesn’t perform much these days, and when he does, it’s typically to casinos and tame theater crowds. This night, he got to look up from his baby grand and see an actual circle pit -- fans running around, genuinely losing their minds to “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.”
It’s unlikely many other festivals of Riot Fest’s size could pull off a Jerry Lee Lewis set, just like it was kind of preposterous they managed to pull Jawbreaker out of retirement and make them a headliner last year. Despite the hiccups in its rollout, Riot Fest 2018 was lively, well-attended (crowd sizes roughly the same as previous Douglas Park runs) and deserving of plenty of good will toward next year.