When the crowd lurched forward for the opening notes of “Boxcar,” you knew it was finally real: Jawbreaker’s third show in 21 years and its first at anything remotely resembling the main stage of a behemoth like Riot Fest.
Sunday night (Sept. 17), the Chicago crowd got all it could have wanted from the storied, coulda-shoulda-been-as-big-as-Green Day cult punks. After two tiny warmup gigs last month (and some shaky solo shows from frontman Blake Schwarzenbach in recent years) Jawbreaker thrived as a powerful live unit — back, and with purpose.
The 15-song set was interjected with warm-hearted asides from Schwarzenbach, long seen as a literate fellow, now waxing poetic from a hulking festival stage instead of a dingy club. He decried “corporate sexism,” “corporate racism” and “capitalist shit” and nodded to the crowd in solidarity: “We have to fight our way out.” He wore a shirt featuring the words “Gaza on My Mind” in both English and Arabic. Bassist Chris Bauermeister dressed in all red, including a T-shirt emblazoned with a common Anti-Fascist logo. Onstage, they were surrounded by enough VIPs, members of other bands and lucky fans to fill one of their early ‘90s club shows. And for this sizable contingent, Jawbreaker brought along an entire of tent of its own brand new merchandise.
Shocking as it was to see an enigmatic niche band with a merch set-up to rival (Friday headliners) Nine Inch Nails, the big takeaway remained how darn good Jawbreaker sounded. 1995’s Dear You, the ill-fated major label leap that essentially imploded them, contributed six songs — more than any other LP — to the 15-song set list, further legitimizing the legend it’s become. Pummeling and gritty, Schwarzenbach, Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler did a remarkable job of filling the Douglas Park airwaves, whether through chugging, straight-ahead rockers (“Want,” “Save Your Generation”) or the sort of knotty dirges (“Accident Prone,” “Bivouac”) that truly showcase Jawbreaker’s unpredictable menace. The latter closed off the evening with Schwarzenbach and his guitar collapsed in catharsis on the stage floor, bandmates and giddy onlookers surrounding. If the first performance of barroom bawler “Kiss the Bottle” in 22 years just a song prior didn’t get you feeling a certain kind of way, this finale absolutely did the trick.
The 12th year of Riot Fest, a veritable grown-up Warped Tour (with a strain of some matured, well-adjusted Ozzfest) also featured Set. 15 headliners Nine Inch Nails, Sept. 16 headliners Queens of the Stone Age and a heavy dose of Paramore‘s excellent 2017 album After Laughter in an hour-long, headline-worthy set just before Jawbreaker’s. Aside from that, there was a take-your-pick smorgasboard of punk, metal, indie rock and hip-hop across the fest’s three days, largely of the left-of-center variety. You can watch Nine Inch Nails headline most any mainstream music festival in the world, but rarely does Trent Reznor get to kick it with one of his most cherished musical influences.
The big Jawbreaker reunion was the latest in a growing list of Riot Fest power moves, joining the classic-lineup Misfits spectacle from a year ago and 2013’s Replacements reunion. It’s tough to earn the respect of grizzled old punks accustomed to passing on lucrative festival reunion requests for the umpteenth time, but Riot Fest has put in time, earned the right connections and proved its stripes time and time again. Founder Mike Petryshyn and partners Corrie Christopher Martin and Sean McKeough (who died of cancer last year, surely making this go-around even more daunting) have built a uniquely esteemed experience. Perhaps they’re already reaching out to the likes of Bikini Kill and Fugazi and the other steadfastly, still-not-getting-back-together white whales of the punk world.
Here is the set list from Jawbreaker’s show (via Setlist.fm):
2. “Sluttering (May 4)”
4. “The Boat Dreams From the Hill”
5. “West Bat Invitational”
6. “Save Your Generation”
7. “Jet Black”
8. “In Saddling Around”
9. “Accident Prone”
12. “Condition Oakland”
14. “Kiss the Bottle”