Concert Review: Riot Fest Denver, Colorado; Friday August 29-Sunday August 31, 2015

Canada is just a bit larger than the USA and is comprised of ten provinces and three territories. If we’re very lucky touring bands and festivals visit three or four of these major cities. Living in Toronto means that all bands that are touring North America will make a stop here. Famous live albums and films have been recorded here (see examples one, two and three). While we aren’t as lucky as our American neighbours to have so many concert options, we have it pretty good.

With this dink as the Mayor of Toronto from 2010-2014, we surprisingly saw some changes to the Toronto music scene in the duration of his reign. It first became apparent in 2012, with the birth of three new festivals – Toronto-born efforts Field Trip and Toronto Urban Roots Festival, as well as Riot Fest. The subsequent years led to repeat visits of these new festivals, whispers of Chicago’s Lollapalooza new music-focused positions created with the City of Toronto and one embarrassing SXSW visit by our former idiot Mayor. Our new Mayor, John Tory, seemed pretty surprised by the importance of the Austin music scene.

Music, culture and healthy communities is not a new thing (see Richard Florida for more on this), but what is new is we’re starting to see some sort of musical shift in Toronto. I credit this to a lively music scene, the few surviving concert venues and its status as the fourth largest city in North America.

Riot Fest is one of many festivals scheduled for early-September, one of the busiest times of year, with Just for Laughs comedy festival, Toronto Urban Roots Festival and The Toronto International Film Festival. Despite the fierce competition for festival-goers, Riot Fest has done alright. It expanded from a one-day festival in 2012 to a two-day festival in 2013. It downgraded locations from the downtown haunts of Fort York to the North York airfield, Downsview Park. I had high hopes last year in anticipation of carnival offerings with the larger festival grounds space, but I was welcomed to maximum carnival eats, but no carnival. Perhaps the carnies are exhausted from their two-week-long bender Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), occurring around Riot Fest time in Toronto.

I took to Denver, Colorado last weekend to get a feel for how Riot Fest works in the US. I was greeted to dust, heat and a sea of tattoos. The venue lived up to the festival’s “rodeo” handle situated on a property used for the world’s largest stock show held every January, showcasing 15,000 animals and a rodeo. Spaced appropriately so no two acts were playing too close to each other at the same time, something that Toronto’s venue gives no leeway to.

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To this blogger’s eyes and ears, Riot Fest Denver has a stronger line up with more indie acts, such as the Pixies, Modest Mouse, Nada Surf and the Get Up Kids. Toronto’s line up has the genre-diverse line up Denver has, but will draw fewer indie rock lovers. Riot Fest Toronto’s line up last year included Death Cab for Cutie, the National, The Flaming Lips and the New Pornographers, acts that would draw a significantly different crowd than the likes of this year’s roster.

Festival sets are challenging, as demonstrated by post-rock veterans, Explosions in the Sky. The band filed on stage as Alabama hip-hop artist, Yelawolf, was finishing up his set. Explosions guitarist Munaf Rayani used the lone mic on stage to remark that this is going to be a short set, so they have to make the most of it here. The band opened up with The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place album opener “First Breath After a Coma.” Mid-way through the song, Rayani’s amp gave, which put some roadies to good use in making a quick swap. Rayani was able to rejoin in the last minute of the song.

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Seeing Explosions in the Sky is an experience for the ears, but I look forward to the opportunity of watching how the music is made. With just three guitars, a bass guitar and drums, the band is able to swell and swallow sound on a dime. The band did their best given the circumstances. Major praise for plugging through the seven-minute set closer “Postcard from 1952,” which was poisoned by a two or three long toots from a moving train less than one hundred feet away from the band.

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I caught a delightful mid-day set from Welsh act The Joy Formidable. It was a throwback to 2011, as they’ve slipped off my radar since. It was great to hear they’re still fun and energetic. Leader of the pack Ritzy Bryan was the cutest gal at the festival in a conservative mod-style, mini-dress with black leggings. Bryan dropped about half a dozen curse words in cutely complaining about having to restart a song because of her bassist.

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Festival wildcard players, Nada Surf, played a mid-day set that would have put even the greatest Nada Surf fan to sleep. The night prior, I stumbled upon this article that was apparently written about Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws, which was all I could think about in watching the band play. The band introduced Doug Gillard as a new addition to the band, formerly of Guided by Voices.

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I was excited to hear Thrice live, a band I don’t think I’d pay to see now, but would be delighted to hear at a festival. Twelve years ago, you could find me wearing big headphones hanging on to every word of the album The Artist in the Ambulance. I had slowly made my way to the stage to find that their second song in their set was the title track from that very album. I dashed into the VIP camera section to snap photos, but mostly hang on to every word that left singer/guitarist Dustin Kensrue’s mouth. I was excited to find that most of the audience crushed to the front of the barriers hung on to every word too, allowing Kensrue to take advantage of full audience participation. The band was selling a shirt at the merch table that read: “Play Deadbolt,” which I found ironic as it was the sloppiest song performed in the band’s hour-long set.

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Seeing Conor Oberst his old rock outfit Desaparecidos in great form made me respect the guy musically even more. Conor’s scrappy, spit-filled vocals fit perfectly with the band’s sound. This set has seasoned me to dive right into their new album and a few festival shows in Toronto later this month.

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Philadelphia’s Beach Slang were my takeaway band from this festival. Upon taking the stage, singer/guitarist James Alex expressed his surprise by the hundred-person crowd at his feet. The band’s poppy-grunge sound and rough vocals are a bit reminiscent of the Replacements. Their fuck-all attitude also reflects Paul Westerberg and company, Alex declared to the crowd that this would be the most unprofessional set of the entire festival. Much the opposite, I was impressed by the band’s solid sound and performance.

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Riot Fest Day 2 at Fort York; Sunday August 25, 2013

This entire day has been to the Replacements tune “Alex Chilton,” the deceased frontman of Big Star. An homage made by a band that received big praise from fans that have been deprived of their stage show for twenty-two years. Toronto was fortunate to be the first of a string of three Riot Fest gigs and the only Canadian date.

I have to admit, I’m a pretty green Replacements fan. I got into them after trying to get over a past lover years ago, which very unhealthily meant launching into something that he loved. In this scenario, I won, as the Replacements have become easily one of my favourite bands to come out of the eighties. They’re often regarded as a “heart-on-sleeve” alternative rock band, which diverged significantly from their punk rock predecessors. Perhaps that’s why my indie music heart fell for these Minnesota scrappers. There’s something sloppy about the Replacements, which launched my interest in the music scene they were based in. If you’re new to the ‘80s alternative rock music scene, I highly recommend Michael Azerrad’s excellent book Our Band Could Be Your Life. A book I read as another measure to impress the same ex-lover, which only served to heighten my respect for the Replacements.

The Replacements played a prompt set, starting right at 8:45pm, meeting their 10pm curfew. By the end of their set, I could tell they were stretching themselves thin. Bassist Tommy Stinson, no longer the runt of the band with drummer Josh Freese in tow, made remarks about how they’d play at least one song for their encore. After playing the tune “Alex Chilton,” the band shared some unease about the remaining time and providing some mid-set banter acknowledged to kill time in their set. Frontman Paul Westerberg jaunted out in a Montreal Canadians jersey, which yielded mixed remarks from the crowd. I was really surprised to see that some people threw water bottles at the band after seeing the Habs jersey. To close, they played two tunes, one being a rendition of the tune “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the Broadway musical Gypsy, released on an EP released in 2012 called Songs for Slim. The band’s exit song “IOU” was from their 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me. While the tune received some success on the charts in its prime, it likely served as a nod to Iggy Pop who inspired the song based on an autograph that Pop had given to Westerberg in the mid-eighties that read “IOU Nothing.” Westerberg made slight reference at the beginning of the song to that very message.

After turning to the audience for requests mid set, the band played the Let It Be gem “Androgynous,” which Westerberg acknowledged was going to be played on the guitar, not the piano. They played a few other nuggets from the crowd-pleasing album Let It Be including “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “I Will Dare.” Westerberg dedicated the tune to anyone who was dragged to Riot Fest against his or her will. He stumbled through the lyrics of the third verse of the song, saved by guitarist David Minehan, who brought Westerberg back to the chorus. It was a bit of a trainwreck, but with each slip, Westerberg owned up to it shamelessly, once even stating, in true scrappy Replacements fashion, “ah, I forgot the lyric, oh well.”

The entire gig can actually be heard here.

The ultimate weakness of the Toronto festival was the unbalanced lineup over the two days. By choice, I only showed up for the second of two days, and I’m not complaining. Perhaps, I’m getting old in only wanting to attend one day’s worth of a festival… I arrived to find that Best Coast went on half an hour prior to their scheduled set time, which also meant they ended a bit earlier too. With each time I hear Best Coast they keep getting better. This is the third time I’ve seen the band play and beyond acquiring a better sound, the band has even added the occasional bass player, who primarily served as the third guitarist for most tunes. It was nice to hear songs like their closer “Boyfriend” bulked up with a backbone sound that a bassist gives to their music. Frontwoman Bethany Cosentino expressed delight and pride in claiming that she was honoured to be at the gig and that she was the only female performer. There were times during the Best Coast set where I felt a bit girly singing along to lyrics like “I hate sleeping alone” and “I wish I had a boyfriend” in the sea of tattoos and converse shoes. Just a few examples of uneasy Best Coast lyrics, which certainly ooze girl insecurities, a bit out of place at this festival.

Much of the rest of the gig served as an introduction to new music for me. Throughout the day there was much buzz about all of the big names that would be playing with bands. Perhaps the overlooked band members such as Minutemen founder Mike Watt, who played bass in Iggy Pop’s band the Stooges, session drummer Josh Freese, who joined the Mats. It was really invigorating to be exposed to bands that I have “heard of” but haven’t “heard” thoroughly. The live shows are always such a grab bag for first time listeners because of the distant, uneducated listen you’re giving the band. It is however exciting to see people really into music, and I feel as though day two of Riot Fest really gave in that respect. The lineup provided a constant flow of quality music, which left few dull moments, well worth the $80.