Riot Fest Denver 2015: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Riot Fest Denver 2015

My Festival Experience:
3 Days / 2 Nights
16 Hours
26 Bands

Top 10 Moments:
Iggy Pop – agelessly following “The Passenger” with “Lust for Life”.
Ice Cube – performing N.W.A material with MC Ren and DJ Yella.
System of a Down – dropping “Aerials” and “B.Y.O.B.” on a massive crowd.
The Dead Milkmen – performing “Punk Rock Girl” like it was 1988.
The Damned – burning through “New Rose” like it was 1976.
Eagles of Death Metal – Jesse Hughes’ shtick mixed with straight-up rock ‘n roll.
Saturday Night – taking a break to catch Chelsea Wolfe instead.
L7 – Donita Sparks ripping through “Shitlist” like a boss.
Tenacious D – encoring with “Fuck Her Gently” while we waited for Snoop.
Snoop Dogg – performing “Lodi Dodi” without any distractions.

Riot2

Why National Western Complex was better than Mile High and May Farms:
Lack of Neighbors / Big Events Center to Cool Off In

For the second year in a row, Riot Fest Denver was actually located in Denver. Leaving May Farms and the people of Byers in peace, the promoters decided not to rock the boat (or neighbors) around the stadium either, so they relocated to the National Western Complex off Brighton. The main advantage of the new location was in its surroundings. Set back in an industrial area, the chances of noise complaints were drastically reduced. Being able to cool off in the Events Center came in handy as well, considering Mother Nature delivered hell-like conditions throughout the weekend. Trading the hayrides and other farming themes of Byers, and the urban asphalt of last year, the main area of Riot Fest 2015 was a desolate, apocalyptic wasteland, so having some shelter was essential. In some ways it was better than being in a parking lot (and transportation to and from the event was much simpler than Byers), but other than that, I have to say I was extremely disappointed in the space.

Riot3

Why Mile High and May Farms were better than National Western Complex:
Aesthetic / Lack of Dirt

May Farms was far away from anywhere, but it felt like a festival space. It was a comfortable (and at times beautiful) place with plenty of room to stretch out. Camping was available for those who wanted that true festival experience as well. The police situation was a little ridiculous after the show, but it felt like a small Outside Lands Fest (in Kansas). I applaud the effort that went into recreating that ‘farm’ feel at Mile High last year, but no amount of hay or windmills could mask the fact that we were in a parking lot. That being said, the close proximity to downtown (and the city skyline in the background) made it work out just fine. The National Western Complex isn’t far, but it is ugly. Real ugly. Dirt, dirt and more dirt. Adding a plethora of tobacco booths didn’t help either. The Purina Dog Chow factory was the only landmark that stood out on the depressing horizon. I appreciated the end-of-times carnival theme (the evil clowns and red devils fit perfectly into their surroundings), but it was still a pretty shitty place to spend a weekend.

Friday

Best Day of the Weekend:
Friday

Each day had a lot to offer, but Friday was my best day overall. I was able to get in early and beat the crowds. After getting my bearings, I was lucky enough to witness Benjamin Booker absolutely kill his mid-afternoon set. After Booker, I went inside to escape the heat and catch some cloud rap from Oakland’s Main Attrakionz. They threw out some schwag before performing a solid set for an extremely small audience. As a few people milled around, checking their phones or trying their luck on the mechanical bull, I couldn’t help but wonder why larger acts weren’t booked for the huge Events Center (The Prodigy would have killed in there). Venturing back out into the elements, I caught The Get Up Kids for the first time. Then Death Grips ate the afternoon for breakfast before 88 Fingers Louie threw down some old school pop punk. We drank through Anthrax and Cypress Hill, while listening from a distance. Instead of letting ourselves slide into full-blown ADD festival mode, we made a plan to catch the first half of Iggy Pop before posting up for Ice Cube. Iggy was ageless as he gave a shout out to Lemmy, and then shit got real when Ice Cube brought MC Ren and DJ Yella out for some classic N.W.A shit. System of a Down had the rough task of following it all up, but they did just fine. In fact, they drew such an enormous crowd that we were unable to get anywhere close to the stage, but that was just fine as well. It had already been an eight hour day and I’d received more than my money’s worth.

DGBand That Gave the Least Amount of Fucks About the Heat:
Death Grips

It was 6:30pm on Friday evening when Death Grips took the stage, marking the second time in a row they have shown up for a scheduled gig in Denver. One of the most frightening bands making noise today, MC Ride was slightly more ferocious in broad daylight as he stalked the stage like a predator tracking his prey. Starting strong with “Takyon (Death Yon)”, the set devolved into chaotic performance punk (seasoned with a generous amount of hip-hop), as Zach Hill abused his drum kit with a sinister smile on his face. Not a word was spoken to the crowd of spectators as Death Grips did as Death Grips do. Their 45-minute set was stacked with fan-favorites, leaning heavily on material from The Money Store, while surprisingly steering clear of their latest double album (with the exception of “Inanimate Sensation”). Having just seen them perform at the Ogden Theatre, the early outdoor experience provided a much different (naked) perspective of the band, but overall it was just as intense. Definitely one of the more memorable sets of the weekend.

Dead Milkmen

Best Reason for Standing in the Extreme Heat:
The Dead Milkmen

After eight hours of festing on Friday, I found it difficult to get motivated on Saturday. Especially considering the hellish temperatures. I had three motivating factors though…Joe Genaro, Rodney Linderman and Dean Sabatino. The Dead Milkmen were the reason I found myself standing in the dirt, sweating profusely with a warm beer in my hand at three o’clock in the afternoon. It was a rush to get from the gate to the bar to the stage, but I arrived just in time for “Punk Rock Girl”. The Milkmen were hardly recognizable from the video I remember watching in the late-80’s, but they sounded the same. In fact, Linderman literally had more energy than the kids in the crowd. Using their short set to cram in as many songs as possible, they did so without skimping on the silly punk rock banter. Linderman was the primary mouthpiece, assuring the audience that “Stuart” was an ‘anti-homophobic song’ (“so you can’t stop flipping me off!“) before advocating for Velvet Acid Christ, The Vandals and The Damned. When Genaro asked him how he was going to get across the entire festival to see his favorite band, it led into “Bitchin’ Camero”. I can’t claim to know (or remember) all The Dead Milkmen songs, but I feel like they did the majority of them. If anything was left off the setlist, it wasn’t anything that mattered to me. Being the first time I’d ever seen the band, I was very impressed. They were worth getting out of bed for.

Eagles

Band Most in Their Element:
Eagles of Death Metal

The Eagles of Death Metal do not perform death metal. The Eagles of Death Metal perform their own brand of retro, stoner rock, forged in the blistering heat of Palm Desert. Just one of many side-projects for Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, the band’s shtick doesn’t end with their name. The only other permanent member, and the character who takes the name on tour, is Jesse “The Devil” Hughes. It was The Devil who took the stage in a red-and-white checkered, long-sleeved shirt and jeans on Saturday afternoon to applaud all the “rock ‘n roll cannibals who had been waiting in the sun,” before insisting all the women stay hydrated, “because sunstroke is a real thing, so if you need anything, I’ll come right out there and grab you.” Hughes never broke character as his mouth kept running in between beautiful love songs like “Heart On”, “Whorehoppin’ (Shit, Goddamn)” and “I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)”. Right at home in the middle of the dusty, dirty day, The Eagles of Death Metal lit a fire on the stage that made us feel like we were standing in the shade. Hands down one of the best straight-up rock performances of the weekend. I really couldn’t think of a better way to end my festival on Saturday, so I left after their set. I listened to a bit of Cold War Kids and caught a couple Thrice songs on my way out, but no one flew as high as the Eagles on Saturday afternoon.

L7

Best Reunion Performance:
L7

I’ve only seen L7 perform at festivals. Once at Lollapalooza ’94 and once at Board in South Bay (the precursor to Warped Tour) in ’95. I remember being a fan of Bricks Are Heavy, but I remember the graphic Smell the Magic t-shirts more than anything else, so I’m not sure why I was so excited when the girls got the band back together after thirteen years apart. They were one of the main reasons I decided to attend the festival on Sunday, but I really didn’t know what to expect. What they delivered was one of the best performances of the whole weekend. They weren’t polished, they had sound problems, and they seemed a little out of sync at times, but who the hell cares about any of that? They were L7 and they were rocking that shit. They came out with guns blazing and didn’t stop until they were forced to. The set opened with “Deathwish” (after complaining about having to follow Reverend Horton Heat) and it ended with “Fast and Frightening”, but in between those two songs, Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch and Demetra Plakas performed the shit outta “Andres”, “Everglade”, “Shove”, “Pretend We’re Dead”, and my personal favorite, “Shitlist”, among others. Their pure energy, sense of humor, and camaraderie were unbelievable. Sparks nailing that flutter in her voice during “Shitlist” was awesome as well. Seriously, if you get the chance to see these chicks, do it! They might be 50+ years old, but they will still rock more than just your socks off if you give them the chance.

The D

Best Comic Relief:
Tenacious D

The people I was with on Sunday night had never seen Tenacious D or Snoop Dogg, so we made the executive decision to skip The Prodigy in favor of a good spot for the headliners. Bootsy Collins and his Rubber Band were dropping some funk all over the Riot Stage as we made our way up front. We ended up with a prime piece of real estate for Snoop, so rather than give it up, we watched The D from the side. JB and KG brought a full band out with them for a rock show that doubled as sketch comedy. The classics like “Tribute”, “Kielbasa” and “The Metal” were all represented, as was as a little free jazz (“jazz is freedom, terrorists hate jazz”) accompanied by a “jazz mosh pit.” They covered Bad Company (“I fuckin’ feel like makin’ love!”), they gave Dio his due, and the devil took KG to Hell. Jack Black proved once again that he could’ve gone a different direction with his career, as he rocked out with his belly out like someone who isn’t worth tens of millions of dollars. After a long rendition of “Double Team” (with band introductions), they left us hanging, but they were quick to come back with one more. “Snoop hasn’t left the hotel yet, he’s blazin’ a J at the Four Seasons,” so in the meantime, thousands of people were able to sing along with “Fuck Her Gently”…and it was as sweet as they wanted it to be!

Snoop

Biggest Surprise:
Snoop Dogg

Everything had been running on time, so when it was fifteen minutes past Snoop’s starting time, I started to have my doubts. Why are we always waiting on the rappers? Every ‘band’ performed without sound checks and didn’t complain, but there we were, at the last set of the festival, and the entourage were talking selfies while Dr. Dre’s Compton album played in the background. It could have been a bad scene, but when Snoop opened with “Gin and Juice” at 9:30pm, the disaster was narrowly averted. In fact, the D O double G came to impress. I’ve seen the guy eight times since 1995 and it’s always been hit or miss. I can’t remember the last time he just stuck to the hits. So although he didn’t perform Doggystyle in its entirety as advertised, he did the songs that mattered, making it one of the best sets he’s done in awhile. “Lodi Dodi”, “Serial Killa”, “Who Am I?”, “Ain’t No Fun”, “Pump Pump”, and even that small “Chronic Break” were all performed straight through, while the air turned sticky icky with the stench of Colorado’s finest. The setlist was great, but the most impressive part of the show was that Snoop actually rapped his own songs. With the exception of the Dirty Dogg mascot, there were no distractions on the stage. The only other person rapping was Kurupt. Snoop came to please, and as he paid tribute to Biggie, Pac and Eazy, he proved he’s earned his spot among the greats. It’s not often that an old school rapper can truly perform these days, but Snoop did just that on Sunday night.

Iggy

Best Performance:
Iggy Pop

It doesn’t make any sense that Iggy Pop should be the guy who rocked Riot Fest the best. The man born James Newell Osterberg, Jr. in 1947 is less than a year younger than Lemmy Kilmister, yet he seems like he is in peak condition. Opening his set with “No Fun”, a song that preceded my own birth by almost a decade, made The Stooges sound like the most relevant band in the world. And as it bled into “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, Iggy shed his black leather jacket like a snake shedding its skin, leaving behind nothing but skinny jeans, a diamond studded belt, and the flesh of a man posing like a crucified Christ with a microphone cord in his mouth. Say what you will, the man knows how to strike a pose. He is a living, breathing specimen of a time before punk. When he moved on to his solo material with “The Passenger”, he painted a world before my time. If I had the choice to have a drink with one person who performed Riot Fest this weekend, I would choose Iggy Pop. He is just one of the most interesting people in the world. It’s probably cliché to say “Lust for Life” is my favorite song, but I know it was on Friday night, and he nailed it like it 1977 all over again. We weren’t able to stick around for his whole set, but from what I saw, it was the best overall performance of the weekend.

N.W.A

Most Memorable Set:
Ice Cube

N.W.A are on a roll right now. The World’s Most Dangerous Group haven’t received this much press since “Fuck the Police” was making headlines when I was in elementary school. Now there’s a critically acclaimed movie about group, Dr. Dre just released his first album in sixteen years, and there are rumors about an upcoming tour. What began as a group of angry kids growing up in Compton ended up blossoming into an unstoppable movement, and while it is debatable that any of the surviving members have anything new to contribute as rappers or producers, there is no doubt that they are the defining symbol of the gangsta rap culture that grew from the seeds they planted in the streets of Southern California. There is also no doubt that at least two of the members, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, are genius businessmen. And as businessmen, they know how to get paid. So, I’m sure the full blown tour will happen when they get the financial aspects of it worked out, but in the meantime, seeing Ice Cube & Guests (Straight Outta Compton Remix) on the bill at Riot Fest was enough to create a little anticipation. Seeing MC Ren and DJ Yella post photos of themselves in Denver on Friday morning caused expectations to rise a little higher. And when that N.W.A banner dropped on the Roots Stage on Friday night, it all boiled over.

MC Ren

Straight Outta Compton in its entirety was probably too much to hope for (as was an appearance by Dr. Dre), but I will say I was a little disappointed that Cube, Ren and Yella decided to open their mini-set with “Chin Check”. All was forgiven when “Straight Outta Compton” was performed though. Cube’s energy more than made up for his slightly diminished skills at the mic, but Ren was seriously on fire. That guy nailed his verses. “Gangsta Gangsta” came next and it was followed by “Dope Man” (with Cube’s son joining in). A little theatrics about the “police back stage” were all that stood between the audience and “Fuck the Police”. Thousands of middle fingers were in the air like we were in some arena in the late-80’s. The reunion didn’t last long enough, but it was worthy of the hype. Cube and his son took us through a few more songs from his solo (and Westside Connection) days after Yella and Ren exited the stage. “It Was a Good Day” wasn’t the last song, but it was the one that resonated best with those who had been at the festival since early afternoon. Once the full blown reunion tour comes through, the short set at Riot will probably be forgotten (as was the one I saw at Up In Smoke Tour in 2000), but it was definitely the most memorable set of the weekend for me.

Dis

Biggest Disappointment of the Weekend:
National Western Complex

Overall, there isn’t much to complain about. Motörhead weren’t able to make it, and I’m sorry to hear about Lemmy’s health, but I probably would have missed their set in favor of N.W.A anyway. I missed Rancid perform …And Out Come the Wolves, but I saw them on that tour in ’95. I also missed Run–D.M.C., but I was able to catch them at Fun Fun Fun Fest a few years ago. Seeing Chelsea Wolfe and Wovenhand at Bluebird was worth missing out on Saturday night’s acts for me. The crowd seemed good (I didn’t see any fights), and although it was hot as hell on Saturday, at least it didn’t flood out on Sunday like it did the past two years. There were plenty of bars and bartenders…and there were plenty of porta potties…but there could have been more water (fountains and misters) available to cool people off. I saw too many people go down with heat stroke and they didn’t seem to be getting the attention they needed quick enough. The food options were excellent though. Overall, I think it was a successful festival. The only reason I might not go back next year is because I hated the venue itself. It was just extremely ugly. That being said, if the bands are good, the ugly festival grounds probably won’t keep me away in 2016.