Photographs by Sarah Rix.
As we walked with our mud splattered war wounds towards the location of the second day of Riot Fest, each of us following the branded one in front of them, our shoes alone could tell a story. The first day, our shoes were on the verge of being destroyed. I tried to clean my boots for an hour; they still weren’t in great shape. On day two, the mud was dry in most areas (the wet patches were barricaded), and we could walk more freely but not entirely without an impression. This day I shared a coke with my name on it and also made a few friends who were just as excited as I was. If day one was a combination of intensity and emotion, this day was about unity; mud clad and all.
The New Pornographers brought their summer friendly music from Brill Bruisers to the stage right when the sun was at its brightest. “You’re not waiting to see Die Antwerp?” A.C. Newman asked near the start of their set (note also that he certainly pronounced die the English way). When I got a chance to talk to the band last month, Newman expressed that the newest album was the closest the band has been to achieving the sound they want. They certainly showed it, as they played a number of songs off Brill Bruisers for those who stayed for them. While thr bass did get a bit too loud at points, the harmonising was otherwise superb. Newman made a shoutout to those standing at the very front (the “bar people”), and The New Pornographers played their hearts out of appreciation.
If there was anyone who didn’t get Die Antwoord until now, it’s yours truly (as I don’t believe A.C. Newman does still). I wasn’t too fond of them for years and I kept trying their music in hopes of something making sense. It was only when I saw them live, with their neon baphomets and hip-yet-alienating fashion that I finally got what the answer is. Die Antwoord is an artistic contradiction. They are the lovechild of MIA and Death Grips conceived at a rave. With their intense and highly offensive set, one that resulted in fans crowd surfing almost entirely naked, their live show truly captures what they’re all about. Ninja and Yo-Landi rapped quickly and at ease while their bodies went spastic. They were joined by orange dancers that would do the Jesus Christ pose. Die Antwoord have questioned what it means to be rap artists without losing their actual ability, and it is this insane essence that finally brought me into the dark side.
A fight almost broke out at the Die Antwoord set, yet I’m surprised that nothing too rowdy happened at the set of barroom punks Dropkick Murphys. Their combination of punk and Celtic folk resulted in a highly excited crowd that stretched for miles. It was the perfect set to grab a pint to, and they shared that notion of togetherness with us. They welcomed their friends in Social Distortion that were to play next, and they ended their set with a short rendition of Blitzkreig Bop, possibly as a tribute to the last Ramones member to pass away (Tommy Ramone earlier this year). Their sound was clear and their guitars were sharp. Dropkick Murphys were all about having a rocking good time.
Their song I’m Shipping Up To Boston was featured in the 2006 film The Departed. Another key song linked to that film is Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones, which is the song Social Distortion used as introductory music. I’m not sure if the link to Dropkick Murphys was intentional, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. With a tulip strapped to his guitar, Mike Ness took lead of the stage; one that was full of images from the 1950s. He would cut to the chase usually and just play music, but once in a while he would talk politics. He wondered what we thought of Rob Ford, as he himself called Ford “a little sketchy”. Nonetheless, the music was catchy and not a single song felt dated, even this far into the band’s timeline. Every guitar chug could be felt, every drum hit felt authentic and every line sung was coated in a nice barbecue char. With their classic cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire to end their set, Ness and his gang proved that they still have it.
“And now for something a little different” were the words that followed Social Distortion’s fiery set. Without a Monty Python member in sight, we quickly realized that it was an innocent way for Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie to introduce his band after a day full of edge. Near the end of their set, Gibbard admitted that they were the least punk band there, but then questioned if that technically made them “the most punk mother fuckers” after all (he has a point). With a much safer stage presence and a much more reserved set, Death Cab For Cutie did stand out in that time slot, but they helped bring some dimension to those hours, even if for a little while. To have bands like The National and City and Colour appear later, we needed a band like Death Cab For Cutie to set the mood peacefully, and their quaint set helped do just that.
“I dig your scenario, Ontario. I just made that up on the spot” said Neil Fallon of Clutch who was far less reserved than Gibbard. If any band had the most fun (yes, even more than Die Antwoord and Metric), it was Clutch, who jammed with their southern seared heavy metal with wide smiles (and cowbells, too). The sound was spot on and Fallon was a terrific front man. The band rocked out while Fallon ran everywhere, pulled faces and put everything he could into his presence; all while actually singing extremely well. I hope people made their way over to this remote stage to see Clutch put on one of the most fun sets of the weekend, because if they didn’t, they missed what Fallon called “a romantic evening” (I don’t get it entirely myself).
While Fallon spoke like a gentleman, The National came on stage dressed with the utmost class. They had a large screen behind them that showed many images, ranging from silhouettes, eyes, news clips and even the band playing. You could really tell that this was a band that worked hard to finally get where they should be, where songs like Sea of Love were played with much more command live. The band was set up nicely on stage, and while they weren’t the most mobile band, they made up for it by fueling the music itself with all the energy they could muster. Singer Matt Berninger was mostly on point but would occasionally be off pitch, but it wasn’t often and you could tell it was because he was in the moment and not because he isn’t qualified. The National have finally made it, and their pure set surely instilled faith in many audience members dreams.
In terms of longevity, it was a privilege to have witnessed the punk rock legends Buzzcocks towards the end of the night. Without trying to dress down to match the modern punk scene, the band walked out onto the stage and just slayed song after song. Using as much fury as they had jn their heyday, it was a solid testament that some bands are always naturally good live, even decades after their best material was released. The mix was almost album quality, so this live rendition of their greatest hits was something any punk fan would have benefited from.
We not only had a band from eras ago but also a band that continues to preserve a genre from way back when. Metric have had their arms around new wave for about fifteen years now, and their live performance is a gigantic thank you to all of the new wave bands that have blessed them. Emily Haines runs around and jogs in place like David Byrne, and she focuses on channeling the audience at almost every second. She began to talk to us and then decided to be like a radio station that just plays the hits and has less talk. With mostly music for the entire set, the final song did have an introduction where Haines dedicated it to her friend who overcame health problems. She got the crowd to chant her name Jo, and thus Breathing Underwater began. The guitar tones were gorgeous, the bass was captivating and the drums echoed into the night. Metric were fun, spot on, joyful and an absolute delight. It couldn’t be soon enough whenever I see them again.
I covered the day’s headliner City and Colour back in June at CMW, and their set at Riot Fest was fairly similar. My one major gripe before was that the acoustics at the Air Canada Centre made the sound harsh to listen to, and I even stated that this set would have greatly benefited with better quality. There we were, outside in the open air. Dallas Green’s vocals soared through the sky. The band sounded crisp and not muddled. It appears that I was right, and Green got the kind of show he truly deserved. He ended the night on a peaceful note to ease us all out of one hell of a weekend. We left being carried off into the starry night following what was possibly the festival of the year.