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Riot Fest
BENT NIGHTS Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester

This article shared 2319 times since Tue Sep 25, 2012
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"Tonight I'm going dancing/With the drag queens and the punks..."—Joni Mitchell

The idea of this year's Riot Fest as a carnival in green, manicured Humboldt Park had to have been a joke. An annual festival focused on hardcore punk rock usually played out after dark in small venues and clubs, this year's version came with barbecue stands, carnival rides, jugglers, clowns and burlesque ballerinas. But in actuality Riot Fest 2012 was a brilliant and timely close to this summer's end, but to get that irony you have to look at history.

Back in the '70s (when The Ramones, The Clash and the Sex Pistols introduced it), punk rock was about anger and subversion—the more confrontational, the better. British punk, the genuine article, was a reaction to political conservatism, an ancient class system designed to keep the lower class in the lower class and the arrival of one Margaret Thatcher (who was described as having "lips like Marilyn Monroe and eyes like Dracula"). With few job prospects, unchecked immigration, a re-emergence of fascism, the cloying omnipotence of an expensive and impotent royal family, and the denial of a future, the appearance of punk made sense as a youth movement then and as inevitable history now. The abrupt death of the '60s hippie movement gave way to a harder and much more cynical scene; although several civil-rights movements evolved simultaneously, punk rock was the spark that pushed issues into faces.

Malcolm McLaren may have turned the scene into a commodity, but punk was always about far more than fashion and acting out. Sure, you had people like Sid Vicious, who were doomed to self-destruct in the messiest way possible, but what set the Brit punks apart from the Brown Shirts and the Hitler Youth of 1930s Berlin was that the punkers were aware of their realities while the Nazis exploited ignorance as a policy. Figures as goofy as McLaren and Johnny Rotten had a knack for slopping intellectualism on top of the scene; however, what was at punk's core was a rejection of upper-class table scraps and emotional expression through unfiltered rock and roll.

It's no wonder that not only did the Brit punks spearhead Rock Against Racism, celebrate reggae and ska, and ignite their own anti-fascist movement, but they also embraced LGBT rights long before it was chic to do so. It's hardly a coincidence that as the LGBT-rights movement was dovetailing into a potent, inescapable force, punk rock seemed to come out of nowhere and grow with it. In short, the time for all that rage was right for a whole lot of people who didn't see themselves as punkers or activists. Queer Nation and ACT UP's borrowing of punk's confrontational tactics while transforming safe, polite gay life into queer living is undeniable. Even the annual worldwide gay pride parades could be seen as a "punk statement"; it's where outsiders celebrate what makes them "outsiders" by the millions. As for the Occupy Movement, well, draw your own conclusions.

As Joni Mitchell implied, we have far more in common with punk rockers than we might care to admit, which is what brought Riot Fest 2012 home to me in an unexpected way. Yes, there were hordes of black-garbed rockers, Mohawk-crowned heads of every design, black leathers in the heat, hopping nubile bodies at every turn, and black mascara and finger nail polish everywhere. There were also lots of same-sex couples strolling around hand in hand without a care in the world, and lots and lots of little kids checking out the bands that they'd sampled at home with their parents.

With all the anger, confrontation and malice that punk implies, I have to say that with all the mayhem and people (close to 70,000 in attendance) I saw no fights, confrontations or no mean looks; even the slammers in the mosh pits were cheery and polite.

All that normalcy and delight didn't dull the music or the line-up, and apart from a dearth of female-fronted bands (only Screaming Females and White Mystery were on the bill) there was something for everyone. Ukrainian "gypsy punks" Gogol Bordello managed to be simultaneously righteous and goofy while punk icon Iggy Pop wiggled and thrashed like some damn wild thing from the zoo.

Andrew W.K. offered life-enhancing aerobic punk while Boston's Dropkick Murphy served up a set of blistering hard rock fueled by Jeff DeRosa's stinging banjo-picking and accordionist Tim Brennan's fleet fingers. GWAR, with its dismembered body parts and geysers of blood, was plain silly but Chicago's Rise Against—the band that gave us "Make It Stop (September's Children)," the anthem addressing LGBT teen suicides—brought things back to earth. When front man Tim McIlrath spoke out in solidarity with the striking teachers, he could have been speaking out about any issue: "Educate yourself. .. This strike isn't about someone else, it's about all of us."

It was fitting that Pop closed his set by waving goodbye and saying "I could tell you to fuck off ... but I'll leave you with this." Then he and The Stooges closed the festival with a driven and wistful rip through "The Passenger," Pop's benign ode to traveling and embracing the country and all the different people in it. One nation under a groove, indeed...

Heads up: Two queer shows of note coming up at the Empty Bottle—Perfume Genius plays Oct. 4 while SSION headlines Oct. 10.

This article shared 2319 times since Tue Sep 25, 2012
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