Riot Fest Brought the Good Vibes and a Love of Cannabis to Chicago

October 19, 2021



On day-one of Riot Fest, there was paranoia. Before music-lovers, which the Chicago-based festival attracts alone, entered the festival grounds, many were asking, “What about my legally acquired cannabis?!” I overheard that concern more than once, but those fears were soon laid to rest as festival goers bypassed the lovely security members and enjoyed their vices in a peaceful, three-day celebration of music and community. 

It was truly a celebration, too, with an endearing sense of community. People cared. Not only about quality music and good times, but about each other. Petty arguing and fighting, which are unfortunately common at festivals, were a rare sight, at least for my eyes. When someone was hurt or had a few too many, people helped.

Photo courtesy of Jack Giroux

During a booming set from cannabis enthusiasts Run the Jewels, when a man hit the ground, there was only concern, no laughter. People giving a crap about one another made the music and overall experience of Riot Fest all the more enjoyable. 

A few bands dropped out before the event, including Nine Inch Nails and the Pixies, but the lineup remained stacked. This year, a few of the headliners included Lupe Fiasco, Devo, Slipknot, The Flaming Lips and The Smashing Pumpkins. 

Sometimes must-see acts conflicted in the schedule, but more often than not, all the stages presented variety. Depending on one’s mood on the day, there was a band that would cater to it. After a long day, for example, Lupe Fiasco got the energy raised sky-high. The Chicago native performed “The Cool,” and it ruled. The artist’s voice was as beautiful as it sounds on a record. 

Artists were delighted to be back on stage. Several acts admitted to the crowd they hadn’t performed since the pandemic started. Many, such as Run the Jewels, worried they’d show signs of rust. Not the case. Every artist, except Machine Gun Kelly, brought nothing but joy and their A-game to the festival. 

A bit of clarification: Machine Gun Kelly took a swipe at Slipknot as the band performed on another stage and dedicated the show to one of its founding members, Joey Jordison. Kelly mocked the group. In the end, Slipknot had the last laugh because people were actually talking about their performance the next day, while people just groaned about Kelly.

Every day was an embarrassment of riches in terms of acts to catch. K.Flay was a dominant force on stage. Along with her band, she held nothing back. She was thrilling. Sublime ignited a wave of nostalgia in the audience. 

“I used to smoke weed listening to this in college!” a friend shouted. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Living Colour brought it, as well. Those bands have such an infectious on-stage chemistry together. It radiates off the stage and consumes the audience. 

On the more rock side, nobody left Thrice or Taking Back Sunday disappointed. Disappointment was not common at Riot Fest. The massive crowd, which needed to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to attend, had nothing to complain about. 

Photo courtesy of Jack Giroux

Shoutout to the attendees, whose phones were not always up and selfies didn’t run rampant. People were respectful of the performances. There was a tangible passion among the crowd there. Everyone, based on my experience, was there for the music alone. 

The audience was maybe at its most rowdy when Run the Jewels hit the stage. The two-man hip hop group, El-P and Killer Mike, have always been known to put on a helluva show. The hype is correct. Their music isn’t even to my taste, but what a fantastic performance the self-admittedly high duo delivered.

Both spontaneous and choreographed, Run the Jewels had an army of music fans on their feet and moving. There were nonstop cheers, especially when Killer Mike said cannabis prohibition needs to stop. He also gave a lovely shout out to his wife in the audience. She, too, was high, Killer Mike noted. 

Riot Fest didn’t stop after the headliners performed. There are late nights after shows to catch around Chicago. I only caught one myself, but it was one worth catching. The feverish punk group from Los Angeles, The Bronx, had my ears ringing in delight at The Cobra Lounge. The band even gave me an excuse to finally put my long hair to good use and bang it around a bit. They hadn’t performed in a long time, but you’d never know it. 

Riot Fest was such an enjoyable experience full of good times that it’s impossible to list off all the damn fine acts that livened up not only the weekend, but the year, for many in attendance. Fever 333, Anti-Flag, Body Count, which is fronted by Iced-T, and many other groups brought nothing but joy to Chicago. This year’s Riot Fest was yet another reminder of why live music is just good for the soul. 

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Riot Fest turned up the vibes and the smoking anthems this year, giving everyone some much-needed live music.
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