The Agony and the Ecstacy of Riot Fest 2021

This year I attended my seventh Riot Fest the annual music festival that takes place in Douglass Park in Chicago. Well, it didn’t always take place in Douglass Park and it didn’t happen last year, but you know.

The first thing you should know is that Riot Fest the actual festival is incredible. Entry to the fest is efficent and smooth even with the “checking” of Vax cards, etc. The grounds are laid out in an intutive way as long as you forgive that the stages all have terrible names. But once you know which one is which it’s all good. There’s never a line for a porta potty, you wont wait more than a minute for a beer or water, and the lineup for all intents and purposes is pretty diverse.

Friday started smoothly enough, after driving to the blue line (about an hour from my house) I got on the train, took it downtown and transferred to the pink line, took that a few stops and walked the half mile to the front gate. We entered in record time and within minutes I was watching Circa Survive perform on an enormous stage from a quarter mile away.

After being away from the festival for two years and not going to shows until I saw Turnstile a couple weeks ago I couldn’t help but think that I wasn’t really watching a band play, as much as I was watching a band play on TV. Two absolutely massive screens on each side of the stage didn’t help this feeling of disconnection.

By the time Thrice took the same stage an hour or so later I was starting to get back into the festival groove and was feeling comfortable. But after this a wave of mental health issues began to wash over me. The first issue was a completely out of nowhere thunderstorm rolled in. No rain was in the forecast for the entire weekend let alone a lightning filled storm. While standing in the middle of a massive crowd of people with giant metal structures all around me I started to get anxious. I moved myself out of the crowd and into a more open area.

At this point I started to do the snowball of dread, I thought about how my wife was currently in Milwaukee, and the kids were being babysat. What if I got struck by lightning, who would contact my wife, what if my wife got into an accident on the way back from Milwakee, were the kids ok? I ended up worrying myself sick all through Coheed and Cambria’s lightning and on and off again rain slicked set. When I finally met back up with my friend Cliff we set ourselves up to watch Lupe Fiasco and the storm had passed. We saw a few minutes of The Smashing Pumpkins from across the field, then watched about 15 minutes of Lupe Fiasco’s set before we decided to bounce and make our way to Bottom Lounge for Joyce Manor’s aftershow.

This is where everything goes wrong. In years passed you walked back to the pink line where the CTA would run extra trains with extra cars. As we got onto the platform we noticed it was pretty crowded. When the first train finally rolled into the station it only had 4 cars and was packed to the doors. Riot Fest still wasn’t officially over for another 30 minutes and the train was packed. 20+ minutes later another train came in and it was the exact same situation. After waiting over an hour we left the station to see if we could find a bus.

By the time we got back to the festival grounds a half mile away all the busses had departed. So our next idea was to try and get a Lyft but Lyft was restricting pickups to a lane across the street from the park and after three failed attempts I abandonded the idea of getting a Lyft or Uber.

We then walked all the way back to the pink line where they were no longer letting people onto the platform. Why? Because the platforms were so overcrowded that a man fell onto the track and died as his head hit the third rail. The pink line was now closed. Uber, realizing that something was amiss lifted the restriction on where you could be picked up and I was finally able to get a car to take us to the aftershow three hours after we left the festival.

By the time we got to the show we had missed the opening band and the first five songs of Joyce Manor’s set which to be fair is only about 10 minutes of music, but still. The show let out at 12:45am and my feet were completely shot from experimenting with putting insoles in my shoes (they caused my feet to slide forward and backwards in my shoes causing massive blisters on my big and pinkie toes) and darting up and down California trying to figure out how to get out of Douglass Park. So after some more public transportation I finally made it to my hotel room at 2:45am and I was DONE. The day had completely broken me. So I decided to treat myself to a for real mental health day.

Many of us have claimed to take a mental health day by calling in sick to work, where we mostly just stay home, watch some Netflix and stay in our PJs all day. But have you ever just decided to cancel the plans you had been making for over a year and just really focus on doing something that’s all for you? This is what I ended up doing on Saturday. I stayed in my hotel room and stared at the walls for hours. I soaked my badly blistered feet in the tub, ordered a not great room service hamburger, and then got onto the train to take myself to one of my happy places, the Goose Island tap room. After sitting there for a bit alone, some friends met me there and we had a great chat, drank some great beers, and then I walked two blocks away to see Thursday’s after show at Cobra Lounge. It was the smallest venue I’ve seen them play in 20 years. The band has been “reunited” for about five years now and I have seen every show they’ve played in Chicago since they got back together and while those shows were good they were really dialed in at this show. I also watched about 15 minutes of their set at Riot Fest the next day and it was also great.

One other thing you need to know about this year’s Riot Fest is that it became the unofficial official meetup for the Storm Chasers Patreon Community. This community has become fast friends on the Internet and while many of them have met up in real life already Pet Symmetry one of the bands on Storm Chasers was opening Sunday’s festivites. Throw in the fact that there was a “secret” Into It Over It show the night before and people came in from all over the country for those two sets and have some real hang time. We’re so used to talking to each other every day that I never really was introduced to anyone nor did I really introduce myself to anyone (besides two members who were on the same train as me going into the Fest on Friday and had to figure out how to say hi without scaring the hell out of them as we ended up next to each other on the escalator). It was magical, we all just started chatting and hanging and sharing sunscreen and eating empenadas.

Which brings us to my abbreviated Sunday, with my feet and ankles absolutely wrecked and missing home I rocked out with Pet Symmetry at high noon, watched Body Count rock an absolutely massive crowd, saw Health’s equipment melt in the sun, saw The Bled absolutely kill at one of their first shows in 12 years, watched a few minutes of Thursday and bounced. It took me three hours to get home as the CTA once again continued to fail me as they had all weekend.

Riot Fest 2021 was extreme highs and extreme lows. I’m set to do it again next year but I’m gonna have to play it way smarter. I for some reason didn’t bring a bag in with me, which I could have filled with a rain coat, a water bottle, sun screen, etc. And I can’t trust the CTA to get me home in a timely manner. I could write another 300 words on the COVID situation and how everyone pretty much just seems to be miserable but I’ve taken up enough of your time. Thank you to my friends old and new who I hung with maybe we’ll all be back at it next year.

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