RIOT FEST 2014
Downsview Park, Toronto
September 6-7th, 2014
After a long night of thunderstorms and torrential downpour across the GTA, thousands of eager fans shuffled into Downsview Park for this summer’s last big festival. Celebrating their tenth year, this was RIOT FEST’s third annual Toronto experience. In past years, RIOT FEST brought Toronto stellar acts such as Iggy Pop & The Stooges, Dinosaur Jr. and FUCKED UP. RIOT FEST’s 2014’s lineup was certain not to disappoint. Some of the highlights from this year’s two day extravaganza were The Flaming Lips, Die Antwoord, The Cure, The Dropkick Murphy’s, Rise Against and City and Colour. With the sun shining and the beer and ticket lines snaking across the grounds, the crowd trudged on through the muddy terrain to greet the days diverse musical performances.
There were plenty of food vendors selling delicious grub, with a variety of options for carnivores and vegans alike. The festival was set up with four stages across the Downsview Park grounds, each titled with confusing alliteration, “The Riot Stage”, “The Roots Stage”, “The Rock Stage” and “The Rebel Stage”. The festival runners kept the schedule packed tight, with bands overlapping sets every half hour, causing fans to run across the grounds to catch the tail end or beginning or each set. The variety of musical talent this year was impressive, with genres spanning from hardcore acts like Bring Me The Horizon to indie bands like Death Cab For Cutie. Though their was no “Riot” to speak of, RIOT FEST 2014 was definitely the most entertaining festival to hit Toronto in a long time.
AWOLNATION’s performance was an incredibly good time. The group managed to expertly straddle a very fine line: On one hand, AWOLNATION brimmed with a radiant, happy dynamism. Frontman Aaron Bruno, all smiles and positive energy, graced every square inch of the stage with his animated dancing. And yet, thanks to the substance of the group’s lyrics and ambient richness of their sound, they never strayed anywhere close to being merely pleasant or fluffy. Despite the mud and increasing chill in the air, the crowd maintained its energy throughout this late Saturday afternoon set, through hits like “Not Your Fault” and “Guilty Filthy Soul.” Finally, AWOLNATION did justice to its chart-topping megahit, “Sail.” The devoted crowd could be heard belting the lyrics back at the band all the way across the festival grounds.
Bring Me The Horizon
As someone relatively unfamiliar with Bring Me The Horizon going in, I was blown away by their furious, sweat and adrenaline-drenched powerhouse of a performance. Frontman Ollie Sykes’ commitment to the music was palpable. He maintained volcanic emotional energy all the way from the opening track, “Shadow Moses,” the single from the group’s most recent album, to the angsty, closing “Antivist”. I would go so far as to call Sykes one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever seen, though I could have done without his incessant pleas for the crowd to start mosh pits. These are a thing that should happen naturally or not at all. In addition, the open-air venue gave Bring Me The Horizon’s sound a welcome raw quality absent from their studio recordings. This, paired with Sykes’ roaring stage presence, left me with a newfound appreciation for the group. This is, of course, among the highest praise I can give a live performance.
Rushing over after an incredibly spellbinding set from Bring Me The Horizon, I sat down to watch one of my favorite bands from my high school years, “Brand New”. This charismatic foursome began their set with, “Sink” a song off their latest album, Daisy. Their sound was flooded with catchy guitar riffs from singer Jesse Lacey as he screamed and sang his poetic lyrics to the crowd. Girls climbed atop their boyfriends’ shoulders to dance along to the beat of each heavy bassline. When the band began their popular hit, “Sic Transit Gloria…Glory Fades” the crowd was amped up and screaming the lyrics back at Lacey. Brand New continued into a nostalgic set of songs which contained hits off their incredible album, Deja Entendu and the predecessor Your Favorite Weapon. The setlist included, “Okay I believe you, but my Tommy Gun Don’t”, the introspective, “I will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light” and another fan favorite, “Seventy Times Seven”. While Lacey could not always hit the high notes, he made up for it in gusto and excellent rhythms on his guitar. They brought a great energy to the festival and were definitely an excellent addition to the RIOT FEST lineup.
Death From Above 1979
With their second record album set to release that very week, Death From Above 1979 hit the “Riot Stage” shortly after Brand New’s closing song. Their setup was simple: two dudes and their instruments. Not much movement or flashy lights, they played a raw fifty minute set, filled with pounding drum and bass lines. Beginning with a bang, the boys played the classic, “Turn It Out” from their debut album, banging their heads while getting the crowd raging. Flying through their songs without much pause for a breath in between, DFA managed to debut their entire second album for eager fans. The new songs showed an incredible amount of promise, (in particular, “Train Wreck 1979”) granting the band a solid comeback for anyone who doubted their return. That being said, they did seem a little burnt out by the end, but still managed to dish out old favorites like, “You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine” and “Romantic Rights”. Overall, I do believe they are a band which perform better in more intimate venues, but certainly gave RIOTFEST’s their money’s worth nonetheless
The Flaming Lips
Always an impressive festival feature, The Flaming Lips took the second last slot for Saturday’s closing performances. Their ever-changing live show, along with equally dynamic music, has solidified them a massive fan base, but I doubt anyone was prepared for the psychedelic wonderland they had prepared exclusively for RIOT FEST. Prior to the start of the set, frontman Wayne Coyne walked out onto the stage and spoke to the audience, drawing their attention to the brilliant sunset descending behind them. The crowd turned around in unison to appreciate the scene before them, bringing a beautifully cheerful feel to everyone in the vicinity. As the sun slowly bled over the horizon, a beautiful piano instrumental piece rang out from the speakers. A group of mascots, including a giant rainbow and mushrooms danced onto the stage, which was already set up with LED streamers hanging down from the lighting beams.
Wayne Coyne took the stage cloaked in a coat of silver streamers and a spandex muscle suit, as the song slowly changed into, “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”. At one part during the song, the band went quiet, as Coyne attempted to begin a riff and simultaneously screamed, “FUCK!” causing the audience to break out into a fit of laughter. These minor mishaps are exactly what is entertaining about live performances, beautifully raw and remind us of human nature, with all of its brilliant imperfections. Ending the song with powerful pistons blowing confetti into the air, it was clear to all that this set was only going to arch upwards from here.
Coyne also brought out a giant silver balloon which read, “FUCK YEAH RIOT FEST” and threw it into the eager crowd. Launching into the classic, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” Coyne had the crowd screaming with their fists in the air, tossing beach balls all around. The backdrop screen shifted through cosmic hues of neon light, pulsing to the synthesizers beats. As the night continued, audiences were greeted by more mascots of dancing aliens and suns, with each song bringing forth more psychedelic chaos than the last. During the song, “Vein of Stars” Coyne rolled out into the audience inside his signature giant hamster ball. The Flaming lips also played two covers on that night, beginning with The Chemical Brother’s “The Golden Path” and finishing their set with an incredible rendition of, “Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds”. Overall, The Flaming Lips’ set was a true moment of the sublime and undoubtedly the highlight of RIOT FEST 2014.
Capping off an excellent Saturday night, The Cure took the stage directly after The Flaming Lips smashing set. A fuzzy haired Robert Smith, rocking his usual smudged goth makeup, began the two hour show with a throwback to their 1984 release, The Top with “Shake Dog Shake”. Fog machines spewed over the crowd, as Smith wailed with superb control. Each band member was completely on-point, with Simon Gallup’s heavy basslines carrying each set with grace. The crowd swayed through the vast discography, which spanned over three decades of The Cure’s successful career. Hearing time-honored hits like, “Pictures of You”, “Lullaby” and “Lovesong” was a dream come true for fans both young and old. Though some may agree there was a dip in the energy from The Flaming Lips’ kaleidoscopic light show, the audience was undoubtedly engaged and stayed for the show’s entirety. These veterans solidified the set with a three song encore, including crowd favorites like, “Close To Me” and “Boys Don’t Cry”. All in all, it was a fantastic ending for the first day of the festival, leaving fans with great anticipation of their return the next morning.
Dashing towards the “Rock Stage” around 4:30 PM, a charismatic hoard of fans eagerly awaited one of the most popular bands of the entire festival, DIE ANTWOORD. This ball-gripping, controversial South African rap group has cemented their sound in the music scene since their first release, $O$ back in 2009. The mob of fans swarmed towards the stage as DJ Hi-Tek, cloaked in an orange hoodie and his usual grotesque mask, began spinning his track, “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez”. The sound blasting from the speakers was almost unbearably loud, shaking the stage and blasting the eardrums of whoever was in range.
After spitting obscenities at the amped up crowd, the song quickly switched into Die Antwoord’s classic, “Fok Julle Naaiers” with the rap crew, Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er emerging onto the stage. If you are familiar with Die Antwoord’s campy music videos, then watching their live set undoubtedly brought their expressive style to life. Moshing around the stage like two rabid beasts, they threw middle fingers up while managing to kick a photographer’s lens with unrepentant flair. At one point, Yolandie screamed to the audience, “Fuck Security! Let the people have their fun” while simultaneously stealing the guards hat, then tossing it aside.
Running through their set, they played new tracks off their latest album, Donker Mag like “Cookie Thumper”, “Happy Go Sucky Fucky”, (which had the entire crowd screaming, “Fuck your rules!” along with them) and “Pitbull Terrier”. They danced their arses off, changing outfits every few songs to match the mood, and bringing out wiggly dancers in morphsuits to perform along with them. As Ninja prowled around the stage, glaring at crowd-goers, he showed exactly how little fucks he gave while dropping his pants and teasing the audience with a quick intro into the song, “Raging Zef Boner”.
The audience screamed, danced and bounced up and down together to classics like, “Baby’s On Fire”, “I Fink You Freeky” and “Fatty Boom Boom”. Between Yolandie’s high pitched squeals and Ninja’s excellent rhyme timing, they had everyone begging for an encore. After whispering, “Bye, Bye!” in her unmistakable baby voice, a hooded Yolandie rushed back on the stage for their final song, “Enter The Ninja”. My only regret is that Die Antwoord’s set was not one of the two hour headliners. Their unmatched theatrical presence deserved the ambience of stage lighting in a darker, more dramatic setting. And also, it was just cruel to place the Dropkick Murphy’s on the same time slot as them, as the two of them were definitely the highlights of Sunday.
This seven man celtic punk band from Massachusetts graced the “Roots Stage” at around 5:00 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, I had to miss a great deal of their set due to an overlap with Die Antwoord. But catching the last twenty minutes was incredibly engaging and had everyone (including those standing near the food trucks) dancing their limbs off. Crowd surfers sailed across the grounds, as bagpipes and slamming guitar solos blared through the speakers. “Shipping up to Boston” was certainly a favorite of many, as frontman Ken Casey got the crowd throwing their horns up and chanting the lyrics. The climax of their set came when these Celtic darlings launched into a full frontal cover mashup of the classics, “Taking Care of Business”, “We’re an American Band” and finally, “Hey, Ho! Let’s go!” from the Ramone’s killer song, “Blitzkrieg Bop”. It was an epic ending to their set, and Dropkick certainly proved they are still constantly growing as a band, even after over a decade of live shows.
Having decided that Death Cab For Cutie’s set was far too filled with preteen angst and entirely uninspiring, I left five minutes in to photograph a great american rock band, Clutch. These Maryland natives have been rocking the scene for over twenty years, and are set to begin recording their eleventh album in late 2014. There is one undeniable fact about Clutch: these guys have an incredible amount of gusto. Lead singer Neil Fallon’s kinetic energy was palpable to their dedicated fanbase (basically the few hundred metal heads and punk rockers that did not turn up for Death Cab) and could be felt even a hundred yards away. Beginning with the song, “The Mob Goes Wild” was a great kickoff to get the crowd amped about their set. By their third song, “Unto The Breach” they had everyone screaming the lyrics and dragging their fists through the air. Busting out the harmonica for one of their latest tracks, “D.C. Sound Attack!’ had everyone bobbing their heads to the bluesy beat. Moreover, the band just looked like they were having a helluva time up there, which is inspiring to see after so many years of touring.
Between the moon, the breeze and a very fitting “Riders of The Storm” intro, The National opened their set to a near perfect atmosphere. Lead singer Matt Berninger was entrancing, walking back and forth on the stage both cool and collected. The rest of the band was dynamic and disciplined, leading to a set that felt extremely well crafted. Songs like the beautiful, “I Need My Girl” seemed to stop time with its vulnerability. Whereas “Mr. November” soared and left us in awe of how Berninger’s once calm demeanor could flip into that of a perfectly manic frontman. With high energy he leapt into the crowd and seemed to stay there until the end of what was an intimate and inspirational set. The National are one of those rare bands who have a great grasp on direction, where every band member seems to know their role and play it perfectly, which can only translate into a superior live show.
Heavy on instantly recognizable hits like “Youth Without Youth” and “Dead Disco,” Metric’s set was energetic, danceable, and sounded great from every vantage point around the stage. Unfortunately, it lacked the spontaneous, innovative element necessary for a live performance to be truly memorable. Frontwoman Emily Haines’ skill and talent is undeniable— she hit every note, but her movements felt routine. Metric fans undoubtedly enjoyed jamming to, from a technical perspective, flawlessly executed favourites like “Help I’m Alive” and “Stadium Love,” but overall the experience felt not much unlike listening in the comfort of your own (probably far less swampy) home. A happy exception was guitarist James Shaw’s stunning solo during “Gold, Gun, Girls.” The closing track, “Breathing Underwater,” stood out as the most soulful, engaging moment of the set. Haines warmed up and fill the song out with emotion and personality, inspiring the enormous crowd to sing along
City and Colour
Ending the entire festival on a bit of downbeat, Dallas Green took the stage clad in a hat fitting of the amish. After an incredibly raucous set from Metric, watching City and Colour left viewers cold and exhausted, attempting to keep their eyes focused on such a mellow band. Opening with the song, “Of Space and Time” off his 2013 album, The Hurry and The Harm, was a very slow, but well crafted song. Perhaps the most emotional song came when the band played the song, “The Grand Optimist” which Green dedicated to his parents. Playing very little off his debut, “Sometimes”, which one could claim to be the best effort City and Colour has put out thus far, I was happy to hear, “Coming Home” played in a different manner than which it was recorded. I cannot say anything negative about the sound quality, musicians or Green’s voice, but overall the band lacked the stimulation and energy to keep the crowd engaged. Needless to say, City and Colour should have been given an earlier time slot and certainly not two hours of song. There wasn’t a dramatic arch in the performance, which is something you would expect from a headlining band. A lot of concert goers left before the set was finished, to avoid traffic or drag their swollen feet home on the TTC.
After surviving the mud-drenched trenches of RIOT FEST’s two day extravaganza, I was certainly happy to have not been one of the many wearing sandals or converse. It was an exciting weekend for all, with the diversity within the lineup helping to draw in all sorts of subcultures. Everyone left having discovered new bands to listen to, which is exactly the mark that a touring festival has done its job. I must reiterate though that the organizers needed to do a better job of scheduling the acts in order to end each night on a higher note. Having their first year at Downsview Park, the festival grew exponentially, drawing more people on the Sunday show than the Saturday. Hopefully, when RIOT FEST returns next year, there will be less stages to run back and forth from, helping everyone to be able to catch as many of their favorite bands as possible. But overall, everyone left happy and relatively unscathed, undoubtedly having gotten their moneys worth.