We’re Gonna Riot

I was already 17 when I attended my first punk rock show.

Compared to my friends, I was the late bloomer. But here I was, at the Pomp Room — a downtown bar that would host all-ages shows, and while I didn’t know it at the time it would host dozens of bands that would serve as a kind of personal musical awakening. This night, Good Riddance was the headliner. Only a few dozen people showed up, but they brought the energy of hundreds.

September 2019: We’re Gonna Riot

  • “Positive Tension” — Bloc Party
  • “Bottled in Cork” — Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
  • “Run It to Ya” — Black Belt Eagle Scout
  • “Blue Angels” — Pras
  • “Rock Box” — Run-D.M.C.
  • “Electric Worm” — Beastie Boys
  • “Half a Boy and Half a Man (live)” — Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets
  • “Overbite” — Sincere Engineer
  • “Hey Jealousy” — The Ergs!
  • “Exhausted Insomniac” — Days N Daze
  • “Central Standard Time (7” Version)” — The Get Up Kids
  • “The 2nd Most Beautiful Girl in the World” — Snail Mail
  • “Blue Tip” — The Cars
  • “Juice” — Lizzo (f/ Missy Elliott)
  • “Night Light” — Aesop Rock
  • “Lombardy St.” — Avail
  • “Kiss the Bottle” — Lucero
  • “8 Full Hours of Sleep” — Against Me!

My lasting memory isn’t of the music, but of my self-awareness — of how out-of-place I felt. Here I was in a bar for one of the first times, surrounded by high-school-aged punkers — or, as close to an approximation as you can get in late–90s Sioux Falls — and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I just stood there, arms crossed. I actually tapped my toe; I was the caricature of an old man slowly giving in to youth culture. My friend Eric, who was standing next to me, laughed.

I didn’t realize it until I wrote it down, but I still feel mortified of that moment.

Two years ago, I went to Riot Fest. Music festivals are problematic, in that they are large, loud, gross, and crowded. But in 2017, Jawbreaker was headlining, and that was good enough for me to put aside my differences. For three days, I made up with music festivals, and we became fast friends.

I loved it at the time. Most of it. My memory of Riot Fest 2017 blends together into one long weekend of music, of seeing some new bands and trying to recapture the energy of some older ones. But that year’s festival was about one thing.

And at the end of the last day, as a band I never thought I’d see played a show no one thought would ever happen — as three ordinary dudes, who unknowingly changed the lives of thousands of blossoming punk kids, somehow filled a gigantic festival stage, surrounded not just by crew but by members of all of the other bands that had already played — I figured that was it. I’d reached the peak.

Leaving on a musical high, I bid adieu to music festivals.

Throughout the late the 90s, our group of friends coalesced around the Sioux Falls music scene. We saw hundreds of bands at the Pomp Room, or at Odd Fellow’s Hall, or in some dirty basement, from local crust punkers to future MTV staples. We saw Fugazi. We saw Marilyn Manson on their first tour, as well as Blink 182 as they were just starting out. We went to every show we possibly could, thirsty for noise and sweat and poorly-designed t-shirts. We had schizophrenic tastes, because our tastes followed the touring schedule of whoever might land in Sioux Falls, our city a short stopover on their trip to Minneapolis or Denver.

So, despite my insistence that festivals were in my past, when I looked at the 2019 Riot Fest lineup, I felt that pang. It was a love letter to that old music scene. Avail, Hot Water Music, The Get Up Kids, Less than Jake. Jawbreaker was back, as was Hot Water Music. But even more appealing was what went beyond those Pomp Rooms shows. Bands I loved in the 90s were scattered in alongside more recent obsessions: full album plays by Ween and The Flaming Lips; the final Chicago show of Slayer and the B–52s. As schizophrenic as it was when I was half my age, Riot Fest tried to lure me in with the promise of eternal youth.

I bit. I bought tickets, dragged Kerrie along with me, and joined up with a contingency of that old Sioux Falls scene. We spent three days in the summer heat, our middle-aged joints tired from walking the fields between bands. I forgot — and then quickly remembered — everything I disliked about Riot Fest two years prior.

But I also remembered everything I loved. The bands. The community. The feeling of listening to something familiar.

I fully understand that the festival was not booked for us. But this year, for a while there, I had a hard time imagining otherwise.

I still don’t like music festivals. They’re still large, loud, gross, and crowded, and this year’s was no different.

But the benefit of having 80+ bands descend upon Chicago is not wasted on the smaller clubs. These are Riot Fest’s after shows, which provide non-festival access in a venue more fitting of a late 90s Lookout! Records roster member. These are the shows that feel impossible after 12 hours in Douglas Park — most of them didn’t even start until 11PM — but also serve as a cold chaser to the long flat beer of the actual festival.

It was here that we felt at home. It was at Cobra Lounge, where Lucero performed for just 200 of us, building upon their Riot Fest set with a long and rambling walk through what felt like their entire discography. It was at The Metro, where a beaming Laura Jane Grace ran through Against Me!’s second full-length, looking surprised and grateful for the love of an intimate crowd.

It was at Bottom Lounge, where we were brought back to 1996. Where, after three days of windy stages and packed crowds, after the exhaustion of seeing full set after full set of nostalgia and energy, after standing in a misty rain surrounded by smelly dudes waiting to see a very brown Ween show, we remembered the grooves we’d dug out two decades before.

We watched Avail, the last night of their reunion tour, just as we’d watched them so many times before. For a few moments, as I stood in the back, screaming my throat raw to a full set of songs I still recognize, I saw myself back at the Pomp Room as if nothing had changed.

And in that moment — and in those moments in smaller clubs the nights before — I also recognized what drew me to this scene in the first place: a closeness, an energy, and an acceptance. Even for me, the guy in the back who didn’t really know what to do with himself. Arms crossed. Tapping his toe. Taking it all in one more time.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 27th, 2019