Riot Fest: Only sort of a riot

I showed up a bit later than I had hoped, too late to see Brand New. My inner teenager was sad about that while my adult self moved on pretty quickly. When I arrived at Downsview Park, it occurred to me: “Oh shit, this is a really big festival.” Death from Above 1979 was playing and they were exactly as noisy and thrashy as I expected them to be. I watched their set while sorting out the red tape of drink buying. For a punk rock festival, there sure was a lot of bureaucracy.

I skipped out on Billy Talent in favour of The Flaming Lips (another loss for younger me) and moved on even faster than the first time. Everyone should have to see The Flaming Lips at least once in their life, regardless of whether or not they’re fans. Their reputation is totally true. Wayne Coyne sings from a giant bubble orb that surfs the crowd, there are massive dancing foam mushrooms, pyrotechnics and confetti. It’s psychedelic to say the least. It’s somewhat of a shame that The Cure played after such an elaborate show. Seeing The Cure is a rare and special experience, but this time was one that felt somewhat anticlimactic. The TTC struggle I faced on the way back sunk the mood even further. Note to future Riot Fest-ers: prepare for long bus lineups.

Equipped with my bicycle and renewed positive attitude, I showed up at Downsview on Sunday afternoon just as The New Pornographers, an old favorite with a killer new album, were finishing up and The Head and The Heart were just about to start. Whereas Saturday felt like Mudfest (RIP, my boots), Sunday felt a bit like Indiefest. Without raining down too hard on indie music, I will say that I was excited to attend a punk rock festival. Instead, a lot of the lineup, particularly Sunday’s lineup, felt like the same ol’ indie folk-rock that I could catch at any number of other festivals.  The Head And the Heart were a snooze; I couldn’t get into it.

Die Antwoord woke me from my lull, though, and thank the electro-punk heavens for that. They gave the most dynamic performance I had seen in a while. Their set was totally fucked up in the best way possible! I would have loved to see them on a central stage a little later in the day. For that matter, I would have re-thought a lot of the ordering of acts. Deathcab For Cutie playing before The National?! On what planet does that make sense?

I was surprised at how much I liked Dropkick Murphys. I didn’t give them much credit before I saw them live. Something about the banjo-bagpipe-mandolin-Irish-punk-rock thing they go for didn’t appeal to me on record, but they put on an energetic and really fun show. They had a seriously enthusiastic crowd, too. I was won over.

Changing paces a bit, I switched stages to see Stars play. I gave into the indie forces in choosing them over Social Distortion, figuring it was an appropriate opener for Deathcab for Cutie. Starting with “Take Me to the Riot” was a bit funny to me and I was really happy to hear some new material. Their cover of Alvvays’ tune “Archie, Marry Me” was a highlight. I liked their version even better than the original, but I also happen to think that anything Amy Millan’s voice touches turns to gold so take that with a grain of flattering salt.

I’m a huge Deathcab fan; my school-girl style crush on Ben Gibbard will likely never go away. Their setlist was full of their biggest hits, which felt like a celebratory move since it was Chris Walla’s last show with the band. I slipped away briefly to catch a bit of PUP, who played an amazingly hard and actually riotous set on a disappointingly small stage that was the victim of sound pollution. It was awesome, but my visit was brief. I’ll have to find their next local gig!

Buzzcocks offered me the classic punk sound I was hoping for all weekend and, with that, I hit a wall of fatigue. I couldn’t push through my tired haze any longer and so I let Emily Haines sing me out. It felt a bit like I was letting myself down by not staying for Metric’s set, but then I realized I had more than my fair share of amazing music this weekend. Not too shabby!

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Hilary Johnston
Hilary Johnston is a writer, event manager and musician from Toronto.
Hilary Johnston