Thousands of people traveled from Denver and the surrounding area to the quiet town of Byers, Colorado. Camping had started the night before, the dedication and excitement surrounding Denver’s very first Riot Fest was clear. Driving toward the action, locals could be seen making the best out of the influx of people by charging the less expensive price of $10 for a spot further away from the festival.
It was a bright, sunny day and festival-goers were in too high of spirits to care about much of anything, including social norms. Attire ranged from jeans and band t-shirts to kilts to nothing but a bra and shorts.
As the musicians began their sets (with Tera Melds on the Rock Stage and local Denver band The Potato Pirates on the Riot Stage) a palpable anticipation was apparent throughout the festival grounds. A long, hot day lay ahead and most were biding their time, waiting for their choice musicians to take the stage.
Best Coast gathered an eager crowd at the Riot Stage, and played a solid, if uninspiring 45 minute set. There was little interaction between the band and the audience, with only the occasional thank you to the crowd and announcement of the upcoming song. The mass of people was attentive, but seemed to yearn for more.
Over on the Rock Stage, The Dear Hunter was able to endear the crowd a little more. Guitarist and vocalist Casey Crescenzo shyly asked how everyone was doing and, as an explanation, announced that he was “Not good at the whole ‘how the fuck is everybody doing!’” thing and preferred to ask politely instead. There was more action in the air, even an enthusiastic singalong to the repetition of “Stopping to Let Go.”
Minus The Bear kept it going and upped the ante with the lion-like frontman, Jake Snider, smiling and talking to the audience and a bassist that thoroughly enjoyed giving everybody the “thumbs-up.” The crowd was tentatively jumping around at first, dancing to the catchy choruses and rumbling vocals, occasionally waving their arms in time to the music at the coaxing of the bassist.
On top of being a music festival, the scene at Riot Fest was packed with entertainment. In the midst of the festival were carnival attractions, including a ferris wheel, multiple carnival games, an open wrestling ring and all the fair food imaginable. There was also a full 200 feet of merchandise stands for the bands, as well as numerous tents for head shops, strange art from ChuckU and causes ranging from medical marijuana initiatives to fundraising for testicular cancer.
At this point, the dry, grassy field had become little more than a dust bowl. Every step kicked up a light brown puff, and the view from one side of the festival to the other was shrouded in an unforgiving haze. Legs and feet were a shade darker than when they came, and the emergency water tents were gratefully welcomed.
Surprisingly, the best respite from the dust was to be immersed in the virtually frozen crowd at the Roots Stage. Guided By Voices had taken up their instruments, and many seemed confused as to their presence at the festival. With grey hair and music that sounded more folk-country than rock, several attendees claimed they were only there waiting for Brand New to take over that evening.
And take over they did. The sun was barely hovering over the horizon as Brand New looked across their eager audience, creating a stunning backdrop as well as cooling off the blazingly hot festival grounds. Frontman Jesse Lacey cheekily started off the set by saying hello to the “farm outside of Denver” in his quiet, introverted way. Although it was apparent from the first crowd-pleasing song that Lacy’s voice was fairly shredded from their shows in New York and the midwest, the heavy alt-rock band brought the intensity more than any band thus far. With Lacy’s iconic soul-wrenching vocals and a set filled with fan favorites such as “Jesus Christ” and “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows,” the crowd was singing, screaming, and even crying for the entire 60 minutes.
From there, the night only got better. Temperatures dropped a good twenty degrees, the night sky allowed for captivating light shows, and the crowd was visibly energized. By the time The Airborne Toxic Event performed on the Rock Stage, the give and take between the crowd and the band was at an all-time high. Playing well-known songs such as “Wishing Well” and “Gasoline,” the band was there to have a good time and to share their passion and excitement. In a glorious moment, frontman Mikel Jollett climbed the rafters to the side of the stage and hung with one hand keeping him from dropping fifteen feet. As he descended and returned to center stage, he exclaimed to the audience, assuring them that “It’s okay! You can jump around!” Apparently, that was just what the festival goers needed to hear, because the mass of people burst into a frenzy of dancing and jumping without a second thought. In a twist ending, The Airborne Toxic Event switched into their rendition of the classic, “I Fought The Law” to round out a fluid, entertaining set.
Over at the Roots Stage, one of the most anticipated acts of the night, Iggy and The Stooges, was about to go on. Having the chance to see a punk legend is a rare treat for the majority of festival goers, being of college age, and likely with minimal funds. At first, seeing the 60-year-old Iggy Pop’s shirtless physique prancing around the stage as he’s wont to do was a bit much. He came across as tired and past his due date. However, as the night went on, and Iggy fully committed to the music and the audience, it was hard not to see how he achieved his iconic status. At one point, he invited the crowd up on stage to “Come Dance With Iggy” and there hadn’t been a more excited crowd all day. Thirty to forty fans immediately climbed on stage and started jumping, twisting and dancing in as carefree a manner as possible, with Iggy singing right along with them. The band played their singable punk songs such as “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Raw Power” and “No Fun” to an ecstatic crowd. Toward the end of the set, Iggy pointed to a girl screaming in the front row, and stated, “Her face is very pretty… but your pretty face is going to hell, baby!” as an intro to “Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell.” When the set ended, the rest of the band walked offstage, but Iggy, in his eccentric, drug-induced way, remained twirling around, hair spinning, until eventually making his way toward the back, and subtly dropping his pants for one last wrinkly I-don’t-give-a-fuck.
The next morning, the crowd was greater in numbers, but with a bit of a droop from the day before. A long night of camping and partying made the festival goers grungier, but still ready for a full day of rock. The dust was back in full force, as was the sun, so the first few bands had a lot working against them.
For local Denver band Bop Skizzum, none of this was a problem. With a fun pop-funk sound and all the excitement and peppiness of a kids’ show on crack, the three-fronted band, including Andy Rok (formerly of Flobots), was better than coffee for a hangover. The combination of conga drums, a horn section and their beautiful rapport made for a great early afternoon. They got the bone-weary crowd amped up, jumping around and clapping by running into the audience, singing and dancing with them. This band played more than just catchy tunes, however. They stand for what they believe in, and aren’t afraid to include their causes in their writing. This could be seen in the LGBTQ friendly song “Second Class Citizen,” which decries the practice of treating the LGBTQ community as “Less thans.” Additionally, the female lead, Julie Almeria, performed a song “For the ladies,” entitled “Beauty Queen.” A women’s empowerment song, it contained defiant lyrics such as “Don’t need no white strips / Don’t need no Vaseline / Don’t need no Revlon / Don’t need no Mabeline.”
Kitten stormed the Riot Stage soon after in quite the chaotic fashion. Lead singer Chloe Chaidez thrashed and gyrated around the stage as if she were possessed, in a tight, flower-patterned skirt and frilly slightly see-through crop top. The music was angry and passionate, but the real draw–and they drew quite a few curious people–was Chloe and her antics, which were way beyond her 17 years. At one point, she climbed through the circus-themed banner to the left side of the stage and onto the four massive speakers it was directly above, just to drive the crowd wild. Brazenly, she stated that Kitten likes to play “festivals like this” at one in the afternoon like they’re headlining and it’s ten o’clock at night. They were certainly a tough act to follow, and will do well as headliners in the future.
The insanity didn’t end there, however, as the Riot Stage was taken over by Japanese action comic band, Peelander Z. The group wore bright, highlighter colors and had the hair to match. They played songs with names such as “Ninja High School” and “S.TE.A.K.,” which were shown through large signs held up by Peelander-Pink, who had intense audience interaction, as well as a giant red squid head.
Public Enemy came on stage next and, though they were a bit older and a bit past their prime, the group still had the energy and edge that they always have. Flavor Flav reminded the crowd why he carried his infamous clock for so long, and proudly announced their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, they played favorites such as “Don’t Truss It,” and were as irreverent as possible, but Chuck D was thoughtful enough to take a moment of silence for those who were lost and affected by the floods in Colorado the previous week.
Ominously, around 6:30, the weather began to take a turn for the worse. At this point, people were either enduring the rain or running to cars to get more protection. By the time Matt & Kim were preparing for their set, the rain had become a torrential downpour and the lightning and high winds forced the festival to evacuate.
From there, it was simply chaos. Buses with emergency lights towed people to safe areas, festival authorities were telling people to leave, even go home, and it was impossible to tell if Riot Fest was merely delayed or outright canceled. Many were told the opposite and, with the storm causing phone and Internet reception to be a thing of the past, there was no way to tell otherwise.
Those who were in the designated festival parking were not lucky. It took anywhere upwards of fifty minutes to be clear of traffic, and, with the heavy rain turning dust to mud, many had to be towed free before they could leave.
It was discovered later that the festival had announced via social media that the performances were simply delayed, and would continue once the rain had cleared. Those who stayed, likely because they were camping or stuck in the mud, were happy to see condensed, forty minute sets from the remaining bands, including AWOLNATION and Blink-182. Those who were told to go home were a different story. Facebook and Twitter were lit up with rage from those told to go home, and arguments about how the festival was handled were popping up left and right.
Overall, the first Denver Riot Fest was largely a success. With a fantastic mix of old, new, and upcoming bands, the festival had something for everyone and was a great place to discover new music. Unfortunately, weather doesn’t care for well-laid plans, and the ending of the festival was a bit of a disaster. Maybe next time the fest will be better prepared. Remember, a little rain can’t stop rock and roll.