"There is a perverse pleasure in being disliked, I've found." So said Ben Weasel, sole original member of Screeching Weasel during his band's set on the opening day of Chicago's Riot Fest. His comment drew cheers from a crowd of young and old punks alike, which set the tone for a weekend highlighted by energetic performances from legendary bands that have endured breakups, hiatuses and reconstituted lineups.
Weasel continued to taunt the standards of what he called "the punk intelligentsia" by defending wearing his own band's t-shirt, covering the Ramones' "Teenage Lobotomy" and encouraging festival-goers to catch the day-ending set by Fall Out Boy. No stranger to controversy after an unfortunate incident at a show two years ago where Weasel attacked two female fans (which resulted in that lineup of Screeching Weasel disbanding), his outspoken rants were tempered by gracious dedications to specific fans and to his twin daughters, who had never seen him perform live before. Weasel's message that punk purists need not apply was driven home by the chorus of "Cool Kids" - "it's a real cool club and you're not part of it."
Which isn't to say that there weren't some cynics among the throngs. Even as the songs of The Misfits and Joy Division still command respect, sets by Danzig (which featured a guest appearance by original Misfits guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) and Peter Hook & The Light (where original Joy Division bassist Hook uncannily replicated the late Ian Curtis's baritone vocals) failed to convince some. This reporter overheard assorted grumbles about Danzig and Hook "playing in their own cover band," but such dismissive comments tended to come from several rows back - the committed fans near the front of the stage were visibly thrilled to hear the songs they love played live, no matter what the lineup.
The inevitable generation gap among attendees was most sharply defined by the audience for Friday and Saturday's headliners, the aforementioned Fall Out Boy and Blink-182. While some older concert-goers may have scoffed at these younger bands getting top billing, it's important to note that both bands have been around long enough to have gone on "indefinite hiatuses" before returning with new albums. Their presence on the bill proved that, even with bands whose fan-base is generally younger, they can still inspire both the warm rush of nostalgia and the vitality of seeing a band with something new to say.
Having new material to perform may be the lifeblood of a band, but it's also something of a double-edged sword. The reunited classic lineups of such indie rock legends as Mission Of Burma, Guided By Voices and Dinosaur Jr. turned in spirited afternoon sets that seamlessly blended fan favorites with new songs. Unfortunately, the abridged set times endemic to outdoor festivals meant that many of their classic songs went unplayed. The best balance between old and new material was Bob Mould's killer set during the middle of Sunday's unfortunate downpour. The crowd that braved the cold and damp were rewarded with a breathless set split evenly between Hüsker Dü favorites, highlights from Sugar's Copper Blue, and new songs from last year's solo return to form Silver Age. (Mould's drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy were also quite possibly the finest rhythm section of the entire festival.)
Perhaps the band with the most to prove was the Pixies, who announced earlier this year that their longtime bassist Kim Deal had quit and would be replaced with Kim Shattuck of the Muffs. Having enjoyed 20 years of a virtually spotless reputation, this change of its core membership in tandem with a poorly-received EP of new material lead even diehard fans to anticipate the set with trepidation. The band responded with a set front-loaded with covers and new songs before settling into more familiar material. Although they sounded muscular and Shattuck is more than capable of doing justice to Deal's basslines and backing vocals, there was an overwhelming sense that the band's purity had been tainted and that retaining their integrity would be an uphill battle.
The undisputed highlight of the weekend, however, was The Replacements' triumphant return, their first set in Chicago since disbanding in Grant Park back in 1991. Original members Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson have not lost any of their irreverent stage presence during the 22-year break, with Westerberg introducing "Favorite Thing" from their landmark album Let It Be by claiming he didn't remember which album it was from, and interrupting "Androgynous" with a shout-out to Joan Jett which caused him to forget the lyrics. Josh Freese and Dave Minehan were more than capable of their titles as replacement Replacements, with Minehan in particular nailing the late Bob Stinson's ragged glory, Slim Dunlap's nimble slide riffing, and even (on singalong highlight "I Will Dare") Peter Buck's jangly arpeggios. (And speaking of "I Will Dare," misheard lyrics aficionados should note that Westerberg clearly enunciated the line "fingernails and cigarettes," rather than "bacon, eggs and cigarettes.")
At one point, Westerberg pointed out a digital clock on the stage placed there to remind them not to go past the scheduled set time, an audience chant of "f--- the clock" prompted him to demolish the clock to pieces. They also treated Chicago to three more songs than their first reunion show at Riot Fest Toronto three weeks prior - "I Don't Know," "Waitress In The Sky" and "Hold My Life." It was a generous gesture to a devoted crowd who had withstood the rain and mud (not to mention postponed their viewing of that night's Breaking Bad), and the perfect end to a festival that proved that, no matter how many years or lineup changes go by, there's still no feeling that can compare to watching a favorite band perform a favorite song surrounded by other fans who know all the lyrics.