Recap: Riot Fest Sets Fire To The Rain In Toronto


Image via Riot Fest

Rain. For some festivals, it’s a kiss of death. But for Riot Fest, it’s an excuse to get messy. The sky was bleak on Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t stop fans from trekking out to Downsview Park in droves. Vintage Kyuss shirts and cherished Alexisonfire hoodies were protected by ponchos as rain spilled out of the sky. 20,000 pairs of clean Converse entered, but none would survive the weekend.

Riot Fest launched in Chicago in 2005, as a multi-day festival platform concerned with championing Chicago’s thriving local DIY scene and DIY punk heroes alike. Expanding to Toronto and Denver in 2012, the festival looks far more like its corporate-friendly competition. Almost as soon as I entered, I was met with a StubHub brand activation called #NoMoFoMo, wherein an overenthusiastic DJ was practically begging people to chant a hashtag while they sought shelter from the rain inside a tiny tent. Such is the reality of financing a festival that books punk stalwarts like D.O.A., and reunions from bands like Drive Like Jehu—upping the punx comes easier with a little moral compromise. It’s all about striking a balance. I’d walk by the StubHub tent later, and hear the same DJ screaming the same carefully crafted hypeman copy, and think to myself, “Please, #NoMo.”

Spirits lifted a bit as the rain finally let up, and the transparent ponchos came off. Aesthetically, Riot Fest is like no other. The carnival-meets-Hot Topic vibe came together as Cancer Bats tore through an afternoon set, backdropped by some kind of industrial factory complete with smokestacks. Somehow, it works. Unlike your Field Trips or your TURFs, this isn’t a twee family-friendly festival. It’s dirty. People are rolling around in the mud. There are carnival rides that look like death traps. There are thousands of seagulls circling the Colossal Onion stand. The GWAR show was cancelled due to rain, but it still looks like everyone got covered in fake blood. And hey, if it wasn’t fake blood, that’s even more concerning. This festival lives up to its name.


In a desperate attempt to escape the wind and rain, I followed a lineup of mud people into a circus tent. Inside, I found the Hellzapoppin Sideshow, which promised stunts, freaks, and a brief reprieve from the weather. It was equal parts Gathering Of The Juggalos and Rob Zombie music video in there, with fire-breathing pyromaniacs, sword swallowing, and a man with no legs and doing a lip-dub to “Nuthin’ But A G Thang.” Before my brain imploded, I left on a mission to see some bands.

I wandered out of Hellzapoppin’s tented alternate reality, and posted up at the closest stage. Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace looked at ease on stage, as she belted out “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “FuckMyLife666,” “Thrash Unreal,” “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” and other songs from AM! past and present. Riot Fest is nothing if not a celebration of individuality, and I was happy to see that the crowd left any and all transphobia at home.

Back to back sets by Drive Like Jehu and Migos labelmatesCoheed & Cambria blurred the lines between post-punk and prog-pop, and Weezer’s massive Pinkerton singalong forged a tender moment between mud-covered punks, but the main event was Alexisonfire’s reunion homecoming. The screamo heroes transposed the late-‘90s 905 punk scene from its church basement origins to Riot Fest’s massive outdoor stage, with a performance of “.44 Caliber Love Letter,” and closed things out with a goddamned Drake cover. At the end of the performance, the band announced that they were back together for good, with plans to headline Riot Fest 2025 a decade from now.


After a punk-heavy day 1, hip-hop reigned at Riot Fest on Sunday. The grounds recovered from Saturday’s pummelling relatively well, and thankfully, the sun made its first appearance of the weekend. Local rap God Jazz Cartier gave a fiery wake-up call to a still-amassing crowd at 2:00PM, running through a gauntlet of high-energy cuts from his critically-acclaimed mixtape Marauding In Paradise. Tasha The Amazon followed suit not long after with a brief but powerful set, giving unfamiliar onlookers crowd a reason to Google her later.

Tyler, The Creator, joined by Odd Future cohorts Jasper and Taco, then faced the task of performing to a relatively reserved crowd in broad daylight, when their moody beats and aggressive stage presence would have served better for a late night rampage. They gave it their best shot, with performances of “Death Camp,” “Troncat,” “Domo 23,” and “Yonkers,” but even Tyler had to admit that something was off, calling it "the most awkward set [he’d] done in years.” After closing things of with 2013 single “Tamale,” Tyler apologized for the lack of energy. The Odd Future fan faithfuls didn’t seem deterred, but he promised a better show upon his ultimate return.

Whether you decided to see Weezer or Wu-Tang Clan to close out Riot Fest, there were a hell of a lot of Ws in the air for both sets. Raekwon and Method Man were noticeably absent, but a lean crew of RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, U-God, and Inspectah Deck treated the Sunday night crowd to a monster medley of hits, including “"Protect Ya Neck" and "C.R.E.A.M.," with "Gravel Pit" as a finishing move.

From the shit weather on Saturday, to the corporate installations, Riot Fest 2015 doesn’t elude the typical festival complaints. But, it’s the only fest where you can see a man light himself on fire, and then watch Wu-Tang from a ferris wheel. Just as it is in life, festival success is all about striking a balance.

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