Brendan Yates of Turnstile performing at Riot Fest 2023, photo by Josh Darr

In all the years I’ve had an opportunity to shoot music coverage at festivals, there are only just a few festivals that have alluded me and some that have been on my bucket list to cover.

Ironically enough, the Chicago-based Riot Fest, now in its 16th year of existence, has been one I have not made it to until this year. I think mostly when it started to get its legs underneath, I hung my camera up to focus on parenting. And since returning to music, my requests weren’t made promptly enough.

The proverbial stars aligned this year and when the headliners were announced, I knew it was fate I’d get to finally cover the alluded fest. To spare you the long-winded childhood memory, I will say I’ve had a long-standing relationship with The Cure and their music longer than probably everyone I know outside of my immediate family. They were enough for me and lucky for me there were more—many, many more—that made my first Riot Fest beyond worthwhile.

Each of the weekend’s headliners were also important roles in the shaping of my musical tastes and were bands I found solace with when dealing with heartbreaks. And hey...It didn’t hurt getting to see Foo Fighters twice in a summer fest season...very similarly to my 2011 festival season. A dash of honesty here, though—there were many, many many acts throughout the weekend I didn’t have the most favorable taste for as they were the anthems of my youngest sister’s formative years so played more so as the music she asked to play in the car.

But I’m really grateful for the community of photographer friends I’ve gained this year and the trust I’ve had in their musical tastes when I was unfamiliar with a band, I could follow along and have been happy with my experience.

Let’s see if I can get through this weekend’s festival without getting too wordy or off too much on a nostalgic tangent. 


Headliners: Foo Fighters 
Highlight: Yard Act 

Heading into Friday, I was both nervous and excited of what was in store. Riot Fest being the fourth festival I’ve gotten to cover this season for Variance, I’ve had a range of experiences and gotten to see a lot of great acts and have found some new favorite bands. This weekend includes a couple headliners from Boston Calling back on Labor Day weekend, Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age. Foo Fighters have been notorious all festival season for being extremely selective and restrictive with photo coverage and as frustrating as that is being a photographer I did however get to enjoy their set for the second time as a recap of the songs I’ve to really love over the years and a gained appreciation for those I missed over the years that bridge their gaps. My first experience with Dave Grohl and Pat Smear was thirty years ago with Nirvana and their Friday night definitely struck that nostalgic nerve. Leading up to their performance, highlights for me included the Portland indie rock duo, Quasi, getting to capture George Clinton and Parliament and of course the British rock band, Yard Act.


Headliners: Postal Service 
Highlight: Death Grips

With Friday under my belt and Saturday looking like my most stacked day for the weekend, I was excited to dig in and start off with long time favorites Warpaint. Within seconds, I had my “ratatouille” moment hearing them play and all the feels that came with my first time seeing them live all over again. Coming off that high of nostalgia I felt adventurous enough to see what child actor star, Corey Feldman was going to perform. Having no idea or recollection that he made music I initially assumed It was a band named in homage to the actor but no It was in fact, the numerous favorite movie characters from my childhood in the flesh. What I have to remind myself of Feldman is that he had a very successful careers as an entertainer and that’s exactly what his performance was, Entertaining! Some of the spotlight sets for me on the second day came from the English rock band, High-Vis. Also the Swedish punk band, Viagra Boys lead singer Sebastian Murphy who showered himself in his cold beverage. The American singer/rapper 070 Shake rounded out favorites during the day. Finally getting to catch Death Grips live, they lived up to all the hype and then some. They make me want to let out all my frustrations aloud without needing to hurt anyone including myself in the process. I read in a friend’s recap from the weekend describing Saturday as the festival’s day to spotlight indie rock and I’d say that was spot on. There was a variety of artists through the day that didn’t fall in line with a specific genre but respectively etched their names in a music pushing creative boundaries. The counter part to that sentiment was the variety of artists beautifully choreographed together where we could rage hard and then turn sing along teary-eyed with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism and Postal Service’s Give Up. Bookending those two sets were Queens of the Stone Age and the Mike Patton led super group Mr Bungle. I absolutely came away from the second day exhilarated and eager for the closing day of the festival weekend.


Headliners: The Cure
Highlight: The Dresden Dolls

So as Mother Nature would have it, there was a delay to the start of Sunday. As a result a number of the acts kicking off the day were scratched. Selfishly grateful, long-standing personal favorite, Cults made “the cut”. It had been some time since I’d last seen them live and great to see how they’d matured and embraced themselves as a duo. As usual, lead singer Madeline Follin truly shined on stage. They set the bar pretty high for me for the day and am so glad to report the rest of the day did not disappoint. The only miss I had from the day I wish I would had caught was LS Dunes on the Radical Stage, but at least gives me a task to catch them when they come back through Chicago. This last day went a lot faster than I expected as we ping-ponged mostly between three stages for the day. I thoroughly enjoyed Ride’s set and AFI may have been one of the more photogenic groups for the entire weekend. Taking flight numerous times and given us ample amount of opportunities to capture the “perfect shot” Much similarly to how quickly the day went I am flying through the lineup’s acts to get to the evening’s headliners,The Cure. But can’t go without mentioning the perfect musical appetizer with another first for me getting to catch Mars Volta as we zealously waited in our numbered line to be ushered into the photo pit for the closer. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the Dresden Dolls set, not for any negative reason other than I had never seen them before and a brief PSA from Amanda Palmer to pursue our creativity and to embrace our individuality. The icing on the cake for me with their set was their cover of Beastie Boys’ track “Fight For Your Right” with inviting a guest, Melissa Auf der Maur (swoons for days lol) All in all It was a thoroughly entertaining set. *Forewarning* this is the portion of the weekend review that was saved to be potentially a tangentially expression of what The Cure’s music means to me personally. I should kick this off by mentioning this was my first experience seeing them live and had hoped to catch them on their arena tour with Twilight Sad but alas that was not in my cards. My first time hearing The Cure was probably like 1986 as a second grader or somewhere in there. My cousin, David brought some cassettes when visiting the other two were worth mentioning rap albums but in this context what’s most important was compilation tape, Standing on the Beach. I was already always listening to music at the time but there was like a palpable response to their music that has stuck with me since. I definitely don’t have the writing space to run through the nearly 40 years since but the cliff notes version has a lot of when I was sad The Cure was there when I was happy The Cure was there when I needed to get through guessed It..The Cure. At this point of my life I’m definitely in a stage of revisiting and re-scouring through catalogs in appreciation of the rest of albums from an earlier stage in life. Embracing favorite tracks on repeat and forgetting about the other 10ish tracks or comparatively reminding myself how much I loved an entire album from start to finish. In this case, there are just so many of their songs and albums that have hit the right note at the right time and seeing them live Robert Smith and his current company brought all of those feelings and emotions back to life. Bridging It all together with a handful of new and unreleased tracks that did that same thing for me as back in the beginning. There is no other way then how I would’ve wanted to conclude my first Riot Fest experience and all the surprises and highlights from the entire weekend. There was nothing better than seeing the same feelings I’ve had for The Cure expressed by fellow photographers as we soaked It all in from our Birds Eye view from the press tent. Looking forward to next years memories and peeling back another layer of what Riot Fest has to offer!