If the inaugural Toronto edition of Riot Fest could be compared to anything, it would be a high school reunion—albeit a muddy, drunk, exceptionally noisy high school reunion, with a lot of mohawks.
The kids who used to attend Warped Tour around the turn of the millennium (back before it became a twisted shadow of its former self, headlined by terrible bands like Breathe Carolina) have grown up. Their tattoos are a little faded, many of them are wearing wedding rings, many more of them were wearing ear plugs, and a few of them had their kids in tow. Their palates have evolved, as well. Riot Fest’s food offerings included wood-fired pizza, iced americanos, barbecue chicken with salad, and more varieties of smoothie than you could shake a stick at.
All that said, these Warped Tour alumni still want to rip shit up when they get the chance. With a lineup consisting mostly of ’80s and ’90s punk acts, Riot Fest was that chance.
After a few local openers, who played to a mostly empty field, Andrew W.K. took the stage to start the proceedings in earnest. Say what you will about Andrew WK—an artist who, due to legal difficulties, has only released one album in the past nine years and has admitted to his stage persona being created by committee—but if you want to start something on a positive note, he is your man. He’s half–rock star, half–motivational speaker. He oozed good vibes, and was totally oblivious to the fact that he looked vaguely ridiculous yelling over what we assume was a recorded backing track, since there was only one other person on stage. Even without a band, W.K.’s high-energy performance and yay-for-everything stage banter managed to get the crowd engaged early. It’s hard not to like a man who has roughly half a dozen songs with the word “party” in their titles.
W.K.’s work was almost undone by the thoroughly disappointing Lawrence Arms. The Chicago-based band’s set was really the only low point of the day. Musically speaking, they weren’t bad, but they weren’t particularly good, either. When you’re sharing the stage with legends of the genre, run-of-the-mill melodic punk just isn’t going to cut it. Add that to the fact that the band’s stage banter ranged from awkward to downright obnoxious—they kept mentioning the fact that their T-shirts were cheaper than everyone else’s—and the result was a set that can only be described as a letdown.
Floridian ska-punkers Less Than Jake came out seeming a little dated (third-wave ska isn’t a sound that ages well), but made up for it with their infectious energy. They seemed legitimately happy to be on stage, and were more than willing to play to nostalgia. At one point, they even all-but-apologized for playing new material.
Hot Water Music, on the other hand, were looking and sounding every bit as fresh as they did a decade ago. Co-frontman Chuck Ragan has built a career on a gravelly, raspy voice, and age has only helped that. The band’s tight, layered rhythm section sounded sharper than ever, and Ragan and fellow singer/guitarist Chris Wollard attacked their instruments with an almost frightening ferocity. Unlike Less Than Jake, HWM weren’t shy about throwing in material from their latest album, Exister. The crowd didn’t seem to mind at all.
Fucked Up may not have been headliners, but they certainly received one of the warmest welcomes. Riot Fest was the local heroes’ first show back in Toronto following an extensive tour, and the crowd was ecstatic to have them back. The band didn’t disappoint. Vocalist Damian Abraham returned to his small-room hardcore roots, spending most of the set wandering around the crowd, letting fans scream along with him, and encouraging everyone in the audience to start their own band, saying, “Seriously, if I can do it, anyone can do it.” While Abraham wandered around bellowing like a man possessed, the band’s tremendous, three-guitar wall of sound filled the massive Fort York Garrison Common. The set quickly turned into a love-in, with Abraham pronouncing his affection for his hometown, while audience members repeatedly screamed their love for Fucked Up. The band’s performance was the most enjoyable of the day, and further cemented Fucked Up’s status as the best act to come out of this city in the past decade.
Then there was NOFX. There’s a reason this band has become headlining-a-festival famous without help from a major label, and with few videos and no radio play. It’s because they’re really, really good. In a genre where technical mastery has always been a non-factor, if not a negative, NOFX has managed to turn into one of the tightest live acts in music. Each song sounds album-perfect, without the benefit of studio wizardry. They also have a lot of presence, playfully teasing the crowd, then giving them exactly what they wanted with a strong mixture of new material and ’90s classics, each with a sing-along-ready chorus. Nearly 30 years after forming, NOFX still doesn’t miss a step, and may actually sound better than they did in the ’90s.
Roughly half the crowd left after NOFX’s set. If you’re one of those people, you should take a moment to hang your head in shame and think about where you’ve gone wrong in your life. If NOFX are cool, snotty rebels, the Descendents, who performed afterward, are a bunch of weird, socially awkward dorks. But they owned it, blurting out song titles by way of an introduction and occasionally facing away from the crowd. They are also the originators of the Southern California pop-punk sound. Even though all of them are pushing 50, their teenage anthems about broken hearts and food still sounded as good and thrashy and aggressive as they did 30 years ago, while their newer material managed to be wistful and melodic without taking the energy down. By the time the set ended, with drummer Bill Stevenson being presented with a birthday cake—Sunday was his 49th—Riot Fest had become less of a festival show and more of a giant party with old friends.
At the end of the night, the aging Warped Tour kids in the crowd were sweaty, muddy, and sore from moshing, but they were also unbelievably happy. Not only did they get to see proof that their old heroes still have it, but they realized that they still have that punk rock spirit in them, too.
CORRECTION: 4:17 PM We originally implied that Andrew WK’s album was created by committee; in fact it was his persona. We’ve amended the text to make this clearer.