Riff Review: Riot Fest Toronto Turns Mud into Gold


My voice cracks, my legs hurt, and a big soundtrack continues to run through my brain. It must be the day after Riot Fest BILLY-TALENT-500-REVToronto.

Not to insult any of the bands that performed on the Saturday, but by far the one thing all attendees experienced a lot of on the first day was mud, makeshift swamplands, and quicksand-esque patches of Downsview Park, thanks to an enormous thunderstorm the night before. While the ground was more than damp, their spirits were dirty, yet warm.

The early afternoon of Day 1 quickly showcased the diversity of a festival usually viewed as one for the punks. Despite many of the artists already embraced by the Warped Tour demographic, it would be an insult to view Riot Fest as just a punk festival.

Experimental rockers Mounties emerged during the lunch hour to a surprisingly sized crowd. At an hour where you’d expect the turnstiles and parking fields to have more people than one of the main stages, the turnout was enthusiastic and very well engaged from the get-go. A rousing rendition of “Pretty Respectable” got the ball smoothly rolling, not stopping until the band wrapped with their infectious single, “Headphones.”

From there, it was quite the transition to move over to the Rock Stage – an area of the park that was more mud than solid ground – to experience the unrelenting power of Glassjaw. With my back to the crowd for the first few songs, it was hard not to feel them foaming from the mouth.

As the afternoon grew, so did the challenge of walking through the park. The thousands of attendees traipsing through made getting around the grounds an utterly disgusting feat of concentration, balance, and bravery. While some grimaces could be seen, no one seemed that pissed off about Mother Nature making the day more complicated.

Amidst the mud, was a very pop-punk/emo friendly afternoon with Circa Survive, New Found Glory, Taking Back Sunday, and Alkaline Trio enticing attendees to stage-hop regardless of the tough maneuvering conditions.

Just before 5pm, AWOLNATION – the band behind one of the most enduring singles of the past few years, “Sail” – arrived to arguably the largest and most excitable crowd of the afternoon. Frontman Aaron Bruno was connecting with those five, fifty, five hundred feet away, as the band sounded as tight as they do on album. This seemed to surprise some, as the Riffyou.com team overheard a conversation that went:

Guy 1: “Why don’t I hate this?”

Guy 2: “I know, right?”

The mid-evening felt like the most-aggressive, yet best-attended sets of the night, as the crowd was treated to a triple shot of Rise Against, Death From Above 1979, and Billy Talent.

Rise Against didn’t fuck around and triumphed through a hit-centric set that launched with “Ready to Fall” and “Give it All,” with Ramones covers “Teenage Labotomy” and “Commando” (featuring Wade MacNeil of Gallows, formerly Alexisonfire) RIOT-BABY-SMALLhelping the band close a set that was one continual wave of energy bounced between fans and the stage.

Death From Above 1979 – after a pair of small pop-up shows in Toronto earlier in the week – drew a massive crowd toward the Riot Stage, once again proving that sometimes it just takes two to move thousands.

Billy Talent and The Cure served as the night’s headliners, but opted to approach their slots very differently. While local favourites Billy Talent didn’t waste any time bouncing into hits “Devil in a Midnight Mass,” “Red Flag,” and “Try Honesty,” The Cure opted to stagger its hits out, which unfortunately led to some moments that a festival crowd couldn’t totally appreciate. While people danced up a storm to the likes of “Just Like Heaven” and “Friday I’m in Love,” the band’s continual, long-winded dives into their deep catalogue alienated many unfamiliar souls.

All this said, the highlight of Day 1 had to be the explosive version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” put forth by The
Flaming Lips. While we missed 95% of the band’s set while watching Billy Talent, we came toward what looked to be a fluorescently exploding stage. While the band has forever been known for its stage production, sonically the song was also a win. I’d love to provide you with more words about this, but this is honest to goodness something that you could only have seen to totally understand.

Day 2 proved to be a sunnier, drier affair as the mud was much more solidified and rubber boots were no longer needed. While a ton of great bands of all shapes and sizes kept the two side stage crowds enthralled, it was the two main stages’ endless stream of high-end talent that kept our attention.

When your afternoon goes from The New Pornographers, to The Head and the Heart, to Dropkick Murphys, to Social Distortion, to Death Cab for Cutie, to The National, to Metric, to City and Colour, it’s hard for any music fan not to orgasm just a little.

While The Head and the Heart proved to be the perfect Sunday afternoon in the sun act, Dropkick Murphys served as the let’s-get-blind-drunk-in-the-afternoon-and-pump-our-fists member of the bill. These men from Massachusetts rarely let the crowd off the hook, and naturally dazzled at the end of a set that closed off with “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” and Bachman Turner Overdrive cover, “Takin’ Care of Business.”

With Social Distortion, Mike Ness equally advertised his supreme punk rock bad-assery and his love of antiques with a career-spanning set – that may not have included many of his band’s biggest hits – but did showoff his formidable guitar prowess, gruff vocals, and a school zone slowdown sign.

Death Cab for Cutie – in what was co-founding member Chris Walla’s Toronto swansong – mustered up the biggest crowd of CITY-AND-COLOUR-500the day, smartly opening with the larger-than-life sounding “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and the catchy beyond words, “Crooked Teeth.” As I watched a father dance his infant child upon his shoulders, Death Cab ruled the school with the likes of “Long Division,” “Cath…,” “Soul Meets Body,” and “The Sound of Settling.” As the sun set, I couldn’t help but hope that Walla’s departure doesn’t bring down the light on the career of a truly exceptional band.

While we quickly caught The National for a few songs to see what the hype was about, what we were really excited about was heading over to see punk legends, Buzzcocks, over on one of the side stages. Despite being elder statesmen, there was zero delay in the steps of these gentlemen. They could’ve very easily been put up against anyone from the weekend and been revered.

After Metric put on a very danceable and crowd-engaging hour-long set, fellow hometown artist City and Colour emerged to a massive crowd, as well as a massive Chicken Tenders and Colossal Onion signs in which frontman Dallas Green couldn’t keep his eyes off of. Although admitting onstage that he was initially hesitant to headline what many believe to be a punk festival, Green soon thanked the crowd for proving to him that he made the right decision.

As Green’s beautiful voice rang through the night with “Comin’ Home,” “Sleeping Sickness,” “The Girl,” and “The Thirst,” so wound down the second Riot Fest to roll through Toronto.

Despite the physical discomfort I feel today, Riot Fest was an unmistakably cool event with a little something for every kind of rock fan. Now, please excuse me as I hose off my muddy Skechers.

­-Review and Photos by: Adam Grant
-Additional reporting by: Jessie Sipione

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