Following a stretch where artists were forced off of the road amidst pandemic in America, an interesting trend began to appear on the festival stage as live music started to return this summer. Young artists who emerged just prior to or during the pandemic, cultivating massive audiences online via YouTube, Twitch and streaming services – but who were deprived of the ability to road test their studio creations for nearly a year and a half – were suddenly able to book what would become some of their first concerts.
Artists used to spend years across albums honing their sound and developing a stage persona, moving from small venues and clubs to theaters and opening slots before ever appearing on a festival stage. But at Lollapalooza this year, do-it-yourself mashup specialist amorphous performed his first ever festival set in Chicago, a massive coming out party. This past weekend at Riot Fest, Kansas City trio Blackstarkids performed for just the seventh time in their career.
“These are our first shows. So it’s not even like a readjustment, it’s just like an adjustment. It’s something we’ve been so excited to do. It’s just a rewarding feeling for me,” said Ty. “Honestly, just being on the opposite end of the concert experience has been crazy. Because we’ve all been going to concerts for most of our lives and it’s fun. But to be able to actually perform has been something totally different,” added Deiondre. “It just kind of felt like a long time coming – making these albums and not being able to put it out in front of the world on stage,” added Gabe. “I also think touring has just helped our sanity. Because you kind of don’t appreciate your music when you keep making albums. So when you go back to a song and you perform it live, it’s like, ‘That was a great moment in our lives!’”
The young group absorbs elements of hip-hop, pop and indie rock, creating a sound that’s impossible to pigeonhole. They take things even further through the incorporation of a vast array of TV, film and other pop culture references. Performing as a five-piece group on stage Sunday at Riot Fest, Blackstarkids worked a Chicago specific tag from a Chief Keef mixtape into their live set, catering to the local crowd.
Following a series of mixtapes, the group is prepping the release of their debut full-length album Puppies Forever on October 15 via Dirty Hit ahead of tour dates this fall alongside Glass Animals and beabadoobee.
“Really, just looking at everything, it all kind of seeps in. And then you start listening to your own music and forming your own tastes and that’s when you find A Tribe Called Quest, which is the biggest influence on us as a group. But also Beastie Boys, Toro Y Moi, Blood Orange, Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future,” explained Ty, who expressed disappointment over missing Riot Fest sets earlier in the weekend by Smashing Pumpkins and Lupe Fiasco. “But pop culture as a whole. We grew up in the 2000s and we were taking everything in: TV shows, movies, all of that. We were just kids consuming all of the media of the time. Zoey 101. Cartoon Network. As far as movies, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mean Girls. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, those movies and books. A lot of stuff,” he said, with Gabe further name checking iCarly and Malcolm in the MIddle.
For young acts in the streaming era, it’s become incredibly difficult to monetize recorded music. Touring has become the single most important revenue stream, a nightly opportunity to sell branded merchandise directly to an engaged fanbase.
Only now staging their first live sets, Blackstarkids cite their label for keeping them afloat with live performance off the table amidst COVID.
“The way that these streaming services pay, you can’t live off that. They pay you pennies,” said Ty. “Shout out to Dirty Hit. Luckily, they took care of us the whole pandemic and made sure we were straight. But, before that, there was really no money coming in. The only way to make money is shows and merch – and you really sell most of your merch at the shows anyway.”
This week, Blackstarkids will drop their latest single “ACAB.” Opening with an incisive guitar riff, the catchy new track makes a statement.
“It was inspired by basically everything that’s happened,” Ty explained. “Our whole lives growing up, we’ve known about the relationship between the black community especially and the police. But just seeing how the country reacted to the death of George Floyd, and the protests that we had in our city that we attended, seeing the police interactions with the people of our city hands-on – it was just kind of our reaction to what we saw and experienced in the aftermath of that.”
“All rise for the new Illinois national anthem,” said the always quotable Ice-T Sunday in Chicago’s Douglass Park on stage at Riot Fest, introducing the controversial 1992 Body Count single “Cop Killer.”
Long ahead of his time, Ice-T’s lyrics have always channeled the socially conscious sensibility of the best punk rock, putting a spotlight on the relationship between police and the black community decades before it was front page news, with Body Count’s unique fusion of hard rock and rap, proving equally influential.
Body Count launched their set by putting their own spin upon Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” co-founding guitarist Ernie C tearing up the thrash metal classic from go.
On stage, at Riot Fest, Ice-T was astute, entertaining and on-point over the course of Body Count’s one hour on the Riot stage.
“You must be waitin’ on some pop sh-t,” joked the rapper Sunday,” setting the stage for “Drive By.” “But this is Body Count… We’re gonna play songs for the pit!”
The mosh pit raged as the group made their way through tracks like “No Lives Matter” from their 2017 album Bloodlust, with Ice-T’s five year old daughter and wife Coco Austin appearing on stage briefly prior to “Talk Sh-t, Get Shot.”
“Riot Fest, how you feelin’ today? My name is K.Flay and I’m very happy to be here with you on this beautiful Sunday!”
Born in the suburbs of Chicago, the singer, rapper and rocker tore through 60 minutes of music on the Roots stage during her festival homecoming, a pulsating bassline driving opener “Good Girl” as K.Flay spun a whirling dervish across the stage to her right during “FML.”
Midway through her set, K.Flay played an old ad for the 90s Friday night ABC television programming block TGIF, one which featured the vocal stylings of Full House star John Stamos, one more in a grand tradition of references to Stamos by Riot Fest, who once featured a butter sculpture of the actor in 2013 followed by a Stamos-inspired art installation years later.
A highlight Sunday at Riot Fest was the festival return of new wave synth-pop heroes Devo.
The group got going with “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” and “Peek-a-Boo,” rolling out their biggest hits soon after, donning their trademark red energy domes prior to “Girl U Want” and their signature yellow jumpsuits prior to their unique take on the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
“Here’s one we’re working on…” mused frontman Mark Mothersbaugh into a rollickingly fun take on “Whip It.”
Following a set which opened with frontman Wayne Coyne expressing his disappointment over the lack of vaccinations in his home state of Oklahoma, the Flaming Lips moved deftly through a one hour set on the Roots stage, a late Riot Fest addition in replacement of Pixies.
“Scream!” said Coyne, wearing a mask on stage as he incited the audience.
Spending the majority of his time on stage within his patented plastic bubble, Coyne seemed transfixed by the rise of a harvest moon in the south sky, with the fall season set to kick in officially on Wednesday.
“Now it’s just barely happening but there’s a beautiful fall moon about to come up over there,” said Coyne Sunday on the festival stage. “I can’t imagine a more beautiful night to be at a festival as beautiful as Riot Fest. Riot Festival is changing the meaning of ‘riot.’ When we say ‘riot,’ we mean ‘beautiful,’” said the singer as the band moved into its biggest 90s hit “She Don’t Use Jelly.”
Sunday at Riot Fest the Flaming Lips featured dueling percussionists alongside new multi-instrumentalist Micah Nelson, son of Willie.
For his part, playing the demented ringleader of an acid-fuelled circus sideshow during uncertain times, Coyne was the epitome of positivity as the band forced fans to think with a synth heavy rendition of “Do You Realize??”
“When you go out into the world again, try to remember that we’re not gonna get anywhere if we think, ‘I’m right and f—k you,’” he said. “Thank you for showing the world that Riot Festival has always been the coolest, greatest punk rock festival that there’s ever been. Please take care of each other.”