Riot Fest: Local fan mount a punk festival of global proportions

October 5, 2008


In 2005, Michael Petryshyn was toiling away at a 9-to-5 job when he had an idea: “I was bored at work one day and thought it would be really cool if I tried to get all of my favorite bands together to play one show.”

A Buffalo native, Petryshyn relocated here in late 2002 to attend graduate school at Loyola University, though as a devoted fan of punk and ska, he confesses that “the real reason I moved to Chicago was that it was the home of bands like Big Black, Naked Raygun and Screeching Weasel.” He had promoted a few club shows back in New York — “nothing big; smaller rooms the size of Double Door”— but from year one, Riot Fest was much more ambitious.

“I hadn’t done anything of this magnitude, so I’ve really been learning on the job for four years,” Petryshyn says, laughing. “The first year was kind of a wash, because the only bands that I got that I really wanted were the Lawrence Arms and Bouncing Souls. That’s why they’re playing together this year at the House of Blues: It’s my thank you to them for taking a chance on me.

“Year two was the Raygun year. I was going after them hard as soon as Riot Fest ’05 ended, to no avail. Then one day Eric Spicer emailed me over MySpace and was like, ‘What would you think if my old band Naked Raygun would reunite for Riot Fest?’ I thought it was a prank, because it was signed ‘Eric Raygun.’ But I wrote back and said, ‘Send me your phone number and let’s chat,’ and lo and behold, it was him!”

With the reunited Chicago art-punks topping an action-packed bill at the Congress Theatre, Riot Fest firmly established itself in 2006 as one of the best showcases for punk and underground music in the country. Now, it’s grown to the point where it will be a significant presence at several venues across the city throughout the weekend.

This year’s must-sees include two more high-profile reunions, All and ska-punks the Mighty Mighty Bosstones; the much-buzzed pop-punk bands the Ergs! from New Jersey and the HorrorPops from L.A.; chaotic indie/garage-rocker Jay Reatard and old-school Chicago Raygun disciples Shot Baker — and Petryshyn has even bigger plans for 2009.

“We’re doing five days next year because it’s our fifth anniversary, so we’re going from Wednesday to Sunday, and on our big day, which will probably be at the Congress again, it will be nothing but Chicago bands. We’re also moving to L.A. and Boston next year, though Chicago will always be the flagship of Riot Fest, and next year, we hope to involve even more venues here.”

The promoter is proud to note that 70 percent of the fans attending Riot Fest travel to Chicago from out of town and stay for the whole weekend. “I think we have this hub-and-spoke approach now. It’s an urban festival, and people who are coming from Ohio or parts of New York or Canada like chasing the town.” Meanwhile, the central aesthetic remains a simple one: “We like that harder-edged, edgier musician with a little bit of an attitude.”

Those criteria are broad enough to embrace metal, garage, ska and just about every subgenre of punk bands.

“I grew up in a small town-Buffalo is like 400,000 people-and when I used to go to shows, everybody would play together,” Petryshyn says. “It was a scene where everyone was helping everyone else out. When I moved to Chicago, I realized it was not like that here. But the kids in particular seem to really like that approach — there are a lot of them now running around in Naked Raygun T-shirts, and I think there’s a sense of Chicago pride again.”

That is not to say that it’s been easy mounting a punk festival here.

“This is not a city that’s friendly to independent promoters,” Petryshyn says with a heavy sigh. “I think what’s going on with the ordinance is a stupid move by the city. We work with House of Blues and established venues in Chicago; we’re in a different place than a guy who’s just throwing a show at some hall. If you’re an independent promoter doing a show at House of Blues, they have all their bases covered two times over. The ordinance is not right — independent promoters aren’t making a lot to begin with, and to add this extra layer of getting a license is just going to put a lot of people out of business.”

Nevertheless, the now 30-year-old Petryshyn has been able to make Riot Fest his full-time job: In addition to the festival, Riot Fest is also an independent record label, and it plans forthcoming releases by ALL, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Naked Raygun.