The Misfits' Legacy of Brutality Continues at Riot Fest

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For the past decade, Riot Fest (a three-day festival that takes place each year in Denver and Chicago) has been the place where childhood punk-rock dreams come true. For instance, two years ago outside Mile High Stadium, I got to see the Descendents tear through Milo Goes to College, which I played so many times in my Walkman as a high-school freshman in Pittsburgh that the cassette was destroyed. Last year, when Riot Fest’s Denver edition moved to the National Western Complex, I earned a new appreciation for goth trailblazers the Damned and beamed, laughed and sang along with thousands of others to the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.”

Riot Fest, which began as a multi-venue festival at clubs and theaters in Chicago, is mostly about reveling in raucous performances by edgy, legendary bands you had no idea were still around and making pilgrimages to witness long-awaited reunions. The most anticipated reunion in the history of heavy music, arguably, took place last night in Denver, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Friday and Saturday night, respectively, were headlined by left-field early-'90s MTV sensations Jane’s Addiction and Ween. Murder by Death, the Midwestern gothic-Americana group that’s made a name for itself in Colorado the last three years by performing annual three-night runs at the reputedly haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, was this year’s first Sunday highlight.

I had previously seen Murder by Death only in ballroom attire at the Stanley, where the Indiana-born act pays tribute to The Shining. But its songs about ghosts, drinking, death and “big dark love” went over surprisingly well in the early-afternoon sun, too, notably the eerily gorgeous “Lost River,” which singer-guitarist Adam Turla called “one of our murder ballads.” The loud, rock-festival sound was a drastic change from the wedding-band sound system at the Stanley, and that mightily benefited brilliant cellist Sarah Balliet, whose solo on David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” – using phrases from Mick Ronson’s original as inspiration for an awe-inspiring neo-classical workout – brought a roar of approval.

Before checking out “the world’s most dangerous selfie” (featuring a camera at the end of a sword in the midst of being swallowed) at the Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue, where a man also swallowed a fully inflated four-foot balloon, I was amused to find that Riot Fest had booked back-to-back cover bands on the two main stages. Chevy Metal, led by Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, played a set of classic-rock-radio classics, including hits by Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Billy Joel and others, culminating in an impressive version of the AC/DC gem “Let There Be Rock.”

Longtime Bay Area tribute supergroup Me First and the Gimme Gimmes was much more entertaining, turning unwitting standards like “Sloop John B” (with a “Teenage Lobotomy” intro), “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and even Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” into straight-ahead punk-rock adventures. Plus, any performance that includes NOFX’s Fat Mike is worth attending just for the comedy.  Before launching into “Country Roads,” he cracked, “John Denver: Great American. Bad pilot.” 

It’s been reported that Gene Wilder chose to listen to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when he passed away recently; it was probably not the version that Me First and the Gimme Gimmes played at Riot Fest.

A little later, rapper 2 Chainz drove away many of the people waiting for him by showing up thirty minutes late for his 45-minute set. Bad Religion, which has aged but not mellowed a bit, played a searing hour-long set of hardcore about political and social consciousness, including its MTV hit “21st Century Digital Boy,” from 1995, when the SoCal punk stalwart – which formed in 1979 – forayed into hard rock. But again, Riot Fest is the punk-rock candy store where childhood dreams come true, so of course Bad Religion got the mosh pit – which numerous people left with bloody noses – going with a thrashing, spot-on version of the 1982 classic “Fuck Armageddon…This Is Hell.”

Gogol Bordello absolutely raged – in a way that only an oddball, fiery gypsy-punk band with Ukrainian roots can – in front of about 10,000 people while more than that waited at the adjacent stage for Riot Fest’s main act to build its elaborate set behind a gigantic black curtain. In theory, logistics were not kind to the incredible Gogol Bordello, but even those waiting for the ultimate in punk-rock dream-granting seemed to appreciate Eugene Hütz’s unique crowd-pleasing genius.

As a Misfits fan since the fourth grade, when my eyes nearly popped out of head with joy when I saw the cover of Walk Among Us and was told there had been band from New Jersey that sang “hack the heads off little girls and put ‘em on my wall,” I was staying put in a choice position amid the sea of Crimson Ghost tattoos and shirts as Gogol Bordello played.

Earlier, while decked out in a gaudy blue Hawaiian shirt like the rest of his bandmates, Fat Mike had offered Jerry Only of the Misfits $10,000 to wear the same outfit when the spooky New Jersey hardcore band reunited later that night. No chance. Along with the haunting-jackhammer vibe of Doyle Von Frankenstein’s guitar, when the sound of Only’s distorted bass – echoing its tone on 1982’s Evilive – emerged from behind the aforementioned curtain, the Riot Fest crowd (which was somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000) went into a frenzy.

The Misfits’ three core members (Glenn Danzig and the two Caiafa brothers, Doyle and Jerry) had not performed together since 1983. In 1995, Doyle and Jerry angered singer-songwriter Danzig by again playing as the Misfits – which began in 1977 as a sublime, strange, horror-film-obsessed group of New Jersey teenagers delivering violent mid- and up-tempo garage punk and eventually became hardcore demons with the 1983 swan song Earth A.D.

Time — and, of course, money — can be healing. So can punk rock. As Flea said when inducting Metallica into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, “Ferocious music is the healthiest release of anger…it is alchemy; it is a metamorphosis; it is turning something potentially a source of misery into something beautiful.” When “Death Comes Ripping” kicked off the first Misfits set in 33 years – with Dave Lombaro (Slayer) on drums and backup guitarist Acey Slade in the shadows – it was something equally ferocious and beautiful. Choosing one of their heaviest, most intense songs as the starter, Danzig and company seemed to be sending a message to the big festival crowd that this was not the Rolling Stones, not classic rock – really not like anything music had seen in the thirty-plus years that the Misfits — but not the band's influence or legacy — had been gone.

Much of the audience seemed in shock, or at least unsure of how to react to this kind of music. Hatebreed and Converge had both played earlier in the day, and their kind of metal begs headbanging but, for my ears, is too jumbled by incomprehensible guitar and drums and that famous Cookie Monster voice to have as brutal an effect as the Misfits' punishing hardcore when led by Danzig’s original, clear voice on twisted Misfits standards like “20 Eyes” and “Where Eagles Dare,” which followed “Death Comes Ripping” last night. There was talk of a thousands-strong mosh pit before the Misfits went on, but there was no riot at Riot Fest when Danzig asked the crowd, “Have you ever thought about killing somebody?” and then sang songs with choruses such as “I’ll put a knife right in you.”

The 61-year-old Danzig (who has poked fun at himself recently on Portlandia with Fred Armisen, who was in attendance yesterday) repeatedly asked the enthusiastic but relatively calm Denver crowd if we were tired. A few hours after the show, Doyle told Rolling Stone "It felt weird to me because people were just standing there."

Danzig’s voice, which has not been particularly strong since the high notes he hit on 1990’s Danzig II, was in rare form last night,  nailing early Misfits tracks like “Who Killed Marilyn?” and “Hollywood Babylon," both of which had not been performed in about 35 years. Only, who has been the frontman and only original member of the Misfits for over a decade, which some considered as ridiculous as Phil Lesh or Bill Wyman putting bands together and calling them the Grateful Dead or the Rolling Stones, admirably slid back into his role as bassist and backup singer, serving the music rather than himself.

The original Misfits, as can be heard on the 1978 album Static Age (which was not released until 1997), had a sound somewhere between the ‘50s rock 'n' roll of Elvis and Chuck Berry and the wicked spirit of Black Sabbath’s stripped-down 1970 debut.  At Riot Fest, Danzig seemed humbled and amazed to dig up nearly forty-year-old tunes like “She,” which he said “cost us $60 to record.”

The two problems with the post-Danzig versions of the Misfits were that Only’s vision of horror punk was a myopic caricature – he literally took the band into the world of pro wrestling at one point – and that the tempos were all light-speed, draining much of their powerful soul. Last night the Misfits were flanked by menacing orange pumpkin statues, prompting Danzig (who said at one point that punk, for the Misfits, was about "getting fucked up and fucking people up") to joke, “You like our fuckin’ pumpkins? I think they’re pretty fucking cool.” 
Danzig was the only original member not decked out in customary Misfits attire, a bold statement from the man who wrote and sang all the original songs. The music (and the energy it creates) is the Misfits, he seemed to be saying.

But the main reason, in my opinion, that the long-awaited Misfits reunion set was such a success lay in Lombardo’s tasteful drumming. One of the most technically skilled drummers in the history of metal, Lombardo played the 25 songs in the Misfits’ reunion set at their original tempos, from the slow burn of “London Dungeon” to the laser-fast hardcore of “Green Hell.” Lombardo, while Doyle played his guitar like he was beating it up, sacrificed any desire to play impressive fills or generally prove that he’s a great musician in order to instead get behind Danzig’s songs and prove that the Misfits were and are a great band.

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, kids were so obsessed with the Misfits that some friends of mine went on public-access TV in high school just to play an instrumental version of “Teenagers From Mars.” A large audience is waiting for the original Misfits all over the country, so whether the band tours after its Denver set and its upcoming Riot Fest performance in Chicago will be up to its members, who obviously haven’t gotten along in the past.

But Danzig summed up the effect that his songs, and apt renderings of them, have had for the past forty years before “Die Die My Darling”: “They’re all fucking love songs – just my kind of love, motherfucker.”

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