LIVE REVIEW: Riot Fest Denver (Day 1)


I missed Riot Fest 2013, and to be honest I spent the first six months after it took place kicking myself for having not attended. When the 2014 installment was unveiled, I knew this would be the year I finally made the trek. Chicago was my first choice, but due to some family related issues that came up in August I ultimately settled on booking a flight, hotel, and car for one in order to enjoy Riot Fest from the parking lot of Mile High Stadium in Denver, CO.

My journey began as great adventures do, with a far too early commute to Boston Logan International Airport. It was just after 3:30 AM on Friday and the temperature was trying its best to not dip into the high 40s. My flight took off at 5AM, but it was not headed to Denver. Charlotte, a city over a thousand miles south of Boston, was the first stop. I snapped a photo as I was leaving the plane for my two-hour layover:

The second flight was 3.5 hours, but thanks to a stockpile of At Midnight episodes stored on my computer they flew by in no time at all. I sat, I laughed, and I stood up no less than six times because the man next to me apparently had a bladder comparable to that of a fire ant. I didn’t let it get to me though. I couldn’t. Riot Fest was mere hours away, and this plane was the only thing still standing in my way.

Upon arrival, I journeyed through Denver’s incredibly large airport until I located my rental car company. They were out of the small vehicle I requested, so I pulled off the lot in an Impala with zero cool features. It might as well be a big bodied version of a Mercury Sable, but again – I didn’t let it get me down. After all, it’s only a car. RIOT FEST was coming.

Thirty minutes and a lot of careful maneuvering through traffic later, I pulled into Mile High Stadium wearing a smile that was spread a mile wide across my face. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but go ahead and picture what that would look like for a second. Pretty amusing, right? Here’s what I saw immediately after picking up my badge:

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I was only assigned to shoot four groups for UTG on my first day, so I spent the initial part of my visit to the Riot Fest grounds soaking in the atmosphere. The festival takes up what are essentially two parking lots around the stadium where the Denver Broncos play, with four stages, a dozen or more food vendors, band merch, putt putt golf, carnival rides, and various companies trying to sell clothing and/or smoking accessories (weed is legal in Colorado and they never let you forget it). I strolled through it all a few times, then took time to enjoy sets from La Dispute, Tiny Moving Parts, and ALL. It was my first experience with ALL, and having watched Filmage in the not too distant past it was pretty cool to see what decades of dedication to music could produce.

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The sun began to set shortly after 6PM, which was shortly before New Found Glory took the stage. I have been covering NFG for UTG since we launched, and in that time I have probably seen them live seven or eight times, but no matter how frequently they play in my vicinity they always manage to blow me away. Even with a set list comprised of songs I’ve heard at every previous show I’ve been to, they still kick more ass than your average pop punk band 9.9 times out of 10. This set was no different, opening with “Catalyst” and running through a slew of fan favorites before closing with “My Friend’s Over You.”

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I was unable to watch all of New Found Glory because I had to run clear across the grounds in order to photograph Die Antwoord. I’m not sure what I expected to find when I arrived at their stage, but the first several rows of fans had clearly come with the sole intention of seeing South Africa’s most rambunctious export(s). DJ Hi Tek was the first to emerge on stage, wearing a goon mask and hoodie while spinning self-referential material over booming bass hits that literally rattled my bones. He was followed by Yo Landi and Ninja, both in electric orange sweats, but after the first track the two leads stripped down to attire more akin to their numerous music videos. Ninja ran around shirtless, stage diving every few tracks, and Yo Landi turned her sex appeal up to 10 without showing more than an inch or two of skin. It was more spectacle than set, but it was a damn good time nonetheless.

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There was something telling me that I should try to see more of New Found Glory, so I wrapped my coverage of Die Antwoord and hustled back across the festival grounds in order to catch the last three songs of NFG’s set. They were great, as always, and the crowd was loving every second of it. As “My Friend’s Over You” began to wrap, I checked my schedule and realized New York based indie outfit Skaters were about to begin not far away. I grabbed my gear and headed across the grounds yet again in order to see something entirely different than everything I had experienced so far that day.

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Skaters may be the best band in America right now, but the general public has been slow to embrace their unique blend of indie, pop, and rock styles. The crowd that welcomed Skaters to Riot Fest was small, but you could tell from their reaction to the band walking on stage that they were incredibly dedicated to the group. Every person sang every word, and by the time the second song was done the crowd size had doubled, if not tripled. The highlight of the set for me was “Miss Massachusetts,” but everything they had to offer was thrilling. I only wish there were more people there to witness it.

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At this point in the evening my feet were beginning to feel incredibly sore, but I knew I had one more artist to photograph. Gogol Bordello had been on my bucket list of artists to one day capture on camera, and last night I finally had the chance to make that dream a reality. The sun had long set, but as soon as the lights on their stage turned on it was bright as can be for several hundred feet. Fans went wild before a single note was played, and before the first song began I counted no less than three crowd surfers. You could tell the evening’s cooler temperatures had helped people find energy to push through the night’s entertainment, and it seemed everyone was willing to give their all to Gogol Bordello. In turn, the band gave their all right back.

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There were several more big acts last night, including The Flaming Lips, Slayer, and Weezer. Photo restrictions prevented me from capturing The Flaming Lips, but the other sets were so overrun with photographers that finding great moments to make your own felt impossible. I didn’t want to let you, the reader, down, but having spent the past six hours running around trying to be get a little bit of everything, my body was spent. I sat in the back and watched the night play out from a distance. It was great, and the acts were all as stunning live as you have been led to believe.

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Today I am headed back to Mile High Stadium for another round of photographs and sets that will hopefully go live on UTG tomorrow. I do not know everyone I will be photographing today, but I can promise images of Baby Baby, We Came As Romans, Glassjaw, Dads, and Taking Back Sunday. I hope to grab a few shots of Descendents as well, but we will see what the pit is like before making a commitment.

If you are in the Denver area this weekend, hit me up! I will be all over the city in the coming days, and I am constantly checking my Twitter for mentions/replies. Right now, however, I need a shower and something to eat.

Photos and text created by: James Shotwell

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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