Riot Fest opens in Chicago’s Douglass Park with an ageless Patti Smith, carnival rides and, yes, Morrissey

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Riot Fest opened for the weekend Thursday in Douglass Park on a beautiful pre-autumn afternoon with a preview day and just the Riot and Rebel stages activated; all five stages will be filled with bands soon after the gates open at 11 a.m. Friday.

With the music lineup changing until almost the last minute, the fest’s bill through Sunday includes some hefty names, including Chicago’s own Smashing Pumpkins, Lupe Fiasco, Run the Jewels and Flaming Lips. But coming into the weekend, the most talked-about name has been Morrissey, who headlined Thursday.

Would there be any sign of protests at the stage? Would he skip out on his set?

Ultimately, neither one.

Morrissey has been known, in recent years, for his racist and anti-immigration remarks as much as his music. He last played Riot Fest in 2016 and was added to the 2021 lineup, along with Slipknot, only in late August after Nine Inch Nails canceled tour dates over COVID-19 concerns.

The independently owned Riot Fest declined to comment on the decision to bring Morrissey back. Fans on the grounds Thursday split the difference between saying they wished he wasn’t on the bill to saying that although they didn’t like his politics, they hadn’t ruled out his music.

“I don’t like Morrissey. I don’t like him; I don’t like his personality,” said Clarisa Creaton, in town for Riot Fest from Austin, Texas. “His music is ... fine.”

She said she hadn’t been that familiar with his politics until Morrissey was parodied on an episode of “The Simpsons” earlier this year. (Morrissey threatened a lawsuit against the show.) She and a friend didn’t plan on staying to watch him.

What exactly has Morrissey said? It’s a list. The British singer songwriter has been outspoken for years, most frequently as an animal-rights activist and anti-royalist, but accusations of racism date back to the 1990s, including for lyrics to songs such as 1991′s “Asian Rut.”

He also has spoken against immigration and said things critical of Islam. Morrissey was quoted in NME magazine in 2007 as saying, in part, that “although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears.” (He sued the magazine for the article and it later apologized.) He’s belittled London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a British Pakistani. He has said he “detests” modern Black music and has trashed reggae.

Morrissey first became popular, of course, as the frontman of the Smiths, an ‘80s band with songs known for their emotive anti-establishment stances, and it’s been hard for his fans to reconcile the music they knew with the Morrissey of now. In a 2019 appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” he wore a pin with the logo of the far-right For Britain movement.

Shauna Warren, of Chicago, was attending Riot Fest with friends from Minnesota; their plan was to flee the festival for the evening as soon as Patti Smith wrapped up. “We will be out of here,” she said. “I don’t like Morrissey, and no, it’s not the music, it’s Morrissey.”

The legendary Smith on the Riot stage, for her part, contributed a heartfelt, age-defying, hourlong set that wove through her hits, some covers and a take on “Gloria” that was all her own. “Because the Night” popped up about halfway through. Introducing another song, she said, “This one is from a friend of mine; I still like to play his music on my record player,” then sang a Bob Dylan cover.

After Smith, Alkaline Trio played the Roots stage.

Riot Fest comes near the end of a few Chicago months with major music festivals almost every weekend — and they’re not done yet. (Spring Awakening Autumn Equinox is Oct. 2-3.) According to this reporter, who also attended Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, Riot Fest easily tops the other two in terms of visitor experience. Pitchfork 2021, maybe through little fault of its own, was a claustrophobic dust storm wedged into Union Park; Lollapalooza was Just. So. Much. Riot Fest is more spread out, with vendors well spaced around the grounds and, on Thursday anyway, few lines. A bonus: carnival rides and midway games — though we all could have done without the amplified dunk tank heckler. The sound from the stages is very good. And last, it is set in what has to be one of the city’s most beautiful parks.

As a white-owned, for-profit business, Riot Fest’s use and impact on Douglass Park on the West Side has been noted (including in a 2019 Chicago Reader article) and challenged by community members; perhaps in response, Riot Fest offers the chance for free admission to neighborhood residents. (The hip hop festival Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash also played Douglass Park in late August.)

Heading into Morrissey’s last set of the night Thursday, a number of concertgoers did indeed head for the exits.

Elisha Vancil of Peoria was one of those who stayed. A few minutes before Morrissey came on, she talked about her reaction to things he’s said. “I’ve been trying to come to terms with it,” she said. She counts herself as a progressive and a feminist but she still liked his songs. “I think you have to try to separate the art from the artist.”

Morrissey and his band took the stage on time, at 8:16 p.m. There were no sounds of protests or boos audible from the crowd.

“To say the things he truly feels, and not the words of one who kneels,” were the first words out of his mouth, a recited line from the Sinatra hit “My Way.” It was one of several cryptic remarks over the next 75 minutes; another, later, was “You’ll have to realize if you’re for us or against us.”

Then the band launched into the 1985 Smiths song “How Soon is Now.”

Riot Fest runs 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday in Douglass Park, 1401 S. Sacramento Drive. The main entrance is at the corner of West Ogden Avenue and South Sacramento Drive. A photo ID and either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours required. Tickets ($45-$200) and more information, including full COVID-19 protocols, at