Riot Fest Denver 2013: Why it worked (and sometimes didn't) - Reverb

Why Riot Fest Denver worked (and sometimes didn’t)

Outdoor festivals aren’t always the sun-drenched utopias they’re often made out to be on Instagram and music blogs. Some festival imprints are too spread out. Some lineups make zero sense. Some festivals have a bad vibe. And yes, we’re talking about some of the biggest names in the game: Coachella and Sasquatch and Austin City Limits have had their off years, especially while first getting started.

And that’s why we took special care this weekend to see what worked (and what didn’t) at Riot Fest Denver. Cheers to the organizers, though, as the festival worked more than it didn’t. The traveling festival’s first-ever stop in Colorado took over a patch of land best known as May Farms in Byers, and we’ll start there, because the scenic location was as idyllic as it was close to home (an hour from Denver).

See our full coverage of Riot Fest Denver, with photos reviews and more here.

What worked: The location. Some complained about having to drive an hour from Denver to Riot Fest, but those people haven’t likely flown three or four hours to Los Angeles, rented a car and driven another three or four hours (in traffic) to Coachella outside of Palm Springs. An hour from home? That’s easy. And the farmland provided a beautiful setting for the fest’s three stages.

What didn’t: Paying for parking. One benefit of holding the festival amid the wide open spaces of Byers is the availability of land. But when you have that much flat, ready-for-parking land and you’re still charging each car $15 for parking – in addition to sizable ticket prices – that’s bad form.

What worked: The camping. We didn’t camp, but our many friends who did had nothing but good things to say about the grounds and access and scene. It sounded like a party, with some late-night/early-morning gatherings spread throughout the camping area. It was close to the festival, so heading back to the tent for more sunscreen or hitting the RV for Sunday’s rain delay was easy and quick. A multi-day outdoor music festival should host camping, and kudos to Riot Fest Denver organizer Soda Jerk Presents for making it happen.

What didn’t: Some of the stage lighting. We mentioned in our Saturday review that Iggy Pop spent most of the Stooges set in the barely lit apron of the stage. Perhaps that lighting choice was the rocker’s preference, but it bummed out fans who wanted to really connect with the proto-punk.

What worked: The midway. A music festival is hardly the state fair, so an entire carnival lineup of ring-toss games and amusement park rides isn’t necessary. But a couple rides and a few games certainly up the fun factor, and Riot Fest’s Ferris wheel was a wining idea. Not only was it a distraction during those bands you didn’t need to see again, but it was also provided a unique and quite stunning perspective of the bands you most wanted to see – form a high-above perch. The neighboring ride, the Moby Dick (similar to the Rainbow at the old Elitch Gardens) provided a thrill and a view.

What didn’t: Staring at the sun. It’s a minor complaint, but all three stages faced east, meaning fans faced west to see the music – staring right into the sun for much of the late-afternoon and early-evening. Even with sunglasses it was uncomfortable, but once the sun went down it didn’t matter.

What worked: Plentiful portable toilets. It sounds like a silly note, but on hot days like Saturday when you’re hydrating with the winning combination of water-beer-water-beer, a proper allocation and distribution of portable toilets enhances the user experience. Our bladders thank you.

What didn’t: Getting around. There was little to no lighting on the grounds, so it was treacherous once the sun went down. Between the darkness and the uneven ground, it was tough to walk from stage to stage. And on Sunday, after the torrential rains, the ground was a slippery mess with potholes everywhere. Getting off the field and into the parking lot was like walking by foot braille.

What worked: The variety of food trucks. From barbecue to lo mein, the vast variety of food trucks feeding guests were on point and sated most cravings. It was great to see proven local brands in the mix, music-loving Illegal Pete’s included. But what was most important: When we craved Chinese food with our Modelo, we got Chinese food with our Modelo.

What worked and didn’t: The lineup. While we love that the Riot Fest Denver lineup was centered on the DIY punk spirit, we found it to be a little disjointed. There were a number of great indie-rock acts at the fest, but their presence seemed almost out of place. The Riot Fest Chicago lineup did a great job of bridging the gaps between punk and indie.

Follow our news and updates on Twitter, our relationship status on Facebook and our search history on Google +. Or send us a telegram.

Ricardo Baca is the founder and executive editor of Reverb, the co-founder of The UMS and an award-winning critic and editor at The Denver Post.

Reverb Managing Editor Matt Miller has a really common name so please use these links to find his Twitter account and Google + page. Or just send him an email to

Laura Keeney is a community manager and journalist for YourHub Denver who writes about technology, business and nerdy things for The Denver Post. She’s quite obsessed with Joe Strummer. Follow her @LauraKeeney and @onnabugeisha.

  • DW

    “Some complained about having to drive an hour from Denver to Riot Fest, but those people haven’t likely flown three or four hours to Los Angeles, rented a car and driven another three or four hours (in traffic) to Coachella outside of Palm Springs.”

    Comparing RiotFest to Coachella isn’t an apples to apples comparison…..

    • PQ

      it is when youre talking about the transportation aspect of it.

  • BT

    Actually, the stages faced North.

    • Ricardo Baca

      All I know, BT, is that I was looking into the sun for three hours straight on Saturday, at every stage. But as I said, it was a minor complaint.

  • Michael Thompson

    A couple other areas that need improvement:

    1) Allow re-entry for GA ticket holders. It was OK for campers to come and go, but not GA folks. It’s unreasonable to hold people hostage for 11 hours when the temperature changes so dramatically (who wants to carry their coat all day until the sun goes down) and there is no place to charge your phone (unless you’re a smoker and want to give all of your personal info to Marlboro).

    2) Location. I don’t care that it was 40 miles outside of Denver. But, it was dusty as hell, and when the rain hit it was dangerously slippery for cars and people. I know they can’t control the rain, but it’s late Summer in the plains. Gonna be dusty and rainy.

    3) Provide a water filling station for water bottles and Camelbak’s. They were handing out free water bottles during the day, but this creates an awful lot of unnecessary waste. Which brings me to..

    4) Provide recyclable trash containers. It’s 2013, people. We care about this stuff (or at least reasonably pretend to).

    Time to park was a joke on Saturday, but dramatically improved on Sunday. The organizers handled the Sunday weather evacuation and re-entry very well. Kudos! I loved the crowd size and ground elevations. I always felt like I had a good vantage point no matter how far back I was.

  • Joseph M. Adams

    I had a great time and agree with almost everything this reviewer says. I am from MN and flew out for Riot Fest and was super happy with how everything went. Well, I am quite salty about the sneak-attack $15 parking, that was sheisty. But watching punks rock out to a transgendered singer felt so wonderful. We have come so far. To think that 20 or 30 years ago, punk music (and the world) would likely not have celebrated someone from that community … and here we were with signs singing Laura Jane Grace’s praises. It really felt cool to be a part of that. I agree with the person below, all the plastic waste felt very not-2013, but I was thankful for the free water!

  • JB

    Fair points all around. The one lane roads leading in and out of the venue were ill-prepared to deal with the size of the crowd, and getting around was really painful. Also, the venue lacked shade and shelter that something like, say, a fairgrounds may have provided. And oh yeah, 7 bucks for a 12 ounce PBR?

    As for being that far east, maybe not a big deal for folks from Denver but for those of us from places like Ft Collins, Cheyenne, the Springs, etc. it meant shelling out for a motel room. I didn’t mind the little getaway, but having it closer to Denver would have saved me some money that I could have used on those 7 dollar PBRs.

    On a positive note, great, great lineup. Stooges, GBV, Mats, Flag, Rocket, Public Enemy. All winners. I even had my mind changed about a band — I truly dug Best Coast.

    The sound was pretty good, the bands started and ended right on time, the crowd was well behaved the site was more or less free of the corporate whoring that mars other festivals.

    The hassles were worth it for the quality of the music we got. But a new venue with better access and more amenities will be really helpful if it happens again.

  • LAPD is racist garbage

    I camped Sunday night and the weather went insane in the middle of the night. A lot of cars got stuck.

  • Chris-Molly mke

    We flew in from Milwaukee. We loved the line up, great mix. We also camped on Saturday night. The sanitary conditions became terrible on Sunday morning. There should had more cleaning of the portable toilets in the camping area. Water stations ran out of water three times on Saturday, say what? You just made me pour my water out at the gate. The grounds should have been cleaned Saturday night or earlier on Sunday morning, at say 7 am, not finishing at noon. I suppose coming from Milwaukee, where we have over a dozen outdoor fests every summer, I have higher expectations. Also we had to wear our camping head lamps to get around the grounds after the sun set. More shade and toilets spread out more would have been helpful as well.
    Even though it sounds like a bitchfest about the fest, I hope they can get these operational items straightened out to have another great stop on the riotfest schedule. Everyone was friendly, depending on the line up, we’ll be back!
    Thanks Denver!

  • Sharp

    The worst thing for me was the parking. I don’t mind paying the money, but I expect to be able to park on some hard, solid ground close to the entrance & exit when I have to ride a MOTORCYCLE. Without the help of several awesome guys that wet, muddy night, I wouldn’t have made it out of there. I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers, but that shouldn’t have been necessary.

  • Gene Sobczak

    More chalk marks in the win column:

    1. The early bands: Tera Melos, Bosnian Rainbows, The Dear Hunter, Kongos, Peelander-Z and more. One could have experienced a finely curated line-up and still left the grounds by 4:30.

    2. T-shirts limited to a $25 threshold. (We bought four.)

    3. Excluding occasional and intermittent canceling from the Roots Stage, the sound was uncommonly good throughout the festival.

    4. Also uncommonly good was the $80 price-tag for the two-day event.

    5. Sorry Reverb staff, the line-up was the festival’s greatest strength. Although only a handful of the legacy groups brought their A-games to Riot Fest, particularly Superchunk, FLAG and the Stooges in what likely was their penultimate performance, the diversity of musical representation was like a love letter to music fans of all ages! My son dug AFI and Brand New on Saturday; I was in for the Replacements and Iggy.

  • Resident

    I would hope Riot Fest never comes to Byers again! Riot Fest never told our community the truth about any of it. No security to direct traffic in our little town, high/drunk people wandering around town, the noise was unbearable. Never again should our little town have to endure this for a private individual to make money. Our town is too small for this and our little town does not want it again!