Analogue Music | Revisiting Riot Fest: Jawbreaker

Revisiting Riot Fest: Jawbreaker

By Steve Schusler

I’ve grown weary of music festivals.

Maybe it has something to do with getting older and becoming increasingly partial to my tastes, but from years of experience I’ve learned they’re normally a game of losing numbers. 

There might be a dozen bands playing any given day. Of those dozen bands, I’m probably only interested in seeing three at best. Two of the bands I want to see play are at opposite ends of the schedule and the third band plays at a separate stage the same time as the second band. Crowds are inescapable, beer prices are inflated, food is either average or sub par, Chicago summer days can be savage, and porta potties are a poor form of relief. 

But when I found out Jawbreaker was reuniting in my hometown, the fact that it was taking place at a music festival was of no consequence. I was only going to go one day: the day Jawbreaker performed. Because Jawbreaker released my favorite album of all time and mean more to me than any other band in the history of bands.


I was first introduced to Jawbreaker when I was a teenager. My starting point was Dear You and I worked backwards from there. I’m ashamed to admit it now because I eventually grew to love it, but Dear You isn’t where my obsession started. I purchased Dear You from Tower Records for $7.99 because I was a broke high school student that gravitated towards CDs priced a few dollars below everything else. The Tower Records listening station allowed me to sample before I bought and a quick listen to “Fireman” deemed it worthy enough for a meager investment. 

While I latched on to “Fireman,” I wasn’t connecting with the rest of the songs aside from maybe, “Save Your Generation." Now flash forward to a friend letting me borrow 24 Hour Revenge Therapy--my favorite album of all time. By that distance of time, and with the help of my short attention span, I was able to disassociate any indifference I had toward Jawbreaker because of Dear You. Every possible element of that album clicked with me.  The production value, the gravel underpinning Blake Schwarzenbach's signature tone, the furious yet complex manner with which Adam Pfahler kept time, and Chris Bauermeister's ability to elevate any song with his bass lines. I could also go on and on about the lyrics and how much I felt like they spoke directly to me. But I won’t. 

Waking up the morning of Riot Fest felt like Christmas. I was lying in bed with excitement the night before and got up with an extra pep in my step.  Made sure to eat a big breakfast (doughnuts) with copious amounts of coffee to amplify my anxiousness. Fortunately for me, while they were the only one that really mattered, Jawbreaker wasn’t the only band I wanted to see that day. 

Things got started early at 12:45 with Beach Slang. I was catching up to some friends that were already there and our meeting point was the merch booth. But there were two merch booths; a big merch booth for all the other bands playing that day then a smaller merch booth probably a quarter of the size dedicated exclusively to Jawbreaker. I got in line to buy myself a new salt girl t-shirt and the guy working told me how he heard them playing “Jet Black” during soundcheck. Just hearing the words “Jet Black” come out of his mouth made the hair on my arms stand at attention.  

Jawbreaker: Photo credit to Alison Green
Jawbreaker: Photo credit to Alison Green
Waking up the morning of Riot Fest felt like Christmas.

Beach Slang played their set--which was fantastic and I highly recommend them for fans of anthemic punk rock. James Alex, frontman for Beach Slang, is no stranger to audience fodder; some of which can range from the silly to pure heart on sleeve. He concluded with some touching remarks to the effect of The Replacements and Jawbreaker being his two most influential bands.  And he went on to say how he couldn’t wait to stand at the side of the stage and weep hysterically while Jawbreaker played later that night.  

Other acts of adornment observed that day include Rachel Haden of That Dog wearing a Jawbreaker t-shirt and The Menzingers commenting on their idol worship. If having a dedicated merch booth wasn’t testament enough, everything that transpired that day leading up to the Jawbreaker reunion show in front of thousands felt like it was part of something bigger. The love pouring out from the other musicians on the bill didn’t feel forced or insincere because there was this unspoken sense of honor to be involved in any way, shape, or form.  

I got to experience some top notch live music that day which enhanced the overall experience, but let's get to the main event: Jawbreaker.  

Jawbreaker: Photo credit to Alison Green

The stage was set; Jawbreaker just needed to take it. Their backdrop was a monstrous black cloth with white letters in their trademark block font spelling the band’s name. A video of Jinx Remover spray overlapped in front of it, accompanied by some odd music that I could not identify. The area surrounding the sides of the stage was packed to point of no one being able to even sneeze.  And my mind was racing with opening song possibilities.  

It was something I had pondered from the moment I heard they were reuniting, but it was the only thought I could handle for the ten minutes leading up to the band walking out. Then the trio presented themselves from behind the stage in unison, took their respective instruments, the opening chords to “Boxcar” rang out, and a lump the size of a softball swelled up in my throat. 

I never worried more about my identity then when I was a teenager. And this song held an immense amount of importance to me. In my high school, you had the punks and skaters and each group listened punk rock, hardcore, emo, and Fugazi, Shellac, etc. If you listened to any of that music and weren’t part of either group, you were labeled a poser. I didn’t associate with the punks or skaters, nor did I make any attempts to, and these lyrics made me feel okay about how arbitrary their criteria for listening to music you enjoyed was:  

You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone/ Save your breath I never was one/ I’m coloring outside your guidelines/ Who’s punk? What’s the score?

Past “Boxcar," Jawbreaker played a varied mix of songs across their four-album catalog, including an odds-and-ends fan favorite, “Kiss the Bottle."  Blake was fired up from start to finish. He didn’t say much between songs, but when he did speak it was mostly with anger directed at the current state of affairs in America.  The frustrations he expressed in vague terms are those not uncommon to many and if that was the fuel he needed to perform at an optimal level, everyone there that night benefited from it. I left satisfied, but it was almost like coming down off a huge victory. The moment I had waited so long for vanished in an instant and felt like it was miles behind me.      

I know I’m not unique by saying Jawbreaker etched a place in my being at a young and impressionable age that I haven’t been able to shake. And I can’t speak enough about the impact they made on my life. There was a preposterous amount of anticipation surrounding their reunion and I feel fortunate it was logistically convenient for me to attend. So, I wanted to recapture some of the events and emotions I experienced that day for people like me who couldn’t be there.  

It was a day I never want to forget. And, maybe if I write about it, I won’t.