Vans Warped Tour 2014
Sunday, July 20 2014
In Canterbury Park on Sunday, on one of the first truly hot days of the year, the punk rock summer camp was in full effect. Much has been said about the changing nature of the 20-year-old festival. Over the years, the bill has expanded to include acts in endless genres, many which have almost no discernible connection to the punk and hardcore scene. There are now signs that ban crowd-surfing and mosh pits, and parents get in free. All of these could be construed to say that Vans Warped Tour has completely lost its edge -- but that only works if you don't pay attention to what's actually happening onstage.
Warped Tour may be the only festival in its category: an all-ages, multi-genre showcase that stops in cities as removed from major metros as Scranton, PA . It's a whirlwind, with around 100 half-hour sets to choose from, spread across nine stages. And though many aspects of the festival were far from punk rock, the core remains. The signs were ignored: Crowd-surfing and mosh pits were near-constant. It was an nine-hour rock show, the best day of many of the attendees' summer, and a must-see for those who like music and fun.
The scale of Warped Tour is something to see, with a forest of tour buses larger than the festival grounds itself overlooking the dusty field where the shows are held from a parking lot set up on a hill. All of this -- supplies for hundreds of bands, merch and sponsor tents, and the stages themselves -- is transported from site to site in the middle of the night. The Shakopee stop was end of a run of six straight days. That may seem like a lot, but it's child's play to Bowling for Soup bassist Eric Chandler, a veteran of the tour. For one stretch in 2004, they performed and traveled 29 days in a row. That many work days with no off-time can cause some issues, no matter what your job is. "I don't care if you're a professional kitten tickler," Chandler said.
Another source of tension back when the 20-year pop punkers began on Warped Tour 10 years ago was between the bands that formed the hardcore roots of the festival and everyone else. As a band with several Top 40 hits, Chandler said, Bowling for Soup was occasionally the target of some animosity. However, by the end of the summer, dismissal turned to respect. Chandler told the story of one well-known unnamed punk frontman who came up to their table after a show. The frontman didn't mince words: He didn't like Bowling for Soup and didn't enjoy their music. But he saw the effort they put into their shows, and he respected them as artists. "That's almost a bigger compliment than someone coming up and saying I love your band," Chandler said, "That's something I hope happens a lot at Warped Tour."
Bowling for Soup's early afternoon set was irreverent, silly, and self-aware. They asked the crowd to boo them every time they said "make some noise, motherfuckers" in a tongue-in-check hardcore scream, and didn't seem to take the set too seriously. They played "Punk Rock 101," a song about working at Hot Topic and wearing Vans that gently satirized a lot of the crowd, who didn't seem to mind. And of course they played the hits: "Girls all the Bad Guys Want," "1985," and "Stacy's Mom" -- which isn't even their song, but they've been credited with it so many times that they might as well use it.
BFS helped create the supportive environment they described for Warped Tour with their set--and with the barbecue they host for bands and staff in the evening. Other artists I talked to echoed the statement. Nicola Bear was one the DJs on the EDM focused Beatport stage. She's from the U.K., and this was her first Warped Tour and first time in the U.S. Her set was pretty excellent, a melodic, live mix of trap music and hits that stayed high-energy through finesse rather than brute force. Though she speculated that there could be some distrust of DJs and EDM from people who play the live music the festival is known for, she didn't see it. "We're all in the same place coming here every day to do our thing," she said.
Jeff Berman, who played as Divided Heaven in the acoustic basement and has a strong, almost Irish tenor voice, spoke of the community around Warped Tour. Before he ever played, he attended since he was 15, and spent some of his time backstage through knowing some of the bands. "Most of the bands playing on a larger stage started off on a much smaller stage," he said, "or selling CDs in the parking lot."
Yellowcard hasn't sold CDs in the parking lot for many years, but they played the set of a much less-established band, one that appreciates every fan they have. I've seen many bands play their mega-hits -- the songs everyone expects, and that they've played at every show since they came out. These performances can occasionally be perfunctory or passionless, carried by the power of the track itself. "Ocean Avenue" was one of the best renditions of a smash hit I've ever seen. The combination of the electric violin and guitar drove the song relentlessly forward. When they sang "we can leave this town and run forever" I was immediately transported back to middle school summers wasting time at the community pool in my hometown. The whole set was the same way -- a passionate, back-flipping performance that always put engaging the audience at the forefront.
Bowling for Soup and Yellowcard were both game, but neither gave off any sense of danger. Enter Shikari, British genre-bending masters of the destructive live show, brought the noise to the main set of stages (both sponsored by Kia). Their music contains multitudes. At times, their guitar can lay down dark grooves reminiscent of Interpol, or the whole band can join in one unified thrash underscored by discordant synth. Two things are a constant with Enter Shikari: socially conscious lyrical content, and the rage of that consciousness expressed through powerful sound.
In "Destabilize," the band talks explicitly about undermining institutional authority, at times reading like an Adbusters essay. "Don't ever respect conventional thought without reason / We need to fucking erupt!," the lead singer screamed, before launching into a breakdown that seemed designed to destroy the system through music alone. They ended with "Ghandi, Mate, Ghandi," centered around an anti-capitalist rant at the start of the track. The final sound of their set was the audience collectively playing lead as their guitarist crowd-surfed.
Breath Carolina energized the crowd in a very different and significantly more neon-hued way. Their set was half an hour of nonstop robot-dinosaur battle, no apologies, bro-y dubstep. The primary instruments were laptops and a drum kit. Projectiles, like two enormous beach balls and more than a few beer cans, floated above the crowd, and at one point one of their members crowd surfed on an inflatable raft. The show can be summarized by the image of the lead singer dosing his head in what appeared to be Monster Energy Drink before a particularly filthy drop. Actually, it was just water, packaged in a Monster can in a particularly insidious instance of marketing.
Directly across from them, Of Mice and Men struck up the next set as soon as Breathe Carolina had dropped their last bass. The acts could not have been more different. Of Mice and Men drew the largest crowd of the festival, and the sky darkened as they began their metalcore performance. They moved forward like a freight train, and the huge mosh pits in the crowd kicked up an impressive cloud of dust. Combined with the suddenly overcast day, the atmosphere of the performance was borderline menacing. Crowd-surfers rose unceasingly from the mass like zombies from the grave. By the time they closed with "The Depth," it seemed that Of Mice and Men could have told the crowd to destroy the stage they were playing on and they would have done it, Kia be damned.
Warped Tour may not be as consistently hardcore as it used to be, but it's difficult to be too cynical about a festival where bands play this hard.
Personal Bias: This is my first Warped Tour. If you want to dismiss anything I wrote on that basis, go ahead.
The Crowd: The young (in some cases, like, 9) and the restless. I felt very out of place by not having a piercing or a tattoo. As far as attitude, they were the most receptive crowd I've ever been a part of -- they threw their hands in the air and made some noise for bands they were walking away from at the time. They were also extremely positive judging by all available metrics, and had tons of fun.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I've made so many new friends!"
Overseen in the Crowd: So many things, but the most absurd was a shirt reading "Drink Capri Sun and Fuck Bitches." That boy needs Jesus.
Random Notebook Dump: There's a lot that could be said about a festival containing music that styles itself as anti-establishment being sponsored by so many corporations. Consumer capitalism is a machine that eats everything; any identity exists to sell you more stuff, etc. etc. I encourage those who are interested in that sort of thing to go read Lipstick Traces.