Concert review: Vans Warped Tour ‘08
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater parking lots and sidewalks
Maryland Heights (near St. Louis), MO
Tuesday, 1 July 2008
By Brian Quincy Newcomb
As touring daylong music festivals go, Warped is one of a kind. Carrying the spirit of Lollapalooza and HORDE, yet demonstrating a democratic, DIY punk attitude and leaning toward that music alongside indie alternative, the Warped experience lacks all the pretense and nonsense of the corporate rock industrial complex. It’s more bands and bang for your modestly priced concert buck… no money goes for superstar ego trips, lighting and special effects, or air-conditioned backstage comforts.
With the rare exceptions that come with major label connections and budgets – in years’ past Weezer, Green Day, Blink 182, 311 have had to share stages with indie “stars” Rancid and NOFX – Warped (when it’s not rainy and muddy) is a hot sweaty betty of a day. It’s a beach party on asphalt (no beach in sight and too far from the river to help) and, in the best case scenario, a chance to hear a dozen or so great up and coming indie punk and rock acts in one a long afternoon. And then along with the standard half pipe for skate boarders, they also used to bring along stunt motorcyclists who did extreme air tricks, and a couple years they shot a guy out of a cannon. Really.
Of course, it’s not the endurance test you might be used to if you’ve camped at Cornerstone or Bonnaroo (and it’s way better than Ozzfest used to be, because if you didn’t leave when the sun went down you might get to enjoy Pantera or System of a Down, but you’d probably have to sit through a set of Ozzy – which adds insult to injury). Maybe it’s just my age showing (no doubt), but after 8 hours of standing on hot, black asphalt, walking quickly as possible from stage to stage (I caught Warped in Anaheim once, and the two main stages were side by side, you just slid to the left, and then slid to the right if you were there just to see the best known acts, but at the once better named “Riverport” the main stages are a ¼ mile jaunt apart), but you begin to resent the folk who found a rare patch of shade, and you start fantasizing about a cool shower, then sitting with your feet up and a ceiling fan above you in your air conditioned room. But enough about missing creature comforts and old age (back in my day, I walked from the C’stone mainstage to the latenight circus tents barefooted in the snow, uphill both ways, and I liked it).
What brings me to Warped year after year, what still gets my heart pumping and my adrenaline flowing, though is the music. The raw explosiveness of all that talent willing to do whatever it takes to get heard, to build an audience, to get to the next level. In year’s past I’ve seen not only some great live shows from some truly important bands – like those named in the top graph, not to forget MXPX, Underoath, Joan Jett, and many more – but I’ve also stumbled on some rare, delightful performances before a few people that embodied the creativity, courage and commitment that I most admire in musicians. Mutemath, S.T.U.N., the Fags, and others to be sure, are bands in the past who gave a world class show for a couple dozen folk on one of the Ernie Ball or other side-stages that stood among the best live concert experiences of any given year.
But on this year’s Vans Warped tour, I have to say the line-up was a little less star-driven, and as much as I was open to a musical experience that would blow me away – the 2008 edition felt pretty much like business as usual. But, as they say, business was good – the place was packed, most of the bands I saw played spirited 30 minute sets in a timely and respectful fashion, it was loud and sweaty and fun… albeit missing a bit of the spark, and some of the big names, of years’ past.
We arrived by noon, and once situated with press/photo creds, got to the Highway 1 mainstage just in time for Relient K’s 12:20 slot. Opening with the one-two punch of “Be My Escape” and “High of 75” (both from the Mmhmm record), the Matt Thiessen led quintet proved that they understood what it takes to attract and hold a punk crowd in the hot sun. For the most part the bits of piano in the first track and here and there in “Devastation and Reform” added some subtlety and nuance to their power pop that would be sadly missed in most sets of the day, “The Best Thing” proved to be a bit too slight when you have just 30 minutes to bring your best things forward. “The Scene and the Herd,” from the band’s newest release The Birds and the Bee Sides, started off with some smart stereo rock guitar chords to set the tone, followed by the quick punky vibe of “Beating a Dead Horse” and the sing-along on “Sadie Hawkins” and “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been.” While I tend to think of Rel. K as the pop/rock band my 10 year old son loves, they offered up a smart and impressive set of worthwhile power pop suitable for a Warped crowd in broad daylight.
As we walked up to the next stage, Norma Jean was deconstructing “A Grand Scene for a Color Film” in full scream mode. Throughout, Cory Brandon exhibited the kind of energy described in a line from the song played at the end of the set, “Charactarantula”: “Passion cries out from our fiery blaze of words.” But honestly, I don’t really make out the words in Norma Jeans live set, what’s blazing is the guitars, the rhythms, the throaty emotional vocals. “I want to see your fists in the air,” instructed Brandon, before celebrating the weather: “It’s a beautiful day… for metal.” In a set that included – I think – “Small Spark vs. A Great Forest,” “Bayonetwork” and “Songs Sound Much Sadder”, Brandon introduced the one track from their September release, The Anti Mother, “Robots 3, Homons 0” with the snarky come on, “It’s a very pissed off record – it will make you want to punch a baby,” a comment I assumed was to be taken as a joke. Later, in a brief backstage meeting, he assured me it was intended to be funny, after first trying again with, “well you see as a band se have a lot of angst.” He and the band mates were only having a laugh… but you still have to ask, because not everybody finds punching babies as funny as Norma Jean. Brandon also admitted that the daily schedule revolving around one quick 30 min. set tended to be exhausting, as you travel and wait, becoming, he says, “good a doing nothing for 23 and a half hours a day.” When they’re not feeling funny, they can get excited talking about the artwork for the new disc, it’s a painting of a heart infested with bees. “It’s cool, man,” assures Brandon.
Seeing two of our main reasons for attending Warped right of the bat, and no one on our list set for the 1:20 slot, we took the next half hour for a restroom stop, a soda break, and a little time playing the guitars at the Ernie Ball/Guitar Center booth.
Then Anberlin came on, rocking harder than I remembered when they were introducing Cities while on tour with Story of the Year. “Godspeed” opened from that record, but then they leaned back for “The Feel Good Drag” and “A Day Late” from Never Take Friendship Personal. “Hello Alone,” “Paperthin Hymn” were punchy power-pop, followed by “Adelaide” and we could hear “Dismantle. Repair.,” as we headed for the backstage area for the chat with Norma Jean described above.
We found our way back, the noisy, energetic metal band As I Lay Dying was tearing up the fast and frantic “Forever.” Vocalist Tim Lambesis had a raw, throaty delivery, but he stopped in the intro of “Destruction” to make sure everyone understood the band’s point: “We’re here to bring the message of hope – there’s always forgiveness.”
Managed to catch part of Jack’s Mannequin’s (a band Relient K said they were looking forward to seeing) set. Although the bouncy, piano driven power pop in the vein of Ben Folds, it seemed a little light after what we’d heard from the last couple of bands, his songs about lesbian marijuana dealers in Venice, California and “Suicide Blonde” proved edgy in their own right. So, I took my ten-year-old and moved on.
As we came upon the Hurley stage to check out the 3:30 pm set by The Devil Wears Prada, I was struck by the number of bands on my must-see list that had high interest for my HM editor, a magazine that emphasizes hard/heavy music by Christians. Was it two years ago, when RollingStone ran a story about how Fat Mike of NOFX practically single-handedly chased Underoath off the tour, by making fun of them at their Bible studies with fans? In an interview with UO drummer and Almost leader, Aaron Gillespie, for a CCM cover, I was assured that was not the case, but something has changed. While ccm rockers like MXPX were once tolerated on the Warped stages, these days the presence of Christian bands seems a dominant force – even if much of the audience seems oblivious of that fact.
As for DWP, the played a fun, high-energy metal-tinged punk set, although I didn’t recognize a song or title. Noticing my age, a Mom in the crowd, told me her teens were at Warped primarily to see this band. The band even took a page from NOFX by insulting another band, when the lead singer offered this dedication: “This song goes out to Novella (which played early on the Ernie Ball stage), because they can’t write their own songs.” Ouch, I thought… laughing.
Back at home, I checked the official Warped set list site, and the band has great song titles, like “Html Rulez D00d,” “Dog’s Can Grow Beards All Over” and “Nickels Are Money Too.” They also reportedly do a great cover of “Still Fly” by the Big Tymers… so since my notes have not titles, I’m just going to assume I heard all of these and m notes assure me they sounded great. I also wrote down the band’s final clear statement of purpose, the most profound and direct bit of Christian witness meets proselytizing comment of any band playing Warped on this hot, sunny afternoon. “I don’t want to leave with out celebrating our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He loves you, and we do too.” I am going to learn more about this band.
Another pee and water break, and then handed off my son to his Mom at the drop off parking exit, before catching the 4:30 set by St. Louis’ own Story of the Year, which, as expected, received a jubilant home town response to new and old music.
Got to hear about 15 min. of Greeley Estates set back at the Hurley stage – which sounded like pretty generic post-modern metal – but then I noticed the digital background vocals sequenced in and thought immediately of Mylon LeFevre and Broken Heart… which I did again just an hour later… wow, who’d have thought two Warped acts would remind me of the long defunct Christian pop/rock icon?
Okay, punk veterans Against Me! are not on Doug’s “to review” list. But I’d missed August Burns Red and Maylene’s Sons of Disaster who played opposite some of the mainstage bands reviewed above. And it had been a long, hot, tiring day, and I’d already gone way over my yearly quota of no-name metal bands, so I deserved a reward. And this old-school (read Billy Bragg/Replacements) Florida quartet – playing most of their fine major label debut, New Wave – and a couple of old nuggets like “Baby, I’m an Anarchist,” gave me back just what I needed to go on… although my knees and ankles were starting to whine like tired old men.
But, aahh… Force Family 5, where do I begin? Let me first be fair and positive. These guys have musical chops, strong melodic songs, lots of energy, funny special effects (I loved the guy in the big heart costume, and the big foam fists), and lots of groovy moves. I laughed out loud more than once, and usually I was laughing with them, not at them. Christian bands that demand audience “booty shakin’” is a new one for me, but I’ve got a sense of humor, and these guys have a fun schtick that wears well in the the 30 min. Warped limit—I doubt it would hold me for a whole hour.
But then there’s this troubling question: Why have these guys robbed Mylon LeFevre’s wardrobe closet? Clearly, intentionally or not, FF5 are filling a slot that Christian outreach bands like Bash N’ the Code and BrokenHeart sought to reach back in the day. Quirky, self-parody (okay, I’m giving Bash and Mylon the benefit of the doubt here) can go a long way toward getting people to drop their guards, and I assume that’s what FF5 are up to, but I was already missing Against Me!.
I had one more band on my list, but decided to check out what all the buzz that was connected to Angels & Airwaves was about since I had another slot to kill. And A&A buried it in a shallow grave. Tom DeLonge’s second post-Blink 182 band (I actually liked the Boxcar Racer disc) appears to be an attempt to take on a more epic, classical/modern rock sound, moving in the direction of U2 and early Radiohead. The biggest problem here is not the band’s pretense and advanced self-importance, but rather that as a lead vocalist DeLonge has the range and depth of a kid’s bubble dispenser. For all the pop and fizz, you need a singer that isn’t always flat… Calling all angels… we’re having trouble maintaining altitude….
And, last but not least, Paramore, fronted by the cute, young female singer, Hayley Williams. Aside from Charlotte Sometimes, she may be the only female playing the bigger Warped stages this year…. Sad really. But it does explain the guy with the “I (Heart) Hayley” sign. The band is a bright pop/rock presence at the end of a long, heavy day, and Hayley as pipes and the band can bring enough crisp rock noise to back her up. Move over Avril. “Crushcrushcrush” and “Misery Business” are standouts, but already I’m thinking about my air conditioned car ride home, the cool shower and clean sheets and real food that awaits me. There are two more bands, but I figure nobody’s going to care if I skip Say Anything and Gym Class Heroes. Thank you, and goodnight.