Ah, Ventura. Such a lovely place to visit, with gorgeous beaches and a coastal breeze cooling even the hottest Summer day. One day each year, the quiet little town just north of Los Angeles plays host to the Vans Warped Tour, a pummeling machine of high-octane live music and copious begging from established punk/hardcore/screamo/snotrock bands as well as an avalanche of lesser-known (and largely pubescent) aspiring rock stars.
The tour rolled in at Seaside Park this past Sunday – right on the beach, the perfect backdrop for a music festival on a long holiday weekend. Acts such as Against Me!, The Devil Wears Prada, August Burns Red, Unwritten Law and Pepper tore it up alongside lesser-knowns including Sharks, The Aggrolites, Bad Rabbits and many (many) more, with stages strategically placed to diminish the noise cross-pollination. Several stages, merch tables, a halfpipe for skate sessions and a blizzard of charity & event booths didn't leave much room to sit for a leisurely afternoon breather between sets – but with this kind of relentless high-energy fest, any pause in the insanity is likely seen as a sign of old-man weakness. Not a warm welcome for the reluctantly attending parents of underage kids, but then again, the generational divide hasn't been this severe since the '60s – they're bound to suffer regardless of amenities (earplugs, anyone?).
There are a few gripes that need addressing, if this is going to be an honest review. Band scheduling at Warped is an absolute nightmare – nobody, not even the bands, knows at daybreak who will be playing when or on what stage. Before doors open at 11am, the set times are posted on a giant inflatable board in the middle of the venue, and the schedule planning begins. Only the actual scheduling itself proves a bit difficult, unless you're planning to shell out a few bucks for a xeroxed schedule and map of the venue.
That's right – here at Warped Tour, fans have to buy their own schedule and venue map to see which stages are where and who is playing when in the labyrinthian setting. It's not a bid to save money on printed goods, as a large box brimming with scrap paper and pencils sat haphazardly nearby, waiting to be put to use – another example in which a quick buck is placed above a quality professional festival experience. The Warped Tour smartphone app features bands playing and tells you how to get to the venue, but organizers can't be bothered to upload set times on the tour, which would effectively eliminate the need for the racket of milking kids for cash just so they'll know where to go and when at the fest.
And then there's the begging. Undoubtedly tied to the low ticket prices and cost-cutting at every turn, bands put in time at their own merch booths (which is fine) and literally beg for money from festival attendees (which is very much not fine). It's rare to see a merch table without a tip jar for the band, and the open-hand stories of the broke & penniless flow from every corner of the venue.
Military recruiters were out in force as well, hosting pull-up competitions and video game contests while putting an appealing adventurist spin on the fact that we're engaged in two wildly unpopular wars for reasons no average person could possibly articulate, at a time of staggering desperation within our national economy. To the kid wearing the digi-punk uniform that passes for teenage fashion, the lure of the tough-guy competitions on the chin-up bar or cool snowboard game and vague promise of future financial ease laced with patriotic duty is a harmless addition to the day's festivities; just another booth to pass the time before so-and-so begins at so-and-so stage. But it's a far more insidious tactic than first impressions suggest.
Alongside commendable activist booths aiming to clean up our oceans and educate kids about the food they eat (and what methods are used to get it to their mouths), these recruiters count on finding kids with their guard down in a social, fun music atmosphere. They manipulate these children with "fun" lures, with the specific and sole purpose of adding to the ranks of human killing machines at the bidding and disposal of an utterly untethered military industrial complex. My heart sank to cold, dark depths as I watched kids fill out paperwork while a uniformed soldier coaxed them on – kids who arrived to watch a music show but are now on their way to a legally binding commitment to lay down their lives in hostile foreign deserts for reasons they and their terrified parents will only be able to identify as "freedom". Freedom from what, well that's anybody's guess, but the irony wasn't lost on everyone when blood-spatter decoration began appearing on faces everywhere throughout the fest.
But I digress. Once fans established their own dizzying schedule of shows, band signings at merch booths, food, skate events and all of the other activities/opportunities throughout the punk rock tent city, the day properly kicked off. I was personally crushed to have been caught in traffic during Rhymesayers rapper Grieves' performance not long after gates opened, but by all accounts he killed his set, pulling from his excellent new album Together/Apart (read our review) before appearing later with MC Lars, as well as Big Chocolate.
After August Burns Red's series of studio video blogs on CraveOnline documenting the recording of their fourth album, I was eager to see them in action onstage. They didn't disappoint, with a massively well-received set that showcased the band's airtight rhythm section and guttural vocal power.
Though I've been quite vocal in the past about Pepper's particularly prominent similarity in style to the Red Hot Chili Peppers & Sublime, the band put on an undeniably high-octane show that elicited the loudest girl-screams from the crowd thus far in the day. Their beach-rock anthems and jumpy choruses made for a fine mix with the ocean mist that would pass through every so often, but after a dozen minutes or so I found myself wishing Bradley Nowell were still around as I headed to check out Attack Attack! at the Taggart stage.
Post-hardcore electronic-infused rockers Enter Shikari made far and away the most permanent impression of the day, with a set sporting the explosive energy of a Prodigy show and the unpredictable, terrifying thrill of a nighttime run through a jungle with escaped insane asylum prisoners.
Frontman Rou Reynolds careened spastically across the stage and launched into the crowd in dedicated leaps, as guitarist Rory Clewlow and bassist Chris Batten alternated between riding atop one another's shoulders and doing front flips offstage into the adoring audience, barely missing a note despite rampant rock-acrobatics.
I left the Enter Shikari pit to the pummeling live-remix sounds of "Havoc A" and began to make my way to the next act when Reynolds announced a brand new song. I was locked mid-step as the band launched into what Rage Against The Machine had Rage would sound like had they been white, British and raised on metal. Pulverizing, galloping aggression shrouded wildly unpredictable arrangements and sonic direction, and the reaction from the crowd was an utter blur of flailing bodies and pumping fists. If you don't know who Enter Shikari are, find them. See them live. You owe it to yourself.
3OH!3, regulars on the tour four years in, gave the audience exactly what they came for, while SoCal stalwarts Unwritten Law took to the Tilly's stage to do what they do best in front of a packed crowd.
Newcomers The Feaver fared well on the lesser-than Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands stage, enthusiastically egging on the small group gathered to watch them into an jumping frenzy. Florida punk outfit Against Me! shredded the afternoon away, showcasing cemented confidence in new drummer Jay Weinberg.
Christian metalcore group The Devil Wears Prada, headliners for the day, took the main stage at 8 p.m. to an unfathomably ecstatic reception. Frontman Mike Hranica worked the crowd with his growl-spaz as they enjoyed the benefit of being one of the only bands playing late enough to warrant a light show. Their churning, wailing Christ-fest was devoured by the devoted, bringing a triumphant end to this stop on the Warped Tour.
The surf/skate punks and rockers were in largely good spirits onstage and off throughout the day, preaching to the choir while enjoying a coastal day of play in the sun. The Warped Tour has some glaring missteps to contend with if it's going to retain any momentum of good will in the future, but there's still no place else a music lover can see their favorite metalcore/punk outfits for $35 these days. That'll always count for something.