An average music fan might not realize it, but Kevin Lyman’s Warped Tour is currently the longest-running-traveling music festival in America. Long before regional open-field festivals (Coachella, Lollapalooza, Voodoo Music Experience) started appearing nationwide, the Warped Tour assembled a gaggle of the best and brightest from that year’s new breed of punk rock. Over 15 years, the tour has marched forward, launching too many careers to count, and quietly managing to maintain profitability while the music industry falls apart at its very seams. How has a small group of traveling punk bands bloomed into a tour that has become a necessity for an entire genre?
Over 200 Photos By Raymond Flotat. Additional reporting where noted by Gretchen Meier.
Some pieces of info need to be stated at the onset. First off, no one, not even the bands know until the day of the show whom is playing at what time and where. The nine-stage roster is posted on a massive poster wall at the center of the grounds, the order decided that morning. Blank paper and pencils were present at this wall as each new group of fans quickly used them scribbling their personal lineup selection down in preparation for frantic maneuvering. And since the Warped Tour’s fans skew decidedly younger than some of the larger, more expensive festivals, no band’s set time was later then 8:15 p.m.
Also, the tour has the look of a massive, outdoor Hot Topic. Every band playing—literally every band—had their own customized tent selling t-shirts and CDs.
Most bands proudly advertised a time when they’d be present signing autographs, and runners with small dry erase boards stomped the grounds in circles with determination highlighting some of the yet unknown bands set times.
A circus? Absolutely. But the bands representing the forward face of punk rock in 2009 delivered the goods, bringing fun, excitement and enthusiasm to the forefront.
First up were the Southern California hardcore legends The Adolescents at the Old School stage. Along with Fear, TSOL, DI and The Dickies, the Old School stage was the bombastic surprise of the weekend. Like the other veterans they were to share the stage with, the Fullerton five-piece rocked with ferocious precision. Classics “No Way” and “Wrecking Crew” stormed forward with unadulterated carnage and youthful anger over a dystopian life (in spite of the fact that the group, save one, is far from youthful). While vocalist Tony Cadena howled with the drawl of The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow, lead guitarist Frank Agnew’s teen son Frank Agnew Jr. bobbed with the frenetic energy one could only imagine the band exhibited in their early ’80s infancy.
One of the strangely early placements were the punk/prog poster boys Thrice. Although the band was on the main stage, given their positively rabid fan base, it’s still hard to imagine them onstage any earlier then after sundown. The band’s reputation for long-form numbers on recent albums was in a live setting filed down to a galloping, raw emo edge (think if Circa Survive chugged with a purpose).
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Pennsylvania’s newcomers innerpartysytem bounded with as many keyboards as Hot Chip, and as much dance-worthy energy as LCD Soundsystem. As many as three keyboards in play at once, the group’s singer Patrick Nissley shouted slogans “We’re all here ’cause we’ve lost control” (on “Die Tonight, Live Forever”) and “This is entertainment!” (on “Don’t Stop”) amidst the bleeps and bloops. And while the band did a great job capturing the enthusiasm of the young fans at the smaller Skull Candy Stage, a curiously hidden sound man at the mixing board could be seen with ease singing backup vocals and using a Kaoss pad to simulate the full-band processed-filter flourishes that normally only a production environment could produce.
I Set My Friends On Fire
Looking as young as the fans in attendance and seeming to embody the worst stereotypes that detract casual fans from the pop punk scene–fake hardcore dry-lung vocals, generic palm-muted guitars, juvenile lyrics—I Set My Friends On Fire sloppily kept the day moving at the Hurley.com stage. With at least a crowd eager for the faux-crunch the band revels in, singer Matt Mihanna apoplectically roared, his face straining as he attempted to keep up the fury.
Echoing the same sentiment this writer heard from them in Denmark at the outstanding Roskilde Festival (“You gotta die / You gotta die / You gotta die for your government / Die for your country that’s shit”), the sharply dressed and styled Anti-Flag were this festival’s representative of the ultra left wing punk movement. Bassist Chris Barker milked the crowd while singer/guitarist Justin Sane’s shrill shout cemented the band’s penchant for politically minded punk. Sane took a moment to deride cultural prejudice stating, “If you read the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad you’ll find they have more in common than anyone in the Midwest or the Middle East would have you believe.” Also sporting a green “Free Iran” t-shirt, Sane then introduced a new song “Sodom, Gomorrah and Washington DC (Sheep in Shepard’s Clothing).”
Meg and Dia
If Anti-Flag were the abrasive side of the Warped Tour, the cute sisters Meg and Dia represented its glossy pop affectations. The two fronted a five-piece band, awkwardly joking about forgetting their guitarist’s name. Musically the two leaned heavily on a mid-tempo pop rock as Dia sang sweetly while Meg casually plucked away. If anything, while this might normally have felt a bit bland, it was a nice change of pace from the driving energy of the most of the day’s music.
Always expecting to be entertained during a NOFX set is probably the best way to go into it. According to fans at their merch table, they were awful that day and it was more like a rehearsal for them, but at least the crowd was amused. NOFX claimed to be playing the same set list as the day before, but as per usual, they were more focused on entertaining themselves with off-color jokes some of which at the early expense of the late-Michael Jackson. Debating the set list and yelling at each other seemed more important than actually playing their songs, but as always, you go into a NOFX show expecting no less.
– Gretchen Meier
For those familiar with the high-energy chaos of indoor punk played in club shows, singer Buddy Nielsen of Senses Fail worked over time to enrapture the audience at the Smartpunk stage. Nielsen gleefully pointed to a focus group-style nametag bearing his first name, ran in circles and dove from the speakers into the crowd. If those in attendance weren’t already die hard fans of the band–and their modern style evoking Murphy’s Law—they are now.
TSOL (for the uninitiated: True Sounds of Liberty) also joined the stellar ranks at the Old School stage with a large crowd including members of NOFX looking on from on stage. Like the Adolescents earlier, TSOL epitomized the brutal side of ’80s hardcore, blasting one turbulent song after another. Lead singer Jack Grisham adorned in a modified pinstripe suit offered, “We’re not gonna spend too much time fucking around because we only get twenty minutes.” As Grisham manically paced to-and-fro across the stage wrenching his fist as he sang much like the great Jello Biafra, the rest of the band delivered the no-nonsense crunch that many of the popular punk rockers in the ’00s tend to veer away from.
Bad Religion is best enjoyed from inside the mosh pit. They have always been “musically tight” as a band, but being inside the pit with all their fans, young and old, yelling the lyrics with their fists in the air is a completely different experience from standing on the fringes of the crowd or listening to Bad Religion on the radio. The lyrics of “New Dark Ages,” “21st Century (Digital Boy),” and “Honest Goodbye” take on new fervor in the Warped Tour atmosphere. Stepping back in the crowd, Bad Religion sounded “good,” but not amazing.
– Gretchen Meier
Streetlight was probably one of the craziest pits of the day. Although the crowd was younger than the likes of NOFX and Bad Religion, that doesn’t mean they were any less excited to see the show. One of the bigger bands in terms of member count, featuring a baritone sax, an alto sax, a trumpet, trombone, bass, guitar and drums, the band displayed more enthusiasm in their old favorites like “Point/Counterpoint,” “One Foot on the Gas, One Foot in the Grave,” and “We Will Fall Together.” Unlike a lot of other Warped bands though, Streetlight didn’t interact much with their audience–they walked out, they played their set almost straight through and then they left. Music with such personality speaks for itself.
– Gretchen Meier
The Designer Drugs
The Designer Drugs (not to be confused with iheartcomix records’ Designer Drugs) played at a curiously small side stage called the Kia Kevin Says stage as the sun began to set over the horizon. Most shows managed a respectable crowd even if the band was unknown or the time inconvenient, but unfortunately for The Designer Drugs, at this relatively later time slot only a few onlookers sat in the grass nearby. With only moments before Shooter Jennings’ set was slated to begin, there was enough time to hear the group’s fishnet-clad leader/singer Emily Dee shout out a fun rendition of “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This was probably best suited for indie rock fans who love Erase Errata.
Country even has a home at the Warped Tour. Albeit perhaps a little curious by its inclusion, second-generation performer Shooter Jennings seemed utterly un-phased by the surroundings, playing modern-outlaw country with a grit and soul that would make his daddy proud. Jennings balanced an artful mix of piano, acoustic and electric guitars, allowing the ballads to be enriching and the upbeat numbers to stomp with authority. Most impressive in particular was a ripping guitar solo and an epic outro on the set’s closer, “Daddy’s Farm.” Its crescendo delivered a familiar kind of pleasing, mounting energy that makes for a classic southern rock track.
And in perhaps the most intriguing moment of the day, The Dickies brought a full-throttle, truly humorous approach to the Old School stage. Along side the two-guitar attack of original member Stan Lee and “Little” Dave Teague, a fully costumed Greg “Plushie” Hanna (the costume matched the name) and Travis Johnson on drums, the intensely animated lead singer Leonard Graves Phillips held court maniacally, brandishing props and cracking jokes all the while. Phillips hilariously quipped, “You’re a good looking bunch of kids. We’d love to go down on each and every one of you, but we just don’t have the time.” Songs like “Bowling with Bedrock Barney” were accompanied by blow-up dolls, dog hand puppets and snorkeling masks. The band even rocked a high-octane rendition of Black Sabbath’s classic “Paranoid.” Serious respect is due here. This band has been playing an enthusiastic and fun brand of punk longer then most people at this show have been alive, a staggering 32 years. And after three decades of unsung fervor (the group has somehow both opened for The Ramones and scored Killer Clowns From Outer Space) they’re perhaps the oldest still functioning and living punk band. How’s that for holding the flag up high? If you’re one who enjoys the fun-loving side of this genre, do yourself a favor and see this band.
Big D and the Kids Table
Big D and the Kids Table was one of the more surprising acts of the day. Other Big D shows have countless fans with black eyes and mysterious bruises from the pit. The band, however, slowed it down for this Warped Tour date with songs from their latest album and a set that was much more laid back. With an elaborate stage setup by Warped Tour standards (with covers for the amps, backdrops, and coordinated dances for the back-up singers), this was a different side of Big D, but in a good way. It’s recommended to see them in a smaller, indoor venue just to observe the stark difference to see if they can keep this up. Odds are we won’t see them getting too many “Noise Complaint(s)” if this trend continues.
– Gretchen Meier
As the day approached its conclusion another newcomer, the youthful and exuberant VersaEmerge worked the crowd at the Ernie Ball stage, continuing the trend that spunky bands like Paramore have blazed a trail in. Fronted by the cheerful and cute Sierra Kusterbeck, the band straddles the line between auspicious and undeveloped. Songs like “The Hider” and “Clocks” have the form and potential that insinuates the band could bloom into much more, even if the material doesn’t quite pack a killer punch just yet.
Guttermouth was kicked off Warped Tour last year for insulting the other bands. They were well on the road for a repeat performance for their third date on the Warped Tour 2009. Before the band on the sister stage directly adjacent to the Old School Stage was even finished with their set, the drummer for Guttermouth who was just sound checking, started making fun of the other band and it only went downhill from there. Guttermouth came out to start playing, realized their guitarist wasn’t on stage and announced to the audience he had gone to take a piss. They proceeded to belittle him until he showed up. Along with having an eight-year old on stage singing their dirty lyrics and encouraging kids to flip on their parents in the pit, viewing Guttermouth is a must see for the experience, but do not go if easily offended.
– Gretchen Meier
Alexisonfire put on a typical Warped Tour performance. Fans that came specifically to hear them and those passing by got into the action in front of the stage. Playing all of their popular songs and with their designated screamer stage diving into the crowd, Alexisonfire put on a solid show, but certainly nothing special.
– Gretchen Meier
In a curious finale to a day packed with quality and finesse, 3OH!3 (for the record pronounced three-oh-three) held what arguably could be considered the final headlining spot of the day. Led by two singers, 3OH!3’s music was rife with electronics and beats, even though no keyboardist or DJ was anywhere within sight. The band came off more like a punk rock Milli Vanilli, bounding around with hammy dance choreography asking the crowd to “push it baby” with all the conviction of a hyper Crazytown. And what’s worse, the band’s singers lazily toyed with their female fans implying to one female attendee that it was “too warm for that sweater” and that in general the girls at the show should “wear less clothes.” More than a little off-putting to anyone over twenty-one given that nearly every girl still at the show was underage.
FEAR – Endless Bummer – Kevin Lyman
After all the regularly scheduled madness was complete, a special private party was held at the Ventura Theater to premiere a new movie called Endless Bummer (co-written by the Warped Tour’s founder Kevin Lyman). None other than the legendary FEAR played a short set to properly introduce the movie. Just when it looked like there was no way to cram more authentic punk rock into a single day, the two-chord simplicity of FEAR shoves its way through, serving as reminder of how there’s always room for more no-frills rock and roll. Frontman (and icon) Lee Ving cracked jokes about how brilliant Endless Bummer would be before rolling out the band’s classic tunes “More Beer,” “I Don’t Care About You” and the set opener “I Love Livin’ in The City.”
Directly following FEAR’s set a screen was lowered and the film began to roll. Starring largely a band of up-and-comers (Khan Chittenden, Colton James, Ray Santiago, Allison Scagliotti) and guest starring Matthew Lillard (a surprisingly sober part for him), Endless Bummer is simply a love letter to Ventura–the home of today’s stop of the tour–wrapped up in a quest to recover a stolen surfboard. The hometown crowd loved the local in-references, but the film is itself more than a few crowd-roaring jokes from endearing itself on the level of quality of similar teen-romp films such as American Pie or Better Off Dead.
Earlier in the day, the cast and filmmakers staged a mini-press conference to highlight the movie to the press in attendance. After the cast happily posed for photos for the photogs present, we were able to get a few words with Warped Tour’s founder, Kevin Lyman. In regards to how he managed to keep Warped Tour vital amidst an industry beset by a free-fall he had the following to say:
Kevin Lyman: “Well I think I don’t think I mess around with it. I think to be honest, my model, is becoming reality. When I started in 1995 what was done was to deliver value, and I think everyone is looking at value now. How are you gonna get in front of the most people. And maybe it’s not the money you get up front, you gotta get go out there and win ‘em, and sell your music, hand ‘em out. That kind of thing, so my model worked and it seems it helped, we were able to deliver that Mayhem Festival at a lot less cost overall, upfront, to someone like a Live Nation. So when we went in there it became viable, we didn’t go with the crazy numbers. It worked. I think a lot of people are gonna have to think about, if we’re not careful, they’ll be out of money. You know, Live Nation with the merger, they could run out of money! And AEG with the big, giant guarantees, my model would be, the biggest acts in the world would get $100,000 per show, and they could take all the money after a certain point, but earn it! If you’re not willing to go out—our tours are all based on percentages—and I don’t get a dollar if we don’t draw people. Actually, I get $25,000, to help put this out, which pretty much covers the catering bill for the day.”
Kevin Lyman: “And if you believe in your brand or your band, people are going to step up and say ‘We’re going to gamble.’ There’s no gamble when you’re getting these exorbitant guarantees, so the promoter is padding that gamble by charging big prices, which turn into getting kickbacks on service fees and things, you can’t blame them. It’s gonna change, it has to. The whole world’s changed. And, the music industry might have had their heads in the sand like they did with the Internet, which I saw and witnessed being a manager of a band at that point, having to deal with it. But the world’s going to change. I think it’s being forced to change. I think things that I did, a lot of people write me off every year, ‘Oh, tour… it’s only grossed this much’ or ‘that much,’ but you know what? I make a nice living, but I don’t feel like I’m taking advantage of anyone.”
mxdwn: “That seems to be a big part of the problem of why so many people in the music industry are doing so badly, they always were swinging for the fences.”
Kevin Lyman: “Because 90% of music failed when you think about it. When you read that 90% of records didn’t make money, because you’re always swinging for the fences because you’re hoping for the one homerun to supplement all your failures. And I like to tell people in traditional businesses and marketing, I go ‘How many of you, if 90% of your phone calls failed at AT&T, would you be in business?’ or ‘If 90% percent of your flights didn’t get to the city it was supposed to?”
So to recap: good business practices, a wide array of musical options and an environment that encourages the bands to be as involved as humanly possible in the dealings with their fan base. Many may try to prejudge and find fault with what the Warped Tour is or has accomplished, but it’s almost impossible to deny. For its fans, boosters, workers or performers, it’s a damn good thing. It’s a self-empowered music economy determined to think smarter about how to bring music across the country to the populous.