Ah, the Vans Warped Tour, that annual emo marathon that, for many music fans, is Christmas, a birthday and summer vacation all rolled into one. Now in its second decade, the all-day event is long on bands and short on shade. Two intrepid reporters attended the June 19 show in Bonner Springs, Kansas -- and here's what they saw.
1 p.m., June 19 We report to the restrooms to apply the first of many sunscreen coats. Black tights/leggings lie abandoned in a stall in the women's room -- producing flashbacks to 1989, when that fashion first went out of style. In the men's room, serrated T-shirt sleeves are the amputated accessory of choice, a casualty to sudden tank-top envy on a 90-degree day.
1:25 p.m. Boston's State Radio seems like an odd fit for Warped, as its final tune sounds like Jack Johnson jamming with 311. The lone hippie in attendance shakes his dreadlocks in mellow approval.
Vans Warped Tour
1:30 p.m. Organizers cleverly placed the John Lennon Songwriting Contest booth next to the Trojan condoms stand (instant karma, anyone?). The people-watching proves more compelling at this point than the musical attractions. A mom and a preteen boy walk past clutching hands -- and wearing matching My Chemical Romance camouflage T-shirts. A glut of people wearing ill-fitting swimsuit bottoms waddle through the parking-lot gravel, including two guys wearing Speedos, shoes -- and nothing else.
1:45 p.m. Less Than Jake lands the day's first stage-banter zinger. Noting the airplane dragging a banner trumpeting Underoath's impending album release, front man Chris Demakes laments that LTJ's label couldn't afford such advertising thanks to drummer Vinnie Fiorello's hip surgery. "You old cunt," he spits at Fiorello in mock anger. Unwilling to quit while he's still amusing, Demakes then opines that Kansas City is slightly superior to Minneapolis "because the chicks are a little sluttier here." Not exactly an endearing compliment from a thirtysomething dude with a teenage fan base.
Undeterred by Demakes's comedic shortcomings, the crowd rewards Less Than Jake with constant motion, including a massive circle pit that almost swallows the soundboard. Invaluable during the ska songs, Less Than Jake's horn section also generates goodwill during the group's brass-bereft punk numbers by shooting the crowd with water guns and a toilet-paper cannon.
2 p.m. After Demakes's vulgarities, Underoath's spastic set cleanses like a baptismal font. Vocalist Spencer Chamberlain's Christ-like locks and effusive thanks to Jesus give the sextet's show a youth-group-revival feel, though the sing-along chant "I'm drowning in my sleep" isn't exactly "Kum Ba Yah" by the campfire. Underoath's popularity can be puzzling to newcomers, as its songs are largely hook-free, but at its best, the group resembles a screamo Genesis, with a singing drummer, lush keys and daunting compositional complexity.
2:25 p.m. Tattoo du jour: the phrase "Et Tu, Brute" emblazoned on a guy's chest. Runners-up: "Only God Can Judge Me," connecting the shoulder blades above a hairy back; twin pentagrams above male nipples; and a red-striped tube-sock substitute that extended halfway up another dude's calf.
2:30 p.m. Joan Jett bounds on stage, looking like a vampire aerobics instructor with her SPF-150 skin, red bra, steely abs and low-slung leather pants. Backed by the Blackhearts, Jett seems oddly unenergetic during the hits, for which she overcompensates with gratuitous profanity ("I don't give a fuck about my bad reputation," "I'm the fuck you've been waiting for"). She puts more of a charge into her raunchy new numbers ("Fetish," "A.C.D.C."). During "I Hate Myself for Loving You," a genial goateed guy asks who's on stage. When he hears "Joan Jett," he initially dismisses it, as if he's thinking "I know whose song it is, but who's up there playing it?" Suddenly, he makes the connection and exclaims, "Joan Jett? Really?" and starts weaving toward the front row. Even the youngest spectators, to whom her name likely means little, obviously appreciate Jett's sleazy, lusty vibe.
3 p.m. With AFI not playing this Warped date, Seattle's energetic power-doom act Aiden steps in to steal their shtick. The group plays tunes such as "The Last Sunrise," and it's easy to imagine that for these corpse-painted ghouls, any contact with daylight could be mortally conclusive.
3:30 p.m. Reporter Annie takes a break, finding shade in the shadow of the gigantic tires of a truck belonging to one of the tour's sponsors. The teenage traffic conjures flashbacks of high school hallways, though she doesn't remember any heavily tatted dudes with Valient Thorr and Slayer patches on their jean jackets in homeroom.
Meanwhile, Andrew checks out NOFX, whose singer Fat Mike opens by asking, "How many of you have our new record?" (Wolves in Wolves' Clothing). Greeted with hearty applause, he responds, "Well, we're not playing that record today." Instead, the group vows to play every track from 1994's Punk in Drublic. It's a simultaneously appealing and infuriating strategy, giving fans the chance to hear rarely played tunes from its most popular album while sacrificing lyrically brilliant material from its more recent releases. NOFX now ranks as political punk's sharpest satirists, but earlier protest numbers such as the reactionary "Don't Call Me White" lack perspective. Also, a poorly received version of the Drublic cipher "Scavenger Type" proves there's a reason some tracks seldom see the stage. Fat Mike baits the crowd after that dud by saying, "You thought playing the whole album was a good idea."
4 p.m. We skip Motion City Soundtrack, which Fat Mike slyly disses as "Motion Sickness Soundtrack." Moving to one of the side stages, we learn that the effervescent pop outfit Cartel played earlier than expected. But we do catch a few tunes from St. Louis's Adair, whose competent scream-punk symphonies get lost in the shuffle of several dozen similar-sounding bands.
4:15 p.m. The Shira Girl stage features, uh, Shira Girl, whose hot-pink minidress, matching fishnets and multitoned hair scream "trying too hard!" Rapping rudimentary lyrics ("Go! Go! Go!") in rhythmically challenged patterns over hip-hop-lite beats, Shira Girl seems like a lobotomized Peaches. She provides some unintended excitement when her belt descends during a dramatic jump, nearly hog-tying her in midair.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that this tiny stage tucked away in the far corner of the Warped complex featured most of the few female musicians playing the tour. (The most prominent one this date was pint-sized Paramore vocalist Hayley Williams.) While the lack of estrogen isn't a new complaint, it's certainly sad to see women reduced to such a small part of the festivities -- and segregated from the masses so severely.
4:30 p.m. Playing a pink guitar possibly borrowed from the Shira stage, Helmet's Paige Hamilton unleashes the colossal opening riff to "Unsung." It's a desperate gambit when a band opens with its best-known number, and it served only to delay the mass exodus catalyzed by its awful new material.
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5 p.m. From First to Last's soundcheck drowns out Royden's pop-punk on the adjacent stage -- which isn't a bad thing. Ex-Limp Bizkit bassist Wes Borland, perhaps using his dense tattoo covering as a witness-protection device, redeems himself nicely in FFTL, which clearly loves black metal and white face paint. Diminutive singer Sonny Moore's "Show me your souls" request seems profoundly earnest or kinda creepy, but either way it's a refreshing change from generic bitching-about-the-heat banter.
5:15 p.m. The increasingly U2-like screamo outfit Thursday adds subtle new-wave touches to its evocative, arena-ready anthems. We give props to vocalist Geoff Rickly (not that he needs any, given that his group boasts the day's largest number of onstage fans) for saying, "Men, it's never too late to become a feminist," and encouraging downloading: "We want you to have music in your heart, even if you don't have money in your pocket."
5:30 p.m. UK pioneers Buzzcocks -- who are playing only a few Warped dates -- open their set by promising "punk rock and roll old-style." This translates into a fast, sloppy, surprisingly loud set that features classics, solid new songs and plenty of attitude. While most groups close early in deference to the following band, Buzzcocks play a few minutes past their allotted time, abridging Senses Fail's set. An entirely too small yet appreciative crowd (including the day's highest concentration of Mohawks) learns that punk once meant "1-2-3-4!" and rapid-fire chords, not metal solos and face paint.
6:15 p.m. As we leave the venue, rickety acoustic tunes waft from the huge amphitheater stage, which, in Warped's bizarro world, plays second string to the makeshift constructs in the parking lot. The singer's lawn-flamingo hair, neon-visible even from the lawn seats, reveals that the anguished wailer is none other than Saves the Day's Chris Conley. Shira Girl, Helmet, Conley -- pink is the new suck.