The Vans Warped Tour is a monster of an event. Hitting the road every summer since 1995, it is both the largest and the longest-running traveling music festival in North America. To boot, ticket prices have remained affordable over the years (in contrast to festivals like Coachella, where you can’t even get in the door for less than $300), and that’s thanks to founder Kevin Lyman and his ability to forge long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with sponsors like Vans, Monster Energy, and Journeys.
The tour’s August 4 stop at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California was my fifth Warped Tour experience over the last decade, so I knew what I was getting into. Being in the sun all day saps my energy, and at a festival like Warped, where almost every band’s volume (and attitude) is dialed up to eleven, I become agitated and restless much earlier in the day with each passing year. So when I found out I’d be covering the 2017 tour for Behind the Setlist, I was excited to do it, but also mentally prepared for exhaustion and sonic overload.
What a pleasant surprise this year was. I didn’t feel burned out at any point during the day, and while the perfect weather played a part in that, I also have to give major credit to the Warped production crew. Schedules ran (mostly) as posted, and whenever there was a change, it was quickly and widely communicated. Every vendor and security person I spoke to was genuinely happy to be there, and instead of the “fans vs. The Man” mentality I’ve seen at festivals past, the staff joined in as members of a music-loving community, not as enforcers.
As usual, the downside to one-day music festivals is that set times overlap. There were bands on my “hope to see” list that I missed because I was either seeing someone on my “must-see” list or in the press area doing interviews. That said, I covered a lot of ground, and for all the bands listed below, I recommend taking a closer listen and checking out their records. Rock, punk, ska, metalcore, and rap are all very much alive, and there are some exciting acts out there, old and new, that are inspiring the next generation of music fans.
Several days before setting out on my Warped Tour adventure, I put together a Spotify playlist to help me prioritize bands, especially the ones I didn’t know well (which turned out to be most of them—there were a lot of newer and younger acts on this year’s bill). “Save Yourself,” by LA-based indie artist tiLLie stuck in my head for days after I discovered it, which made her set a “must-see” for me. It was so worth it. She opened the festival on the Full Sail University stage, and her blend of catchy pop melodies and prominent, but not overworked guitars was the perfect introduction to the day.
Her music is lighter than the punk and thrash metal bands on the tour, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. She calls her music “male-approved anti-pop” and backs it up with lyrics like, “Fucking forget about me, you gotta save yourself.” Her voice is powerful, and her message comes through loud and clear: Don’t underestimate her. I spoke with her later in the day, and she said she gets frustrated when someone assumes she can’t really play just because she’s female. “After South by Southwest, some guy took a picture of my guitar and posted it on Instagram and said, ‘A girl guitar.’ I commented and said with an asterisk, ‘A guitar.’ It’s not made for girls. Just because it’s mint green doesn’t mean it’s for girls!” Up next for her is a set at Machine Gun Kelly’s EST Festival, and if she keeps playing like she did at Warped, people won’t even think to make comments like that.
Atlanta metalcore favorites Attila got everyone fired up right out of the gate. One of the earlier bands to play on the main Journeys stage, they were all about raising the crowd’s energy and waking up those who were still drowsy on that overcast morning. Looking out into the crowd before the band came on, it seemed like everyone was in a collective daze, still getting their bearings for the day. That all changed the second frontman Chris Fronzak hit the stage; it only took half a song before crowdsurfing began.
Their form of offensive-on-purpose rap-metal is not my usual cup o’ tea, but I will say that they were fun to watch. Their stage antics were entertaining, and it’s obvious they love what they do. And even though the crowd was animated and jumping around, I didn’t fear getting hurt, which remained a theme throughout the day. No matter how heavy the music got, the audience never got aggressive—at least not in an unsafe way.
Courage My Love
After the rowdiness of ATTILA, it was time for something a little different. Courage My Love is a Canadian three-piece band fronted by guitarist and vocalist Mercedes Arn-Horn and backed up by her twin sister Phoenix on drums (who also played drums for tiLLie during her set) and Brandon Lockwood on bass. Their set featured mostly songs from their new album Synesthesia, which has a darker, heavier feel to it than their 2015 release Becoming.
While the Arn-Horn sisters are only 23, they have been recording and touring since 2009. They commanded the Full Sail University stage in a way only seasoned pros can. Mercedes later explained that because they’re young and because the band is two-thirds female, they sometimes get labeled as a “girl band,” but that she doesn’t really see them that way. “Anytime someone’s like, ‘I don’t usually like girl bands, but you guys are actually really good,’ I don’t think they mean it that way, but it comes across a little condescending. I just focus on our success, and rather than being the best female musician out there, just being the best musician.”
Sonic Boom Six
Going into the day, this is one of the bands I was most excited to see live. They’re from the United Kingdom, and their style is just familiar enough, but yet completely new (think Rage Against the Machine meets Lily Allen meets The Clash). They played on the stage inside the amphitheater itself, which was divided in half to accommodate a staggered schedule. Their upbeat, dance-friendly ska/rock/rap was quite the contrast to New York hardcore punk veterans Sick of It All, who had finished their set on the other half of the stage only seconds prior. That kind of juxtaposition is one of the things Warped Tour is famous for.
As expected, their set was as fun with high energy. Frontwoman Laila Khan jumped, danced, and twirled, and invited the audience to sing along and participate throughout. Unfortunately, the sound mix was not in their favor. At any festival, audio quality is a bit of a crapshoot: Outdoor venues, wide open spaces, and sprawling crowds make it difficult for sound engineers to have the level of precision they have in a more controlled environment like a club. The bass was way too intense, and Laila’s vocals got lost in the mix.
I hope to see Sonic Boom Six in the future at a smaller venue. Their songs are powerful, politically-minded thinkpieces, but set to a dance party soundtrack. I’d love to see how that translates in a setting with better acoustics. Regardless, Khan told me she hoped people got something out of their set: “Number one, we want people to have a dance and forget about what’s going on in the world. Number two, it’s a bonus if they go home and go ‘oh, all your lyrics are political.’ Like, I’m singing about racism, but I’m smiling. Not because racism is cool—it’s not—but above all, we want you to have fun.”
Fire From the Gods
Formed in Austin, rap-metal up-and-comers Fire From the Gods are not messing around. They have a message about social justice, and they recently teamed up with Korn frontman Jonathan Davis as a guest producer on a couple of their new tracks to make sure you hear that message. One of those tracks, “The Voiceless,” brought a festival-weary crowd hitting their mid-afternoon slump immediately to their feet.
Fortunately, the sound mix on the stage in the amphitheater had improved over the course of the day, and the heaviness of their music didn’t drown out the impact of their lyrics. Frontman AJ Channer spent much of the set on the floor in front of the stage interacting directly with the fans in the front row. Watching Channer be embraced by the crowd and by the usually stoic security staff was one of those moments (one of many throughout the day), when I felt a strong sense of community—not just with other fans, but between fans, artists, production staff, and the music itself.
War on Women
“Say it! Say it! I was raped!” rang out loud and clear, even at the very back of the amphitheater’s sprawling lawn, where I was sitting when War on Women’s set started. They are a feminist, hardcore, thrash-punk band from Baltimore, and they are entirely unafraid to shout out their opinions on the hot-button issues that scare people away, such as sexual harassment, rape culture, transphobia, abortion, and gender inequality. They even have a song titled “YouTube Comments,” which consists of actual nasty comments they’ve received on YouTube, set to music.
Frontwoman Shawna Potter is so passionate about preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence at music events, she started a workshop called “Creating Safer Spaces,” and leads it at each Warped Tour stop. Her goal with the workshop is to help everyone understand that harassment is real and that anyone—a performer, a fellow fan, a venue staff member—can play a role in preventing it, simply by having the confidence to check in with anyone who looks uncomfortable in a situation. “Sometimes, just locking eyes from the stage with someone in the crowd who looks scared is enough to say ‘I see you. I believe you.’ But you have to know that in order to do it when the moment happens.”
After watching their set, I felt empowered. I was inspired, watching this group of women (and two men) unapologetically sing about human rights issues. For a minute, I felt like things were looking hopeful for gender equality. Then, as I was walking up the stairs towards the back of the amphitheater, I overheard a male fan say, “That’s shit. There’s no fucking war on women in this country!” I shook my head and kept walking.
Barb Wire Dolls
Inside the amphitheater, the female empowerment theme kept going strong with grunge/punk/glam metal band Barb Wire Dolls. Originally formed on the island of Crete, specifically in the Ikarus Artist Commune in Avdou, this band has seen it all. They singlehandedly built the punk scene from the ground up in Greece, and when they finally made the move to the United States, they hit the ground running, introducing their brand of punk rock to cities all across the country.
Barb Wire Dolls are electric on stage. Frontwoman Isis Queen belts out lyrics with a vocal quality that is somewhere between Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Freddie Mercury, all while dancing around the stage, standing on top of floor monitors, jumping off said floor monitors, and even climbing on the shoulders of the crowd-facing security guards. It’s no wonder they caught the attention of the late Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, who signed them to his record label in 2015. Their work ethic is incredible (sometimes doing 300+ shows in a year), and their constant support for other artists has earned them a reputation for being one of the best bands to work with.
If you’ve never seen GWAR, you need to do it at least once. A GWAR show is the kind of experience that’s difficult to describe unless you’ve seen it in person. They were one of the most veteran bands on this year’s tour—they’ve been around since 1984—and their weird, messy shock rock was the perfect way to close out the lineup on the Monster Mutant stage.
Their set began with “War Pigs” playing over the PA. “Ozzy” came out to “sing,” and apparently Bonesnapper (band bodyguard and responsible for “crappy vocals,” according to official GWAR mythos) didn’t like it much. He cut Ozzy’s head off. Fake blood everywhere. The crowd loved it. As expected with GWAR, there is much blood and goo throughout the set, but what people sometimes lose in all the theatrics is that those guys can really play. They’ve got serious guitar chops, and it can’t be easy getting those guttural, growling vocals out, especially while in costume.
To fully understand GWAR, go see them live (in clothes you don’t mind ruining). But if you want to learn about their bizarre backstory, you can find it on their website.
Other Sights Around Warped Tour
As if live music all day across seven different stages wasn’t enough, that’s not all there was to see at Warped Tour. Hundreds of merch tents and vendors were scattered across the venue’s grounds and parking lots. Not only were bands and record labels staffing booths, but quite a few nonprofit organizations had booths also (Music Saves Lives, Hope for the Day, A Voice for the Innocent, and Action for Animals, just to name a few), where people could purchase merchandise and make donations.
And the music on the official stages wasn’t the only music available, either. Throughout the day, acoustic sets popped up at various tents, and certain booths were open for fans to stop by and join in the jam. My favorite was the “Lessonoke” tent set up by Brooklyn glam punk rock band j and the 9s. They started the day by playing a short set of their own, but then turned the tent into an open jam session. They led the jam and kept it coherent, but fans were encouraged to come by for a while, pick up an instrument (or sit at the drum kit), and join in. Later in the day, it turned into a live karaoke session, where fans could come sing along to their favorite songs while the band backed them up.
When you jump into an open jam session with j and the 9s, you never know what might happen. Lead vocalist and flutist j9 explained how meeting fans this way got them out of a bind when their bassist couldn’t come on part of the Warped tour. “Since he couldn’t come, we pulled on two guys that we had met at our jam sessions. So, one guy from Connecticut and then another guy from Holmdel, New Jersey—they were like, ‘Yep, we believe in this and we want to do this,’ and it’s working out. They’re so committed.”
That anecdote summed up the attitude of the whole festival for me this year. Artists, fans, everyone—we all just love music, and that’s why we were there. Yes, there were some overly-angsty teenagers like there are every year. Yes, there were a handful of people who drank one too many and were a little obnoxious. But none of those people ruined the experience for anyone else (not that I saw, anyway). People had an air of happiness and positivity about them, and that seemed to be true across the venue and throughout the day.
Learn more about Vans Warped Tour here. Photos by Luke Ballek.
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