The Vans Warped Tour and its acts have reaped truckloads of ink in the past 11 years. Though there are worthy recipients of press on this years traveling punk rock big top, Im not here to bestow band blow jobs, but to reveal bits of the tours flavor.
I arrive the morning of the tours start in Columbus, Ohio, for a five-day, four-date jaunt that will cover roughly 1,200 miles through Milwaukee, St. Louis and Kansas City. Kids are already gathering in the parking lot, though the shows hours away. In the backstage bus area (separated from patron parking by road barriers), bands and crews are busy unpacking gear and lugging it to the venues eight stages with whatevers available, including skateboards.
While the Warped is a blast like a summer-long tailgate soiree its a grind for many smaller acts. All the main-stage bands and many of the second-stagers enjoy tour buses, but many make do touring in vans and RVs. Minus guitar techs, merch sellers or drivers, baby bands such as Chapel Hills Valient Thorr rough it all day on the midway, hawking wares, hauling gear and making the drives themselves (which range from several hours to as many as 14). Then they perform.
But for a baby band, a tour that covers 50 cities in the U.S. and Canada, reaching more than 650,000 kids, is the shit. Even stacked up against as many as 70 other bands, the odds are good that you can establish a strong national fan base on the strength of Warped.
This years lineup is heavily populated by up-and-comers the Bled, Underoath, the Academy Is, Boys Night Out, Amber Pacific and so on without more than an album or two to their credit. Theyre hungrier, and the energy of the performances reveals this; bands whose music Id never buy if Id only heard the music but who are absolutely guts-and-glory live, playing as if theyve everything to lose win me.
The crowd, too, is different this year. Chicks, or more accurately, girls, are out in force. Though punk and, by extension, Warped has long been a sweaty boys-only club, the mainstream success of such acts as well-cheekboned pop-punk wholesalers Fall Out Boy and shout-out mall-goth mainstreamers My Chemical Romance with their sensitive-boy-yet-still-a-rebel schtick has brought the prepubescent lasses out in force.
Given the tours history, its easy to appreciate greater gender equality in the audience. A 17-year-old Pittsburgh photographer, here covering the show for tour sponsor Alternative Press, says the Warped reminds her of high school. Further, women are crowd-surfing more than dudes, and the etiquette is downright polite. Many surfer girls are wearing bikini tops and every one I see flail over the hordes and barricades comes down with her top intact unimaginable in years past. My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way appreciates this, foiling cheap rock star thrills by imploring the women in the audience not to satisfy stage requests to show me your tits, but to reply with a fuck you! He does this on every tour stop.
But Ways success at raising chick-power consciousness is fleeting. Men manning the Epitaph Records booth are pimping schwag for tit shots. Yes, some alpha-male rock n roll routines die hard. Too, being in a band these days doesnt guarantee budding rock stars shags: one hairy-palmed band member on an ass hunt is overheard saying, Id tell them Im a musician, but I dont think thatd work here.
Backstage is low-key tonight, low murmurs and lots of spliff in the air. But theres activity around the My Chemical Romance and All-American Rejects buses. A fortysomething woman, burgundy-lipped, makeup-caked and spilling out of her dress, is creating a commotion. Shes spouting new-age hooey, which is hard to decipher through her whiskey slurs. She then drapes her arm around one of the indistinguishable black-clad musicians, and he pulls away from her, and laughs with pals. Shes been trying to get laid by someone (anyone?) for an hour, and her impatient teen daughter stands nearby.
A moment later, the woman catches me looking at her. She moves closer and says, Youre nice, and kisses me on the cheek. Behind her, daughter tells her boyfriend a tall, corn-fed blond kid that she wants to split. But hes transfixed, as are all onlookers, by the familial train wreck. Minutes later, the mother says to those within earshot: I hope he does marry her. Ive been trying to get rid of that bitch for years. The flipside to cool rocker parents? Jesus.
Milwaukee, post-show, is the liveliest. Tomorrow is an off-day so theres no hurry to leave. Craps games kick on the pavement, and poker tables open up outside tour buses. Tonight I discover the bus-housed Pirate Bar (midway merchants doling out booze and smokes). They often pour boilermakers into a funnel that the head buccaneer drunkenly dispenses from atop the bus to a waiting mouth below.
The Dropkick Murphys are blasting the Clash and Springsteen from their bus-side tent with an iPod attached to monitors. I engage MxPx frontman Mike Herrera, a genial gent who knows his punk rock.
He tells of the first punk bands that moved him (Descendents and Circle Jerks) and how the melodramatic woe is me trend of some new punk is grating.
The subject turns, as its wont to do, to Warped groupiedom.
Does the road crew get any backwash?
Yeah, sure, though it depends on how hard theyre willing to work. But its crazy, Herrera says. There was a girl backstage the other day in a tank top with a condom safety-pinned to her bra-strap.
He adds, If I had a dollar for every time I heard, Ive never done this before, or I dont usually do this. ...
On the way to Kansas City, I give a ride to a college journalist who got off a tour bus (he wont say whose) because he couldnt stomach the shenanigans. Theres a 14-year-old giving the bands bassist a blow job, he says, and the other band members are filming it.
By Kansas City, Im wiped out. I spend most of my time under the Dropkick Murphys tent. Dropkick guitarist Marc Orrell is playing his guitar, first seated on a bike, then on a lawn chair. For the next 45 minutes we run through songs by the Clash, Chuck Berry and Stones, singing along campfire-style. Its a small moment, but its nearly transcendent. Punks real power is like the blues and folk before it; how it can, when done right, stimulate change and a sense of community.
So what if the sentiments that have replaced punks early fist-jacking, if not haughty, social critiques, are as maudlin and overemoted as a crap Bowie side; if it brings in long-absent chick fans and continues to spread to new generations, whats to loathe? Punk rocks not any deader than contemporary Kinks-ripping rock n roll, its just been eased out by its progeny, whove kept the surname but added a prefix and real record sales, yet bear their ancestors snot-greased fingerprints.
Judging from Warps backstage debauchery, punks certainly still upholding the same kick-down-the-doors tenets as Keith Moon and Mick Jones. Then again, maybe some things inherent in 50-plus busloads of musicians and crews equipped with hours of post-gig free time and countless cases of beer spell no responsibilities until noon tomorrow.
Vans Warped Tour, featuring A Wilhelm Scream, MxPx, Dropkick Murphys, Atreyu, the Offspring, My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Motion City Soundtrack and dozens of others, is Sunday, July 31, at Pontiac Silverdome (1200 Featherstone, Pontiac; 248-858-7358). For more info visit firstname.lastname@example.org