For years I have been hearing complaints about the commercialism of the Vans Warped Tour and this year, I got to see it for myself. Having been to the very first Warped Tour here in Montreal, I initially found it very difficult to believe what people were saying; the Warped Tour I went to as a kid was all about skateboarding, good music and, of course, Vans showing off its products, which people barely knew about at the time, but there was nothing overt or pushy about it. If you liked something they had in stock, you could buy it, but no one was forcing anything down your throat.
This year’s Warped Tour was unlike any festival music experience I have ever had. As I walked across the bridge to the festival site at Parc Jean-Drapeau and looked out over the grounds, my eyes were assaulted by merch tents stretching out as far as the eye could see. The music was visibly secondary to the event and the skateboarding a distant third.
You could buy just about anything, from Vans swag to earphones to curled moustache necklaces and electric guitars (okay, the last two were admittedly kinda cool), but the one good thing about the merch bonanza was the setup VWT had for the bands to pimp their music and merch, with each band having its own tent which, in most cases, was manned by the band’s members. This gave people the opportunity to interact in a more personal way with bands they may have just learned about and/or with groups they have been following for years.
Over the years, the types of artists invited to VWT have changed and rightly so, as the tastes of new generations are beginning to influence the line-up. The diversity in musical genres this year was staggering and the only thing not represented was classic rock (and with Less Than Jake and Planet Smashers bringing their 20-plus-year careers, even that could be debated). Despite the heat and the dust rising from the mosh pits, every band gave it their all and every fan had a great big smile.
August Burns Red and Devil Wears Prada set the mood for the day with absolutely scorching sets and the crowd ate them up. I weaved my way through the crowds (and merch tents) to the back stages, which had the best setup of the whole venue: two side by side stages with alternating bands, which meant no waiting, no sound checking, just band after band. I spent most of the afternoon there listening to some greats like The Aggrolites, who had a sweet reggae funk sound, and Pepper, whose Sublime-like groove had the crowd moving. In fact, they seemed to be having as much fun playing the music as the crowd was having listening to it.
3OH!3 was up first and put on a great show despite a few glitches with their backing band. Less Than Jake was up right after and put on the best show of the day by far. The old-school punk/ska crew rocked it out and spent the set talking with the crowd. I remember thinking “Now this is the Warped Tour I remember” and hell, they even got a kid with a Justin Bieber haircut out of the crowd, up on stage and gave him a Mohawk!
Paramore was up next and they burst onto the stage to the screams of every teenage girl in the place. They played a good show from what I heard of it, but it sadly just reaffirmed that they are not my cup of tea. Instead, I walked over to one of the side stages to see the greatest find of the Warped Tour this year – Larry And His Flask!
Let me start by saying they are probably one of the strangest bunch of people I have ever seen: They spent the majority of the day wandering around the grounds in three-piece suits (in 30-degree heat) playing unplugged bluegrass punk rock wherever they stopped and for whoever would listen! The double bass player could simply not stand still, throwing himself (and his bass) all over the place, the drummer had no seat (even on stage) and the two guitarists, mandolin player and banjo player (yes, I said banjo) played perfect bluegrass at punk rock speed. By far the most interesting hybrid music I have heard in years and they visibly loved every minute of playing it.
On stage, they showed as much energy and enthusiasm, except now I could hear the vocals. As they rocked out, everyone watching was able to completely forget Paramore was playing a couple of hundred yards away. The band even played a few songs off stage and among the crowd – God bless cordless instruments!
By the time Larry And His Flask were done, sadly so was I. The sun and heat had taken their toll and the wisdom age has granted me since my first Warped Tour told me it was time to go.
For all the latest on VWT: www.vanswarpedtour.com
(Photos: Barbara Pavone)