After 24 years of touring, the Vans Warped Tour has come to an end. At its Hartford, Connecticut stop, musician Harry Walton observes the Warped Tour scene as a whole while reviewing the performances of the day, featuring artists like 3OH!3, We The Kings & Simple Plan.
If you miss 2007, this is your moment. On Sunday I went to Warped Tour’s CT date in Hartford and it was fascinating. A vast array of bands ranging from popular to completely unknown clambered across the Xfinity Center spitting rhymes and wailing choruses, knowing this was their last chance. To be honest that mantra got old fast, especially as some of the bands reiterated the ending ad nauseam. Despite this Warped 2018 was fun, and it’s the correct moment for the tour to end.
START OF THE DAY: After taking our sweet time getting to the venue my friends and I arrived at around noon and immediately headed to one of the smaller stages to check out a band we’d never heard of: Locals Only. The crowd was maybe 20-30 people and despite this being one of the smaller stages, Locals Only had a pretty crisp sound and the lead singer managed to get viscerally animated. Definitely a band I’d be willing to put down $5-$10 to see again at some smaller venue or as an opener while they’re finding their feet. Afterwards we decided to go check out some of the smallest bands playing at the Transformer “stage” which was actually a small pavilion where the bands stood virtually inside the crowd. A desperate half-naked sound boy ran from Mac to amp ensuring the entire operation didn’t collapse at a moments notice, and the band Dutty Winehouse pulled the crowd into some bumping group choruses. I felt like this is where Warped Tour was at its best, a band no one had heard of, and here they were making us dance and sing the hook, and it felt hyper-engaging. If there is a future for the Warped Tour scene I think it’s to be found here, in scaling down the stadium pop-punk and getting back to really personal moments.
AFTERNOON: After swinging through the fairly sized Owl.fm stage and checking out the Gerard Way look-alike lead singer of As It Is, we headed towards the main stage to check out my pick for favorite band going into the show, Four Year Strong. I’d seen Four Year in New Jersey in 2017 and got beaten to a pulp, so needless to say I was excited. The boys really lit the crowd up in their tight thirty minute set, their sound personifying the ultra-manly man lumberjack stuck between melody and double bass lifestyles. Managing to crank out most of their hits, they got out to wildly enthusiastic applause. By the end of the kicking, shoving, and screaming affair I was extremely dehydrated and very pleased. Next up were 3OH!3, who were shockingly great. The style change was jarring, from the punchy sound of Four Year to the sexy Ke$ha-assisted sounds of 3OH!3, but 3OH brought in Jess Gardner on drums and even Travis Clark of We The Kings, who helped fill out their sound for a stadium affair. Between Gardner and their manager on keyboard, guitar, and saxophone (someone give this man a medal), the rap/pop punk duo added up the noise to compete with bigger bands on the stage. After 3OH!3 clambered off the stage I ducked out for some water.
LATE AFTERNOON: Swinging back through at the end of Falling in Reverse the stadium wasn’t even half full, but there was a steady trickle of people filing in. Bowling for Soup came out next and it got awkward whenever the lead singer talked. As bands go Bowling for Soup has always been a bit older, and the lead singer brought it up early by reminding the crowd that the band members are now 45. A couple of off-color jokes kept the set from ever landing, and I think being the most nostalgic of the sets emphasized Warped Tour’s flaws. Pop punk, especially in 2018, suffers from its identity rooted entirely in the past. Pop punk seeks to bring you back to the mid-2000s where it assumes you were less burdened by things like Trump and children, and your knees hurting. While this escapism is fun for an afternoon, it makes it clear why pop punk is disappearing. When Bowling for Soup sings about “1985” or “High School Never Ends” it’s strikingly maudlin. I have got to give credit where it’s due: when the brass section from Reel Big Fish came out and slammed the damn door on “1985” it felt like a culmination of every middle school dream. We the Kings came out next and it felt like this band was the backbone of Warped Tour 2018. The lead singer, Travis, sang in 3 different sets 3OH!3, Kings, and Simple Plan, bridging the gap between old and new. Kings began with a sweeping intro of “My Heart Will Go On” in what I hope was an inside joke on its similarity to their song “Sad Song” (names have gone downhill in the last 20 years). There might have been some home-field advantage at work here, as one of the members was from Hartford. The Florida-natives told us, tongue in cheek, that this was their big homecoming. I thought it was fun, and “Check Yes Juliet” is still a guaranteed banger live. Kings did a good job crossing the t’s and keeping the energy level high, which made the choice of the next band pretty awkward.
“If there is a future for the Warped Tour scene I think it’s to be found here, in scaling down the stadium pop-punk and getting back to really personal moments.”
FISHING: One of Warped Tour’s biggest problems is the big-tent nature of pop punk. In an article/book I will someday get around to publishing on the history of pop punk, the exact nature of the genre is elusive. While the core of the genre is fairly obvious with the likes of Green Day, Blink 182, and Fall out Boy, the periphery is wide. So Reel Big Fish, and to a lesser extent bands like Less Than Jake do fit into the spectrum of all things pop punk. But when Reel Big Fish took the stage there was a deep mood shift from Kings. It wasn’t just the style either, it was the audience. The crowd for Reel Big Fish was older, rougher, and ska-focused. They lit up when Reel took the stage but everyone else kind of quietened which felt sub-optimal, and while Reel’s long and successful career definitely earned them center stage, it felt like their placement in the middle of all the dorkier teenage-oriented bands was awkward. Slapping them right next to Bowling for Soup would definitely have kept things a bit tighter.
EVENING: Tonight Alive were bad. Unabashedly long-winded, and uninteresting live, the lead singer had a weird rant about returning to the child within you. In a moment of show don’t tell, openly talking about going back in time felt super stilted. Part of this might be my bias as a British person holding another British person to a higher standard of banter, but this set really didn’t light up. And I’d extend that review to the next few sets, State Champs, The Maine, and Mayday Parade did not quite catch the crowd like some of the older mainstays. Of the three The Maine stood out as the group that had the most powerful live presence. The lead singer played ultra-nice guy looking out for every crowd surfer. The Maine pulled up a 20-something fan who did a ridiculously good job singing a chorus to one of their songs, this young person was so impressive that it felt like a plant. The Maine, State Champs; and Mayday Parade represent the younger end of the highest stage in pop punk, and I felt like that’s a bad sign. They were not electrifying in the way of their predecessors. Despite the pithy-attitude and quips of The Maine’s lead singer, there’s none of the humor left in the genre. The crux of the Warped Tour issue was realized when Mayday Parade played a Blink 182 cover. The crowd lit the heck up. It was wild, and honestly some of the band members looked genuinely let down. It’s hard to see an entire stadium of people enjoy your song but love when you play another band’s song. And they did a damn good job covering “The Rock Show” which is perhaps the MOST warped tour song ever.
SIMPLE PLAN AND CONCLUSIONS: Simple Plan finished up the show with a high energy performance from the older gents (Plan formed in 1999). I felt like there were a couple of weird choices in song-order, I personally would have finished with “Welcome to my Life” instead of “Perfect”. But the band looked like they were having a terrific time, and the crowd helped them along. Simple Plan is probably the only band still on the tour who enjoyed absolutely blistering popularity in the 2000s, and therein lies the biggest problem with the tour. As briefly mentioned by Bowling for Soup when they played a Fountains of Wayne cover “Stacey’s Mom”, “Yeah those Fountains guys charge too much to be on this tour”. The best pop-punk bands don’t go on Warped Tour because they don’t have to. Blink 182 could carry the whole thing single-handedly, but they don’t need to because it’s a lot of work and they’ve got money. Green Day is well past their heyday and again, can make more money on their own. Disappointingly the up and coming garage rock bands (some in my circle are calling them post-pop punkers) like Diet Cig, Tigers Jaw, The Front Bottoms, and Mom Jeans aren’t interested in the tour. All of this represents why I think this is the best time to put the ol’ gal down. The drummer for Simple Plan stage-dove, Travis Clark came out and about a thousand anemic teens screamed the end of Warped Tour. It was a good time, it took a long time and it was time to stumble out of the venue.
A FEW CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: I’m going to elaborate on this in the pop punk essay/book I someday get around to writing: pop punk is one of the two-whitest most privileged genres in human history, next to country. Standing near the stage before State Champs I took in the scene and I saw a wave of pale faces in the crowd and an enormous number of young black and brown workers and guards keeping these children from flinging themselves to their deaths or starting fights. This is partly just a Connecticut symptom, the high level of racial and spatial inequality means patrons are often white and the service workers are often not, but it felt almost comically overextended at Warped Tour. The makeup of the crowd had to have been 95%+ white, and although pop-punkers don’t talk about it often, that’s really not ideal. Another weird note to those who want to crowd surf you have to keep in mind some practicalities: most crowds cannot support a person who weighs more than 180 pounds (as a 220 pound man I am very conscious of this), and if you are going to crowd surf you should try to keep your core tight, your body flat, and your arms and legs starfished so more people can support your weight. And as a crowd member it can awkward to hold people up, so be aware of this if you’re at the front of the crowd. Also, if you use the opportunity of people being held aloft to touch them inappropriately (a friend saw this happen at least once) you are f u c k i n g gross, and it’s obvious when you aren’t trying to hold someone up.
All-in-all the final gasp of Warped Tour was fun, and definitely felt like a great moment to close up shop. At times it was a decades old relic, but for one night only that didn’t feel too oppressive. Swing by if you’ve got the cash and time to spare, but don’t worry about this being the end of music. As I found down at the Transformer stage “life uuuuhhhhuhhuhuh finds a way.”