Warped Tour keeps skating straight ahead

Source: By Sam Sutherland

Posted: 08/22/07 2:44PM

Filed Under: Music

Warped tour
Last of the Mohawk-ians (File Photo)

It may be a worn-out metaphor at this point, but the annual Warped Tour really is the "punk rock summer camp" it's been mythologized to be over the course of its 13-year existence. While punk purists decry the tour's rampant commercialism, high concession prices and watered-down music, Warped Tour's continued existence speaks to its unwavering relevance to hundreds of thousands of Fraggle-punks, year in and year out.

Sure, it may not be the celebration of "warped" alternative culture that is was in 1994, but the 2007 installment is still an exciting place to be.

* * *

It's mid-day in Park Place, Barrie, ON's open-air concert grounds, the tour's annual Toronto stop since the whole thing got too big for a downtown site. Kevin Lyman, Warped's founder, is here outside the production trailer...watering the dirt.

"Just trying to keep the dust down," he explains. "A lot of people are walking through here and kicking up a lot of dirt that's getting in everyone's mouths." Lyman is chatting casually, hose in hand, with a few other members of the tour production staff. Were it not for his recognizable mug and the occasional cry of "Kevin!" from staffers, he could easily be mistaken for a guy who's just, y'know, watering the dirt. That he isn't running around like a madman is a testament to the well-oiled machinery Lyman and crew have put in place after over the years.

Only joining up with the tour for a single date, punk legend Bill Stevenson, whose current gig with Only Crime is a significant departure from his days with Black Flag and Descendents, believes it's the strength of the tour's production staff that keep things afloat, year after year.

"The woman who's the head of Box Office here used to book Black Flag shows in the '80s," he says. "People like that are what keep this viable." So while Lollapalooza as a touring festival died on the grill in 1997, and again in 2004, Lyman's lumbering punk-rock beast has soldiered on, enduring criticism and the occasional rough year for ticket sales but emerging none the worse for wear.

Still, some consideration has to be given to what's going on directly in front of the kids filling all those parking lots, arenas, and parks across North America each summer. In many ways, Warped is unrecognizable compared to its mid-90s origins. While 2007 still finds tour mainstays Bad Religion drawing sizable crowds for their punk rock sermons, the majority of bands are younger and far less typically "punk" than previous Warped stalwarts like NOFX and Rancid. The inclusion of certain made-for-MTV groups is a constant source of criticism amongst punker-than-thou types, but to others, it makes perfect sense.

"Warped Tour is a place for teenage kids to go and hear all their favourite bands in one day," says Rob Pasalic, guitarist for the Saint Alvia Cartel. "It wouldn't make sense for it to be the same tour in 2007 as it was in 1997. These are the bands that kids like, and the tour is smart enough to grow and adapt to that. You still get bands like Bad Religion playing, so it's not like it's lost all its roots."

Pasalic is right; Warped Tour isn't for those who think punk peaked at the end of 1994. Bands like Hawthorne Heights and Cute Is What We Aim For, two of the biggest mainstage draws this year, may not make the most exciting music to hardened ex-punker ears, but they certainly bring out the fifteen-year-olds. And who knows -- maybe a few of those fifteen-year-olds will catch sight of a band like UK hardcore imports Gallows and experience a type of music they otherwise never would have.

* * *

Compared to Barrie's dusty tundra, Montreal is like a raging desert, with most bands donning handkerchiefs over their mouths as they take to the stage. After another day of non-stop music taking place on eight stages from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., the bands and tour staff retire to the backstage BBQ, one of the more infamous aspects of Warped summer debauchery.

From Parc Jean-Drapeau, the entire skyline of the city of Montreal can be seen illuminated over the St. Lawrence River. As the sun sets, Jah Cutta and Determination begin to deliver an inspired set of roots-reggae to a hundred or so hungry, dirty revelers. The Saint Alvia Cartel retrieve their beer cooler from the van and begin one of the most sincere, drunken white-boy dance parties the tour has likely seen all summer, while members of Coheed and Cambria arrive to check out the festivities with the bravado of the nerds-turned-cool kids that they are.

Although the drive to the tour's next stop in Maryland Heights, Missouri, is over 18 hours, the mood tonight is buoyant and fueled by a lot of good Canadian beer. Whatever criticisms of the tour accumulate during the day, they're nothing a cheeseburger and baked potato -- cooked up in a gargantuan Pabst Blue Ribbon-branded barbeque -- can't fix.

The numbers aren't in yet, though it seems likely that the tour is bouncing back from the slight depression in tickets sales it experienced last year. While the number of bands and concertgoers has continued to expand each year, it appears that Warped Tour may have finally reached capacity, settling into a pretty comfortable niche, both musically and financially.

It's North America's longest-running touring festival, and as Jah Cutta launches into a Bob Marley cover to close his set well after 1 a.m., that doesn't seem likely to change any time soon.

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