The Vans Warped Tour is more than just a traveling music festival. For many devotees of its brand of alternative rock, it’s an important fixture of a certain type of lifestyle. Just as some kids faithfully attend the same sleepaway camp every year, many music lovers return to this “punk rock summer camp” annually, knowing roughly what to expect. When this year’s lineup was announced, though—a lineup that heavily consisted of veteran, metal, and ska bands—some of Warped Tour’s younger, pop-punk leaning attendees expressed surprise and even rage online. Considering this, I was curious about how big the crowd would be when I arrived at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland on July 16th. My question was answered when I saw that the line to enter the venue stretched through a patch of trees and around the block.
Throughout the day, I would ask random Warped-goers how they felt about the bands that were present. I would learn that some people appreciated the emphasis on older acts—such as Mac, a teenager who had made a homemade sign for CKY, and Shannon, who was attending her tenth Warped Tour and applauded the lineup’s mix of “throwbacks for the people who are older and have grown up with it” and more modern bands that’ll “get new people [into the festival] while staying true to [Warped’s] core audience.” Others, such as Krystal, thought the lineup was just “all right,” preferring last year’s group of rising Alt Press favorites like Waterparks. Still, even Krystal was quick to point out that there were still “like, 20 bands” that she was eager to see. Warped attendees are a loyal crowd—and that’s a good thing, because it’s wonderful to have your musical horizons expanded, and my Warped Tour experience was especially eye-opening this year. The old Warped Tour adage about watching at least one band you don’t know is certainly wise—I watched several that Sunday, and all of them were 100% worth my time.
The first act I saw was the Boston punk band Street Dogs. They were literally the first act I saw—upon entering the venue, I glanced at their audience, noticed that everyone seemed to be moving around and grinning, and decided to join in on the fun. Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with them beforehand, but their set was one of the highlights of my day. Formed in 2002—still in the 21st century, but long ago enough to ensure that their years of experience shone through—they had fans of all ages jumping along to relatable songs like “Fatty,” which speaks to those who feel like outcasts. In my eyes, the high point of their set occurred when their roaring guitars faded into the sound of a haunting bassline I’d know anywhere, and vocalist Mike McColgan implored the crowd to sing along with him. Before I knew it, I was passionately shouting out the lyrics of The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” alongside an elderly man in a spray-painted tank top and a younger man with leather pants. Happy that so many people knew the words, and even happier that the rest were being introduced to a song that I thought of as an Indispensable Punk Classic, I thought, “Even if nothing else interesting happens, I can consider today a success.”
Spoiler alert: many more interesting things happened. One of these interesting things was Municipal Waste—a thrash band I found myself watching as I ate lunch under the amphitheater—calling out Trump in a very direct manner. “This song we wrote about George Bush a long time ago, but today, it’s ‘F**k Donald Trump.’ This song is called ‘I Want to Kill the President!’” lead singer Tony Foresta screamed. It was a far cry from the ethos of Sonic Boom Six, the ska band that immediately followed. “Positive vibes, positive vibes,” vocalist Laila Khan called out before launching into “Meanwhile, Back in the Real World,” a song that discusses society’s problems without asking for anyone’s assassination. While the juxtaposition was amusing, it also was an indication of the way Warped Tour gives so many musicians a platform for expressing themselves freely. The 30-minute length of sets and variety of stages ensure that patrons can hear all kinds of sounds and philosophies, making it a great hub of creativity. Although the majority of its performers are connected to the alternative music culture, the festival still offers a myriad of different options for attendees. Whether they’re choosing to see a political band like War on Women, a party-loving rapper like Sammy Adams, a “pirate metal” band like Alestorm, or all of the above, they’re making their own decisions about what they want to check out—and that’s part of why Warped continues to be important, especially for young fans who are still figuring out their music tastes and worldviews.
After listening to a bit of Sonic Boom Six’s high-energy set, I left to conduct some scheduled interviews. Then I saw Jule Vera, a young pop-rock band from Alabama. I had previously watched Jule Vera when it opened for Never Shout Never in 2016, so I expected the set to be full of crowd engagement, choruses that were fun to sing along with, and most likely some cool things going on with drums. My predictions were proven correct. The members of the band looked at ease onstage, bouncing to the beat as vocalist Ansley Newman flawlessly hit a variety of notes. The highlight of the performance was lighthearted single “Bad Company,” when Newman and percussionist Hogarth Horvath played drums in the pit. The whole crowd was hooked; when Ansley Newman “Can you jump? Can you do that?”, everyone jumped, and after the show, when the band went to their merch table for a meet-and-greet, a long line formed. It’s easy to see why Jule Vera was such a hit—the band members’ constant smiles made them seem like people who were not only passionate about what they were doing, but also friendly and approachable.
Next up was Our Last Night, a post-hardcore band with enough melodic hooks to ease pop-punk lovers into the genre. These guys provided what many people would consider the quintessential Warped Tour experience, full of rowdy excitement. Throughout much of the set, crowdsurfing, circle pits, and mosh pits kept people moving—including during a fantastic Punk Goes Pop-style cover of “Shape of You,” which substituted electric guitar for marimba in a way that added new intensity to Ed Sheeran’s matter-of-fact lyrics. Near the end of its performance, though, the band showed a more tender side during “Sunrise,” an anthem for those who feel “buried in sadness.” When vocalist Trevor Wentworth sang, “You can make it to the sunrise!”, sounding like there was no doubt in his mind about it, all kinds of people shouted along. “I am so glad that we came here!” a man standing near me told his friends as the crowd began to applaud. In that moment, I felt the same way.
After Our Last Night’s set, I saw American Authors perform. As a group with Southern influences and several singles that received mainstream radio play (most notably “Best Day of My Life”), they weren’t exactly your typical Warped Tour band. (Case in point: instead of moshing, some people watching the show were square dancing.) Still, they drew a large crowd, and with good reason—they undeniably brought a feel-good vibe to the venue, especially considering that the day was winding down. Much of this vibe was due to Zac Barnett, the band’s vocalist, and his affable banter. “I wanna teach y’all something to sing. We’ll all sing it back, and we’ll sound like a big, beautiful Maryland choir who just happened to be lost in the forest today,” he said at one point, nailing what it feels like to be shouting out lyrics in the middle of Merriweather’s woods. Then the band performed a variety of old and new hits, including “I’m Born to Run,” which sounded like an endearing campfire singalong, and of course, “Best Day of My Life,” which was a simple crowd-pleaser. Admittedly, I was confused when they began to play the intro to MGMT’s “Kids”… and then jumped right into their original song “Believer,” never acknowledging that an oncoming cover had been hinted at…. and then continued to play the “Kids” intro during “Believer”’s interlude sections. I am still not really sure why this was done, or if it was done on purpose. With that aside, though, the set was enjoyable.
The last act I saw was Stacked Like Pancakes, a Maryland brass rock band. Beginning with a burst of horns, the set was energetic from start to finish. “Pick it up! Come on, you guys wanna party? You guys wanna have some fun?” vocalist Kellen McKay said during opening song “It’s Too Late,” and the crowd responded by grinning and dancing. The set certainly was a party, blending everything from ska to rap. McKay kept up the discussion with the crowd the whole time, giving a shout-out to the band’s Twitter followers and encouraging circle pits. (If you’ve never joined a circle pit with trumpets blaring in the background, by the way, I urge you to add it to your bucket list; it’s a uniquely jubilant experience.) It’s hard to pick out some highlights of the set, as it was entertaining in its entirety, but I’ll mention two: “Laughing at Me,” a musically ambitious, lyrically earnest rap song about depression, and a cover of the first verse of Smash Mouth’s iconic “All Star.”
If anyone tells you that Warped Tour is dead, don’t listen. Sure, the festival has undergone some changes over the years, but it’s still a place where talented bands can share their honest takes on life, fans can connect with beloved musicians and expand their music tastes, and staying true to yourself and finding hope in dark times are recurring themes. As long as the artists on its lineup continue to bring their most finely tuned angst and optimism to the table, it’ll be an important force in the alternative rock world, as well as in youth culture. Here’s to many more years of Clash covers, sweaty meet-and-greets, and dusty moshing, in Merriweather’s woods and across the country.
Check out the rest of Brittany’s Warped Tour coverage here: