I'm a virgin and I'm not too proud to admit it. Well, I was. Friday's Vans Warped Tour at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg officially deflowered me with its sampling of aggressive, gripping music. There were moments I wanted to raise my finger, to petition, to just slow things down. But in spite of my best efforts, the ear-cancelling gain, throaty mucus-spattered ballads and ink-covered musicians proved too fast. Let it be known: I've finally lost my Vans Warped Tour virginity.
I should tell you, you’re reading through the lens of an alternative music lover. Part of the reason this was my first Warped Tour was because I’d perceived the event to be too “hardcore” for my taste. To give you an analogy, I’m the type to pick up a skateboard or join in a hacky sack circle, but I draw the line at ear gauges, hearing loss and face tattoos.
So when the list for this year’s Warped Tour went public, I perked up when I saw acts like Reel Big Fish, Pepper and Less than Jake were headlining. But I must admit what really did it for me was news that Sum 41, Canada’s best angst machine, would be making an appearance. I spent many youthful days blaring their music in my bedroom while I stood in front of the mirror shuffling the strings of my air guitar. Judging by the crowd that had amassed for their 4 p.m. time slot, I wasn’t the only one.
The event had seven stages sprawled out across Vinoy Park, split up between the major sponsors (Journeys, Vans and Monster). The Journeys stages closest to the entrance, left foot and right foot, were the “main” stages and featured the most recognizable bands and a healthy mix of genres, with more laid back acts like Pepper potentially following explosive, bra-letting groups like Falling in Reverse. Seriously, ladies, what’s up with the undergarments? Clearly hurling underwear at performers indicates sexual interest, but I'd probably be nailed to the cross if I'd thrown my Calvin Klein’s on stage. Damn double standards.
The main thrust of my experience was the power hour-and-a-half of Yellowcard, Sum 41 and Reel Big Fish. All of the bands at Warped played 30-minute sets jam-packed with music, crowd work and general pandemonium. Quick question though — is it just my amateur Warped status or has there been a referendum on the word “mosh pit?” Everyone seemed to be referring to the organized chaos of feet and elbows as “circle pits,” which sounds like the politically correct usage to me. I didn’t take the hardcore community to be such sticklers for terminology. Rockers don’t let rockers misuse possessive pronouns.
Jacksonville natives Yellowcard took to the stage with their anthemic sounds and big hooks as led by singer/guitarist Ryan Key, who sported a bleach-blonde comb-over. Being a neutral Yellowcard fan, the crunched 30-minute sets worked great for me. There wasn’t enough time to showcase lesser-known songs or band-favorites. No, their performance was single-driven with songs like “Ocean Avenue” and “Only One” recreating those intimate moments with your car radio but on a much larger scale. When Ryan announced mid-set this would be Yellowcard’s last tour, it came off like he’d shot some musical anti-Viagra into the crowd. He turn things around, however, when he commented that reality made the time we had left together that much more important. It’s the same old “What would you do if you knew an asteroid were going to hit Earth” argument, compressed into punk music and violin solos. Carpe Diem, Warpers.
Yellowcard's set ended and the half-hour of anticipation for Sum 41 started while Sleeping with Sirens launched into their set. On each stage, there were 30-minute breaks while each band broke down and the next band set-up. So there were no successive performances and no encores either. What did happen however, especially at the side-by-side Journeys stages, is that as soon as one set was over, the next stage was fired up. With the right spots, you could get a decent view of the stage "next door" without being there (in this case I was up front waiting for Sum 41), and the sets were short enough and stages close enough together that it felt like watching a hardcore tennis match, nodding back and forth between bands.
Finally, Sum 41 was billed to go on. As could be expected, pushing and shoving and battling for space ensued as the Ontario-born rockers hit the stage. Or as Warped Tour might say, we negotiated for space. I don’t think I’m being disingenuous when I say this was the most hyped performance of the day. According to singer/guitarist Derek White, this was the band’s first American run in four years, and they’ll be back to promote their new album in October. Calendar, check.
Like Yellowcard, Sum didn’t hold back any hits or high energy. White greeted the crowd by encouraging us to put both middle fingers up in a “Sum 41 Salute.” Most followed suit. It was my first time seeing them live, and it was clear from the onset that time and family hadn’t taken their edge. They played “Hell Song” and “Grab the Devil by the Horns and F*** Him in the Ass” early to establish the mood. Sum 41 was a frenetic, intense punch in the face to a willing audience. And just when you thought it was all rock chords and no musicality, breaks like “We’re all to Blame” and “In too Deep” punched that notion in the face too, although more softly. Of course, they closed with “Fat Lip,” a party punk anthem synonymous with growing up in the '90s. There wasn’t a person in attendance without those lyrics drilled into their brain or etched into their skin. I was no different. And in most-punk fashion, after the amps quieted, White in his typical economic style, made his exit with a unceremonious “bye.” Boxing up Sum as another punk band with parental issues is unfair. Equally, citing music and not angered self-expression as their raison d’etre is unfair. Sum 41 is an enigma. They are the music equivalent of a sped up Salinger audiobook, played backwards.
Reel Big Fish was next, and tamer. With Pepper, Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake enjoying the same stage in one day, it felt like a mini-Ska revival, a brand of music not in the critical condition you may think. Reel Big Fish came out following their own “horn line.” Think of something you saw in high school or a “Hey Ya” video. Although Reel Big Fish lacked the hardcore element of other Warped bands, the veterans made up for it with fine showmanship and cheek, like the intro they gave a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” followed by “The Impression That I Get": “This was our big hit in the '90s.” That type of snark ran throughout a set that included metal and country versions of their songs, more for mockery purposes than a show of musical versatility. Of the ska bands, Reel Big Fish were the heaviest hitters and showed it. Having perhaps a smaller selection of singles than bands like Sum 41, their high-brow humor and quirk made for a lot of fun.
Assuming We Survive
Reel Big Fish was the last of the bands that I really cared about, and I spent the rest of the day basking in the afterglow of Sum 41. I was certain none of the rest of the shows would reach the heights they did, but I found milder highlights in Assuming We Survive, California-based punkers with a great sound and positive stage presence. And of course I have to give a shout-out to locals Set it Off, one of Tampa’s major success stories. That’s something that surprised me, just how many Floridians there were on this year's tour. Off the top of my head, New Found Glory, Yellowcard, Less than Jake, Set it Off and We the Kings all call Florida home. Credit where credit's due. We give residents something to scream about.
Aside from the music, there were plenty of other things to like about Warped Tour 2016. The food and beverages were good and relatively cheap. Everything, from the stages to the staff was well-run and organized. Bieber was not showing up an hour late here. Perhaps most important, the bands were accessible, with meet-and-greets and photo opportunities for every band. And of course, Vinoy’s open-air setting and waterside views made a beautiful backdrop to the action.
While most in attendance likely grew up listening to the bands of Warped Tour, it was heartening to see that the bands hadn’t outgrown us. No, they seemed very in touch with their “ground following,” the kids that once scraped together change for their albums and now conjure up dust storms in “circle pits.” I left Vans Warped Tour pleased with my decision, avoiding the horror stories of “buyer’s remorse” or “Catholic guilt.” I think I’ll do it again. I just never expected my first time would be in a public park.