The juggernaut of what's currently referred to as "punk" made its annual stop in Indianapolis last Tuesday. And like 75 percent of its attendees, the Warped Tour is in its 15th year of life in 2009.
It had been years since I'd attended this multistaged monster of semi-popular music, and upon entrance, it became apparent that no amount of planning would have helped to make sense out of it. After grudgingly shelling out two bucks for a hand-drawn map and a schedule, I attempted to plan out my day, only to discover that the schedule was not entirely accurate and to wander in circles looking for the elusive Ernie Ball stage. I gave up. The teeming mass of teens was thick and impermeable, and I found myself floundering in a sea of sweaty scenesters, confused parents and stall after stall of T-shirts, purses, short-shorts, stickers, posters, jewelry and petition-wielding activists.
A set of stages encircled the merch mall, with the main draws and old standards -- NOFX, 3OH!3, Bad Religion, Flogging Molly -- appearing on the Vans Mainstage, whose importance was denoted by a giant inflatable roof. Other attractions included a half-pipe shuddering under the weight of young skaters of varying skill, an inflatable Slip 'n' Slide and a bright-yellow Trojan tube where one could "get wet."
The Smartpunk stage, located under Verizon's main covered amphitheater, was a good place to give aching feet a break and sit down for a few sets. Angst-ridden pop-punk group Rocket to the Moon played the standard switch-up of major chords to minor melodics, with high-pitched vocals by a skinny kid in an ironic Rascal Flatts T-shirt. These guys had solid on-stage energy that appeared genuine and were grateful and happy to be playing the event. They were followed by POS, a hip-hop group whose sharp political rapper had excellent flow, backed up by a turntable wiz whose volume was cranked up far too high.
The lead singer of Rocket to the Moon suggested that the audience ought to check out their buddy band, The Maine, which turned out to be a fairly similar group with another thin heartthrob behind the mic. I began to wonder if all these young men singing emotional love songs in popular punk-influenced bands were all on the same diet.
As always, it was a treat to see NOFX. This band has stayed fun and funny throughout the years, and their live shows spotlight the sometimes scathing, sometimes juvenile humor of lead singer Fat Mike. They mostly played old favorites, but threw in one startling crowd-pleaser, a dub-inspired trumpet-led piece with soulful vocals and playful keys. NOFX have been at it for long enough that they've actually learned how to play their instruments, and their strident, resonant guitar solos and high-action bass lines hint at real musicianship. By the end of their set, however, it seemed like they might have been at it for too long. Seemingly tiring of their position as headliners on Warped Tour, their jabs at youthful, drug-using crowd members were more caustic than ever, and they displayed blatant distaste for the bands that immediately followed them.
Anti-Flag's performance turned out to be the highlight of my day. Through their rough-chorded, simple punk and short speeches between songs by lead singer Justin Sane, the band preaches the values of community, tolerance and challenging authority. It all seemed genuine, the band remaining true to its peace-punk roots. It became impossible to see the stage by the end of their set, which closed with some of their newer, fiercely melodic anthems. In a touching final display, several audience members were pulled on stage to play alongside the group on drumsticks, tambourines and woodblocks. Although Anti-Flag's message may be a touch trite and idealistic, they have a deep respect for their fanbase and a true hope for change.
As the day wore on, the heat began to take its toll, not to mention the paucity of water. Energy levels -- both on stage and in the crowd -- fluctuated wildly and bands became a blur of distortion, tight pants and stylized hair. The sounds of the smaller stages were dominated by melodic, hardcore-influenced pop-punk groups, with occasional appearances of screamo, metal and electronic-pop. One surprise find was Streetlight Manifesto, a high-energy ska group with a sizable horn section that played danceable, upbeat jams with samba-esque drums.
The main stage continued to feature a mix of Warped Tour veterans and new bands on the hit list. 3Oh!3 was a main draw with their infectious brand of emo/rap rock with some disappointingly sexist lyrics that provoked some provocative dancing. Bad Religion proved why they've remained popular through the years, Greg Graffin's distinct voice and intelligent lyrics rising out of the band's relatively clean but unmistakably punk sound. Flogging Molly played their usual impeccable set of Irish punk, encouraging much jigging and singing along in the audience.
Jeffree Star and Brokencyde were two of the main closers for the Indianapolis date, but after a day of slow-roasting over dried grass littered with flyers, it was impossible to muster the courage necessary to watch the ridiculousness of two such over-hyped, stylized acts.