Anyone who thinks that rock is dead certainly hasn’t attended the Vans Warped Tour recently. Now in its 21st year, the nation’s largest touring festival made its stop in Chicago on Saturday at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheater in Tinley Park. In additoin to the huge crowds in attendance, the tour setup itself was massive, with a full 100 bands playing across 9 music stages (one of which was designated for acoustic shows), plus a comedy stage featuring 12 comedians. Local note: Ft. Wayne artist Grey Gordon was featured on the Acoustic Basement, as it was called.
The lineup was heavy on pop punk and metalcore, but with that many bands there were plenty of other types of music acts that ran the gamut between rock, hip hop, and electronica. There was even a comedic dance-pop group called Koo Koo Kanga Roo, whose act has been described as a cross between the Beastie Boys and Sesame Street. With that a lineup of that size and diversity, the concert experience becomes the live music equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, enabling concertgoers to make up their own agenda as they go. And if one act doesn’t catch their interest, they can easily switch to another stage to try something else, or wait for the next act since sets were typically no more than 30 minutes long.
The crowd was typically very young, with many teenagers and pre-teens in attendance, many of whom were with their parents. The Warped Tour anticipates and accommodates the parental presence, offering them free passes into the festival and a Reverse Day Care area where parents could go to take a break from all the noise and hoopla. The overall spirit of the festival could be described as inclusive and accepting, which in some ways seems at odd with the traditional (hardcore) punk scene’s insistence on exclusion through authenticity.
With such a colorful lineup, half of the fun is learning about the interesting backstories of some of the musicians. Take for example Tommy Becker, guitarist (and drummer) for Beautiful Bodies. Formerly a guitarist for seminal emo rockers Get Up Kids, Becker also happens to be a Harvard-educated human rights lawyer who once sued a former president and defense minister of Bolivia for massacring 67 of its citizens.
Or look at singer Bebe Rexha. A native of Milwaukee, she was once hand-picked by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz to front a side project of his. Despite that nugget of success, Rexha told the audience that she found herself living in her parents’ house, unable to convince any record labels of the merits of some of her songs. Out of the blue, she got a call from rapper Eminem who asked permission to use one of her songs on his most recent album, The Marshall Mathers LP2. While you may never have heard of Rexha before, you’ve probably heard thesong before. It was the basis for the duet with Eminem and Rihanna, “Monster,” which spent weeks at number one. Rexha performed the song as part of her set, with the audience chanting along the now-familiar words.
Or take a look at rapper Kosha Dillz, one of the few hip-hop artists on the tour. A gifted freestyle artist, he spent his childhood between New Jersey and Israel, has recorded a track with RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and Kool G Rap, and can rap seamlessly shift between English, Hebrew, and Spanish in his verses. During his set, he and his rapping partner asked audience members to hold out objects they had in their pockets, which they then incorporated in improvisational (freestyle) rhymes.
The music began at 11:15 a.m. and kept going until about 9 p.m. The main stage of the festival was split into two separate “stages,” enabling a continuous music flow for attendees by allowing the next band to set up while the current band played. Of course the main stage(s) were ostensibly for the more popular bands, but popularity is a relative concept at Warped Tour, and there were many instances when the main amphitheatre was relatively empty while the majority of the fans were in attendance either at the other stages or at the many vendors and exhibits which were also present. Headliners Black Veil Brides may be the closest thing to a household name at Warped Tour, but many of the bands (Simple Plan) being fixtures on the tour, and others (We Came As Romans, Senses Fail) being well known in their respective music communities.
In fact, away from the main stage, part of the fun is watching the more direct crowd interaction between the musicians and the fans. At the smallest of stages, it’s a lark to watch bands with few attendees (Kosha Dillz, Sirens and Sailors) to hawk their show by calling out to passersby and asking them personally to join the crowd.
All in all, the Warped experience was, as usual, sort of a can’t-lose scenario for fans of the contemporary rock scene. With its everything but the kitchen sink approach, there was bound to be something for just about anyone. And that may just be what continues to make the tour, now in its third decade, so successful year after year.