At certain times, a reviewer should completely tune out fans in search of total objectivity. At others, the people most into the music should drive the critical train -- and for this look at the thirteenth annual Warped Tour, which stopped at Invesco Field at Mile High on July 8, I decided to share my engineer's cap with some real experts: my twin daughters, Lora and Ellie, and two of their friends, Jessica and Emily. All four of them are fourteen -- smack in the gut of the Warped demographic -- and they love Warped-type sounds so passionately that they should probably slip condoms on their iPods before listening. With that in mind, I told them they could determine the groups we saw, and asked them to grade the bands afterward. I'd weigh in, too, but theirs were the opinions that really counted.
In the end, Coheed and Cambria was among the bands that rated best -- yet the overall marks handed out by the Big Four were generally tougher than I anticipated. (Although I thought they'd offer straight A's, I was wrong.) Below is our Warped experience, complete with injuries major and minor, traumatizing weather and plenty of rocking out to guys with guitars:
The ladies wanted to get to the show early-early-early because 3OH!3, their favorite Denver group, had been added to the bill, and since the Boulder twosome (recently profiled in Westword) were local, I assumed that they'd be stuck with one of the first slots. Still, I was sure we'd get there with time to spare if we left after 10 a.m. in anticipation of the 11 a.m. gate opening -- at least until somebody received a text message from a mutual friend, Haley, who was already at the venue amid a massive mob. "The line leads to HELL!" the message read -- which, in this context, could have been a good thing. Nevertheless, we split at around 9:45 a.m., following a quick stop at King Soopers for bags of Starbursts and Skittles to supplement the sixteen bottles of water (half of them frozen) that I'd decided to lug around in a pair of canvas bags I'd gotten at '90s-vintage South By Southwest festivals. The candy turned out to be a good call; we needed all the energy we could get.
We arrived at Invesco at around 10:20 a.m. to discover the first pleasant surprise of the day -- no charge for parking, and a prime spot (in the D lot along Federal). But the first unpleasant surprise arrived shortly thereafter; as Haley correctly reported, the line to get in was hellish indeed. After negotiating a gauntlet of scruffy cult members peddling books on meditation (some poor sap in front of us was suckered into shelling out $10 for a copy), and getting our first taste of the blazing heat, we finally moved past the checkpoint at about noon. I was taken aback when no one bothered to check my bag. Had only I known, I could have brought bottles of vodka instead of water and financed our whole day.
We were still trying to get our bearings in the parking lot area, where multiple stages and temporary shopping/eating establishments were spread out to create a punk-rock village, when we stumbled upon the 3OH!3 merchandize booth. The t-shirts there were ultra-cheap ($10 a throw) -- and, as a bonus, members Nathaniel Motte and Sean Foreman were both on hand. Ellie and Emily bought a shirt (Lora got one of her own later), and after Motte and Foreman autographed the back shoulders of each with arrow-pierced hearts, we could have left right then and it still would have been a good day. Instead, we found our way to a giant inflated schedule board and discovered that one of the bands on the ladies' list, Cute Is What We Aim For, was slated to unsheath its pop-punk sound at 12:30 p.m.
We headed over to Cute's stage and found a spot while listening to the Briggs, who were cranking on an adjacent platform. (The set-up at the two largest pairs of stages called for a band to play on one while another outfit set up next door. The instant the music stopped on the first side, it started on the other.) Ellie thought the Briggs sounded good but unoriginal. She likened their old-school punk approach to the oldest-school band she's into -- Green Day. Actually, the combo's more reminiscent of the Clash, a key Green Day influence, so she was definitely on the right track. Lora, for her part, liked that the Briggs were "bouncy" -- not as bouncy as the Fratellis, granted, but bouncy nonetheless.
Cute was bouncy as well, and ever-so-slightly tougher-sounding than on their candy-floss recordings -- not that it mattered much to me. I found the combo to be unobjectionable but generic, with little to recommend them over the approximately three-trillion bands they resemble stylistically. The Big Four concurred. Lora, Ellie and Emily gave the set a B, while Jessica said they deserved a B- or maybe even a C+.
Next on the must-see list was Haste the Day, a big Jessica favorite; her first and largest purchase of the day was a white HTD hoodie, which she treated like a bag of flour in one of those pretend-it's-your-baby lessons that are supposed to convince teens to keep their pants zipped. (She made a mistake later, however, by loaning it to her friend Brett, who then promptly disappeared. When she finally tracked him, and it, down again, the hoodie was stained with something that looked a lot like mustard.) Haste was already cranking out its brand of aggro-hardcore, with a smattering of Christianity at its center, and the swirling pit was a dangerous place to be, as one participant soon found out.
The music suddenly came to an abrupt halt, and main bellower Jimmy Ryan announced that someone had been hurt; he was subsequently told by a security staffer that the kid's name was Josh. We didn't know what happened at the time, but Chase, another pal of the Big Four, who was closer to the action than we were, told us later that someone had accidentally planted his foot on Josh's knee, causing the whole thing to "dislocate. The bottom half of his leg was just hanging there by a piece of skin!" Whether Dr. Chase's diagnosis was correct, I have no idea -- but Ryan asked everyone to say a prayer for Josh, and then told him that he was getting a free t-shirt. (Score!) Unfortunately, the music stopped for several minutes, and when the Hasters started up again, they played something "a little more chill" to give emergency personnel time to get Josh out of there without suffering further wounds. For that reason, the Big Four gave Haste grades in the A-/B+ range -- a little generous, in my view, but not terribly out of line. In contrast, Chase and his constant companion, Alex, said Haste was the top pick of the day -- maybe because they'd gotten a chance to see Josh get the Joe Theismann treatment.
Don't know if the violence had anything to do with it, but the Big Four decided to take a bit of a break after that to shop for more fashionable punk-rock t-shirts and eat hot dogs and burgers so bad they decided to stick to the Starbursts and Skittles for the rest of the day. Then it was on to Coheed and Cambria, who turned out to be the musical highlight. Rather than simply sticking to the predictable pop-punk template, CC tossed prog inspirations into the mix without in any way dampening the power of the presentation. The ladies were completely wowed, as well they should have been. All of the A's they handed out were accompanied by plus signs.
Expectations were high for Boys Like Girls, too; Ellie bought one of the band's t-shirts in anticipation. But fate had something else in store. Clouds rolled in, and lightning began to flash nearby -- a particularly bad thing from Ellie's perspective, since she's been terrified of thunder storms ever since a bolt from an unexpected storm struck close to her when she was a grade-schooler. After that, it began raining, modestly at first, but then in sheets.
The post-Warped article that ran in the Rocky Mountain News can't really be described as a review, since writer Mark Brown only offered his live critique of one band: the Spill Canvas, from South Dakota. However, he praised the folks behind the fest for the way they dealt with the storm by letting attendees go into the backstage area and take refuge under the Colfax viaduct or out the main gates to slip beneath stadium overhangs. But no such announcement was made where we were. Instead, a tech crewman told everyone that the music would be stopping for ten minutes or so and ordered everyone to clear the area, offering no advice where to go. So when the volume of the rain reached the intolerable point, much of the throng ran pell-mell for the food tents -- which is how we wound up huddled and freezing in the off-limits area of a joint called Bandito's Burritos. The man in charge clearly resented the invasion, continually ordering everyone to move away from the food, apparently for fear that someone might grab an unauthorized fistful of shredded lettuce, and intermittently declaring, "You need to get ready to leave. You're going to have to go very soon."
About twenty minutes later, we did, and another ten minutes afterward, Boys Like Girls embarked on what would prove to be the day's worst set due to a grueling mix; too-quiet vocals, almost no guitars and so much bass that it sounded like a salute to Jamaican dub. The bandmembers weren't wholly to blame. They didn't get a chance for a post-storm soundcheck, and were merely trying to get the party restarted. Unfortunately, the sound team either didn't try to improve the aural circumstances as the show went along, or met with technical difficulties. Whatever the reason, the hideous sonics prevented us from telling whether Boys Like Girls are a good live act or not. Solid C's from the Big Four, and from my perspective, they were being generous.
Sound flaws also marked the beginning of the set by Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, another important item on the Big Four's roster, with the bass being the culprit again. Luckily, this situtation was amended by the middle of the second song. Even so, the results led to the biggest critical disagreement of the day between yours truly and the Big Four. In my opinion, RJA has one good song -- their biggest hit, "Face Down," which decries abuse of women in terms that the Warped generation can understand and embrace. The rest of the group's material seems second-rate to me, and live, lead singer Ronnie Winter seemed overburdened with retro affectations; he tried to shimmy like Axl Rose, but came across like a hand-me-down Sebastian Bach.
None of that made an impression on the Big Four, however. They dispensed one A- (that from Jessica), the rest A's.
Agreement returned for 3OH!3, but not after some entertaining abuse. The duo had gotten a pretty good slot on a big stage across from a platform where New Years Day was playing -- and every time a song by the latter ended, the 3OH!3 throng began chanting and throwing up the group's "gang sign" -- opposite forefingers and thumbs pressed together, leaving three fingers on either side and an "o" in the middle. Each time New Years Day insisted on playing another song, the crowd reacted by booing and hurling water bottles, CDs, shoes and anything else they could find. This reaction was one of the most punk-rock acts of the day.
After New Years Day finally slunk from the stage, 3OH!3 proved that personality and a sense of humor are plenty if a band is good enough. The boys' gear consisted entirely of two microphones and a DAT; they didn't even have a stage backdrop. But Motte, who stripped down to a power blue muscle t-shirt that didn't bare many muscles, and Foreman, whose chest was covered by an illustrated frog courtesy of the Rainforest Cafe, didn't need anything more, accompanying riotous material such as "Chokechain" with wacky choreography and a sense of fun that caused temporary insanity among their fans. On one occasion, I was sucked into a mosh pit; on several others, I had to fend off moshers to protect the Big Four, who loved watching these stupid males work off testosterone, but didn't want to get bruised in the process. Several other times, I had crowd surfers land on the back of my head; surfers at other sets provided some warning, but these seemed to come out of nowhere. Lora, too, was crushed several times, but she couldn't keep the grin off her face. The show was easily the most fun of the day, and even contained a bit of news: Foreman announced that 3OH!3 would be opening for Snoop Dogg at the Fillmore Auditorium in early September. "This isn't a joke," he insisted, for good reason.
Earlier in the day, Foreman told me that the group was planning to self-release a CD later this month; expect to hear more about that soon. There's no telling whether the tandem will wind up being just a local phenomenon, or if it will go national, as it deserves. Either way, 3OH!3 is one of the best things to happen to Colorado music in recent memory, and the Big Four agree. A+, dudes!
That was the peak, but there was some other decent music to be heard, particularly from Chiodos. Like Coheed, these Michiganders aren't content to simply recapitulate the pop-punk approach ad nauseum. Instead, they include elements of art-rock, hardcore and more. The combination isn't always smooth, and some of the ideas don't fully flower. Even so, there's something going on here, and the Big Four noticed. A bunch of A's for this crew, too.
Along the way, we caught snippets of more sets, by the likes of Funeral For a Friend, which sounded anthemic and accessible, if a bit familiar, and Escape the Fate, who Jessica was particularly anticipating -- and she was a bit disappointed, leveling another B-. For me, Escape was an amusing hybrid of punk and show business, sort of like the Warped Tour itself. Lead singer Ronnie Radke did the requisite roaring and barking amid the group's dark post-punk, but he also led the crowd in particularly cheesy arm-waving, and engaged in some ultra-dopey banter. At one point, he claimed, "I just had sex. Really. I just had sex." Pause. "Just kidding. I didn't just have sex."
The day's denoument was accompanied by a moment of generational disconnect. Bad Religion was playing, but the Big Four preferred to find a prime spot at the stage next door, where Paramore would begin shortly. Still, both Ellie and Lora made a point of saying they liked what they were hearing from the grizzled Religionists -- particularly the set-closer, "Sorrow," which they recognized. Predictably, Ellie was about to downgrade BR because they reminded her too much of Green Day when I told her that Bad Religion actually predated Green Day. "I guess maybe Green Day ripped off them," she concluded.
That was a victory of sorts for moi, and so was most of the Big Four's reaction to Paramore. The group is bland faux-punk from the Avril Lavigne camp that, in my view, was not much more interesting than New Years Day, who the 3OH!3 faithful had derided so vigorously. The crowd knew the Paramore material better, though, and greeted the combo as champs. Afterward, however, only Emily, the biggest supporter of the group, gave it high marks. Everyone else came in with B's and C's.
As we trudged toward the exit over ten hours after we arrived, the parking lot was definitely worse for wear, with puddles and water-soaked garbage everywhere. But despite aching legs and buzzing ears, Lora, Ellie, Emily and Jessica were exuberant. "I wish there was one of these every week," Lora said.
The line for the 2008 Warped Tour starts here. -- Michael Roberts