Over the Weekend: Warped Tour at Invesco Field at Mile High

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Warped Tour Invesco Field at Mile High August 9, 2009

Fifteen years down the line, the Warped Tour, which took over the asphalt surrounding Invesco Field on Sunday, has a well-established formula: lots of bands (around seventy in Denver), most of them falling into the pop-punk or post-punk categories, on multiple stages (seven yesterday), for a reasonable price (around fifty bucks after service charges) made possible by the presence of more food and merchandise booths than at most county fairs -- although the items are more along the lines of T-shirts featuring the phrase "Twitter My Vag" than jars of apricot jam.

The 2009 variation generally followed this blueprint. Indeed, the pattern of events didn't differ all that much from Warped Tours of the past couple years, with the exception of a brief but fierce meteorological event that brought the proceedings to a premature close. Still, there were a few surprises -- the most inspired of which was the performance of Gallows, a British punk band and previous Westword profile subject (click here to check out our January 2008 Gallows article and a Q&A with guitarist Laurent Barnard) whose lead singer, Frank Carter, aimed a figurative Molotov cocktail at the tour's heart.

Once again, I recruited my daughters, Lora and Ellie, 16, to be my co-reviewers for the show, owing to their expertise in the genre and membership in the prime Warped demographic. (Here's the place to access our accounts of the 2007 and 2008 Denver stops.) Also weighing in: their good friend, Jessica, who's assisted us in the past. The four of us arrived at Invesco around 10:40 a.m., with me definitely the worse for wear. The previous day, I'd eaten a burrito from a national Mexican food chain not named Chipotle, prompting a case of what I'll politely describe as intestinal distress that lasted until 6:30 the next morning. As a result, I was both exhausted and severely dehydrated -- two of the worst possible ailments to suffer going into Warped, which typically offers relentless heat and sunshine (although this year, organizers constructed a shelter that provided at least a little shade) over a span of about eleven hours. It's the Bataan Death March of rock concerts.

After securing our passes, we headed toward the massive line, where we found three of the girls' pals, Kathleen, Madie and Steph, who would be our traveling companions for the rest of the day. I toted a canvas bag filled with eighteen bottles of water, about half of which were frozen, and while we'd been able to bring them in sealed during our previous two visits, it soon became clear that security staffers were making people remove their bottletops -- a fairly new approach designed to prevent full containers from becoming lethal projectiles. So I hurriedly started taking off caps, which I stuffed into a pocket, then distributed a couple of bottles apiece to as many of our party as I could, and arrayed the remaining bottles in the bag so that they wouldn't spill (I hoped). When I got to the front of the line, I feared that a pat-down would reveal my scam, but the security person simply laughed at my bag's contents and sent me on my way.

After I screwed all the caps back on, we hurried to the Vans Main Stage to catch Chiodos, a much more popular band than usual to be stuck in the opening slot. Appropriately, the crowd was sprawling, prompting lead singer Craig Owens to repeatedly gush in appreciation of the attendance. He said the group had front-loaded slower material, thinking the crowd would be late in arriving, but that clearly wasn't necessary. Songs like "Bulls Make Money, Bears Make Money, Pigs Get Slaughtered," from 2007's Bone Palace Ballet, inspired a sizable pit and a large scale "wall of death," in which moshers line up on opposite sides of an open space and sprint toward each other, as well as my profound paranoia.

The reason for the latter: Ellie ruptured her ACL in a summer-league basketball game and is less than two months removed from surgery -- so I had to make sure she didn't get sucked into a maelstrom that would cause the ligament to pop again. Fortunately for her, but not so fortunately for the crowd in general, the moshing was of only modest intensity -- an energy lull that kept Chiodos' performance from hitting the peaks achieved during its 2007 Warped turn. The band got all A's from the teen judges back then. This time, they each offered a B+, which seemed about right to me.

Next, we went in search of the KIA Kevin Says Stage, where Single File was slated to get underway. Instead, we wound up wandering in the wrong direction -- the stages were configured differently than last year, and it took us a while to get our bearings -- and wound up at the Hurley.com Stage, where we caught the last song of Innerpartysystem's set. We weren't exactly knocked out, and we had the same reaction to Single File, which we located shortly thereafter. Some of SF's difficulties were technical in nature: This year, the volume level and sound quality at smaller stages was iffy at best, resulting in muddy mixes that made it hard for groups there to light audiences ablaze. But the reason the catchy "Girlfriends" didn't connect was unrelated to the fact that the tune's whistling segments were hard to hear. Rather, singer Sloan Anderson and company came across as too low key, particularly in this setting. Lora, Ellie and Jessica were flat-out bored, handing out D's, and while I think that's too harsh, my ranking would be just one letter grade higher.

From there, we ambled back to the Vans Main Stage for We the Kings, a chipper pop-punk combo whose sunshiny charm has little to do with the original punk ethic. Not that the girls care about such things. All three enjoy the act's recordings and were looking forward to seeing the Bradenton, Florida outfit -- although the excitement ebbed after a song or two. Simply put, Travis Clark and his buddies came across as ultra-average performers whose success is based more on their songs than on their onstage abilities. Case in point: We wandered away mid-set to get started on T-shirt shopping, but Ellie was stopped in her tracks by the tune "Secret Valentine." We wound up standing and listening from afar until the number was almost over before succumbing to the call of fashion again. Grades: B's across the board from the girls, a snoozy C from me.

Music went from the foreground to the background for a while after that. Case in point: We crashed on a grassy patch to relax, check out purchases and refuel on bags of Sour Skittles and Starbursts I brought along instead of going over to check out Bouncing Souls, the veteran combo wailing on the main stage nearby. Our reviewers only knew one Souls song -- "Lean on Sheena" -- and that wasn't enough to spur them to undertake the 200-yards-or-so trip to watch the performers deliver it. The situation was similar regarding Bad Religion, a Warped regular that played the main stage later in the day -- although I noticed that our crew, along with hundreds of others looking at the tour schedule affixed to a giant inflatable display, almost unconsciously joined in singing the hook to "Sorrow," one of BR's best-known cuts, as we passed by. Songs like these are parts of their lives -- just not ones they give much weight to at this point.

More important to them by far was All Time Low, one of their favorite bands on the Warped lineup this time around. ATL definitely skews female: The ladies tried to convince their friend Alex, who they ran into along the way, to join them during the set, but he turned them down flat, acting as if showing up would cause revocation of his Man Card. (He was most hyped to see The Devil Wears Prada, who we caught in passing. Prada was definitely the loudest, most visceral group of the day, which counts for something in this setting, but its growling, wolf-pack scream-a-thons also tend toward self-satire at times.) Apparently, though, plenty of dudes on the scene were more comfortable with their masculinity than he is. The fella factor for All Time Low was higher than I expected, leading to a rash of crowd surfing that definitely made me nervous in relation to Ellie's knee. Closest call: a 190-pound guy landed on my back when I was bent over grabbing a bottle of water from the bag on the ground, forcing me to balance him there for a minute prior to launching him in the opposite direction. Too bad that tangent took him toward Lora, who wound up with a cut on the nose during the exchange. But at least that injury won't necessitate months of physical therapy -- just the psychiatric type.

Not that Lora was too wounded to enjoy All Time Low. She and her friends were knocked out by the performance, which was ultra-catchy and slick for songs such as "Damned If I Do Ya (Damned If I Don't)," but with a loose feeling amplified by between-song banter featuring vocalist Alex Gaskarth and Jack Barakat. They evoked early Blink-182 as they joked about profound subjects such as tits (they said they didn't want to see mams from anyone younger than thirteen, or maybe twelve) and dicks (couldn't someone wave around just one, Bakarat wondered). Still, they leaped to castigate a guy who apparently punched a girl toward the front of the stage, merrily joining in an "asshole" chant that spontaneously erupted from the crowd. Lora, Ellie and Jessica all conferred A's, with the first two judging it their favorite set of the day. I countered with a B+ owing to the overall predictability and unoriginality of the material -- but there's no arguing that the players delivered it very well.

From there, we went to the Hurley Stage for Sing It Loud, which tries to do the same things as All Time Low but drew a much smaller number of listeners and had trouble enthusing them. When I asked Lora about the differences between them, she said All Time Low's hooks and beats are simply better, which is as good an explanation as any. The girls gave the Loud gang B's; I'd go with a C, which feels generous under the circumstances.

More wanderings followed, with us catching enough of the P.O.S. set to make us wish we'd seen more; Stefon Alexander is a compelling MC whose musical aggressiveness makes his hip-hop work in the Warped setting. But the White Tie Affair, at the Smart Punk Stage, was a destination band. We'd stopped by the Affair's merch booth, where guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Ryan McClain was on hand; he signed a shirt Ellie bought and eagerly agreed to pose for a picture with her and Lora when he found out they were twins.

As for the group's time in the sun, it led to the day's biggest disagreement between me and the younger generation. They danced and had fun throughout the set and found lead singer Chris Wallace to be hotter than hot. I thought Wallace was a cheesedick of major proportions and found the fact that WTA's cover of Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" got a more exuberant response than any of the outfit's own bouncy compositions to be extremely telling. Granted, I definitely wasn't the type of person the Affair was trying to reach, as the girls pointed out -- but that was the case with All Time Low, too, and I could at least appreciate that set. Hence, White Tie Affair earned A's from all of females, an eye-rolling D from me.

After that, the schedule bloomed with more bands on the girls' must-see list -- but disappointment was also on the roster. Both Escape the Fate and A Day to Remember were booked on the Hurley Stage, and each were harmed by the lousy acoustics mentioned earlier about Single File. For that reason, Escape's modified cock-rocking and Remember's anthemic presentation came across with lower wattage than anticipated. In the middle of one ADTR song, Lora was able to tell me about her frustration at the lousy sound without raising her voice -- an act that spoke more loudly than the band played. The girls gave B's to each group, as did I, but they were leaning toward incompletes. They had a feeling the shows may have actually been better than they actually seemed.

Between Escape and Remember, we headed over to Smart Punk Stage to catch Breathe Carolina, this week's Westword profile subject (also available: a sprawling, and blood-drenched, Q&A with Carolina's Kyle Evans). I thought the boys sounded better live than on their recordings, with the screaming and the disco beats feeling better integrated on songs like their popular Miley Cyrus cover, "See You Again." But the girls weren't enthralled; they sat on a curb and gabbed rather than paying attention to the performance. In the end, Ellie gave them a B (as I did) because it was clear the audience as a whole appreciated their efforts; Lora and Jessica presented C's, because they didn't.

There was much more agreement about Underoath, another main stager. The band's been around in assorted configurations for over a decade, and in that time, the players have developed a wide-ranging sound that merges screamo, hardcore and artsiness that makes tunes like "Desperate Times, Desperate Measures" and "It's Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door" much less predictable than most Warped fare. As a bonus, the act's stage presentation was dynamic, with lead singer Spencer Chamberlain providing a compellingly stringy central presence, and guitarist Timothy McTague and keyboardist Christopher Dudley getting so manic that they probably had to be put in traction immediately after the show. Moreover, the group's Christian underpinnings were as unobtrusive as Chamberlain's one moment of quasi-evangelizing: He said if attendees didn't accept God's gifts as he did, he hoped they'd at least find something that gave them happiness. The band's music certainly filled that bill: We all gave the set A's, with Jessica, an Underoath fan of longstanding, declaring it even better than All Time Low's performance.

Afterward, the girls were drained. Lora, Ellie and Jessica joined Kathleen, Madie and Steph on a curb behind a vendor's van while I made my way over to the Hurley stage to check out Gallows -- and man, was I glad I did. When I arrived, lead singer Frank Carter and the band's two guitarists, Barnard and Stephen Carter (Frank's brother), were on the pavement in front of the stage, with a modest but extremely aggressive crowd around them. Carter, stripped to the waist, his diminutive frame covered with tats, was in rare form, declaring that the next number was a protest song against all the talentless bands on Warped Tour. He listed off brokeNCYDE, Millionaires and Denver's own Breathe Carolina before declaring, "I could go on and on" in his thick British accent.

Next, Frank hectored those present until they formed the largest circle pit of the day -- one that actually went all the way around a nearby tent. About fifty people or so jumped into the game, sprinting as if embroiled in a punk-rock version of the running of the bulls at Pamplona. Shockingly, this didn't tire them out. They came out swinging in another mosh-fest, tossing their arms and legs around in a way that clearly pleased Frank, who barked, "Move back if you don't want to get hurt."

Somewhere in the midst of the melee, someone hurled a bottle from the back of the crowd, prompting another inspired Frank diatribe. After snapping that he'd been on Warped for six weeks and was fucking sick of this shit, he said the only fight he'd gotten into on the tour thus far had come as a result of a person chucking a can from the back of the crowd -- so he'd had to "slap" him. Moreover, he added, anyone who wanted to throw something at him should do it from ten feet away. That way, he could see his face -- the face that his mother would have to identify after he kicked the shit out of him. Nonetheless, he advised people with bottle-tossing lust to aim them at more deserving bands, like Chiodos and, yes, hometown heroes 3OH!3 -- a name that prompted more than a few "Ohs!" from those assembled. Not that Frank cared. He ripped emo bands that still got moony over girls before launching into more brutal, old-school punk workouts of the sort that once dominated Warped but no longer do.

How bad a father am I? So bad that I ran back to grab Lora and Ellie and let them get an eyeful of what punk rock used to be. We returned in time to watch Frank and company conduct one more song from the pavement before returning to the stage and setting up a wall of death infinitely more lethal than he one we'd seen earlier: It made the Chiodos attempt seem like a tea party in comparison, with bodies flying and chops being busted. We stayed quite a few feet back due to Ellie's knee, but we were plenty close enough to see the edgiest Warped performance I've witnessed during the past three years. Yes, it earned A's from all of us. How could it not?

I figured any other set would be anticlimactic -- and that was certainly the case for Attack! Attack!, which crammed onto the relatively small Skull Candy Stage for a showcase that felt overcrowded performance-wise and musically, due to the mashing together of assorted elements that didn't entirely cohere. But we didn't count on Mother Nature getting involved in the night's finale: 3OH!3 on the main stage.

The weather had been pleasant all day, but fifteen minutes before Sean Foreman and Nathaniel Motte were slated to get underway, the sky filled with lightning. At first, we thought the storm would hold off long enough to get the set in, but it was fast-moving, prompting 3OH!3 to get started a few minutes early. First up: "Punk Bitch," handled with an aplomb that made it clear Foreman and Motte are now more comfortable playing with a full band than they were just a year ago this time. But once they got to "Starstrukk" and a new song whose chorus bore more than a passing resemblance to the mega-hit "Don't Trust Me," rain had started to fall -- gently at first, then much more vigorously.

And then came the hail -- icy bullets that caused much of the crowd to take off running to the sound of, yes, "Don't Trust Me," a planned finale Foreman and Motte broke into when it became clear that the show was over. I accompanied Ellie, who was limping as quickly as her surgically repaired knee could manage, as we sped toward one of Invesco Field's tunnels, which were temporarily opened to us because of the storm. Hundreds of us gathered there, steam rising from our bodies and laughter shaking our chests as we took stock of the mad dash we'd just made.

Ten minutes later, the storm had passed -- at least that wave of it. But there was no coming back. The area around Mile High, which already looked like a refugee camp, was awash in rubbish and merchants were trying to salvage as much stock as possible before heading off for the next Warped stop -- August 15 in George, Washington.

Where most of the performers will go through the expected motions again, with the likely exception of one angry little man with a Gallows sense of humor.

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