All photographs by Spencer Watson.
For me, going to the Vans Warped Tour in 2011 is like returning to your favorite childhood playground as an adult: It's nothing like how you remember it. For one thing, it's way smaller. When my friends and I were 15 years old and would convince one of our parents to drive us into some dusty urban armpit (usually San Bernardino, Calif.) for a day at so-called “punk rock summer camp,” it felt like we were entering Valhalla. Erected at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Hillsboro for the last stop of this year's edition and viewed through the eyes of a 28-year-old, the festival looked pretty much just like a county fair, with each stage seemingly within steps of each other.
More than that, the spirit of Warped is completely different from what it was when I used to attend religiously. It's not just that the music has changed, shifting in focus from pop-punk and skate punk to an overwhelming amount of metalcore and screamo. After 16 years, that kind of evolution (or devolution, depending on your perspective) is a given. It's that the basic principles behind the tour just aren't there anymore. Even as a kid, I was under no illusions of Warped representing anything authentic about punk culture; I mean, there's a shoe company right there in its title. But the organizers don't even try anymore. It's one thing that you can't walk two feet without hitting a booth selling overpriced clothing, or that the activist organizations that used to have a presence on the tour are basically non-existent now, but when the Marines are able to come in, blow up a giant inflatable drill sergeant and ask a bunch of impressionable teenagers to participate in pull-up contests, well, any pretense of “punk” is gone.
Still, I hold a special place in my heart for Warped. I literally grew up going to the tour: I went to every edition between 1997 and 2006. Beginning in 2000, the year I graduated from high school, the festival started coming to my backyard of Ventura, Calif., which meant I could get there in 10 minutes and not have to deal with L.A. traffic. By then, I was already starting to grow out of the tour, and those last few years I attended purely to report on it for the paper I used to write for. Going back to Warped after a four-year absence is truly like going home again for me—never mind that I only recognized the names of less than a dozen acts on a bill of, like, 70-something bands, and have only actually heard maybe five of them. I couldn't turn down an opportunity to once again attend “punk rock summer camp”...even if “punk rock” is no longer part of the equation.
12:55 p.m.: When I walk through the entrance, the consumer culture surrounding Warped Tour immediately appears before me. I expect to see people hawking sunglasses and band merch and, in the instance of one clothing company, shirts with different iterations of “FUCK” emblazoned on them (which everyone here seems to be wearing), but the thing that floors me is that they're actually trying to get kids to pay $2 just for the damn performance schedule. It's not even a glossy program like you get at Coachella or Sasquatch—it's literally just a black and white sheet of paper with the set times for each stage printed on it. I understand it must be difficult and costly to print those off for each stop of the tour, especially since the date's lineup is put together day-of, and to be fair, there is a giant inflatable billboard of the schedule in the middle of the park, but charging $2 for a piece of paper still strikes me as remarkably crass.
1 p.m.: If “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” by Florida's Against Me!, isn't the best song I'll hear performed all day, it's probably the most appropriate. It's about youthful idealism and the disillusionment of adulthood, and there isn't a better way to sum up the Warped Tour audience than the lyric, “Do you remember when you were young and wanted to set the world on fire?”. It's a great song, one of many played by the black-clad quintet, whose Clash and Billy Bragg-inspired anthems represent the purest punk on the bill.
1:55 p.m.: I wander over to the Nintendo DS Stage in time to catch a spectacularly douchey rap-rock outfit named Family Force 5 stealing Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips' plastic human hamster ball trick and rolling across the audience—except he's doing it while rapping and wearing Hulk hands. Luckily for these guys, probably nobody at this festival has seen the Flaming Lips before, or even knows who they are.
2 p.m.: Every Warped Tour lineup usually features one or two “Warped regulars,” bands like NOFX, the Bouncing Souls and Bad Religion that more or less owe their careers to the festival. Of course, as the tour has gone on, those bands have come to represent the “old school,” where in the past that slot went to truly vintage punks such as Fear and Circle Jerks, who'd look like reanimated corpses to these kids today. So for me to realize that in 2011 Less Than Jake is considered a “classic” Warped Tour band is kind of a bummer—partly because they were halfway current back when I was going to the festival in the late '90s, partly because hearing them brings back shameful flashbacks to my teenage ska days (I'm slightly embarrassed to admit I recognize “Johnny Quest Thinks We're Sellouts” and “Dopeman” right away, even though I haven't heard them in over a decade), and partly because they were never good to begin with. Singer Chris Demakes is certainly reveling in his role as tour curmudgeon. Looking like an even more bloated and worn-out Guy Fieri, he takes a bold stand against Justin Bieber, dragging a kid named Garth with a shaggy Bieber-esque haircut on stage and giving him a mohawk, sending him into his junior year of high school to “beat up the quarterback and steal his girlfriend.” Nobody tell Demakes all the jocks wear mohawks these days, it'll ruin his life. In other outdated stage banter, he also rails against the security guards for being aggressive with the 15-year-olds flying over the guardrails (I didn't see anyone getting abused myself) and takes a shot at forgotten goodie-goodie MTV punks Good Charlotte and Yellowcard. Then the band plays a medley of cartoon theme songs. Need I say anything else?
2:50 p.m.: Growing up in Southern California, I've seen some bro-y reggae bands in my life, but even those bands would be embarrassed by Ivy League, who start their set at the Skull Candy Stage with a medley of every frat guy's favorite reggae and reggae-ish songs: “Stir It Up,” UB40's version of “Red Red Wine,” Operation Ivy's “Sound System” and, of course, a little Sublime. “We like to smoke weed and drink good beer,” the guitarist says. Of course you do, dude. Of course you do.
2:55 p.m.: Dear God, there's a hula-hooping hippie here! I thought I left that shit back at Pickathon! What has become of my playground?!?
3:25 p.m.: I find the secluded Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands Stage to see what I think is the old pop-punk band Wax (you remember this video, right?), but it turns out to be a jokey rapper with the same name, who's doing a song called “Stay Off My Facebook.” He then makes a reference to NuvaRing, and samples the Price is Right fail horn. That last part earned him a special place in my heart.
3:40 p.m.: Oh. My. God. Look, I'm not going to begrudge the tweens their Christian screamo bands (of which there are several at Warped); I completely understand the appeal of a dude growling about Jesus for kids going through their awkward phase. But seriously, what in the flying fuck is Blood on the Dancefloor? They're playing essentially metallic dance-pop outfitted with eight-bit synthesizers and pseudo-rapping, and it's the worst fucking thing I've ever heard, not to mention seen. One singer, who sounds like Elmo, is short and chubby and his face is completely shrouded in a candy-colored mop of hair; the other singer looks like an androgynous post-apocalyptic heroin addict, with a chest full of tattoos, ridiculous haircut, face-paint and belt buckle reading “White Trash,” and he keeps mounting the monitors and undulating his disgustingly manorexic frame. Their big song is called “Sexting,” and the obnoxious chorus goes, “I WANNA FUCK YOU HARD! I WANNA FEEL YOU DEEP! I WANNA ROCK YOUR BODY! I WANNA TASTE YOUR SWEET!” This is being shouted along to by a crowd of ecstatic 14-year-old girls in braces. I want Michael Jackson to come back from the grave and strangle these doofuses for naming themselves after his remix album. “We're all one race, the human race,” the multicolored troll says at the end of their set. Nah, man. You and I aren't even the same species. Listen to this shit and fear for our children.
4:10 p.m.: T-shirt watch: “Fuck Everything,” “Get Fucked,” “Let Us Fuck, “Get On Your Fucking Knees,” “Fuck Meat,” “[first part of band name] fuckin' [second part of band name],” “Free Fucking Hugs,” “Fuck Your Free Hugs,” and “Fuck Hipsters,” worn by the most hipster-y looking guy at the festival, of course.
4:20 p.m.: The lead screamer of August Burns Red—one of those Christian metal bands I mentioned earlier—asks for their large crowd to form a huge circle pit around the main stage sound booth, and that's exactly what he gets. I've been going to navel-gazing indie rock shows so long, I almost forgot that moshing still exists.
4:40 p.m.: With its mix of '80s party funk and retro-new jack swing, one thing you can't accuse Bad Rabbits of is not sticking out. Just the sight of frontman Dua Boayke in a dashiki shirt doing the Kid'n'Play Kick Step with his guitarist is refreshing after watcjomg hours of guys in asymmetrical haircuts screaming like human trash compactors. Tossing in snippets of De La Soul's “Me, Myself and I” and Bell Biv DeVoe's “Poison” is gimmicky, but the crowd appreciates it, even if most of it probably don't get the references.
5 p.m.: Should I know who Middle Class Rut is? I'll fully cop to only being familiar with five bands on this entire tour, because I'm not in the demographic the majority of these groups are aiming for, but this Sacramento two-piece is too good for me to never have heard of before. And from the sound of it, I'm part of their target audience. “Most of our fans are the parents of the people who come to Warped Tour,” says drummer Sean Stockham, who has “FOR SALE” tattooed across his chest in big red block letters. (I'm not quite that old, but I'm in the same demo.) Indeed, the band is probably the most “adult” of any band on the tour—there's actual subtlety and texture in its sonic assault, something that can't be said for the dozens of brutes doing nothing but bludgeoning the crowd with flurries of double-kick pedals and Cookie Monster vocals. Even then, the duo rocks far harder than any of those groups, which is more impressive considering it uses only singer Zack Lopez's buzzsaw guitar, Stockham's simplified pounding, and some loops. On record, the band's sound is unfortunately flattened by generic modern rock production, but live, the group comes across almost like a more bombastic, less-angular version of post-hardcore heroes Hot Snakes. Oh, and they're funny, too. Says Stockham: “Thanks, Warped Tour, for allowing us to see more underage cleavage than we thought possible.”
5:50 p.m.: Well, it was only a matter of time before a dubstep guy showed up. Big Chocolate is yet another goofy white guy (from Laguna Hills, Calif., 'natch) producing music in the bass-centric European dance idiom of the moment. Kids love the style's booming, wobbly bass, and even though the Skull Candy Stage's speakers aren't nearly loud enough to justify Chocolate's presence here, they're loving this guy anyway, throwing their hands in the air as he presses “Play” on his laptop and headbangs like a goon. Expect more of this at Warped Tour in years to come.
6 p.m.: I have to go see the Devil Wears Prada at the main stage, just to find out what kind of band names itself the Devil Wears Prada (it should be noted that the festival also includes bands called the Wonder Years and Neo Geo, so it's a tight race in the competition for Laziest Pop-Culture Reference in a Band Name). As it turns out, it's the kind of band where one vocalist screams and another whines, like two-thirds of the other bands here. OK, moving along...
6:30 p.m.: I'm drinking a $5 cup of Miller Lite, mostly just to reaffirm that I am, indeed, an adult among children. Not surprisingly, the beer garden here is notably less crowded than the Monster Energy Drink garden.
7 p.m.: Alabama rapper Yelawolf steps onstage wearing a black “Fuck Hipsters” sweatshirt and a red cap cocked to the side, with no DJ or hype man behind him. Usually, that's a bad move for a hip-hop artist on the Warped Tour: Punk kids quickly lose interest in pure beats and rhymes. Within seconds of the booming opener “Trunk Muzik,” though, this formerly homeless skater who looks like Jason Mewes has the crowd fully enraptured. He turns out to be the most captivating performer of the day; in fact, he just might be the best live rapper I've ever seen. Exuding an intensity rarely seen in emcees as dexterous as him, he keeps the stage ranting to a minimum as he confidently runs through his short set of Southern rap bangers like “Billy Crystal,” “I Just Wanna Party,” “Good to Go” and the brilliant “Pop the Trunk.” Unlike a lot of rappers in concert, he doesn't scream his lyrics, delivering them just as he does on record, which is impressive considering his adenoidal, machine-gun style of rapping. (Even more impressive, at one point he pounds a beer and immediately rips an acapella, and he doesn't cramp up or even burp.) Afterward, I watch him ice-grill cameras as he poses for photos with fans. His debut LP for Eminem's Shady Records drops in September. This dude is a star in waiting. Make it happen, Marshall.
8 p.m.: Ending the day with the Aggrolites just makes sense for an old Warped Tour devotee like me. The band—which plays what they call “dirty reggae,” a gritty, funky, organ-driven blend of '60s rocksteady, hard soul and punk urgency—harks back to a time when the festival had at least a tenuous connection to true punk, which was never an rigidly-defined sound but a feeling. As the sun sets on Hillsboro, the Aggros run through a tight set of cuts from its four studio albums, with singer Jesse Wagner exclaiming like a combination of James Brown and Toots Hibbert and imploring its small but enthusiastic—and much older—audience to end this year's tour with a dance party. They conclude with a passionate cover of the Beatles' “Don't Let Me Down,” filling the stage with backstage revelers and members of country-rockers Lucero, the other “grown folk” band on the bill. Meanwhile, the majority of the concert's attendees are over at the main stage finishing out Warped with Asking Alexandria, yet another metalcore act. “I've never been happier to not be 13 years old,” the drummer for Middle Class Rut said earlier. I'm inclined to agree.
More of Spencer Watson's Warped Tour 2011 Photos: