Music Features

Vans Warped Tour 2016 in Phoenix: A Glimpse of the 69-Band, Seven-Stage Chaotic Spectacle

The Vans Warped Tour is what you’d call a chaotic experience.

In fact, during any of the various stops that the touring concert festival makes each summer, it’s easy to get lost in all the bedlam of the hectic cultural menagerie going on all around you and listen to a little here, a little there. It’s exactly what we did during the Warped Tour’s 35th stop of the summer in the Valley on Thursday, which — despite the blazing summer weather — drew thousands to the Phoenix Event Complex for the festival.

People began trickling in for the first half hour after gates opened at 2 p.m. to find themselves greeted by noise, body odor, and the putrid stench of too much sunscreen on too many bodies.

As rainless clouds rolled in and out of the sun’s glare at various points throughout the day, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 concertgoers flooded into the complex according to police officers on the scene, all of who were here to experience the 21st-century Woodstock of sorts.

Awaiting them were more than 60 bands of the punk, emo, metalcore, ska, and pop-punk variety, each performing on any of the seven different stages comprising the festival.

Realistically, music lovers in attendance had the opportunity to see upwards of 20 different acts if they were willing to brave the scorching heat, highly concentrated crowd and headache-inducing feedback.

We were willing to make said sacrifice and spent the entire day at the Warped Tour, enduring the heat and hullabaloo in order to chronicle the experience. Here's our recap of what we saw, heard, and, um, smelled.

2:30 p.m.: Set It Off, Journeys Left Foot Stage
Although gates opened at 2 p.m., the day’s first official band got a bit of a late start. Set It Off came out to give Warped Tour fans their first taste of music during an event which would take nearly nine hours. Lead Vocalist Cody Carson hit notes somewhere between Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Twenty One Pilots’ Tyler Joseph. Set It Off introduced the crowd to a happy marriage of the energy found in much of the day’s metal and the traditional introspective lyricism associated with rock music.

2:47 p.m.: Issues, Journeys Right Foot Stage
The musical stylings of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh made an appearance at the Phoenix stop of the Vans Warped Tour. To wit: Atlanta, Georgia-based band Issues walked on stage to the theme song from the hit ’90s cartoon, Rugrats, which was composed by the Devo front man. Riddled with Millennial nostalgia, Issues officially kicked off their set by launching full-bore into a cover of the “Pokémon” theme. It didn’t take long for the band to lose its childhood reminiscence, however. The band members fully embodied grown-up ’90s babies when they opened up a repertoire not unlike Linkin Park or Fatboy Slim, and yelled out, “I know this crowd can sing along fucking louder than that!”

3:02 p.m.: Every Time I Die, Monster Energy North Stage
The two Monster Energy stages were used exclusively for metal bands, although the other stages bled over into this, as well. Every Time I Die gave what was, perhaps, the best metal performance of the day. The band proved that even the loudest, most antagonistic hardcore-metal band can tone it down and bring a crowd to silence by busting out a piano and an awe-inspiring falsetto — as they did for their song “Moor,” reminiscent of a more biting, more brutal “November Rain.”

3:21 p.m.: Oceans Ate Alaska, Monster Energy South Stage
As half-clothed, sweat-laden bodies filled every square inch of the Phoenix Event & Sports Complex, Oceans Ate Alaska continued the trend set by Every Time I Die and played through a relatively mellow set for a more metal band. If anything, the band toes the line between multiple genres. The instrumentation was not unlike every other metal band out there, but singer James Harrison’s vocals could have made him an easy stand-in singer for Rage Against the Machine or Underoath, depending on the song.

3:47 p.m.: Whitechapel, Monster Energy North Stage
If anything left me feeling underwhelmed, it was Whitechapel’s performance. Metal has the tendency to be incredibly homogenous — once the music reaches a certain decibel level, noise just sounds like noise. While most of the other metal acts showed they were willing and able to venture off the beaten path and try something new, Whitechapel perfectly adhered to the playbook, only taking a break from the guttural screams to introduce the next song and thank everyone for listening.

3:45 p.m.: The Maine, Journeys Right Foot Stage
Hometown heroes hailing from Tempe, The Maine took the Warped Tour stage by storm. The Maine has played the Warped Tour before, but recently explained to New Times that this was a milestone for the band. That sentiment spilled over into their stage act, as well, when Lead Vocalist John O’Callaghan explained to the crowd how thankful he is to have the chance to perform at a Warped Tour stop. “To be on the other side of that fence means the fucking world,” O'Callaghan said to those in the crowd just before his band’s set was up.

4:01 p.m.: Less Than Jake, Journeys Left Foot Stage
One of the biggest spectacles of the day came when Less Than Jake, a ska-punk band from Gainesville, Florida, donned American flag suits and matching bow ties to play a rowdy set backed by both saxophone and trombone. When Less Than Jake takes the stage, your attention is locked in for all 25 minutes of their set. The puddles of sweat dripping off the person next to me and the pungent secondhand smoke in my face suddenly seemed to disappear when guitarist/vocalist Chris DeMakes came out wearing a three-piece, red, white and blue suit as “Hail to the Chief” played.  Imagine the pomp and circumstance of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” and then extend it indefinitely and infuse it with a Floridian flair of washboard bass playing and comical whimsy.

4:16 p.m.: Emarosa, Poseidon Stage
If the Monster stages were solely dedicated to metal, and the Journey’s stages to pop and rock, the Poseidon and Cyclops stage struck a compromise — if not a matrimony — between the two. Emarosa completely embraced the working-man appearance that exemplifies such a band and played through a 25-minute set in sleeveless shirts and cargo shorts. “These 25 minutes we get, it’s an Emarosa show,” Lead Vocalist Bradley Walden said partway through the band’s set. And that was apparent from the moment they took the stage, to the moment they closed with their song “Cloud 9,” which speaks volumes to the experience of getting what you want while others are left behind.

4:25 p.m.: Assuming We Survive, Cyclops Stage
Any band that comes on stage to WWE star John Cena’s entrance music has to be great. Assuming We Survive’s set nearly measured up to that greatness. The band showed no problem engaging the crowd. Encouraging fans to run in circles around a nearby tent in the middle of a song while their guitarist joined them certainly set their fun-loving tone. But hearing, “Okay, we need everyone on this next one to jump,” gets a little tiring when it’s said before nearly every number. The band played “Home Is Where The Heart Is,” and displayed how heartfelt a band that sounds like Relient K with a little more oomph can be.

5:06 p.m.: With Confidence, Full Sail University Stage
The band members looked as if they were barely out of high school, and spoke with their native Australian accents when not playing. They came trotting on the stage in what could have been their clothes for gym class and ripped out songs in keeping with their apparel — ballads of heartbreak and broken promises. They played “Higher,” off their latest LP, “Better Weather,” which told the familiar angst-filled love story in an upbeat, mid-’00s, alt-rock fashion. The crowd rallied around the rocker like they've done a million times before, because they probably have rallied around a similar song far too many times to count.

5:22 p.m.: The Story So Far, Journeys Right Foot Stage
With a packed “house,” as it were, several in attendance started crowd surfing the moment The Story So Far took the stage. The only problem with crowd surfing came in the form of a giant sign at the top of all seven stages which read, “You Mosh, You Crowd Surf, You Get Hurt, We Get Sued. No More Warped Tour.” This gave security the first of its many crowd-surfing challenges throughout the night. Guards repeatedly ventured off the stage to take fans off the top of a crowd and return them back to their feet. Although the crowd was moving for the majority of the band’s set, the lyrical and musical monotony at play made the performance feel more like a 25-minute song than anything.

5:31 p.m.: Crown the Empire, Monster Energy North Stage
As beach balls flew and bodies gleamed with sweat, it became clear that Crown the Empire was there to own the stage. And own it they did. They erected giant inflatable astronauts on stage as one of the only bands to tangibly interweave visual spectacle with their musical showcase. Their songs, such as “Voices,” demonstrated a vocal range capable of oscillating between the deep, throaty wailing of screamo music and a softer, mid-to-late adolescent whine. Ultimately, Crown the Empire’s visual exhibition overpowered its vocal performance, which began to blend into the sea of metal being played from both Monster Energy stages.

5:52 p.m.: Gideon, Monster Energy South Stage
If your dad started a heavy metal group with all of your neighborhood friends’ dads, the result would be Gideon. Their loud, monotonous set was bolstered by what felt like a Generation X-style hip-hop swagger — only without the substance. As lyrics and chord changes are barely audible, due to the sheer volume of it all, fans are somehow able to find the rhythm and bob their heads to the music.

6:20 p.m.: Falling In Reverse, Journeys Left Foot Stage
What appeared to be one of the largest crowds of the day turned out a good 15 minutes early for Falling In Reverse’s set — even though another show was going on just yards to the right of this stage. The excitement of the crowd before Falling In Reverse took the stage felt less like a concert and more like a Black Friday sale-stampede. Post-hardcore music set nearly as high as the amps can go blares out from the stage, but the crowd extends for hundreds of feet back, making it almost quiet at the back of the cluster. Falling In Reverse departed from the textbook plan of playing a song, telling a joke, and then getting on with the next song. Instead, Lead Vocalist Ronnie Radke played his way through customs of his with the crowd. “On the count of three, I want everyone to sit the fuck down,” he yelled out before starting a new song. “Sit down, I’ll fucking start over.” Once everyone was seated, he got in gear to start a new song. The minute someone stood up, he started the whole process over.

7:03 p.m.: Motionless In White, Monster Energy North Stage
Marilyn Manson and Skrillex may as well have formed a supergroup, because Motionless In White took all the bizarre characteristic visuals of Manson’s makeup and outfits and combined them with loud party-style riffs not unlike those of Skrillex. The band’s outfits, combined with synchronized head-banging, completely overpowered any music there was to be heard. Anyone coming into a Motionless In White set without any familiarity will be immediately lost and unsure of what is going on. One could almost draw a line in the crowd where the die-hard fans and the unacquainted met just by looking at the concertgoers’ facial expressions.

7:20 p.m.: SayWeCanFly, Full Sail University Stage
After more than five hours of walking around the Vans Warped Tour, I finally spotted it: An acoustic guitar. Emo artist Braden Barrie, who goes by the artistic moniker SayWeCanFly, played a low-key set, buoyed by his acoustic six-string and a backing band. The set was incredibly mellow, juxtaposed with the rest of the Warped Tour, but provided a refreshing, raw take on life. When the band played “Intoxicated I Love You” and told a first-person narrative of a man losing his virginity to a girl who used him for a one-night stand, one could almost hear the crowd’s collective heart break.

7:52 p.m.: Sleeping With Sirens, Journeys Right Foot Stage
Sleeping With Sirens boasted one of the largest names of the all-day festival, and the sheer size of the crowd during the group's performance proved it. The band took the stage seven minutes late, and the uneasiness that caused fans was evident by how many screams of applause permeated the first few minutes of the set. The band played well to its audience, powering through their hits, such as “Kick Me,” without having to make a tangible petition for the crowd to get rowdy. Water bottles, frisbees, and human beings were all catapulted and bandied about by others while the band raged on.

8:17 p.m.: Yellowcard, Journey’s Left Foot Stage
As Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played, Yellowcard took the stage. The estimated 5 - 6,000 concertgoers turned out almost exclusively to the band’s set — something the band was concerned might not happen. “We were kind of worried we were playing kind of late,” Vocalist Ryan Key said. Key also announced their presence on the Warped Tour served to kick off their last outing as a group, and used that as an opportunity to delve deep into the band’s catalog, playing two songs — “Only One” and “Ocean Avenue” — from 2003’s LP, “Ocean Avenue.” The energy with which they played old standards of theirs never would have suggested the band was near retirement.

8:42 p.m.: Mayday Parade, Journeys Right Foot Stage
Nearing 9 p.m., fatigue was visibly wearing on the crowd as more and more fans remained seated through entire sets. Mayday Parade dusted off “Black Cat” from their second studio album. What could have been a departure from the norm — emphasized by the band breaking into a bluesy rhythm progression to kick off the song — quickly reverted back to the pop-punk displayed through the rest of their set. Vocalist Derek Sanders shared a story of how he and the rest of the band visited the 2006 Warped Tour to give away their new CD and try to make a name for themselves. “To be up here now, in front of you guys, 10 years later, is the best thing ever,” he said.

9:11 p.m.: Cane Hill, Full Sail University Stage
Cane Hill played a loud, albeit low-key, set toward the end of the night. The band made one of the sole political statements of the night while trying to energize the crowd. Elijah Witt, lead vocalist, besought members of the crowd to rally around liberal ideals he said were under attack by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. “We got to keep this going,” he said. “It’s all the right-wing conservatives — the homophobes.” Although Witt and his band members were trying to rally the crowd to action, the roughly 30 people in the crowd for their set remained virtually still and did no such thing.

10 p.m.: Reel Big Fish
Reel Big Fish played the last time slot of the night, and completely capitalized on it. The ska punk, alt-rock band of ’90s fame stormed the stage with gusto. The band did make its way into the national spotlight in the late ’90s with their song “Sell Out.” Frontman Aaron Barrett explained to the crowd that his band was “very, very famous in the ’90s,” and told everyone they would recognize the band’s biggest hit. They then launched full-bore into a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “That’s not a Reel Big Fish song,” Barrett said, laughing along with the crowd. “Everybody knows that’s Pearl Jam.” The band’s humor carried itself through every song they did, including “Sell Out.” Barrett and his peers exhibited an acute self-awareness and a willingness to parody the very fabric of the concert-going culture. This was, perhaps, best illustrated when he asked everyone in the crowd to hold up, not their phones, lighters or palms, but their middle fingers. “Put your little birdies up in the sky and say the F-word with us,” he said. “Pardon my French.”
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Joshua studies journalism at ASU. He also plays the guitar, composes his own music, and enjoys taking long naps in the middle of the day.
Contact: Joshua Bowling