What kind of sadistic madman hosts a music festival in June in Arizona?
This is a question I asked myself over and over again as I trudged around the Fear Farm Festival Grounds in west Phoenix for this year's Vans Warped Tour.
While the mostly younger crowd seemed energetic and enthusiastic throughout the festival, it was clear that the heat was getting to people. I could see people crawling underneath raised platforms just to stretch out and lie still in that sweet darkness, like gila monsters hiding under the floorboards of an outhouse. People who came to the fest without hats either shelled out crazy amounts of money to buy Raiden hats a la Mortal Kombat or improvised their own headgear. The outer shirt I wore to the fest quickly got repurposed as my Lawrence of Avondale head wrap.
The fest was arrayed in a circular setup, with a ring of stages scattered across the grassy festival grounds. The best part of the fest was the people-watching I could indulge in as I wandered from stage to stage. I saw an amazing tattoo of Bela Lugosi's face on a girl's shoulder, spotted a pale screamo dude's pirate ship back-piece; laughed my ass off at some of the goofier tent vendors on site (I still can't believe someone owns a business called Plug Your Holes), and marveled at the insane work ethic of the people in latex monster masks and full body costumes that were wandering around to promote Fear Farm. I hope whoever was in that half-assed Leatherface mask was getting some serious hazard pay.
Speaking of pay: attending Vans Warped Tour is not a cheap date, to put it mildly. Aside from the typical overpriced beer you can expect at a festival, bottled water went for $4 a pop (a price tag that stung extra hard, considering the punishing temperatures) and they were also charging $2 to purchase schedules for the show. Schedules. I had wondered earlier in the week why, unlike so many other festivals, the Warped Tour hadn't posted any set times on their website. I got my answer at that information tent. Why give the milk away for free when pop-punk teenyboppers have milk money to burn?
But to be fair: The fest did offer a free water station and some shade tents that got quickly mobbed by throngs of sweaty attendees. And you could bring in a water bottle to refill.
Heat and commercialism aside, most of the bands sounded great. I was surprised by how well-staggered the set times and bands were — there was little bleed-through. Even when two bands were playing at the same time, they didn't clash with each other.
The quality of the music itself is a different story. There was some strong showings early on from local bands, especially the hyper-manic Playboy Manbaby (who posted hilarious fliers of Nancy Reagan saying "Just Say No To Playboy Manbaby" all over the entrance to the festival). They're always a band that delivers the goods live, even when they're performing on what felt like the sun's blazing surface.
Some of the touring acts were ... well, dreadful.
The worst offender was Attila, who made music that sounded like someone trying to reanimate the rotting corpse of nu metal after eating a bunch of rubber cement in detention. These necromancers of all things terrible in rock screeched, "Fuck that shit, you'll find me in the mosh pit!" And they pounded out music that was so aggressively dumb it made me nostalgic for a time in my youth when I still thought Korn were dope.
The only thing I liked about their set was the dual chaostars hanging onstage on bright green banners. The occultist in me appreciated the subversiveness of seeing those balls of arrows emblazoned on banners at a shoe company's festival, and the music lover in me prayed that one of those arrows would fly off and bury itself in the sound man's console.
Also on the "Why do you hate me, Oh Lord?" tip were the overly earnest emo lads of Microwave. They won the award for worst pandering gesture of the festival, when they broke into a brief saccharine cover of Sublime's "Santeria." Yes, bands in 2017 are still covering Sublime like they're the damn Beatles.
Before you think I'm just being a total Eeyore, there were some compelling sets at the fest.
The Acacia Strain played a crunchy, hard set of metal that made me bang my head so hard it shook the sweat off my brow. Their singer howling violently like a xenomorph was trying to crawl out of his throat. Courage My Love came out and did a set of songs that sounded like an even poppier version of Paramore, but they had an easy charm and energy that was hard to resist (even though the shirtless guitarist's inked-up torso looked like the graveyard where all tattoo flash pieces go to die).
And if I could give an award for Best Rolling With The Punches, it would go to Our Last Night. Playing in the middle of the fest, the extreme heat briefly shorted out their instruments. Stuck onstage with no way to play music, they had a killer backup plan. They had stagehands turn water hoses onto the audience. Unfortunately, they got their instruments in working order a few minutes later.
They weren't a bad band, but they weren't as good as getting sprayed in the face with cool water.
The legacy acts came on as the sun started to set: The Dickies, The Adolescents, and the immortal Gwar. Their arrivals signaled a change in the vibe of the fest. Early on in the day, the kiddies held sway. As the older groups started getting stage time, all the geezer punks and tattooed parents in the audience perked up and started going HAM. All those overpriced Budweisers were starting to pay off.
I was not one of them.
Real talk: By the time it started to cool down, I was practically crawling around the festival. Even with sunscreen and proper hydration, this day had kicked my ass raw. I felt like my brain was sizzling inside my skull like a filet on a hot pan. I sat on the grass through most of the rest of the fest. While bodies careened off each other to The Dickies, I was flicking ants off my legs and fanning myself with my $2 schedule. I didn't even have enough gas in my tank to sing along to "Amoeba" as The Adolescents played.
And when Gwar, a band I've wanted to see for most of my life, took the stage, I spent more time fantasizing I was drinking my weight in ice-cold Gatorades than I did in paying attention to their costumed antics. Even the gleeful shouts of "BLOOD! SO MUCH BLOOD!" that rang out from the crowd during Gwar's performance couldn't shake me from the dazed and exhausted state I was in. It's a sad day when it's too damn hot out to appreciate some faux carnage.
As I stumbled back to my car, I began to understand why this festival keeps happening in the summer. I saw it in Warped Tour's demographics — all those mobs of high schoolers carpooling out of the exits. This fest wouldn't work on a weekday in April. You have to do it in the summer, so nobody has to play hooky (although what could be more punk rock than encouraging mass truancy in minors?).
That being said, I wished this had happened in May, before our airport-shuttering heatwave rolled in. It's a lot easier to dance and rage and get transported by the music when you don't have to worry about getting heatstroke.
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Last Night: The Vans Warped Tour at Fear Farm Festival Grounds in Phoenix.
The Crowd: A mix of high schoolers raging on summer vacation and old punk moms and dads with tattoo pieces that are older than their children. There was also a lot of Viking beards in attendance, and one dude who had an Afro that was so voluminous and round that it seemed to completely swallow the top half of his face. It was like if Cousin It had joined Funkadelic.
Overheard: "Please do whatever you can not to burst directly into flames. I don't want to be responsible for your fiery demise," The Acacia Strain's singer said. On a related note: "I Am Responsible For Your Fiery Demise" would be a GREAT title for a metal song.
Random Notebook Dump: They serve French fries here in brick formations. Seriously, I saw a girl walk by with what looked like a cinder block made out of curly fries.