by Jeremy Hart
RELIANT PARK -- 6/25/2005: I've been warped. More specifically, my brain has been, along with certain extremities of my body. A few days've already gone by since the event, and I still feel like I've been run over by a truck, the sunburn's going to take a few more days to heal, particularly on the top of my head, and I keep getting this overwhelming urge to grab a bottle of water from the fridge and start chugging it like I may never see another ever again.
Yes, I went to this year's Vans Warped Tour, held at H-town's beautiful Reliant Park, home to Reliant Stadium (aka "The Stadium We Built for a Football Team That Didn't Yet Exist"), Reliant Center, Reliant Arena, Reliant Astrodome, and about a half-dozen other buildings named/renamed for the energy giant. I hadn't intended to go, initially -- when I received the tickets, I immediately prepared to send 'em off to a friend who's more into the whole punk scene more than I myself happen to be, but then when I mentioned it to my wife, she said, hey, why don't you take our friend's seventeen-year-old son? He's into that kind of thing, so he'd probably love to go -- why not ask him? Being that the seventeen-year-old in question had recently moved back to Houston and was living with his mom and grandma and therefore would've probably welcomed the chance to escape the house for a while, and since he's generally a good kid and entertaining to talk to, I answered, "sure; why not?"
So, the seventeen-year-old (who will be referred to hereafter as "The Kid," in order to spare him the shame of any of his classmates finding out he went to Warped with a lame 31-year-old) and I went. Not wanting to deal with the inevitable parking problems, with took the METRORail from its termination point at the South Fannin Park & Ride, zipped one stop up to Reliant Park, hiked across the entirety of the stadium complex, and then stood in line to get in for another half-hour, all in the broiling one-o'clock Houston summer sun. After we finally got inside (without being searched, somehow, although everyone around us was), we roamed the vast tent city for the next five hours, bouncing from stage to stage in search of bands we wanted to see, gawking at our fellow concert-goers, and trying in vain to stay hydrated and sane. Now that the experience is behind me, I figured I'd make a few notes on what all went on.
It was really, really hot.
I can't really emphasize this enough. I'm currently harboring a conspiracy theory that some cruel booking agent -- most likely on one of the coasts, possibly somewhere where they actually have real seasons -- decided specifically to book the Texas/other parts of the South dates all at the hot-ass summer end of the tour, rather than in, say, August, just so they could see all us Houston crackers fry like bacon in a frying pan. The bastard's probably chortling with glee even now. Seriously, why do those jerks up in Camden, NJ, and Scranton, PA, get to have their Warped episode at the non-peak of the hot season?
Now, I know -- it gets hot everywhere. I understand that. What you Northerners have to understand, however, is that New York in the summer is a cakewalk compared to Houston. Seriously. I've been to NYC at the height of summer, and while it was pretty hot, it never made me want to just lie down on a park bench and die quietly as the sun steamed my brain 'til it dribbled out my ears. That's what Houston summers are like; they're like being dropped into an extremely hot pot of boiling water and then left in there, with the lid on. Welcome to the crawfish life. This is why most of us have air conditioning, and part of the reason why so few of us walk anywhere in the summertime unless we absolutely have to. I've only been two places in the world that were as bad as Houston, heat-wise: Phoenix, Arizona (and that's a dry heat; the kind we get here's like being smothered with a huge sponge that's been boiled for several hours), and the tropical islands of Fiji. Here in the U.S., parts of California, Arizona, and New Mexico may come close, but that's about it. If you want to feel a close approximation of the weather in Hell, visit Houston in June or July.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I should mention that this year's Warped Houston stop was held outdoors, in the parking lot of the practice field at Reliant Park. Not inside one of the several extremely large buildings (which regularly hold -- oh, I dunno -- rodeos and dog shows and crap like that, all of which apparently deserve air-conditioning more than punk rock), but out in the heat, on a surface that effectively reflected the sun's ray back up on us unfortunate Warp-ees. God damn, it was hot. The Kid and I were dressed pretty lightly, too -- I can't even imagine what it felt like for the very strange guy who came dressed as Morpheus from The Matrix (no, I'm serious) or the relatively few trench coat-wearing Goths we encountered. (Okay, okay, you're right -- Morpheus was probably enjoying the hell out of the pain and the stares of all us passers-by who couldn't believe he was still vertical in that outfit. But still.)
Every time we passed the EMS tent, some poor bastard was in there getting rehydrated; we saw one event employee get carted over, his face the color of his red T-shirt, and one poor guy carrying his seven- or eight-year-old daughter in his arms, yelling if anybody had any ice water. (It was over at the EMS tent, which was way the heck away from where the bands actually were.) An ambulance took at least one person out while we there, and I'd bet even money it was a heatstroke victim. It was brutally, horribly hot, particularly for the first two or three hours. The clouds kept threatening rain, and when they occasionally closed over us, the brief respite felt great, but it never lasted very long.
The bands were damn good.
I was surprised, really, when I checked the schedule. Not only were there really no bands playing that I absolutely couldn't stand (i.e., Sum 41, from the Warped Tour a few years back), but there were several I knew and/or liked -- Avenged Sevenfold, Strike Anywhere, Transplants, The Explosion, No Use for a Name, and so on. Sadly, most of the bands The Kid and I wanted to see played later in the day, and we had to leave at 6PM, so we didn't catch A7 or Hidden In Plain View, but most of the bands we did see were surprisingly good:
The Dropkick Murphys: We only saw these guys from a distance -- The Kid had seen 'em at his last Warped Tour, so we were actually searching for the schedule so we could see who else was playing -- but even from afar, they were pretty entertaining. I've always thought that punk rock needs more accordion players, and the fans waving Irish flags made my day.
Motion City Soundtrack: We watched about half of these guys' set before I caught a song I knew and realized who the hell they were (I'll get to that later). Not bad, really -- I've always liked the quirky, smart-assed lyrics (smart-assed, mind you, in an intelligent way and not a Blink-182 I'm-a-smart-ass-doofus-so-laugh way), and they pulled 'em off pretty well live. I only wish I'd figured out sooner who they were (keep reading for more on that).
Armor For Sleep: This crew of too-smart-for-their-own-good pop-punk/indie-rockers played to a fairly small crowd, but it didn't seem to matter. They rocked it like they were the headliners at a packed arena show, exhorting their fans to sing along, jump, and all that other punk stuff you're supposed to do at shows. And besides that, the songs -- mostly off the excellent What To Do When You Are Dead, as I recall -- were pretty damn good. "Car Underwater" rocks. All in all, they were probably one of the two best bands we were able to see. (Oh, and lead singer/guitarist Ben Jorgensen looks weirdly like Jimmy Fallon's little brother.)
Glass Intrepid: Local kids from Spring, I believe; I'd heard of 'em, but never heard them before, and was pleasantly surprised. The sound wasn't anything groundbreaking, just your average melodic pop-punk with loud guitars and harmonies, but they pulled it off pretty nicely, and gave some of the nationals a run for their money.
My Chemical Romance: One of the low points, unfortunately, and partly because the sound where we were standing was a bit wonky. It sounded better, honestly, when we'd moved off to the next stage to wait for The Offspring and were no longer actually in front of the speakers; very strange. Beyond that, the lead singer was somewhat on the bombastic side for me, although he did earn some respect by stopping the set to direct people to help out folks who'd fallen in the mosh pit. Anybody who emphasizes that moshing's not about hurting other people is cool by me -- too bad the music (which came off as an odd mishmash of hardcore screaming metal posturing) wasn't all that great.
The Offspring: I never would've believed it, but the Offspring actually turned in one of the best performances of the day. I've never been a fan, generally equating their rise to rockstardom with the rise of asshole jocks pushing their way into the pit just so they can hit people and not get detention or jail time, but I'll admit it -- Dexter Holland and company were pretty great, all things considered. Always the crowd-pleasers, they played several of their hits, digging deep into their back catalog to play things like "Come Out and Play" and "Self Esteem" (I think; memory's already a bit hazy), both of which have weathered the decade or so since they first became hits surprisingly well. I kept hoping they'd play "Baghdad," but if they did, I didn't hear it.
The Explosion: The last band of the day for The Kid and I before we made the long slog back to the METRORail and then the car, The Explosion were actually the one I most wanted to stick around to see. We weren't there for the whole set, but they ripped through a good six songs in less than ten minutes, hitting some of the high notes of Flash Flash Flash and the better songs off of Black Tape for good measure. The crowd was initially fairly skeptical, with only a handful of diehard fans not standing aloof with their arms crossed, but by the time we left the band's audience had grown considerably and gotten a lot more enthusiastic.
Yes, there were others, but we either blew by them too quickly to notice (most of the bands at the Shiragirl stage; sorry) or weren't real impressed (Underoath, Plain White T's). Overall, I think we got our money's worth, although I've got some issues with the way things were run (again, keep reading).
The merch was overwhelming.
Holy crap. I'd never realized that just beyond the stages at Warped shows was this immense bazaar of merch tents -- from what I could tell, every single band playing had their own, and so did each of their record label. Beyond that, there were several dozen kiosks/tents for food and beverages, skateboards, guitars, T-shirts, stickers, and whatever the hell else. It was really somewhat insane, especially since the "compound" area was so much larger than the stage areas -- it almost felt like the stages (and therefore the bands) were a sideshow to the compound goings-on, not the other way 'round. I'm not averse to people selling things at shows, obviously, but man, this felt a little overboard.
The crowd was very strange.
This is probably a sure sign that I'm becoming my dad, but when the heck did kids get so, um, weird? I'm not talking tattoos or piercings, mind you -- that part I was expecting. What I wasn't expecting was that everybody but me and The Kid (and Gothies like Mr. Morpheus-Wannabe) was wearing their skimpiest swimsuit. Guys and girls both. It was somewhat surreal; there we were standing in the middle of a gigantic, utterly flat concrete plain, with no pool or beach in sight, and everybody around us was dressed like extras from The O.C. at a beach party. Oh, except that they all seemed to have really bad skin. Seriously, it seemed like every single shirtless/bikini-wearing person I saw had some godawful-looking form of skin cancer metastasizing on their back, shoulders, or chest. Some of the cases I saw looked downright creepy, to the point where I very nearly tapped one very big young guy on the shoulder and said, "dude, you need to get a dermatologist to look at that shit on your back, 'cause it looks bad." (Yeah, I wussed out on that one; The Kid said he had my back if I got jumped, but I told him I'd rather focus on avoiding fights, not winning 'em...)
On top of that, a lot of people seemed to look/dress a heck of a lot like, well, other people. There was some individuality, sure, but it was pretty scattered, and often a little misguided -- I know, I know, I've made fun of Mr. Morpheus-Wannabe a couple of times now, but hey, at least he was relatively unique. (And, as The wise-beyond-his-years Kid sagely pointed out, he wasn't hurting anybody, so who cares? As long as it makes him happy...) I saw several kids wearing the same damn T-shirt, even, and it wasn't one for a band that was playing that day.
Lastly, there were quite a few non-"kid" people roaming around, to the point where I didn't quite feel like the oldest, grumpiest guy in the park. Which is great, definitely -- if my dad could ever be dragged to a Warped Tour and actually enjoy himself the way some of the older-timers seemed to be, I'd probably have to trap him in a cage and force him to watch Sex and the City reruns 'til he admitted to being an alien impostor from another galaxy. There is, however, a line to the "all ages welcome!" credo, and some folks at Reliant Park that day did a long jump past it. To the pregnant women and the families with small, small (as in 1-4 years old) children: what the fuck were you thinking? Taking an adult out in heat like that is bad enough; taking your toddler or your soon-to-be-born child out into it is bordering on child abuse. Please don't misunderstand me -- I'm not trying to argue any kind of "pro-life" position here, and I honestly couldn't care less if people have kids or not, but if you're going to have a child, then you've got a responsibility to take care of them. At least give them the benefit of an undamaged brain, so they can use it later in life to better themselves and make the world a nicer, better place. Okay? Call that our little "Saturday Afternoon Special" moment for the day: keep your kids indoors and un-heatstroked in the summer months, and they'll thank you for it when they're in their 20s or 30s, I promise. [stepping briefly off soapbox]
Just how should a festival like this be run, anyway?
From a logistical standpoint, I'd imagine that something like the Warped Tour is an absolute nightmare. I don't envy the folks who run the show, and in general, it seemed like they did quite a few things right, so kudos to them for that. I was particularly impressed with the timing for the "twin" main stages -- as soon as the last chord from one band's final song faded out, the band on the next stage over roared to life. Really, it was pretty incredible; I'd never seen anything that well-choreographed at a festival show like this one.
With that said, there were also some areas that could use serious improvement, in terms of planning and setup:
- Heat: I noted earlier that it was damn fucking hot at Reliant Park, and really, I still can't figure out why the show was even held there. The Houston dog show's held indoors at Reliant Center, and it's easily the size of the Warped Tour in terms of both attendance and overall size; why in the hell don't our kids merit the same air-conditioning cool as a bunch of show dogs? Jesus Christ, people. If there'd been even one stage indoors, things would've been miles and miles more hospitable -- that way at least concert-goers could go inside for a little while to recuperate (and catch some more music, in the process) before heading back out to brave the heat in order to see Favorite Band X. Tents where people could sit would've been nice, even if un-air-conditioned. Better yet, why not take a page from the Lollapalooza folks and install "mist tents"? It's been done before, several times; even the soon-to-be-shut-down Astrodome, right across 610, has mist sprayers scattered throughout the park, and trust me, they help a lot on those hot summer days.
- Transportation: Houston's mass transit system is sporadic at best, generally speaking. Reliant Park, however, is one of the few parts of town that happens to be very heavily covered by the various bus routes -- hell, the METRORail was essentially built to get people to and from games at Reliant Stadium. And yet there were no shuttles or bus routes or anything to get kids (and their parents) to and from the various Park & Rides scattered across the city. The rodeo runs shuttles every year, and let me tell you, it's much easier to get to and from Reliant Park when you're able to park and hop on a bus. The Kid and I savvily dodged the parking nightmare-in-progress by taking the train, but after the last band finished, I'd bet it took an hour-plus for most people to fight their way out of the parking lot.
- Information: I was surprised to find that there wasn't really much in the way of information about the show available once we got there; it made me very glad to have checked the Website beforehand. The show schedule was a big inflatable tower thingy over near the main stages (i.e., on the far side of the park from the entrance and most of the other stages on the Tour), and it was essentially the only place to go to find out who was playing when. It made things somewhat weird to be watching a band up there on a stage -- who, truth be told, probably looked and dressed quite similarly to every other band playing that day -- and not have any idea who the hell they were 'til they were finishing and saying "We're [band name here]; you've been great! Come see us at our merch table!"
Why not put a list of who's playing at each stage, rather than at one central location? Why not give every band a banner to hang behind 'em, so that when you wander by you can immediately stop and say, "Oh, cool -- I guess this is the Riverboat Gamblers; I've always wondered what they sound like"? (The only stage that even posted who was currently playing was the Shiragirl moving van/"stage".) It'd be a heck of a lot more informative (and much smarter, marketing-wise) than staring at a group of guys rocking out onstage and thinking, "hmm...that song sounds damn familiar, but I can't put my finger on it..."
- The Little Things: Like any OCD sufferer worth his or her personal filing system, I did some research on the Vans Warped Tour Website, looking to see what the show would be like. It promised bags to be handed out to concertgoers so they could pick up recyclables and turn 'em in to enter a raffle, which I thought sounded pretty cool, and a "reverse daycare" tent where kids could drop off their parents, which I'd planned to attempt to crash, claiming that The Kid was my kid. Sadly, I could find neither hide nor hair of either. What I did find, instead, was (as noted previously, at least in part) a big, hot, sweaty mess of kids standing amid piles of soiled flyers, discarded bottles, vomit, and random pieces of lost clothing. The little amenities may not count for much, but when they're promised on the Tour Website, um, maybe they should be there? Just a thought.
Oh, and maybe I'm confusing this with a different tour, but wasn't the Warped Tour once a music and skating tour? The Kid and I scoured the grounds looking for skaters doing their thing, and we were somewhat disappointed when we finally found 'em -- there was one lonely halfpipe set up smack-dab in the middle of the park, with ten or so laid-back skaters doing tricks and hanging out. I have no clue who they were, if they were local kids or imported Warped Tour skaters, or if they were competing in any kind of contest, because there was no emcee, no sign, no nothing to explain what the hell was going on. Honestly, I'm glad they were having fun and all skating, but from a show-goer perspective, they might as well've stayed home.
Okay. Now that I've gotten all negative on you, let me reiterate that yes, I did have a good time. It was fun, sunburn, hearing damage, and sore leg muscles notwithstanding. The Kid and I had some good bonding time, my admiration of The Explosion was firmly cemented, and I enjoyed the heck out of Armor For Sleep, Motion City Soundtrack, and the Offspring. I still regret missing Avenged Sevenfold, Transplants, and Strike Anywhere, in particular, but all in all, I enjoyed it. My quibbles are less with the bands than with the setup of the place and, hey, that's fixable. Maybe next year things'll be planned a little better.
Vans Warped Tour -- http://www.warpedtour.com/;
Armor For Sleep -- http://www.armorforsleep.com/;
Dropkick Murphys -- http://www.dropkickmurphys.com/;
The Explosion -- http://www.theexplosion.net/;
Glass Intrepid -- http://www.glassintrepidband.com/;
Motion City Soundtrack -- http://www.motioncitysoundtrack.com/;
My Chemical Romance -- http://www.mychemicalromance.com/;
The Offspring -- http://www.offspring.com/