After performing Cash Cash’s upbeat commercial hit “Take Me Home,” an unusual song to play on the first day of the 2015 Vans Warped Tour, Bebe Rexha said, “Somebody asked me, ‘Do you feel worried to play Warped Tour ‘cause you’re not a punk band?’ And I said, ‘Do you know what punk is?’ It’s a style. Sometimes we all feel left out. We go through the same things, we just express ourselves in different ways.”
To showcase a dance-pop tune with confidence and attitude in front of metalheads, bouncing pop-punk fans, and alt-rockers is what the Warped Tour is all about -- and it’s why, 15 years after its launch, the festival can successfully feature Black Veil Brides, New Years Day, Riff Raff, Beartooth, the Wonder Years, Motion City Soundtrack, Rexha, and more than 20 other artists on the same bill.
Kicking off this year’s tour in Pomona, Calif. on a 97-degree day, many of the acts complained about the heat during their sets, but that didn’t stop them from jumping, screaming and delivering high-powered shows for the packed crowd. The day’s headliners, Black Veil Brides, delivered a melodic heavy-metal gig in the vein of Avenged Sevenfold with a touch more Mötley Crüe than Guns N’ Roses. The band opened with the rapid, infectious “Coffin,” then played the hook-and-harmony-laden “Crown of Thorns,” during which makeup wearing guitarists Jake Pitts and Jinxx demonstrated a range of rock star poses, playing back to back and swaying from side to side while vocalist Andy Biersack, dressed in black suspenders and a Batman pin, switched between fierce growls and melodic vocals.
After thanking the crowd, the other Warped bands, and the festival staff, Biersack said, “And thank you to me for shutting the f—k up and playing another song.” For most of the band’s five-song set, Biersack did just that, letting the band’s music speak. Black Veil Brides treated the audience to its debut live performance of “The Legacy”; as well as fan favorites, “Fallen Angels” and the set-closer “In the End.”
New Years Day warmed up the crowd for Black Veil Brides by delivering an energetic brew of what singer Ash Costello calls “hauntedmansioncore,” a blend of metal, pop-punk, and gothic rock. Wearing a black-and-white schoolgirl outfit and displaying half-red, half black long hair, stockings, tall boots and tats aplenty, the only thing more alluring than Costello’s outfit was the band’s tight, headbob-inducing music, which included “Death of the Party” and the debut performance of “Kill or Be Killed,” which she dedicated to “anyone that’s been pushed around by somebody -- especially somebody you loved and trusted. When you get pushed it’s f--king time to push back.”
Aside from the aforementioned Bebe Rexha, who performed spirited versions of David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” (which she sings with Nicki Minaj on the record, but isn’t credited), the vocally acrobatic “I Don’t Want To Grow Up,” and the more unhinged “I’m Gonna Show You Crazy,” there were other non-rock highlights. L.A. rappers Far East Movement took the stage with Riff Raff for “The Illest” (Riff Raff performs on the album track). Then Riff Raff, dressed in purple brains, a yellow t-shirt, and polka-dot shorts, knocked out a couple more tunes on his own, including “Dolce & Gabanna” and “Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwwdinz.”
Also during the festival, Mod Sun played a mix of rap and reggae, Pvris performed a stirring blend of electronic pop, and alt-rock and Night Riot delivered a set of new wavey pop reminiscent at times of Psychedelic Furs. And the quirky alt-rock/folk rock hybrid Never Shout Never provided an offbeat, ear-catching mixture that included a cover of White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
Some of the high-volume bands didn’t qualify as metal, pop-punk or even straight punk. Beartooth, who were formed by ex-Attack Attack! singer Caleb Shomo, played a tuneful style of hardcore that included the songs “Beaten in Lips,” in which the band chanted “Light my words with kerosene”; and the more turbulent “Body Bag,” which Shomo dedicated to Slayer.
Transit played songs that balanced angst, muscle and jangle, while Joe Boynton sang lines such as “Am I the best you ever had or do I blend in with the rest? (“Too Little, Too Late”). And Icon For Hire, a female-fronted electro-tinted rap-metal band wowed the crowd with songs like “Make a Move” and a cover of DJ Khaled’s “All I do Is Win.”
Of course, the Warped Tour wouldn’t be the same without bona fide pop-punk, and this year Motion City Soundtrack stood out amongst the pack. Dressed in a flannel with tousled hair, vocalist Justin Pierre led the band through each tight, bouncy song, including “LG Fuad (Let’s Get F---ed Up and Die),” “Time Turned Fragile,” and the new number “TKO.”
Other pop-punk highlights included Man Overboard, who played with the speed of Alkaline Trio and the dexterity of Blink-182. As with many pop-punk outfits, most of the songs were about unrequited love, like “Montrose,” which featured the line “My heart caves in when I look at you.” Metro Station returned from a five year hiatus with a set that, at times, was reminiscent of Simple Plan. At one point it brought Falling In Reverse frontman Ronnie Radke on for a guest spot and closed with the electronic-embellished “Seventeen Forever.”
One of the best received pop-punk band was the Wonder Years, whose blend of jangly and fuzzy guitars made the band’s upbeat songs oddly melancholy. Highlights were “There, There” and “Passing Through a Screen Door,” with its soft, melodic chug, which built into a more energetic riff.
Other pop-punk based bands included As It Is, which took on a Jimmy Eat World feel and Neck Deep, a Welsh band on its first U.S. tour and which seems to have a penchant for Blink-182. While Warped started out as a showcase for pop-punk and has included perennials like Pennywise, Bad Religion, and NOFX as well as bands that grew into mainstream rockers such as Blink-182 and Green Day, this year the festival is as much of a platform for crunchy, stomping deathcore, and metalcore bands that exhibit a trademark amalgam of raw-throated roaring and melodic vocals (often delivered by different singers), churning guitars, battering drum and slower breakdown rhythms. Maybe the decision to book so many Cookie Monster growlers this year stemmed from having heavy acts like Black Veil Brides and New Year Day as main attractions. Then again, Warped has featured Avenged Sevenfold, Pierce the Veil and Suicide Silence in the past.
The tightest and most accessible of the metalcore/deathcore crew were Memphis May Fire, whose frontman Matty Mullins’ father was a pastor. As angry as his band sounded, the singer imbued his lyrics with hope, “I believe with all my heart that true beauty lies beneath the skin,” he said as he introduced the crashing, distortion-soaked “Beneath The Skin.” One of the more gifted frontmen on the scene, Mullins growls like a beast and sings like a rock star. The band matched his talents with a fierce, tight set that included “No Ordinary Love,” “Stay The Course,” and “The Sinner.”
Other high-octane bands that sounded like they imbibed a few too many energy drinks included Amity Affliction and Blessthefall. Attila, whose vocalist Chris Fronzak chose to wear a white plastic rain jacket, said to the crowd, “Don’t let anyone tell you how to live your life. You got one life, you better live it up!” before his band dove into “Payback.”
We Came As Romans weren’t quite as brutal, peppering its songs with piano and keyboard string samples, while Miss May I performed a scorching combination of rapid beats and frenetic guitar parts informed by Killswitch Engage, In Flames and All That Remains.
The cleanest cut metal demolitionists of the festival were August Burns Red, whose singer Jake Luhrs wore a blue and white knit-collared shirt and khaki shorts. The conservative look contrasted with the band’s music, which was more technical than some of the other breakdown-heavy bands. As crushing as it sounded, a moment of levity entered its set when August Burns Red played a form of surf metal and a man in a shark costume danced across the stage, then dove into the crowd.
Such elements of humor didn’t fill the day, but having fun was a prime objective for both the bands and the fans. Even though Pomona climbed above 90 degrees and the it seemed even hotter in the middle of the packed crowd, most of the people who attended the first day of the Warped Tour -- even those with bright red sunburns -- left smiling.