Touring music festivals just aren't what they used to be. Granted, that statement uses a platitude, but it's not rose-colored hyperbole — it's the truth. Pick a touring fest from the '90s — Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, Ozzfest — and you'll find that all of them have either died or been relegated to one-off or weekend shows instead of the massive nationwide runs of old. The only substantial survivor is the Vans Warped Tour, which has prospered even though the mainstream heyday for the genres it initially focused on (those being punk rock and ska) is long past.
The primary reason that Kevin Lyman's brainchild is now in its 17th year is because it has managed to adapt to shifting demographic tastes. Sure, you can still find more traditional punk and ska on Warped, but those styles are played down as post-hardcore, screamo, emo and metalcore have grown more popular. Lyman's suffered a lot of shit over the years for a lot of things, but even if a bunch of terrible trendy bands typically top Warped bills nowadays, he's somehow managed to keep the ticket price pretty steady over the years.
The 2011 Hartford date features around 65 acts, including Paramore, Yelawolf, Relient K, 3OH!3, Less Than Jake, and the Devil Wears Prada, so the general band-per-dollar value is fantastic. Moreover, the bill features a handsome amount of variety: you've got the standard genres mentioned above, plus hip-hop, electronica, folk and other outliers. Special props to Lyman for keeping up on the diversity front, as if you get sick of hearing one sort of sound, all it usually takes is a five-minute walk to catch another.
As always, the Warped schedule is never released until the day of the show (if you're new to this thing, get there early and keep an eye out for a big-ass inflatable bulletin board) and bands always threaten to drop out, so the chances of actually seeing multiple names you like are left in the air until you actually get there. That being said, here's a look at five bands of different styles you should keep your eyes and ears out for come Sunday:
Lucero: It's incredibly easy for a Southern alt-country/sorta-punk band to express their infatuation with drinking hard and let that cliché be that. Yet Lucero takes that template and fills it with enough soul and careful songwriting to make it mean something fresh and honest. The Memphis band's greatest asset is Ben Nichols' craggy, world-worn howl/croon, which is absolutely perfect for their sound. Another plus when it comes to Lucero is their good taste: they do a gorgeous cover of Jawbreaker's "Kiss the Bottle" and dedicated a song on 2009's 1372 Overton Park to Maggie Chascarrillo, a character from the beloved indie comic Love and Rockets.
Grieves: Appearing on Warped Tour with cohort Radio, embattled Seattle-based rapper Grieves (a.k.a. Ben Laub) is a guy with partners in good places. The guy's latest work, Together/Apart, comes from Minneapolis' Rhymesayers Entertainment, and being associated with an indie hip-hop label that venerated is reason enough to give him a shot. We're still trying to figure out whether or not Grieves cribs his moniker from that awesome Pixies song, which would be another excellent association.
SHARKS: The '70s and '80s might be long gone, but the spirit of the Clash and other classic punk-via-pub-rock bands like the Jam is carried on by SHARKS, a young band from Royal Leamington Spa, England. The four-piece recently dropped bassist Cris O'Reilly, but they will be sticking to their Warped commitments with replacement talent. Admittedly, SHARKS have much more personality and verve on record than in person, but do give their sound a shot to see if this throwback is up your alley.
The Wonder Years: Keeping in line with bands on this year's Warped Tour who crib their names from previously established properties (Of Mice & Men and The Devil Wears Prada being other examples), the Wonder Years deliver what they call "realist pop-punk." This idea materializes as big hooks matched with hardcore gusto and vocalist Dan "Soupy" Campbell's pointed sense of lyrical positivity. Too much sunniness tends to be overbearing, but this Philly band has enough energy to justify espousing this POV.
Bad Rabbits: There are a billion revivals going on at any given moment, but new jack swing — an R&B sub-genre popular during the late '80s and early '90s — hasn't been given much prominent play. To combat this, Bad Rabbits champion the same kinds of drum sounds and big beats the likes of Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat have dabbled in. The Boston-based Rabbits take great pride in playing to varied audiences (they've opened for both Glassjaw and Wu-Tang Clan), so Warped Tour is pretty much their perfect platform to try and impress any errant passersby.
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Vans Warped Tour 2011
$29.50, Sunday, July 17, Comcast Theatre, 61 Savitt Way, Hartford, (860) 548-7370, livenation.com