Now in its 11th year, the Vans Warped Tour still continues its tradition of offering punk rock — in all its incarnations — to a field of teenagers hungry to fit in while maintaining the anti-establishment ethos of punk’s origins. It’s one-stop-shopping in more ways than one: A midway crammed with booths selling everything from hemp jewelry to kink-ready dog collars is reminiscent of a mall full of Hot Topic rip-offs, with a soundtrack provided by whichever of the 10 stages is closest to the attendee’s location at any given time. Some of the booths — myspace.com’s massive tent, for instance — also host bands, so even when audience members move for a respite from 1-2-3-4 attacks, they’re still at the mercy of the music. And that’s the way they like it.
When you’ve got 50-plus like-minded bands playing to the same sun-stroked audience, a lot of the music is going to end up running together, both literally and thematically. There’s a reason each generation of punks ends up with one or two iconic bands amid a sea of contenders: It’s a challenge to write a great punk song but very easy to write 25 OK ones. This year’s headliners, from three generations of punk-rockers, created a mini history lesson in what makes a punk song great.
Punk vets the Offspring and Billy Idol pulled in two of the biggest crowds of the day on opposing stages, though only the Offspring demonstrated why they’ve managed to be relevant and resilient for a decade. A greatest-hits set that covered everything from their breakthrough Epitaph record “Smash” to the recent hit “Can’t Repeat” had everyone from the 14-year-old girls to their thirtysomething mothers singing along.
Idol’s set was the opposite: a desperate attempt to reclaim his past glory, approached in exactly the wrong way — playing new songs. Though he did revisit his genre-defining band Generation X’s “Ready Steady Go” and his own classic “Rebel Yell,” he performed them hesitantly, seeming almost Vegas-bound in his delivery. Opening with three songs from his new record, “Devil’s Playground” (Sanctuary), was a mistake, as the onlookers just interested in hearing “White Wedding” left disappointed.
Among the newer onslaught of punks, the far-and-away standout was Island Records act Fall Out Boy, which delivered an overcharged, pop-influenced set that was powerful without feeling forced. The Transplants, a hip-hopping side project for members of Blink 182 and Rancid, were crowdpleasing but ultimately dull, as were metalheads Avenged Sevenfold, another fan favorite. My Chemical Romance brought goth charisma to its sing-along power-rock, and Motion City Soundtrack added Moog keyboard sounds to its rapid-assault raunch.
But much of the newer music seemed inconsequential. The punk style — black shirts, spiked hair and ripped designer jeans — united the crowd as much as any of the newer headliners’ pleas for the audience to give them the one-finger salute.