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Warped Tour Charms Fans With Punk, Hip-Hop Extremes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For anyone who longs to be hot-wired into American Youth Culture, the Vans Warped Tour is a good place to start. The punk and hip-hop revue, which took over the San Bernardino Fairgrounds on Thursday, turned a vast expanse of asphalt into a Teenage Nation theme park. Tattoo-heavy bands blared away on four stages, extreme athletes engaged in gravity-defying competition, and vendors peddled everything from skateboard wheel casings to CD compilations. It was like an explosion of the suburban pop cultural zeitgeist, writ large.

Keeping the vibe grass-roots is the key to Warped’s charm, even if it is sponsored by a major sneaker company. Unlike the last Lollapalooza festival, the Warped Tour, in its fifth year, hasn’t yet devolved into a bloated package whose artists are out of step with their audience. With the exception of Top 10 acts such as Eminem and Blink-182, Warped’s Thursday roster (which was also scheduled for a reprise on Friday) was filled with bands that haven’t yet graduated to superstar status.

But this was no leisurely day in the sun. The daylong show was top-heavy with punk bands who lean toward the hard-core end of the spectrum. For fans of punishing beats and hair-raising vocals, the program was a connoisseur’s feast. For everyone else, Warped’s punk barrage was a relentless, guitar-driven monolith, with only the occasional hip-hop respite to break the momentum.

When it comes to punk, subtle variations are important. Even within the narrow confines of hard-core, fans appreciate the little stylistic change-ups that can turn the ordinary into something special. Thursday’s opening act Zebrahead worked jazzy chord changes and various rhythmic schemes into its set, at one point breaking into a churning soca jam that had the crowd hopping. Boston band Dropkick Murphys occasionally humanized its bruising attack with touches of Irish folk music, while the San Diego trio Blink-182 dropped a spoonful of sugar into its frenetic punk, demonstrating that melodiousness and speedy chops aren’t always mutually exclusive.

Punk eminence grise Mike Watt showed the crowd what being venturesome was really all about. Working with a trio that included inventive guitarist Nels Cline, Watt cooked up some ragged punk-fusion that sounded like a summit between the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Minutemen, his seminal L.A. punk band. Ska was given short shrift at Warped, but as the main stage’s sole emissaries, Aussie band the Porkers made the most of its half-hour time slot. Garbed in bowling shirts, the octet played hyper-fast and as tight as a Tupperware lid.

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