With rap metal's current grip on the disenfranchised-youth market, punk rock seems to have taken a back seat lately. But the seventh annual Vans Warped Tour--an all-day event showcasing hard-core hell-raisers and extreme sports--suggests that the original aggro music may be primed to rear its ugly head once again.
Past Warped tours have attempted to delve into other genres, such as ska, metal and even swing, but this year's lineup stays relatively true to the punchy, three-chord mayhem that's always made punk a potent form of expression.
Ranging from raucous to wacky to rhythmic, Thursday's gathering at Seaside Park in Ventura (a pleasantly breezy predecessor to Friday's scheduled stop at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) offered a chance to see some true pioneers who haven't mellowed with age nor been discouraged by lack of recognition from mainstream audiences.
Brutal grinders Fear (with a guest appearance from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, who played bass with the group in the early '80s) blasted its noise bombs early, while fellow Southern California originators the Vandals played later to a bigger crowd, much of which probably had no idea that the band's boisterous 'n' bratty style has been lifted by more successful pop-punks such as Blink-182 and Green Day.
While there were no bands as commercially potent as Blink on Thursday's bill (Blink will play some dates later in the tour), the group showing the most potential for that kind of mega-MTV success was, ironically, one of the most anti-establishment acts there. Southland ragers Pennywise have always had a loyal underground following, but with the new album, "Land of the Free?," Pennywise's socially conscious chaos may well spread to the masses.
The group rendered the tightest, most passionate performance at Thursday's show, with gargantuan guitarist Fletcher Dragge commanding the crowd to let loose "like the good ol' days." Whirling mosh pits and crowd-surfing punctuated the group's version of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop," and singer Jim Lindberg wailed anti-government tunes including "My Own Country" and "[Expletive] Authority."
Rancid, the other prominent veteran on the bill, didn't fare so well. Its new material is pure adrenaline, and the Bay Area band went for the same feral vibe on stage. But its erratic, often sloppy style failed to connect, even on the old hits.
Warped's old-school heavy vibe was speckled with some bright new acts who demonstrated just how splintered the punk world has become. Melodic choruses and buoyant beats characterized such up-and-comers as H20, Bouncing Souls, the Ataris and New Found Glory, while things strayed off into hip-hop grooves with 311 and Kool Keith and irreverent zaniness with all-star "cover" band Me First & the Gimme Gimmes.
There was some promising talent on the side stages (girl rockers Lo-Ball and Bottom at the "Ladies Lounge," popsters Sugarcult and Liars Inc. on the second stage). Things were spread out in a way that made it impossible to see everything, but with so much going on--skateboarding, wrestling, bands in autograph booths, a beer garden--there was never a dull moment.