Backing the rock rebellion
Even in the face of a bitter late-February snowstorm, thousands of teenagers are converging on Tsongas Arena in this city near Boston. It is a Monday evening, and they are here to see rock bands with names like the Used, My Chemical Romance, Killswitch Engage, A Static Lullaby, Senses Fail and Bleed the Dream.
But equally important are names like Samsung, Sprint, Nintendo, Hurley and Vans -- among the sponsors of the 37-date Taste of Chaos tour, which arrives tonight at the Long Beach Arena.
This is punk rock in 2005: Taste of Chaos -- the winter cousin of the Vans Warped Tour -- might have a sinister-sounding name and a blood-spattered logo, and it might offer a string of bands with apocalyptic-sounding names who scream their messages and punctuate them with shrill guitar riffs. But it is more about commerce and synergy than counterculture.
“It’s about giving kids value,” says tour co-founder John Reese of Freeze Management, whose company represents bands such as the Used and Head Automatica. “Kids in the winter don’t have much to do, and we wanted to give them a chance to see a lot of great bands for a small price.
“We try to choose companies that they’re into -- like the Nintendos, and cellphones and things like that. We’re not going to have, like, Ferrari be involved with our tour.”
Whoever is involved, Taste of Chaos has found an audience. Thirty-three of the tour’s original 38 dates, including tonight’s show, are sellouts -- the average venue capacity is 6,000 -- with one stop (Madison, Wis.) canceled because of slow sales.
On this chilly night in the Northeast, the atmosphere inside the arena feels like a rock ‘n’ roll prom, where hoodies advertising Atreyu or Fall Out Boy shirts replace tuxes and sequins.
Like most school dances, kids find safety in numbers. Pockets of young teenage girls stick together, sporting matching My Chemical Romance T-shirts, while others are dressed to impress in fishnets and heavy makeup.
Mixed-gender groups mingle and flirt between sets or run onto the crowded floor of the arena -- a sea of pogoing bodies, outstretched hands and the occasional flailing crowd surfer.
“The energy of the kids is what’s amazing me,” says Chaos co-founder Kevin Lyman, who also founded the Warped Tour. “In Lowell, I was going, ‘This must have been like kids in 1979,’ [just] the energy from the minute we opened doors.”
“When we pulled into Montreal [a few days later] at 8 a.m., the kids were lined up outside. In the snow.”
Many of these dedicated souls are no doubt enduring the freeze for New Jersey’s My Chemical Romance. The quintet is arguably the most popular band on the tour right now, thanks to its sophomore album and major-label debut, “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” -- a macabre miasma of ghoulish lyrics and goth-tinged punk and metal.
Although the bruise-colored makeup and suits that vocalist Gerard Way wears onstage make him resemble a zombie-like groomsman -- a look that has made him an unlikely crush object -- the cherubic 27-year-old strikes a much more benign figure in person. He sports a black T-shirt, olive-colored jacket and ripped jeans, a casual look that betrays little of My Chemical Romance’s tireless ambition.
“We’ve never given anybody the impression that we were anything but a rock band,” he says. “We’re never standing there going, ‘DIY forever.’ Our goal has always been to reach a lot of people.”
In the past, hearing a punk-influenced band admit to having aspirations would have led to its expulsion from the do-it-yourself club.
But tours such as Taste of Chaos and Warped -- whose ticket prices remain low and accessible to kids thanks to support from sponsors and companies -- demonstrate that punk’s new ethos accepts concessions to commercialism, as long as it’s mutually beneficial.
Why did the punk dogma against “selling out” become irrelevant to this new wave of musicians and fans?
For starters, most Taste of Chaos bands also came of age post-Nirvana, when groups such as Green Day, Offspring and Rancid received regular MTV airplay.
The underground versus mainstream schism that once divided punk purists from the poseurs disintegrated during this time as the genre became accessible.
Punks going platinum showed that being an outsider did not need to preclude mainstream infiltration. In fact, Way views My Chemical Romance’s popularity on commercial radio and MTV as a victory of sorts for bands and kids exploring the darker side of things.
“I’m very happy that a lot of people are getting this band,” he says. “It’s pretty much a big, huge shock to us, that people are just understanding something that’s not prepackaged -- and it can actually turn out to be a hit.
“Fans say, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’ That’s probably the best thing you can hear.”
These days, the Internet deserves credit for cultivating musical mutiny. Sites like purevolume.com, which features MP3s and band profiles, or blogs spread the gospel, in a sense reconfiguring the DIY zine and mix-tape culture for the digital age.
Just ask Chino Hills quintet A Static Lullaby. Although its major-label debut, “Faso Latido,” won’t be released until next week, the band posted the disc’s first single, “Stand Up,” months ago on its page on MySpace.com, a popular networking website for bands. And in Lowell, the crowd reaction is arguably loudest for the new song.
“It’s neat to see that you can release one or two songs on a website and let kids actually hear the new stuff, and still have them come out and be excited and sing those songs,” vocalist Joe Brown says.
According to Reese, the Internet is responsible also for the musical open-mindedness of today’s kids -- a trait benefiting the Massachusetts metal-core quintet Killswitch Engage. A dynamic band fond of gargantuan riffs and shape-shifting sonics -- vocalist Howard Jones can snarl like a tiger or croon almost delicately during its ferocious live act -- it’s finding acceptance on the Taste of Chaos tour despite having little in common musically with the other bands.
“We’ve decided to name this the ‘We’ll Be Picking You Up at 10 Tour,’ ” Jones says lightly. “It’s a different crowd than we’re used to ... lots of young kids. [But the tour is] going real good. Surprisingly good.”
Indeed, the sense of camaraderie within the punk genre remains its strongest asset -- no matter how far from its origins today’s scene strays.
“Young kids are getting into music,” Lyman says. “Hilary Duff, that’s what kids used to get at 11, 12 years old. Now they’re able to explore and find a different type of music at a younger age. And parents go, ‘You know what? My kid, if he wants to go to [see] live music, I’m going to let them go.’
“As my wife says, ‘You’re taking all the danger out of punk rock.’ Sometimes I feel like maybe I have -- but is that a bad thing?”
Annie Zaleski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taste of Chaos tour
Mainstage lineup: A Static Lullaby, Saosin, Senses Fail, Killswitch Engage, My Chemical Romance, the Used
Acoustic stage: Nicky P, Anias, American Eyes, Broke, Like Yesterday, My American Heart, Bleed the Dream
Where: Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 7 tonight
Info: (562) 436-3661 or www.tasteofchaos.com