They Came, They Ska, They Punked Out

The Van's Warped Tour '97
with a Whole Lotta Bands
PNE Forum
Vancouver, B.C.
Wednesday, July 9, 1997

Review by Darren Kerr
Photography by Rodney Gitzel

[NOTE: photos are on their way...]

Here we are at another Warped Tour, with four stages crammed into one building, signifying another last-minute feat of organization. Considering that this whole sprawling entourage was supposed to be outside, this eleventh-hour rain-invoked shuffling was nothing short of a miracle -- which means that the sound shortcomings, though annoying, basically couldn't be helped. Once inside, I could feel the brotherhood and the love, I could taste the shitty overpriced popcorn, I could taste the merchandise.

There were 27 (!) bands playing today, and I did not catch them all. And I'm gonna do something that usually isn't according to Hoyle: I'm gonna give the majority of my words to the little people, the bands that are striving for higher rungs on the ladder. Let's face it, Sick of It All and Social Distortion are the stuff of legend already.

The first band I saw was Tha Alkaholiks, a stage full of rappers yelling at me. I don't have a clue what they were on about and, judging by the reaction they got, I don't think the crowd knew either. Everything except the vocals and the deafening bass rumble was a confusing cluster-fuck.

Calgary's Field Day, on one of the smaller stages, had the challenge of cutting through Tha Alcoholiks' boom, and they performed with much aplomb. Straight-ahead melodic Canadian pop punk with strong harmonies, tight riffs, and lots of middle-fingers displayed in good fun. The singer/bassist is moving to Brazil, but they are going to keep fighting the good fight. Wicked ape-like drummer, too.

Sugar Ray, from L.A., showed up bobbing and weaving like the prize fighter they're monikered after. Not even the king of Proctor Silex Hair, Don King himself, could dispute that Sugar Ray delivered the knock-out punch today. Lead singer Mark had a blast onstage jumping off the risers, wading through the crowd and rooster dancing in the pit. He jumped to the other stage beside him and tried to sing into a still-dormant mic. The consummate entertainer, he even told a joke: "Did you hear about the man with five penises? His pants fit like a glove. HA!!!"

Sugar Ray's sound is meaty, crunchy funk punk with more hooks than a Hellraiser face-pulling party. The guitarist knows when to hang in the pocket and when to get monkey wild. Add to this a juggernaut rhythm section and DJ Homicide's deft turntable prowess, and you've got yourself a new fave. Check out their two releases Lemonade and Brownies and Floored.

Sweden's Millencolin were a raging crowd favourite. Hyperactive pop punk with ska inflections that had the most crowd surfers of the day. It was hilarious watching the lone PNE security guy trying to block the entire front of the stage by himself as feet began to fly and girls toppled over the barricades. The singer/bass player looked like he had just finished playing football in the Champion's League. Of course, I couldn't understand a bloody word, but the majority of the audience knew every syllable.

After this kinetic experience, nearly everyone split the stage, leaving Sun Child playing to a sparse handful. One thing I have to ask: Who let Lynyrd Skynyrd in the building? I left, too, not because they were hippies, but because they were boring hippies playing rehashed blues-based rock with tie firmly in dye. Millencolin had everyone at a feverish boil, and when they left the stage, the stove was turned off. I don't think many bands could've successfully followed them. I think Sun Child would've been a lot happier playing the H.O.R.D.E. festival.

Anybody who was looking for music to skank to had a lot to choose from, today: traditional Jamaican ska, fast white-boy toasting, theatrical undead power nerd ska and ska core. Hepcat were pure undiluted Jamaican irie ska with none of that punk rock stuff to fuck it up. The main singer reminded me of Hugh Masekela and, dressed head-to-toe in a white tropical ensemble, he jogged, boogied and did the monkey. The other singer looked like a golf-happy Ben Vereen. The guitarist would take the spotlight with solos in a strange muffled pizzicato jazz style somewhat reminiscent of King Sunny Ade, while pain and pleasure crept over his face. After almost every song, "Hugh" made sure were knew what kind of music we were listening to -- "Hepcat style." It didn't matter that the keyboard player and the horn section weren't exactly virtuoso musicians (excepting sax player -- Man, could that cat blow!); as a group, they were more than adequate to get the crowd blissfully skanking. Watch for Hepcat's debut on Epitaph sometime in the future.

The Investigators, from Tacoma, were more in the two-tone vein like the Specials or the Selecter, but with a hyper toastmaster general who sang ninety words a minute. They were dressed like suited thugs from film noir and were all considerably taller than the ducktail-haired lead singer. The entire horn section, hell, everybody sang. Choruses were shouted like kung fu threats or rugby chants. Energetic, well-rehearsed and probably on some generic brand amphetamine, they overcame the constant intrusion of sound from the other stage. They came, they ska, they conquered.

Finally some locals: the Malchiks looked like extras in a schlock movie. I'm trying to picture the whole band, yet for some reason I can only envision the singer, who was made up like a vampire, and the guy wearing the cowboy hat, whose function was not unlike Pavement's Bob Nastanovich, in that he hit some stuff, played some stuff, yelled a bit and generally made his presence felt. They sounded dramatic and intriguing, but they, too, had to battle the sound from the main stages. Unfortunately, they lost. Chaotic Din:1, Malchiks: 0. I'd like to viddy them on their own turf with a glass of strong moloko in front of me.

I felt really sorry for Ten Day Late. They were playing at the same time that Sick of It All were leaving lungs and razorblades on the main stage. Their metallic grind was so enveloped by Lou Koller and the boys that it was tantamount to a Bengal tiger devouring house pets. I could barely decipher the tunes. Big points for effort though.

So, how did the big four -- Social Distortion, Descendents, Sick of It All and Pennywise -- fare in this purgatory of sound? A damn sight better than everyone else: they had the majordomo system, they were on the main stage -- and theirs were the t-shirts that were on the backs of the youth.

I once saw a documentary about an ill-fated tour with Social Distortion and Youth Brigade during their early hungry years. Social D's Mike Ness came off pompous, as if his three-chord monotony was the signpost pointing the way to Oz. They bored me then, and a few generations and style barometers later, I'm still left listless... but wait... that's Chuck Biscuits (formerly of D.O.A. and Vancouver) beating those drums!

Overall, the set wasn't half bad, but, from where I was planted, a lot of the choruses sounded like E-I-E-I-O. That's not a dig at the band, but rather at the sound set up (again). The highlight for me was definitely "Ring of Fire," everybody's favourite Johnny Cash tune, which smoked. Ness was sounding off like he had a pair, and Biscuits was icing the cake with truncheons. File under 'not dead yet.'

The Descendents are of the old guard of punk rock. They helped create a style of melody and mayhem that has been pilfered by most bands making top dollar today. Are they bitter? Way!! They, along with All, are probably the least amused, watching the form of music, lifestyle and attitude that they built on danger, rebellion and plain ol' teenage kicks becoming diluted and embraced by the same people they hated at the beginning.

They can still kick it, though. Milo Auckerman still gives off the vibes of disgruntled postal workers as he spits out anthems of alienation and disgust. On this day, the pit was so crazy and seething that kids were still talking about it five hours later. That's about it, really, just good hard-nosed punk music, as familiar as Mom's home cooking.

Sick of It All are probably one of the scariest things in New York, second only to Harley Flanaghan's high school yearbook picture. Along with Biohazard, Machine Head and the abomination known as Crowbar, they are abrasive, loud, heavy with message and narrow of musical scope. If they were a category on the $25,000 Pyramid, it would be: Bands That Go Grrr!!

So, lead singer Lou Koller greets the audience, blah, blah, blah, motherfuckers, blah, blah, blah, hardcore, yadda, yadda, Grrr!... but they forgot to turn Lou's mic on. Oops -- false start. Try it again. Grrr! All kidding aside, these guys make a thunderstorm sound with their constant jackhammering guitar and bass, barrage of brilliant drumming (natch) and Koller going Grrr! I couldn't understand a word (yet again), but I know that it was all intensively positive life-affirming anger management material. They give good role model, but they're just too redundant for me, so I left to hear their sound goose-step all over Ten Days Late's set.

Now, where were Pennywise? That was the question on everybody's mind. At 4:00pm their gear and roadies were on stage -- but no band! And no explanation. It seemed like they were going to be the prized horse scratched from the derby. Then they appeared, batting in the cleanup position (i.e. after everyone else was done) and they smacked an upper deck grand salami on the second pitch thrown.

I don't know why I enjoyed Pennywise as much as I did. They have that formula "Epitaph" sound -- melodic, simple, catchy punk -- which I usually find competent but forgettable. But this band pulls off everything they do with so much heart and verve that you just gotta love 'em.

They won me over with their Sublime cover and a "cheers, bro" to the late Brad Nowell ("Give it up for Bradley, 'cause he's here with us today"). Halfway through their set they picked two girls from the crowd to sing the Ben E. King classic "Stand by Me." Later, they played requests (Minor Threat and Misfits covers), which made me wish that I owned all the records. Pennywise were a welcome surprise that made me forget I was in a concrete box, and sent me to the #29 bus with the chorus of "Perfect People" laying down roots in my head.

First published in Drop-D Magazine on August 1, 1997

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