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At The Vans Warped Tour, Punk, Served More Often Sweet Than Raw

Punk as an aid for getting in touch with one’s feelings has superseded the other modes evident at this year’s Warped Tour.

As in their ordinary lives, these fans had too many options. Thirty bands played on eight stages, and the event also included professional skateboarding and mountain- biking displays, a wrestling ring, a Playstation tent, numerous ways to spend money or learn about political causes and of course the chance to peruse one another’s concertgoing finery. So most fans locked into a perambulatory pattern, meandering around the festival’s circular layout as the fairground grew dusty, then muddy, from the endless trudging and the sweaty weather.

The galvanizing moment that crowns most festivals never materialized. Two hotly anticipated acts, D-12 and Sum 41, were absent. Members of the rap group D-12, protégés of Eminem, were asked to leave the tour in Philadlphia, as was the rapper Esham, after they all got into a fight. The rising punk-pop band Sum 41 was in Seattle doing a radio show. Many bands seemed rushed by the threat of rain. One main-stage headliner, Rancid, had played the festival just a few years before, while the other, Henry Rollins, was old enough to be more legend than idol to the high schoolers who dominated the crowd.

Performances by emerging stars did stop wanderers in their tracks. In the early afternoon Jimmy Eat World took its earnest harmonic rock to the stage, encouraging listeners to believe in themselves and take risks like falling in love. This Arizona band’s sincerity drew a passionate response.

Yet anyone abandoning Jimmy Eat World would have found extremely similar sounds and views only steps away. No Motiv, from California, gave emotional punk a Valley Boy spin on one side stage, while Flipside added brash humor on another. The Ataris and Good Charlotte later revisited this style, earning delighted responses from the audience.

Punk as an aid for getting in touch with one’s feelings has superseded the other modes evident at this year’s Warped Tour. Punk as an expression of tribal solidarity still dominated performances by Rancid and the touring warhorses Pennywise and H20, while the Vandals and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, an all-star conglomeration that ferociously reworks mainstream hits like “Seasons in the Sun,” represented punk as a sarcastic form of rebellion.

Only Mr. Rollins, who as a singer in the band Black Flag helped invent the music that Warped celebrates, fully tapped the irascibility that once made punk unabsorbable by the mainstream. Mostly gray-haired now, but still ferociously hulky, Mr. Rollins led his latest band through raw songs inspired by his elders, the Stooges and the MC5. He made fun of the rote calls for unity that rang throughout the day. “I don’t live in a Sting song; I’m not together with anybody!” he declared, although he also instructed fans to be respectful of others while pursuing their individuality.

The act closest in spirit to Mr. Rollins wasn’t musical at all. Incredibly Strange Wrestling, a San Francisco troupe inspired by the Mexican wrestling tradition, maintained a wonderfully contrarian spirit. Yet it also epitomized the contradictions that the Warped Tour bridges.

In the current rock scene wrestling does not belong to punk; the juvenile antics of this televised so- called sport are more associated with rap-metal acts like Limp Bizkit. Taking wrestling on the Warped tour could have earned cries of “sellout” from purists. But Incredibly Strange Wrestling revived the backlot spirit of old-style bouts, keeping the act fresh, fleshy and theatrical.

The first bout pitted the team of the Mexican Viking, dressed in a fur cave-man outfit, and Macho Sasquatcho, wearing a Bigfoot suit, against two boy-band parodists who sang about Dianetics between brawls. In the second fight a would-be white rapper arm-wrestled a giant chicken. The blend of satire aimed at the music business and plain old slapstick gave Incredibly Strange Wrestling the spark of old-school punk.

Criticizing other aspects of the Warped tour for not being punk enough misses its point, however. The event, now in its seventh year, has been instrumental in taking the genre (and arguably its complementary lifestyle) beyond a particular historical moment or community. As always, this Warped tour included a few acts not at all influenced by punk. The rapper Kool Keith offered an unusually tight set, undoubtedly making some new fans. The reggae group Morgan Heritage sang of revolution, grounding its music in classic 1970’s-style grooves but adding dance hall and Brooklyn-style rap to the mix.

Other bands used punk’s energy in pursuit of other muses. The mostly female Ultra Baby Fat restyled garage rock with a melodic edge. Zooloft, seen by few as it played on a side stage late in the day, offered amiably weird art rock. Several groups, including Less Than Jake and the River City Rebels, showed their love for ska. The Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly and Rogue’s March tinged their rock with Celtic green.

Alien Ant Farm, one of the most popular side-stage bands, capably delivered the metal-funk fusion that dominates today’s rock airwaves, although the group’s lyrical content exactly resembled that of the emo- punk bands.

Alien Ant Farm also expressed a typically paradoxical attitude toward commercialism. After catching a beach ball emblazoned with the logo for “American Pie 2,” the band’s lead singer, Dryden Mitchell, used it as a way to plug the group’s appearance on that film’s soundtrack. Later, though, after carefully reciting the Warped Tour’s many sponsors, he shouted that his band was not backed by any of those corporations.

Mainstream versus independent, fervent versus cynical, silly versus serious: the Warped Tour continues to offer fans a way to symbolically reconcile such tensions. This year’s lack of focus may have been the most appropriate response to a musical moment that offers everything, without stressing particulars, as everyone circles the mall of popular culture, a new option always in sight.

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