This past Saturday, October 10, 2015, thousands of punk rockers descended upon the San Manuel Amphitheater Festival Grounds in San Bernardino, California for the first ever It’s Not Dead festival. Those who attended were primarily in their late thirties to mid-forties, the generation who came before those who attended the Taste of Chaos festival the previous weekend.
The festival utilized three stages: the Old Skool Stage, the Big Ernie Stage and the main stage. Downtime between sets on the main stage was minimized thanks to a turntable setup once again used from the weekend prior. In addition to the three stages, there was a vert ramp which featured skate and BMX demos, the Art’s Not Dead exhibit which featured artwork inspired by the punk scene (and those in it), and Punks Well Read book signings.
I could hear music blaring as I approached the venue from the parking lot. I quickly realized that the band performing was Goldfinger, one of the many bands I had hoped to see. Unfortunately, I was unable to catch Goldfinger’s performance, and thus did not have the privilege of watching Mike Herrera of MXPX, Philip “Moon” Sneed of Story of the Year, and the Reel Big Fish’s horn section perform with John Feldman and “Dangerous” Darrin Pfeiffer. It’s been a long time since Goldfinger used a horn section, I’m glad to see the band has returned to their Ska roots.
After receiving my credentials and navigating through the crowds at the Old Skool and Big Ernie stages I was able to watch Strung Out’s performance. Strung Out released their latest album Transmission.Alpha.Delta in March of this year. Lead singer, Jason Cruz, announced that they were going to play a song from their new album, and immediately a fan yelled: “Play the old s***!” At that moment, it was abundantly clear that these fans were not attending just another concert, but rather a chance to relieve their glorious youth.
Following Strung Out was Reel Big Fish, a Ska band from Huntington Beach, California fresh off their tour of Australia. The band dressed accordingly for the high 90-degree temperatures, except for the horn section. The horn section, which features a saxophone, trumpet, and trombone, opted to wear different jackets in the extreme heat. I have no idea why they chose to do this; I was burning up in a t-shirt, and can only imagine how hot they must have been.
Reel Big Fish kept fans happy by playing classics such as “Another F.U. Song” and “The Kids Don’t Like It”. In addition to their songs, we were all entertained by their never ending antics. In Reel Big Fish tradition, lead singer Aaron Barrett, announced they would be playing one of their songs which had been a radio hit in the 90s. The band began to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, until Barrett interrupted and stated: “not that song; everyone knows that’s by The Used!” The band then began playing their hit “Sell Out” and the skank pits went crazy! Another highlight was listening to their ska rendition of The Offspring’s “Self Esteem”.
The stage rotated at the conclusion of Reel Big Fish’s performance, revealing a piñata which resembled Donald Trump and was labeled as such with a simple, handwritten black ink on white paper sign which read: “TRUMP”. The piñata was quickly thrown into the crowd as Anti-Flag came on stage, and ripped to shreds. The skank pits, which had formed during Reel Big Fish’s performance, quickly turned into mosh pits. There was minimal soap-boxing during Anti-Flag’s performance, although they did remind us to support peace, not war. For their last couple of songs, the band brought a portion of the drum set down from the stage to the barricade, and intimately played to their fans.
Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman used the time Anti-Flag required to haul their equipment back to the stage to announce the first of the last four bands to play on the main stage. The announcement was made using a wheel, which had been divided into four equal parts and labeled: Descendents, Bad Religion, NOFX and Pennywise. Lyman stated that the wheel was being used because: “there are no headliners in punk rock.” As the wheel spun, the crowd held their breath eagerly awaiting the outcome. The first of the four “non-headliners” to perform would be…the Descendents!
As the stage rotated to reveal the next band, the theme for Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (Fox fanfare), blared over the speakers; we all knew that Less Than Jake would not disappoint. Less Than Jake opened with “Sugar in Your Gas Tank” off the album Losing Streak, which was followed by “The Ghosts of Me and You” from Anthem. Lead singer Chris DeMakes then paused for a moment to welcome all of us to “the ’98 Warped Tour!”
Less Than Jake’s mascot, Evolution Kid, is known to make appearances during their shows. During this particular performance, Evolution Kid’s antics began when he tossed a Less Than Jake balloon with a Less Than Jake t-shirt over it into the crowd. Shockingly, the balloon managed to survive the entire festival, I saw a young lady carrying it out as I was leaving. The t‑shirt on the other hand went missing rather quickly. Evolution Kid’s next mischievous act was covering the crowd, and photographers, on stage left with toilet paper with the aid of a toilet paper gun. While the crowd did not seem to mind too much, I could tell that some of the unlucky photographers were not pleased. Less Than Jake continued to play for another twenty minutes or so, before signing off with: “see you later Bill & Ted!”
I took a short break from Less Than Jake’s performance on the main stage to check out the smaller stages. T.S.O.L. was performing on the Old Skool stage, and lead singer Jack Grisham made a comment about all of the beer flying through the air. Grisham said: “who has that kind of money to waste half a beer? That’s anarchy!” I don’t know that I have ever seen beer lines as long as the lines I saw at the It’s Not Dead festival, so maybe these older punks can afford to waste half a beer.
Next up on the main stage was The Bouncing Souls, who would have sounded awesome right out of the gate had their amps not malfunctioned during the first two songs. This prompted the crowd to begin chanting “fix the mic” in unison. Fortunately, the issue was resolved relatively quickly and the show continued. The Bouncing Souls performance included “Lean on Sheena” off the album The Gold Record and “The Something Special” from How I Spent My Summer Vacation. Lead singer Greg Attonito intimately sang to the crowd by climbing down from the stage and climbing onto the barricade. Perhaps this was his way of apologizing for the earlier sound issues, or maybe he just wanted to connect with the fans, regardless the crowd was ecstatic.
At the conclusion of the Bouncing Souls set, Kevin Lyman went back to the wheel to determine who the second “non‑headliner” would be, and this time the wheel stopped on NOFX!
The Vandals, notably one of the older bands playing the festival, performed after The Bouncing Souls. Like so many of the bands before them, The Vandals appeared to be having a great time playing with so many old friends, both in the audience and backstage. Despite their age, The Vandals were full of energy, and left the audience wanting more. After the band finished playing their hit “Oi to the World!,” they announced that they would once again be playing their annual Christmas Formal show at House of Blues in Anaheim this December.
Kevin Lyman stepped out one last time to spin the wheel and determine the third and fourth “non-headliners”. Lyman spun the wheel and it stopped on…Descendents, who were already set to perform first. Rather than spin the wheel a second time, Lyman turned the wheel to Bad Religion, and then to Pennywise, judging the crowd’s reaction to each; Lyman determined that Bad Religion would perform third, and Pennywise would close out the festival. Some people were notably upset by this decision, and stated that Bad Religion should be closing since they typically close out Warped Tour (whenever they are part of it). But alas, the wheel had spoken, and the four “non-headliners” would be performing in the following order: Descendents, NOFX, Bad Religion and Pennywise.
The last band to go on before the four “non-headliners” was Lagwagon. Being the last band to play before the headliner, or headliners, is never an easy spot to be in. By this point, fans are becoming anxious and no longer paying full attention. Fortunately for Lagwagon, this was not the case. Lead singer Joey Cape kept the crowd engaged, and those in the audience thanked him by singing along to their favorite songs. Lagwagon’s set included “Sleep” and “Razor Burn” from the album Hoss, and “May 16” off Let’s Talk About Feelings.
As the mohawks began to droop, the Descendents took the stage as the first of the four “non‑headliners”. The Descendents had the first hour long set of the night, and made excellent use of their time. They opened with “Everything Sucks” and their performance also included favorites “I’m the One”, “Talking”, “Suburban Home” and “Coffee Mug”. The Descendents sounded just as good as when they recorded Milo Goes to College and Everything Sucks; clearly recording and touring together for 37 years has not slowed them down.
When NOFX took the stage, “Fat” Mike Burkett displayed a red mohawk while wearing a black leather mini skirt with a pink studded belt, and a gray Strung Out t-shirt. For anyone who is not familiar with NOFX, this must have seemed quite odd; for those in attendance at the It’s Not Dead festival; however, it was practically normal. The band performed “Don’t Call Me White” and “Linoleum” from Punk in Drublic and “Dinosaurs Will Die” from Pump Up the Valuum. Perhaps the most fitting song the band performed was “Mattersville”. This is a song about a retirement community for punk rockers who, despite their age, still have plenty of life left in them.
The stage was illuminated by the glow of red lights against the night sky as the members of Bad Religion walked out to the stage. Bad Religion played a career spanning set which included “Do What You Want” off the album Suffer through “Heroes & Martyrs” from New Maps of Hell. Fans were also treated to a block of songs from the album No Control, which the band kicked off with “Change of Ideas”.
If fans aren’t moshing at a Bad Religion show, something is probably wrong. The It’s Not Dead festival took place in a dry grass field; which meant that lots of dust was being kicked up by the mosh pits. Unfortunately for Bad Religion, the wind was also blowing most of the dust towards the stage. This prompted lead singer Greg Graffin to announce: “I’ve swallowed approximately 16-ounces of dust since we started…and it’s not of the angel variety.”
Pennywise was the last band to perform at the It’s Not Dead festival. By this point, the Old Skool and Big Ernie stages had closed down, and all of the fans had gathered at the main stage. As we eagerly awaited Pennywise, something strange happened – the stage did not rotate. The turntable stage which had performed flawlessly for Taste of Chaos and, up until now, the It’s Not Dead festival, had malfunctioned. I don’t know the details of what went wrong, but according to Kevin Lyman, “Fletcher was sent to Jenny Craig, but didn’t lose enough weight.” Thanks to the diligent work of the stage hands, Bad Religion’s set was torn down and Pennywise’s was reset on the other half of the stage in about a twenty minutes.
Pennywise came out to the stage, beers in hand, and Fletcher apologized for not losing enough weight and breaking the stage. As if the stage breaking down wasn’t enough, lead singer Jim Lindberg’s microphone stopped working during their first song harkening back to the Bouncing Souls set. Fortunately, Lindberg improvised by using bassist Randy Bradbury’s microphone to finish the song. Prior to the start of the third song, lead singer Jim Lindberg asked for a camera from someone in the photo pit to take a picture of the massive crowd. Considering how expensive most of the cameras being used by photographers in the pit are, there was a notable lack of initial compliance. After a brief delay, a brave photographer handed over their camera. Thankfully, Lindberg used the camera for its intended purpose and then returned it without any issues; at a punk show you really never know what’s going to happen, so it’s not very comforting handing over your investment to a stranger.
Fans who attended the It’s Not Dead festival proved that punk is definitely not dead, it’s just gotten older. Those who attended have not seen a lineup like the one featured since the early days of the Warped Tour. The festival was also a chance for the aging punk rockers to bring their kids (10 and under were free), and expose them to live performances from bands like the Decedents and Bad Religion while there is still an opportunity to see these classic punk rock bands perform live. Now, all we can do is hope that the It’s Not Dead festival returns for round two in 2016!
– Martin Shook
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All photos by: Martin Shook