For many teens and 20-somethings, the Vans Warped Tour is a rite of passage of sorts. It can be a first concert, a first day-long festival, the first taste of independence. For 20 years, tour organizer Kevin Lyman has put together dozens of acts that travel the country in the heat of summer to put on sweat-filled concerts showcasing plenty of new, up-and-coming and well-known acts.
I went to my first Warped Tour in 1998. Fresh out of college, I hit an Orlando, Florida, tour stop to see Bad Religion, Ozomatli, Hepcat and others. I watched a mass of people depart Kid Rock's set and overheard people saying, "A white guy and a little person are rapping ... Are they kidding?" I stood next to Steve Ewing, singer for The Urge, as Ozomatli did a parade through the crowd, agreeing it was the best new band we saw all day. In 2008, I saw a T-shirt-clad Katy Perry sing for a small group of fans. My, how times have changed.
Back then it was as much about the sports exhibitions — skateboarders, motocross, etc. — as it was the music. While that side has been toned down, the music has been ramped up, with more than 50 acts appearing at each stop. For the artists, it's a chance to get in front of thousands of potential fans. For fans, it's a great opportunity to see dozens of bands they haven't heard before.
So, who's worth checking out this time around? Here's my pick of five must-see bands at this year's Vans Warped Tour:
Every Time I Die — There aren't a lot of big names this time around, but there are plenty of bands that should be known by now. Every Time I Die tops my list for THE must-see performance of the tour. The metalcore band has strong Southern rock overtones and singer Keith Buckley is the kind of frontman who commands attention. With a new album due out this year, it's a great chance to hear where the band is headed, too.
Anberlin — The rock quintet announced that 2014 will be its last year as a band. Its final album came out on July 22. So, what makes Anberlin stand out? It's solid rock 'n' roll that's a perfect fit for the Warped Tour. One can only hope that the pending demise of the band is plenty of reason for them to give all their blood, sweat and tears at every tour stop.
Sleeper Agent — Thanks to a recent performance on the Late Show with David Letterman and a recent Charlotte performance with +++, Sleeper Agent's name is getting around a lot these days. The alt-pop outfit is on the unofficial list of "next big things" people are going to be hearing a lot more of in the near future.
Echosmith — If there's one band on this tour that Lyman says is on the verge of breaking out, it's Echosmith. The alt-pop quartet was on a side stage last year and quickly garnered a buzz for its energetic performances in front of small groups of fans. The band is all over TV — everywhere from Conan to ESPN — so you've probably heard some of its music already, too.
Bad Rabbits — ... and now for something completely different. Warped Tour isn't all about heavy-core bands and alt-pop wunderkinds. Bad Rabbits brings the funk and R&B to a tour that desperately needs versatility. If dancing — the kind without slam in front of it and bruises at the end of it — is your thing, these are the guys to see.