First, a moment of silence — or, perhaps more appropriately, a moment of loud, guitar-backed screams — for the Vans Warped Tour, which just concluded its final year as the traveling festival as we know it. After 24 years of spending summers bringing punk and pop and rock and ska and emo and screamo to cities around the country, founder Kevin Lyman decided it was time to call it quits due to a combination of reduced ticket sales and exhaustion.
“I’ve done everything I can in the format that this is in,” Lyman says at the tour’s final stop in West Palm Beach, Fla.. “It wasn’t supposed to be around 24 years. It wasn’t supposed to be around more than one year. But enough people saw what I was trying to do.”
What Lyman was trying to do was give people like him a place to be themselves — and feel good about being themselves. “I know Warped Tour isn’t perfect, but the world’s not perfect,” he continues. “And I think that the kids that came here from a society where we always look for perfect weren’t perfect, but they realized they were all right.”
Some of those kids are no longer kids; some brought their own children this year, introducing a new generation to the loud playground that is Warped Tour. While the festival used to be chiefly about discovering your new favorite band, it’s now more of a haven for nostalgia — an excuse to bust out studded belts and Avenged Sevenfold caps and, in the case of one young attendee, (hopefully) fake blood.
Billboard was on the scene to capture it all. Read on to find out more about what it was like to be on the grounds for the final day, along with behind-the-scenes insights from Lyman and members of Simple Plan, New Found Glory, and Less Than Jake.
10:51 a.m.: My first mission is to find the press trailer. I spot a boy with shaggy blond hair and an official-looking orange shirt guarding a metal fence and ask him to point me in the right direction; instead, he just lets me through the fence. I feel triumphant, momentarily forgetting that I’m sporting two press bands on my wrist. The triumph quickly dissipates as soon as I realize I still have no idea where I’m going.
This is where my new pal Randy comes in: As I’m wandering around the sea of buses, I see a man wearing a Warped Tour badge and ask him where to go. Turns out Randy is a bus driver for Nekrogoblikon — a band that “gives 110 percent,” he says earnestly — and has been driving different musicians for 12 years on Warped. Right before he lets me into the press trailer, he shouts out at someone, “I don’t know when I’m going to see you again, but I love you!” This is like high school graduation but with ratty Old Skools and cargo shorts instead of shiny caps and gowns.
12:18 p.m.: About halfway through the Mayday Parade set, frontman Derek Sanders muses about how cool it would have been if Blink-182 returned to their Warped Tour roots for the final go-around. “I fucking knew it!” a man exclaims, seemingly expecting Mark Hoppus to prance onto the stage. This man did not fucking know it, though, because Sanders was just teasing. They launch into a cover of “The Rock Show” and let the audience sing the line “couldn’t wait for the summer at the Warped Tour.”
12:22 p.m.: Everyone is vaping. Everyone is sweating. If Warped Tour had an official candle, it would be called Man Smoking a Cherry-Flavored Cigarillo in a Sauna.
12:32 p.m.: Real Friends come on and suddenly, giddy audience members start scaling over the seating in the amphitheater to get closer to the stage. A girl accidentally kicks me with her checkered Van, which feels poetic.
1 p.m.: Simple Plan are now Warped Tour veterans, coming in second behind Less Than Jake in the record of who’s played the most shows. But there was a time when it seemed impossible that they’d return: Drummer Chuck Comeau remembers receiving an, uh, interesting welcome the first time they played in 2003. “They started throwing everything they could find at us, whether it was grass or bottles, and at the end it was literally rocks,” he recalls to Billboard, explaining that the Warped crowd wasn’t too pleased with Simple Plan’s pop-leaning sound. “We were like, ‘We don’t give a shit. We’re just going to keep playing.’”
Luckily, they aren’t fielding projectiles anymore. Instead, they’ve found fans where they’ve least expected them. “These super heavy bands will be like, ‘It’s been so great watching you guys every day,’ and I’ll be like, ‘You were watching us every day? You?’ And they’re like, “Yeah, man, I grew up with you guys, and I know we do heavier stuff now but, man, you’re my childhood.’” Now they’re someone else’s childhood: Comeau breaks out his phone to show me photos of his three-year-old son, London, wearing blue over-ear headphones and jamming out behind his dad onstage.
1:35 p.m.: Time to meet Kevin Lyman, who has the rare skill of making everyone feel like he’s there to talk to them, just them, even though he’s probably the busiest guy on the lot. Someone suggests we do the first part of our interview in the air-conditioned bus, but he waves off that idea. It’s in the 80s with sun attacking anyone who dares walk outside; to him, this is a beautiful day — sunburns and all. “You can never let your guard down on a tour until the trucks are closed,” he says. “And today we’ve already had our catering truck catch on fire on the way down here. And then one of our staff thought they had a heart attack. I just heard my head of merchandising tripped on some cords in a tent, might have broke his ankle.”
There was some drama the night before, too. “We should have our parties in a parking lot, but we went off-site at a wings place, and the locals and that energy don’t mix,” he explains. He doesn’t go into more detail but clarifies that there was “almost a little trouble” before they dealt with it, narrowly avoiding a showdown. “Warped’s a tornado, and once you jump into it, you gotta be careful,” Lyman says with a laugh. “But you jump on and try to hold on until you get kicked out the other side.”
1:44 p.m.: Everybody loves Kevin, and Kevin loves everybody. We’re walking to a tent for a signing, and multiple people stop him on the quick journey to thank him for everything he’s done. He stops for each fan, listening to their stories and smiling and posing for selfies. Much of the day so far has seemed fairly business-as-usual — beyond bands shouting, “It’s the last Warped Tour ever!” throughout their sets, there’s not much indication that this is the end of a 24-year-long journey. But seeing Lyman interact with these musicians and crew members and fans feels special, and each new “thank you” is a reminder that Warped Tour has been so much for so many people.
1:52 p.m.: A fan asks Lyman to sign her yearbook of sorts. He takes his time writing a sweet message: “It may end, but we will all see each other down the road!” he signs it.
2:09 p.m.: After posing for a photo with a large group of fans, Lyman begins meeting people one by one. One boy asks Lyman to sign his white graduation cap, which he got — along with tickets to the final four Warped shows — after finishing high school this past May. Others ask him for photos, including a little girl with “THANK YOU KEVIN” written in messy black ink on her arm.
2:55 p.m.: Less Than Jake have played more Warped shows than anyone else — tonight marks their 440th — so saxophonist Peter “JR” Wasilewski is definitely the person to ask about what changes the tour has gone through over the years. “The bones and the heart of this tour are completely the same as they’ve always been, but the body type is completely different,” he says. “Everybody treats everybody the same. If you have a laminate on, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a vendor booth, if you’re playing on the Owl.ly stage or the main stage — you’re supposed to help out everybody and treat everybody the same. And so I guess some of that stuff is still happening. That’s a good thing, but maybe not as much as it used to be. But maybe that’s more societal? That’s a different generation of people now.”
3:30 p.m.: New Found Glory weren’t planning on coming to Warped Tour this year — until the Florida-bred band heard the last few stops were in their home state. That’s when they decided to dive back in. “There was a point where people were like, ‘I don’t need to go this year, I can just stream it online,’” frontman Jordan Pundik says. “But now it’s this resurgence, especially with the bands from the early 2000s and stuff. It’s cool to see it grow, and it’s just been cool to be a part of it for so many years.”
4:40 p.m.: This past May, New Found Glory headlined a benefit for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of a mass shooting in February that left 17 dead, and today, they reveal they raised $116,000. This is especially meaningful for the band, who founded New Found Glory at that very high school.
4:51 p.m.: Yellowcard’s Ryan Key is playing second guitar for New Found Glory after previously playing some solo acoustic sets earlier on the tour. “Play ‘Ocean Avenue’!” someone shouts — the “Play ‘Freebird’!” of Warped Tour. It doesn’t work.
6:47 p.m.: We the Kings frontman Travis Clark wants to teach everyone a dance move that involves squatting and then jumping up and down while waving your arms violently. He instructs anyone who spots someone not obeying the rules to force said rebel to do it. “That’s obnoxious,” I think to myself, waiting for half the crowd to ignore his demands. I quickly learn these people defer to their Kings when everyone in the front sections shrinks before popping up like possessed Whac-a-Moles.
7:30 p.m.: Less Than Jake are the second-to-last act of the night, but they put on a big enough party that their set feels like an appropriate conclusion. At multiple points, they bust out toilet paper streamers (fun, but probably deeply upsetting for anyone who encountered a TP-free Porta Potty at any point in the day). They invite a few crowd members on stage, including a guy with long, curly red hair that lead vocalist Chris DeMakes says “dances like John Travolta” and two men dressed as Mario and Luigi. The horn section of Reel Big Fish, who played earlier in the day, also join them on stage, and they lead the audience in a “Kevin” chant for a full minute until the man of honor comes out for a hug.
8:29 p.m.: At the very end of the last set of the night, Lyman comes up to the mic to share that he always said Pennywise would be the last band to sing the last song on the last tour stop. That song? “Bro Hymn,” a 1991 track they dedicate to “our fucking Warped Tour family.” From there, they — along with dozens of guests crowding around them onstage — lead the audience in the final, celebratory sing-along. There’s moshing and crowd-surfing and jumping and screaming at the front; in the back sections, people sit in their seats, looking tired and chatting and fiddling with their phones. Even with the packed stage and energetic pit, the ceremony as a whole feels fairly understated, a strange thing to notice at a festival known for unbridled enthusiasm. No tornado can go on forever, though. It’s time to come out the other side of this one.