A DAY AT SLAM DUNK FESTIVAL

Neil Dowd attended Slam Dunk and brings you this review – along with plenty of nostalgia for events past…

As the first festival I ever attended back in 2013, returning to Slam Dunk for the fourth time with a press pass in order to review the event felt like a very significant, full circle moment.

Slam Dunk was once again hosting the pop-rock juggernauts All Time Low as their headliner, and the excitement to see them perform once again hit with the same level of intensity as it did in 2013. If the line-up itself wasn’t a big indicator of this festival’s significance in the modern alternative rock scene, the attendees that took residence in the guest area certainly suggested as much. Every glance in any direction brought a person who I’d only known through their music to life.

Despite this somewhat overwhelming fact, it remained surprisingly easy to maintain a level head, as the communal, lackisidasal atmosphere that is easy to find throughout the rest of the festival (outside of the mosh pits, that is) was still present. In fact it was a refreshing experience to see artists, radio presenters and musical directors that I hold such admiration for in such a humanised and natural context.

However, there wasn’t much time to take the guest area in, as the former Yellowcard frontman William Ryan Key would soon be taking to the Marshall Stage. Even just walking past the stages before the live music had begun was enough to make a regular attendee of the festival feel at home with the likes of Blink 182 and State Champs blaring through the different stages’ PA systems as a subtle foreshadowing of what was to come.

Armed only with his acoustic guitar William Ryan Key took to the stage and began easefully talking to the audience about the music he’d been working on since the band’s break-up before opening his set of Yellowcard classics with Lights and Sound. The power-chorded riff that acts as the basis for the song transferred surprisingly well into an acoustic context, with Key providing a pitch perfect vocal performance throughout, despite having technical issues with his monitors.

From the first vocal phrase of Lights and Sound to the final chorus of the anthemic Ocean Avenue, the ocean of fans that had gathered for his performance became a choir, enthusiastically singing back every word to a surprised and ultimately grateful performer. Whilst I was certainly looking forward to getting stuck into the rest of the bands, this set provided a calming atmosphere in a day that I feel would have been missed otherwise, with the chance to bask in the nostalgia of hearing our favourite Yellowcard songs live again creating an added bonus.

In spite of the lack of free time my schedule gave me, I was able to delve into the Acoustic Stage and managed catch an extract of John Floreani’s set. The stage was situated on a passage between a sea of trees, which did well to hold out the music from the other stages.

In a complete juxtaposition of my expectations, the majority of the audience were sat on the floor, conversing and drinking within their respective groups, further embellishing the community that this festival has become.

Unfortunately my time at this stage was short-lived, as Hot Milk were due to take to The Key Club Stage’s left-hand platform. As a name that had become increasingly familiar amongst friends and on social media, I was nothing but curious to see what they were about.

Even as the band first walked onto the stage accompanied with an ambient, synth lead backing track and the lead guitarist and bassist jumped onto the monitors and excitedly shouted to the crowd, their tightly-refined image was one of the first things to stand out. Their colour scheme revolved around black and white, with the bodies of their instruments all being dyed white. In terms of clothing, each member of the band wore black skinny jeans, with a black top and black and white tie dyed shirts.

This choice of imagery encapsulated the aesthetic of the band’s sound, with the choice of such a minimalistic colour scheme conveying their heavier influences through the unclean vocals of the lead guitarist. The shared vocals between the guitarist and lead vocalists, along with the swift changes of whom assumed which responsibility, was an interesting and unique selling point for this band’s set and really helped to keep the audience on their toes. Musically, their sound blended pop-punk with rock and some post-hardcore elements, acting as a reminder to just how much fun a band willing to innovate can be.

The right-hand stage of The Key Club tent gradually began to fill in anticipation for the secret set which would proceed following Hot Milk. Many attendees took to online forums to predict who they thought would be taking the slot, with many casting genre-defying acts such as A Day To Remember and The All American Rejects as their favourites to take the slot.

However, the sea of people filling and surrounding the outside of the tent as far as I could see were not disappointed when the pop-rock legends Busted took to the stage, accompanied by former Lower Than Atlantis drummer Eddy Thrower. The audience erupted into a wave of cheers as the iconic, Blink-182inspired introductory bass riff of Air Hostess was met with roaring distorted guitars and the trip down Memory Lane began.

This set showed the Slam Dunk audience at its loudest and most energetic, as the choruses for renowned hits such as What I Go To School For and Crashed The Wedding were chanted back with a high-volume enthusiasm that made the vocal microphones almost completely obsolete. However, interwoven with the nostalgia driving anthems that made this set, the band took the time to delve into some of their later material, inadvertently providing me with the highlight of their set: Reunion. Although it was clear that not everyone was familiar with the track, the enthusiasm from the audience did not dwindle, as it arguably showcases the band at their most pop-punk sounding.

Much to the dismay of the audience, the band announced that the next song would be the last of their set. However, the band did not intend to go off without a bang and as the iconic introduction of The Year 3000 began to play through the speakers, the entire audience innately began to the jump in time with the beat, with their voices screaming just as loudly along with a song that was a staple in so many of our youths. If nothing else, their set proved that they still deserved recognition as one of the pioneers and powerhouses of the genre and could definitely go onto headline the festival in later years.

As the final chord of The Year 3000 rung out and Busted’s set came to an end, I was taken back to the Monster Energy stage to catch a band that have become regulars to the Slam Dunk lineup, rising through the stages since their debuting appearance in 2015 for their first year on the main stage. As It Is took to the stage as the droning synths and dissonantly haunting keys from the sets opener The Reaper played through the speakers.

As someone who had followed the band’s earlier works very closely, this performance marked a definitive departure from the pop-punk roots that I had formerly associated with them, with the majority of the setlist revolving around their latest record The Great Depression. However, the deeply engaging stage presence and emotively visceral audience interaction from frontman Patty Walters were the defining characteristics that had stuck with this band through their sonic and aesthetic changes.

The Truth I’ll Never Tell provided a calming, sombre moment in the set, capturing thesimplistic, picked, clean guitar riffs that were synonymous with the band’s earlier works, whilst still bearing the ‘darker’ lyrical tone that their newer works embodies. Tothe fortune of the bands older fans, the genre-renowned track Dial Tones still made an appearance in the set and is quite rightly still a staple of the bands live show. But nonetheless, in the unreliable state of the music industry, the most respectable choice to take a risk and this change for the band is definitely one that presents themas their most authentic and comfortable in themselves.

When you’re faced with an incredible festival line-up such as this one, the one inevitable downside is set clashes. For Slam Dunk 2019, the subsequently named Hour of Many Clashes started at 3:15pm, wherein the Aussie skater punks in Between You and Me, Canadian poppunkers Seaway and ‘God’s favourite boy-band’ Waterparks all coincided into such a short space of time.

Albeit a tough decision, curiosity regarding the group’s latest single Turbulent drove me to watch Waterparks’ set, which was definitely the right decision. The band opened with two fan favourites from their most recent album: Blonde and Not Warriors. This suitably showcased the more poppunk leaning elements of their sound early on in the set. Carrying a similar on-stage essense to the All Time Low frontman Alex Gaskarth during their earlier years, Awsten Knight had seamlessly slick stage demeanour that along with his witty and eccentric audience interaction, effectively kept the audience engaged and hanging onto the frontman’s every word.

Surprisingly, the highlight of their set came in the form of their latest single Turbulent, a track that upon first impressions left me feeling skeptical as to how it would translate into a live setting due to its drum and bass feel. Contrary to my expectations, this song
actually had the audience at their most energetic, with the majority of the audience screaming along with the chorus’ main hook, “I’d unfuck you if I could”, despite this being only the second time they had performed the track live. The unexpected, yet incredibly well-suited closer Tantrum showed the band’s sound at its most aggressive, with the fast-paced chugged power chords and Knight’s shouted vocals in the songs outro.

If this performance is anything to go by, Waterparks will only continue to rise through the Slam Dunk line-up in years to come, proving themselves well equipped to be a potential headliner in years to come.

Despite spending the majority of what remained of my day at the Monster Energy, my brief detours to the bar between the intervals allowed me to witness a short snippet of I Don’t Know How but They Found Me performing a stripped-back acoustic rendition of their track Choke from the balcony of Fearless Records’ bar,The Fearless Arms. The duo performing on a ukelele and cajon were met with a sea of fans excitedly reciting the lyrics, despite the spontaneous nature of the set.

However, my attention was immediately stolen from this soothing environment when the opening guitar riff from I’d Do Anything blared through the speakers and Simple Plan took to the stage. The set consisted of all the classics you would expect, with just under half of the tracks in the setlist being taken from their 2002 record No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls. However, the lack of youth that you might accuse the band of in their later years did not result in a lack of energy in their performance. The synchronised jumps from the band and audience during the appropriately named Jump and drummer Chuck Comeau’s invigorated stage dive during the final chorus of I’m Just a Kid acted as a solid reminder that age isn’t everything.

Whilst for a lot of the audience, including myself, the trip down memory lane providedby the band’s earlier works was all that we expected from the Canadian pop-punk veterans, the inclusion of Boom! from their later works was greatly appreciated, with the chorus’ main vocal phrase making for an ear-catching, irresistible hook that the crowd couldn’t help but sing along to. Their set was appropriately closed with the emo/pop-punk anthem Perfect. As Pierre Bouvier sang the renowned phrase “I’m sorry I can’t be perfect”, the same angst-filled emotions that made this song connect with so many people began to swell as the exuberant, nostalgia-filled set drew to an end.

Whilst on the topic of nostalgia, it would be impossible for me to not delve deeper into the unexpected turn of events which was the New Found Glory setlist. The stagewas immediately animated as soon as the band sprinted to the stage and the chugged, powerchord riff opened their rendition of Eye of The Tiger. Lead vocalist Jordan Pundik took to the stage dressed in the iconic Rocky Balboa boxing uniform.

The double-timed, brash drum playing and the high tempo, roaring distorted guitars helped to create a strong punkrock vibe for the cover, which both worked well with the source material and suited the band’s style and original repertoire perfectly.

The inclusion of this one cover was enough to waver my expectations. So, when I discovered that one third of the setlist was compiled with covers, intrigue and pure curiosity consumed me and I was curious to see how they would translate. A cover that proved to be one of the highlights of this group’s set was The Power of Love, which packed all of the feel-good energy of the original whilst also incorporating some classic rock detailings with the guitar work. The guest features from Less Than Jake’s JR and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Chris Rhodes helped to make this cover memorable as the change of instrumentation added a variety to the set that kept it engaging.

However, it was the band’s indisputable genre-defying hits which really stole the show and had the audience at the most thoroughly engaged. From the staccato, broken-chorded guitar riffs in All Downhill From Here to the unforgettable lyrical content of Dressed To Kill, the band played with a sense of poise and finesse that comes with years of dedication to your craft.

At long last, the moment had finally come. The rain that had so inconsistently seemed to stop and start when least convenient, leaving behind a rainbow, which the band would later joke came out just for their set. As previously promised through social media, their setlist heavily revolved around their 2009 album Nothing Personal, opening with Damned If I Do Ya, Damned If I Don’t. Right from the the infectiously bouncy opening chord progression, the lighthearted, tonguein-cheek vibe of he track rang through, with many people beginning to jump and sing along immediately as the song’s chorus began.

As an avid fan of the band who has seen them play more than a handful of times, it felt like an exclusive treat when the remainder of the Nothing Personal section of the set arrived and hidden gems such as The Party Scene and Break Your Little Heart had made their way into the setlist. Waterparks’ Awsten Knight’s guest appearance during the final chorus of Break Your Little Heart acted as a signifier to the pivotal influence that this album, and this band’s entire discography have had on the shape of today’s pop-punk scene.

Even through the distinctive changes in their usual setlist, the band still possessed their usual interactive charisma and boyish charm, with the staple comedic interactions between frontman Alex Gaskarth and lead guitarist Jack Barakat still making their way into the set. It was clear that this band were headliner material, if not by their flawless musicianship and finesse, by their sets dynamic fluidity. Following the power-chord high intensity of Stella with the synth-heavy, anthemic-feeling Dark Side of Your Room, along with the blasts from the past found embeddedin their slot, All Time Low proved they were not afraid to take risks during their headlining appearance. This was never more clear than with the unveiling of a new track, Getaway Green. With its triplet laced vocal phrases and memorable, hook driven instrumentals, the track really expressed Gaskarth’s growth as a songwriter since the days of the Nothing Personal era, with his writing taking making greater emphasis on musical elements closer related to the world of pop music.

From Therapy into the pop-rock banger Something’s Gotta Give, it was a real testament to the loyalty of the band’s fanbase that the majority of the audience were able to sing along to every single song, in a setlist which covered so many of theiralbums. The highlight of the set however came in the form of Life of The Party, whereunderlying, distorted power chords from the guitars were brought to the forefront of this synth led track to create a more rock driven vibe than the recorded version, with Gaskarth’s guitar soloing during the outro of the track having an almost electrifying effect that was goosebump-inducing.

The sun had completely set by the time the four-piece had reached their iconic, staple closer Dear Maria, Count Me In and as Gaskarth and Barakat routinely flung their guitars aside and ran down to interact with the crowd, that feeling of community,brought together by a common interest, swelled once again and is one of the main things many audience members miss when it is over… until next year!

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