Before I get into this, I’d just like to take a moment to say that I did not plan on reviewing It’s Not Dead. In fact, upon arriving at the venue, when one of my friends asked me if I’d be doing a write-up, I responded with a passionate “Hell no!” as I just wanted to relax at the fest with my friends. By the time the Interrupters (the first band I saw that day) were halfway through their set, though, I’d already started making mental notes about both the band and the festival in general.
Small, local shows and venues will always have my heart, but even my DIY affectations were swayed by the festival’s set up. There were four stages, the largest of which was equipped with large screens so that more audience members would have at least a decent view. The first band to take the big stage was the Interrupters, which is incredibly impressive considering they put out their first record just three years ago (I have a ska punk conspiracy theory that helps to explain this, and that was continually strengthened as the fest went on- if any of you have a checkerboard-patterned tin foil hat, ask me about it sometime). The Interrupters started earlier than the schedule said in order to have a longer set, but I highly doubt there were any serious complaints. The Glen Helen Amphitheater, home to thousands of punk rockers that day, was relatively cool thanks to the surrounding mountains. Still, though, it’s a wonder that the Interrupters didn’t melt during their high-energy set, which began with “A Friend Like Me” and ended on a sweet note with “Family.” I’d been planning on conserving my energy, but I couldn’t help but get in the pit for their set, which (and I know I’m biased but) was an excellent start to the fest. After the Interrupters’ set, the stage itself did a 180 to reveal the Mad Caddies on the other side.
I’ve been listening to the Mad Caddies off and on since I was 16, but honestly couldn’t really get into them. Seeing them live, however, totally changed my mind, and I resolved to give them another chance by the end of the first song. But I admit that I dipped out in the middle of their set to watch the Flatliners at the second-largest stage, despite seeing the Canadian punks just four days prior in Portland (with my dad!). I was able to get a prime spot for the Flatliners’ set in the second row, unlike the Portland show, where I was directly behind a very large man. This time around, though, I had a great view of the band as they played classics like “Count Your Bruises” alongside songs off their new record like “Human Party Trick.” It was one of my favorite sets of the entire day, even though they didn’t cover Dead to Me’s “Arrhythmic Palpitations” (Chris covered it for us back in 2012)- which maybe is a good thing, because Crying At the Gig is not the best look.
GBH started their set a bit late, signaling that Punk Time was finally coming into effect. No offense to any of you old-timers out there, but I enjoyed the fact that the crowd’s average age matched the hardcore classic style of punk that GBH played. They drew a pretty big crowd, which wasn’t a surprise considering how many fest-goers were sporting the band’s shirts and patches. Their classic punk sound, along with their stage presence (Colin Abrahall sported a leather jacket for the first half of the set- a feat in the California August afternoon heat) was infectious and enticing that the crowd somehow kept growing. GBH is the tiniest bit too heavy for my own rude kid sensibilities, but I loved the set all the same.
I thought that A Wilhelm Scream was a slightly odd choice for It’s Not Dead, with frontman Nuno Pereira looking more “Warped Tour” than “It’s Not Dead.” Kevin Lyman did put on both fests, though, so the Massachusetts band being on the bill began to make more sense the more I thought about it- and the more I listened to them. I’m a sucker for super technical guitar work, which A Wilhelm Scream had no shortage of, but perhaps even more impressive was the way they blended it with more classic punk.
It’s Not Dead Fest attendees included skins, rude kids, and even greasers (I swear, SoCal Latinx punks showed the rest of us TF up), but no matter what sub-genre is your favorite, it’s impossible to deny that The Selecter was the best dressed band at the fest- every member was decked out in some sort of formalwear. They’re more than just pretty faces, though: with songs like “Three Minute Hero” and “On My Radio,” I found it difficult to stay still during their set. A guy I met in the venue parking lot had suggested to me that ska is dead, but judging from the amount of skanking during The Selecter’s set, it’s not dead (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). The Selecter hit the punk trifecta (good look, good sound, good politics) by weaving the names of people like Philando Castile, Alton Brown, and Heather Heyer into their performance of “Breakdown.”
Now here’s my biggest gripe with It’s Not Dead: why would you schedule overlapping ska sets?! Literally one of my notes from that day was “WHY WOULD THEY HAVE OVERLAPPING SKA SETS.” It physically pained me to have to choose between The Selecter and The Toasters, but in the end, the latter won out, if purely because I know that band better. The Toasters also had a touch of politicality in their set, with frontman Robert “Bucket” Hingley saying “Better be careful with history. Take it with a bag of salt” before the band launched into “History Book Version”; they later played “Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down,” a sly dig at politicians. Of course, their most popular song, “Thrill Me Up,” had a huge pit, as did their closing song “Weekend in LA” (close enough to San Bernardino), but personally, it was “Decision at Midnight” that really got me going.
During Buck-O-Nine’s set I saw, for the first time, what can only be described as a “mosh sandwich.” The San Diego ska band, while not in their exact hometown, seemed comfortably in their element in the San Bernardino Mountains. The crowd was just as comfortable, skanking, swaying, and singing along, most notably to “Pass the Dutchie,” “Irish Drinking Song,” and “My Town.”
Again with the overlapping ska sets? By the time Buck-O-Nine’s set was done, Left Alone’s had about half left. I wondered why Left Alone was placed on the smallest stage; they drew a pretty big crowd, and it’s not as if they’re a brand new band or anything. They decided to take requests- I was dying to yell out “City to City,” but wasn’t sure if they’d played it while I was watching Buck-O-Nine. I settled for getting dirt all over my vest while in the pit for “Sad Story.”
The Adicts were announced to me by way of my friend asking, “What is happening?? Damn, they got a theme!” With their wild clothing/makeup and wacky antics, it’s impossible to mistake The Adicts for anyone else, except, possibly, mimes. Despite their offbeat appearance, they sounded like classic English punks, with songs like “I’ve Been Bad” and “Viva Revolution.”
Punk’s favorite cover band, Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, was one of my decidedly not-punk friend’s favorite sets of the day. Like the Adicts, they had a theme: red button-ups and white pants, with frontman Spike Slawson (of the Swingin’ Utters) also sporting a white jacket. Somehow I lived my entire life without knowing that Me First & the Gimme Gimmes is a punk rock supergroup, so at the festival I thought, “Wait, what the fuck is Joey Cape doing here?? And Fat Mike?? And-” you get the idea. Of all the songs, a cover of “I Will Survive” was the one to get nearly everyone in the crowd singing along.
By the time the Dropkick Murphys came on, everyone was antsy, and the tension only increased thanks to a slightly drawn-out intro. Throughout the fest I kept seeing people in plaid and/or kilts- as someone I met put it, “You know who’s here for Dropkick.” It was the last show of their tour with Rancid, and they made sure to make it count. They had music videos playing on the big screens of the main stage, which was pretty corny but somehow worked in Dropkick’s favor. I’m not the biggest Dropkick fan, but even I couldn’t resist dancing along to songs like “Rose Tattoo,” “Curse of a Fallen Soul” and “Never Alone.”
Surprise to nobody that my ska punk ass was more excited for Rancid, who I was finally seeing for the first time. Tim Armstrong made sure to dedicate plenty of songs to people like Kevin Lyman, Jimmy Gestapo, and Gabby of Manic Hispanic, the last of whom passed away recently. The crowd was restless for the first half of the set, which largely consisted of songs off of the new record, Trouble Maker. Props to Rancid for playing what they want, though- and anyways, all “favorite” songs started out as unknown. That’s not to say that I didn’t go off during …And Out Come the Wolves songs, especially “Old Friend,” “Time Bomb,” and “Ruby Soho.” I wasn’t alone- Rancid’s 1995 record is arguably their most popular. Honestly, the pinnacle of the set for me, though, was when Kevin Bivona of the Interrupters joined them on keyboard (further supporting my ska punk conspiracy theory!).
Of course, I knew I’d have fun, but It’s Not Dead far exceeded my expectations. Call me a traitor, or maybe just an unappreciative youth, but I had so much more fun at one day of It’s Not Dead than I did at two days of Punk Rock Bowling last year- but in PRB’s defense, I’m still a couple of months shy of getting into the bar shows, which often have my favorite bands of the entire fest (I may be the slightest bit bitter). As with any big show or festival, though, it was great to see so many different kinds of people all enjoying the same music. Soon after seeing a Menzingers After the Party 2017 tour shirt, I saw a t shirt for Jimmy Buffett’s 1992 tour- maybe Rayner can play It’s Not Dead next year?
Rancid photo by Aaron Mattern (from their Vegas show)