Warped Tour’s Last Lap: The country’s largest traveling festival says farewell after 23 years of music and memories

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From the mohawks and mosh pits of early ‘90s punk to the crowd-surfing, skanking, tight pants and studded belts that stemmed from subsequent subgenres like ska, emo, pop punk and post-hardcore, Vans Warped Tour has been a calling card for contemporary counterculture since 1995.

The tour, which is the longest continuous traveling music festival in North America, stops in cities across the country every summer from June to August. It comes to Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix on June 28.

But it won’t be coming back next summer. The tour’s founder, Kevin Lyman, is ready to move on to the next chapter. “I think that we have done everything we can in the format that it is in and on a personal level, I am looking for new challenges,” Lyman says.

It is certainly not a lull in success or a lack of passion that caused Lyman to call it a wrap on Warped. Though it had humble beginnings, Warped Tour quickly became a linchpin of the alternative music scene.

“I have always looked at Warped as a lifestyle event driven by music. It has been a platform to prove yourself or reconfirm yourself,” Lyman says. “From bands to nonprofits, to brands to being a crew person, it has been a place to cut your teeth or come back and show you still have it.”

When he first started, he says he depended on people who trusted his concept and creative process, so he asked bands who were both friends and all-stars of the ‘90s alternative scene, like Sublime, No Doubt, Pennywise and NOFX, to be part of the first few lineups.

Now, he gets over 2,000 submissions every year.

The tour has also helped bolster the careers of some of the most successful independent and alternative acts on the scene.

“It has been an honor to see so many people who got their start in those parking lots go on to do amazing things,” Lyman says.

One of the bands that partially owes its success to those parking lots is Florida-based Mayday Parade, who have graced the Warped Tour stage six times since 2007 and will be playing the final tour in its entirety.

“We drove to the Jacksonville Warped Tour one day and just sold some CDs in the parking lot and realized that if you hustle, you could sell a decent amount of CDs,” bassist Jeremy Lenzo says. “When we started Mayday Parade, the first thing on our list was to write and record an EP and follow Warped Tour and promote our EP, so we did that in 2006 and ended up selling, like 50,000 CDs… we had like 20 people out there selling our CDs, just trying to put it in as many people’s hands as possible.”

Eventually, they caught the attention of Fearless Records, which is also responsible for putting pop punk and hardcore heavyweights like At The Drive-In, Pierce The Veil and Underoath on the map.

Though Warped Tour helped kickstart their careers, Lenzo says it is also nostalgic for him and his bandmates because they went as fans in high school.

The scene has changed a lot since then — the sound, the style of dress and even the definitions of what genres like “punk” and “rock” mean. One thing that has remained the same, however, is the unwavering sense of comradery that made Warped Tour a runaway success in the first place, and it’s what continues to set it apart.

“I think the culture of Warped Tour, of having a community of people that feel like they all belong there… is what really makes it such a special tour,” says Pat Kirch, who plays drums in Tempe-based band The Maine.

According to Kirch, Warped Tour played a huge role in helping the band achieve commercial success. This year will be the band’s sixth time playing the tour.

“Going out there and playing shows and asking people to buy our albums, it was a very big part of what got us going,” he says. “We were able to reach so many people and there are not really that many other opportunities to reach that many people in a single day.”

Warped Tour provides a unique platform for bands to connect with their fans. He says their first few years of the tour were marked by tons of bands promoting their music by directly interacting with fans, but that has faded over time.

“People just play their set and hang out on the bus and that’s about it,” he says.

The lineups have evolved over the years as well. Kirch recalls the “Drive-Thru Records era,” when bands like Dashboard Confessional, The Early November and Senses Fail were at the peak of their careers. Now, people might only come to see one or two bands and are less likely to stay the whole day to discover new ones.

“You were almost excited about every band that was there,” he recalls. “It was Taking Back Sunday and Underoath, but you’d be excited to see Newfound Glory and Rx Bandits… Now, people might only be into a handful of bands.”

Kirch also says that pop punk doesn’t appeal to the masses as much as it did a decade ago. “In 2008, a band like us could be on MTV. In 2007, your mom would’ve heard of Pete Wentz… Now there are people that are just as important to the fans that are coming, but it’s more of a niche,” he says.

In addition to giving bands an opportunity to do what they love and reach as many people as possible, Kirch says Warped Tour is a rare place where people can forget about polarizing perspectives and enjoy a sense of solidarity through music.

“Warped Tour is a place where you can feel like you’re a part of something. Everybody’s there for the same purpose,” he says. “I think if you go to a place like Warped Tour, you see that we’re all not that different. It’s just a place to have a good time and enjoy music and see new bands.”

Kirch says the “spirit of Warped Tour” will live on and Lyman insists that though this is the final tour, it may “manifest in different ways” in the future. He hints at plans for the tour’s 25th anniversary, which will be announced soon.

“We’re sad to see it go, but we’re grateful to be a part of the last one,” Lenzo adds.

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