There was good reason to anticipate great things from the Ernie Ball Stage at the August 7 Warped Tour. After all, well before the stop in Cleveland, promoters bombed the media with calls and e-mails. "Several local bands will get their big break this summer," boasted one press release, emphasizing that those bands would have the chance "to perform in front of thousands of enthusiastic fans, along with record company and other music industry executives." The reality couldn't have been more different. At most, there were 40 people watching the locals at any time, and Soundbites didn't spot any record-company and music-industry types in the audience.
Last year, eight local bands played on the back of an enormous, six-wheel freightliner truck that had a 17,000-watt sound system powered by a diesel generator. Bands such as Disengage and the SignOffs made strong showings, playing to a whirling mosh pit. This year, four regional bands (Ivet, AAK, the Proms, and Nosedive) performed under a small, battered white tent that was the equivalent of playing in the back of a pickup.
"I remember it was pretty rockin'," Derrick Brooks says of last year's Cleveland stop. As the artist-relations manager and spokesman-at-large for Ernie Ball, the guitar string manufacturer that sponsors the local stage, Brooks admits the company is trying to be "cost-effective" with the new setup. But because the local bands weren't included in any of the ads, program guides, or content on the official website, their performances went virtually unnoticed. Even if you went to the tour knowing there'd be a local stage, you still would have been hard-pressed to find it.
Located in a remote corner of the parking lot near the Nautica Stage, the Ernie Ball Stage didn't even have a banner (Brooks maintains they were stolen on one of the first dates of the 40-city tour). The set times of the bands weren't listed on the dry-erase boards nearby, either. Sandwiched between the Ladies' Lounge (yet another segregated stage, where only bands with women played) and a tent for the music website Launch.com, the Ernie Ball Stage had to compete with additional distractions such as a PlayStation booth, a carousel for the new Pontiac Vibe, and a wrestling ring. In fact, each of these sideshows drew more attention than the local bands -- a danger when you let commercial vendors overrun your event.
For the chance to be selected for the Ernie Ball Stage, thousands of bands submitted music, bios, and photos to the company's website. Of those, 30 to 40 were from Northeast Ohio. Ernie Ball's team of experts picked the best four to perform. Despite the downsizing, Brooks says the local stage is still a priority, if only as a marketing tool. "We've worked with the Warped Tour for the last five or six years, because, as our owner says, if you're gonna make a tennis racket, you have to have a tennis court to play with your tennis rackets on," Brooks says. "If you're gonna sell them a guitar, you gotta find 'em a place to play. So this is part of it."
The bands themselves didn't seem to mind the chaos and disorganization.
"We were supposed to play at 4:40 p.m., but we showed up early, and they told us, 'You guys are playing at 1:40,'" says Proms singer-guitarist Eddie Albrigo, sweating in the 90-degree heat. "I wasn't gonna argue. It turned out fine."
By the end of the afternoon, the Ernie Ball Stage was taken over by national acts like Southern California-based Desperation Squad, making things more confusing. By the end of the show, Desperation singer Mr. P had covered himself in finger paint, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream. He didn't care about the confusion created by playing on a stage that was otherwise devoted to locals.
"We're willing to be local, if we can come back and play in Cleveland," he says.
Other local acts -- Switched and the Vacancies -- fared better by playing on bigger stages devoted mostly to national acts. But they were added to the festival by Belkin, the local promoter, not Ernie Ball.
"When we first got there, they said, 'This is the Ernie Ball Stage, and this is where you'll probably be playing,'" says Vacancies singer Bill Crooked. "It was way off to the side, where nobody goes. Then they moved us to the Volcom Stage, where the Murder City Devils were playing, so that was better. It was a bummer that we had to compete with Rancid, which was one of the only bands I wanted to see. But it was still fun and a good experience."
Including local acts in a festival dominated by more recognizable punk acts is conceptually sound and has the potential to add some spark to an otherwise routine event. But that wasn't the case at this year's Warped. Local and national acts weren't separated, however, at Hessfest, held last month at the Agora Theatre. Cleveland bands such as Keelhaul, Boulder, and State of Conviction held their own against national acts like Grade, Converge, and Waterdown, playing before a crowd of nearly 1,500. Local graphic artist Derek Hess is even thinking of taking the annual event on the road next year. Maybe if the Warped Tour took Hess's approach, local bands would really end up playing to thousands.