- Victory Flag played rock-'em-sock-'em thrash on the Warped Tour's Ernie Ball sidestage.
As the Goodtime III cruise ship motored past Tower City Amphitheater in the early afternoon, its patrons waved, Love Boat-style, to the mass of people on the shore. In response, several hundred middle fingers were extended toward the packed pleasure boat.
"Fuck the Goodtimes," bellowed Billy Boy, the spindly young frontman for Shaker Heights pop punks the Skanktronics, who were performing at the time.
"A record-label dude told us not to swear, so on the count of three, everyone say 'Fuck you,'" chimed in guitarist Josh the Dxm Cowboy, his braces gleaming in the sun.
The exchange pretty much encapsulates the August 5 Cleveland stop of the Warped Tour 2003: The cheeky young hometown bands who played the Ernie Ball sidestage ruled the day. Now in its seventh year, the Ernie Ball stage has grown from a rickety afterthought to one of Warped's best attractions. A nationwide battle of the bands for undiscovered artists, it features four local groups on each stop of the tour, selected from 2,600 entrants. Embedded in the back of a flatbed truck, the stage provides better sound and closer views than the main stage, as well as a much more electric vibe than that exuded by some of the day's biggest draws. Anyone who caught the muddy, half-assed set from headliners Rancid knows the feeling.
"Even though the [Ernie Ball] stage was really far away from the main stage, it was right near the entrance," Billy Boy says. "That was really cool, because people were checking us out when they came in. It was definitely a good vibe."
Especially during the Skanktronics' rapid-fire set. Blending pleading punk with touches of ska and impassioned screams, the band's fresh-faced blitz had kids moshing on the asphalt -- always a dangerous proposition. Frenetic numbers from the band's latest EP, "Fake It to Your Friends," made it hard not to move -- even with the threat of road rash.
Better still were hardcore heavyweights Victory Flag. The Ernie Ball stage's lone veteran act, the band played 25 minutes of white-knuckle thrash -- a welcome break from the pop-leaning punk that dominates the rest of the tour. The group came out clad in Iron Maiden and AC/DC T-shirts, with a drummer who resembles a young Rodney Dangerfield. Ripping through such old-school stompers as "Pound for Pound" and "Hat Trick," Victory Flag was a blur of roundhouse riffs and vein-popping barked vocals that knocked kids back on their heels.
"It was great exposure for us," Victory Flag guitarist Gregory Van Kol says. "It was sold out, and even if just a small percentage of all the people who were there noticed us or tell a friend about us, that's the most important thing: getting people that might not normally come to see us checking us out."
All four bands garnered sizable crowds that topped several hundred at times. Faring especially well were the Interns, a crunchy Garrettsville punk combo that later won acclaim from the rising mainstage act Never Heard of It.
"As soon as the gates opened, we ran around handing out fliers, trying to get as many people to come out and see us as possible, and I think that benefited us a lot," says Interns guitarist Tony Hartman, noting that the band added a few hundred fans to its mailing list. The group also played the Pittsburgh date on the tour the following day. "When you're a smaller-name band on that tour, you can't expect people to go watch you, but as long as you work, things will pay off." The band's infectious, harmony-laden hue and cry makes it a group to watch.
Also faring well were the Narcoleptics X 5, a Cleveland five-piece that opened the sidestage with sugar-buzzed melodies set to warp speed.
All four Ernie Ball bands are competing for gear, cash, and a chance to play the Key Club in L.A. for a roomful of record execs. Online voting determines the winners, with the top five bands taking home prizes. (None of the Cleveland acts are in the top 10.) Go to www.ernieball.com to represent the locals -- the locals represented Cleveland well.