San Bernardino, CA- The prospect of seeing some of the bands that make up my earliest memories of punk music at It’s Not Dead Fest 2 made the awkward, doofy high schooler within me positively elated. Historic heavy-hitters such as Rancid, Dropkick Murphys, Buzzcocks, and The Adicts all under one blazing hot sun– be still my angsty heart. However, due to the recent wave of overly-emboldened Neo Nazi scumbags rearing their heads in places they have no business, I was concerned I was going to find myself in the midst of a total war between punks and pieces of actual human garbage. The punk community has always been a place for people who felt like they had no place– and unfortunately, sometimes white supremacists try to make it theirs.
As soon as we got through security, we experienced our first swastika sighting. A scrappy looking white man wearing a wife-beater and plaid shorts, decorated by an assortment of poorly executed tattoos, proudly displayed a stretched out swastika on his sunburnt shoulder. The audacity of his brazen pride reinforced my initial fears: the festival was already turning out to be exactly what I thought it would be. I was torn between wanting to put a knee in his back and wanting to maintain my composure for the sake of taking the higher road. The higher road is oftentimes unclear in situations such as these.
We turned our noses up at the bonehead and talked our respective shit as we continued to make our way into the festival. I immediately resigned myself to purchasing a $20 well drink at the closest booze stand. If I had to wreck some Nazis, I wanted build up to plenty of liquid courage. I began to feel more at ease as we gained a feel for the land; it felt very much like a grown up (and albeit cooler) Warped Tour. It was as though people had dusted off their Docs and dug the Got2B Ultra Glued hair gel out of the depths of their bathroom cabinets to prove that punk is certainly not dead– it’s just grown up a little and started a family.
The festival was held in San Bernardino, California. I wasn’t very familiar with the area before It’s Not Dead 2, and I can’t say I feel a profound connection with the town after the fact. It was a scorcher of a day, and we quickly realized black pants were a bad decision. Elise scoured the merchant stands for a pair of scissors so she could cut her pant legs off. What was most striking about this small incident was how willing people were to help each other out at this festival. Instead of blowing Elise off, the woman working the t-shirt booth sympathized with her cause.
“Oh girl, I feel you. Why do you think this shirt became a crop top so fast?”
Once the legs were liberated, we settled into our first set of the day: The Flatliners. I had never listened to them before, but somehow their name sounded familiar (perhaps purely because of the 1990 thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts, but whatever). I was pleasantly surprised by the Canadian four piece– very light-hearted, super bangin’ jams reminiscent of Florida’s Fake Problems. Although I didn’t know who they were initially, I was glad something told me to watch their set. It felt like some sort of punk rock sing-along that I wanted desperately to be apart of.
Once The Flatliners wrapped up, we embarked on a seemingly futile hunt for some shade. The Glen Helen amphitheater just so happens to be one of the most barren, shadeless festival grounds in the state. The only relief from the relentless sun was under a single, dismal tree– patrons in sky high fishnets and unseasonable leather jackets flocked under that oasis of shade like a murder of sweaty crows. We claimed our patch of heaven and did some pretty prime people watching. We saw the token prematurely drunk patrons leaning dizzily into their friend’s spiky shouldered-vests, and some innocuously alone lanky teens with dirty dyed hair and chunky combat boots. I was on the lookout for more Nazi kooks, but was relieved to find that the lone bonehead sighting was merely an isolated incident.
The most satisfying people watching was, without a doubt, seeing all of the cool as fuck parents bringing their kids to this well-stacked punk festival. It resuscitated my cynical spirit to see a young girl sweating off the face paint her mother meticulously applied, singing every single word of every single Adicts song. With every flamboyant display of cavalier charm by Monkey, the kid lit up with awe and admiration. She even crowd surfed! Viva la Revolution, indeed.
Another sixish-year-old boy in a patched up denim jacket bopped along to the Buzzcocks with such autonomy that it was apparent he was watching the gracefully salt-and-peppering punks because he loved them, not because his parents dragged him there. The only thing that lightened my heart more than these small tokens of hope was the look on their proud parent’s faces. It reminded me that for every shitty Nazi in the world, there are 100 people who make the world a little bit better. Cheesy but true. Fight me.
After an incendiary show by Off!, I joined one of the biggest dance parties I’ve ever seen, courtesy of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. I accidentally hip checked the thoroughly stoked woman next to me, who promptly passed me some weed as we continued to dance like idiots. There is absolutely nothing more unifying than a punk rendition of Cher’s Do You Believe In Life After Love, unless you’re one of those people who can’t seem to uncross your arms or show the slightest sign of having fun at shows if they’re not “punk enough” for you. But who would care about your opinion, in that case, since you’re probably pretentious and nothing would please you anyways. I did overhear some scattered complaints about The Gimmes questionable punk status, but the band seemed to play up to the critiques. Frontman Spike Slawson was fueled by a tangible, divalicious confidence as the band put their own spin on classics by Dolly Parton, R Kelly, and Judy Garland.
Dropkick Murphys reaffirmed their standing in punk history with robust Irish anthems, perfect for drinking or punching someone in the face for the sake of some sort of honor. As soon as the Celtic accordion and banjo kicked in, a wave of masculine energy captivated the audience and caused them to sloppily grab their closest comrade and yell/sing “HEY!” as loud as possible. Al Barr governed the stage in all of his scrappy Fred Perry glory, pacing from wing to wing and daring the spectators to match his enthusiastic tenacity. The lanky, slurring shirtless man standing next to me by the barricade tried to suck me into the “oi” vortex as well, but his efforts were in vain.
“Go like this,” as he pumped his fist in the air to the beat of the thunderous bass drum.
“Like this?” I asked, feebly raising my limp wrist in a half-hearted effort to not be an asshole. I was enjoying the set, I just don’t like being told what to do.
He quickly lost interest and immersed himself in Dropkick’s rousing set.
The night was rounded off by Rancid, who had always been a staple in the playlists of my youth. They wasted no time delivering cult classics off of …And Out Come the Wolves and Let’s Go, which made the fangirl within me positively lose my shit. Tim Armstrong had always been a spindly yet somehow devilishly handsome punk with a strange, ambiguous accent in my mind; I was mildly surprised to see him as a burly, bearded, grown ass man with a beat up Gretsch that looked like it had seen the world and then some. It was as though he aged with his fan base, and they had remained loyal to each other throughout all those years. The set was exactly what I had hope for and expected from one of the most successful bands in the community. Say what you will, but Rancid has always been (and probably always will be) unwaveringly Rancid.
Even though the day started off with a resounding thud rather a bang due to being immediately confronted with the human equivalent of a fart (also known as a Nazi), my faith in the festival and its demographic was gradually restored. It was salvaged by the countless people who had always held onto their roots, even if they did so by integrating their inevitable adulthood. I took comfort in the fact that there were so many people present who were trying to impart invaluable wisdom to their kids via the gristly lyrics of a long-loved punk song. The small kindnesses from complete strangers who were just excited to be there. The bands who still stood testament to their convictions after decades of screaming at the top of their lungs. Despite the pervasive threat of hate and bigotry, the punk community will always provide a sanctuary to those who need it.
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