Early into Social Distortion's Warped Tour '97 set on Thursday evening at the Olympic Velodrome, lead singer Mike Ness offered a brief history lesson.
"Society wasn't always that friendly to punk," he told a sold-out crowd, going on to describe the music's outlaw existence before being embraced by the mainstream in recent years.
In the 16 years since Ness first started his band, this acceptance has thrown punk into an identity crisis, and in an effort to redefine itself, different facets of the genre have solidified into full-fledged subgenres--from hard-core to power-pop punk. It may not have been obvious to the 11,000 fans in attendance on Thursday, but the Warped Tour embodies many of those changes.
Though there were fewer of them on this year's bill, ska-punk hybrids still proved popular, from the smooth, percolating approach of L.A.'s Hepcat to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' metallic tack. There were also a few surprises, more punk in spirit than sound: Valley rappers the Alkaholiks turned in a boisterous set and Royal Crown Review whipped up a scintillating stretch of vintage swing.
Much of the eight-hour event, though, was dedicated to a spectrum of straight-ahead punk. At the low end were the rambunctious, but mediocre Blink-182 and the flagrantly sloppy Vandals. The two joined forces during the latter's set for an almost unbearable display of puerile, slip-shod rock.
Fortunately, they were followed by the Descendents, whose inspired playing and well-crafted tunes dispelled the sophomoric vibes. Combining the raw edge of the Sex Pistols with Ramones-like pop know-how, the L.A. quartet blasted through some 15 songs in roughly a half-hour. Equally compelling, though a bit more uneven, was Social Distortion's 30-minute dose of rootsy punk.
Pennywise closed on a heavier note. Capable musicians, their songs are more cogent than most of their hard-core brethren and they execute them with vehement proficiency and obnoxious charisma. To make sure they drove their music home, they augmented it with lots of boasting and posturing.
Mainstream acceptance of such stylings has forced punk adherents to find more emphatic ways of expressing their defiance. The problem is, when the struggle to rebel overshadows the substance of rebellion, it's reduced to a mere pose. Despite its scope and a few inspired performances, too much of Warped '97 felt like punk huckstering.