It’s homecoming season. Success stories and royal eff-ups alike are returning to the nests that nurtured them and turned them into whatever the fates had in store. They look around and see that so much has changed, and so much has stayed the same. Fields have become parking lots. Malls have sprung up where churches once stood. Old friends link up as though no time has passed at all. The pilgrims have made progress on their own, but feel comfortable flanked by those who rode the tide alongside them in their youth.
With pylons of drums framing him, Travis Barker peered out into the distance before him – 25,000 bodies mired in sweat and admiration, all huddled together at the Auto Club Speedway in hundred-plus degree weather to welcome the local God back home. The gifted Blink-182 drummer grew up here in Fontana, a foreboding, dry suburb in San Bernardino County. Usually, the area breeds desolation. Tonight, it was a destination for punk rock revelry – a source of life. To think, Barker’s life had almost been stolen from him; in 2008, he survived a plane crash that killed four others. His fellow survivor and brother in arms, DJ AM, succumbed to drug abuse last year.
This was more than just a gig; it was a rebirth. And with his unrelenting talent, Barker hammered out a terrific solo that had the crowd whooping. His band mate, bassist/singer Mark Hoppus, congratulated him. “That was some hot ass shit, Travis!” he exclaimed. Indeed.
Epicenter headliners Blink-182 are in the midst of a renaissance. The SoCal trio broke up in 2004 at the height of their creativity and maturity, and are giving it another go-round much to the delight of those weaned on their now-classic 1999 album, Enema of the State. The potty humor ran amok throughout their nighttime set, with guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge telling the audience he wanted to sleep with all their dads and spouting Tourette-fueled tirades. They rocked fast and loose with oldies like “Josie” and “Don’t Leave Me”, but also came off very sincere with their more recent mellow fare (“I Miss You” and “Stockholm Syndrome” off 2003’s self-titled release). They’ve grown from foul-mouthed frat boys to wizened family men, but Blink-182 showed they can still put on a killer show for the kids.
A mid-afternoon performance by 30 Seconds to Mars had just as much, if not more, gusto as the Blink guys. Say what you will about the preening actor-slash-front man Jared Leto, but he and his band give you your money’s worth. Taiko drums were a prelude to “Night of the Hunter”, a resounding number that showcased Shannon Leto’s prowess behind a kit and his brother Jared’s charisma. “It’s 106 degrees, but that’s not gonna stop us from having the best day of our lives!” the artist formerly known as Jordan Catalano shouted, enrapturing the fans upfront.
The Echelon, as their devotees are called, sang boldly along to radio staples “This Is War” and “The Kill”. Jared meandered into the audience, and they hoisted him atop their hands. Despite the Hollywood status of the brothers Leto (and multi-instrumentalist Tomo Milicevic), Shannon told PopMatters in a recent interview that “We’re all in it together, literally. It’s not like ‘We’re in the band!’ We’re all kind of 30 Seconds to Mars.”
He continued, “Our whole thing, I think, is to include people, man. To share the experience. Whether it be the 2,000 separate faces on the (This Is War) album cover to having the summit where people came and stomped and clapped and us putting that on the album.”
And share, they did. They ended their uproarious performance with “Kings and Queens”, beckoning dozens of concertgoers to flood the stage and scream along. Even one fellow in a banana costume got up there.
Much of the Epicenter’s second day (the first featured Eminem, Papa Roach and KISS) was of a punkier palette. Bad Religion blazed through 30 years of gritty rock anthems and touted their just-released record, The Dissent of Man, just as furious as ever. Floridian agitators Against Me! raged on in the heat, leading singer Tom Gabel to remove his shirt all the while bellowing “I Was a Teenager Anarchist”. And Rise Against delivered a mighty hour-long show, though sometimes muddied by a poor balance on the guitar and bass volumes. Still, at a festival that thrived on quick tempos and quick tempers, front man Tim McIlrath pulled the ballsiest move of the concert by whipping out an acoustic for “Swing Life Away” and the anti-war ballad “Hero of War”. It was refreshing to have the Auto Club Speedway become for one weekend a literal hotbed of progressivism and fist-pumping music.