Last week, (instead of attending college graduation), the wife and I skipped town and headed to Asbury Park, New Jersey to attend Skate and Surf Fest — a two day music festival.
The festival featured a mix of contemporary indie-rock bands: mewithoutYou, The Gaslight Anthem, The Front Bottoms. It also included some new acts I was excited to see: Rozwell Kid, Cloud Nothings, Diamond Youth. For some reason, I don’t know why, Skate and Surf Fest was the place to be to see some of my favorite high school bands reunite: From Autumn to Ashes, Poison the Well, Thrice, Acceptance. #oldguycrowd
If Asbury Park sounds familiar, it’s probably for one of two reasons: Bruce Springsteen’s classic album, “Greetings from Asbury Park” or Sandy, the devastating 2012 hurricane (or superstorm). Just walking around the boardwalk and seeing the damage hit me hard. It reminded me that communities like these are affected long after the news cameras turn off. But even in its destruction there is new life in Asbury Park, and it’s beautiful.
For the first day of the festival we were joined by a couple west coast friends, Scott and Brook. We stood in line, ate pizza, stood in line some more, watched a boardwalk magician get arrested, stood in line some more, and finally, got close to the front of the line.
Eventually we made it inside.
Skate and Surf Fest 2015
My first impression of the festival was, “This is it?”
Maybe it was the long line, or the months of expectations, but the festival’s space was underwhelming — smaller than I thought and cramped in many areas.
Additionally, I assumed there would be a “skate” and “surf” atmosphere. There was one awkwardly placed half-pipe, and that was it. Nothing surf related at all, not even merch booths. I get that we’re on the ocean, but that doesn’t automatically qualify as “surf.”
Instead of doubling down on the skate and surf theme, Skate and Surf Fest brought a wrestling ring. I don’t know why there was a wrestling ring, but there was a wrestling ring. It ate up space and provided entertainment for small groups of people throughout the weekend.
The festival layout, overall, was just awkward and didn’t allow for any natural flow. Skate and Surf Fest, if you’re reading this, hire my wife next year for your layout design. Moving on.
Bands: For better or worse
There was some chatter online about the lack of female groups playing at rock/punk music festivals, and that was definitely noticeable at Skate and Surf Fest. The only women I saw get on anything the remotely resembled a stage was the wrestling ring (and they were half naked). Besides the lack of female groups, there was a general lack diversity in sound and genre and skin color, but that’s another issue for another day.
The music fell somewhere in between hardcore and alt rock. The argument, of course, is that Skate and Surf is pandering to a niche audience, which is a good idea. The problem is that, rarely, do festival audiences only align to one or two types of music. For me, the best part of festivals is discovering new music in scenes you wouldn’t normally gravitate towards.
But hey, I still enjoyed the bands I came for, and there were a few surprises along the way.
Day One Bands
Because the line was so long getting in, I only caught a couple songs of Rozwell Kid — a new band I was really looking forward to. That said, the two songs I saw were incredible. These guys are destined to get huge if they can keep it together. I picked up their LP, “Too Shabby,” which has some of my favorite artwork in recent memory, drawn by the singer, Jordan Hudkins.
I had never heard of this group before. From what I’ve since discovered, Elder Brother includes members from The Story So Far and Daybreaker, bands I’m not entirely familiar with. From my brief research, I think I enjoy Elder Brother more. I only heard a few songs towards the end of their set, to be fair, but they were songs that caught my attention and wouldn’t let me leave.
These guys were on my list to see, and I’m glad I caught them. Diamond Youth is a straight forward alt-rock/pop rock band. They have a few EPs available, and an LP about to drop. The set was no frills, and I wanted a little more energy, but that’s okay. I still loved it. It’s gotta be hard to play outdoor festivals, especially to crowds wondering in and out of your set.
Besides Acceptance and Thrice (see below), mewithoutYou was one of the main reasons I ditched graduation. This was my sixth(!) time seeing the band, one of my all time favorites. I wasn’t sure how they would do in a festival setting, since their performances are usually intimate. Aaron, the singer, is also hard to hear, generally, given his stage presence and singing style, so an outdoor setting might be harder than usual.
And I was right. Besides a few moments of sound board glory, Aaron was almost impossible to hear. The blame rests (almost) entirely on Skate and Surf, however. This stage particularly, World Stage, had sound issues throughout most of the first day. In mewithoutYou’s set, the mic battery was low and eventually stopped working altogether. Even after a mic change, the sound engineer still seemed to chase Aaron’s voice, which is a bad idea.
Otherwise, it was great set by mwY. It’s obvious now, but Aaron mentioned that “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume” was written about Asbury Park, making the performance kinda special. “In the blistering heat of the Asbury pier…” They also played two new songs, and I loved them both, especially the second one, though I don’t know the name. Here’s their new single:
I never bought that Thrice was going away for good, and when they announced their comeback I said, “Already?” By Brand New standards, a three year break is an average time between albums. It was great to see the band back together again. They launched into “Firebreather” and I squealed with joy. At one point, during “Of Dust and Nations,” it started to rain and the set became epic.
The return of Thrice was every bit as magical as we all assumed it would be. Even if Dustin was winded halfway through the set (a common theme over the weekend, given all the reunions), he still knocked it out of the park, the Asbury Park, that is. Check out the set list here. No big surprises, except for, maybe, “All That’s Left.” Oddly enough, the only song that sounded rough was their landmark tune, “Artist in the Ambulance,” but the crowd was singing so loud you didn’t notice, or really care.
Day Two Bands
So I saw Acceptance! That is crazy. I’m still smiling. I don’t know what to say here.
Would it be out of line to just show you some pictures?
Excuse the stream of pictures that are all just slightly different (an Instagram no no), but this band rules. They were (and are) a favorite. I still remember listening to “Phantoms,” ten years ago, with my buddy Tim, on the way to go surfing in Pismo Beach. Oh, youth.
Jason Vena, the singer, made a statement about why the band broke up. I’ll try to recreate it, but know that it’s not verbatim:
People often ask us why we broke up. It’s simple. We lost the love of music. It’s great to be back in a place where we love it again.
And then they played their new song, “Take You Away.”
Acceptance was on point, and delivered my favorite set of the weekend. Just like Dustin from Thrice, Jason was winded and had to take a few breaths here and there. You can’t blame him. The guy jumps around like a bumper car. It’s also been nine years since he’s done anything like this.
So cool. SO COOL. AHHHHHH!
Kevin Devine & The Goddamn Band
Sorry about that. What was I saying?
Oh yes. Day two.
Kevin Devine is my doppelganger, so it’s always good to show support. The sound engineer for this stage (I think it was the West Stage?) must really enjoy lead guitars that overpower everything else in the band. Kevin has a soft voice, mostly, so it was unfortunate that we rarely could hear it.
This was my first time seeing The Goddamn Band, though, and despite the sound issues, they rocked. Can’t wait to see them again!
My first time seeing Cloud Nothings and I got exactly what I expected: sloppy grunge rock. That’s not a slam, either. I love these guys. As I told my wife during their loud, raucous set, if Nirvana came out today, they would sound exactly like Cloud Nothings.
Super cool band. Not exactly a festival band. I would love to see them in a club, maybe someday.
From Autumn to Ashes
I was actually really excited to see hardcore/screamo band, From Autumn to Ashes. Their album, “The Fiction We Live” (2003) was a favorite of mind throughout high school. I saw them (with Atreyu?) in Los Angeles, circa 2005. They were excellent. I remember their singer was the drummer, and the screamer had a deep voice that was unlike anything else I listened to.
So when the band started, and screamer’s voice wasn’t deep, I said, “Wait, what? Who is this?”
After a little Wiki-research, it turns out that the main screamer left in 2007 and the drummer took over the main screaming duties. All this to say, I was somehow disappointed in a From Autumn to Ashes reunion at a concert called Skate and Surf Fest.
How do I let myself have these expectations?
From Autumn to Ashes was still great, though. Lots of energy. The crowd loved them.
The Front Bottoms
Full disclosure: I’m no Front Bottoms fan. “Au Revoir” is a great tune, but I never dove into their albums. It was nice when they opened with “Au Revoir,” if anything, to reel me in.
The good news was that I didn’t need to know their stuff to enjoy their set — these guys were fun. On the stage behind the action was a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. They threw tambourines into the audience. The singer shared how much each of them won/lost in Las Vegas. The whole thing worked. It was great.
As a bonus, too, Kevin Devine joined them for a song, and at the end, smashed his guitar.
We were watching from the rear because it was dinner time and we were exhausted. #oldguycrowd
It’s been difficult, these last seven years or so, being lukewarm about Manchester Orchestra. I’ve seen them probably four or five times, but only because they’re always opening for better bands. I feel like I should be a bigger fan. I don’t know. Sometimes, they’re just a little too “angry white guy rock” for me, a little too melodramatic.
Before the festival I was listening to “Cope.” And dang, that’s a killer album.
It was the first time I was ever excited to see Manchester Orchestra, which really made all the difference. These guys rule. I’m still not a fanatic for the group, but they’re growing on me. Like I said, “Cope” is a great album (and since I’ve been listening to “Simple Math”).
The only bummer about their set (again, World Stage) was the sound. It’s probably hard to balance harmonies in an outdoor setting. I get that. But come one, Skate and Surf. Get it together!
Bonus: Singer Andy Hull went on a rant about youth group dancing and 90’s and early 00’s Christian rock. It was fantastic. “How about Audio Adrenaline?”
The Gaslight Anthem
Gaslight Anthem in Jersey: What better way to finish two years of living on the east coast?
Given the setting, there were rumors that Bruce (i.e., The Boss) was going to join Gaslight on stage. Brian Fallon, the singer, teased the audience: “We have some surprises for you tonight.”
When the crowd began chanting “Brrrruuuuuuucccce,” Fallon laughed. “That’s a Saturday night surprise,” he said, “not a Sunday night.”
Oh well. Gaslight brought out some local legends for a couple songs, but mostly the set was uninterrupted and straight forward. The one thing I realized while watching Gaslight was, “Wow, there are a lot of Gaslight Anthem songs I don’t know.”
But, hey, it was still a dream. And I still wish I looked like Elvis.
The bands delivered. The sound engineering was inconsistent. The festival atmosphere could be improved. I probably won’t attend next year (moving back to the West Coast), but I do hope Skate and Surf Fest adds more diversity to their lineup.
And come on, like, one surfer?
Also, for a festival that doesn’t allow you to leave, there should really be more to do. The vendors were few, and the band’s merch booths were unimpressive. Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from the music, but there just wasn’t much else.
All that to say, I had an incredible weekend. I saw some bands I never thought I’d see, and I had a good time doing it.
Thanks, especially, for Acceptance. Their set played during the exact moment of my college graduation ceremony. What better way to celebrate where I’ve been and where I’m going, than with a favorite band who is doing the same?
Thanks for reading!