I arrived at The Gallivan Center about 15 minutes before the gates opened, finding lines everywhere. There was the regular line, the fastpass line, the VIP line and the will call line, and approximately 12,000 people all spread out across both 200 South and Main Street, a lot of them, like me, looking for the line that they belonged in. After searching for that line for a bit, I finally got in, heading right away to the row of food vendors and buying a personal-size pepperoni pizza and a Coke from Pogi’s. After inhaling the little pie, I studied the lineup and the schedule as I sat waiting for the opener, a band from Kamas called Shrink the Giant. Looking through the lineup, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. It seemed like a bunch of retreads from previous years (Eve 6 and the two headliners, Neon Trees and The Used) mixed with the “flavor of the week” type bands (Awolnation and Grouplove). I was, however, looking forward to seeing Imagine Dragons, because of all of their recent hype, and I had a certain measure of interest in Dead Sara. Other than that, I honestly wasn’t looking forward to much.
Because of the convoluted line situation, only a handful of people were in the park by the time Shrink the Giant took the stage—a shame, really, because the pop group (added to the lineup after winning X96’s Battle of the Bands) put on a pretty great show to open up the day’s events. One my favorite things about their performance was how lead singer Stefania Barr’s smile got wider and wider as the crowd began to fill in. By the end of their short set, she was beaming and most of the crowd was, too. It was hard not to like them and a lot of it had to do with Barr’s demeanor. Their songs were total bubblegum, bordering on annoying, especially “Smart Boys,” a Paramore-esque ode to, well, smart boys. But damn it all, they were just so happy/adorable.
Full disclosure here, early on: I was fully expecting this review to be a long-winded diatribe that ripped into the more corporate, sanitized event that the X96 Big Ass Show had become. I thought back to the free, open space of the State Fairgrounds, where the show used to be held, and the insanity that that venue would lend itself to. The days without the premium “Party Pit,” when anyone in the park could end up crow diving off of the stage. If the day would have continued in the way it went during the next act, Dead Sara, then I would have been fully justified in writing that very review.
The (very) hard rocking foursome from Los Angeles was, for me, one of the highlights of the whole day—their performance was anyway. The crowd on the other hand, especially the folks in the “Party Pit” (God, I hate that term), just stood there, no jumping, no fist pumping, completely still as Dead Sara kicked ass song after song. To be fair, two thirds of the crowd was still trying to get in the gate, which is completely unacceptable on the organizers’ part at this point of the show. Regardless, I was very disappointed and on the verge of giving up hope for the crowd, until midway through the set, a small group outside of the “Party Pit” area started screaming and getting riled up. Emily Armstrong, lead singer of Dead Sara, noticed this group right away and started looking past the zombified group right in front of her and performing for the real Party Pit (God, I hate that term). It became so obvious, Armstrong’s distaste for the group directly in front of her, that she walked offstage and past them to perform in front of the people that were acting like they were at a rock concert. On the way back to the stage, Armstrong seemed to try to stir something up in the pit by knocking into a few of its inhabitants, but it was in vain as they continued just to gawk toward the stage, emotionless.
The band, as you probably gathered, was anything but emotionless. Armstrong’s strong, shrill voice reminds me a bit of Melissa Etheridge—you know, if Melissa Etheridge violently screamed her lungs out during every chorus. Armstrong’s right-hand woman, Siouxsie Medley, was also impressive on guitar, always matching the energy level of the singer. Playing songs off of their debut self-titled LP, Dead Sara really made a fan out of me, the highlights being “We Are What You Say,” which featured a great intro riff from Medley, and the aggressive “Weatherman,” which they closed their set out with.
The Wombats were the next act to grace the Live and Local stage, which is a bit ironic, being that they are from Liverpool. Their indie new wave sound is perfect for festival settings. It’s easy to move to and a lot of fun. By the time they started, most of the crowd had made it into the Gallivan Center, which gave their performance an added energy. After leaving the Dead Sara performance both so fulfilled, because of the performance itself, and disappointed because of what I thought was going to be a running theme of lameness from the crowd, my concern quickly disappeared as the masses danced and swayed to upbeat tracks like “1996” and “Jump Into the Fog.”
The Live and Local Stage actually, on a more consistent basis, harbored more of an organic concert feeling because the audience wasn’t all separated like the main stage was. In fact, until The Used and Neon Trees performed, there was very little partying going on at all in front of the main stage. I totally understand the reasoning behind the premium area, when that dug in area in front of the stage at Gallivan is full, it can be a nightmare. I’m guessing it’s one of the main reasons that the organizers behind the Twilight Concert Series picked up and moved west to the much more spacious Pioneer Park. But to charge more money for that area, even if it is just $10 more, just does not make sense for a show like this one.
The next act, Eve 6, found all of that out very quickly. When Bill Allred (who had a bloody bandage around his head most of the day because he fell out of bed the night before) introduced them, the name was known enough to get a big reaction, but the rest of the performance fell pretty flat. I saw Eve 6 one other time, at the 2003 Big Ass Show, while waiting to walk across the park to watch A.F.I. On that occasion, they started their set, like, 30 minutes late and seemingly mailed in their performance. At least they were right on time on this occasion. Look, I’m all for hearing old songs from bands that have had their 15 minutes, but at least put some feeling into it. A lot of the crowd was made up of people who might not have been even talking, or walking, during Eve 6’s heyday. Now, I’m not saying that, once a band’s popularity fades to nothing, they should just give up, but when they are performing their best-known songs (i.e. “Here’s to the Night” and “Inside Out”) do it with some passion. With all of that said, it was good to hear songs that reminded me of the late ’90s and junior high … Wait, no it wasn’t. I fucking hated Junior High.
One of my more anticipated bands Saturday was Imagine Dragons, and walking over to their performance and seeing the ocean of humanity waiting for them take the stage made it evident that I was not the only one who was excited to see them. For those unlucky (or stupid) enough to watch the Eve 6 performance, myself included, it was a fight to find a spot with decent sight lines for the Imagine Dragons. I decided to struggle through what was supposed to be a designated walkway, down to the main area by the Live and Local stage. As far as up-and-coming bands with local roots go, Dragons is all the rage right now, and, moments into their performance, it is easy to see why. The quartet from Provo are adept performers who take no time at all to connect with the crowd. Dan Reynolds owns the stage and has complete control of the songs he sings. And the songs themselves, songs like “It’s Time,” are so full of feeling, so personal, but at the same time, they are accessible enough to completely sweep a bigger crowd like Saturday’s into near hysteria. It may be awhile before Utah sees the Dragons again, though they certainly will be back, because they are currently touring in support of their debut LP, Night Visions.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the next band for two reasons. One, I admittedly did not stay for their whole show, which leads me to reason two, because they just were not very good. Awolnation came out of nowhere this year with their slickly produced electro-rock hit, “Sail,” an anthem for the depressed and angsty teenager within us all. The studio was kind to Awolnation, because they do not sound great live. Because I missed them being introduced, I wasn’t even entirely sure the band on the stage was Awolnation. Basically, this is what it came down to: a lot of screaming from lead singer Aaron Bruno, and a lot of people just biding their time until “Sail” started, often yelling “Sail!” after each song. After the third song, I moved on to get a good spot for Grouplove.
I challenge you to try and go a day, listening to the radio, without hearing “Tongue Tied” at least 1000 times. I promise you, it is pretty close to impossible. Who cares, though, right? Grouplove’s crossover hit is probably the main reason that most of the massive crowd was there to watch them, but the LA-based group proved to be so much more than that song, and was, for me, the best performance of the day. Grouplove really is about as appropriate a name as a band ever has had. They truly are a group, a unit, and there is a lot of love in their music. The five-piece outfit exhibits each member taking turns singing songs and even playing other instruments. Hannah Hooper and Christian Zucconi share the vocal on the lighthearted “Naked Kids” one moment, and then bassist Sean Gadd, with his desperado cowboy hat and a beard that would make Zach Galifianakis proud, passed his bass-playing responsibilities to Zucconi as he took the lead on “Chloe.”
What set this performance apart, however, was the last 15 minutes or so. To that point, the performance was very good but Grouplove shifted its whole dynamic, suddenly slowing things down with a song called “Slow.” It was a bit perplexing as to why they did this, but midway through the song, drummer Ryan Rabin started to play something of a driving techno beat. This beat evolved into a full-on techno-sounding section of the song. The crowd was delirious, jumping up and down to the pounding beat, and then, all at once, Grouplove broke into “Tongue Tied”. Everyone, myself included, belted out every lyric with the band, all the way down to Hooper’s count-in on her part. As “Tongue Tied” ended, the band when directly into a mini-cover of the late Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which kept the crowd pumped all the way until they ended their brilliant set with “Colours.”
Following Grouplove’s great performance, I expected a great ending from the two headliners at the main stage. I would not be disappointed. The Used, in a strange way, has become something of a point of community pride for a lot of people across the Wasatch Front. Based on their music alone, there is absolutely no reason, in this day and age, that a band like that should have been able to find the amount of success they have. Not that it is bad music, not at all. On the contrary, The Used is probably one of the best, if not the best emo, post-hardcore bands around. It’s just not at all something you would ever expect to hear on the radio. It’s a testament to Bert McCracken and the rest of the group’s undying dedication to putting on insanely energetic shows, as well as keeping a personal connection with their fan base, that a decade after “Taste of Ink” hoisted them into the national spotlight, they are still one of the preeminent bands on the alternative rock scene today. Saturday’s performance was a confirmation of all of that.
The Used played a balanced mix of newer songs from their album, Vulnerable, which was released in March, and fan favorites like “I Caught Fire” and their closer, the aforementioned “Taste of Ink.” The set’s hallmark moment came when McCracken separated the two sides of the crowd and had them charge at each other
at the beginning, as well as the climax of the song “Pretty Handsome Awkward.” Between songs, McCracken was his usual, strange but charming self, lovingly flipping off different people in the audience, promising his mother that he would try not to us the word “fuck” and telling the audience to steal their new album from Wal-Mart. When describing the performance to my wife, who has seen The Used a number of times, I said, “It was The Used,” which, somehow over the last 10 years or so, has become shorthand for a crazy/incredible show.
As the sun set behind the buildings that surround the Gallivan Center, Provo’s own Neon Trees took to the stage. The last two years have seen the Trees go from a local favorite, especially in Provo, to one of the biggest bands in the country. Sticking with the theme of their Picture Show album, released in April, their introduction video looked more like the opening of an old-school movie
, Tyler Glenn and the rest of Neon Trees took the stage. With a forceful shove from behind, there I was, piled among a dozen or so thrashing, jumping, screaming, chaotic teenagers—a mosh pit. The score to this anarchy, ironically, was “1983” by the Neon Trees, a song which sees the Trees frontman Tyler Glenn waxing nostalgic about the year he was born. The irony behind it is, as I was being elbowed, sweated on and thrown around by these complete strangers, I began to feel a bit of nostalgia. It had been eight years since last I found myself in a mosh pit—the 2004 Big Ass Show, during “Out of Control” by Hoobastank. Of course, the circumstances were much different at that time. For one, I was in that particular mosh pit through my own volition, rather than being thrown in by what I think was that 13-year-old girl who was maniacally giggling as she watched me struggle to pick up my notes from the ground (right now, I’m imagining some X96 intern picking up the shredded pieces of my notebook and thinking, “Who the fuck takes notes at a show?”). Also, at that time, I had little responsibility and even less concern for my own safety. I was like a goddamned (6’2, 170 pound) battering ram. This time, I was more like the nerd in high school movies who gets his books knocked out of his hands and pushed around. Despite this abuse, anyone who cared to witness this can testify to the massive smile on my face as I finally decided, “Hell with my notes and my personal well-being,” and joined the fray. They mostly played songs from the new album, highlighted by notable performances of “Hooray for Hollywood,” a song about the ugly side of fame, and one that Tucker said they did not play often, and “Mad Love,” a song that almost instantly transports you to the ’80s, which featured lead vocals by Elaine Bradley—this her first show back after having a baby.
Of course, the Trees did not forget some of the songs that brought them. I had started the Neon Trees set on the east side of the of the stage, about 30 feet from the barricade that separated the “Party Pit” from the general riff-raff and, through no effort or movement of my own, ended up right up against that very barricade … on the west side of the stage. By the time the Neon Trees had come to their Number One hit, “Everybody Talks,” the show’s closer, the crowd had totally let loose and I was right there with them. The Big Ass Show had evolved right in front of my very eyes. It started as the sanitized, corporate event I thought it was going to be, and changed into an all-out party that had more crowd-surfers, great mosh pits and all around good people per capita than any other show I have ever attended.
Props to X96 for putting on a great show, despite having a “Party Pit” and Awolnation; props to the people who attended the show, other than a few douchebags that were hassling people for trying to walk on the walkway (God Forbid!) during Imagine Dragons—everyone I came in contact with was pretty damn cool; props to the security, who, from what I saw, treated the attendees with respect and legitimately cared about their safety. Saturday’s show reminded me, for the most part, of how great a community Salt Lake City, and the Wasatch Front is. There were, of course, the groups from elsewhere, but the show was more of a tribute to local music. Everything from seeing Shrink the Giant, maybe one day closing out the Main Stage (they are good enough to do so), just happy to be a part of it, all the way to Neon Trees, who have gone from playing shows at Velour to being one of the biggest bands in the country, and of course The Used and Imagine Dragons. I had a great time and there is no doubt that this experience will go right up there with the great Big Ass Shows that I attended in the past. However, considering how sore I was on Sunday morning, here’s to me not mosh-pitting again for another decade or so.