As we get ready to leave our hotel room and venture back to the fairgrounds for the final time it was bitter sweet. On one hand we’re going to have arguably the best lineup of the festival in front of us today. But on the other, we know that this amazing festival is coming to a close. Walking up to the gate I notice that the fans have shown up earlier than in the previous days in an attempt to get as much live music in as possible. The day before we have got word that Bush would be cancelling all of their U.S. tour dates due to COVID precautions, which means some changes to todays start times. And another blow to the lineup was that Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals would not make it as they recover from a devastating hurricane that hit New Orleans. But looking at the glass half full, we will now have some extended set times with some amazing bands. On my way to the media area I finally had a chance to stop in to the Parlor Root Beer tent. You probably know a few of the owners with one being former Motionless in White keyboardist Josh Balz and Breaking Benjamin bassist Aaron Bruch. The lines throughout the weekend only led me to believe that I was missing out on something good. I’m not usually a big root beer guy, but I have to say I was very surprised with how smooth and delicious Parlor was. Aside from its great taste, great staff and sweet merch the comfortable sitting area around the inside of the tent made me seriously regret my decision not to stop in sooner. If you see their tent at any event, do yourself a favor and stop in and experience it for yourself.
The morning was jammed packed with talented bands like Fame on Fire, Mourn the Illusion, Splintered Reality and of course Ayron Jones. A band that I was looking forward to seeing for the first time was Starset. Their unique back stories, stage wear and musical direction would really set themselves apart from the rest of the pact. They brought a great energy with their performance that left everyone watching completely satisfied. Back at the Monster Energy Stage We Came As Romans was about kick off their set. They brought their level of brutality and harmonies from the start with Cold Like War. David Stephens lead the charge with incredible range and deep growls as the rest of the band delivery crushing songs like Carry the Weight and To Plant a Seed. The band would debut their newest song Black Hole to the fans at Blue Ridge to an overwhelming ovation. The StayLit Stage would offer the fans to be entertained by the four piece from Muskegon, MI, Pop Evil. Drummer Hayley Cramer climbs up to her drum kit siting high above the stage as the rest of the band convene below and waste no timing jumping into Deal With the Devil. As soon as frontman Leigh Kakaty grabs the mic you could feel level of intensity as soon as his vocals left the stage. But Pop Evil would make sure their set would stick out in the minds of those in attendance. Following Breath Again, Kakaty draws the crowd in tight around the barricade before he jumps off the stage and meets them face to face. Then he fearlessly climbs up on top of those very same fans and delivers a version of Trenches that none of us would forget.
As hard of an act that is to follow, Fit For A King would be up to the task. They drop The Price of Agony like a bomb on the fans as it quickly incites wave after wave of crowd surfers. It wouldn’t take bassist Ryan “Tuck” O’Leary long to take flight off of his riser or to spin like a tornado with his bass. Singer Ryan Kirby’s raw vocals fueled the intensity through the set mostly consisting of songs from their newest album The Path with hard hitting tracks like The Path, Breaking the Mirror and incredibly brutal God of Fire to slap an exclamation point on their set.
The URW Stage would bring another notable metalcore act front and center with August Burns Red. Matt Greiner, J.B. Brubaker, Brent Rambler and Dustin Davidson trot out and get into position before they launch into the aggressively moving instrumental X to get the crowd warmed up. As their guitars still ring out singer Jake Luhrs rushes the stage letting out a mighty roar just as the band break into the crushing opening track off of Leveler with Empire. I’ve been going to ABR’s shows for almost 10 years and the level that these guys take their live shows is nothing short of amazing and jammed packed with as much “Angry music for happy people” as you could possibly handle. It didn’t take long for the band to pull out a surprise for the fans and usher out Fit For A King frontman Ryan Kirby to help out on the track Poor Millionare.
The band was currently on tour celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the iconic album Leveler and have been playing it in its entirety. With a shortened set here, ABR would dedicate the first half to playing four tracks of that album. At the halfway point drummer Matt Greiner would absolutely mesmerize the fans with a brilliant drum solo that would take most drummers extra limbs to pull off. It was so impressive that J.B. Brubaker returned to the stage to film the action on his phone. When the band returns they put their sights on their latest album Guardians. Bloodletter has been deemed the heaviest song they have ever written and with its earth shaking breakdown it is clear why. Another song that would get the mosh pits working over time would be the punishing Defender as the line “Deliver the sentence” ignites mayhem in the crowds. Throughout their time on stage August Burns Red managed to condense a full 18 song set into just 9 and lost not a shred of brutality.
Like I said before. With a few bands unable to make it, it allowed more time for some of the great bands that were ready to play. Lucky enough for me, this meant that I would now be able to catch all of Killswitch Engage’s set. What I didn’t realize was that Steve-O would be the MC for the remainder of the night and wanted to make his presence known. He asked the crowd to assist him in making a round trip around both sides of the barricades while crowd surfing the whole time. Which they had no problem helping out with. When he finally made it back to the stage, he was finally able to announce “Give it up, for KILLSWITCH ENGAGE!”. Soon the unmistakable sight of Adam D’s mohawk and headband make their way from backstage and greets the eager crowd while the rest of the band files in behind him. The triplet chugs of Unleashed paired with Jesse Leach’s soulful cries was certainly a start in the right direction. Some eagle fans may have noticed that it didn’t quite look like bassist Mike D’Antonio standing on stage, and they would have been right.
Right before the tour Mike contracted COVID and had to stay off the road but the bands Production Manager Josh Mihlek would be filling in for the beginning few dates. As soon as the crowd hears the intro of My Last Serenade they go crazy, but apparently that wasn’t enough of a response for Adam D which caused him to ask them “Hey, do you know this fucking song?” which got the response he desired. During the songs memorable chorus Jesse let’s all the fans sing on their own creating a full almost operatic resonance. Anytime KSE gets together for a show their setlists can play out like a greatest hits and this show was no exception. Towards the end of the set the band dove back into the early albums to break out fan favorites like Rose of Sharyn, End of Heartache and In Due Time to round out their amazing sets. It had been a couple of years since I last saw Killswitch Engage and they absolutely blew me away, along with the thousands in attendance.
The lineup really started to pour with talent towards the end of the day. Bands like Mastodon, The Hu and Ice Nine Kills had fans running every which way to catch the start of their sets. The Liquid Death Stage would hold Steve-O’s second crazy act as he would ask a security guard for his knife which he would use to cut his tongue and wear the blood as war paint. Yep, you heard that right. But I was determined to get to the StayLit stage in time to see Papa Roach’s Infest 20th Anniversary Set. But before the band hits the stage, Steve-O would grace the stage one last time to give a special fan the gift of watching him catching his man parts backwards between his legs. You can’t make this stuff up. The fans’ “PAPA ROACH” chants almost seem to draw the band out under the white stage lights as the iconic upside down cockroach hangs in the background. Tony Palermo counts off to 3 before the band rip into the hard hitting first track of the night and the album Infest as Jacoby Shaddix comes front and center with a subtle pink mohawk to greet the enthusiastic crowd.
Papa Roach play as if they were shot out of a canon with power ferocity which would carry right into Broken Home, Dead Cell and of course their breakthrough track Last Resort. It was amazing to hear this album I grew up with played from start to finish not to mention hearing the crowd passionately belt out every word to every song like that. Papa Roach would also gift the crowds the live debut of two new songs Kill the Noise which will be on their upcoming album and Swerve that featured Fever 333 frontman Jason Aalon Butler. Both were incredibly well received and only brought the excitement of the set that much higher. Papa Roach brought out just about every highlight of their career for this crowd and made this a hell of a celebration for such an acclaimed record.
Blue and purple lights shower down on the stage as the fans await for Falling in Reverse to close out the URW stage. The fans’ faithful chants of “RONNIE” echo around us until drummer Luke Holland marches behind the kit as the rest of the band follow. After they ring in the beginning of the set, singer Ronnie Radke jogs out to a screaming crowd and kicks off the night with the hard hitting anthem Rolling Stone. Right away Ronnie’s stage presence was unmistakable as he worked the front of the stage back and forth while engaging with the fans. The music and momentum rolled on almost completely uninterrupted.
That is until Ronnie spots someone in the crowd wearing a shirt donning “Fu$k Ronnie Radke” which would take the attention away from the show and solely on this individual. Understandably frustrated, Ronnie confronts him but he would have the full support of everyone in the crowd as they would cheer him on as every verbal encounter he had was one victory after another. Once Ronnie realizes this guy has had enough of his attention, he would lead the band and the show back on track with upbeat gallops of Born to Lead. Every song throughout Falling in Reverse’s set was just as fast and furious as the one before it, keeping the fans’ energy high every minute. It all came to a head as the band closed out their time on stage with their hit song Popular Monsters and it was a high powered send off to say the least.
Walking towards the Monster Energy Stage my excitement was high to not only shoot Shinedown for the first time, but to finally catch and see them live. When I get to the front of the stage I look at and all I see is a sea of people and more than I had seen up to this point. Right then and there it was obvious that this was going to be a hell of a show with 40,000 strong cheering on one of the biggest bands in the world. When the stage lights go out it draws a deafening roar from the fans and only let up to hear the familiar sounds of The Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Following the hype up montage of the Chicago Bulls intro theme mixed up with notable quotes from The Joker to Dr. Martin Luther King until the all to familiar start of Cut the Cord begins to reverberate from the stage. Shinedown made sure they kicked things off right and dive right into that high octane performance that they are known for.
Brent Myers’ powerful voice ventures through just about vocal register within just the first few songs while Zach Myers and Eric Bass fly around the stage just amplifying an already electric atmosphere. The band did a great job with creating a good mixture of hard hitters and more ballad toned songs for the fans. Zach would slow things down a bit when he makes his way out with an acoustic to strum his way into If You Only Knew. Between the enormous vertical LED panels, stunning visuals and the blue lighting blanketing the stage, it all created such an amazing ambience and added a whole other element to the music.
At one point Brent Myers looked out on the crowd and said “Virginia, show us what the stars look like tonight. The only thing we ask is that you leave those stars up the whole time”. 40,000 strong hold up their lighters and cell phone lights illuminating far onto the stage while Eric Bass starts to play the beginning of the powerfully uplifting Get Up. You couldn’t help but be captivated by Myers’ compelling and soulful voice as it fills the festival grounds. As the song’s momentum intensifies with the rhythmic build up between drummer Barry Kerch, Eric on piano and Zach, it all comes to a thrilling climax as the stage comes alive with lights from every angle.
With such a moving performance it would be hard to really top that. But when a band like Shinedown has so many amazing songs like Bully, Monsters and Second Chance, they can certainly come close . Little did anyone know that one of the most memorable moments of the entire festival was about to unfold in front of us. Eric Bass gives a heartfelt thank you to the fans and bands for such a great time, at which time Brent jokingly gives a very subtle “Goodnight” and starts to walk off stage but is immediately met with a wave of boos. He laughs his way back and responds to the crowd with “C’MON”. After he confirms that everyone is having a good time and still has their singing voices he directs the maestro to start whenever he’s ready.
And without hesitation Zach Myers starts to strum out their passionate cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd classic Simple Man. After diving in only a couple of verses Brent announces “Ladies and gentlemen we want to introduce you to Jelly Roll. Make some noise”. The fans erupt with cheers and applause as he begins his passionate and unforgettable vocal display. While Jelly and Brent share bars back and forth, Eric takes a seat in front of the drum kit as shares a drink with their photographer Sanjay Parikh and is soon joined by Barry as all 3 watch the magic from the best seat in the house. This entire performance was as moving as I had ever seen in a live show and luckily Sanjay was able to produce an absolutely stunning video that captured how truly memorable it was.
The incredible ovation still fills the fairgrounds as Brent asks everyone “What you say, One more for the road?” which only fuels them to get even louder. While Barry and Zach lead into Sounds of Madness the house lights show tens of thousands pounding their fists in the air as if preparing for battle. As the band worked their way into the song’s first chorus it was met with fireworks flying high above the stage to the crowd’s surprise. Shinedown’s stage presence had snowballed into this adrenaline filled finale as the last verse was jammed packed with an exceptional light display on stage and a climactic firework display high into the sky. After many rounds of thank yous from the band to all of their fans, the band come together in front of Barry’s kit and on five separate but thunderous hits detonate five massive sets of fireworks that would bring a thrilling end to not only an unbelievable show, but to the most phenomenal festival’s in the country.
For four solid days we were able to be a part of an incredible musical experience as we witnessed some of the biggest bands in the world with over 40,000 screaming music fans. When COVID hit it changed more than we could ever have imagined. And one of the biggest elements impacted was the music industry. So many times over the course of the weekend I’ve heard bands say “This is our first time playing live in over a year” or in some cases over two years. It was really special to be able to be a part of that and to have the chance to share that moment with them. It was no surprise that Day 1 certainly had its challenges for both fans and workers of the festival.
I spoke to many people during my time there and almost all praised the work done by Jonathan Slye and his team with how fast they were able to assist and correct many of the dire situations facing concert goers. If there were any doubts as to peoples positive takes. Here we are, two months afterwards and there are entire fan groups created on social media where people are recounting their favorite memories, bands, foods and yes, favorite Steve-O moments. Blue Ridge Rock Festival 2021 was certainly hailed a success and has made a lasting impression on everyone who attended. 2022 dates have been announced and the buzz about lineups has already begun. For all of your Blue Ridge news and updates head over to Blueridge.com and make sure you get your votes in and get your bands on that stage and I’ll see you all there next year!