Whisper it (in case we upset the big boys) but Slam Dunk might just be the best music festival in the UK right now. Its eclectic mix of punk, rock, ska, metal, hardcore and pop-punk (with a touch of dance thrown in) means that there’s something for nearly everybody and it’s growing yearly, despite humble beginnings. Slam Dunk South, held at the Forum in Hatfield, is a regular feature on the calendar now and with over 40 acts this year, it’s a pretty big one too. Plus, the sun even decided to show its face; was there anything not to enjoy about Slam Dunk this year?
The ferocious Heart Of A Coward kick off proceedings on the outdoors Monster Energy stage, pummelling the crowd with a hardcore tinged metal assault. They draw a decent sized crowd for their spot on the bill and stand-out anthem ‘Shade’ induces the day’s first circle pits. They’ve also got a bit of a soft spot for classic dance routines apparently, as vocalist Jamie Graham asks the crowd to put their arms around each other and unite for a “heavy metal can-can”. Quite.
Modern Baseball might also have an affection for similar stunts but they hide it pretty well if so, preferring to simply wow their crowd over on the Atticus stage with their emotionally charged pop-punk. It’s their first time at Slam Dunk and they’re welcomed with open arms (aka sing-alongs, crowd surfing and a packed room). They seem a touch nervous and a little in awe of the whole thing but the reception to songs like ‘Your Graduation’ and ‘The Weekend’ will no doubt ease whatever fears they’re carrying around.
Save Your Breath follow and their crowd is noticeably smaller than their American counterparts. If it bothers them, they never let it show. The huge chorus of ‘Harrow Road’ was built for stages like this and the arrival of The Blackout’s Sean Smith for ‘Stay Young’ helps lend some extra showmanship to proceedings. Predictably, closer ‘Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy’ receives the biggest response as the front rows clamber over each other for a chance to sing into Kristian Richards’ microphone.
Moving away from the Atticus for a moment, the massive stage of the Forum makes Gnarwolves look unbelievably tiny. They’re quite visibly shocked to be here too but the mass sing-alongs to opener ‘Melody Has Big Plans’ prove that they’re doing something right. Sadly, the short but sweet nature of Gnarwolves’ material makes their set fly by unbelievably quick; hopefully their forthcoming album will push them onto bigger (and longer) things.
Back over at the Atticus stage, State Champs have only played a handful of shows in the UK but already they’re looking like seasoned veterans. Derek Discanio possesses some of the best pipes in pop-punk right now and he also knows how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Of course, his job is made much easier by a boisterous crowd that shout back every word of ‘Simple Existence’ before making the security team work harder than they will all day with countless bodies surfing over the barriers to ‘Elevated’. On the vast majority of bills, this performance would be the definitive highlight.
Not today though. To be fair to State Champs, Neck Deep blow absolutely everybody out of the water today. Opener ‘Losing Teeth’ turns the crowd into a sea of flailing arms and nodding heads; ‘Over And Over’ inspires absolute mayhem; and the sing-alongs to ‘A Part Of Me’ are deafening. The band might jokingly write themselves off as the “shit center” of today’s pop-punk sandwich but after yet another phenomenal performance, their self-deprecation is fooling no-one; these guys are easily the most exciting pop-punk band in the world right now.
Following that is a hard task but Real Friends are up to it. Songs full of memorable lyrics and catchy melodies are always going to become live hits and Real Friends back them up by giving everything they can on stage today. Dan Lambton doesn’t immediately strike you as an engaging frontman but his wild hair and passionate nature make him one all the same. The bittersweet leanings of ‘I’ve Given Up On You’ sound amazing and closer ‘Late Nights In My Car’ is the best song about late night driving you’re ever likely to hear. To paraphrase their own shirt, pop-punk may suck but Real Friends definitely do not.
Letlive’s reputation for a phenomenal live show means that there’s plenty of people awaiting their arrival at the Monster Energy stage. Remarkably, frontman Jason Aalon Butler is unusually reserved… For all of about two seconds. The true exhilaration of a Letlive show can only be experienced by the front few rows as fists, sweat and mics go flying everywhere. Still, the whole audience can enjoy Jason pulling down one of the giant Monster branded flags to swing above the stage like some kind of patriotic salute. He spends the majority of his time anywhere but the stage, leaving his note perfect band members to keep the show plugging along. Some might look on and wonder what the hell is happening but seeing Jason screaming the lines of ‘Virgin Dirt’ from on top of a picnic table shows he’s as passionate as he is bizarre. In short: awesome.
Finally, Kids In Glass Houses wrap the day up with their final ever set for Slam Dunk South as the band bids farewell this November. They’re determined to go out with a bang though by playing debut album Smart Casual in full. It means that they treat their crowd to little heard songs like ‘Pillow Talk’ and ‘Lovely Bones’ which are still as catchy and energetic as they were back in 2008. Of course, the best reactions are reserved for ‘Saturday’ and ‘Give Me What I Want’; the crowd’s willingness to shout along to every line visibly impresses the band. A final salvo of four songs from follow-up album Dirt make this a hit-packed set, despite airing nothing from their most recent albums Peace and In Gold Blood. The band could simply have relied on nostalgia to carry them through this set but they still pack a punch live and it’s genuinely upsetting that they’re calling time. Still, today’s set makes that final November tour a must see for anybody interested in Kids In Glass Houses; they’re in red-hot form going into it.
There’s a fascinating variety to a pop-punk show’s crowd; there’s easily as many Daniel Bryan shirts on display tonight as there are band tees. The grand setting of London’s Scala makes this gathering all the more bizarre but with over a thousand diehards rammed in, The Wonder Years are unlikely to care about their immediate surroundings. This is a band that’s been on the up for sometime and with ‘The Greatest Generation’, they’ve added another brilliant record to an already sterling back catalogue. Clearly they’re going to be selling out venues much bigger than this in years to come but is the hype justified?
First though, State Champs arrive for their first gig in London, though you wouldn’t know it from the massive welcome they receive. They bound onto the stage like homecoming heroes before ripping into opener ‘Nothing’s Wrong’; vocalist Derek Discanio’s energy immediately getting the front rows involved. Their debut album ‘The Finer Things’ was easily one of the best releases of last year and it’s great to see it transition so well into a live setting; it helps that the band don’t put a foot wrong throughout their half hour set. Set closer ‘Elevated’ incites the biggest singalong with the incredibly apt line: “This is where you need to be”; don’t miss these at Slam Dunk.
After nearly a decade of activity, A Loss For Words are elder statesmen of the pop-punk world nowadays, but their arrival on the Scala stage is noticeably muted compared to their younger counterparts. Still, that’s not going to put off a frontman like Matty Arsenault. In his own words, he’s “not afraid to get rowdy” and he moves around the stage like a man possessed, trying to rinse every ounce of energy from the front rows. He even climbs in the pit to kickstart some movement for ‘Stamp Of Approval’ and their Jackson 5 cover, ‘I Want You Back’, gets the sort of reaction you’d expect. ‘Conquest Of Mistakes’ from their newest album sees The Wonder Years’ Soupy get involved too but there’s no doubt that for whatever reason, A Loss For Words simply missed the mark with tonight’s crowd.
Perhaps the fault instead lies with the band at the top of the bill. The Wonder Years have quickly become the kings of the pop-punk genre with latest album ‘The Greatest Generation’ and as a result, Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell has become one of rock’s most unlikely heroes. To put it bluntly, the dude can write and while ‘The Greatest Generation’ is loaded with self-examination and criticism, it’s also dripping in melody and hooks. Played live, these tracks sound huge and it helps when they’re played to a crowd as vocal as this. ‘The Devil In My Bloodstream’ unites the whole room in song while one fan takes ‘Came Out Swinging’ incredibly literally, seeing it as the opportune moment to scramble across the venue to climb onto the stage. Security aren’t impressed but Soupy’s wry smile paints a thousand words.
The band close with the awesome ‘I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral’; just like on record, it’s a beautiful closer which draws lines and inspirations from across ‘The Greatest Generation’, almost like taking a greatest hits package and rolling it into one song. It might also be a statement of intent; this show could be the final London date for a while due to the band presumably moving onto writing new material. If so, this is one hell of a send off for one of the greatest records in modern pop-punk.