Promoter Alex Martel, who started Rockfest eight years ago, was recently slammed in Montreal media for requiring small bands to pay to play his festival. He certainly didn't invent pay-to-play — it's practiced widely by Montreal DIY venues — but the controversy put a dark cloud over the weekend's festivities before they even began. That said, there's no excuse for the egregious money-grubbing and absolute lack of care and respect that went down at Rockfest on the part of organizers, which included disgusting bathroom conditions, overbooked campsites leaving fans with reservations stranded, and a lack of drinking water.
Granted, previous editions of Rockfest have never featured such a stacked lineup, and it's clear Martel was completely unprepared for the fan response. That said, the festival did in fact sell out ahead of time, giving him fair warning that he'd need at least four times the staff he'd booked.
It was still possible to enjoy Rockfest, thanks to the only thing Martel did right — the bands. Friday started at noon with high-energy sets from Mad Caddies, Less Than Jake and Millencolin, who played to a fraction of ticket holders while the rest were stuck waiting in line for hours. By the time H20 played at 4pm, the crowd was flippantly informed that they'd cancelled five minutes into their scheduled set time.
Regardless, UK punks Subhumans were in fine form, as always, and it got better after that with Dropkick Murphys on the big stage and '80s west coast punk rockers the Adolescents on the medium-sized stage in the back. Boston's finest stuck mostly to newer tracks, while the latter treated the audience to a spirited rendition of early single "Amoeba." As if they knew fans needed something to be happy about, Rancid busted out fan favourites from early albums …And Out Come The Wolves and Let's Go like "Time Bomb," "Nihilism," "St. Mary" and "Old Friend." Over at the back stages, NYHC legends Madball had people windmilling their little hearts out, and on the big stage, Social Distortion rolled out the classics ("Ring Of Fire," "Story Of My Life," etc.). Punk rock's bad boyfriend Screeching Weasel reunited with fans once more after a series of storied breakups, and Deftones cast an atmospheric spell over the crowd before getting heads banging with "My Own Summer (Shove It)." Festival headliners the Offspring played at midnight, but by then, many in the crowd had fled the scene as a matter of self-preservation.
Saturday started better, with no excessively long line-ups to get in. It was sunny, warm and the field had dried out some, save for the piss reservoir encircling the urinals and portable toilets that gave off the most foul and ripe smells imaginable. But it quickly fell apart when, by 1:30pm, the day's openers had still not played — Lagwagon was scheduled to play at noon but got moved to a smaller stage at 6:55pm — and not a drum kit was to be found on the main stage, not even that of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who were scheduled to play at 1:20. When someone from the festival finally decided to address the crowd, they blamed the delay on a band being four hours late. Given the organizational failures the fans endured on the part of the promoter, the finger-pointing explanation seemed in poor taste.
The Bosstones finally did take the stage, albeit an altogether different one than the one they were supposed to play, after the mediocre Skip The Foreplay, and to their credit, really lifted the overall morale. A sea of people danced to a litany of their ska-punk hits, including "The Impression That I Get" and "Someday I Suppose," smiles plastered across their faces.
Saturday also featured an array of hardcore, with Shai Hulud, Lionheart, Comeback Kid, Death Before Dishonor, Acacia Strain and masters of NYHC Biohazard and Sick Of It All all playing the side-by-side pair of medium-sized stages. Sunburnt and hungover fans gobbled up rare performances by Transplants and 7 Seconds (special mention goes to the latter's frontman Kevin Seconds for continuing to play after breaking his leg while on stage at Rockfest).
Simultaneous late afternoon sets by Anthrax and Lagwagon whipped the crowds into a frenetic mob, limbering them up for evening sets by Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper and Rise Against. The star of the night, though — and perhaps the entire festival — was FLAG, aka Keith Morris and Dez Cadena's Black Flag. If the number of musicians hanging around the stage during their set is any indication, FLAG's set was by far the most anticipated performance of Rockfest, and Morris and co. killed it on classics like "Nervous Breakdown," "Wasted" and "Six Pack."
Overall, bands at Rockfest made the best of a not-so-great situation by really investing in their performances. No one checked out here, and musically, it was an astonishing collaborative effort. Still, fans will be reluctant to go again, even with another great lineup. If the promoters can't figure things out for future editions, music fans will be better served by having Rockfest in better hands than Martel's.