Alton, VA – This started out as being one of the hardest pieces I ever wrote for Digital Beat Magazine. To the reader – Why are you here? Are you looking to fuel your anger or are you looking to justify your passivity? If you are here for either of those reasons you will soon learn life is full of disappointments and this story could be one of them. My goal is not to stir emotions but rather to recount MY experience, on the ground, at Blue Ridge Rock Festival (BRRF) 2023. I also need practice putting the story to words, so I can tell my future grandkids how I survived BRRF23 (except this year I did not have to walk up THE hill both ways, barefoot, and in 30 feet of snow to see Motionless in White).
I realize we all have varying versions of the festival, witnessed different aspects of the event, and have perspectives influenced by different life experiences, this review is not meant to discount those in any way. I chose not to delve into the parts I did not actually witness and instead focus mostly on the people I met, the bands I saw, and the overall atmosphere.
Thursday in Review
I arrived in the vendor parking area on Thursday morning, about the time the gates were to open, to get my media credentials. The first thing I noticed was how far back the fans were lined up to get in. This was quite a change from what I remembered last year. The good news was the line was moving fast. By the time I returned to my car, the masses had already gained access and were inside.
Once inside, the improved layout was obvious. Rather than all stages requiring a right turn, one stage was to the left (Famous Monster), the main stages (Zyn and Monster) were not far to the right (past the merch area), and up a moderate hill and to the right was the final stage, the Smartpunk Records stage. To get from stage to stage was MUCH more manageable and the dreaded hill was out of the picture (but the hill to the Records stage was still a challenge).
Thursday was very hot and sunny. After capturing Edge of Paradise as my first band (very impressed BTW) I managed to catch a must see band, especially if you want to lighten things up a bit, Psychostick. Heading over to the main stage, I had the pleasure of running into Margarita Monet of Edge of Paradise. See below for a quick hello!!
After a quick chat, I bolted off to catch CKY‘s set at the main stages. Other than a little heat (and what do you expect on a Virginia September day?), opening day was going very well and smoothly thus far.
Always a Ratt and Motley Crue fan, my next two subjects were no brainers. Stephen Pearcy and Vince Neil were must sees and were back to back at Monster and Zyn. Pearcy had a few setup issues and got off to a delayed start. Once he got going, though, the stage was rockin’ and so was the crowd.
About half way through the Vince set I felt the heat starting to get to me and went off to take a prolonged hydration break. I needed to be in top form to catch the next on the list, Coheed and Cambria. Sadly, unbeknownst to me, my cameras had captured my very last band for the day.
The Storm (microburst)
What I thought was just a passing rain event started shortly before the Coheed set. As I was walking to the stage, the rain picked up rapidly. By the time I got to the stage, it was a downpour with torrents of water falling to the ground at the base of the main stages. The waterflow was too much to risk the camera. Somewhere around the second song in the set, the music came to an abrupt halt and all were ordered to evacuate the site. Campers were ordered to shelter in their campsite vehicles, others were ordered to leave and shelter on waiting buses. Let rain chaos rein.
Many of us did not immediately exit, hoping the rain would quickly end and the shows would go on. I, like many, found shelter under the canopy of the VIP area. We waited. A rainbow appeared for a quick second while I stood with thousands of people. We all had one thing in common, we did not know what was going on. The video screens on the stage told us to evacuate, internet was spotty so no one knew what the weather really was, and there was little or no other communicated direction. This was not a comfortable place to be.
After a short while, staff started ordering non-VIPs to leave the VIP area and exit the venue and seek shelter in the buses or camp vehicles. There were massive numbers of people trying to get out and no place for them to go. To add to the chaos, hail started to fall. As one with a limited background in emergency management, I was growing concerned (there were not enough buses to shelter those who were evacuating). There was a lot of anxiety in those of us who were evacuating.
The next communication was received about 8:30 PM. Word was they were going to try and get the final 4 bands to perform, opening the gates between 9:30 and 9:45. Around 9:30, it was announced that stages had been damaged, Night 1 had ended. Looking at the weekend forecast, I crossed my fingers that the issues exposed tonight would be addressed before opening the next morning.
Before I go on to the events on Friday, I just want to take a moment to thank everyone who attended and kept things cool. People on both days had issues, EMTs were always quick to respond and for the most part everyone on site was there to help and assist as they could. It was also fun to watch stage security dousing fans with ice water (or giving them ice) to cool them down. Probably the greatest thing was a vendor filling a water gun with cold water and shooting passerby’s in the coolest way ‘passible’.
I was so happy to see that the vast majority of people were making the best out of a wet and rainy situation. It had been fun talking to security and other staff about bands, the weekend, and even a bit about their experiences on Thursday night. For the most part, it felt like many were taking the events from Thursday in stride and almost treated it like a badge of honor (“I survived microburst 2023”). With that said, there was also an edge in the air that had not been present the day before.
When I awoke Friday, the forecast was for rain but the sun was high! Again, arriving at the venue I was greeting with a quarter mile of bodies awaiting the gates to open. It looked and sounded a lot like Thursday, but there were many talking about what had happened the night before, hoping it would not happen again.
Once inside, there were visible signs of issues caused the night before. One area of concern was sanitary issues that appeared not to have been addressed after the storm. The show must go on, right?
My goal on Friday was to stay hydrated and to see as many bands as I could (while catching many new sounds). Out of the gate I hit Archers and AngelMaker for a little wakeup call (no need for caffeine!). Both rocked their performances. Changing things up a bit, the next stop was a little hip hop country flare with Demun Jones. He was a hoot and worth the stop. Without taking a break, I circled back to the Records stage to catch Conquer Divide. They were my ‘pat myself on the back for the awesome choice in unknown band territory’ award winner. The first part of the day was a HUGE success!
Chugging down an energy drink and a water, I was ready to take the next step, After Life, followed by Black Stone Cherry, and Chelsea Grin. I will say that it was a good thing I do not have much hair at my advanced age. The bass at the After Life stage had my eyebrows blowing in the wind, I can only imagine what it would have done with a full head of hair!! I was very proud of my selections thus far and more so, was impressed at the execution of the sets, as each one had started within a minute or two of the initial set time. Looking around, it seemed like the events of the previous day were nothing but a memory. All seemed to be having a blast!
Another hydration round and off to the races again. Catching Trust Company, The Acacia Strain, Of Mice and Men, and Like Moths to Flames topped off the afternoon. Like the previous bands, the crowd was into it. I had several great conversations with fans talking about their excitement level for the rest of the weekend, which bands they were looking forward to, and just the fun they were having. What happened next could have sent BRRF into a 45K fan nightmare. Thank goodness for small miracles.
Near Weather Evacuation, A Prayer, and Flyleaf
I am not an overly religious person. I have my beliefs and hold them in my heart. What happened next was truly amazing to me, of course, you are free to view it as you wish.
At about 5:15pm or so some of us were told that there may be another evacuation due to severe weather. Checking out the weather feed, a radar image of all shades of red, orange, and yellow was heading directly toward BRRF and it was not slowing down. A new friend, who had come to the festival primarily to photograph the Lacey Sturm / Flyleaf reunion is a devout Christian and was devastated that an evacuation may force her to miss the the primary reason for her coverage. Evacuation would surely mean Flyleaf would not go on.
I offered to walk with her to the main gate and wait, provided she evacuate if the order was given. She agreed. Closely watching the radar, to the degree the spotty internet would allow us, the storm impact was all but certain. More and more people had gotten wind of the potential evacuation and many were gathered at the main gate. It did not look good. My new friend then asked me if I minded if she prayed out loud. I told her to go for it!!
A few minutes after an Amen, I looked at the radar (the skies had also gotten a bit lighter) and the storm was changing direction (I kid you not). Shortly thereafter, it was obvious that the storm was going to go around the racetrack. Within about 20 minutes of the end of the prayer, word came to the group that there would be no evacuation and the rest of the night was a go. I was in disbelief…
My friend ran to the Flyleaf stage and I waddled behind her. We both made it in time (I was just sweating a little less). Lacey and Flyleaf came out and gave a killer performance and the wall to wall people taking it in were in heaven (not literally). The number of crowd surfers and people partying in the crowd seemed to amp up, all was wonderful!
Getting Ducked, Sleep Token, and a Motionless End to Friday
We were all anxiously awaiting Sleep Token’s appearance, standing in the pit, cameras ready. One of the other photographers tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that someone behind me was messing with my pack. A shiver ran up my spine. When I turned to confront the culprit, I was greeted with smiles of embarrassment from a mother and daughter who were trying to duck me up… literally. As it turns out they were attempting to sneak a plastic duck in my pack. As I glared at them (with a smile), I demanded they give me a duck… and they did as they knew anything less would result in certain punishment. The story does not end there, however, as that night, when I went back to the hotel, I found yet another duck in my pack. Yes, I had been ducked twice while waiting for Sleep Token.
Their surreal and somewhat eerie set was the perfect lead in to Motionless in White, who has become a staple for all things Blue Ridge over the past several years. As a result of Till Linderman’s cancelation, Motionless in White was given a longer set time and the fans definitely appreciated it. The place was packed and the fans were loving every minute of it. They were the climax for my Friday night.
Before departing BRRF for the night, I went to catch Testament and was hoping to catch Polyphia. This was the first place I had seen any stage issues on Friday. Testament went on at least 30 minutes late (the previous band had also been delayed) and things on the Records stage did not seem to be running as smooth as they should. The set was laced with sound issues and possible lighting issues. They jammed and kicked butt, but something was amiss. With that, I departed for the night.
BRRF 2023 Band Gallery
Saturday and the Disappointing Ending
As it turned out, I had to leave most of Saturday and only had an abbreviated schedule. The day started poorly, with downpours the entire drive from our hotel in NC to VIR. It did not look good.
As expected, upon arrival we were notified that the gates would be opening late. The weather forecast at the time called for rain and possible storms all day Saturday and into Sunday. When I learned that the one band I had come for was likely not going to perform (Hanabie), I decided to head back to my other commitment early and return on Sunday. A short time later we were notified Saturday had been called and at about 5:30PM, Sunday had also been called, attributing the cancelations to the weather. It was a sad end.
At the time of this article there are a lot of stories about BRRF being spread. Many of them likely hold truth, although some are obviously untrue. As I look back, I cannot help but wonder if the unexpected storm on Thursday made all involved aware of many weaknesses in the BRRF plan and also changed the entire trajectory of the festival. A great number of things changed as a direct result of the storm and those things were necessary to finish out the weekend successfully. Add to that some issues that were taking place out of sight and it was quite possible a perfect storm of a different kind was brewing, a storm that could have had a very negative outcome, especially with 45K (give or take), many agitated, people all in the same place. I do not know the ‘real’ reasons for the cancelation, I do know the logic and information used to determine that cancelation was the right thing to do. I certainly do not envy those that had to make the decision.
Those of us who did not camp dissipated relatively quickly, going our own ways, all in various emotional states but at least in the same condition (more or less) we arrived. Those in the camping areas, however, were still there, close together, and, from what I heard, emotions were high (as expected). While I did not witness the ad-hoc concert in the camping area, I really want to give a shoutout to the bands that took part, Shinedown, Papa Roach, and Oliver Anthony. I think your wonderful gesture reduced some tension and more so, made for a memorable and epic positive ending to something that ended as it did. Thank you!
Now that I have totally disappointed all by only focusing on my experiences (the good and bad), if you want a hit piece or a fluff piece, feel free to browse the internet to get your fill, Lord knows there is a lot out there. I may have seen multiple issues at BRRF 2023, however I also saw a lot of great moments. I lived to tell about it and I am sure it will make for some interesting tales for my grandkids (‘you think your festival had challenges, let me tell you about Blue Ridge 2023… ‘).
Who knows what the future holds for BRRF. I had a blast while it lasted and was disappointed in the way it ended. The people, the bands, and the atmosphere were awesome. Do I feel (my feeling only), things could have been done that would have prevented the early end? Absolutely. Do I feel, given the situation on the ground at the time, that the decision to cancel the weekend was justified? Most definitely. I am curious to see how this all unfolds over the next few weeks or months. I am happy to have been part of it and witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly <insert the Clint Eastwood music>, making the most of what I had (and honestly, I could not have asked for more from the bands, the people, the staff, and even the decision makers who made sure I returned home in the same condition I arrived). Stay tuned for next year!
Festival Dates (originally scheduled): Thursday, September 7 – Sunday, September 10