On March 19th, over 17,000 fans gathered in San Bernardino in sunny Southern California for the third annual Self-Help Fest. Merch tents were swamped and so was the shade—the sun cast the day in 80° weather, intensifying in the throes of the thickening crowd.
Headlined and founded by A Day To Remember, the lineup was impressive: Underoath, The Wonder Years, The Story So Far, and August Burns Red, to name a few of the twenty that made an appearance. Planes flew overhead advertising new singles (“Paranoia” by A Day To Remember); flyers talked about the upcoming (and long-awaited) Pierce the Veil album “Misadventures.” In a display of the compassion and benevolent culture that is metal music, security guards passed out water bottles and bands encouraged fans to stay hydrated and look out for each other as the heat thickened.
The venue had both an indoor and outdoor stage and the outdoor was kicked off by Japanese rock band One Ok Rock, the indoor by American Post-Hardcore band letlive. Both started the day off on the right foot, ramping up the audience with contagious energy as they belted out the lyrics. It was clear as each band took the stage that all of them found new fans that day.
Texas-hailing metalcore band Crown the Empire took the stage around 3 pm, opening with their legendary hit The Fallout and playing songs all the way from their first EP “Limitless” to the November-released deluxe version of their 2014 album, “The Resistance: Rise of the Runaways.” The band also played an unreleased song, “Zero,” off their upcoming album, much to the enthusiasm of circling fans.
Throughout the afternoon, bands caught hold of the quieter moments between songs and used them as launching points for words of encouragement and inspiration. “The world is changing,” as they put it, and frontman Sean Delander of Thy Art Is Murder called out racism, sexism, and homophobia before transitioning into “Reign of Darkness” and “Light Bearer.” Even more notably, Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years said unashamedly, “I told myself I wasn’t gonna talk about politics as much onstage, but it’s election season and please for the love of God don’t fucking elect a racist, bigoted president.” The crowd roared with agreement.
Migrating to the darkness of the indoors, American rock band Further Seems Forever put on a stunning long-anticipated performance with their album “How To Start A Fire.” The band had been set to hit the road on The Tooth and Nail Tour with Anberlin a decade ago when dissonance between band members brought the music to a stop, and it was only at Self-Help Fest that they performed the album again and fans felt a sense of completion. Ten years certainly didn’t slow the band down, their energy levels just as rigorous as they were before; the performance held a reminder of what was just as it held the tone of what is, and what will be. It wasn’t hard to see the joy on the band member’s faces, and the contagion to the thrashing crowd was unmistakable.
The sun dipped lower in the sky as the indoor shows finished off with post-rock band Night Verses and the rest of the festival continued outside. August Burns Red was one of the liveliest performances of the day, with lead singer John Benjamin “JB” Brubaker kneeling front and center stage and shrieking out lyrics while fans screamed along. It’s not that the other bands weren’t as animated, there was just something about the metalcore band’s performance that couldn’t be matched.
By the time the soul-wrenching performances from The Story So Far and The Wonder Years ended, the crowd was buzzing with anticipation. When Underoath took the stage with “Breathing In A New Mentality,” it was like a fuse had been lit. The audience exploded with long-awaited fireworks as lead singer Spencer Chamberlain jumped across the speakers on the stage, hardly a still moment as they charged through their 12-song setlist. It was the Christian metalcore band’s first performance since their breakup in 2013 and it truly felt like a historic moment; even a photographer’s eyes flew open at the intro of the second song, and he breathed in a voice overwhelmed with awe, “Oh my God, ‘In Regards to Myself.’” Every single person in the audience sang along that night, including yours truly, and there was nothing more beautiful and welcoming than one of the most loved and influential rock bands of the age joining forces once again.
Underoath got the ball rolling (and boy, did they get it rolling) for headliner A Day To Remember. And what better song to start with than “The Downfall of Us All”? Pyrotechnics lit the stage as the audience shouted along to the opening lines, and the swell didn’t die down when they continued with hits like “I’m Made of Wax, Larry, What Are You Made Of?” and “2nd Sucks.” They also debuted their newest song, “Paranoia,” which had been released on Spotify only days earlier and will appear on their newest record, release date pending. It was cathartic when the audience chanted along the mumbled opening lines of “Sometimes You’re the Hammer, Sometimes You’re the Nail,” before yelling “I GOT IT!” And stomping up a storm. At the end of “All Signs,” the lights dimmed down and the band teased the audience for nearly five minutes before reappearing for an encore. (“They can’t be done yet. That haven’t played ‘All I Want.’”)
The encore started off with the sweet medley “If It Means A Lot to You.” Tears were probably shed somewhere, inevitably. Frontman Jeremy McKinnon powered through both the male and female vocal parts while the audience sang backup and the sound came to a peak at the final chorus. It was so powerful and moving that even ten-second videos of the event are enough to induce goosebumps. They moved into “All I Want”—how could they not?—and finished with none other than “The Plot To Bomb the Panhandle.” No one—fans, bands, anyone—went home dissatisfied.
All in all, the day was riddled with phenomenal music: Some new, some old, all greatly anticipated and received. Self-Help Fest 2016 smashed everything out of the water, and if next year somehow manages to top it, it’s something I don’t want to miss.