After the anti-climatic “end” of the Warped Tour last year, there was a gap left open for a touring festival that caters to a faction of teenagers that feel disenfranchised and adults that suffer from Peter Pan-syndrome. Enter the inaugural year of the Alt Press-sponsored Sad Summer fest, a new touring festival marketed toward Millenials that went to Warped and Gen Z-ers who probably never got the chance. On the Philadelphia date of the tour, Sad Summer brought a huge amount of nostalgia with a looming sense of irony that only a bunch of once-depressed teens could indulge.
Entering Philly’s Mann center, what’s probably most noticeable is how much it feels like going to an Emo Night at a bunch of bars across the country. The frowning faces plastered on drawstring bags, sunscreen and two massive banners near the stage. It almost feels like the music is secondary to the show, and the real purpose of the tour is to take dope Instagram pictures and buy merch. While there was certainly a time when the festival-goers at sad summer would unironically scream “You don’t need maps when you know where the sidewalk cracks” or don a “Defend Pop Punk” shirt, those same people are more inclined to sample craft beers while posing in front of banners that are emblazoned with Mayday Parade lyrics while holding a beach ball. One of the festivals’ biggest attractions is the “Emo Kid Action Figure” booth, which often seemed like it had a longer line than there were people watching some of the younger bands like Mom Jeans or Just Friends. It’s hard to not be drawn in by the goofy photo opps though, and it’s important to remember that taking pictures (often with band members) was a big selling point for a lot of merch at Warped Tour. With an average age of about 23, it’s unsurprising that a large faction of the audience members aren’t necessarily aiming to meet band members and tell them how much their music means, as much as they’d like to get something with their friends for the gram.
Despite some cynical observations, once larger acts began to take the stage, the field in front of the Skyline Stage began to fill up. Being the young bucks on the tour, State Champs were up around five o’clock, and they induced amount of moshing and crowdsurfing. Despite all the bands’ proximity to the Warped Tour scene, State Champs seemed like the group that most encompassed the direction that pop-punk on that tour had headed at its tail end and in the anniversary shows that occurred this summer. The highlight of their set came when they brought out the Emo Nite staple Saxl Rose to play with them on “Elevated.”
Mayday Parade’s performance was incredibly tight, albeit a little bit more subdued. Mayday have been a scene staple since their inception. While their brand of sugary-sweet pop-punk isn’t exactly designed to induce circle pits, that didn’t stop people from throwing down from their “Oh Well, Oh Well” opener to “Three Cheers for Five Years.” Frontman Derek Sanders seemed to take an immense sense of joy in strutting around stage and headbanging with guitarists Alex Garcia and Brooks Betts. The set’s highlight saw Sanders taking up an acoustic guitar for A Lesson in Romantics’ “You Be the Anchor That Keeps My Feet on the Ground, I’ll Be the Wings That Keep Your Heart in the Clouds.” A song he introduced by eulogizing the Warped Tour and expressing his joy to be at Sad Summer fest. While there wasn’t as much excitement as “Jersey” or “Jamie All Over,” the ballad served as a reminder that what Mayday does best is put large emotions in a genre where theatrical feelings can often feel overblown. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of their set was the “Mr. Brightside” cover. The Killers are absolutely not an emo or punk band, but due to their rise in the mid-to-late 2000’s, so many scene kids identified with their work. There was almost more excitement to hear Mayday play that as the penultimate song of their set than for them to close with “Jersey.”
Of the headlining acts of the day, The Maine’s set seemed the most out of place. The Maine have leaned into being a pop-rock band where they could probably play in the afternoon at a major festival. Coming out in matching outfits, they didn’t seem to stir the same level of emotions that State Champs or Mayday Parade did. Frontman John O’Callaghan’s charisma and some pyrotechnic assistance made their set seem the most joyous. While it felt like most of their songs bled together, O’Callaghan climbing on monitors and performing from the middle of the crowd aided by the flying sparks made their set more fun for casual and non-fans.
Of course, the main draw of Sad Summer Fest was The Wonder Years. Where Mayday and The Maine rely on nostalgia, The Wonder Years have evolved and only gotten bigger with each new release. While the set times change each day of the tour, The Wonder Years are the only band that could headline Philadelphia. Since the release of The Upsides in 2010, fans have known that Philly is sacred ground for a Wonder Years show. Besides being the band’s hometown, it is a character that’s present throughout their music. It’s nearly a seventh member of the band.
Just to add to the hometown feel that the entire audience already had, drummer Mike Kennedy’s father introduced the band, and frontman Dan Campbell made it known that his three month old son was side stage for his first show ever. While the band has outgrown their local band status, the audience certainly felt more like family. From the bold opening of “Came Out Swinging” to the calmer “Cigarettes & Saints,” arms were often thrown around each other. Eye contact is integral to the pit at a Wonder Years show, and there was plenty of screaming in the strangers faces. Besides his son being in attendance, Campbell knew how special it was to perform at The Mann, and he didn’t hold back, as the band offered slight differences to some of the other setlists for the Sad Summer tour. The hardcore-inspired “Local Man Ruins Everything” was a Philly-only treat, and the dedication of “Cigarettes & Saints” to Mike Pelone was incredibly emotional from a stage that oversees the city. Like the other shows on this tour, they closed their main set with The Greatest Generation’s epic closing track “I Just Wanna Sell Out My Funeral.” Like most of the group’s songs, the subject matter is about trying your best in spite of depression and hard times, but in this setting, it felt extra special just to see the band play a massive hometown show and see everyone scream back that chorus and watch Campbell crowdsurf in the song’s incredible outro.
While that would’ve been an entirely adequate end to the night, the Philly crowd began singing the “We’re no saviors, if we can’t save our brothers” refrain that defined 2015’s No Closer to Heaven. In a moment of genuine shock and joy, the band reentered the stage to say they weren’t going to come back, but they would give us one more. “Washington Square Park” was a poetic closing, as it’s just as much an ode to the city that made them as it is a standout song from the album that skyrocketed them to being one of the biggest bands in alternative music. While so much of the audience came out to giggle at a “sad” summer music festival, The Wonder Years brought every single feeling, and beat the audience with them until they felt them too.