Warped Speed

A hot day turns torrid at the Ernie Ball Stage.

John Legend House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m. Monday, July 25; $26, 216-241-5555
Young Warped Tour fans, beating the heat at Tower - City Amphitheater, July 21. - Walter  Novak
Young Warped Tour fans, beating the heat at Tower City Amphitheater, July 21.
He was the first dude we've ever seen play a keyboard with his face. In the back of a converted cargo truck, Sean, synth player for Monet Madrid Madagascar, mashed his instrument into his cheeks. Then he held it behind his head, running his fingers over the keys like an indie-rock Yngwie Malmsteen.

It wasn't even noon yet, and already Sean was covered in so much sweat that it looked as if he'd finished a shift at U.S. Steel. He and his bandmates were playing the mobile Ernie Ball Stage, located near the entrance of the Tower City Amphitheater at this year's Warped Tour. The stage was parked between a batting cage and an Army recruitment table, where a guy in military fatigues handed out mini-American flags. Taking in the show on the smoldering asphalt felt like standing on a giant griddle, but it was worth the sunburn.

One of Warped's best attractions, the Ernie Ball Stage -- sponsored by the music equipment retailer -- gives up-and-coming locals a chance to test their mettle on one of the summer's biggest tours. The bands were selected by Ernie Ball employees from 138 regional submissions. The Ernie Ball Stage travels to every stop on the tour, and fans can vote for their favorite groups at www.battleofthebands.com. The top four bands at the end of Warped's run will win gear from Mesa/Boogie, Zildjian, Boss, and others. In addition, all bands' sets are taped for judging by a panel that includes Flogging Molly bassist Nathan Maxwell and Story of the Year guitarist Phil Sneed, among others. They'll select four acts to play a showcase before industry and label representatives in Hollywood this fall.

One of four regional bands selected, MMM's sound diverged from what you'd expect at punk rock's biggest annual tour. An impressionistic pop band with jazz and post-rock leanings, the group intercut bright, obtuse melodies with herky-jerky rhythms. The band's unbounded art rock brought to mind Oberlin's Skeletons, another troupe of forward-thinking popsters keeping Pere Ubu's legacy alive with free-range rock and roll.

The coed Cleveland quintet's stage presence was nearly as manic as its music. Singer Ryan fluttered about the stage like a leaf caught in a stiff breeze, spinning around and around and kicking high into the air. From his knees, Sean pounded the stage with a maraca before banging on a tambourine with a pair of drumsticks. Keyboardist Teresa took it all in with a smile and a swing of the hips. As they played, an initial crowd of around 20 swelled to three times that.

Elyria punks Tooth Fuzz kicked off the festivities with hook-filled power pop. The trio is building support for its forthcoming full-length debut, . . . And So It Begins, which was recorded by former Suicide Machines bassist Royce Nunley. With big, buoyant choruses and slightly sneered vocals, the trio sounds like a midwestern Sum 41.

Findlay's Drama Summer proved to be a favorite among young gals in half-shirts. As the fresh-faced rockers raced through six songs of sweet, caffeine-powered pop punk, singer Nick Moore punched the air and mostly sang from the back of his heels. The band paired soaring melodies with tinges of screamo caterwauling and seemed a little nervous. "This last song . . . is our last," Moore stammered at set's end. But the group was so obviously jazzed about playing the tour that it was hard not to smile back.

A bit more cocksure, Cleveland's An Awkward Silence was the most brutal band of the day. With double-bass drumming and thick, metallic riffs, the group's emotive thrash punished the crowd as relentlessly as the blazing sun. The band was led by live-wire frontman Brandon Edmond, whose adrenal glands qualified for overtime pay this afternoon. A superb singer with a strong yet satiny delivery, he helped AAS come across as one of the few screamo bands with some soul. Consequently, the crowd nearly doubled in size during AAS's set, as the band led the sweaty throngs in one loud sing-along after another.

Through it all, Edmond never stopped moving, even doing a backflip at one point. He ended the show by diving into the crowd, singing a few last refrains from atop the audience's outstretched arms.

It was a brief moment of glory before national bands overtook the locals on the stage. But for a minute, you couldn't tell the difference between the two.

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