Summing up what has made Virginia’s Blue Ridge Rock Festival so successful over the years comes down to “Growth.” What started in 2017 as a one-day festival headlined by Creed’s Scott Stapp has ballooned into a four-day tribute to all things rock and metal. While the scope became bigger and better every year, the 2021 show proved the festival was not without its growing pains. While still a very successful showing by most metrics, many fans showed their disappointment in getting to and into the Blue Ridge Amphitheater. Many were forced to park far from the venue and walk miles just to get to the gates. While the bands certainly delivered, clearly, changes were needed.
Credit where it’s due, the force behind Blue Ridge Rock Fest heard the fans’ cries loud and clear and quickly announced massive changes for 2022’s outing. Grounds large enough to contain the ever-growing attendance numbers were revealed with Virginia’s International Raceway ready to be the place for festival-goers to call home over a five-day stretch in September. Upgrades in parking, camping grounds, and other services were promised to fans. Soon after, in February, the roster reveal began, and it soon became clear that all these upgrades did not come at the cost of a high-quality show. While the lineup would inevitably find itself on the receiving end of several changes due to bands dropping out, the festival was quick to bring backup bands worthy of the moment.
As winter turned into spring and then summer, it became clear Virginia was in for one hell of a festival. As September approached, the weather soon started to cool down as thousands of fans traveled in for what they hoped would be Blue Ridge Rock Fest’s biggest year yet. For campers, Thursday would mark the second day of the festivities. The night before, Last Night’s Villain would open as a last-minute replacement for a seven-band lineup headlined by Alien Ant Farm and Puddle Of Mudd for a fun night only marred by some short bursts of rainfall. Of course, Thursday marked the true start of the festival and promised to deliver to a large crowd eager to let themselves go wild for an extended weekend of fun. Recent Hellfest headliner Ghost was set to close out a night that featured plenty of big names, huge reunions, and the first real look at what the Virginia International Raceway had to offer.
As we walked up to the entrance, we were greeted by overcast skies and a cool breeze, much drier than the previous night. No rain in the forecast is always a good omen. Like with any festival, many acts overlapped or had conflicting time slots; however, there were many amazing performances. The main stages, however, as promised, featured no overlapping, with one stage setting up while the other stage featured a performance.
As fans started piling onto the expansive grounds for the first day of the Blue Ridge Rock Festival, Smile Empty Soul was the very first ZYN main stage attraction. Marking their third year in a row, the band is no stranger to BRRF. They pulled out all the hits, including “Silhouettes,” “Bottom of a Bottle,” and “Don’t Ever Leave.” The band’s ability to prove less is more with just guitarist/vocalist Sean Danielsen, and drummer Ty Del Rose seemed unmatched.
Smile Empty Soul
What is more metal than throwing your guitar? Well, that was the wake-up call for A Skylit Drive onlookers. Bassist Brian White was caught up in rocking out when he threw his bass behind him instead of straight up, causing it to crash several feet behind him. Perhaps this blunder resulted from the rustiness of not touring since 2015. While the guitar was being tended to, lead vocalist Jordan Blake asked the crowd with a huge smile on his face, “Who is here to see Daughtry or Ice Cube?” ASD was a perfect act to get the crowd pumped for the rest of the day’s performances.
Next up on the ZYN stage was Austin, Texas, outfit Fire From The Gods. The band is currently on tour with Five Finger Death Punch, Megadeth, and The Hu; which all would have easily fit the bill of this lineup. Circle pits were in full swing. The crowd seemed to start waking up finally. Lead Vocalist AJ Channer stated that their third song, “American Sun” was dedicated to first responders, doctors, firefighters, and veterans. Soon after he let fans know, “Metalheads surround the best place to be.”
Fire From The Gods
Afterward, over on the Monster stage, you could hear the 2006 hit songs “Face Down” and “False Pretense” by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus being sung by fans. The band was just the fourth band announced for the festival, showing the festival’s faith in the band’s popularity and drawing in fans watching the early lineup mentions. In addition to their fantastic time on the main stage, the band also contributed to the acoustic sets planned for the day, giving fans a chance to see a more intimate showing had they missed the band or craved some more.
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
Our first trek down “The Hill,” (a steep incline that festival goers also dubbed “The Kate Bush Hill”) to the URW stage was for Nashville, Tennessee’s Christian Rock outfit Red. This stage and the nearby Fan Driven stage showcased many well-known and upcoming bands throughout the festival and featured some heavy hitters headlining each night. The foursome kicked the day into high gear with frontman Michael Barnes jumping up on the barricade and getting up and personal while singing their hit “Let Go.” From beginning to end, it was clear Red came to entertain.
Next up, PopEvil on the Monster stage. Among a slew of proven top-10 hits, the new single “Eye of the Storm” rained havoc on the Virginia crowd. The band’s high-energy performance was contagious amongst fans, and the festival-goers were clearly into every track. As a bonus, the band was one of the days’ scheduled to meet and greet alongside bands, including fellow main stage act, Nothing More.
Pop Evil’ was followed by the highly anticipated return of Spiritbox on the Zyn stage. This being the group’s second time playing Blue Ridge, Courtney LaPlante surveyed the crowd, taking the sight in before getting right into “Circle Into Me.” LaPlante reminded festival goers, “PSA, drink water– Someone’s gotta tell you to do it!” With endless waves of crowd surfers throughout the entirety of the set, it was undeniable that fans were happy to be there.
After a mid-day break to grab something to eat, we made our way to see Bad Wolves. The outfit was grateful to be asked to be part of the festival, hoping to be asked to return in the future. The set wouldn’t have been complete without “Killing Me Softly,” “Lifeline “(with extended breakdown), and of course, The 1994 Cranberries’ cover “Zombie.” One last song to set, Daniel “DL” Laskiewicz told fans to sit on the ground and then jump at the beginning of “I’ll Be There.” We hope the band gets on next year’s bill, as they were phenomenal.
Kittie was next on the agenda. This was a non-negotiable band on our list from day one!
Nostalgia at its finest. The group hadn’t played a live show since a 20-year reunion show in 2017. It had been even longer since the band had graced a stage in the US. While When We Were Young was first to drop the colossal bombshell the band was returning, Blue Ridge Rock Fest used the first spot on their roster to reveal that it would be the Virginia festival where Kittie first returned live. The band had seen its share of hardships leading to their eventual breakup in 2017. Still, Morgan and Mercedes Lander, along with returning members Ivy Vujic and Tara McLeod, arrived in Virginia ready to prove that Kittie hadn’t run out of lives yet. Their slot on the URW brought in a sizable crowd ready to show their support in the reunion. Giving new life to old hits, Kittie proved they still have claws and are ready to dig them into a new generation of fans.
One of the first big bummers of the festival was the unannounced band that loomed for a few weeks. Advertised on the schedule as a 10-year reunion band, fans everywhere guessed the band in question would be either Flyleaf or Pantera. Even non-reunions like Nickleback, who had released a new hit earlier in the week, were among the rumors. Sadly, fans waited by the main stage only to realize the slot was empty. Instead, the main stages were met with an awkward mid-day silence. After waiting 15 minutes, we decided to make an early trek to the URW stage to catch Cannibal Corpse.
A last-minute addition to the festival at the eleventh hour, For almost 30 years, George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher and the rest of Cannibal Corpse have gotten fans to “Respect The Neck.” Cannibal Corpse’s energy didn’t let up at all during their eight-song set in which head banging and mosh pits weren’t just the norm; they felt downright mandatory.
As the sun began to set over the festival, Anthrax’s banner reigned over the Monster stage as Iron Maiden’s “Number Of The Beast” rang through the PA to play out the band. The first cords struck, and fans went berserk as “Caught in a Mosh” was performed. In between top hits, including “Got the Time,” “Antisocial,” and “Bring the Noise,” the band joked around with fans, even bringing attention to the large gap of fans created by the Rockstar Pass barricade. What was initially set up with good intent by the festival by guaranteeing close-to-the-stage access for Rockstar Pass purchasers became a bane to musicians seeing a multiple-foot gap between those who had splurged on the upgrade and general admission ticket holders. “Nothing better to rock stars than looking out and seeing an empty field,” guitarist Scott Ian sarcastically quipped between tracks. Still, the band managed to keep the fun rolling, even throwing in a few covers, including Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” peppered in with their own iconic offerings.
Smoke filled the stage, pulsing lights, and Maria Brink’s voice could be heard vocalizing low moans. The beautifully choreographed dancers always add an extra layer to the theatrics. After “Adrenalize,” there was a costume change for Brink. While she was offstage, the crowd was entertained by the Grim Reaper using his scythe as a guitar and a demon on stilts roaming around the stage during an epic guitar solo and breakdown. Part musical mastery, part theatrical perfection, Maria Brink and the rest of In This Moment know how to take a crowd on a journey. Fans will always clamor for more, but sometimes that can’t be the case during a music festival where many bands were vying for time. The band finished an eight-song set with “Whore” while releasing countless balloons into a seemingly endless crowd.
In This Moment
In this Moment was a tough act to follow, but Ghost killed it! New masks inspired by Star Wars for the Nameless Ghouls gave off a Post-Apocalyptic vibe. Papa Emeritus IV (Tobias Forge) was fashionably dressed in all black, including an embroidered vest with gold detailing. He and the eight Ghouls performed new songs off the latest album Impera, “Call Me Little Sunshine,” “Spillways,” and fan favorites, “Rats,” “Hunter’s Moon,” “Square Hammer,” and “Dance Macabre” to name a few from the extensive set list. In the middle of the set, Papa Emeritus spoke to festivalgoers saying, “I know it’s only Thursday night. I’m sure you planned to be here all weekend, maybe pacing around. I was expecting you to be fucking hammered right now. You’ve behaved pretty well. I like that.”
As the festival winded down, many fans not camping on-site came to realize one oversight made by the festival. A shortage of buses tasked with transporting fans back to their parking lots created long lines and a multiple-hour wait for those leaving the grounds. The festival, to its credit, acknowledged the issue the following day with plans to curb it going forward. Time would tell how quickly the festival would be able to obtain extra transportation for the rest of the festival.
On our own walk back to our lot, we were belting out songs we had heard throughout the day. By no surprise, Kittie and Ghost were most certainly the highlights of the day, but there were plenty of great surprises throughout the day. From strong early showings in A Skylit Drive and Red to some delicious and relatively affordable cuisine from Island Noodles to the headliners of the night, Thursday as a whole was an incredible experience marred only by the lack of communication about the canceled reunion timeslot and the transportation situation plaguing many concert-goers.
Written and Photographed by the Metal Insider duo Andrew Fiero and Sara Elizabeth