Until 2006, the Bamboozle festival was mainly jam bands and punk rockers making a lot of noise at clubs and convention halls in Asbury Park, N.J. But that year, promoter Christian McKnight was walking around the grounds of the Meadowlands Sports Complex, in the parking lot of Giants Stadium, and noticed something he'd never seen. "I thought, 'Wow, this festival that started out with bands in parking lots now has a Ferris wheel,' " recalls the 36-year-old senior talent buyer for Live Nation. "Also, walking around the locker-room area and realizing I'm preparing for the festival where the Giants and Jets play -- that was really rags to riches, like, 'Wow, how the hell did I get here?' "
The festival grows up
Bamboozle, which returns to Asbury Park for its 10th year Friday, started as a sort of mini-Warped Tour known as the Skate and Surf Festival. Founder John D'Esposito and his team of what he called "kids from Jersey" changed its name in 2003, and the festival grew by 2006 to 187 bands, eight stages, 85,000 fans and a gross of $2.6 million.
Bamboozle caught a couple of music-business trends at the right time. By 2005, punkish bands such as My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Plain White T's had taken over from hippie acts as the headliners, and several of them were about to become massive rock stars. Also, by the early 2000s, traveling rock festivals such as Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair had given way to stand-alone festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo -- allowing Bamboozle to stake out territory as one of the biggest on the East Coast.
Soon Bamboozle had no choice but to diversify -- in 2007, promoters brought in Linkin Park as its first rock-star headliner that hadn't grown along with the festival. ("Weird Al" Yankovic and '80s rapper Hammer also performed that year.) "As time went on, you obviously needed headliners that appeal to a broad audience," McKnight says. "But also things that were paying homage to what the festival has always been."
Brand New, which returns to Bamboozle next Sunday, represents both the early days (the band played a side stage in 2001) and the arena-rock transformation (it headlined at the Meadowlands in 2006). "It did go from this small Skate and Surf Festival to this thing where it was more about arena bands playing," recalls Jesse Lacey, the Long Island band's front man. "A lot of those little skate bands became the arena bands. It wasn't just the festival that grew, it was the bands that grew along with the whole idea."
The evolution of Brand New
Like contemporaries such as Fall Out Boy, Thrice and Taking Back Sunday, Brand New has ridden the wave of punk and emo bands from the underground to massive stardom and back to a sort of cultish popularity. Following Nirvana's whisper-to-scream blueprint from the early '90s, Brand New, originally from Merrick and Levittown, was first known for vengeful breakup anthems such as 2001's "Jude Law and a Semester Abroad" but evolved into the more layered and experimental, but still rageful, sound of 2009's "Daisy." Today, the band is deliberately laying low, touring and recording sporadically and granting few press interviews.
By phone from his Suffolk County home, Lacey speaks earnestly but vaguely about the band's future. Brand New booked studio time in April, and its members took advantage of it -- but usually not together. "You start to lose that whole idea that it's important for our band to be known as this entity. And we put a lot more importance on our individual fulfillment, really," Lacey says. "In some ways a band can be limiting, especially after being in it for 10 to 12 years. It really has become a lot more about the friendship and the families we have with each other -- and the idea that we can't do this much longer."
So what's the band's future? "Brand New is always going to be Brand New -- I don't think we're ever going to say, 'Hey, we're never going to record a record again,' " Lacey continues. "But at the same time, there were things in the course of the band that we weren't looking ahead to what the next record was going to be."
At the least, Lacey confirms Brand New will still be together when it plays Bamboozle. "We're playing the day that Bon Jovi is playing, and it's just a total laugh. How does that make any sense whatsoever?" he says amiably. "You mention it in passing to your friends. Just the look on their faces: 'What do you mean?' 'I don't know, they asked us. So we're going to do it.' "
Four must-see Bamboozle acts
STRAY FROM THE PATH (May 18) -- The veteran Long Island band declares on its Facebook page "a mission to bring honest, music to the world." "They're a great example of our local hard-core scene that's getting attention on a worldwide scale," says Christian McKnight, longtime Bamboozle promoter and Long Island native. "They have been a band for close to 10 years -- worked their fingers off, flipped their van a few times."
A$AP ROCKY (May 19) -- The Elmwood Park, N.J., rapper has evolved from hot mixtapes such as "Peso" to solo stardom to prized cameos for Lloyd Banks and ScHoolboy Q. "The most popular hip-hop act we have this year," McKnight says.
MARIANAS TRENCH (May 20) -- Singer Josh Ramsay's Vancouver band has the sort of easygoing rock harmonies that wouldn't seem out of place on a Jason Mraz or Matchbox Twenty album. McKnight: "Already massive in Canada. Could be the next pop-rock sensation."
WHO Skrillex, Incubus and Mac Miller headline May 18; Foo Fighters and My Chemical Romance headline May 19; and Bon Jovi, Brand New and The Gaslight Anthem headline May 20. With many, many more groups playing each day.
INFO $65 (May 18); $75 (May 19); and $75 (May 20). A three-day pass is $190. Call 800-745-3000, visit livenation.com