EARTHDAY BIRTHDAY 2023 - 30th Edition of The South Florida Festival Brings A Huge Dose of Rocking Edge to 53 Years of Environmentalism.

May 5, 2023, 11 months ago

Words by Jonathan Smith | Photos by Joel Barrios

gallery hard rock earthday birthday dropout kings the pretty reckless beartooth breaking benjamin

For more than 50 years the modern environmental movement has been a pivotal force in shaping world politics and given hard rock’s equally long and extensive input in said realm, it seems only fitting that the two would converge into a festive occasion on the birthday of the former. Claiming Central Florida as its home and hosted by iHeartRadio’s 101.1 WJRR station, the aptly dubbed Earthday Birthday Festival has proven among the most well attended and longest running festivals in the state’s history. Though this year it would also have the rare honor of occurring on the same day as Earth Day itself, the 2023 edition would be no exception in any other respect as the masses flocked to The Orlando Amphitheater for a full day of hard and heavy rock music, boasting such noteworthy headliners Breaking Benjamin and The Pretty Reckless among its lucky 13 billed attractions.

Between the two stages that would accommodate a dozen acts and the unusually mild, cloudy and breezy weather (in April by Florida standards), it was all but stipulated that smooth sailing would be the order of the day. Barring the lone exception of Las Vegas modern metalcore mainstays Falling In Reverse cancelling their set due to health reasons via video message (which was treated with heavy disappointment by those in attendance, likely due to front man Ronnie Radke not appearing to be significantly ill), this would be the case, as each act, be they large or small, brought their A-game. Kicking things off on the Byrd Stage at noon would be Florida natives and Rage Against The Machine tribute act Products Of Rage. Though enjoying the least level of popular reach of any of the scheduled acts, a combination of competent emulation of such notable bangers from said band like “Freedom” and “Bulls On Parade”, alongside an apt cover of Quarantine classic “Bullet In The Head”, combined with a high energy stage presentation by this 90s nostalgia act saw them warming the cauldron quite effectively.

As the early afternoon progressed, the weather would be the only mild element at play as one ear-splitting band after the next alternated between the two stages. Riding the Turn It Up Stage with enough attitude to sink a cruise ship via the PA system, Phoenix nu-metal newcomers Dropout Kings would drench the open air in deadly decibels with their blend of bottom-heavy grooves, rapid-fire rapping shouts and dense synthesizer ambiences. The co-equal vocal personas of Adam Ramey and Eddie Wellz would command the most attention, throwing fast-paced rhymed verses and elaborate hand gesticulations into the air with seemingly reckless abandon, while the instrumentalists in the crew could well have been backup dancers in how animated they approached things. Maximal audience response would be achieved via hard-hitting numbers like “Virus” and “Glitchgang”, capping off a brief, 20 minute set that was arguably too intense to have lasted for 21.

A few minutes later back on the Byrd Stage, a more melodic yet equally intense chord would be struck via the handiwork of Palm Beach rockers Fame On Fire. Their extensive history as a cover band adapting pop material from the likes of Ed Sheeran, Adela and Juice Wrld into a harder-edged style no doubt fed into their extremely competent and engaging performance, with vocalist Bryan Kuznitz’s ultra-smooth delivery acting as a brilliant foil for the generally heavy and attitude-laced sounds put forth by guitarist Blake Saul, bassist Paul Spirou and particularly the thundering roar of drummer Alex Roman. Brevity and infectious hooks would merge with a sense of melancholy as heartfelt anthems of love and angst like “Rotting Away”, “Her Eyes” and “Plastic Heart” highlighted a short yet very sweet half hour, which would find the band moving about as enthusiastically as the crowd below.

The melodic consonance with a rocking edge would continue with a vengeance over on the Turn It Up Stage with the 1:50 pm entry of Florida post-hardcore aficionado outfit The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Marking their 20 years of existence on a highly energetic note, this quintet of emo experts led by sole founding member and helmsman Ronnie Winter’s high-riding tenor wouldn’t waste a single nanosecond of their 35-minute set in raising the invisible roof above. Classics from the metalcore-obsessed mid-2000s such as “False Pretense”, “Your Guardian Angel” and set closer “Face Down” would round out the selections that would elicit the most raucous response from the sea of moving bodies in the crowd, though a comparable avalanche of cheers would chase their rendition of Blink 182 hit “All The Small Things”, which was emulated so effectively that apart from Winter’s more melodramatic vocal persona that it could have been easily mistaken for the original.

Mid-afternoon at the Turn It Up Stage would see a rather sharp and auspicious stylistic left-turn with the entry of L.A. blues rockers with a post-grungy edge Dorothy, though the resulting roar of approval from all in attendance was no less palpable. Led by the soulful and highly charismatic singer for which the band draws its name Dorothy Martin, this vintage rock upstart fold would strike out with a medley of finely tuned, 70s-tinged rock that span their now 9-year career like caution thrown to the proverbial wind, with Martin herself sounding as powerful as in the studio at every turn. The opening banger of their 45 minute set “Down To The Bottom”, alongside heavy mid-paced monster entry “Black Sheep” and the more 90s alternative rock semi-balladry of “Rest In Peace” would stand among the standout moments of a highly consistent performance, though the riff happy rocking punch of closer “Gifts From The Holy Ghost” would steal the show, not to mention showcase the solid chops of newly recruited guitarist Sam “Bam” Koltun.

The late afternoon would see a more metallic tone struck over at the Byrd Stage, featuring the groove-heavy fervor of California’s own Bad Wolves. Though their recent touring has proved a challenge with the exit of original vocalist Tommy Vext, his replacement Daniel Laskiewicz has continued to gel with the rest of the fold, ditto recently acquired rhythm guitarist Max Karon, whom likewise did well in establishing his stage presence during their energetic, yet too-short set. Naturally the crowd would go the maddest for the band’s signature cover of Cranberries classic “Zombie”, which Laskiewicz would shine the brightest, though his husky bellow also found a comfortable home on the emotionally-charged number “Killing Me Slowly”, and one of the entries bearing his own pipes in the studio “If Tomorrow Never Comes” would close things out on a high note.

The arrival of 5 PM would see the heavy hitters taking the reins, and in said department few could have hoped to rival the display put on by Atlanta-born alternative metal icons Sevendust. Though they would only be allotted 45 minutes to sum up a career that is approach the 30-year mark, they wasted no time in bringing the fire with a blast radius comparable to a nuclear missile. The regiment of tattooed arms and mostly short hair on this now middle-aged veteran act would be led once again by the lion-like dueling roars of guitarists John Connolly and Clint Lowery, the relentless pounding of drummer/vocalist Morgan Rose and the unique charisma of helmsman Lajon Witherspoon, whose enthusiasm was at least as impressive as the length of his dreadlocks. The crowd response and heaviness factors would hit a boiling point on riveting renditions of “Face To Face”, “Waffle” and “Rumble Fish”, but with nothing but vintage classics in tow, the zenith points didn’t fly too far above the rest of the set, and this veteran fold didn’t show any signs of age in their performance.

The metal mood would shift in more of a punk direction with Columbus, Ohio’s own melodic hardcore masters Beartooth manning the Byrd Stage. As one of the more multifaceted outfits in the latter-day metalcore scene to emerge in the 2010s (arguably the nadir of popularity for the style), not to mention the brainchild of frontman and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Shomo, this outfit would use their time slot to run the proverbial gamut of punk expressions, often times hitting three or more different styles within an individual song. All the while, the highly animated and neurotic presentation of Shomo would garner the lion’s share of the audience’s attention while donning his signature blend of clean and dirty vocalizations, with classic hardcore entries like “Bad Listener” and “Disease” standing out from the pack, though one would be remiss to avoid mentioning the powerful performance of their newly unveiled song “Sunshine!”, as this festival would be its second time in the band’s live set following its premier the day before at the Amalie Arena in Tampa.

With the hour of 7 close at hand and the early signs of dusk beginning to take the sky, the Turn It Up Stage would see its final act of the day bring down the proverbial house without walls. Suffice it to say, the absence of Falling In Reverse from the eve, presented New York modern hard rock mainstays The Pretty Reckless with the role of de facto co-headliner, and they seized upon it masterfully with arguably the most spellbinding performance of the entire festival. Led by the soulful and haunting vocal display of Taylor Momsen, and bolstered heavily by the Slash-like guitar swagger of longtime compatriot Ben Phillips, the display that would ensue would be one of sonically picturesque brilliance, with Momsen often reflecting this in her artful movement, reminiscent of a vintage Grace Slick circa 1969 clad in midnight black. Be it the shuffling, Zeppelin-like punch of “Since You’re Gone”, the old school 70s banger rocking of “Death By Rock ‘N’ Roll”, or the up tempo metallic fury of “Going To Hell”, there was no shortage in the energy department, though the set being topped off with a raucous cover of Neil Young’s “Rocking In The Free World” would be the moment that arguably underscored both the content and the cause behind the festival as a whole.

Following the The Pretty Reckless electrifying presentation, the role of band of the hour would be filled by Pennsylvanian post-grunge/alternative metal icons Breaking Benjamin on the Byrd Stage as night hung above, and they adopted their disposition wholeheartedly. Though occasionally dogged by the fact that front man Benjamin Burnley essentially restarted the band with a wholly new lineup following the original fold’s 2010 split, whether they were landing classics from their original 2000s run or hitting upon newer material from the latter era’s two studio albums, the transition between songs and the general flow of the entire 90-minute set was seamless. Obligatory entries that spurred heavy audience participation such as “Lights Out” and “Until the End” traded blows equally with newer material like “Angels Fall” and “Red Cold River”, with a familiar pattern of dueling moments of serene softness and raging heaviness dominating every song and Burnley’s blend of baritone crooning and beastly shouts following suit. But the two songs that truly broke away from the pack would find themselves oddly placed, with opening anthem and Halo 2 soundtrack entry “Blow Me Away” and Surrogates soundtrack entry “I Will Not Bow” falling near the end, though somehow the continuity of the whole remained undisturbed.

Often these festival events, be they a single day affair or one that takes up the majority of a week, will cater to the elder statesmen of the American rock scene going back almost as far as the genre itself. However, the 2023 version of the Earthday Birthday Festival presented a greater level of youthful exuberance, even if the premier bands are flirting ever closer with the throes of middle age. One could dub it a passing of the torch coming to full fruition, with two of the artists most heavily rooted in hard rock traditionalism being among the youngest of the flock. In this era of online streaming and the hegemony of electronic dance and rap music, there is definitely something to be said for a more organic group of dissenters making their voices heard, and thus the correspondingly political character of the festival in question becomes all the more fitting. Perhaps it’s just the musings of someone with too much time on their hands, but there was something truly unique about what took place in Orlando on April 22nd, which was not lost on a single soul who was present.

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