One of the world’s premiere hardcore festivals returns to Richmond this April and, much like its host city, it’s still refining itself.
Started in 2007 by Down to Nothing’s David Foster and Colin Ackerman, the United Blood fest in its 12th year is aiming to showcase the genre’s history of sonic brutality while avoiding its darker past.
An offshoot of punk and metal known for its intensity, hardcore’s harsh and abrasive nature often gives way to powerful emotions that can overflow. Mosh pits, rarely seen anymore, still are found at United Blood. But the worst parts of the scene’s history -- among them the World War Crew which plead guilty to felony gang charges in 2007 -- are gone.
“There were gangs or crews at one time,” says Ryan Wall, a member of the band Bracewar and one of the event’s organizers since 2014. “That’s been an ugly part of hardcore, the violence.”
Wall notes that hardcore everywhere, at times, has suffered from ignorance and violence.
“The gang thing was easy to slap on it,” he says. “It’s more about the way people perceive they’re supposed to be — the music and all that.”
The United Blood festival is mostly straight edge, which means a majority of people do not indulge in drugs or booze. The teetotaling punk movement has its roots in the Washington band Minor Threat’s famous song of the same name. Wall notes that the early days of the festival required a bar guarantee because so many attendees abstained. But now, thanks to the festival’s growing popularity, things are different.
“The bar is killing it,” he says, despite being straight edge himself. “Richmond might have stayed straight edge, but people come in from everywhere for this fest. … It is funny to see how that has shifted.” While a number of things have changed for United Blood, there is one aspect that organizers have kept from the old days: As Bobby Egger, owner of the Oregon Hill record store Vinyl Conflict, says, the event is “all killer and no filler.”
“Two days, one stage — music from noon to 11, there’s no break from it,” Egger says. “They’ve got it down to the bands you need to see. All you have to do is show up.”
While other festivals might span multiple venues and stages, the nearly nonstop, single-stage lineup is something Wall is proud to keep as part of the fest’s legacy.
“No frills, no bullshit,” he says. “It’s a long day, but, just like the music, it's very enthusiastic and high energy.” Also Wall is proud of the lineup — this year features a mix of classic acts as well as new local and touring faces.
Count Me Out, Richmond natives who made waves internationally with a series of melodic hardcore records in the late ’90s and early ’00s, will reunite for the first time in 15 years. “They were a really important band to Richmond and we’d been in the singer’s ear for two years trying to get him to do it.” Wall says.
He’s also excited about local hardcore punks, Nosebleed. “Val, the singer for that band, is the coolest and such a great front-person with intense energy,” he says.
While the music makes United Blood what it is, the impact from the fest can be felt internationally. Egger, who often makes trips overseas to buy records, says mentioning Richmond in a record store in Tokyo led to an immediate mention of United Blood.
“[The record store owner] started listing off bands we listen to from Richmond. I feel like he knew more about Richmond than I did,” Egger jokes. “And I think United Blood has a lot to do with that. People are realizing, if they have an interest in hardcore, Richmond is a destination and the fest is a good starting point.”
“I’ve met people who came here for United Blood and moved here two weeks later,” he adds.
As always, Wall is pumped for this year’s event and he’s glad to see the Richmond scene move past its rocky history of violence to a more welcoming generation.
“Richmond hardcore is a very communal group,” he says. “It’s open to people that want to be involved and participation is always appreciated. It’s a high energy community and [United Blood] translates into the same thing. Good times, man.”
United Blood Festival happens Saturday and Sunday, April 6 and April 7, at the Canal Club. Tickets cost $80 and are available online here or at Vinyl Conflict.