Blue Ridge Rock Festival (BRRF) is known for its fan-driven experience, and in its 5th year delivered an incredible lineup of 172 bands across 5 stages in 4 days spread across a massive new venue in southern Virginia. VIRginia International Raceway, a 1,3000-acre property with rolling hills in the town of Alton, was the new home for BRRF and garnered the largest crowd in the venue’s history with around 35,000 people. The festival broke its single-day attendance record on Friday, September 9th, and has continued to grow and improve since its inception in 2017.
When walking into the sprawling venue for the first time the day before the festival, what was so striking were the two massive main stages (Monster Energy and ZYN) side-by-side at the bottom of a large grassy hillside. These would house 12 hours per day of non-stop rock and metal over 4 days with headliners such as Ghost, Anthrax, Mudvayne, A Day to Remember, and Skillet. I walked up the hillside to the media and vendor area passing the small Heartsupport stage, then down what is fondly referred to as “The Hay Hill” or the “Kate Bush Hill” (because you’d have to make a deal with God to make it back up). At the bottom of the hill off in the distance stood the large URW stage where I would photograph Alice Cooper on Day 2. Beyond that point was the smaller Fan Driven stage where Jelly Roll, Starset and Memphis May Fire would perform. Sadly, I realized it would be difficult to cover many of the bands at the lower/farther stages due to the time it would take to hike back and forth. Take a look at some behind-the-scenes photos of the stages being set up and the venue layout below.
On Day 1 the weather was overcast and humid with temperatures in the 80’s. Fans from every state filed through the main gate and were super excited for the day’s lineup. The music started at noon on 4 stages and continued until nearly midnight. The Thursday Set Times are listed below.
The festival averaged 43 bands performing per day. Check out the action from Day 1 below with Smile Empty Soul, A Skylit Drive, Fire From the Gods, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Shadows Fall, RED, Vampires Everywhere, Pop Evil, Spiritbox, Bad Wolves, Nothing More, Daughtry, Anthrax, In This Moment, and Ghost. All photos are by Annette Holloway Photography LLC.
Smile Empty Soul, a grunge rock band based out of Arkansas, started a little late on ZYN Stage. The two band members, Singer/guitarist Sean Danielsen and drummer Ty Del Rose carried the set like pros. Their new EP The Loss of Everything is set to be released on October 4th.
Smile Empty Soul Band Members:
Sean Danielsen – vocals, guitar
Ty Del Rose – drums
Metalcore act, A Skylit Drive, returned for the first time since 2015 with its original vocalist Jordan Blake singing mostly throwbacks. Their set was packed full of energy to help jump start the festival.
A Skylit Drive (Original Lineup Reunion Show) Band Members:
Jordan Blake – Clean Vocals
Brian White – Bass/UncleanVocals
Cory La Quay – Drums
Nick Miller – Guitar
Joey Wilson – Lead Guitar
Fire From the Gods was up next on the ZVN Stage. This American rap metal band with lead vocalist AJ Channer was a force, belting banger after banger, like fan favorite, “Excuse Me.”
Fire From the Gods Band Members:
AJ Channer – lead vocals
Drew Walker – lead guitar
Bonner Baker – bass
Jameson Teat – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Richard Wicander – drums
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus from Middleburg, Florida formed back in 2003 and graced the Monster Energy stage the afternoon of Day 1. Fans were thrilled to hear their hits “Face Down” and “Your Guardian Angel.”
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus:
Ronnie Winter –Lead vocals/Keyboards/Acoustic Guitar
Josh Burke –Lead Guitar
Joey Westwood –Bass
Randy Winter –Rhythm guitar/Backing vocals
John Espy –Drums
Danny Resnick -Keyboards
The crowd roared and Brian Fair’s dreds started flying as heavy metal band Shadows Fall reunited on ZYN stage. This group, formed in 1996, is clearly still loved. They stopped performing in 2014, then planned a comeback tour right before Covid hit, so they were ecstatic when they finally hit the stage at Blue Ridge for a rare reunion show.
Shadows Fall Band Members:
Brian Fair – lead vocalist
Jon Donais – lead guitar
Paul Romanko – bass
Jason Bittner – drums
Matt Bachand – guitar
The Grammy-nominated band RED, a group worthy of hiking the Hay Hill, unleashed on the URW stage. Lead singer Mike Barnes ditched the stage and jumped onto the barricades connecting with the crowd while twins Anthony and Randy shredded with drummer Brian Medeiros, who also happens to be an amazing landscape and nature photographer. Check out RED’s latest album, Declaration.
RED Band Members:
Michael Barnes – lead vocals
Anthony Armstrong – guitar
Randy Armstrong – bass
Brian Madeiros – drums
On the way back from URW stage, I caught the metalcore horror punk band Vampires Everywhere! on Heartsupport stage. Their heavy screams filled the top of the mountain, and they seemed to have quite the following.
Vampires Everywhere! Band Members:
Michael Vampire – Vocals
Craig Nello Pirtle – Guitar
Tyler Strattin – Bass
Jesse James Smith – Drums
Pop Evil is killing it in the hard rock world in so many ways, so I was happy they took over Monster Stage Thursday afternoon. Lead singer Leigh Kakaty is a natural entertainer who immediately instigated a crowd-surfing frenzy. Their latest single “Eye of the Storm” reached #1 on the Active Rock chart, which is the band’s 8th #1 single, and was amazing to hear live for the first time.
Pop Evil Band Members:
Leigh Kakaty – Lead Vocals
Nick Fuelling – Lead Guitar
Dave Grahs – Rhythm Guitar
Joey Chicago Walser – Bass
Hayley Cramer – Drums
The Canadian heavy metal band Spritbox hails from Victoria, British Columbia, and electrified the crowd at ZVN stage. From the roar emerging from the masses, it was obvious that female lead singer Courtney LaPlante was a festival favorite.
Spiritbox Band Members:
Courtney LaPlante – lead vocals
Mike Stringer – guitar
Josh Gilbert – bass
Zev Rose – drums
Popular on the Billboard Mainstream Rock songs chart, Bad Wolves took over Monster Energy stage performing hits “I’ll Be There” and “Killing Me Slowly.” Their new vocalist Daniel “DL” Laskiewicz (former guitarist of The Acacia Strain) commanded the crowd, as usual.
Bad Wolves Band Members:
Daniel “DL” Laskiewicz – lead vocals
Doc Coyle – guitar
Max Karon – guitar
John Boecklin – drums
Kyle Konkiel – bass
Hopping over to URW stage, Grammy-nominated Nothing More was like photographing a sporting event. Lead singer Jonny Hawkins, who was shirtless and covered in red and black body paint, was easily one of the best vocalists and entertainers at the festival.
Nothing More Band Members:
Jonny Hawkins – Vocals
Mark Vollelunga – Guitar
Daniel Oliver – Bass
Ben Anderson – Drums
A surprise band that was supposed to perform on Monster Energy stage ended up canceling and was not replaced. This gave everyone time to grab some dinner.
American Idol (2006) favorite and success story, Daughtry, took over URW stage with his incredible vocals and amazing band. Always a crowd pleaser, he sang some of my personal favorites, “Heavy Is the Crown” and “Home.”
Daughtry Band Members:
Chris Daughtry – lead vocals, guitar
Josh Steely – Guitar
Brian Craddock – Guitar
Elvio Femandes – Keyboards /Backing Vocals
Brandon Maclin – Drums
Forty-year thrash metal veterans and crowd favorite, Anthrax, descended upon Monster Energy stage, and their larger-than-life presence filled the massive hillside. This multi-Gold and Platinum, six-time GRAMMY-nominated band delivered hit after hit including “Caught in the Mosh” and “Indians.” Frontman Joey Belladonna sounded as incredible as ever, and Scott Ian, always full of energy, shredded and jumped over every inch of the stage while having a blast.
Anthrax Band Members:
Joey Belladonna – lead vocals
Scott Ian – guitar, backing vocals
Charlie Benante – drums
Frank Bello – bass/ backing vocals
Jonathan Donais – guitar
Theatrical rock band from Los Angeles, In This Moment, appeared surrounded by thick white smoke, as usual, on ZVN stage. However, frontwoman Maria Brink then emerged from the dense fog in a flowing red robe when pyro suddenly burst across the stage for the opening song, “Burn.” With costume changes throughout, rock goddess Maria changed into her signature white robe with an ornate crown with cryo flowing. Overall, her show has a spooky ambiance accompanied by banshee-like screams that mesmerize the audience.
In This Moment Band Members:
Maria Brink – lead vocals
Chris Howorth – Guitar
Travis Johnson – Bass
Randy Weitzel – Guitar
Kent Dimmel – Drums
I was anxious to photograph Stone Temple Pilots again, but at the last minute, all photography, videography and media coverage was canceled with no explanation. In my humble opinion, it would have been amazing to see them in that empty slot on the ZVN stage instead of on the smaller remote URW stage.
Ghost, a Swedish rock band and headliner of Day 1, closed the night on Monster Energy stage to a packed hillside. This was their first time headlining a festival in the U.S., and they just released their 5th studio album Impera in March. The album has a Victorian theme, which explains their costumes for the night. Their popularity seems to be increasing as they lean away from Satanic themes and therefore appeal to a broader audience.
Tobias Forge – Papa Emeritus IV
Nameless Ghouls —
Fire (formerly also known as Alpha or Dewdrop and now more known as Stompy and /or Sodo) – Lead guitarist
Water (Now known as Rain) – Bassist
Air (Now known as Cumulus) – Keyboardist and backing vocals
Earth (Now known as Mountain) – Drummer
Aether (formerly as Omega or Quintessence) – Rhythm guitarist and backing vocals
Multi-ghoul, Shadow, and/or Swiss – guitarist, tambourine, backing vocals, saxophonist (as Papa Nihil )
Cirrus – keyboardist, tambourine, backing vocals, MASSIVE keytar
Infinity, Sunshine, Stratus and/or Victory – Tambourine, keyboards, backing vocals.
Day 1 of Blue Ridge Rock Festival was overwhelming, but in a good way. With the incredible lineup of 43 bands stretched across 5 stages, tough choices had to be made, and choosing proved a source of anxiety for many. The Hay Hill and long distances between stages were definitely a factor for everyone, and photographers catching a ride on one of the numerous golf carts to travel between stage areas was not an option. From a fan’s perspective, overall the festival has improved from last year with faster check-in, more organized camping, and other logistics going more smoothly. Problems did abound catching the shuttle to the remote parking lots on Day 1, but that situation was resolved in subsequent days. The handling of media and photographers seemed to take 5 steps backward this year over previous years, which I will address in another article. Blue Ridge Rock Festival naturally had substantial “growing pains” this year, but the new venue and bigger team to handle all of the logistics seemed to solve many problems from last year. Overall I think they delivered on the fan-driven experience.
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Annette Holloway is a music, promo, portrait, and event photographer. Live concert photography and band/artist photoshoots occupy much of her time. Her work has been published on numerous media outlets including Billboard, Pollstar, NBC News, Getty Images, Forbes, HM Magazine, ICON Sportswire, Loudwire, CCM Magazine, and many more. Before diving into photography full time, she was a NASA software engineer, webmaster, church youth leader, and robotics mentor. For more information about her photography, visit AnnetteHolloway.com.