Blue Ridge Rock Festival: Hard Rock & Hard Times In A New Location

Breaking Benjamin
Jeff Daly / Getty Images
– Breaking Benjamin
played its only festival performance of 2021 at Blue Ridge Rock Festival in Danville, Va., on Sept. 9. Frontman Benjamin Burnley is pictured in 2008.

Blue Ridge Rock Festival was to be a last hurrah of the summer festival season, offering four days of music in southern Virginia Sept. 9-12 with more than 180 hard rock and metal bands including headliners Rob Zombie, Five Finger Death Punch, Shinedown and Breaking Benjamin. The festival touts itself as “the fan driven rock experience” given the lineup is chosen by more than 90,000 fan votes.   

Although attendees Pollstar spoke to concurred the performances were top-notch, the rest of the experience, according to multiple sources, left much to be desired. While this most certainly was not the fiasco of 2017’s Fyre Festival (which had no performances whatsoever) or the riot-ending Woodstock ’99, many Blue Ridge ticketholders experienced endless traffic, poor planning, and bewildered staff, with some attendees vowing never to return.
Blue Ridge was produced by Purpose Driven Events (PDE), which had promoted this festival twice previously in Concord, Va., and recently acquired a lease on the former White Oak Amphitheater outside Danville, Va. The venue, now known as Blue Ridge Amphitheatre, has a capacity of 35,000 – nearly the population of Danville (44,510). 
After the festival, PDE founder/CEO Jonathan Slye released a statement on Facebook Sept. 17, attributing the problems to expansion, chain of command and delegation to others: “… I ultimately had well over 1,000 staff, contractors, and companies that were involved in this year’s Festival. … With the organization’s expansion, I failed to properly integrate myself within many of the departments that go into a Festival’s operation.”
PDE announced the 2021 festival in March, with passes selling out by July 4 – just four days after the full lineup was announced.  
The first sign of any issues reportedly started several weeks out as fans experienced delays receiving their passes in the mail. Slye pointed the blame at ticketing partner eTix in a video on Instagram that noted, “We are a promoter. We do not handle the ticketing front. We recognize that there have been some major delays on the shipping side of things.“
When production from the supplier of the wristbands and passes was delayed, eTix received them later than expected, putting the burden on the short-staffed company of mailing more than 14,000 orders to the festivalgoers with mere weeks to go, according to a source familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 
Attendee Logan Sands was fortunate, arriving early on Wednesday after a minor delay in traffic and snagging a spot when the camping grounds opened.
“They weren’t really directing people to where camping sites were. This guy in a vest came by and said ‘Hey, there are some open spots in this field over there.’ We got lucky enough to find a decent spot. It felt really chaotic.” Sands told Pollstar. 
Others said they arrived with prepaid parking and camping passes to find that there were no spaces left. Slye explained in a statement released on Sept. 17th, “We actually did not oversell camping. Two things happened 1) 2,000 more campsites were filled then what we had sold. … The camping check-in was not properly policed, thus resulting in campsites being filled with non-camping ticketholders.”
As the day progressed, so reportedly did the problems, as some artists found it difficult to arrive at the site.  
“We waited [in traffic] four, five hours in the line,“ Dying Oath’s vocalist Mindy Jackson tells Pollstar. “Then another two to three hours of them trying to figure out where we were supposed to be. … We found Jonathan Slye …and he actually escorted us himself to where we needed to be, which was nice.”
The chaos reportedly increased on Thursday. With 35,000 fans on site per day, along with staff, media, comps, and artists bringing the attendance to 40,000, this nearly doubled the population of Danville and the city’s infrastructure – featuring a single-lane Route 29 as the main road leading to the site – could not handle it. 
Friday and Saturday’s traffic was delayed up to three hours just to get to the entrance, as reported by local ABC affiliate WSET.

Blue Ridge Rock Festival
– Blue Ridge Rock Festival
For those able to find parking in one of the three lots, the walk to the shuttles could be anywhere from 1.5 to 5 miles, while the wait for a shuttle could run several hours, according to fans who spoke to Pollstar.
For some who bought Golden Circle passes, which allowed closer access and better sightlines to the stages, getting there was a different matter. Ticketholder Lexy Lambert told Pollstar, “My boyfriend asked one of the security ‘Where is the Golden Circle and how do I get to it?’ and the guy told him ‘It’s over there. You just have to fight your way through the crowd to get to it.’ It was just a mess.” 
In a YouTube video posted by an attendee, crowd members are seen jumping the barricade that separated the general admission crowd from the Golden Circle at the start of the Spiritbox set at the Staylit stage on Thursday afternoon. It quickly became a free-for-all, with no signs of security attempting to stop them.
The return trip to the lots at the end of each night posed its own problems, as darkness blanketed the rural setting.  
“It was pitch black and it was four miles back to the orange parking lot,” attendee Kathryn Werdel told Pollstar.
In an email response to Pollstar, Slye states, “There were light towers located along the road to the shuttles, as well as all of the parking lots. We worked with the county to place them in specific locations …”
Attendees with disabilities reportedly faced a host of issues. Most shuttles were school buses that did not have wheelchair access, leaving people to fend for themselves, navigating the festival and its uneven terrain. 
The promoter posted instructions on the festival’s website and Facebook that those with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) needs should contact Catch A Rydes dispatch for free shuttles once they arrived. The area was so remote, however that many attendees found there was next to no cell service. Attendee Jessica Luemen, whose husband has a disability, told WSLS, “It’s like all uneven ground. … How is somebody in a wheelchair getting around in this? Unless you have ATV tires, this is impossible….”
In response, Slye posted on Facebook, “According to ticket sales, we only had several hundred ADA ticketholders for Blue Ridge. Come day of show, we were quickly floored as several thousand, not hundred, ADA attendees were present….“ Slye stated they are providing 2021 ADA ticketholders with free weekend passes for 2022 and will work with “a leading ADA company“ to manage ADA needs. 

Fans agree that the performances were great and the six-stage set-up was laudable, while the bands enjoyed playing in front of such a large, enthusiastic crowd. “The music was really well produced,” Werdel told Pollstar.
Dying Oath’s lead guitarist Josh Hagee commended the festival for giving a spotlight to up-and-coming bands. He said, “There’s not a lot of opportunities for smaller bands to play festivals like these. There were a ton of bands who got to stand up on a big stage in front of a big crowd and it really helped them out.” 
Food and merchandise lines reportedly had hours-long waits with some vendors running out of supplies. In response, Slye stated, “We could not get as many food vendors as we wanted. Vendors backed out due to concerns regarding the festival actually taking place due to COVID, as well as finding enough labor to work it.”
Kevin Lyman, creator and producer of the Warped Tour until its final trek in 2019, knows a few things about producing festivals in remote places. He explained that issues with long lines for security, food and merchandise is part of a larger problem the live industry is experiencing. “Really, a lot of it is staffing,“ Lyman tells Pollstar. “It’s happening in big cities, too. I’ve heard of festivals having trouble getting their production trailers delivered because they don’t have truck drivers to bring them out from the yard.”
Some campers reportedly experienced a horrific ordeal on Friday night as a nearby septic tank leaked, spilling fecal matter onto them and their camping equipment (in this case, the shit really did hit the fans). PDE responded, as Slye explained in an email to Pollstar.
“There was a holding tank on-site near the campgrounds that was improperly serviced by our portable toilet vendor that led to a leak. We were informed late Friday evening and took immediate action.“ PDE offered affected campers a hotel room, private shuttle, VIP upgrades, full refunds and were compensated for damaged items. 
On Sunday, veteran concert photographer Paul Hebert was allegedly assaulted by security while shooting Steve-O at the Monster Stage. 
“I step up on the barricade, put the camera to my face,“ says Hebert. “As I click the shutter I hear ‘Get the fuck down!’ and this security guard shoves my camera into my face and I get blood on my face, a cut on my nose … Next thing I know, he’s got a hold of me … he’s trying to throw me down. He’s twice my size so he finally wins.“
Hebert was bruised and bloodied with several thousands dollars’ worth of damage to his equipment. Slye emailed an apology to Hebert and both parties are working toward a resolution.
Slye also apologized to attendees in his Sept. 17 Facebook post, saying, “I am sorry to all of those I disappointed or hurt. I am sorry for those who believed in me, and felt betrayed.“ PDE equitably set up an email address – [email protected] – for people to contact them, stating they wanted to hear “about your experiences so we can work to make things right.“
Attendees responded to the post with some positive comments including Facebook user  Cynthia Lott who wrote, “1000% coming next year. … I waited 19 months for a live show … The first two days were rough, but those 4 days were everything I NEEDED and more.”
PDE’s follow-up was scheduled Oct. 1-3 with the Blue Ridge Country Festival but that was postponed to May 2022 with a statement saying it was delayed “at the request of local health officials … due to COVID’s impact.“
Dr. Scott Spillmann, health director of the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District, denied the department requested the event be “canceled or postponed,“ according to WSET. Slye later told the Chatham Star-Tribune he had been contacted “by a couple of government officials that stated there was a good chance … COVID would play into effect.”
As for Blue Ridge Rock Fest, Slye added, “We have brought in new individuals and infrastructure … we really want to make sure this next event runs very soundly.”