In its 6th year, Blue Ridge Rock Festival (BRRF), the largest rock and metal festival in North America, sold out for September 7-10, 2023. It returned to Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Virginia for the second time, and 136 bands were slated to perform over four stages in four days. A huge improvement over last year was moving Stage 3 (now Famous Monsters) closer to the main stages so fans could access those bands easily. Stage 4 (now Smart Pink Records) was also nearby. I was looking forward to covering more bands this year with all stages being in close proximity.
Map of Blue Ridge Rock Festival 2023 from blueridgerockfest.com
I arrived at the venue’s backstage media parking on Wednesday to quickly pick up my media band and photo passes, then drove to the hotel, which was nearly an hour away. I don’t camp, but on the opposite side of the road, campers were lined up to have their vehicles inspected before going in. Once at the hotel, I decided what gear to pack for Thursday and checked in with the new festival media management team led by Jay Wendell (Managing Partner of The Asylum Radio Network, AMP Underground, and Midwest Metal Show).
On Thursday Day 1, the weather forecast called for little/no rain, brutal heat, high humidity and I was worried, but prepared. According to the timeanddate.com graph below, the high was 100 degrees and nearly 100 on Friday. The average temperature of Alton, Virginia in September is 84.
After checking in at the new and improved Media Lounge and greeting some old friends, I headed down the hill to the main stages to photograph Stitched Up Heart, Adema and CKY. I was happy to see friends in the pit and barrels of ice with water bottles in front of the stages.
Stitched Up Heart, a hard rock band from Los Angeles, took the stage with a vengeance. Lead singer Alecia “Mixi” Demner brought a fierce attitude of strength and courage as she performed flawlessly in the heat. The other three band members rocked hard as well, including the drummer who was standing in for James Decker.
Adema, a metal band formed in 2000 in Bakersfield, California, commanded the stage playing to a packed hillside of faithful fans braving the hundred degree heat in mid afternoon. Ryan Shuck sounded amazing, of course, and Kris Kohls entertained the crowd and the photographers with his many expressions from the kit.
CKY, a metal band from West Chester, Pennsylvania that originally formed in 1988, took the stage with a contingency of the CKY Alliance in the crowd. With their powerful sound, mosh pits naturally formed from the first verse. It’s hard to categorize this three-piece band into one single genre as they are undeniably diverse.
After Adema’s set, I went back to the Media Lounge to hydrate and cool off. Some photographers of all ages were starting to feel sick or overheated. After a much-needed break from the sun, I prepared to photograph Three Days Grace, StainD, Evanescence, and Five Finger Death Punch, then grabbed a bite to eat before finishing the night at the main stages.
Unfortunately, things didn’t happen as planned. Around 6:40pm, a bit of rain started, unexpectedly, so I looked at the radar. Out of the blue, a blob of red had formed right over top of the festival. The radar had been clear all day and there was no sign this was coming. The Media Lounge was at the highest point of the venue, so Jay told us we had to pack up and move out because they would be evacuating the venue, and lightning would be on us in about five minutes. He was right. Since we didn’t expect rain all day, very few people had rain gear. I found a plastic leaf bag in my backpack and covered some gear. However my rolling case, which had both cameras and most of my lenses, had no additional protection, and I set out towards the car, which was a 1.2 mile walk.
Before I could get past the main entrance, it was announced that everyone at the venue had to evacuate due to lightning, so photographers going to their cars got caught in the mass exodus. Commuters were lining up to get on the shuttle buses, but all the buses had not had time to arrive, yet. This had all popped up so suddenly.
I slowly walked in the throng of people inching forward on the 2-lane road flanked by tall trees on both sides, the wind picked up, the rain hammered us, and someone felt hail. I just put my head down and kept walking. I never saw or felt any hail, but others did. My camera bag was soaked, and I was hoping my gear wasn’t a total loss. We finally made it ¼ mile to the turnoff to media parking. By the time a friend and I made it to the car after about 45 minutes, the rain was pretty much over. I checked my gear and miraculously, everything was bone dry inside. We fully expected to go back in and continue the night, but were sad to hear about damage at the campgrounds, and that the night had been canceled. I have included photos from various campers below. My sympathy goes out to all those affected by the sudden storm.
Photos by Amber Tomlin, Angela Miller, Darrin Mchone, Dawn QB Bartnicki, Erin Galemore, Holly Buffalo and Marcie Stoner.
Videos can be viewed at the links below.
The whole event taught me to be a little more prepared for bad weather even when no rain is in the forecast. After the storm, it was great to hear how many in the rock community banded together to help clean up, restore others’ sites, and share food and supplies.
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.