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Every year in the middle of May, headbangers make the trek to Columbus, Ohio for 3 days of music and madness at Mapfre Stadium for Rock on the Range. For the 11th year, this festival featured artists from every end of the hard rock/heavy metal spectrum on 3 different stages with around 60 acts scheduled to perform. The announcement that Metallica, a band that had been on the wish list of many attendees for years, would make their first ever appearance at the festival caused it to sell out within a matter of a couple of weeks. As a veteran Ranger, I made plans to attend for the 5th time but it would also be my 1st as a writer for Decibel Geek so that added to my excitement.
But this year was different from previous years in many ways. As we prepared to begin our trip to Columbus on Thursday, May 18th, we first heard the news that Chris Cornell had died. His band, Soundgarden, was the scheduled headliner for Rock on the Range for the following night, Friday, May 19th. Though shocked and saddened by his sudden death, I also wondered how the festival promoters, AEG and Danny Wimmer Presents, would handle this situation. Can you find another band of that caliber to fill in that spot at that last minute? Should you? What kind of tribute can be organized in such a short amount of time? I can only imagine how very hectic it was to decide what should be done and how to make it happen for the staff.
To make matters worse, the weather forecast for the weekend was not promising. A little rain as you enjoy your favorite bands is one thing, but the threat of storms was another issue altogether. The responsibility for the well-being of 40 to 50 thousand people must have increased the stress the promoters were already feeling to yet another level.
We still didn’t know how the night would end when we headed out to start our festival adventure, but the skies were blue, the sun was shining and we hoped that maybe the forecasts were wrong. They weren’t…. but more on that later.
We began our day with Goodbye June opening the Zippo Stage, which is the 2nd stage for this festival. This Nashville, TN based band is composed of three first cousins: vocalist Landon Milbourn, Tyler Baker on lead guitar and Brandon Qualkenbush on rhythm guitar. Their debut album, Magic Valley, was just released in May of this year. I didn’t know much about the band but their bluesy hard rock sound and fun show made me want to look further into their music. Milbourn‘s vocals put me in mind of Jesse James Dupree of Jackyl. Perhaps this is due to the similarities in musical style, but I did enjoy the show.
After a brief pause to reset, Badflower hit the Zippo Stage. This Los Angeles band has been on the rise since the release of their EP, Temper, in November 2016. Their first single from the album, “Animal“, has spent time on the mainstream rock charts. Having seen the video for the song, I was interested to watch their stage show. Their brand of straightforward hard rock did not disappoint. With his bleached blonde hair and boyish good looks, vocalist/guitarist Josh Katz resembles Justin Bieber, but, fortunately, that is where the similarities end. The performance showcased the talents of the musicians and demonstrated why they are making a splash on the scene right now. Although their music leans more toward the rock side, their show was entertaining and the music was very good.
Columbus natives Beartooth opened the Monster Main Stage and a large crowd gathered to welcome them. Their most recent album, Aggressive, has been very popular and their fan base continually grows as they have become a bit of a festival staple of late. The band brought lots of energy to their performance but their hardcore punk sound is not for me. If you are into this unique blend of genres, though, I can recommend that you check out their show.
While Beartooth finished their set, we ventured over to the Bud Light Stage – the smallest at Rock on the Range to wait for Canadian band Bleeker. I had liked what little I had heard of the band so I definitely wanted to see what they could do. Although the band members are only in their mid-20’s, they have been performing for about 14 years. Formerly known as Bleeker Ridge, the band name changed in early 2016 with the departure of two of their founding members. A small group of us waited in the blazing hot sun for them to start and were rewarded with a great show! Vocalist Tyler Perkins had a good sense of humor and knew how to engage the crowd. The entire band had a great stage presence and I enjoyed their show much more than I thought that I would. Their bluesy, melodic metal was a hit with the crowd that continued to swell to throughout the set. Their current album, Erase You, dropped in October 2016 but this is my first encounter with them. Their website does not show many tour dates right now but it says they will be at the Louder Than Life festival in Louisville, KY and the Monster Energy Rock Allegiance show in Camden, NJ in October, so if you plan to be at either of those, definitely give these youngsters a chance. You might become a fan. This was my favorite band of the day.
Having only heard “Black Honey” from their latest release, To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere, I was pleased to see that Thrice would be on the main stage. During the brief time we had spent in Columbus, the main rock station there, 99.7 The Blitz, played this song almost every hour. A large audience gathered to hear them and most seemed pleased with the performance. Maybe I am too critical, but I found their set to be sleepy and low energy with no effort to promote excitement. This fell into line with the sort of mellow, trippy metal they played. This is the first time I had seen them live, so perhaps this is not indicative of their performances, but based on this set, I feel like they may be a better studio band than a live band. I really wanted to enjoy them but Thrice ended up being my biggest disappointment of the day.
As we tried to decide which band to see next (the choice was The Amity Affliction or Red Fang), a recorded male voice came over the speakers throughout the stadium with a refrain that would be the most unpopular tune of the weekend: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is severe weather approaching. It is necessary that everyone immediately exit the venue and seek shelter. Please remain calm and exit the venue in an orderly manner. Ample exits are available for everyone to exit quickly and safely. Please do not run, push or shove. Once outside the gates, please return to your vehicle and seek shelter.” Since the sun was shining at the time and the sky was blue, this warning was initially ignored by most. After a few minutes, when it became apparent that no bands would play and that others were evacuating, we made our way to our car. The evacuation began around 3:15 PM and it took about an hour to completely empty the venue. A cheer arose from those in the parking lot when the annoying evacuation message finally ended after over 90 minutes of constant play. We stood in the parking lot, as did thousands of others, and talked to those around us. Conversation mainly centered on the weather, with most of us checking radar on our phones and trying to guess how long this delay would be. After about an hour and a half, we felt the first raindrops and retreated to the interior of our vehicle. Before long, rain poured down upon us. We watched as people tried to find shelter under trees which is not the best idea in a storm. A building had been supplied toward the back of the property as shelter for those who did not have a vehicle on the premises so I am not sure why these people did not take advantage of that prior to the deluge. After about 2 hours, the husband and I decided to head back to the hotel. We did not know when or if the festival would begin again and, to be honest, we had seen all the bands we really wanted to see that day. Although curious about how they might handle the rumored Chris Cornell tribute, we opted to call it a day.
Reentry began at 7:10 PM with bands set to play at 7:35 PM. Some bands could not stay through the delay and the remaining artists saw their set times reduced to between 20 and 30 minutes. From what I have heard and seen on social media, Live performed “I Am The Highway” by Audioslave as a tribute to Chris Cornell. Corey Taylor and Christian Martucci of Stone Sour then played a cover of Pink Floyd‘s “Wish You Were Here” followed by Temple of the Dog‘s “Hunger Strike“, which was written by Cornell. Since Stone Sour had been at the Rock on the Range kick-off party on Thursday night, they had been my guess as to whom might replace Soundgarden on the bill. I do think it was fitting, though, to end the night with a short tribute to celebrate the life and career of this talented musician. Day one ended with a video and audio display of Cornell‘s various projects, including his isolated vocals in “Black Hole Sun” from Soundgarden.
Chris Cornell apparently committed suicide on the evening of May 17th after a show with Soundgarden in Detroit. He was 52 years old.
The subdued mood of the audience on day one perfectly matched the dreary, rainy day and emotional tribute to a musician who had left this world far too soon. We could only hope things would be more normal for the remainder of the weekend. On to Day Two…
~~ Metal Mama