Festival Report: Rock on the Range 2017, Columbus, Ohio
As much as they tried, untimely cancellations and storm warnings couldn’t beat the U.S.’s biggest rock and metal festival
In their 11th edition, Rock On The Range’s three-day blowout shows just how rock festivals in the U.S. have come a long way from the days of Woodstock. There’s not much else to compare apart from the categorization, though.
Over 100,000 people in total attended the sold-out festival that’s produced by music entertainment’s honchos AEG Live and Danny Wimmer Presents – the ones who also handle similarly-packaged festivals like Houston Open Air, Chicago Open Air, Northern Invasion, Rocklahoma and Carolina Rebellion. So then, you’re bound to see a pattern of sorts in the bands on these billings and even the co-branded experiences, from the beer to the stalls and installations.
But what set Rock On The Range apart was probably timing. A couple of days before the festival kicked off on May 19 at the MAPFRE stadium in Columbus, Ohio, their day one headliner, grunge pioneers Soundgarden, had just disintegrated following the sudden suicide of frontman Chris Cornell. The band’s future performances entirely canceled, Rock on the Range updated fans via social media, promising a special tribute to Cornell.
There wasn’t exactly a pall of gloom over the festival, keeping the poignant moments of tribute from bands across three days close, but maintaining a celebration of Cornell’s life and times. But even then, what became more of a concern was the looming stormy weather that threatened the festival regularly on all three days.
The festival was disrupted a few hours in, with authorities evacuating all attendees just as Australian metalcore band The Amity Affliction and Portland stoner rock group Red Fang were set get on at the Zippo and Bud Light stages (respectively). Red Fang got three songs, but the Amity Affliction had to be stopped even before they took to the stage. After about four hours of waiting for the storm to pass by, the festival resumed, canceling no bands, but cutting set times and ensuring all three stages ran simultaneously.
The likes of Aeges, Beartooth and I Prevail and Cover Your Tracks are all the perfect example of radio-friendly yet heavy metal-leaning rock, the occasional breakdowns getting everyone jumping. The touch of diversity only arrived with the dark and emotional performance by California’s post-hardcore band Thrice on the mainstage, including songs like “Black Honey” and “The Earth Will Shake.”
After the storm passed and everyone trudged back into the stadium, they were greeted by metalcore band Of Mice & Men’s frontman Aaron Pauley, who said, “You can’t control the weather but you can control when you rock and roll!” to thousands of horns raised to the sky. The rest of the day brought the crushing intensity of metal bands such as Norma Jean (whose frontman Cory Brandan gave a crash course in starting circle pits – “It’s like NASCAR, run fast and turn left!”) and Motionless in White.
Closing the Bud Light stage were French metallers Gojira, who admitted they got on stage with an incomplete lighting setup, but fired on all cannons (and three onstage smoke cannons) with songs off their 2016 album Magma, opening with “Only Pain.”
Back at the mainstage, London rock veterans Bush – who had reunited about seven years and just released a new album called Black and White Rainbows – played a career-spanning set of favorites, frontman Gavin Rossdale getting into the crowd and even indulging in a cover of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” hitting us with an unexpected line from “Black Hole Sun” as a tribute to Cornell.
That’s around when Rock On The Range became about hearing those songs you grew up with – some may have “grown” out of it, but they’re still some kind of classic – from Bush blasting “Comedown” to Chevelle striking many a nerve with “The Red “ and “Send the Pain Below,” which has everyone in a stadium singing along.
The accidental headliners on day one, Live, were performing with their original vocalist Ed Kowalczyk after eight years, so it meant bringing out all their charting hits – “The Dolphin’s Cry,” “All Over You” “Selling the Drama,” “I Alone” and a special tip of the hat to Chris Cornell with Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway.”
That’s not where it stopped – Cornell was remembered by the festival with a special video montage featuring performances and two songs by one of American metal’s best known faces, Corey Taylor (in town for the festival’s pre-party with his band Stone Sour the previous day) – the always-relevant “Wish You Were Here” and Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.”
Even if Rock On The Range’s massive three-stage lineup features artists who made it big in the early 2000s, they also hosted the music that helped us grow our listening habits. The second day, as much as it was postponed by a couple of hours once again due to rain and storm warnings, featured the fresh and the extremely familiar.
In this case, the fresh included Texan djent-rap combo-throwers Fire from the Gods, festival-hopping current favorites Sylar, U.K. punk/metallers Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes and the space-obsessed electro-rock concept band Starset, who were playing on homeground, spacesuits, soaring electronica breakbeats and all.
The rest, were just the kind of bands you know and loved for a long time, and maybe still do. The crowdsurfing was in full swing with bodies riding the wave of people every minute of the time that New York metal heavyweights Alter Bridge owned the stage, frontman Myles Kennedy dedicating “Blackbird” in Cornell’s memory.
Later at the mainstage, South African post-grunge/mainstream rockers Seether brought out mostly old songs like “Gasoline,” “Fine Again,” “Fake It” and “Remedy,” Shaun Morgan working in noisy guitar loops in between songs.
After a brief watch of deathcore mainstays Whitechapel at the Bud Light stage, we had to catch Papa Roach play a game-changing set on the mainstage. The Californian (once) nu-metal/rap rock band have turned to heavier but also friendlier sonic terrains, but kept their ironic self-hate image – a public service announcement asking the thousands gathered to raise their middle fingers and say, “Fuck Papa Roach,” which everyone gleefully obliged to, as the band ran through not just early hits like “Last Resort,” “…To Be Loved” and “Between Angels and Insects.” They even got Columbus, Ohio’s Olentangy Orange High School Marching Pioneers band, a huge ensemble rumbling along to “Born for Greatness,” off their just-released album Crooked Teeth.
Between the emo indie-rock stand-out by Long Island’s Taking Back Sunday and Swedish melo-death metal masters In Flames and a prog-heavy set from Coheed and Cambria, there was more variety with the punk rock fun times provided by The Offspring, who had a packed crowd waiting for songs like “Come Out and Play,” “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” “Gone Away” and “Why Don’t You Get a Job.”
Headliners for day two, Californian nu-metal frontrunners KoRn could have played the perfect set, but turns out, another thunderstorm was approaching, which left them with just half a set. Nonetheless, KoRn had all their freaks in multi-color hair, braids and piercings out in full-force, opening with the mosh-ready “Right Now” and going on to “Somebody Someone,” “Coming Undone” (mingled with a bit of “We Will Rock You”) and “Blind,” before they had to walk off. That too just when Jon Davis had brought the bagpipes out.
U.K. bands sure know how to pull a Yank crowd’s leg, as we learnt by watching rock trio Dinosaur Pile-Up tear up the Zippo Stage (when frontman Matt Bigland introduced the band saying they’re from Britain, “It’s a three-hour drive from here”) and later, Scottish rock masters Biffy Clyro’s frontman Simon Neil taking the piss with “We’re from Scotland… it’s somewhere near England.”
From the Afropunk of teenage band Radkey and the frenetic electronic energy of electro-rock/metal Texans, Nothing More, day three was all about diversity. Buffalo hardcore/metal torchbearers Every Time I Die set the bar for antics high – playing “The New Black,” “Floater” and songs off their 2016 album Low Teens with perfect brutality, including “Petal” and “Glitches” – just as they got the biggest circle pit, the crowd even carrying guitarist Jordan Buckley surfing the crowd all the way to the merchandize corner at the end of the field.
Upping the stakes on the crazy stage show were mathcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan, on their last set of shows this year after releasing their last album Dissociation and announcing news of an indefinite hiatus. The band leapt around the Zippo Stage just as much as they could, frontman Greg Puciato climbing about 15 feet high on a stage truss, never missing his cues.
It was a weird hour at Rock On The Range by then – blackgaze/post-rock band Deafheaven were setting minds afire at the Bud Light stage, and weird rock veterans Primus were taking over the mainstage, introducing bass solos and strange silences as they dug into “My Name Is Mud” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver.”
But when Danish metallers Volbeat came on, it was almost like a Metallica gig with an opening band just warming up the crowd. We definitely needed warming up, because towards the end of Volbeat’s set, another approaching storm made the organizers stop the show, thankfully not evacuating anyone this time around. Although we were left standing through an hour of heavy rain inside the stadium, Volbeat came on (“Sorry about that, we went to take a piss,” frontman Michael Poulsen joked) and as Metallica’s multitudinous production crew were seen setting up spotlights and cameras, we knew at least this headline set wasn’t going to be jinxed.
With their signature audio-visual set, with brief video interludes and tons of cameras swirling around them on stage, thrash metal legends Metallica were just out to make it another day at the office for themselves – rain or shine. With intense precision (for material spanning from Hardwired… to Self Destruct to Metallica), the occasional joke (including frontman James Hetfield alluding to the microphone that malfunctioned at their Grammys performance with Lady Gaga when they launched into “Moth Into Flame”) and moments of sorrow (dedicating “The Unforgiven” to Chris Cornell), Metallica proved why they were just one of the greatest bands on earth. Even if you take away the pyro, the lasers, there’s still real heart and seriousness for playing the music.
And just like that, you can tell why Rock On The Range is a major draw for everyone – from the walker-aided senior citizens to the kids on their parent’s shoulders. That they carry it off despite threatening weather is just another mark of a world-class music festival.