Rocklahoma Festival 2014 (Pryor, OK)
Friday, May 23rd – Sunday May 25th, 2014
-Words by Jordan Buford // Photos by James Villa and Ronnie Jackson
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of rock!”
That’s the motto for Rocklahoma, which has been turning the city of Pryor, OK into a music hot spot every Memorial Day weekend for eight straight years now.
It’s more than just a music festival, though. It breeds a sense of community; due in large part to the camping attendees can do, if they want to stay right near the grounds of the three-day festival.
The line of cars to what could be called ground zero for this weekend stretched all the way out onto the highway. It moved rather quickly, though, as those with trailers or RV’s made their way to the camping sites, while those in slightly more plush accommodations parked their cars for the day and headed for the main gate.
It didn’t open until three that afternoon, but more than an hour beforehand droves of fans showed up, jumping onto the gates as they psyched themselves out for what was going to be a fantastic day (and weekend) of music.
The holiday was never forgotten, though, and before any act took the stage, the people who were hurrying to stake out a spot stopped in their tracks and placed their hands over their hearts for The Star Spangled Banner.
After that display of patriotism, things were given up to Black Stone Cherry to officially get the three-day festival underway, and from “Me and Mary Jane” right up until their closer, they held nearly everyone captive. The staggered set times allowed for you to potentially see the majority of the bands that played at Rocklahoma, and afterwards the crowds migrated to the smaller Hard Rock Stage. Some fans were sporting Nothing More shirts and shouting for the San Antonio based group, who has been hitting the festival circuit hard in recent months, along with being a part of tours with Killswitch Engage and Chevelle to name a few.
It was easy to see why they already had some die-hard fans out there, and many more joined the ranks after witnessing what was one of the best performances of all of Rocklahoma 2014. The heavy touring the band has been doing has allowed them to reach a level previously unthought of, and their 32-minute set brimmed with energy and even a slight feeling of authority. It was hard to take your eyes off them, especially during the bass solo (you have to see it to believe it), and the four-part percussion solo of their final number.
Back on the main stage, Skid Row was ready to rock, and while some fans may still, all these years later, be hung-up on the fact that Sebastian Bach is no longer the singer, no one this day seemed to mind. Frontman Johnny Solinger and his band mates provided an energetic show for everyone that focused heavily on the old classics, before the day did a musical 180° when fans headed back to the other stage for Italys’ Lacuna Coli.
“I can see a beautiful, powerful army from up here, and we walk together through the darkness as one!” roared frontwoman Cristina Scabbia before one of their songs. It was a statement that made clear that even though they only got a short 25-minute long set, they were there to make the crowd feel like they were an actual part of something. They also got the audience involved with some clapping along during their gothic metal sounding tracks (which was filled with plenty of head banging); and while I was more partial to Scabbias’ voice and the impressive range and registers she’s capable of, frontman Andrea Ferro did a good job of balancing it all out, adding the grit to their tracks.
Killswitch Engage remembered what this weekend was all about, dedicating “Always” to “all the fallen troops all over the world”. Having not seen the band before, I was pleasantly surprised at how precise they all were on stage, each operating as a piece of a much larger machine; and the at times eccentric bugging of the eyes singer Jesse Leach would do made them all the more entertaining. Another surprise came in the form of Thousand Foot Krutch, and at one point, vocalist Trevor McNevan thanked the people for letting the “crazy Canadians” on the bill. From some nice soft harmonies to blaring rock riffs, the band put on an incredibly dynamic performance that had people instantly enthralled.
Seether was perhaps one of the most anticipated bands of the day, and they ran though nearly all the fan favorites, which had everyone on their feet, screaming with glee at the start of some tracks, and you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing droves of people singing along. Focus then shifted to a slightly newer rock act, The Pretty Reckless, who filled their 30-minute set with tracks from each of their two LP’s. Frontwoman Taylor Momsen has an impressive set of pipes on her, at times using a throaty voice with a real growl, and other times it had a slightly more poppy vibe to it. She oozed a great deal of sex appeal, too, especially when she somewhat slid down the microphone stand. She managed to do all that without ever being truly provocative, though, which deserves much kudos and a lot of respect.
There’s no question that Deftones were one of the bands people had been waiting all day for, and after making an entrance to the stage largely shrouded in darkness, the lights flashed on, and Chino Moreno and the rest of the band got down to business. Bassist Sergio Vega was a nonstop firecracker during their time on stage, and guitarist Stephen Carpenter as well as the rest of the bands’ superior skills earned them plenty of attention, but all of that eventually came back to the riveting figure that is Chino Moreno. At the end of one track, he wrapped the mic cord around his neck once, letting it dangle, before he grabbed it and finished singing the song. Fans were rabid for all of it, and thoroughly enjoyed newer cuts like “Tempest”, but it was towards the end of their 57-minute long set, when they pulled out “Change (In the House of Flies)”, that the crowd really went ballistic; and they owned this main stage better than any act had all day.
The supergroup that is Hellyeah (featuring Vinnie Paul, Chad Gray, Tom Maxwell and Kyle Sanders) finished warming up the crowd, and the band seemed to embody the festival spirit. At least the spirit that Rocklahoma has. “This is not just a rock concert… This is motherfucking therapy…” bellowed Gray at one point, as they mixed in a few new songs from their upcoming album with their older stuff.
The headlining spot went to Five Finger Death Punch, and while much of the audience had been out here most of the afternoon, if not all day, they still had plenty of energy to give, which was good, because so did 5FDP. Their showmanship was off the charts, and as the opener “Under and Over It” concluded, frontman Ivan Moody viciously beat his chest, as if to signify that they were just getting warmed up. “Turn that fucking spotlight off, I’m not Axl Rose…” he said at one point while talking with the audience, in a moment of humility. He, along with bassist Chris Kael, guitarists Zoltan Bathory and Jason Hook and drummer Jeremy Spencer went full throttle during their time on stage, never letting up, and proved a stellar way to end the first day of Rocklahoma. After all that, I think everyone was sufficiently warmed up for day two.
The hail gods almost made an appearance on day two. It was so bad, in fact, that everyone was told to take shelter in their cars or wherever they could find. Sans some light drizzle, though, that was as bad as it got, which, unfortunately was also the only time the rain gods ever showed their faces this weekend.
The crowds started spilling in as soon as the event staff realized the storm was more bark than bite, and in just a few short hours after gates opened, the number of people already rivaled the total of the day before.
The day got started on the smaller Hard Rock stage, and the first sounds heard were that of Neil Diamonds’ “Sweet Caroline”. That was the music Gemini Syndrome chose to make their entrance to. It was an interesting choice, given the bands alternative hard rock nature, but one that somehow worked. Aaron Nordstrom sported a pair of aviator goggles for the first few songs, raising them onto his forehead so he could see the crowd when he spoke to them. “We’re all here, so that makes us all survivors in some way, shape or form…” he said before one track, as they kept barreling thought their 23-minute long set, packing it full of intensity.
Adelitas Way took the momentum the first band of the day had established, and built on it, quite extensively at that. Rick DeJesus was a beast of a frontman who took the bull by the horns, as they dished out songs from their first two releases, as well as a few from their forthcoming album, like “Dog On a Leash”. He even told the spectators that he just might jump into the crowd if they made enough of a moment for him. “Who knows?” he said, truly seeming uncertain of what he might do, though that didn’t happen. Another cool moment came when guitarist Robert Zakaryan got behind bassist Andrew Cushing, placing his guitar in front of him and leaning over so he could still play his axe. They had a ferocious aura about them, and they made evident that this would be a rocking day.
The Nashville-based We As Human mentioned they had missed their flight last year when they were scheduled to perform here at Rocklahoma, and were glad to be given another chance to play the festival. They made up for that lost time, too, delivering a great little set. Pop Evil kept the rock flowing, and drummer Chachi Riot absolutely killed it at the end of their second number, “Hero”. Actually, that could be said of just about every song they did, which had some wailing guitars sprinkled in from time to time. Frontman Leigh Kakaty also made sure to point out what an important day this was for the band, as their song “Torn to Pieces” had gone to number one on the charts, which got a loud reaction from the onlookers.
Memphis’ Devour The Day was a fun group to watch, and they even shot some marshmallows out at the crowd from an air gun, making sure to inform everyone that they were indeed marshmallows, and not golf balls. The main stage then belonged to Filter, who showed that more than twenty years after their inception, they’re still a relevant force, and one to be reckoned with.
Afterwards, you had Texas Hippie Coalition, who perhaps got the crowd more excited than any other band thus far this day. That could have had something to do with the fact that they seemed no difference than anyone else, and vocalist Big Dad Ritch mentioned at one point that he was just an “ol’ Texas boy who has a house in Oklahoma”. So close, he added, that he drove his Chevy truck to the venue. The crowd immediately fell under their spell, raising their hands and pumping their fists in the air with the opener “Hands Up”, taking what Big Dad Ritch was singing as an order. Their heavy-hitting brand of Southern metal couldn’t be ignored, and they offered a taste of a few new songs from the upcoming “Ride On” album. By this point of the second day, there were few people with any inhibitions left, but THC made sure everyone shed every remaining bit of any. To the point that a few ladies set atop the shoulders of whoever they were with, making sure their shirts were pulled up high enough so everything could hang out for all to see.
As the day grew later, the bands from the 70’s and 80’s started to come out, with Jackyl fitting into the latter category. Their set culminated with, of course, “The Lumberjack”, which had the crowd going wild, probably because that’s something you never see from any band aside from Jackyl.
We Are Harlot offered a brief break, as things shifted back to some modern rock music, before the one and only Twisted Sister took the main stage. Dee Snider lacked his typical makeup, but that was all that was lacking from the 59-year-old frontman, who immediately began jumping and racing around the stage. The first handful of songs, his voice sounded like it was struggling, but he made up for it with his copious amounts of energy, easily running circles around all the young rockers who had played earlier in the day. Everyone was loving it, though the best was, of course, saved for the tail end of their set, and after stating that this was the Church of Twisted Sister, Snider led the massive crowd in shouting along, “I believe in rock ‘n’ roll!” Fans yelled that back at the band repeatedly, before they finally ripped into “We’re Not Gonna Take it”. Laughs were also plenty, like when Snider mentioned many bands from their era have revisited popular songs and made them acoustic now that they’ve gotten older, and people looked on in disbelief when an acoustic axe was brought out, like they, too, were going to bring things down. The guitar was quickly smashed, though, and the rock kept getting cranked out. The crowd was disappointed when it all came to an end, but they quickly came back, saying they didn’t have time to leave before the encore. Snider mentioned Lemmy Kilmister, saying Motorhead was supposed to play Rocklahoma at one point, but health issues kept them from it. So, to honor one of their brother bands, they tried their hand at Motorheads’ “Born to Raise Hell”, which required a lot of audience participation. Overall, you could call this a performance, the type of which these guys mastered and perfected long ago, and the likes of which you don’t see too often anymore.
The same could be said of Kix, who opened their set with “No Ring Around Rosie”, and frontman Steve Whiteman shook his hips to the beat Jimmy Chalfant was laying down, and he seemed to still hold a certain amount of sex appeal over a portion of the female audience. Whiteman, who stood atop one of the monitors at the end of that track, then jumped off it, splitting his legs in the air before landing, as they rolled things into the next song. He later mentioned they needed to make the most of the time they had, and at a little fun with everyone when he thanked them, informing the crowd the proper response was, “You’re welcome!”, something they answered him with for the rest of the night. They even fit a new track in, joking that it had only been nineteen years since their last record, so it was probably time for something new. “Love Me with Your Top Down” may have been new, but it still had the same old classic rock sound, the one the band does so well.
Compared to those last two bands, Staind were the new kids on the block, but even they have a couple decades under their belt, and judging by how eager the crowd was to see them, they were the perfect headliner for this day. Word has it that since returning from their two year hiatus, Aaron Lewis has been doing more moving around than he used to. That didn’t happen this night, and early on he informed the audience that he wasn’t “going to be jumping around like some asshole.” That was okay, though, because guitarist Mike Mushok and bassist Johnny April more than made up for the movement, leaving Lewis to do all the awesome singing. Indeed, his voice shone on tracks like “Right Here”, which was one of quite a few songs they performed that had seemingly thousands of people singing along. Those were the most amazing moments of their set, actually, the times when the music cut out and Lewis left the singing up to their fans, all of whom knew just what to do.
It was a memorable way to end day two, a day that had passed by all too quickly, and left everyone excited about wrapping up the festival.
With two full days already under their belts, those rocking out at Rocklahoma should have been tired. However, that wasn’t the case, and not a soul showed even the slightest sign of lagging, and even though temperatures were going to be the hottest of the entire event (they reached the low 90’s), folks were raring to go.
This day got started a little later than the first two and Twelve Foot Ninja from Melbourne, Australia kicked things off on the Hard Rock Stage at 3:30. They were an interesting fusion of music, keeping things very heavy, but also giving some groove and funk attributes to their music. Redlight King then reeled in the crowd on the main stage, hitting the highlight songs during their time on stage. Mark Kasprzyk was another frontman who performed at Rocklahoma who basically referred to the crowd as a congregation. “It’s like we’re at church, a rock church.” he said at one point, before asking for a hell yeah. “Bullet in My Hand” wrapped up their set, a song that had moments which served as an anthem to the concert goers, many of whom sang along once they picked up on the chorus, “…I really got fucked up…”
Eve to Adam escalated things, and with each passing song, their presence grew, hitting their stride by their fourth track. They played rock music that was heavy and loud, and that included a cover Billy Idols’ “Rebel Yell”. They were followed by the first long-standing figure of rock for this day, and that was Tom Keifer, best known from the band Cinderella. Whereas some musicians like to play only their solo music when the branch out on their own, Keifer was one who wanted to showcase the favorites everyone knew, like opener “Night Songs”, along with a few cuts from 2013’s “The Way Life Goes”, such as “It’s Not Enough”. His wife Savannah Snow joined him for a moving rendition of “Don’t Know What You Got (Till it’s Gone)”, which was just one of the other hits he bombarded people with. It was a very memorable set, and one of the best of the day.
British rockers Heaven’s Basement blew me away. Armed with their strong songs, most of which sounded like rock anthems, you could tell their mission was to energize the audience. Basics like clapping along were done at times, but the biggest spectacle of their show was when singer Aaron Buchanan (who is truly one of the most electrifying frontmen I have ever seen) said that instead of crowd surfing, he wanted to crowd handstand. So, he joined the audience, who held him up by his feet as he moved deeper into the crowd, before doing a handstand, and, with his legs sticking up in the air, he clapped them together to the beat. Well, that was certainly a first for me.
Not just any band could follow such an explosive set, but Black Label Society is not just any band. The air raid sirens that rang out raised the excitement level of the attendees, before Zakk Wylde, John DeServio (whose bass had red, white and blue strings), Jeff Fabb and Dario Lorina emerged on stage. There can be no argument made on how exceptional Wyldes’ skills as a guitarist are. He’s a master at shredding, plain and simple, and he possesses that rare gift to be able to showcase his insane skills without seeming the least bit flashy in what he’s doing. For the most part, they plowed through their 46-minute long set, cramming in all they could. “Are you ready motherfuckers?!” bellowed Wylde before their final song, which ended with him removing his jacket and holding it so all could read the back of it, which, along with a variety of patches, included the band’s name.
The first two days of Rocklahoma, things had gone like clockwork, but now, somehow, the schedule had gotten off, and things were running about fifteen minutes behind as the music lovers trekked to the other stage to see the Los Angeles-based Butcher Babies. What I enjoyed most about the band was how much they cared for everyone. There was no division of fans and non-fans. I don’t think they really even cared if you liked their music or not, because they were going to make you like their show and get you engaged in it. Heidi Shepherd and Carla Coates shared frontwomen duties, and were constantly running around the stage, jumping here and there, and even getting out on the guardrail to be closer to everyone. I think the security hated them more than any other band, mainly when they did what was referred to as “The Climb of Life”, where they asked for everyone to crowd surf, and wanted to receive a high-five from everyone once they got up to the stage. It turned into a sea of crowd surfers many of whom went up numerous times, like one young kid who was seen reaching the stage about four or five times in all.
It was nice to see a band so fan-friendly, and things again took a twist when that hardcore metal music gave way to the classic rock sounds of Extreme. Throughout their set, vocalist Gary Cherone almost always had a smile on, clearly loving being up there performing for everyone, and they did various things like clap-alongs to further get people involved. Oddly enough, the band seemed to be at their strongest on the acoustic duet that was “More Than Words”, which Cherone mentioned over the years had evolved from he and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt singing to everyone to he and the audience doing a duet. The singing from the crowd wasn’t the strongest, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a cool moment; and as they continued on with their high-energy stuff, they proved that after nearly thirty years, they are still worthy of the name Extreme.
The hard rock trio known as Kyng whipped everyone into a frenzy on the smaller stage, and by the third song, their music had incited quite the mosh pit. So large, that a few people stepped a good ten feet away, just to ensure they wouldn’t get brought into it somehow. It was a great set, and despite the metal and hard rock sounds, a certain amount of melodic metal/rock could be heard, too. Theory of a Deadman changed the direction of things a bit, and Tyler Connollys’ voice just never seemed up to snuff this night. He later mentioned that sometime recently (I assume very recently), he had a case of laryngitis, which I would assume was what hindered him this night. Still, that didn’t keep people from being excited to see them and the chance to hear songs they knew as well as a few from their upcoming album. David Brenner used a double guitar for a stretch of the show, and by the time they ended with “Bad Girlfriend”, all their fans were loving it.
The supergroup that is Down provided the last serving before the main course, but thanks to the schedule getting off, they didn’t have long before Kid Rock was slated to take the main stage. Vocalist Philip Anselmo stated right off the bat that this was the final night of their current tour, and they were just ready to have some fun. I think they did, and so did the patrons, as more mosh-pits broke out. “…We need you swarming like it’s nineteen ninety-two.” Anselmo said before their first song, acknowledging that, that was something he had just made up. New songs were mixed with old, and after starting one track, Anselmo stopped it, pointing out those in the mosh-pit, saying they were doing a good job, but everyone else could do much better. Their set ended with “Lifer”, which was dedicated to Anselmo’s former band mate in Pantera, Dimebag Darrell.
As I said, things were running late, and it was already a little past Kid Rock’s 10:40 start time, and while Down continued to play their final number, the show on the main stage began to start, and much of the crowd took once last glance at Down, before hightailing it back to the main stage.
Kid Rock is one of those rare artists who has managed to change his style some over his illustrious career and still kept all of his fan base, and probably pulled some new ones in along the way. However, this night began, as it should, with his older material, such as “Devil Without a Cause”, before going into “You Never Met a Mother Fucker Quite Like Me”, which had hordes of fans shouting along. Jumping was a signature move of this rebel rocker, and it was during that latter song mentioned where he flipped the microphone in the air, very tightly I might add, catching it without even looking. Mixed in with songs of that ilk were the more sentimental tracks, like “All Summer Long”, which had a point where he said he was going to break it down and sing without any of the computers. That also meant no guitars, drums, or anything else his large-scale backing band was providing, and in that moment, you really had to marvel at what a superb voice he has. It was a magnetizing performance, and “Bawitdaba” signified not only the end of his set, but also the last song the majority of people truly cared to hear at this year’s Rocklahoma.
There were still bands left to go on the smaller stages, but no one even remotely close to the caliber of Kid Rock, or any of the other bands that played for that matter, which made it a good time to leave.
Rocklahoma is something else. The people who were at this thing bled the American spirit, and if you cut them, you’d probably also see some music notes drip out. It’s a different breed of people who attended this, and I do mean that in the best way possible, because it takes someone special to go to a three-day music festival. On that note, I enjoyed the wide demographic. Crowds at club shows are generally going to be made up of people in their twenties and thirties. That could even be said of most festivals, but all three days of this you saw little kids running around to young tweens and teens, and there were plenty of folks in their fifties and sixties roaming the grounds, taking in the talent that was new to them and reliving some old times with the classic rock groups. Overall, it was a good mix of everything, music, people, etc. and a helluva fun way to spend the Memorial Day weekend.