– Words by James Villa // All Photos by James Villa (Except Guns N’ Roses by Jason Squires)
Rock on the Range has become – dare I say – the Mecca of Hard Rock Festivals in North America!
The three-day event, held annually in Columbus, Ohio, sold out early drawing rock fans from all 50 states including a number of foreign countries. You knew something was up when hoards of fans were already lined up two hours before the gates opened at 10 a.m. – rain or shine. No one wanted to miss any of the early acts that were scheduled to perform. That should tell you something about the quality of music this year’s Rock on the Range offered.
Friday started off as a cold and overcast day. The dreary surroundings were a photographer’s dream scenario to shoot in, but for fans, it put somewhat of a damper on the proceedings. Fortunately, as the day wore on, the weather improved as did the quality of music on display. The billing on the Jägermeister and Ernie Ball stages was top notch.
This day started off with the ex-Pantera bassist Rex Brown showcasing his new group, Kill Devil Hill, before thousands of rabid fans. Vocalist Dewey Bragg (formerly Jason Bragg of Pissing Razors fame), has definitely come full circle with a commanding stage performance and witty stage banter. He worked the early morning audience with ease, while Kyng, Thousand Foot Krutch, We Came as Romans, Living Colour and Black Stone Cherry loudly gained new fans as the day wore on. Butcher Babies and Lacuna Coil rounded out what was the best day of performances on the Jägermeister stage. Another Pantera alum, singer Phil Anselmo, dominated the Ernie Ball Stage with his band, Down. Killswitch Engage and Black Label Society both did superb jobs warming up the crowd for the action that was soon to follow.
The main stage performance of Staind was the surprise of the day. Their electrifying presence jolted the crowd and dare I say, may have even upstaged the evening’s closing act, Guns N Roses. Yes, Aaron Lewis and company were that good. When you literally have 40,000 backup singers proudly mouthing every word to every Staind song, it’s an experience you just don’t forget. It was one of those remarkable sights and sounds you had to be there to fully appreciate. The band’s 12-song set list left the crowd demanding more, which they would get with the closing performance of the evening’s headliner, Guns N’ Roses.
Say what you will about this incarnation of Guns N Roses, but for those rock fans that grew up with Guns music blasting out of their stereo systems and radios, but never seeing the band live, this was as close to nirvana as they would ever come. The stories surrounding the band, and particularly Axl Rose, are as legendary as the music the band created in its very brief time together. Time has mellowed the singer, but not his incredible voice, and as the group’s sole survivor, the Indiana native has done a marvelous job keeping the name alive. Guns have literally been on tour going on three years now. Rose’s voice is in fantastic shape. Though it require nine musicians to duplicate the sound the original four – Duff, Slash, Izzy and Steven Adler – created, they performed the classic G-n-R material exactly like you heard it on the radio. The band’s 30-song set list lasted nearly three hours. Though the crowd started thinning out a bit by the band’s 14th song, for the tens of thousands that remained, you would have been hard-pressed to have left the stadium disappointed. As an added bonus, there was enough pyro and fireworks to make even the biggest die-hard GNR stop whining about this not being the original band and enjoy the fact they were witnessing a truly memorable event. It was a great way to end a very long day.
Mother Nature failed to cooperate with the concert organizers yet again. The sky opened up and the rain came pouring down to start the day. The deluge, however, did not deter the thousands of water-soaked fans who once again showed up to catch the early acts on the Jägermeister and Ernie Ball stages. The weather conditions certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of fan favorites like Wilson, Rev Theory and Fuel, who all took the cold weather and occasional cloud bursts in stride. By the time the Texas Hippie Coalition hit the stage at 3:15, the rain had tapered off allowing the crowds to finally dry off and prepare for the musical onslaught that was about to hit them. The Hippies quickly cemented their place in Rock on the Range fandom as Big Dad Rich and his crew stormed through their musical blend of Outlaw Country and Southern Fried Classic Rock. These Texas rockers made believers of those assembled to watch them preach their rock gospel.
Another Texas rock act, Nothing More, also left an undeniable impression on this boisterous crowd. This rock solid quartet out of San Antonio, Texas has catapulted their name into the national spotlight over the past few months their performance and stage show only seems to get better with each passing performance. Unfortunately, Nothing More’s set was abruptly cut short by what could only be explained as electrical issues. Vocalist Jonny Hawkins and company did his best to poke fun at the situation while stage hands scrambled about trying to resolve the issue. The assembled masses stayed with the band as the situation was resolved and the show continued without incident. Somehow the mishap didn’t seem out of place with everything else this crowd had already endured.
Fozzy, The Pretty Reckless, Pop Evil, Chevelle and Exodus rounded out the days honorable mentions. Saturday’s highlight was witnessing vocalist Mike Muir, of Suicidal Tendencies, tear down the Ernie Ball stage with his band mates. Bodies, bottles and plenty of unmentionables filled the air as Muir paced about. They were the perfect warm-up for the evening’s co-headliner, Slayer. Tony Araya and Kerry King led the band’s aural onslaught that ginned up the crowd to dangerously excitable levels. With the return of drummer Paul Bostaph, and the addition of noted Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, it was difficult to determine which musician was more excited to be on stage. This was definitely one of the strongest Slayer performances in years. Their 13-song set showcased the California metal masters in all their head banging glory. It was somewhat of a letdown when the band finally left the stage, but those feelings were short-lived.
Still riding the wave of their late 2013 release, Hail to the King, Avenged Sevenfold have pushed aside all their naysayers during their extended world tour. Spearheaded by vocalist M. Shadows, musically driven by the twin guitar attack of Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates, and fueled by the powerful rhythm section of bassist Johnny Christ and drummer Arin Ilejay, Avenged came into Columbus, Ohio ready to tear the place apart. And that’s exactly what they did. The band brought its diverse rock sound – complete with dramatic stage production – to the assembled masses that just couldn’t get enough of what this band had to offer. Stage sets and pyro aside, the metal mayhem this group unleashed capped off an incredible day of music. Capitalizing on some of their biggest hits to date, Avenged Sevenfold kept the crowd so fully involved, I doubt anyone even remembered it rained. Again, this was a great way to end a wet madcap, hard rocking 12 hours of music.
The sky finally cleared and sun displayed itself in all its blazing glory just in time for the Los Angeles based Gemini Syndrome to get the last day of festivities started. The thousands of rock fans that again showed up early were treated to a top-notch performance. That appreciation was never more apparent when Trivium front man Matt Heafy, whose interaction with the crowd was nothing short of spectacular, actually blew out his voice. Now that’s giving it your all.
The must-see early band was Of Mice & Men. The build-up to their appearance had the crowd buzzing with anticipation. Vocalist Austin Carlisle’s didn’t disappoint. His manic performance was without question the best of the day. The real surprise, however, came in the fashion of Miss May I. Riding the wave of their latest release, Rise of the Lion; the band took full advantage of their time slot. From the outset, the group had the audience right where they wanted them and gave Of Mice & Men a real run for their money. The true winners were the rock fans who attended both performances. Jason Bonham’s appearance was a treat, but should have played earlier. Wolfmother put on a mind-blowing show as did Mastodon and Alter Bridge. The day however, belonged to Five Finger Death Punch and Kid Rock.
From the time FFDP’s Ivan Moody walked onto the stage until the final notes of “The Bleeding”, there was no stopping the sea of crowd surfers heading towards security at the front of the stage. The band has been on the road for months, yet showed no wear and tear from all the travel. Every band member seemed refreshed and ready to give Kid Rock a run for his money – and they certainly did. After the band’s 11-song set list ended, the buzz in the crowd had reached fever pitch levels.
Any notion that The Kid was going to be upstaged quickly disappeared the moment the lights went down. As Robert Ritchie hit the stage in his full-on glory, the assembled masses went into a madcap frenzy. No one left the stadium early during this performance. The Detroit native held the audience captive throughout his 17-song set list that covered his entire discography. At times, the crowd seemed overwhelmed by the emotional energy pulsating throughout the stadium. At first glance, you would have thought that Kid Rock ending the three-night festival was a mistake. It wasn’t. His performance will be talked about for years to come. And so will this festival!
See you next year Columbus!