Rock and Roll

Over the third weekend of May, I attended Rock on the Range, a three-day rock festival in Columbus, Ohio.  It was non-stop, hard rock at MAPFRE stadium, the home of the Columbus Crew, an MLS team.  I’d traveled back to the show with a friend of mine who’d been to this annual show several times before.

Rock on the Range is a continuous concert.  If a band wasn’t on the main stage, two bands were performing on the outer stages, thus giving fans an opportunity to hear someone else.  From noon until almost midnight, music pumped out of overly large speakers.  It required earplugs, standing back in the crowd or manning up and head banging like you still remember what it means to love this music with every fiber of your being.

When I first arrived, I was filled with trepidation.  It was a modern-day unease caused by being in a large crowd – who knows what the fuck could happen?  Too many bad things have occurred lately in this country of ours when people get together.  In 2016, 135,000 people cumulatively attended the event.  It had grown from its first year in 2007 when only (only!) 35,000 people attended.  I didn’t tell my friend about my concerns as I didn’t want him to think I was a wimp.

My anxiety at being in a large crowd slowly dissipated over the event.  It’s like any fear, once you face it enough you’ll get over it.  Just like public speaking (which is a piece of cake), it took some repeated exposure to standing in a throng of metal heads, screaming and throwing up a set of horns every now and then, to make me feel better.

The last rock festival I’d attended was 1988’s Monsters of Rock when I saw Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, and Kingdom Come.  Yes, Metallica was the second band to open the show.  The biggest band in the land back then was Van Halen with Sammy Hagar.  Damn, that was thirty years ago.

RotR made MoR look friggin’ small!  There was never a break.  Once a band stopped playing, we had to haul ass to make it to the next set.  We would want to see whoever was playing on the main stage.  When that show ended, there was a choice to make – who to see on the smaller stages.  If we chose wrong, and we did a couple times, we had to beat feet to get to the other stage to still see a band playing.

The exciting thing about RotR was discovering new music and that happened to me in spades.  I’d never really listened to most of the bands attending the show before buying my ticket.  When the line-up was released, I immediately started listening to some of the bands and dug three of them above all the others – Greta Van Fleet, Them Evils, and Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown.  Just by listing those bands, you can get a good understanding of how my musical tastes lean.  When those bands were on stage, they were everything I had hoped.  Holy shit, they rocked.  I mean, they seriously rocked.  They played cleanly and the crowd, regardless of size, really got into them.  I can’t stop talking about these bands now.

There were many bands that I’d heard of before, but I never really listened to – Three Days Grace, Stone Sour, Asking Alexandria, and Anti-Flag to name a few.  After seeing these bands, I’m a fan.  I might have tried listening to them at some point but seeing them live added something.  It changed how I viewed these bands – they were all amazing live.  I’ve already listened to their albums repeatedly since being home.

We ran into a couple bands we didn’t dig.  It happens, right?  You find yourself standing before a stage excited to hear some new music, anticipation building with the crowd.  Then the band starts playing and everyone seems to really be into it but you.  One band seemed to have a weird ‘80s sound – the kind that you would find in ‘80s soundtracks, the music that wasn’t quite good enough for airplay but good enough for a director to use as “realistic” music for his movie.  The crowd was mostly made up of millennials who completely missed the ‘80s, loved this band and enthusiastically jumped up and down as they played.  I was lost.  I kept looking around for the camera crew filming a scene with an actor and actress pretending to enjoy this band.

A disappointing aspect of RotR is that occasionally you must make a choice between the bands you want to see.  This happened when Them Evils and Stitched Up Heart were scheduled to play at the same time.  I wanted to see both and had listened to the SUH album many times before the show, but I’d jumped on the Them Evils bandwagon the moment I discovered them.  Something about their sound (my girlfriend said it reminded her of Motley Crue without the theatrics – could that be possible?) really spoke to me.  So I missed Stitched Up Heart.

There were all sorts of crazy things I saw.  Baby Metal for one – Japanese girls singing in front of Kabuki dressed rockers.  The music was cool, even if I couldn’t understand it.  It kind of reminded me of all the hoopla over the German group Rammstein when they came out with Du Hast in 1997.  No one understood what they were saying, but we could dig the music.  The crowd went friggin’ crazy for Baby Metal when they played their song Chocolate.  How did we know it was a song about Chocolate if it was in Japanese?  The girls yelled “Chocolate” before the band started.  We were in the middle of this crowd and the response was insane.  Grown men jumped up and down, screamed and threw horns for these young girls.  I was slightly disturbed by how some guys were responding to them.  It seemed sort of, well, weird.

Three Days Grace on the main stage

Three Days Grace on the main stage

People have been crowd-surfing for years and it was no different at RotR, however, there was some silly CosPlay going on.  Guys dressed in costumes – Spider-man, The Flash, a Squirrel with blown-up tail to name a few – would tap random strangers and asked to be hefted onto the shoulders of the crowd.  Then they’d go surfing to the front.  When they’d arrive there, they’d run back into the crowd and do it all over again.  It was a weird loop these CosPlayers were in.  They seemed more about attracting attention to themselves than digging on the music, but most of the crowd didn’t seem to mind so screw it, right?

At any hard rock/metal show, the dress code is usually the same – a lot of black and denim.  That wasn’t much difference here except there were a lot of shorts due to the sun occasionally peeking out from the clouds.  What did surprise me was how many people, men and women alike, chose to wear shirts proudly announcing their affinity for the “F” word – “Fuck Your Feelings” and “Fuck Gun Control” were prevalent.  Fuck Cancer was a charitable sponsor at the event and their hats were everywhere.  People wore shirts claiming that “Metal Bitches Give Stitches” and “I’m a Dick” without embarrassment.  When I was a kid, I wanted a t-shirt with a guy sticking his finger up his nose with the caption “Pick a Winner,” but I knew I wouldn’t wear it because I would be too embarrassed.  I couldn’t imagine wearing some of the shirts I saw at the concert.

Alcohol flowed freely at the event, but there weren’t any noticeable fights.  That totally blew me away.  I kept waiting for a drunken melee to break out, but one never occurred.  There were plenty of drunks swaying side to side as their friends tried to corral them to safety.  Believe it or not, though, most people looked out of for one other.  It was this crazy atmosphere.  Society’s misfits had banded together to party and they were going to take care of each other. 

Except they weren’t conscious of how much smoke was being billowed out from the crowd.  As a reformed smoker going on twenty years, I’m always aware of it.  I love the smell of cigarette smoke (not the smell of stale smoke on clothing), but I hate the shit being blown in my face.  For three days straight, I seemed to always be downwind from weed, vapor, or cigarette smoke.  It was irritating.  And yes, I did say weed.  It’s no big deal from where I live, but the great state of Ohio still hasn’t made recreational marijuana legal so everyone was cupping it in their hand, trying to hide it when they smoked it before passing it to their friends.  It cracked me up when random strangers would shove past me to get to someone puffing on some green.  They’d often share a joint together.  It must be my age, but I kept thinking, “Dude, who knows what diseases that guy might have in his mouth?”  However, if they didn’t care, why should I?  Then the smoke would be blown in my face.

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At the show, bottles of water were $7.  I never buy bottled water at home – tap water is fine.  At the concert, though, I bought them when I needed one and moved on.  However, folks could always refill a bottle which many people did as they stood in line at the water fountain.  Lines at the fountains were often deeper than twenty people.  One minute per person to refill a bottle of water and that’s two-thirds of a set-list of the smaller bands.  I told my buddy that my time was worth more than that, to which he replied, “Some people can’t afford to buy water.  They need to stand in that line.”  That’s probably the truest statement of most of America.

On Saturday afternoon, we were evacuated due to an incoming thunderstorm with expected lightning.  We hung out underneath a nearby bridge like a couple transients for an hour until we gave up and went back to our hotel room.  When we later got the all clear, we headed back to the venue and rocked until midnight. 

We were lucky enough to buy VIP passes.  This allowed us to get into a cordoned-off area with a private bar, specialty vendors, lockers, an air-conditioned tent and (best of all) private air-conditioned restrooms.  That last perk alone was worth the extra coin.  It might have made me feel a bit snobbish to have that pass, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. 

The total three-day count of attendees at the 2018 Rock on the Range was over 140,000 people.  Some had full concert passes that extended the three days while others just bought single day passes.  The morning shows were barely attended, but the evening shows – the headliners – were packed to the upper levels, so much so that it was uncomfortable.  Obviously, not everyone felt that way, but I did.  You get that many people crammed into one place, especially with alcohol and heavy music, and I start getting twitchy. 

All in all, we saw 24 bands over three days.  That’s a helluva sprint.  Some of them I remember vividly.  Others, I struggle to recall even being there.  My friend and were having this conversation recently.  I asked him if we saw Breaking Benjamin to which he emphatically said, “Yes!  Dude, we were in the crowd.”  When I explained I couldn’t remember that show, he started laughing.  He said, “I can’t remember seeing Asking Alexandria.”  I had to tell him about that show.  It’s like we’d been drunk on rock & roll and we were trying to retrace our steps.

I felt bad for the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium.  Imagine all the traffic coming through the neighborhoods trying to get to the stadium.  To avoid parking at the stadium, many people parked on the side streets.  The concerts went past dark – on Saturday night it went to midnight.  I get upset when there’s a barking dog in my neighborhood.  How would I have felt if Avenged Sevenfold played until midnight then hordes of drunken fans wandered through my neighborhood, hooting and hollering?  I’d probably swear and curse the existence of Rock on the Range and its fans.

But it wasn’t my neighborhood, thank God.  My town already has its share of events that I hate due to the amount of people it brings in, throwing off the delicate ecosystem we’ve built.  When these visitors leave, everything can return to normal.  We’re thankful they left their hard-earned dollars during their visit, but we swear and curse them as they clog up the restaurants, overwhelm the streets and make everything generally suck while they’re in town.  I imagine that’s what the neighboring residents were thinking/saying/swearing to all of us attendees.

So, to Rock on the Range and Columbus, Ohio, I can safely say NIMBY!  I can’t wait for next year! 

Colin ConwayComment