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Rock ’n’ Roll Lives (in Ohio)

Three days at the Rock and the Range Festival, where 60 bands — including Metallica, Korn, the Offspring — and determined fans worship at the altar of the guitar

(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

And then, after a four-hour weather delay forced a sold-out soccer stadium’s worth of headbangers to evacuate and cower in their cars, the clouds dispersed, and the crowd reconvened, and Bush took the stage, radiant, triumphant. Yes, Bush. Don’t be snooty. The “Machine Head” riff did gloriously rain down from the heavens, and the revelers did lustily rejoice, and from the center of that crowd a 5-foot-long inflatable penis did rise, held aloft by one ingenious reveler’s two sturdy hands, as though summoned by the “Machine Head” riff itself.

Rock on the Range, the annual three-day hard-rock and metal festival that both rides the lightning and cowers in fear of it, returned this past weekend to Columbus, Ohio, for the 11th year. The 60-odd bands in the 2017 lineup — headlined by Metallica, Korn, and Soundgarden — traffick in Clinton-era alt-rock, and George W. Bush–era nü-metal, and modern polyglot ferocity of all temperaments. There are smatterings of hardcore, and emo, and metal of various gnarlier and weirder and more Scandinavian ilks. Graying nostalgia acts mingle with virile young bucks eager to recapture a bit of that refracted glory. Rock on the Range is a bizarre and very enjoyable duet/duel between The Future and The Past, each vying for supremacy, each coveting what the other has. (Youth and fame, respectively.)

This sold-out festival has just two adversaries: late-May Midwestern weather and the constant societal assertions that rock ’n’ roll is dead. But all that really means is “now it’s a lot easier to ignore rock ’n’ roll, if you want to.” Rock on the Range is where you go when you have the opposite impulse — when you want to shut out everything else.

How rock ’n’ roll works at Rock on the Range is that whoever’s onstage is worshipped as a god by default; how nostalgia works in general is that the more time passes, the less distinctions of hierarchy and taste or “coolness” matter. Every band that was big in, say, the ’90s will eventually be described as simply “the ’90s.” You win by surviving long enough to be cheerfully (and lucratively) homogenized.

Gavin Rossdale of Bush (Kenny Bahr)
Gavin Rossdale of Bush (Kenny Bahr)

Which is how even a band as frequently disrespected as Bush could be hailed as conquering heroes. But this year ageless frontman Gavin Rossdale had an even bigger job. Two days before Rock on the Range came shocking, horrible news: Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, one of the most distinct voices in ’90s grunge specifically and modern heavy music generally, died by suicide that Wednesday night after a show in Detroit. The festival was supposed to be his next gig. Rock on the Range organizers were left scrambling to arrange some sort of tribute and nominal replacement for Soundgarden’s Friday-night set in less than 48 hours; devout fans were left wondering if any combination of bands could create joy or catharsis given circumstances so tragic and unthinkable.

Rossdale rose to the occasion and honored Cornell’s memory by covering “The One I Love,” a longtime Bush concert staple adorned for this occasion with a few lines from the Soundgarden hit “Black Hole Sun.” If you were around when all those bands first got huge, you know that the very notion of Bush’s frontman honoring Soundgarden’s frontman by playing an R.E.M. song is ridiculous. In real time, those fan-base Venn diagrams crossed uneasily, and often didn’t cross at all. But all those bands are just “the ’80s” and/or “the ’90s” now, rock ’n’ roll giants celebrated more for their similarities than their differences. It’s a big tent, with everyone huddled together for warmth, for comfort, for a violent euphoria that’s only more acute now. Rivalries are fleeting, and memories are long on emotions but short on logic, and “Machine Head,” God bless it, is forever.

(Jason Squires)
(Jason Squires)

Finding a remotely comparable band to replace Soundgarden would have been impossible, and also possibly the wrong choice.

The crowd expected some sort of tribute and token cameo appearance by somebody, but by and large it fell to Bush and another gang of fellow mildly disrespected alt-rockers to take the mantle Friday night.

Live, playing their first gig with frontman Ed Kowalczyk after eight years of squabbling and estrangement, served up a solemn cover of “I Am the Highway,” one of the bigger and loftier hits from Audioslave, Cornell’s other major band. It fit seamlessly into Live’s general program of futon-philosopher arena rock, of massive ’90s radio hits (“Lightning Crashes”!) supplemented by deep cuts with goofy names like “White, Discussion” and “The Dolphin’s Cry.” These fellas were not Soundgarden’s equals back in the day, either, but the past was the past.

Soundgarden’s actual set was replaced by a brief, odd, gently tear-jerking tribute, which started with a full PA-system reading of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” the two Jumbotrons emblazoned with Cornell’s photo and a giant, flickering candle. It felt a little silly for the first 90 seconds and profoundly moving thereafter, the packed crowd either hushed or singing along, tears streaming down more faces than I would’ve expected.

Then came the main event: Corey Taylor and Christian Martucci, of long-running metal band Stone Sour, came out for a two-song acoustic set: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” followed by “Hunger Strike,” the monster 1991 hit from Soundgarden–Pearl Jam supergroup Temple of the Dog, and one of Cornell’s more karaoke-worthy moments. Even Taylor, an elite hard-rock vocalist himself — this is the guy from Slipknot, after all — couldn’t hope to hit Cornell’s high notes. The full crowd tried for him, and failed en masse, which felt like a tribute in itself, a humble concession that he’s an impossible act to follow.

The tribute wrapped up with a string of Jumbotron videos of classic Cornell performances, possibly pulled straight from YouTube, tearing into “Imagine” or the Temple of the Dog fan favorite “Say Hello to Heaven.” It was after midnight, and chillier than expected, but many fans had wet faces as they turned away and headed for the parking lot.

Throughout the weekend, several bands shouted out Cornell from the stage, or dropped Soundgarden riffs into their sets somewhere, sonic Easter eggs that worked as reverent head-nods. A few even attempted full covers. The L.A. metal band Kyng took their own, poignantly wobbly shot at “Hunger Strike”; weirder still, Gossip Girl alumnus Taylor Momsen, leading her burly hard-rock band the Pretty Reckless, did a quiet, bluesy, acoustic version of Audioslave’s “Like a Stone.” Which isn’t one of Cornell’s more difficult or octave-leaping songs vocally, but it might’ve been the whole weekend’s most surprising and affecting spontaneous tribute.

You can’t control how you’re eulogized, or who does the eulogizing. Cornell’s passing gave Rock on the Range 2017 a massive, heartbreaking jolt, but also a legacy to aspire to. Nobody could quite fill the void, but it was heartening to watch everyone onstage and offstage strain to try, reaching for octaves they couldn’t hit, rock-god pinnacles they couldn’t quite reach. You could hear him completely all weekend, even when it wasn’t really him. Even when it wasn’t even close.

The biggest names at Rock on the Range this year — also including the Offspring, Papa Roach, Primus, Chevelle, and Volbeat — were long-established and mostly revered, with their own distinct identities and kingdoms. If you were being blithe about it, you could classify all the other, lesser-known bands into three categories: Angry Alone at Home, Angry Amid a Large and Supportive Group of People, and Happy at the Strip Club. (Underserved demographic: Angry at the Strip Club.) That’s a deceptively broad swathe of humanity (and inhumanity), and a useful-if-blithe framework: solitary rage, communal rage, communal joy. Dealing with the Rock on the Range undercard required a system, and a method of classification.

The “communal rage” bands fared best. “Look at all these fuckin’ people,” marveled Myles Kennedy, frontman for throwback-minded Florida metal crew Alter Bridge, taking in a robust main-stage crowd early Saturday afternoon. “This next song’s called ‘Isolation.’”

Alter Bridge (Jason Squires)
Alter Bridge (Jason Squires)

Pick any stage for any random three-hour stretch and you’d get an idea of how weird and random and many-splendored modern heavy music can be. Alter Bridge were preceded on the main stage Saturday by Skillet (a delightfully exuberant Christian-metal band that looks like Khal Drogo fronting Jem and the Holograms) and Starset (a Space Mountain Gone Evil situation with dudes dressed as astronauts and a string section and a whole lotta smoke).

Starset are from Columbus, and thus qualify as local heroes; same deal with Beartooth, one of Friday’s first main-stage acts, a gang of jovial thrash-and-scream types whose local claim to fame is that they bought a billboard right by the main highway leading away from the airport, so newcomers to our fair city are immediately greeted with some polite scowling. They’ve got a song called “Hated,” with a refrain that ends “I am not your scapegoat anymore,” an Angry Alone lamentation morphing onstage into a bracing Angry in Public anthem. Good for them, good for us.

Another fun subcategory: Warped Tour Refugees. From Thrice (dour, workmanlike) to Taking Back Sunday (feral, vulnerable) to Sum 41 (bratty, insidiously catchy), the weekend was dotted with bands in the pop-punk and emo vein, toughening up slightly to better fit in amid all the screamers and thrashers. Coheed and Cambria, a veteran prog-rock crew with a whole comic book sideline and a bursting catalog full of righteous guitar solos and bewildering sci-fi backstories, didn’t have to toughen up at all. They played one of the weekend’s best sets and satisfied the most constituencies, turning “Man your own jackhammer / Man your battle stations” into a massive chorus, a pumped fist clenched around a 12-sided die.

Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria (Jason Squires)
Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria (Jason Squires)

The screamier bands tended to have better stage banter and crowd control, requesting en-masse crowd-surfers (Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes valiantly threatened to kill any men who “disrespected” any of the women), or a Wall of Death (“Don’t be a fuckin’ weenie,” counseled Pierce the Veil), or just a good old-fashioned circle pit. (“It’s like NASCAR,” explained metalcore veterans Norma Jean. “You just keep turning left.”) But in terms of pure production values, the weekend belonged to Swedish death-metal giants Amon Amarth, who dominated Sunday evening with a set that featured actual onstage viking battles. I caught most of the action from the top row of the Mapfre Stadium bleachers, gawking out at the overloaded parking lot far below, buffeted by high winds but still quite enjoying a God’s-eye view that gave the joyful crush of bodies below a Dante-like aspect, humbling and awe-inspiring.

Even if you wouldn’t seek out any of these bands in the wider world — even if you’d never set foot in a circle pit in this world or any other — the cumulative effect here was overwhelming, and immensely welcoming, and awfully reassuring. The more people who parrot the old Rock Is Dead line, the tighter all the fans who know that’s not quite true are inclined to bind together, a devout and fearsome army dwindling in number, perhaps, but only growing in force. The further this stuff gets from the global spotlight, the hotter and brighter it burns. Niche movements always had more personality, anyway.

Interlude: T-Shirt Slogan Hall of Fame

For example, here are my favorite T-shirts from the weekend.

If Rock and Roll Is Dead, You Can Kill Me Right Now

Mosh for Harambe

If I Die, Delete My Browser History

HIM: If I Am Too Drunk, Bring Me to My Girlfriend
HER: I Am the Girlfriend

Shut Up Liver, You’re Fine

Fuck Cancer (ubiquitous)

Fuck Pop Country

Go Fuck Your Selfie

If I Charge
Follow Me
If I Retreat
Kill Me
If I Die
Avenge Me

Awesome Dads Have Tattoos and Beards

I’m a Grumpy Navy Veteran: My Level of Sarcasm Depends on Your Level of Stupidity

Sports & Alcohol!

Pokémon Trainer*

Bad Choices Make Good Stories

The Dumbest Thing
You Can Possibly Do
Is Piss Off
My Daughter

I Will Open the Gates of Hell
And Escort Your Ass
Right on In
And I Will Do It With A
Smile on My Face

AARP (in AC/DC font)

*This was me.

The “range” part of Rock on the Range’s name is slightly hokey: Mapfre Stadium sits on the fringes of the reasonably cosmopolitan Ohio State University campus, and there are roughly 3,500 craft-beer emporiums within a 20-mile radius. This festival does not exactly take place in a giant grain silo. If anything gives these proceedings a rural, untamed, flyover-country sort of feel, it’s the constant threat of terrible weather, like the kind that sent us all back to fleeing in our cars for several hours Friday afternoon.

We all kept ourselves busy somehow.

Saturday’s weather issues were more insidious. Morning storms pushed everything back just a few hours to the early afternoon, which didn’t matter much at all until nearly midnight, when another thunderstorm threat forced Korn to cut their headlining set short by two songs. Which sounds minor, except those two songs were probably “Falling Away From Me” and “Freak on a Leash,” two of their biggest hits, not to mention among the most palatable for bewildered agnostics. Facebook commenters were mighty displeased. Don’t worry, though: The band still got to do their cover of Cameo’s “Word Up,” which is better than it sounds, though only slightly.

Korn’s die-hard fans are among the most devoted — and scariest — in hard rock, a deep psychological bond borne of exorcism and therapeutic rage, a mansion built out of hundreds of thousands of broken homes. If you’re unconverted, it all just sounds jarring and terrifying, a percussive assault, a barrage of downtuned drone strikes directed by octopus-armed drummer Ray Luzier and scatting/beatboxing/roaring frontman Jonathan Davis. It’s not for everybody, but for the people it’s for, it’s irreplaceable.

Korn were preceded by the Offspring, punkish alt-rock heavyweights whose bad songs — “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” and “Why Don’t You Get a Job” especially — have aged horribly, though they can still fill an hour-plus set entirely with songs you know intimately, even if you wish you didn’t. Ubiquity is their most powerful weapon: This is not a band with a Korn-like cadre of disciples, but everyone on earth likes at least one Offspring song, and their decades-honed talent of expertly fitting in amid various mutating strains of rock and punk and metal makes them ideal for a festival like this. Also, as crowd sing-alongs go, the “stupid dumbshit goddamn motherfucker” part of “Bad Habit” is unbeatable.

The Offspring, in turn, were preceded by rap-metal titans Papa Roach, whose songs you likely know less intimately, though frontman Jacoby Shaddix makes for a fantastic snarling-goofball frontman, a beguiling cross between Ozzy Osbourne and Willy Wonka. Crowd-surfers included a lady in a wheelchair and a dude in a full squirrel costume; a marching band showed up at one point, for some reason. Very few Rock on the Range bands put on quite so relentless and dazzling and vaporizing a show; plenty of bands cringe at the notion of putting on a show at all. But Shaddix is an excellent ringmaster, even if — especially if — he’s the only one willing to acknowledge that he’s in the circus.

The weather stayed out of it. Sunday’s big headliners were not quite so lucky, but still pretty lucky.

As pretty objectively the biggest metal band in history, Metallica also qualify as the biggest act in Rock on the Range history, a coup more than a decade in the making. The torrential downpour started about an hour before the band’s 8:45 start time, and the next hour was an uneasy mixture of drenched slanted-rain misery and mortal fear that Metallica would never get to take the stage at all, at which point their fans would presumably dismantle the stadium and burn the rest of Columbus to the ground.

The vibe was not so great.

But then the clouds dispersed, and in due time Metallica took the stage, radiant, triumphant. It was fantastic. The “Hardwired” riff did gloriously rain down from the heavens, and the crowd did lustily rejoice, and what is that floating gently toward frontman James Hetfield, held aloft by hundreds of raised hands in turn, but, indeed, the 5-foot-long penis balloon, rematerializing just for the occasion.

Metallica were incredible: too big (and too loud) to fail, too monolithic to dismiss or even mock in any sustained or credible manner. They have forgotten more about rock stardom than every other Rock on the Range artist will ever know; huge chunks of their history (the Load albums, St. Anger, the Lou Reed thing, etc. etc.) are all but dead to them now, or at least they went unrepresented in the band’s two-plus-hour set. Other than several righteous jams from last year’s excellent full-length Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, they didn’t play a single song that couldn’t legally rent a car. The only thing that matters to Metallica now is Right Now and Very Long Ago.

James Hetfield of Metallica (Kenny Bahr)
James Hetfield of Metallica (Kenny Bahr)

This is not an approach to history you’re apt to complain about midway through “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or “Seek and Destroy” or even good old “The Unforgiven,” moody and pulverizing epics with their own emotional arcs, their own fearsome evolutions. The band’s stage setup is hilariously minimal — a modest drum kit, a scant few amps — so as to make the dudes themselves loom even larger, the badass melodrama burning hotter than the occasional bursts of pyro.

Metallica are bigger than Satan, and in fact bigger than plenty of Rock on the Range’s thriving subgenres — a thrilling reminder of when rock was definitely not dead now exemplifying why rock will never truly really die. They’re the band everyone can agree on, with a devilish halo so wide and sturdy and luminous that they can provide aid and comfort and useful context for the hundreds of bands that only a few hundred-thousand people have to agree on to qualify as wild successes. Like Chris Cornell’s darkly golden voice, they’re a peak to aspire to, inspiring and energizing even if you never even glimpse it.

Even young, defiant bands that find Metallica hopelessly corny and outdated get someone to define themselves against; for everyone else, you get one of heavy music’s foundational, almost biblical myths. The brooding “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” gets all the way from Angry Alone to Angry Amid a Large and Supportive Group of People in 10 minutes or less, a headbanger-deity origin story in miniature.

Robert Trujillo (left) and Kirk Hammett of Metallica (Kenny Bahr)
Robert Trujillo (left) and Kirk Hammett of Metallica (Kenny Bahr)

All this, plus Hetfield’s goofy smiles and goofier stage banter. (“Do you want heavy? Metallica gives you heavy!”) And drummer Lars Ulrich’s giddy dancers around his drum kit. And bassist Robert Trujillo’s mid-set jam-session duet with lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, just two good buds having a nice time together. In their many decades together, Metallica has attracted enough scorn and been left for dead enough times to crush any other band’s spirit, which is what makes both their righteous fury and their undisguised joy so heartening now. This is the resilience that powers Rock on the Range, made craggly flesh.

They jammed all two-plus hours of their set in there, wrapping up well after midnight with “Enter Sandman,” of course. It was well worth sticking around for, though it had started raining again, and another crushing traffic jam loomed in our near futures, and Cornell’s absence still made you heartsick despite it all. It was enough, after all that major trauma and minor irritation, to bask in Hetfield’s reflected glory. To marvel that he was still standing. To marvel that come to think of it, so were we.