Concert review: Party Like It's 1994 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Rock on the Range
"The last time I crowd-surfed was 1992," said Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan to a decidedly pro-crowd-surfing Crew Stadium crowd. "I dislocated my shoulder."
The Great Pumpkin's tongue-in-cheek old-man warning wasn't heeded by the masses then or at any other point during Rock on the Range 2013 weekend, a gloriously beer-and-nostalgia-soaked weekend that we all should be proud took place in Columbus, Ohio. And yes, I'm serious.
It's easy to look down your nose at Rock on the Range as our resident Big Dumb Rock Festival. Coachella it ain't. It's the noisy brother of whom you're a little embarrassed when he gets drunk. Unless you're getting drunk with him, of course. Then he's kind of a blast.
This is the beautiful truth that revealed itself to me this past weekend at Rock on the Range. It's best to let go of your pretense. Raise your horned hands in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care.
I've attended Rock on the Range in the past. Well, sort of. I'm the resident hard rock fan on the Alive staff (think Tool), and there are always a few acts on the bill that grab my eye, so I've had the option of safely popping in on them and vacating the premises quickly thereafter. I didn't go all in this year - no camping out, no tailgating, no wanton debauchery - but I spent enough time there to start get a feel for what ROTR is evolving into.
For a crowd that so publicly embraces the "don't give a f---" aesthetic, the first thing that may shock you about the Rock on the Range crowd is how respectful they are.
I don't mean of the grounds, mind you. Beers are served almost exclusively in plastic bottles. The hallowed pitch on which the Crew plays is mercifully covered with an interlocked grid of plastic that effectively turns the entire area into the biggest frat house living room you've ever seen. Empties are discarded everywhere - often chucked (usually) harmlessly into the crowd. The sound of hundreds of feet crunching over hundreds of empty plastic bottles of Bud Light will haunt my dreams. It would also seem that recycling was one of the things of which we were not giving a f--- that weekend.
But I was pretty astonished by how courteous everyone was. This sun-baked, booze-soaked bunch of people were listening to some aggressive music, but they were generally more laid back then you'd expect.
People were exceedingly friendly (for the most part). I got numerous "excuse mes" or "sorry, mans" from dudes who had just inadvertently bumped me in a crowd. Lines for bathrooms and beers were patient and orderly. I don't think I heard anyone lean on their horn in the slow crawl of cars leaving the parking lots each night. And, perhaps most reassuringly, female crowd-surfers were carefully passed around without getting groped. (I know that basic human decency is not much to ask, but I've seen way worse behavior in those situations.)
I was learning that these were good people. They had come here to drink beer and listen to music. This weekend had plenty of both.
This year's lineup was obviously the most '90s-centric ROTR, a collection of bands whose seminal records are all getting 20th anniversary re-releases. There could have been a live recreation of about a third of the "Singles" soundtrack this weekend (which, come to think of it, would have been pretty cool).
I popped in for a nightcap Saturday, catching the tail end of a Cheap Trick set that involved a wonderfully confused singalong of "Surrender" by a crowd that was pretty clearly there for the night's headliner, the godfathers of all that awful "nu metal" that ROTR wallows in, Korn.
Fun fact: I saw Korn in 1995 at the Newport on a tour in which they and Marilyn Manson were opening for Danzig. So a) I've got some cred here and b) I'm old.
Korn was kind of exhilarating when they broke, the low-end playing with the squeaky guitar riff and Jonathan Davis' Cookie Monster-meets-baby-talk vocals. And while the years have made them seem really one-note, the return of original guitarist Brian "Head" Welch brought the band out swinging. It helped that Jonathan Davis was back down to fighting weight. He seemed a little chubby (and winded) during Korn's last ROTR performance. This one was triumphant. Who knew nursery rhymes could rock?
A late start on Saturday had me missing a modern favorite, Austin, Texas' The Sword, so the first act of the day was the more ROTR-homogenous Papa Roach. My friends and I had a hard time remembering what their hit was - in addition to discussing the subtle differences between Staind and Disturbed - until we were reminded with their set closer "Last Resort." The posturing came off even more comical in 2013, but the crowd seemed appreciative, even if frontman Jacoby Shaddix committed a major rock foul by trying to start his own "Pa-pa Roach!" chant. Dude. If you have to ask …
I caught a little Clutch - always solid stoner rock, they live up to their name - and chilled in the stands during Stone Sour, which probably marked the most packed crowd for the main stage.
I had low expectations for Saturday closer Smashing Pumpkins. Even in their "Siamese Dream"/"Mellon Collie" heyday, I never found the Pumpkins to be as solid live, and Corgan always seems a little curmudgeonly with the setlist. This is a man who subjected a Newport crowd to an acoustic set that featured "Monster Mash" a few years ago. I wasn't expecting hits.
But the new-look Pumpkins (Corgan is the only original member) sounded amazing, even as the post-Stone Sour crowd got thinner and thinner. A set that nicely spanned the catalogue was highlighted by a stellar rendition of "XYZ," a killer cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and a sing-it-if-you-know it encore of "Today" that made me want to leave the grounds in a painted ice cream truck. This was the best Pumpkins' set I've ever seen - and I saw them in the '90s we were all reliving. This was the highlight of the weekend.
I made a point of making it early enough to Sunday to see my new summer obsession, Ghost. When do you get the chance to see a band perform in black cloaks and masks with a lead singer wearing skull facepaint and a pope getup in the middle of the afternoon? They sing about Satan (a lot), but their melodic sound pulls from '60s psychedelic and surf as much as the British New Wave of Heavy Metal. If you're looking for that Anton LaVey ritual feel in a live act (who isn't?), check them out. They're also the only ROTR band that also played Coachella, so there's that.
With a brief interruption by a blistering side-stage set by Lamb of God, Sunday was topped off by a triple-dip of tie-a-flannel-around-your-waist '90s action, starting with Bush's polished anthems - thank God Gavin Rossdale didn't lose his hair! That band knows how to play to a stadium, let me tell you.
I know a lot of people balk at an Alice in Chains lineup, but I for one am glad this band dusted itself off for another go. Jerry Cantrell is an amazing songwriter, and current singer William DuVall somehow manages to be a Layne Staley-soundalike and carve his own territory.
And how appropriate that Soundgarden wrapped up the festival with their first Columbus show in two decades, a career-spanning set that removed all the bad Audioslave taste from my mouth and reminded me that Chris Cornell was a born rock frontman and guitarist Kim Thayil simply shreds.
While the better-than-most-years lineup - and access to the field, a vast improvement over the tinny sound in the stands - made my musical experience a surprisingly uplifting one, it was the people-watching that changed my tune on Rock on the Range.
Rangers, as they're called, aren't much for subtlety, but there's also a refreshing lack of pretention. Nobody worries about the faux pax of wearing a band's shirt to their concert. And whether it's a band logo or a profane saying - or something from the popular I (heart) Vagina clothing line available in the vendor row - these are people who wear their feelings on their sleeve. Or at least their T-shirt.
My weekend was dotted with strange encounters. I let a girl named Samantha from Virginia use my phone to text her friend after she lost hers crowd surfing during, of all bands, Cheap Trick. An hour later and deep into Korn's set, I got a response from her friend: "Meet me where we got food. I am sick." Hope that all worked out, kids.
On Friday, we met a couple of teenage dudes with heavy Southern drawls who told us they got up at 4 a.m. to make the drive from Alabama. Their only regret seems to be that they missed the first half-hour of the show. They were in it for the long haul that weekend.
On the international front, we met a clean-cut and smiling mid-30-ish Canadian who emerged grinning from his first-ever crowd-surfing experience during Clutch. Visiting from Toron-o (natives never say the last "t," he informed us), he welcomed his weekend home with open arms. "I love Columbus! Go Blue Jackets!" That really made my day, eh? There was also an Irishman named Bruce who tipped me in on where to get Smithwick's on the premises.
So with Rock on the Range 2013, I'm learning to finally stop looking down my nose. Yeah, I could hope for improved lineups in the future, and it would be nice if there were more ties to Columbus - although spotting a couple familiar favorites in a vendor booth for What the Rock?! and an appearance by Columbus food cart Yellow Boy's Polish Boys made me feel more at home.
But I learned the lesson in how to have fun, even when the music wasn't my cup of tea (I'm looking at you, Three Days Grace).
Just repeat this mantra: "I ain't here to judge. I'm here to rock."