Festival review: Sonic Temple at Mapfre Stadium

Brad Keefe

Rock on the Range is dead! Long live Sonic Temple! (Or at least let’s have more of this.)

The casual observer would be hard-pressed to see a substantial difference between the inaugural Sonic Temple festival, held this past weekend at Mapfre Stadium, and Rock on the Range, which ended its 12-year run there in 2018.

It makes sense. Sonic Temple comes from one of the promoters of Rock on the Range, Danny Wimmer. Quite a few of the 2019 acts are ROTR alumni. This festival assuredly draws from a similar demographic.

And, as happened for the last six years of ROTR’s existence, Sonic Temple 2019 sold out (albeit with a push of discounted tickets as the fest date approached).

So, yes, the likes of Disturbed and Papa Roach are still playing to the same masses who have The Blitz locked on their radio dials. But there are signs of evolution in Sonic Temple, and it’s a direction I’d like to see more of, as a veteran who covered ROTR for years.

First was the auspicious declaration that this was an “art + music” festival. The grounds were dotted with several large-scale murals (although they were mostly finished, and it would have been more engaging to see the work in progress, a la Franklinton’s Urban Scrawl). It was a nice addition, but hardly immersive.

Aesthetically, Sonic Temple felt like it was pulling inspiration from the ’90s touring days of Lollapalooza, and that’s something I would get behind, particularly if the music lineup followed suit in diversifying.

I present for evidence the Friday lineup at the supporting “Wave Stage,” which included the blues-infused Canadian two-piece Cleopatrick and the magnificently abrasive hip-hop stylings of L.A.’s H099O9 (pronounced “horror”).

I spotted Nadya Tolokno enjoying the H0990R set from the side stage before her set with anarchist feminist collective Pussy Riot. The moment I heard a pulsing electro beat timed with visual messages that included “CUT YOUR BALLS OFF” during the Pussy Riot set, I knew we weren’t in Kansas (or Rock on the Range) anymore.

The in-your-face politicism continued with a surprisingly electrifying solo set from Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who began his performance with a surprise popup in the middle of the crowd before moving the stage to dispense riffs in front of onscreen missives like, “Nazi lives don’t matter.”

Morello was a nostalgia act that also makes you wonder when our current political climate will bring back protest rock. He was joined onstage by System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian for a cover of Audioslave’s “Like a Stone,” a clear tribute to the late Chris Cornell, who died days before he was slated to perform with Soundgarden at Rock on the Range in 2017.

Tankian and System of a Down were Friday’s headliner in a set that took a while to get a groove due to technical issues that required a mid-set sound system reboot. But the energy of thousands of people singing along to songs in which lyrics pass off as blunt statements about U.S. drug policy (“Prison Song”) again felt like a different world.

Saturday’s lineup fell more in the ROTR wheelhouse, particularly when Papa Roach was announced to replace the Prodigy following the March death of Keith Flint. (Prodigy tunes were in heavy rotation on the PA between sets all weekend, and Papa Roach covered “Firestarter” in tribute.)

One clear standout was Fever 333, which gave the kind of leave-the-stage-in-ruins performance that will stick with you. Singer Jason Aalon Butler tested the limits of his mic cable to take the band’s rock-rap hybrid into the stands, among other high-energy hijinks. This is one they’ll be talking about for a while.

Sunday carried on another ROTR tradition: weather interruptions. The aforementioned Wave Stage was closed due to high winds to start the day. It wouldn’t reopen. Then the field area at Mapfre had to be closed, leaving just one stage with music. Then the grounds had to be evacuated, but fortunately not before an amazing set by the Hives (also not traditional ROTR fare).

The festival grounds wouldn’t reopen until 7:30 p.m., leaving a swath of cancellations and only time for two final performances from Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Sunday headliner Foo Fighters.

At this time, I was trying to sleuth out rumors of a surprise show that turned out to be both true and too good to be true: Refused and the Distillers (two of the five bands I recommended in my Alive Sonic Temple preview) popped up at Ace of Cups in a quickly arranged show with all proceeds going to the pro-choice Women Have Options Ohio.

I made the toughest call of the weekend and cut out after one Foo Fighters song in what was my first time seeing the band since a 1995 appearance at Newport Music Hall. It was the right call.

Seeing Refused and the Distillers at one of the best small venues in Columbus wasn’t just a highlight of my weekend; it was a highlight of my life.

And it wouldn’t have happened if Sonic Temple didn’t come to town. The festival says it’ll be back next year. I’m hopeful it will continue to evolve.