Festival review: Rock on the Range returns to roots

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From the May 22, 2014 edition

The last thing I heard after three days at Crew Stadium was a tired, slightly slurry young woman remark, with great pride, “I was drunk twice today.” Yep, that about sums up the party/endurance test that was Rock on the Range 2014.

There’s nothing hip about Rock on the Range. It’s the anti-Coachella. The vein of hard modern rock it mines is pretty passé, but guess what? This crowd really doesn’t care. They came here to drink beer and rock, and there was plenty of both to be had, as the festival sold out all three days for the second year in a row.

If last year’s collection of ’90s alternative heavyweights (Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Bush) brought in a more mainstream crowd, this year’s return to some ROTR staples left me feeling a little alienated from this crowd (perhaps because I didn’t get the opportunity to get “drunk twice”). Anyway, I still feel like it was easy to carve out a worthwhile weekend of music. Here are my thoughts on some key performances.

Guns N’ Roses

OK, so Axl Rose is the only original member, and, yeah, he’s over 50, but this was still a huge “get” for this bill. This was a big deal. And, based on the wildly mixed reactions I heard, people got what they expected, whether bad or good.

If you got past the idea of this “Hired Guns N’ Rose” lineup, you had to admit that a) Axl Rose sounded amazingly good and b) this band has some really, really great songs. The 2 1/2-hour set was loaded with gems (“Estranged” and a cover of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” among highlights), though the marathon — complete with guitar solos from the three-headed monster of guitarists who were not Slash — went on too long for much of the Friday night crowd.

My Friday night assessment: There were more people there for Staind than GNR. Wrap your head around that.

Slayer

Jello Biafra once described thrash metal as “bands like Slayer … and 10,000 bands that sound exactly like Slayer.” It’s a fair point as far as the homogeny, but there’s also a reason for the imitation. There’s an intensity in a live Slayer show that can’t be matched by bands literally half their age.

Other highlights

The best performance of Friday award goes to the bluesy guitar-shredding of formerly one-man-band Reignwolf (he has a drummer and another guitarist with him now). Current tourmates Mastodon, Gojira and Kvelertak all played stellar Sunday sets, but the pummeling Gojira set was my favorite of the entire weekend. The Taylor Momsen-fronted Pretty Reckless seemed surprisingly at ease playing to a second-stage crowd that dwarfed many of the main stage sets. And a lively but short Living Colour set featuring a killer cover of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.”

Not-so highlights

Not only did I not connect with the main-stage acts that drew the biggest crowds each night (Staind, Avenged Sevenfold, Five Finger Death Punch), but two of the three had to announce to fans to stop groping female crowdsurfers. And a few sets were plagued by some bad sound mixes, most tragically Suicidal Tendencies.

Photo by Brad Keefe