Fest weathers weather, pays moving tribute to Chris Cornell

The show, indeed, must go on.

Rock on the Range 2017 was already devastated by the stunning death of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell just two days before the band was slated to headline the first night of this year’s festival. And organizers had more challenges in store for this year’s kickoff.

Just a few hours into Friday’s schedule, threatening storms forced the shutdown of the fest and evacuation of Mapfre Stadium, much to the consternation of attendees, who took to social media to lament paying hundreds of dollars and driving for hours.

Sorry, guys, but when you’re in a metal stadium, you can’t just ride out the lightning, even if Metallica is on the bill.

Soaking rains, wind and lightning did indeed roll through. Attendees were advised to wait the storm out in their cars for safety — and the festival announced later that Rangers would be able to leave and return without paying twice for parking.

Around 7 p.m., the all-clear was given on the weather, and doors reopened. Already facing a Soundgarden-sized hole in the Friday lineup, organizers scrambled to reschedule as many acts as possible … and did a damn fine job of it, given the circumstances.

The fest squeezed in nine bands on three stages. Sets were shortened, and set times didn’t exactly line up as planned, but it was a solid cross-section of the day’s key acts, from bludgeoning French metallers Gojira to main-stagers Bush, both going onstage hours after their slated afternoon slots.

Though ROTR sold-out again this year, the returning crowd didn’t come close to filling out the stadium. The vibe felt a bit confused, Rangers who had planned ragers facing the interrupted day with less vigor (and, likely, alcohol) than planned.

Soundgarden’s absence made Live the de facto headliner, and in 2017, Live is not a headliner-level act, even if reunited with lead singer Ed Kowalczyk for the first time in eight years. But even with a thinner main stage audience — I was able to find comfortable space in front of the soundboard that would have required an all-day plan in past years — the band's bank of ‘90s alternative hits was perfectly suited for stadium rock. And it did indeed rock.

The shortened evening was sprinkled with onstage tributes to Cornell. Bush singer Gavin Rossdale worked a bar of “Black Hole Sun” into a cover of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love.” Pierce the Veil singer Vic Fuentes gave an oddly chipper “This one goes out to Chris Cornell!” before a song. Live covered Audioslave’s “I Am the Highway.”

But it was the announced tribute to Cornell following Live’s set that provided the most unexpected emotion. Two days isn’t enough time for any festival to fill a headlining slot, and it was unclear exactly what this tribute would be. It was not, as some had probably hoped, an all-star jam on the music of Cornell, but it was oddly perfect in tone.

The large screens on either side of the Mapfre Stadium stage brought up a still image of Cornell with video of a burning candle. Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” played in its entirety over this image. The song choice, obvious as it is for a tribute, honestly had me choked up. I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve ever openly wept at Rock on the Range.

Montages of photos and video of Cornell played onscreen as the music he left behind came from the stage he should have been on that night. A vocal-isolated version of “Black Hole Sun” and Cornell covering John Lennon’s “Imagine” were among the selections. Two lights cast down on an empty microphone onstage in a simple tribute.

The only people to take the stage at all were Stone Sour members Corey Taylor and Christian Martucci, who came out for chilling acoustic covers, first of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” then Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.” More video and Cornell music somberly wrapped up the evening well past planned curfew.

The tribute was honest and unpretentious, fitting for both Cornell and a festival that really gets the audience. In an unbelievably difficult day, it’s unbelievable what they pulled off, and the first time I’ve left this festival with a lump in my throat.