Hard rock ruled the heartland this weekend as Mötley Crüe, Slipknot and Alice in Chains headlined Rock on the Range. For its third year, the Columbus festival drew 38 bands and sold a two-day total of 56,000 tickets, according to L.A.-based promoter Del Williams. A mixed crowd — college kids in baseball caps to bikers — partied under dreary skies on Saturday, and were energized and ready to toss the devil horns on sunny Sunday.
(Go behind the scenes at Rock on the Range with exclusive interviews — watch backstage chats with Mötley Crüe, Korn, Slipknot, Alice in Chains and Duff McKagan by clicking the video above.)
On day one, before he joined Alice in Chains for a haunting rendition of "Rooster," Velvet Revolver's Duff McKagan played a side stage, fronting his band Loaded. "The thing about Rock on the Range, I didn't understand it until Velvet Revolver played here a couple years ago," explained Duff backstage between appearances. "It's in Columbus, a little college town — how big a festival can you have here? But people come here from Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati, Indiana, West Virginia, from Kentucky, Tennessee. They all converge, and this is the big thing of the summer."
Saturday afternoon, Korn warmed up the main stage with a set of favorites and singles, playing as a sextet (with an additional touring guitarist and a programmer). In a black-and-white kilt, frontman Jonathan Davis led the band like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, beatboxing and emoting through the breakthrough hit "Freak on a Leash," the nü-metal disco of "Got the Life," the call-and-response "Y'all Want a Single" and more.
Alice in Chains returned in full force with new co-vocalist William DuVall (formerly of Comes With the Fall), opening the set with the murky anguish of "Rain When I Die." Singer-guitarist Jerry Cantrell led the reconstituted Seattle quartet, who bulldozed through choice cuts like "Dam That River," "Again" and "Man in the Box." By the mesmerizing set-closer "Would?" the crowd was roaring approval. DuVall isn't a clone of deceased singer Layne Staley, and though he didn't hit the notes in quite the same way, he hit them all the right way.
The set was one of just two American summer shows before the band unveils a new album. Slated for September release, the as-yet-untitled disc has a strong buzz. After his set, McKagan called it "the best rock record he's heard in the last 15 years." Cantrell — who had nearly twice as many writing credits as the late, great Staley on previous albums — said the record represents the entire AIC spectrum from electric dynamics to unplugged angst. Though the group's set didn't feature any new material, DuVall hinted at a subtle new lyrical direction.
"I think there's always been a little bit of death trip element [and a] survivor element," said DuVall. "I think maybe the percentage has been a bit inverted [on the new album]. Where some of the records might have been more Scarface, this one is more Shawshank Redemption."
Slipknot sent the crowd home with bruises. Fronting the nine-man metal squad, Corey "#8" Taylor took the stage in a dead-skin mask and black blazer, like a charismatic corpse with an office job. Guitarists Mick "#7" Thomson and Jim "#4" Root shredded though maggot anthems like "Surfacing, " "Wait and Bleed," and "People=Shit," and brought dark riffage with the new "Dead Memories" from All Hope Is Gone.
Sunday afternoon, the gray clouds were gone. Buckcherry singer Josh Todd took the main stage, torso covered in tattoos, bouncing on his toes and jabbing like and ex-con who's slugged his way to a title fight. Todd rasped his way through songs about cocaine, redemption, volatile relationships and more cocaine. Fists pumping, the crowd shouted along to every word of the career-reviving "Crazy Bitch."
At night, it was Crüe Time. When the legends launched their 2004 comeback tour, conventional wisdom said arena rock was dead; as it's turned out, it was just resting. Teenagers and gray-haired bikers were ready to shout at the devil again. "I think the main reason why Mötley Crüe works is the crowd," said singer Vince Neil backstage before the set. "The crowd is multiple generations of fans."
With Crüe's greatest-hits set, the Fourth of July arrived in May (the band hits the road in July for their Crü Fest 2, on which they will play Dr. Feelgood in its entirety). Neil opened the show whirling his microphone stand like he winding up the band. Tight as ever, the group skipped around its 27-years-and-counting catalog, playing under a shower of fireworks, clouds of smoke, bursts of fire. Representing Crüe's 1981 debut, "Live Wire" rocked harder than ever. Last year's single "Saints of Los Angeles" sounds way better live than on the radio. Following strip-club anthem "Girls Girls Girls" and bass showcase "Dr. Feelgood," breakthrough ballad "Home Sweet Home" closed the night.
But before the Crüe said farewell, drummer Tommy Lee joined Mick Mars' bluesy guitar solo as it took a quick stomp through Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." Midway through the set, the half-naked drummer left the drum kit, gave the crowd a bottle of Jagermeister as a victory toast, and christened Columbus Crew stadium "Motley Crue Fuckin' Stadium." Soccer or rock, the building's two-story banner was still applicable: "Champions play here."