One of Rock on the Range’s (ROTR) logos that was used a few years back was a variation on the iconic war photo Raising a Flag on Iwo Jima taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945. Only instead of a flag, the silhouetted figures are raising a guitar. With deference to the seriousness of World War II, the war analogy is apt. Musicians and fans of guitar-driven rock are at war for the apparent survival of the music they love, with media outlets and record sales continuously on the wane. Rock on the Range’s existence seems to be nothing if not to thumb its nose at the prevailing trends, not to mention at any number of society’s rules in general. This is, after all, rock and roll.
As part of the World’s Loudest Month series of festivals that happen nationwide in April and May, ROTR was conceived partially as a means to give rock musicians and fans a new outlet. The festival, which is in its ninth year, has grown continuously from year to year. This is the second year in a row that the concert sold out, this time around a full month in advance. Last year, an estimated 120,000 rock fans were in attendance. It’s notable that the ranks of concertgoers to a hard-rock-oriented festival like Rock on the Range continue to swell even as record sales and broadcast support continue to wane.
But none of that really matters to the Rangers, as attendees are affectinately known. If anything, it makes them dig in their heels and grasp ever more firmly onto the kind of music they are into. It’s the kind of place where shirts are optional and towering mohawks are encouraged. People show up in full body superhero costumes (“Hello, Spiderman.” “How are you Captain America?”), and t-shirts with slogans that would be incredibly offensive in any other context are so ubiquitous that they hardly garner any second looks. Beers and spirits are almost entirely domestics, too, thank you very much.
Even though rock, and popular music in general, is typically seen as a young person’s game, ROTR is the kind of place where signs of aging can be seen as cool. Two aging frontmen - Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen - emerged to start their sets using a cane, only to cast them aside and demonstrate that they’re still able to rock.
Popular music and taste change so much as time goes on, just a few decades ago it would have seemed inconceivable that acts from twenty to forty years earlier could draw a youthful crowd. But at ROTR, acts representing no less than five decades were present on stage - the 1970s (Judas Priest), 1980s (Saxon, Anthrax), 1990s (Marilyn Manson, Slipknot), 2000s (Linkin Park) and 2010s (We Are Harlot, the Pretty Reckless).
Attendees were of all ages too, ranging from children in attendance with their parents (and in some cases grandparents) through teens, twenties, middle agers, and on and on. Musician ages ranged anywhere from the nearing-retirement members of Judas Priest to groups with members still in their teens such as Unlocking the Truth and BABYMETAL.
While those bands are for the most part male-only, it wasn’t just the boys that dominated the stage. In This Moment vocalist Maria Brink stole the show on day two through the band’s elaborate set designs, costume changes, eerie side dancers, and generalized sexiness. It was just a few years ago that Brink was catching a lot of heat from haters just for being a frontwoman in a metal band. In the spirit of thumbing your nose at convention, the band truly came into their own once they learned to embrace and throw the charges back at their accusers with tunes like “Sex Metal Barbie,” “Blood,” and “Whore.” Some seriously strong sets were turned in by several other female-led acts like Halestorm, the Pretty Reckless, and September Mourning.
Elaborate stage sets and multimedia presentations worked well for bands like Slipknot and Ministry, but there was no shortage of bands who demonstrated that nothing more than a butt kicking live act was necessary. Godsmack on Day 2 primed the audience for headliners Judas Priest by packing a whollop through musicianship and attitude. And come to think of it, who even needs electric guitars to be metal? Apocalyptica, a band of three classically trained cellists along with a drummer and vocalist, ripped through an insane set of very intense, very heavy music that was instantly recognizable as being metallic.
But it wasn’t just the tried-and-true metal heroes like Priest and fellow New Wave of British Heavy Metallers Saxon that made this year’s Rock on the Range what it was. Trad-rockers Rival Sons may not have been around in the seventies but their awesome grasp of blues-based, soulful hard rock embodied the kind of early rock music that every single other band was influenced by. Newer-fangled heavy bands like Of Mice and Men and the Devil Wears Prada brought the noise with some pummeling and crushingly loud sets. And there were also the exceptions to the rule - Japan’s BABYMETAL, who fused heavy metal with Japanese pop and were fronted by a trio of school-age girls performing choreographed dance moves was just as memorable as Slipknot’s carnival from hell madness.
Surprisingly, even the far-out uniqueness of BABYMETAL was met with cheers from concertgoers, and within an hour of their set there were plenty of people wearing their t-shirts. For a festival that’s so focused on a particular style of music, and whose fans have a reputation for being closed-minded, it’s a testament to those fans that they’re willing to embrace something so unorthodox. But then again, maybe it’s just in their nature to want to rebel against the orthodox.