Blue Ridge Rock Festival 2021 – Rocking Back To Live Music!

September 21, 2021, a month ago

By Joel Barrios

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Around a week has passed since lights dimmed on the last act of the night, but the name “Blue Ridge Rock Festival” will continue to live on in conversations around the globe for weeks to come. Tucked away in Virginia’s idyllic Pittsylvania County, the festival boasted an impressive lineup of more than 150 bands, beckoning talent from every genre imaginable. With artists set to play across five stages over four long days, concertgoers parched from the recent drought of live music flocked to the countryside, and chased the promise of a festival unlike any other. 

This truly was an everyman’s festival, the bill overflowing with acclaimed artists from abroad alongside well-respected domestic talent. Blue Ridge has, after all, touted their “Fan Driven” slogan from the very start. Tickets sold out less than four days after the full lineup was announced, giving promoters just a hint of how hungry fans were for September to finally arrive. But despite this early enthusiasm and impressive sales, the actual arrival of the festival brought with it joys and challenges in equal measure. 

Genres stretched wildly, featuring acts from rappers Tech N9ne and Jelly Roll, to mainstay rock acts like Breaking Benjamin and Seether. This breadth reached all the way through metal’s aggressive extremity with Anthrax and Testament, just to name a few. Whether driven to the shores of Blue Ridge for an all-time favorite headliner or the opportunity to sample from some of the world’s finest talent in the rock and metal scene, there was opportunity abound to catch the performance of a lifetime. Expansive festival grounds and five separate stages ensured attendees hit their ten-thousand daily steps (and then some), but it was also the perfect location to experience a wide swathe of music in the midst of unparalleled joy and passion for the art. And after almost 18 months without live music, many must have felt as though Blue Ridge were something of a homecoming. 

Of this festival’s strengths, live production was an absolute highlight. Many of the bands which graced the five stages brought with them productions tailored for festival crowds, such as Skillet’s set arranged with full pyrotechnics, or Anthrax’s 40th Anniversary celebration which just about brought the metaphorical roof down. Other acts drew on their reputations for entertainment, like Sabaton, and while they did not bring all the bells and whistles of their full stage setup, these born performers were as powerful as ever while soldiering through their set. Audience engagement and ceaseless energy elevated each track as vocalist Joakim Broden faced the sun and sang songs of war and victory. 

Also, on the contest for an indisputable stage presence was the wild and unchained nu metal outfit Tallah. While usual drummer and founding member, Max Portnoy sat out this round of live shows, front-man Justin Bonitz still turned heads with his own particular brand of charisma. If one can call frenzied howling and frenetic energy charisma, that is. The band was sizzling with intensity as they tore through tracks from their latest full-length release “Matriphagy,” and coupled their movement and posture with the pure aggression contained within their music. There was little doubt the audience was feeling the sharp bite of the genre’s rising stars. This level of aggression was also in full display by metalcore band I Prevail, who brought with them two vocalists and dazzling showmanship.  

Other off-the-wall acts include Fever 333, a trio who carried with them a unique chaos. Both guitarist Stephen Harrison and vocalist Jason Aalon Butler climbed the side columns of the stage until they reached its apex, with the mosh pit reacting in kind to the death-defying stunts. Gothic metalcore stars Motionless In White drew a phenomenal enthusiasm from the crowd, one of the most obvious attractions to rabid fans across the weekend: even in the brief lulls, the air was filled with cacophonous cheers illuminated by the flames coming off their pyro. 

Despite the undisputable highlights captured on the stage and in undying smiles, it’s impossible not to mention some of Blue Ridge’s shortcomings. Perhaps most notable of all is the early issues with the queue of cars awaiting parking, leaving miles of road lined with traffic and some attendees reporting wait times longer than four hours. Mishaps with security, including inconsistent standards and areas that were understaffed, made some concertgoers uneasy, and anger bubbled beneath the surface, with some people taking to Facebook and other forums to air their grievances. Overall, there seemed to be a consensus that the event was always supposed to be large, yet the excitement and crowd sizes swelled far beyond the expected capacity of the staff and planned facilities. 

To the credit of the promoters, the festival proceeded with increasing transparency in communication and staffing over the course of the long weekend. And of course, there are the variables that no amount of planning could offset: one of those being the lack of cell reception, and the tremendous amounts of dust the festival kicked up due to the massive attendance. Aside from such proper dust storm that hung over the crowd every day, the weather held pleasantly for the duration of the four-day celebration of music. 

Many other big-name bands took full advantage of the festival’s resources like Sevendust, a clear highlight of the many acts that played. Lou Brutus (photographer, musician, and radio personality) was responsible for introducing most of the bands during day two and three, and asserted that Sevendust was “[a]rguably the greatest live band you’ll ever see.” The quintet more than lived up to this claim, particularly with Lajon Witherspoon further cementing his claim as a world-class vocal powerhouse. Guitarists John Connolly and Clint Lowery tore up through the stage as they crossed back and forth, their nonstop motion matching the dynamic flow of the music throughout their set, while drummer Morgan Rose punished his cut like a madman on a mission to destroy it. 

Among the testosterone-rich performances, a few women stood out from the fray. Halestorm’s very own Lzzy Hale showed off her skills as a front-woman, responsible for both vocals and guitar in the hard rock band. While Skillet maintains their strength in a core duo, Korey Cooper’s chemistry with husband John and her passion for the art were absolutely infectious. And when it came to drawing attention, Fate Destroyed’s Franccesca De Struct kept all eyes on her, fresh off the excitement of their recently released self-titled EP. 

Headliner of the second night Rob Zombie certainly occupied one of the festival’s premiere placements with grace, demonstrating his showmanship with flawless fluidity. Each element of the presentation itself accented the music, commanding the immense crowd as they were driven further into a frenzy. The crush of people soaking up the last bits of music from the day was all but overwhelming, but it was Rob Zombie who kept himself front of mind as the undoubted centerpiece of the night.

As this particular flavor of music tends to go, there were stunts and oddities abound as the weekend proceeded. One contributor was Steve-O of Jackass, who brought shrieks and groans from the crowd during Ice Nine Kills, where he proceeded to cut his tongue with a knife and paint his face with his own blood. He also made appearances during Papa Roach and Killswitch Engage, showing off both fearlessness and brazenness with his acts, which some found dazzling and others gruesome. 

But it was between these stunts where Pop Evil truly had the opportunity to shine with some stunts of their own. Vocalist Leigh Kakaty gave the crowd an up-close experience of a lifetime when he launched into their award-winning single “Trenches.” He stepped out onto the crowd and walked on top of them as though he were the next messiah, each step sure as crowd surfers flew by on either side and shoulders below supported his weight. The confidence the band exuded as Kakaty made his unwavering journey made this act all the more magical. 

Also in good company were Swedish heavy metal band Avatar. Their introduction began with Brutus stating “in my experience, if it smells like a freakshow, and looks like a freakshow, it must be Avatar” - a nod to the band’s hit song “Smells Like A Freakshow.” And with the freakshow came the theatrics, from their signature black and red costumes to mastery over their sonic craft, making Avatar one of the festival’s many highlights, and certainly one of its most distinct. 

Headliners of the third night, Five Finger Death Punch was the only band that did not allow photographers during their set, unbeknownst as the reasons why. With their presentation falling on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 everyone was expecting some sort of celebration during their set, and such came when Ivan Moody took one US flag and gave it – as a token of gratitude and appreciation – to some of the Law Enforcement members working the Blue Ridge Rock Festival on behalf of all first responders; while the crowd chanted “USA”. He also said: “I didn’t start playing music to be divided, so I don’t care if you are left or right, we are here to celebrate”

Grammy winners Body Count started their set with a supercharged version of Slayer’s classic “Raining Blood,” and the audience erupted with crowd-surfers coming from left and right. Ice-T walked left and right engaging with the crowd while their mix of hardcore aggressiveness and thrash metal dominated the airwaves. In a similar fashion Suicidal Tendencies’ opening salvo was “You Can’t Bring Me Down” in an extended version and crown interaction that really turned the mosh pit into a battlefield. It was interesting to see Metallica’s Rob Trujillo’s son Ty rocking out the bass department – in the absence of Ra Diaz who’s touring with Korn – somehow stepping into the same shoes his dad wore for years. Thrash metal drummer architect Dave Lombardo did not appear with the band, but the drummer in place did justice to the groovy drumming patterns of tracks like “Institutionalized” and “Subliminal.”

Blue Ridge also had the pleasure of hosting the full lineup from The Metal Tour of the Year 2021, featuring Megadeth, Lamb of God, Trivium, and Hatebreed. Lamb of God was the talk of the town after their set, which came embellished with full pyrotechnics. Coupling the metallic thunder of their music with brilliant arcs of flame made for an unforgettable display of calculated fury, made all the more impressive by Randy Blythe’s magnetic aura. The mosh pit that they drew swelled to cataclysmic sizes, a phenomenon of crowd frenzy also observed during Hatebreed’s fervent set. Trivium was greeted with the same level of enthusiasm as they played their punishing gospel, and their set included the two singles from new album “In the Court of the Dragon.” As for Megadeth, their performance matched their reputation as metal royalty, with a fantastically balanced setlist and precise execution. Mustaine was talkative and greeted the crowd with warmth, adding intimacy to the otherwise punishing showcase of one of the best metal ever created. 

A special mention must be given to longtime rock juggernauts Shinedown: after days of joy and strife, it was this mainstay that had the honors of bringing Blue Ridge to a close. There was a gratifying nature about their stage presence, an eagerness to please the crowd and have them respond in turn. They surprised everyone with a duet with Jelly Roll to create a unique cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's smashing hit "Simple Man." Even after an exhaustive weekend of back-to-back shows, the crowd kept up their enthusiasm for this final ode to all things rock and responded with dedication and abandon to ever sliver of banter. And even in the shadows of dark, awash beneath blue and green lights, there were cries for the night to never end. 

Blue Ridge Rock Festival was ambitious, exciting, lively, and above all else, a boundless joy. As a member of the press covering the event, I’d be remiss if I don’t mention the efforts of Marcee Rondan and Andrea Faulk, who were on site coordinating as much as they could to make our lives – we were a group of around 40 between photographers and writers – as easier as possible, while navigating the organizational challenges as they presented themselves. They got our backs and they absolutely deserve this shoot out. 

Every rocky step along the way – and there were several of them – led to a stage with fantastic artists and enthusiastic fans, with a clear passion for sharing the art with thousands of other concertgoers. This was the first time the festival has been at this location and many showed wisdom, patience and persevered while kinks were worked out. The crowd was massive and angry, but ultimately almost everyone loosen up, had some fun, and celebrated that we were all there rocking out together. And with more great performances than one article could hope to have words for, Blue Ridge 2021 will remain in the memories of those who witnessed the magic of live music unfolding again before their eyes.

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