FESTIVAL REVIEW: Exit 111 Festival 2019 – Manchester, Tennessee

Exit 111 Festival, aptly named for the highway exit in Manchester TN, made its début October 11-13, 2019. Arriving in powers of three, it was three days of riffs, rock, and rowdiness. One part Metal, one part Rock, one Southern rock, and a whole lot of nostalgia, the event hosted three stages: the Rise Above Stage (honored suicide awareness and featured many of the Classic rock/Southern rock acts), Heaven Stage (the main stage and home to the headliners), and Hell Stage (spotlighted mainly heavy artists).

The usual site of famed Bonnaroo Festival (‘The Farm’) welcomed thousands of headbangers from all corners of the country with a ‘Tennessee fall:’ a heatwave that quickly turned into precipitation and frigid weather throughout the following days. But, heat, rain, and plummeting temperatures did not stop some of Rock ‘n Roll’s biggest names and biggest fans. Check out some of the highlights from the weekend and see the ‘Pro’s and Con’s list’ below, as there is always room for improvement for a first-time festival.

Day one saw a later start than the subsequent days, so the bands wasted no time and hit the ground running with unapologetically energetic sets. Jump-starting the weekend was throaty and thunderous Louisiana quartet, Watermox, on the Rise Above Stage. Covering MC5’s essential hit ‘Kick Out the Jams,’ and paying homage to Chris Cornell amongst their originals, Watermox embodied both the rock and tribute aspects of their stage. One stage over, Nashville’s The Cadillac Three, played a swaggering set, showcasing their revved-up country rock. The power trio was shocked that a ‘country-western band like us’ were asked to play but realized they were in good company when the legendary Lynyrd Skynyd were announced as Friday’s headliner. Continuing the Southern-infused vibe, Kentucky-born Black Stone Cherry invigorated with an energetic and fun selection from their 17-year career, as well as their October release, Death Letter Blues, on the Hell Stage. As nighttime quickly approached, thrash-metal veterans Anthrax (who stepped in for Megadeth back in June) took the stage and fired up the crowd with an unrelenting line-up of classic favorites. Fellow thrash band and one of metal history’s most influential, Slayer, blasted through their ‘final’ Tennessee show with ferocity and pyrotechnics, leaving fans chanting ‘Slayer!!!,’ wherever they went for the rest of the weekend. Last but not least, quintessential Southern rock legends, Lynyrd Skynyrd wrapped up the evening with fourteen crowd-pleasing songs selected from their 60-album discography, including the encore of all encores, ‘Free Bird.’ A bitter-sweet closer, Exit 111 was part of Skynyrd’s final shows, offering fans one last memorable night of classic American Rock ‘n Roll.

Day two opened up some pits with a more international line up and a mish-mash of metal genres. One of the more unique acts, New Zealand-born three-piece, Alien Weaponry, heated up Saturday with a combination of Te Reo Māori (the native language of New Zealand) with thrash metal. Though youthful, the brother-founded band performed with seasoned stage presence, addressing politics, conflict, and grief. Swedish, heavy-psych quartet, Graveyard, impressed with soaring vocals and guitar solos, harkening back to classic psychedelia, blues, and rock. Back on the main stage, Hip Hop-infused, power rock trio, FEVER333 brought the festival energy up to a new standard. With powerful messages of individualism, activism, and anti-patriarchy, the Los Angeles band kept fans at full attention and continued to push the envelope as many of their revolutionary rock predecessors have.

Dallas, TX’s Power Trip ignited and incited crowds on the Hell Stage with a mix of hardcore and raging breakdowns, some unreleased material, and selections from their latest release, Nightmare Logic. Texas fans waved the state flag and dove into the crowd-surfing masses, mirroring vocalist Riley Gale’s leaps and kicks. The intensity rose as Knoxville, TN-born deathcore quintet, Whitechapel, one of the pummeled audiences with growls and blast beats, dominating the Hell Stage. The band are touring their new record, The Valley, an emotionally driven release that digs into vocalist Phil Bozeman’s personal life, and have joined as one of the headliners on Atreyu’s 20th Anniversary Tour. On opposing ends of the park, in stark contrast, Blackberry Smoke revisited the Southern side of the festival with seamless Americana/country/rock jams. Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductees Cheap Trick followed swiftly, mesmerizing with sequined pants, a 5-neck guitar, and timeless favorites like ‘Surrender,’ ‘Dream Police,’ and ‘I Want You to Want Me.’ Halloween is quickly approaching, but for Sweden’s Ghost, it’s Halloween every day. A mix of spooky themes and anti-Church characters, Ghost was crucial in giving the weekend a festive vibe. As nighttime fully enshrouded the park, Proggy metal masters, out of Atlanta, Mastodon, performed with machine-like precision. The only things more mesmerizing than their complicated hooks were their ornate stage design and awe-inspiring light show. Closing out a VERY late evening, glam metal icons Def Leppard brought fans on a trip down memory lane, traveling through decades of their beloved anthems, from ‘Rocket,’ ‘Armageddon It,’ ‘Hysteria,’ and ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me.’ Everyone’s inner (and outer) stripper was satisfied.

 

The final day of Exit 111 peaked with an unbelievable string of artists. The early start did not deter Blues-rock group Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown from performing a full-throttle set, including soulful and sharp favorites from their latest release, Truth and Lies. Between Tyler Bryant’s blistering guitar solos and the band’s engaging presence, the Nashville-based band showed concert-goers that rock ‘n roll is alive and well. The beauty of Exit 111 was the contrast of artists at any given time. Metalcore outfit Of Mice and Men unleashed ear-splitting yet dynamic chart-toppers from their six-studio album career, including tracks from the 2019 release, EARTHANDSKY. LA-based Dirty Honey, one of the fastest rising modern rock bands around, charmed festival-goers with Zeppelin-esque riffs and vocals. Claiming a spot on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs, they are the first unsigned band to ever top the chart. Upbeat and high-octane, Alter Bridge (comprised of Myles Kennedy and former Creed members), were met by die-hard fans who sang along with Kennedy’s impassioned lyrics and swayed hypnotically to the band’s soaring instrumentation.

A string of bucket-list bands followed suit, starting with belligerent yet melodic Lamb of God. Rampaging frontman Randy Blythe burst onto the stage, taking leaps and bounds to contagious and gut-punching breakdowns from Ashes of the Wake to VII: Sturm Und Drang. The Richmond-based band, who seamlessly melds 90s metal with even heavier aspects of modern metal, consistently brings fans to headbanging euphoria. Rushing back to the main stage, the highly anticipated set from nu-metal giants, Deftones, began at nightfall. Decked out in all white, almost camouflaging into the bright backdrop, beloved frontman Chino Moreno danced across the stage, jumping off a platform as the band erupted into favorites, namely ‘Rocket Skates,’ ‘Around the Fur,’ ‘Knife Party,’ ‘Change (In the House of Flies),’ and ‘My Own Summer (Shove It).’ Eventually, Chino found his way into the photo pit, high-flying his way through the swell of fans and calling on front-rowers to get on the mic. On the adjacent stages, industrial pioneers Ministry and progressive/concept-album kings, Coheed and Cambria, were pegged against each other, making a difficult decision to split the hour between the two bands. Gritty and chaotic versus anthemic and emotional, the two acts provided the sonic palette and power festival-goers were hoping for.

The three days finally culminated as Guns ‘n Roses prepared to rock the Heaven Stage. The suspense leading up to Guns ‘n Roses’ performance was amplified by an extended animated introduction looping across the stage’s big screens for what seemed like Chinese Democracy-forever. In the end, it was worth the wait, as GnR played a solid 3 hours, keeping dedicated fans warm with a fiery set and fireworks in the 40-degree weather. The ‘Not in This Lifetime’ show delved deep into the band’s history. Complete with Slash’s epic guitar solos, rock anthems like ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ ‘Mr. Brownstone,’ ‘Rocket Queen,’ ‘Sweet Child of Mine,’ and Civil War,’ some deeper cuts, ‘Estranged’ and ‘Double Talkin Jive’ for Use Your Illusion fans, nods to the bandmembers’ side-projects with Velvet Revolver’s sultry ‘Slither,’ and arena-style covers of ‘Live and Let Die’ (Wings), ‘Attitude’ (Misfits), and ‘Black Hole Sun’ (Soundgarden), GnR closed Exit 111 with a bang.

Overall, the inaugural Exit 111 weekend was extremely memorable, showcased a line-up that a true rock lover could only dream of, and got off to a successful start with minimal kinks. It might be a tough string of bands to beat, but one can only wait and see what is in store for the coming years!

EXIT 111 PRO’S:

Excellent line-up! It set the bar high for forthcoming years.

Clean and environmentally friendly! Trash and recycling receptacles were ever-present and utilized by concert-goers. There were also numerous vegetarian and vegan options!

Affordable ticket prices. The line up was worth every penny.

EXIT 111 CONS:

Press area was a bit confusing for artists. Several musicians roamed in not knowing who they were meeting.

Extremely late set times. Friday and Saturday nights went well past midnight, and those who were traveling long distances were often unable to stay for the full sets.

Needed to have more staggered set times. On several occasions, equally appealing bands were pinned against each other at the same time.

WORDS BY MEIJIN BRUTTOMESSO

PHOTOS BY ISABEL UZCATEGUI