Fans gathered from around the USA and even the far reaches of the globe to attend the second annual Chicago Open Air festival. Although Rock On The Range, Louder than Life, Aftershock and others wear the crown for the greatest commercial rock and metal festivals in America, COA is poised to challenge both of those fests. Over 70,000 fans from everywhere came out to the fest in one of America’s greatest cities to see 40 bands on two stages. From what Ghost Cult saw, heard, tasted, and imbibed this weekend, this is a legit possibility.
Having never been to Chicago for a length of time, I was excited for the journey as much as the show. After landing at ORD and meeting up with Ghost Cult Photographer Isabel Uzcategui of Originate Designs Photography and shrugged off our travel brains, got acclimated to our surroundings, and decompressed. We also had some amazing deep dish pizza from Giordano’s, where the slice was as great as the people. Nearly everyone was nice to us, which seems crazy for a big city. This was an omen of a great weekend.
Friday’s lineup was killer, and took a little while in the early part of the day to get the full scope of the day. We went right to work interviewing some bands, photographing some bands and basically taking in all the glory of the soccer style stadium, the Blackcraft Stage in the parking lot, all the vendors, the amazing VIP area, all the craft beer trucks and the press tent where we camped out at times.
Since day 1 was kind of a take no prisoners kind of “get it, grab it, and go” kind of day for us we learned the venue on the fly, running from one stage to another. It was a beautiful day, with some cloud cover, and not too hot, considering the Midwest’s reputation for the contrary. We came into the venue to the strains of Failure Anthem playing to a surprisingly heavy crowd for before noon on a weekday. They were awesome.
Some of the best bands of the early day were Code Orange, with their savage take on post-hardcore, the good bros in Crobot, Falling in Reverse, and some slick deathcore from Whitechapel and Suicide Silence who packed in the fans for their set. This was the point in the day when the crowd really filled up the venue and you got an idea of the scope of this show and how cool it was going to be later on.
My personal highlight of the day was seeing heroes like Anthrax, Megadeth and Meshuggah respectively on the different stages. Anthrax always plays to the big crowds well, specifically frontman Joey Belladonna. Still rooting for a new and different setlist from them; it’s time fellas. Megadeth was efficient and lock tight. Great to see our perennially favorite drummer, Dirk Verbeuren with `Deth. He was amazing and really brings back more of that Gar Samuelson flair to the band, they haven’t had. The newer material from Dystopia went over really well. Meshuggah just owned closing the Blackcraft stage. Then The Dillinger Escape Plan just mind fucked fans with their set, some who were in all their glory and other having no clue what the shit was happening. They were brilliant and will be missed.
Closing out night one was Rob Zombie and KISS who both stuck to the greatest hits for the most part. Zombie was excellent live, and he always is. As for KISS, they were fine and all that. Having seen them many years ago it was cool to see them in a crowd of a lot of new fans. At the same time, a noticeably less heavy sound to Kiss made them seem just weaker by comparison. Still, it was a nice way to close day one.
With a late night getting back to the hotel (the roads in and out of the venue is limited, the only drawback of our time) Saturday was the real endurance test and it as hotter, with less cloud cover. So I hydrated a ton, didn’t drink (although tons of others did) and slathered on the sunblock SBF 100,050 or something. Still, it was a really great day at the fest with many of my favorite times. For the fans, I can’t say enough about the VIP section. Easily the best I had ever seen at one of these festivals in America. Sweet amenities, food, beer and cool merch options not found anywhere else, and a crowd that was much more at ease and cool from what I could tell. The little bit of extra pampering definitely made for a cooler time, and not just the cold jet air machines and everyone raising their drinking horns. Just amazing and worth the extra money for sure.
Saturday had something for everyone musically. After catching a little of Black Map and Cane Hill, we got a dose of amazingness from Pig Destroyer. The entire set was over in like 20 minutes. No one was ready for it. Most of the crowd was in shocked silence, just standing there, with a few rabid folks going off and slamming hard. This was amazing! There was also a guy in a Pig suit, why I don’t know, considering the oppressively hot day.
Looking back on it, Metal Church was amazing. They fought through some technical difficulties early to put on a killer set. It seemed like there were only some fans who knew them, which bummed me out. Perhaps they’d have been paired better with Anthrax and Megadeth. Props also go out to rising stars Avatar and vets like Mushroomhead and Steel Panther who seemed to have some of their fan-base only there to see them and no one else.
Shit got real when Body Count was about to take the Blackcraft Stage. The crowd was restless and pumped, and I was guessing a lot of folks had never seen the rap-metal legends. They didn’t disappoint, opening with a full version of Slayer’s “Raining Blood” and of course, never let up the rest of the set.
Seether, by contrast, was a lot more chill, but very strong between rockers and ballads. I rather liked their recent album Poison The Parish and they played a bit from there. I hung out on the side stage for all of Clutch, who mix equal parts heavy rock with fun. Neil Fallon is unstoppable live as a frontman. Back on the Main Stage, Godsmack put on their typical show, with fire, and radio rock songs, you are surprised you know. The cover of darkness helped the light and pyro element of their show a lot. Closing out the night with Korn, the crowd was as big for them as it had been at any other time so far. Fans sang every word with Jonathan Davis, while the band bashed through 90 minutes of nu-metal and rock anthems. Their staging was amazing and they have graduated to a super laser light show too. Good times.
We were feeling the toll of the weekend early on Sunday but pushed ourselves to get to the venue early and have a great time. Just like all fans, a music festival is like summer camp with all of your friends from across the world. I saw old pals, fellow journos, and legends from my entire life as a fan. I was super happy and proud of everyone for being so cool in this community.
Sunday was the big day where nearly every band was on their A game. Gotta give props to Boston’s Aversed for waking up the early crowd by just destroying with their melodic death metal in the style of At The Gates and early In Flames. They are a band to watch in the future without a doubt. DED was first on the main stage and they were fun, with their nu-era nu-metal. Other impressive early day bands were Whores. and Demon Hunter, who each put on killer sets. Norma Jean had dropped off and no one knew this until the day of which kind of annoyed me and pissed off some fans. Then again on the last day of a 3-day fest, one less band was OK too.
Being the last day, I talked to a lot of folks and asked what they liked about the fest the most. Most people said variety – in bands, in experiences, and just in general. Everyone was represented. Everyone felt welcome. There were few fights or BS that I saw and just a fun environment which saw little kids and grandma’s alike rocking out.
After sets by Hellyeah, Devildriver and Kyng seemed to viably tire out moshers, it was time for the murderer’s row of lineups. Amon Amarth on the main stage had flames, a Viking longship and Odin on their side. Truly amazing to see the evolution of the band and the respect they command now. Lamb Of God claims they are not hanging it up for good, but it sure felt like a going away party. The band was smiling a lot and enjoying themselves as they ripped through their lengthy catalog of songs.
I don’t even have the words to properly write about Behemoth. They were mind-blowingly great. Playing selections mostly off of The Satanist (Metal Blade) and a few other tracks, the entire audience seemed trapped in their satanic spell. I was stuck in the pit for some of this and it was insane!
Stone Sour, with a brand new album out, Hydrograd (Roadrunner) played to a packed stadium. It was definitely the biggest singalong moments of the weekend, since this is the band, exactly in the demographic sweet spot for the fest. Corey Taylor was just amazing live and ran all over the place, sang pitch-perfect, and rocked some guitar here and there.
Slayer closed the Blackcraft stage, but don’t worry, they were not regulated to also-ran status. They brought down hell with their full set of pyro and visuals. They played the classics, and also the more recent material from Repentless (Nuclear Blast) seemed to go over well. I met a lot of new Slayer converts on this day as well as first-time seeing-them types. No one was let down, and everyone was hungry for more.
Ozzy was last and never least. He may be a little slower and the keys tuned down a little bit lower than they were in the 80s, but for all intents and purposes, he is still great. His personal control of the audience never waned, even when the occasional lyric was lost on the crowd. Zakk Wylde was majestic in every way and was playing lights out. Maybe being with Ozzy has actually re-energized Zakk as much as it seemed to help Ozzy. The entire band was great and Ozzy was a joy to watch. I am looking forward to more solo tours and albums from the man. What a great end to a great weekend.
Chicago Open Air, we will return!
WORDS BY KEITH CHACHKES
PHOTOS BY ISABEL UZCATEGUI/ORIGINATE DESIGNS PHOTOGRAPHY