raptor jesus Goes To Rocklahoma
The car behind me was rear-ended. “Dude! It’s just an accident,” the security guard yelled behind me as he ushered our car into the parking lot. The front hood of the car that caused the accident looked like a compressed accordion. A police car was on scene within seconds. Washed in relief from what was just avoided, we stepped out of the car and were immediately greeted by Candlebox playing the song immortalized by Kenny Powers in season three of Eastbound & Down. The roar of a crowd emanated from the distance. An old friend became my guide as we approached the festival grounds through a side fence. As he pushed open the gate, I felt like Dorothy stepping into prismatic Oz. For the first time in years, a sea of people stretched out into the horizon.
Welcome to Rocklahoma. Located on a permanent festival site north of Pryor, Oklahoma, the main stage — the “Freedom Stage” — served as the grounds’ nucleus, its outer electron shell populated by camping chairs in a semicircular arc around a concrete slab filled with wooden benches for reserved seating. We trekked across the grassy general admission area as, I kid you not, the lyrics of “Don’t Start Now” could be heard from across the field. Austin Meade covering Dua Lipa from the secondary stage — the “Renegade Stage” — was an unexpected welcome to a festival with a strict heavy metal focus. We passed by a man dressed as Joaquin’s Joker before running into “The Mayor of Rocklahoma” (my friend’s cousin), who was wearing a Mötley Crüe T-shirt and a worn cowboy hat. We discussed the history of the festival and how this year’s crowd seemed happier and calmer than past incarnations. At the first Rocklahoma, the Mayor drove around the campgrounds in his pick-up truck equipped with a stripper pole in the bed. It began to dawn on me what I’d walked into as Sevendust took the Freedom Stage.
There is an explicit hierarchy to the Freedom Stage. The only people allowed to the best viewing areas were those who paid for reserved seating or pit access. Security checked wristbands at all entrances to these premium areas. Most fascinating was a concrete tunnel in the middle of the reserved seating that exited in front of the stage directly behind the pit area. A line of people with general admission wristbands extended all the way to the outer general admission area. Security would then shepherd small flocks of people at the front of the line to a concrete barrier rail front and center for ideal camera photos and a fleeting feeling of rocking out at the front of the show. They were then ushered back down the tunnel moments later so a new crop of people could get the same experience. This cycle occurred multiple times per song. I was reminded of Greg Saunier’s late capitalism analysis of Woodstock ’99.
Though the price tiers make it clear why the main stage was excessively sectioned off, it proved a major hurdle for some of the bands. Chevelle seemed to have the best strategy by sticking to playing their songs. They didn’t demand crowd participation and were still rewarded with a massive “SO LAY DOWN!” group singalong to their biggest hit “The Red.” Conversely, Rob Zombie held his songs hostage multiple times throughout his set. He repeatedly pleaded to the people in the pit and reserved seating to party appropriately. Rob was continuously disappointed. “Is weed legal here in Oklahoma?” Zombie asked mid-show. “Are you all high?” The crowd replied with a massive roar. “Well, that explains it,” Zombie surmised before playing “In The Age Of The Consecrated Vampire We All Get High.” Zombie didn’t stop trying to rally the crowd, asking people in the reserved seats to stand on the wooden benches (literally 2×4’s shaped into something like picnic table seating with a backrest) and treat this evening like a party. Seventeen people obliged, of which Zombie counted them out loud, “So 17 people out of 20,000 are here to party?” My friend leaned over and said one of the benches would surely break under the weight of the few people standing on them. Sure enough, there was an unpainted 2×4 installed on row five the next day.
While Friday was as hot as it’d been in Oklahoma all week, rain was forecasted for Saturday as a cold front moved across the state. Rocklahoma is typically a Memorial Day weekend affair, which is peak tornado season in Oklahoma. Even though tornadoes were not on the menu since the festival was moved to Labor Day weekend, the experience the festival gained dealing with tornadic weather events over the years was in full effect on Saturday. With lightning predicted for the evening, Slipknot was moved up two hours and other bands were either placed on the Renegade Stage, received truncated sets, or simply moved up earlier in the day as well. This new schedule was adjusted a second time as an announcement was made over the loudspeaker at 4PM for everyone to evacuate and seek shelter in their cars. Thankfully, it was nothing more than a temporary rain shower that most notably brought the temperature down from 94°F to 78. While enjoying the cool breeze and temperature change, a golf cart with two police officers and a shirtless man in handcuffs drove past. I sensed an unrest from the evacuated campers on the other side of the festival. A faint roar could be heard after the 6PM announcement that Rocklahoma was back on.
Saturday’s second schedule update meant Anthrax now got to bring their well-honed thrash metal live show to a crowd under a beautifully clouded Oklahoma sunset. All of the band members looked delighted to be on stage and played a set that made me realize why this festival took off in the first place. Joey Belladonna checked to see if we were alive and expressed excitement to be out of the house. Once again, I looked around the concrete slab in front of the main stage to see massive gaps and openings in the reserved seating section. Unfazed, Anthrax carried on as the sun hit a true country golden hour and the field was covered in an orange glow.
I couldn’t help but wonder why there were so many open spots in the reserved area. My friend’s parents, regulars for the past 10 years, admitted that they weren’t massive heavy metal fans but couldn’t turn down free festival passes. One of the side effects of having a small-town music festival is that everybody knows everybody in small towns. The owners of the festival grounds and nearby businesses were likely recipients of free reserved seating wristbands to hand out to friends and family. So even if they weren’t crazy about legacy heavy metal band, who could turn down free beer?
By Sunday I had discovered the flaw in that logic: There was no free beer at Rocklahoma in 2021. No matter what corporate wristband or veteran Rocklahoma status anyone had amassed or purchased, the free beer of the festival’s past ended this year. Imagine the whiplash of drinking free beer at a rock festival for 10 years to being told to cough up $7 for the first time. I was not surprised to see them pack up their truck and leave well before Slipknot took the stage. It felt safe to assume that anybody that was gifted free reserved seats realized it wasn’t worth the trouble if the beer wasn’t also free.
So there I sat on a wooden bench with massive openings all around me in front of a giant Slipknot banner. Couples in the reserved area began taking selfies in front of the massive backdrop. Meanwhile, hordes of people were filling out the concrete tunnel for that brief access to a close-up Instagram post. A chain-link fence separated their faces as I attempted to ignore their confused stares. The enclosed masses started a “BEER, BEER, BEER,” chant as vendors serving the reserved seating area started passing out $7 beers over the fence.
A woman yelled in my direction from behind the fence, “Can someone sitting down tell me why I can’t sit there and y’all can?” The row in front of me attempted to answer her about the different VIP areas, but she was confused as she too had purchased a VIP package. Most of the various VIP price points had been sold out all summer long, except for one labeled the Garage package. Essentially, it was a pack of six general admission passes with access to a private shaded tent area on the outskirts of the festival grounds. What would normally be a nice place to relax during the day became unnecessary after the reduced temperatures and ample cloud coverage. I realized why this package was the only one still available for purchase. It was essentially a $750 general admission ticket. Considering the reserved seating area was at most $500, her frustration was justified. The Rocklahoma hierarchy was beginning to cause vocal frustration.
As Slipknot’s set inched closer to beginning, the reserved seating area began to fill up. I informed a few of them that they were standing in areas my friends would be using momentarily, to which I was offered shrugs. The restless energy I sensed during the rain delay was beginning to spill over. All the general admission patrons were likely sick of seeing so much empty seating wasted and were finding ways past security to get a closer view for Slipknot. AC/DC’s “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)” blasted out of the loudspeakers as the lights went down. The singalong in the front section was much louder than Friday night. Slipknot’s banner was pulled aside and a massive stage setup with industrial fans and tiered platforms glowing blue faced the audience. Two pillars bookended each side of the stage for Slipknot’s extra drummers equipped with four metal kegs on the outer circle at the tops. The band walked on stage one after the other to a crowd eager to capitalize on what they paid (or overpaid) to witness. Two security guards moved past me with a shirtless man subdued in a headlock. The first song hadn’t even ended.
Slipknot are an institution. They have their own festival. Though they may not have been the first band to wear masks on stage, they have definitely become the most famous band that still wears masks. There is a key advantage to wearing masks that I learned when Kanye started sporting his Margiela mask. Artists don’t have to worry about any bad pictures. For Slipknot, it also means band members can be swapped in and out while maintaining brand identity. Though he was unceremoniously removed from the band in 2017, the recent passing of Joey Jordison felt like a crack in the façade. Corey Taylor (I’m not sure of which Slipknot member is which number, though I’m positive the majority of the people at Rocklahoma knew) sort of acknowledged Joey’s loss without mentioning his name. Taylor consistently expressed gratitude to finally be on stage in front Rocklahoma and dedicated “Wait And Bleed” to their legion of fans and anybody who had ever been a member of Slipknot. I checked with my friend, who has a “friend of the family” connection to Jordison. He nodded approvingly to Taylor’s dedication.
(I should also mention that this Slipknot show was special because Corey Taylor debuted a new mask. I know the band makes their own masks and I’m pretty sure there is lore behind all of the masks of Slipknot. Either way, Corey Taylor debuted his new mask at this show.)
It was my first time seeing Slipknot, and knocking them off my concert list was a big reason to attend Rocklahoma. The most I ever listened to them was 20 years prior with a couple songs on a WinAmp playlist to aid my leveling grind in EverQuest. “Wait And Bleed” was all I needed to hear to feel content with the Slipknot spectacle. Did you know the big metal kegs on the outside of the drum platforms are just for show? They have actual drums hidden behind them! I was also impressed by the stage inclusion of a moving treadmill for a Slipknot member (#0 or #5, still not sure) to menacingly side-step in a lurch while appearing to stand still. Slipknot pull out all the stops to present an engaging concert, but the music is still very much Slipknot. Shockingly, a cannabis-induced haze doesn’t vibe very well with industrial heavy metal. We left early to prepare for the Sunday fatigue and leave the Slipknot revelers to intimidate VIP-area security guards. I took one last look at the field as I doubted it would be anywhere as big for Sunday.
Limp Bizkit cancelled their post-Lollapalooza tour a couple weeks prior to Rocklahoma, but the specific Rocklahoma cancellation came a bit later. Rocklahoma announced they would work to find a replacement. Online, lots of suggestions for replacements were thrown out. At the festival on Saturday, a man in a buttoned up American flag shirt pondered aloud, “They still haven’t replaced the headliner. Somebody said Incubus but I don’t know about that.” The confusion was understood as an actual headliner was never secured. When the time schedule for Sunday was initially posted, there was simply nobody playing from 10:45 to midnight on Sunday. Even though I signed up to do this article with the specific purpose of regaling ya’ll with a positive Limp Bizkit festival review, revel in the fact that I was going to be serenaded by nobody Sunday night.
That is, until a surprise announcement was made Friday. Mastodon were added to the bill. MASTODON! I love Mastodon yet had never seen them live. Mastodon were headliners in my eyes, but Rocklahoma shuffled around the Sunday line-up to also fill in the slot left vacant by Phil Anselmo’s touring Pantera tribute act that cancelled due to Hurricane Ida complications. Rocklahoma veterans Halestorm, who I heard praised repeatedly, would be left to close out the main stage Sunday.
On the third day, I gained a wider Rocklahoma perspective as I rode around the campgrounds in a John Deere Gator. For starters, it wasn’t even really the third day. Most of the campers had been on site since Thursday afternoon and partying until every sunrise. It was likely the fourth or even fifth day for the average attendee. I was also wrong that there would be a decline in attendance on Sunday. Instead it felt like even more people were walking around the festival grounds. The cooler temperatures and cloudless sky made for the ideal outdoor festival weather.
An even bigger revelation was that our buttoned up American flag friend wasn’t the only one still speculating about a last-minute Limp Bizkit replacement. Many in the camp site were spreading a rumor that Papa Roach would be the main stage closer for the evening. But the biggest discovery involved Saturday’s rain delay. As it turns out, telling an entire festival to go to their cars and then return through only three entrances yields massive lines. When Rocklahoma immediately started the live music back up, most of the attendees were still stuck in long lines. One person I spoke to said he didn’t get back into the festival until the end of Anthrax’s set. No wonder there was so much restless energy leading up to Slipknot. Many campers had to get creative to make up for essentially missing out on at least half of a festival day.
As we approached the main stage and saw the giant Mastodon banner hanging up, I realized I had made another miscalculation at Rocklahoma. Even though I’d neither heard of many of the bands nor a huge fan of those I did know, the majority of attendees DID have a favorite band at Rocklahoma. It’s a factor that significantly alters your festival experience. I realized this as the pure adrenaline and excitement washed over me — the rush reserved for seeing a band one loves for the first time.
Mastodon have been a band for more than 20 years. They’ve maintained a consistent lineup the entire time. Their appeal allowed them to pivot a Bonnaroo cancellation into a Rocklahoma debut. What other band could pull off that festival scheduling flexibility? The main stage area was sparse per usual, but many were sitting back and seemingly willing to give Mastodon a fair shake. Mastodon delivered no gimmicks and made no requests for audience participation. They simply proved they were four seasoned metal veterans that were humbly gracious to be playing to an audience of thousands as the Oklahoma sun set in front of them. Noticeably in awe, Troy Sanders pointed out halfway through the set that this was a memory they’d remember forever.
By the time they finished their set with “Blood And Thunder,” Mastodon had converted multiple new fans. An older man next to me turned around after the set, visibly flabbergasted. I had been headbanging the entire show, swatting beach balls while uttering plenty of “FUCK YEAHS,” devil horns and undecipherable loud noises. We had just experienced peak Rocklahoma. As we walked away toward the Renegade Stage, my friend told me he still couldn’t believe Rocklahoma invited Mastodon. They’re not a band that would generally be lumped into the Rocklahoma scene, yet they made a strong case why their name deserves to be written alongside Anthrax.
I prepared for Andrew W.K. to be a letdown considering I was still on a massive high after seeing Mastodon. It was my first time walking over to the Renegade Stage and I realized yet another aspect I missed out on at Rocklahoma. This was the traditional rock festival crowd I’d been missing all weekend. No reserved seats. No sectioned-off pit. Definitely no concrete slab. Open grass for people to stand and sit on the back or bunch up at the front to start mosh pits and crowd surf. Andrew’s set was delayed slightly because the front security barrier had separated. This was the real rock ‘n’ roll spirit Andrew capitalized on. His set was a speedy 30 minutes. It ended with a literal countdown from 100 that triggered “Party Hard.” Despite being the last night of the festival, the crowd proved they hadn’t lost a drop of energy.
I noticed a guy deep in the Andrew W.K. crowd that I had seen twice during Mastodon. He’d been waiting in the tunnel line, the one for temporary pit access, holding his sign that said “MOSH PIT HERE” with an arrow pointing down at him. I thought it was funny in the tunnel line since there had been exactly zero moshing at the main stage all weekend. Seeing him at the Renegade Stage, deep in a crowd where actual moshing could occur, it felt different. It felt like a literal sign of what Rocklahoma was about… until I read the other side of the sign:
“I EAT ASS”
The Mayor of Rocklahoma better watch out.