Following a crackerjack showing by the Blue Ridge Festival’s first battalion of rock and metal mainstays on Thursday, September 8 of the grand post-lockdown year of 2022, the hunger for even more stellar performances hung in the early afternoon air as tens of thousands of attendees congregated at the Virginia International Raceway. The weather would generally be fair, or at least relative to what the climate tends to offer just above the North Carolina border during the closing weeks of summer, though a slightly drier set of conditions on the ground carried the promise of dust being kicked up in more than just the proverbial sense. But just as one can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, one does not truly experience a rock concert in the open air without coming away with some unsightly patches of dirt on their t-shirts, especially when the bands rock as hard as they would this past Friday.
Though crowd density would reach its pinnacle towards the end of the day, there was no shortage of gravitas to be found among the early acts that graced each of the five stages. One of the highlights of the first wave of bands would be southern rockers with a hint of post-grunge from Palestine, TX in Blacktop Mojo. As one of the more unique acts to hit the scene within the past 10 years, they brought all the youthful energy and flair that one would expect from a newcomer fold looking to make their mark via a concert featuring a hefty collection of legendary bands, pushing their blend of heavy-hitting aggression and smooth southern swagger to a crowd that consisted heavily of those too young to remember when the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band were enjoying their original heydays. Standout performances would include the laid back, bluesy power ballad “It Won’t Last” and the grungy stomp of “End Of Days”, with vocalist Matt James showcasing an impressive degree of versatility and range while bassist Matt Curtis would battle for the greatest crowd response with an array of wild facial expressions to steal some of that attention away from James and the twin guitar assault of Chuck Wepfer and touring fill-in Malcolm Booher.
But while the aforementioned rockers from just above the Rio Grande were making an impressive ruckus, some darker and heavier fair lay in store for those who hit the raceway just after the stroke of noon. Hailing from the colder northern land of Sweden, melodic death metal trustees with a heavy dash of industrial trappings Orbit Culture would bring the midnight fury to the masses during the early afternoon with a heavy emphasis on dank riff work and thunderous thrash happy mayhem with a shimmering keyboard backdrop on such noteworthy anthems as “Carvings” and “Saw.” Every member of the fold turned in an exemplary performance, and everyone in attendance were likely affixed solely on the brilliant blend of Tomas Lindberg-influenced barks and James Hetfield-inspired gruff of vocalist and founder Niklas Karlsson, though additional note should be made of drummer Christopher Wallerstedt, who weathered some technical issues on his kit without missing a beat.
Naturally the vintage northern European approach to extreme metal was not the only game in town during the early afternoon, as two fairly different players from the western side of the Atlantic would make a comparably dark though very different play on things. The newly formed nu-metal upstarts Vended made a highly respectable ruckus despite having a fairly limited pool of material from which to draw. The blaring fury of the newly released crusher “Ded To Me” and the chaotic yet groove-infused punch of “Asylum” were among the highlights of a highly focused and professional performance out of a comparatively young fold and took everyone present back to the glory days of 20 years past when Iowa was burning up the charts. On the other hand, Jersey-born deathcore veterans Fit For An Autopsy took the aggression factor to the absolute limit with their blend of uncompromising brutality and technical wizardry, with vocalist Joe Badolato running the gamut of death metal and hardcore personas while its virtuoso guitarists djented, pummeled and shredded their way through classics like “The Sea Of Tragic Beasts” and “A Higher Level Of Hate” with militaristic precision and power.
As the afternoon progressed, the tone of the festival would prove no less metallic, though it would shift heavily in favor of the melodic side of the coin. Danish-born metalcore enthusiasts Siamese, whom made their U.S. debut via the Blue Ridge Festival, served up a saccharine-saturated yet highly energized performance, and despite being a band member short, turned in solid renditions of several of their compact bangers at each turn while Mirza Radonjica‘s took the time to entertain the crowd with a few jokes about his lack of competency in American games like rock, paper, scissors when his soaring tenor wasn’t cutting through the air like a hot knife to the rousing renditions of “Bananas” and “Home.” The audience that would congregate around the next set conducted by L.A. emo rockers Badflower would prove the youngest, in keeping with the newness of the performing fold themselves, but a combination of angst-driven lyrics delivered with an airy tone and a charmingly catchy musical backdrop on recent hits like the semi-ballad “Ghost” and the similarly dynamic yet harder-hitting “The Jester” carried the day, to speak nothing for front man Josh Katz’s crowd-surfing exploits and engaging crowd work.
Though the earlier acts wanted for little in the energy department, the ante would proceed to be upped something fierce towards that end of the afternoon. Russian-based deathcore bruisers and theatrically-geared slayers Slaughter To Prevail arguably registered on the Richter Scale between the wild mosh pit that formed to the towering infernos of brutality on such aptly titled monster offerings like “Demolisher” and “Agony.” Lead vocalist Aleksandr “Alex Terrible” Shikolai donned the most ornate costume of the fold and proceeded to spiritually slaughter all in his path with an inhuman array of extreme barks and grunts that would have made original titans of the art like Frank Mullen and Chris Barnes do a double-take, and even after his gargantuan demon mask and cloak was stripped off due to excessive sweat one song into the set, his heavily tatted torso proved no less forbidding of a visual, and the technical chops of the guitar work provided by Jack Simmons wasn’t far behind when it came to riveting every onlooker.
Nostalgia was the order of the hour as the twilight of the afternoon loomed over the throngs of concertgoers. Veterans of the Seattle grunge craze Candlebox would be in top form as they jammed their way through their blues/rock oriented repertoire, with charismatic front man and lone founding member Kevin Martin delivering a soulful and nimble performance reminiscent of early trailblazer and arguably godfather of the Seattle sound Andrew Wood, though recently acquired guitarist Brian Quinn proved more than capable at recreating Peter Klett’s iconic solos. Newer offerings such as “All Down Hill From Here” and “Vexatious” would go over well with the crowd they drew, but the loudest cheers would be reserved for vintage 1993 classics like “Cover Me”, “You” and “Far Behind.” Not one to be upstaged, Georgia-born alternative metal legends Sevendust marked their set with a massive backdrop dedicated to their 2001 breakthrough “Animosity,” with familiar anthems from said album “Shine” and “Praise” going over splendidly, though the most poignant moment would be when vocalist Lajon Witherspoon gave a teary-eyed speech about camaraderie among the audience before delivering a rousing rendition of “Trust.”
There was still some light left in the sky as the next batch of acts donned their respective stages, and the tone struck was one befitting the middle-ground between day and dusk that painted the sky. Gothenburg icons In Flames went on a brilliant tear for their entire set, as the entry of virtuoso guitarist Chris Broderick to the fold has awakened a renewed interest in their vintage material, and heavy audience approval was given to the numerous bangers off of classic era albums in Colony and Whoracle and even a couple archaic anthems going back to the fold’s mid-90s origins like “Behind Space” and “Graveland.” Veteran melodic metalcore trustees and Texas-born Memphis May Fire leaned a little bit more into the modern end of things, drawing the heaviest cheers from ultra-infectious bangers “Blood & Water” and “Make Believe.” Both bands were exemplars of stage presence despite having the sun largely in their faces, but while In Flames definitely held an edge in the musicality department, the sheer level of crowd response garnered by Memphis May Fire compensated for any lack of technical high-jinks, with crowd-surfing and a veritable dust bowl being left in their wake.
With the onset of dusk came an impressive array of heavy-hitters with longer sets in tow. Modern rock mainstays and crowd favorites Halestorm turned in a performance for the ages, with Lzzy’s voice cycling through an impressive arsenal of gymnastics, including a gut-wrenching scream for a whopping 15 seconds at the tail end of one of their many certified rock bangers, while the rest of the band brought the thunder to match the flamboyance of the aforementioned front woman. Sadly, the audience would be deprived of Arejay Hale‘s signature drum solo due to an unfortunate accident that left someone in the audience injured, but in a humbling display of unity by both the band and audience alike, a clearing was made immediately for the paramedics to make a quick intervention and deliver the hapless attendee for needed medical attention. French extreme progressive metal stalwarts Gojira would showcase their usual brand of precision and technical prowess through a number of epic sloughs that included standout performances of “The Cell” and “Backbone”, and though some technical issues would hinder Joe Duplantier‘s vocals from fully reaching the audience, the instrumental performance alone carried things to the finish line.
As things drew to a close, the final hurrah would belong to three acts, two of them elder statesmen of things rock and metal. Southern rock meets doom super group and Nola natives Down brought the heaviness and then some, and while Phil Anselmo‘s voice would show some of its age due to the ravages of time, booze and cigarettes, enthusiasm and determination overcame a small number of coarse notes, and the renditions of noted dreary, soulful sloughs like “Ghosts Along The Mississippi” and “Eyes Of The South” were testaments to the musical chops of all the players involved. Rock icon and Michigan maniac Alice Cooper came on stage throwing all of the classics and every ounce of theatricality in his arsenal onto a gargantuan crowd. Whether it was classics from the olden days like “No More Mr. Nice Guy” or “School’s Out” (which also featured an extended jam and an auspicious quotation of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)”), or slightly newer arena fair from the 80s and 90s in “Poison” and “Feed My Frankenstein”, Alice and company were in top form, though many were as drawn to returning shred surgeon Kane Roberts‘ bulging biceps as much as they were his mighty riffs.
A massive crows of thousands gathered at the Monster Stage to behold the pinnacle of the evening, by the hand to nu-metal icons Mudvayne, who donned their signature otherworldly getup and brought all of the obligatory energy and fury to 2000s anthems “Dig”, “Not Falling” and “Internal Primates Forever”, even if they were somehow dogged by intermitted issues with the mix of their instruments. As the extensive array of Mudvayne cavalcade on wheels made their final curtain calls, the elation that was felt all around was at least as palpable as the enthusiastic tone of the ring leader of the aforementioned circus as he gave his final goodbyes and well wishes to the departing fans. If there was any question left lingering in the minds of those who bore witness to the day long deluge of musical brilliance that had come to pass, it was how the next two days would be able to surpass the glory that had already taken place. But if the Blue Ridge Festival 2022 has proven to be anything, it is an exercise in outdoing itself, both in attendance and in the quality of the acts being booked, leaving the sour memories of the 2021 in a blur. Though much of what came to dominate the day were built off of memories from decades past, even more good ones were left in everyone’s minds once the dust settled and all retired to their hotel rooms to wash the rest of it off their clothes.