Rockfest is touted as North America’s largest one-day music festival, and with fifteen main bands between two stages, more bands on the smaller third stage, and around 50,000 fans in attendance each year, this claim is not hard to imagine as accurate. The festival takes place outdoors in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, in the park surrounding the iconic Liberty Memorial National World War I Museum, and features rock bands, food, drinks, a zipline, and even the opportunity to get married. Due to the tight and often simultaneous nature of the festival’s scheduling, this review will not cover every band in attendance, but will cover most of the bands that played the two main stages, beginning with…
Red Sun Rising
After hearing their infectious singles “The Otherside” and “Emotionless” spun with regularity on The Rock, many Kansas Citians were finally treated to their first live experience of Akron, Ohio’s Red Sun Rising. Rising, themselves, through the ranks of modern rock with songwriting chops that balance tradition and modernity with impressive finesse for a band which just released their major label debut within the last year, Red Sun Rising treated attendees to six selections from the album, titled Polyester Zeal. The band’s clear-cut sound translated well to the stage, especially for the hook-filled “My Muse”, which is driven mainly by vocalist Mike Protich’s powerful vocal style and heartfelt lyrics. Closing with the Tool-meets-Shinedown hit “Emotionless”, Red Sun Rising left the second stage thoroughly rocked and hungry for more.
Immediately following the conclusion of Red Sun Rising’s set on the second stage, the crowd could be seen rushing across the park en masse toward the main stage, so as not to miss a second of Canadian rock outfit Saint Asonia’s widely anticipated performance. Mainly known as the new home of former Three Days Grace frontman Adam Gontier, the band has most recently embarked on tour with Rockfest headliners Disturbed in support of their own self-titled debut, released in June of 2015.
The band made the most of their limited time slot, covering their current material, a couple Three Days Grace hits, and the Staind classic “For You”, courtesy of Staind guitarist Mike Mushok’s involvement in Saint Asonia. The transitions between current and previous material were completely natural, providing evidence of the band members’ comfort in their new skin and assuring newcomers that changes in lineup and title would not prevent these experienced musicians from delivering the same hard rock energy as always. Saint Asonia surely gained many new fans at Rockfest, and fans both new and old can look forward to more in the future, as according to the on-stage words of Gontier, “this band isn’t going anywhere”.
Escape the Fate
Delivering a bit more brutality to Rockfest’s second stage was Las Vegas’s Escape the Fate. Touting a more hardcore sound and touring in support of their latest album Hate Me, released in October of 2015, Escape the Fate opened with the blistering guitar work of the album’s single, “Just a Memory”. The band immediately drew a sizable and rabid crowd to the front of the second stage, who were prepared to mosh and crowdsurf right from the beginning, and the electricity in the audience was spurred by frontman Craig Mabbitt’s harsh vocals and frequent prompts to get moving. The band showed plenty of versatility, however, through the dance beats and anthemic nature of “Live for Today” and the more straightforward “Alive”, but still made sure to close the set with the aggressive metalcore thrasher “This War is Ours”. At this point in the day, the festival wasn’t even halfway over, and Escape the Fate had ensured that attendees were already exhausted – in the best way.
Hailing from Michigan, rock act Pop Evil was the next band to take the main stage, and by the time they started into “Deal With the Devil”, the Rockfest crowd had become so massive, it was elbow-to-elbow all the way back to the point at which band members on stage seemed so small, a viewing screen was necessary for the rest of the concertgoers to see any of the action – and there was plenty of action to be seen. Pop Evil’s style of no-nonsense rock lent itself perfectly to the sense of camaraderie which Rockfest engenders, and upbeat songs like “Ways to Get High” had a visible effect on the movement of the crowd. Especially inspiring was vocalist Leigh Kakaty’s performance of the band’s hit “Trenches” from atop the outstretched arms of front-row fans. While sweating it out on stage in front of thousands of Kansas Citians as they closed with another of their biggest songs, “Footsteps”, Pop Evil certainly proved – on this beautiful Saturday afternoon – why they are one of the most in-demand acts in mainstream rock.
Considered by many to be one of the prime live metal acts of the 2000s, Dallas’s Drowning Pool was poised to rock the ears off of thousands of eager attendees midway through the festival. Though they were following the several excellent and explosive rock and metal acts that had already graced the second stage, the ferocious one-two punch of their hits “Sinner” and “Step Up” were more than enough to work the crowd into a frenzy. While the band’s ultra-saturated guitar tone unfortunately did not translate perfectly to an outdoor sound environment, the pulsing drums of Mike Luce and throat-shredding vocals of frontman Jason Moreno were all the impetus Rockfest goers needed to go wild. In supporting their latest album, Hellelujah, the band offered a few new tracks, which proved to be equally heavy, before giving the audience precisely what they were waiting for – the mosh pit anthem “Bodies”.
Atlanta, GA natives and Kansas City beloved Sevendust graced the main stage to widespread applause. Ever since vocalist Lajon Witherspoon’s taking up of residence in the Kansas City area, his frequent appearances on The Rock’s Johnny Dare Morning Show have made the band a household name for any KC metalhead. Veterans of the alt-metal scene and showing no signs of stopping, the band is currently touring in support of their tenth studio album, Kill the Flaw, and as such, opened their set with the first single from the record – “Thank You”. The track, which carries all of the classic Sevendust elements – bounding rhythms, open-chord riffage, and strong melodic chorus – proved to be the perfect live opener, as the swaths of fans could be seen happily pumping their fists from the start.
With such a sizable back catalog of music, the band certainly had plenty of hits from which to pick and choose in curating a set list, and the nine-song set at Rockfest ended up covering five albums – including Animosity, Seasons, and Black out the Sun. Highlights of the show included the wonderfully punishing “Decay”, fan-favorite “Enemy”, and Witherspoon’s claim that “Sevendust doesn’t have shows, we have family reunions” being immediately brought to fruition through the heartwarming introduction of his family to the masses and his daughter’s participation in the chorus to Pantera’s “Walk”. From the extensive show of support at Rockfest, one can be certain that – whether it be through the festival, club shows, or any other event – Kansas City will always be more than happy to welcome the Sevendust family to the stage.
One of the most well-known modern heavy metal bands in the United States, Florida’s Trivium is currently touring in support of their seventh album Silence in the Snow, released in October. Opening their second stage set with the easily recognizable guitar riffs of “Strife”, the band seemed delighted to be welcomed so warmly – as hundreds of fans had already swarmed the stage and were headbanging in unison to the song’s driving chorus. A few tracks from their latest album proceeded, including the latest single “Dead and Gone”, and the album’s prominent track, “Until the World Goes Cold”. The band also threw back to a semi-deep cut from their breakthrough album Ascendancy, with “Rain”, and followed up with the consummate headbanger, “In Waves”. Unfortunately, however, whether it be due to scheduling conflicts or other issues – or if it was intended all along – the band’s set ended up being noticeably brief, at only five songs in length. This was slightly disappointing, especially for longtime fans, though the performance was undoubtedly enjoyable while it lasted. Hopefully, Trivium will hit a Kansas City club on their next headlining tour for a full show.
Formed in 1991, southern party rockers Jackyl were probably the most tenured band to grace Rockfest’s main stage. Before the band arrived, however, a big-headed jackal mascot took the stage to hype the crowd up, and a makeshift “choir” of what seemed like regular concertgoers in gowns flanked the stage on risers. After a bit of fanfare, the band finally showed up to start the party, for which the crowd seemed more than eager. Fronted by the larger-than-life personality and classic rock wail of Jesse James Dupree, the band brought their delightfully light-hearted and endlessly humorous brand of southern metal to the thousands upon thousands of Kansas City rock fans.
Blazing through songs such as “Rock and Roll Party”, “Dirty Little Mind”, “I Stand Alone”, and other party anthems with names that probably shouldn’t be printed in any sort of family-friendly publication, Jackyl proved that their biggest strength is their penchant for lifting spirits – both those in the audience and those in the bottle. In fact, as the set was nearing its close, Dupree brought on beloved radio host Johnny Dare to announce that his show would be continuing into the near future, and to invite him to take a swig of some booze with the band. Jackyl’s famous “Lumberjack Song” was a natural closer, and though a well-known trope at this point, Dupree’s literal chainsaw solo was no less enjoyable than in years past.
Every year or so, among a stacked lineup of traditional hard rock and metal bands, Rockfest will also play host to a band which can seem like an outlier to many. In the case of this year’s festival, that band would be Ghost (or Ghost B.C. as they were referred to in the United States for a time due to a legal hitch). The masked Swedish sextet are touring the States fresh off of a Grammy win for Best Metal Performance for the song “Cirice” off their critically acclaimed latest album, Meliora. While not offering metal in the modern sense, Ghost’s music hearkens back to the classic days of the genre, right around the time when it was separating itself from standard rock music with darker themes, more driving rhythms, and more aggressive guitar phrases. All of this combined with excellent melodic sensibility and a stage show based around the idea of an occult church service make any Ghost show a compelling sight to behold.
The band’s set at Rockfest could not have begun at a better time. As the sun began to set behind the stage, shooting otherworldly beams of light around a stained glass-inspired backdrop, an ominous canticle started playing over the speaker before the five faceless instrumentalists – known only as “nameless ghouls” – arrived and situated themselves behind their instruments. Opening with the sinister “From the Pinnacle to the Pit”, vocalist Papa Emeritus III appeared on stage – a striking, elegant presence with slick hair, black attire, white gloves, and a skull-painted face in a somewhat “Dia de los Muertos” style. Emeritus eschewed the screams and grit of modern metal for a smooth, melodic style which lent itself well to the wonderfully harmonized choruses of songs like “Cirice” and “Absolution”. While the on-stage personalities of the other members are difficult to comment on, the instrumental work was clearly superb, especially when one imagines the tactile skill needed due to the difficulty of seeing one’s own instrument through the limited vision of a mask. Closing with the haunting choruses of “Mummy Dust”, the band quite appropriately left the stage just as darkness began to fall on the festival, and the chill of the late spring air was matched only by the chilling performance of the ghastly rockers.
Widely circulated on rock radio around the world, post-grunge titans Seether were the next band to grace the main stage of Rockfest to a mass of Kansas City fans. With a slew of #1 singles across six albums to choose from, one can imagine that the band was not hard-pressed to assemble a set list, and Seether delivered just as expected, with a 10-song set of hits from hits like the intense “Words as Weapons”, the anthemic “Rise Above This”, and the beautifully stripped-down sing-along “Broken”. Easily the most commendable aspect of Seether’s performance was the fidelity with which the band translated each song to the stage. Clean guitar tones were crisp and bright, distorted guitars were crunchy but not saturated, the drums were punchy as ever and vocalist Shaun Morgan’s voice was crystal clear and effortlessly powerful – proving to all that he is still one of the best hard rock vocalists around. Between songs, small talk was sparse. Instead, the band opted for extended bouts of amplifier feedback and held chords. Ending with the trio of the wonderfully unique “Country Song”, the venomous chorus of “Fake It”, and closing with the hit “Remedy”, Seether had provided a full, satisfying set of grungy, no-nonsense rock.
Known as the current project of Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, hard rock band and modern glam-styled Sixx:A.M. also includes vocalist James Michael, drummer Dustin Steinke, and lead guitarist DJ Ashba (known as guitarist of Chinese Democracy-era Guns N’ Roses, and who early Rockfest attendees had seen play the national anthem). The band’s set opened with “This is Gonna Hurt”, off the album of the same title, and introduced a pair of backing vocalists to stage right to further enhance the dance rhythms and fist-pumping chorus. Following up with the opener from their latest album Prayers for the Damned, the inspirational chorus of “Rise” had fans pumping fists and chanting along. Throughout the set, Michael, Sixx, and Ashba all rotated positions on the roomy stage to interact with fans on all sides, and Michael, especially, was animated and energetic, imploring fans to sing along and make their presence heard. With half of the set list covering their latest album, the band was happy to close with their original hit from The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack, the heart-wrenchingly autobiographical “Life is Beautiful”, which allowed time at the end for fans to take over and chant the chorus in unison, while all musicians watched with smiles on their faces.
Heavy metal supergroup Hellyeah – notably comprised of Mudvayne vocalist Chad Gray, Nothingface guitarist Tom Maxwell, and Pantera/Damageplan drummer Vinnie Paul – was the final band set to rock the second stage and provide direct support to headliners Disturbed. At this point, it seemed like every metalhead in the city was standing on the lawn of the Liberty Memorial, waiting for their chance to see one of the most popular metal acts in the country. Fans were likely to have their wish granted, though unfortunately, it would not be without much frustration at first.
During the band’s raging first song, about thirty seconds to a minute in, all sound from the stage completely cut out. This change was immediate and quite jarring, however it is a testament to the professionalism of the entire band that, though only Paul’s raw drum sounds could be heard, they continued playing through the song while stage techs scrambled to sort out the issue. The sound would continue to cut in and out throughout the entire first song, and some of the second, which led to an uncomfortable anxiety throughout the audience – a feeling that was oddly juxtaposed with Hellyeah’s signature feel-good party metal style and song titles like “Drink Drank Drunk”. Much to the credit of the sound crew, though, the issue was able to be resolved in a relatively timely manner, and the rest of Hellyeah’s set continued without a hitch. The dazzling light show and explosive energy from the band – especially Gray – helped lift everyone’s spirits and bring the mood back around to party mode, just in time for the headlining act.
At one point or another, nearly every millennial hard rock or metal fan had a song or album by Disturbed in their possession – either physically or stuck in their head. One can hardly listen to rock radio for more than a few hours without catching a track by the alternative metal superstars, so it’s no wonder why they were asked to headline the largest single-day rock show in the country. Having just come off of their four-year hiatus with a new album, Immortalized, the band is firing on all cylinders with renewed energy, and fans are clamoring for a chance to see their favorite band again.
Disturbed kicked off their set in explosive fashion with the consummate opener “Ten Thousand Fists”, with an industrial backdrop, mesmerizing light show, and blazing pyrotechnics enhancing the pounding rhythmic instrumentation and vocalist David Draiman’s signature staccato vocals. Tightness in timing is paramount with Disturbed’s style of music, and guitarist Dan Donegan, bassist John Moyer, and drummer Mike Wengren were in sync as ever as they ripped, roared, and chugged through hits old and new – like the mighty “The Vengeful One” from their latest album, the soaring “Prayer” from Believe, and the sinister “Stupify” from their debut and breakout album The Sickness.
Halfway through the set, the lights dimmed, Donegan took a seat at a piano, and the lighters/phones speckled the audience like fireflies for the band’s stripped-down, somewhat orchestral take on the Simon and Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence”. Among Draiman’s amplified voice could be heard the thousands of rock fans singing along, which made for a magical moment and welcome break from the headbanging. This would not be the only cover of the night, however, as the band indulged themselves and the crowd in a medley of a few more various covers – namely, Nine Inch Nails’ industrial staple “Closer”, U2’s beloved “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, The Who’s anthemic and oft-misnomered “Baba O’Riley”, and Rage Against the Machine’s protest opus “Killing in the Name” – the latter of which saw Saint Asonia’s Adam Gontier joyfully leaping about the stage as he assisted Draiman and the crowd in the song’s closing chant.
The band then unofficially closed with “Indestructible”, before leaving the stage to fans wildly clamoring for an encore – to which the band was happy to oblige. The encore itself consisted of two tracks from The Sickness: “Voices” and of course, the title track itself, with Draiman’s unmistakable “ooh wah-ah-ah-ah” bark and dramatic bridge. The crowd, visibly worn but satisfied, was happy to see the band off with audible approval, giving proof to the claim that Draiman had made on stage only moments before: “not only is rock and roll not dead – it’s alive and well.”