Inaugural Chicago Open Air showcased big stars, lots of promise

Chicago Open Air 2016
Photo credit: Benjamin Howell

There is something about being at a major rock festival that is freeing, and before you rush to the comments I’ll go ahead and say that the same is probably true for most music festivals. If you think you’re the weirdest person you know, festivals prove you probably haven’t begun to touch on what most would consider weird. If you think you’re the hottest person in the two-horse town you call home, festivals remind you just how average you, and most other people, really are. Festivals can be both ego boosting and endlessly humbling in equal measure, which is a rare feat for any event to pull off.

This past weekend I traveled to the inaugural Chicago Open Air music festival. The three-day event is a metal and hard rock lover’s delight, with bands such as Slipknot, Korn, Disturbed, Five Finger Death Punch, and Rammstein headlining each night while mid-level talent such as Periphery and Pop Evil kept the party going during the day. The bands were divided into two stages, one inside Toyota Park stadium and one in an unused lot, with dozens of toilets, $9 craft beer, and overpriced metal-themed food offerings scattered in between (Have you ever had a Slipknot burger? You should).

Sunday night, the final night of Open Air, was the evening I realized what a truly unique and strange environment I had found myself within. The headliners were Marilyn Manson, Five Finger Death Punch, and Slipknot, with Iowa’s metal kings taking the final 8:40PM main stage slot. I cannot speak to the quality of the bands who performed earlier in the day because I wasn’t on site to report on them. This was not a slight against the diverse lineup that appeared, but rather me wanting to explore Chicago because I had seen 80% of the bands who played before my arrival at other festivals earlier in the summer.

Anyway, it was in the mid-80s when I arrived, and right away it was clear the night would be one filled with quality people watching to match the quality of talent on stage. People from all walks of life, representing several cultures, lifestyles, and skin tones, were walking upwards of a mile from the overflow lot in hopes of gaining entrance before Manson took the stage. Traffic had proven itself quite congested on the way in, so even those who thought they would arrive on time (i.e. me) were in a rush to make the main stage. We got in the door, scaled the stairs to the stadium, and had just reached the top step when his unholiness, Marilyn Manson, hit the stage.

It is no great secret that Manson—now old enough to be someone’s grandfather—is not the young buck he once was. The days of being crucified on a cross made of televisions and cutting himself for tens of thousands to see have long passed. The current Manson, who still sounds as good as ever, leans heavily on his fan-given position as the leader of those who feel outcast from society. He criss-crosses the stage with the ferocity of a dictator (admittedly one of his many personas), and he engages the audience with a similar tone. He’s not there to be your friend, but to lead you, and the thousands in attendance hung on every word as the sun slowly began to set. The hits played best, but the newer material held its own when presented with the raw energy only found in a live performance. If the merch area wasn’t a stage, a hill, and two flights of stairs (potentially more) away from the main stage I would think such renditions would sell more physical copies of the record, but at the least they’ll command a few additional streams in the coming days.

Between Manson and Five Finger Death Punch I wandered over to the second stage in order to see Killswitch Engage. This was my first time encountering the group since vocalist Jesse Leach rejoined, and I’m happy to report they did not disappoint. Any band that begins their set by informing the audience they are about to get their “pussies punched” has set the bar very high for themselves in terms of just how much rock goodness they need to provide, but the New England heavyweights were more than up to the challenge. From song to song, the band owned every bit of the stage they stood upon, and the sizable crowd that had gathered to watch them slowly grew with each passing riff. The only downside to the moment was that the sun was directly behind the stage, which meant everyone hoping to see Killswitch also had to feel the raw energy of that burning star that makes life on this planet possible to its full extent. Sunburns were everywhere, as were people selling $10 Miller Lite tallboys. That combination might not read well on paper, but based on the faces of those around me I think overpriced swill was as good as sunscreen for those in attendance.

Back on the main stage, Five Finger Death Punch played to a rabid audience who was practically champing at the bit to see Slipknot perform. I wouldn’t wish the responsibility of entertaining people who clearly came to see Slipknot with the most generic mainstream rock in the modern era on my worst enemies, but somehow FFDP pulled it off. The band worked through a series of hits and recent cuts, including at least two interludes that were more or less an excuse to proclaim their love of America (which the audience responded to with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” over and over). My one-time love for the band had evaporated years before this performance occurred, but I couldn’t help respecting the way the band held the attention of an audience primarily in attendance for another band. This isn’t to say there were no FFDP fans in the audience, as I certainly saw several dozen throughout the night—including hundreds who left (foolishly) when the band finished their set—but the ratio of Slipknot shirts to literally any other band tee or company logo was easily 1:3.

There were approximately 30 minutes of downtime between FFDP and Slipknot, which allowed just enough time for those who had been sitting in the bleachers of Toyota Park to flood the main floor with fists in the sky and beers in hand. The sun had just fallen below the horizon when Slipknot took the stage at 8:40, and the sky was almost completely dark by the time the group’s introductory video—which featured decrepit mannequins on fire in an abandoned field—came to a close. The nine-piece group entered the stage veiled in darkness, but things quickly lit up as they plunged into three hard-hitting, career-spanning songs. Every era of Slipknot was represented in the music, including a few debut album cuts that fans don’t see performed live very often, and the Open Air crowd ate it up. In fact, those gathered clung to every beat the band’s three drummers delivered as if they were hearing a sermon on chaos and existentialism that just so happened to be given by people dressed in jumpsuits who wore masks that would fit in well with any Rob Zombie film. It was loud. it was brilliant. It was everything a great rock and roll performance should be, and it closed the inaugural Open Air festival with a band that won’t soon be forgotten.

As I made my way out of Toyota Park with a ringing in my ears and something like 1.5 miles between me and my vehicle, I tried my best to listen in to the conversations of those walking alongside me. Some were simply too drunk to be understood, but I heard more than a few proclaim the night to be one of the best of their lives. For some, this night would be the highlight of their entire year, and for many more it would be one of the only live music events attended in 2016. Whether the people talking had come for one day or all three, there was an audible feeling of sadness knowing the sun would rise Monday morning without the promise of another day spent immersed in all things metal. The moment we had all shared, as great as it was, was fading quickly with each passing second. Every step taken away from the stage was one more step back into the mundanity of everyday life, and that pain was one felt by all those in attendance.

Would I say Chicago Open Air was the greatest time of my life, or even the greatest music festival I have ever attended? No. But to be fair, I am a bit spoiled in this respect. My life in writing takes me all over the country to festivals of all sizes, and as much as I enjoyed the performances I saw at Open Air there was a lot about the event itself that left me feeling underwhelmed. For an inaugural festival things could have been much worse, but I think in years to come, if the event continues, those in attendance will see a complete re-imagining of how the event functions beyond the main stage. A few things that could help would be the inclusion of a third stage, which would allow for more bands and more options for those in attendance, as well as more vendors/food options filling the lots. The current structure of Open Air makes it possible to see a bit of everyone performing each day if you’re willing to hike between stages repeatedly, but when the one band playing does not appeal to you, the downtime between things to do can feel daunting. Also, the festival seemed unprepared to deal with the hot weather, with no water or rest areas and very little shade anywhere near the main floor. People were collapsing hours before Slipknot took the stage, and they kept falling down well after the cool of the night began to set in.

All that said, I cannot help feeling that I was part of something special this weekend. There is this strange stereotype in some circles that rock and roll is music for lower to middle class white people, but attending an event like Open Air reveals just how diverse the fandom around metal and hard rock truly is, and it promotes a sense of community that is increasingly hard to come by in this corner of the music industry. Each band had songs that made tens of thousands sing in unison, and you could tell from the smiles stretched across the crowd’s faces that they too felt part of something bigger than themselves. Any event that can pull off that feat is one worthy of your time, and I sincerely hope another installment happens sometime in 2017.