It’s never too late in the year for a good American Rock Festival. While Spring and Summer brought some heavy hitters, both new and returning, October began shaping up earlier this year with two major players claiming a mid-October weekend, both guaranteed to delight fans in massive numbers. While Aftershock took over the West Coast of the US, Exit 111 was ready to tear through Tennessee’s Great Stage Park, appropriately right off of Route 24’s exit of the same number. Taking place on the same grounds as the yearly festival Bonaroo, Exit 111 set out on its maiden voyage hoping to do for Rock and Metal in the fall what the popular spring festival does for a wide array of music genres. Three days of great up-and-coming bands, along with some undisputable legends in the industry caught the attention of people near and far.
The festival also employed the services of the Paranormal Cirque, who sold out every show throughout their weekend along with a Red Bull Motocross Experience giving fans an up-close and personal view of motocross riders Brody Wilson, Keith Sayers, and James Carter. In addition, there was a wide array of food vendors to keep any appetite sated and a Mega Sports Bar to help sports fans keep up to the minute on their favorite college and professional sports, with fans loudly cheering and booing as the plays unfolded. Of course, the star of any festival is the music, and an hour after the doors opened at 3:00 PM, both side stages were ready to kick off the inaugural Exit 111 Festival.
While Watermox geared up to start the Rise Above Stage, the Hell Stage prepared to host Kyle Shutt, of The Sword fame. After speaking out of his displeasure of The Sword’s hiatus, Kyle Shutt set out to test the waters on a side project under his own name. The resulting self-titled album released earlier this year strayed away from what fans of The Sword was known and loved for but has proven to be an enjoyable, diverse record that was on full display for stage’s early-joining crowd. After a small technical hiccup, Shutt was off to the races with “Big City” and “Ain’t Going Out Tonight” before humoring people by saying the next song, “I Can’t Dance” is based on a true story. More cuts off the album followed before Shutt, and his band closed with a cover of “Goofy’s Concern” by the Butthole Surfers. It’s easy for fans of a band to fall into the trap of wanting to hear more of the same, but Shutt’s first independent outing shows he is ready to explore a wider music field and give fans a look into his own personal style.
The Cadillac Three
While the side stages closed out their performances, more eyes became drawn to the main stage, dubbed The Heaven Stage. The large stage had two lit up eagles, one-off to each side, and a giant version of the festival’s logo looming high over the stage. The rear of the stage featured a giant screen which many of the acts band to show off band logos or videos throughout their performance. There was no mistaking who would kick off the first day on the main stage as the screen lit up with “The Cadillac Three” in large bold font along with a skeleton version of each member. The Southern Rock trio has been making waves over the last few years with their energetic sets and interaction with fans. Vocalist / Guitarist Jaren Johnston leads the way while Dobro player Kelby Ray and drummer Neil Mason each soaked in the crowd from separate platforms.
With the band calling nearby Nashville their home, there was plenty of love in the air for the hometown heroes as they broke into their first track, appropriately “Tennessee.” The band soon followed with another locally themed track with “Tennessee Mojo” before cracking into “Whiskey & Smoke” and “Down to the River,” which included an outro from Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The fun continued with “Whiskey,” followed by a steel bass solo before the band polished off their set with fan-favorite “The South.” Set to debut a new single with “Crackin’ Cold Ones with the Boys,” the trio shows no signs of slowing down the show. An easy band to get behind for all Southern Rock fans, The Cadillac Three bring the party every time they hit the stage.
Black Stone Cherry
As the evening progressed, Bishop Gunn took their turn on the Rise Above stage while Black Stone Cherry was tasked with entertaining the Hell stage crowd. Hailing from nearby Edmonton, Kentucky, the Hard Rock band draws inspiration from blues, southern rock, metal among other genres to provide a sound that is very uniquely their own. With 18 years together, Chris Robertson (Vocals / Guitar), Ben Wells (Lead Guitar), Jon Lawthon (Bass Guitar), and John Fred Young (Drums / Piano) have been celebrating the release of their 2018 album, Family Tree. The group is also setting up to release their second EP of cover tracks titled Back to Blues.“Burnin'” would take the honors for the band’s opening track. While Robertson held steady providing the vocals, Wells and Lawthon took over the entire stage. The band’s nonstop energy brought the festival to a new level as fans listened in to songs, including “Blind Man” and “In My Blood.” “Cheaper to Drink Alone” went on to wow fans with an included part of The Jimi Hendrix Experience jam of “Purple Haze” before the band said goodbye to the crowd with “Family Tree.” Proving never to slow down, the group has continued to tour relentlessly since the festival. Seeing this band live should be a priority for any rock fan, as it’s impossible not to get caught up with the presence they have on stage.
Speaking of stage presence, at 6:30 PM, Anthrax was set to take over the Heaven stage. One of, if not the most iconic thrash metal bands in existence, the New York City natives came ready to show that the guys up North can rock just as much as their Southern friends. The group has been turning (and banging) heads with their unstoppable tracks, proving to be just as relevant in the 2010’s as they were when they first arrived in 1981 with Grammy nominations for Best Metal Performance in 2013, 2014 and 2015 for “I’m Alive”, “TNT” and ” Neon Knights” respectively. With the lights out, Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” blasted over the loudspeakers before Joey Belladonna (Vocals), Jon Donais (Lead Guitar), Frank Bello (Bass) Scott Ian (Rhythm Guitar) and Charlie Benante (Drums) came to the Heaven stage ready to raise some hell.
Paying tribute to Pantera, the band played a snippet of “Cowboys From Hell” before officially opening with “Caught in a Mosh.” A cover of “Got the Time” followed as Belladonna took over one of the videographer’s cameras, turning it towards the fans as their faces showed up on the side screens, eliciting major cheers from the entertained crowd. A mild, but steady rain did nothing to slow down the fun. “Madhouse,” “Now It’s Dark,” and AIR were among the band’s next few treats before the group added contributed another cover with Trust’s “Antisocial” before finishing off their night with “Indians” including another snipped of “Cowboys From Hell.” Continuing to make waves, Anthrax found themselves aboard the Megacruise later that weekend, hosted by Megadeth with contributions from Testament, Corrosion of Conformity, and Doro, among others. The band shows no desire to slow down and is just as much the center of the thrash metal world as they’ve ever been.
Black Label Society
As day turned to night; It was time for Black Label Society to add to the Hell Stage’s aura. While 10 Years gave fans an alternative on the Rise Above stage, the heavy metal group fronted by legendary guitarist Zakk Wylde readied themselves for fans looking to bang their heads. With the band coming together 30 years ago, the group’s library has grown to epic proportions with ten studio albums among other releases with their most recent release, Grimmest Hits, released last year to rave reviews. With his signature, Bullseye guitars, sporting a kilt, Wylde joined the stage with band members John DeServio (Bass), Drio Lorina (Guitar), and Jeff Fabb (Drums) as the stage was lit low with deep reds to set the mood.
The onslaught began with “Genocide Junkies,” with Wylde routinely climbing up his platform to band his head side to side. “Funeral Bell” and “Suicide Messiah,” among others, continued to pump up the energy levels as Wylde raised his guitar high up into the sky as if offering it to the Rock Gods. Whether it be part of Black Label Society, alongside Ozzy Osbourne or in one of his many side projects, Wylde continues to show a true mastery of the guitar, seamlessly pulling off guitar solos that would leave a lesser man in the dust. “In This River and “Fire it Up” helped keep the set strong before the band closed out with “Stillborn,” to the raucous crowd. Fans threw up their devil horns to salute the group as they closed their set before immediately turning their attention to another metal monolith on the Heaven stage.
While not technically the headliner, for metalheads in attendance, the most anticipated act of the night was never in doubt. From well before the gates opening time, yells of “Fucking Slayer!” could be heard echoing throughout the fairgrounds as the band prepared to play not only their final Tennessee show but their final festival outing as well. The California based Thrash band has been taking no prisoners since 1981, with no topic off limits through the band’s dozen albums. Winner of two Grammy Awards for “Best Metal Performance” alongside three other nominations, the band’s unrelenting tracks have earned them spot amongst the “Big Four” Thrash Metal bands, alongside the iconic Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax. With the band’s 8:30 set time drawing near, crowds came around the corners from both side stages to add to the masses for the last Tennessee performance of Slayer. For Tom Araya (vocals, bass), Kerry King (guitar), Paul Bostaph (drums) and Gary Holt (guitar), the night was bittersweet, but one that they were ready to take by the horns.
With Marshall amps lining nearly the entirety of the stage, things were set to get loud as the group made their entrance. Opening with “Repentless,” fans took no time banging heads, opening mosh pits, and tossing up crowd surfers. Things literally heated up as “Mandatory Suicide” was aided by a healthy dose of pyro, something that would be prevalent throughout the rest of the set. Cuts of “World Painted Blood,” “War Ensemble,” and “Payback” alongside others continued the trend with the band occasionally taking time between songs to soak up the crowd’s boisterous cheers.
Araya summed up the band’s feelings perfectly, exclaiming, “This is our last festival date, period. So, this is a special evening for us”. Fans did their part to make it extra special by leaving nothing behind as the band cracked into “Seasons in the Abyss” The mayhem continued with “Hell Waits,” “Raining Blood” and “Dead Skin Mask” before the band said goodbye to the crowd, perhaps for good, with “Angel of Death”. Taking longer than usual to leave the stage, the four enjoyed their last few moments in front of the giant crowd before thanking fans and bringing their festival run to an end.
It could be argued that Slayer’s slot should have been the headlining position, but what matters is that both Slayer and their fans made this performance feel like one. While the phrase “Final Tour” has always been met with doubt by fans and insiders alike, if this truly is the swan song for Slayer, the metal community will surely miss these titans of the industry. Time will tell if the quartet will ever take to the stage again, but their music will undoubtedly live forever.
Of course, the night was still not over. Seether would get the nod of closing out the Rise Above stage while Massachusetts metal titans Killswitch Engage capped off the night for the Hell Stage. Rising from the ashes of bands Overcast and Aftershock, members Jesse Leach (Lead Vocals), Adam Dutkiewicz (Lead Guitar), Joel Stroetzel (Guitar), Mike D’Antoinio (Bass) and Justin Foley (Drums) joined together to form a hard hitting band that gave metal fans one more act to rock out to before headlining act Lynyrd Skynrd was set to close out the Heaven stage. Now, with twenty years under their name, Killswitch Engage is an unstoppable force in the metal community.
With lights dimmed low with blues and greens, Leach started the set standing high on a platform behind Foley before rushing to the front of the stage. Much like the band’s opening track, he too seemed to become “Unleashed” as the group started their set. The cut off the band’s newest album, Atonement, continues to build on the bands growing collection of surefire hits. Tracks “My Last Serenade” and “Beyond the Flames” helped build the crowd up as fans got the lasts of their crowd surfing in for the night. “Self Revolution marked the halfway point of a 17-track set with the band’s energy continuing to build. “Always” and “My Curse” were the next two casualties before the band rattled off “This Is Absolution” for the live crowd. Paying Homage to metal legend Dio, the group closed out their set with “Holy Diver” for the Tennesee faithful.
The last American stop for the band currently, Killswitch Engage is now touring overseas in Europe, delighting fans on a global scale. With Homage continuing the band’s upward momentum, metal fans can rest assured there will be plenty more in the band’s future.
And finally, it was time for none other than Southern Rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd to close out the Exit 111‘s inaugural opening night. Given the festival’s Southern roots, the band proved to be the perfect way to cap off the first night. While faces and names aside from guitarist Gary Rossington may have changed, the driving force behind Lynyrd Skynyrd is simple. Arrive. Raise Hell. Play “Free Bird.” Perhaps that’s an understatement as the group is responsible for countless time-tested hits that even casual fans can recite from memory. Alongside Rossington is vocalist Johnny Van Zant (Brother of original vocalist Ronnie), guitarist Rickey Medlock, drummer Michael Cartellone, guitarist Mark Matejka, keyboardist Peter Keys, and bassist Keith Christopher. A battle-tested band for sure, the group’s notoriety had fans in full force despite dropping temperatures and rainfall. Currently riding out what has been labeled as the “Last of The Street Survivors Farewell Tour,” the band has a final album in the works.
A video montage of the group’s album artwork played as the fans cheered each subsequent release before the band circled around Cartellone’s kit as the darkened stage was lit only by the name of the tour. One final salute to one another, the band took to their positions and kicked off the set with “Workin’ for the MCA” followed by “I Ain’t the One.” Zant humored fans by saying how the band wasn’t sure about playing a heavy metal festival, “but hell, we love heavy metal,” which brought a roar out from the crowd. Though the environment was surely different from the stage’s previous act, the aura was no less enjoyable. Gone were the mosh pits and headbanging, replaced by dancing and singing along with fans.
As the set moved on, the hits continued, first with the iconic ‘That Smell” and later with “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” bookending a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze.” The instantly recognizable “Sweet Home Alabama” closed out the original set, but any fan in attendance could easily tell the band had one more major trick up their sleeve. After a short recess, the group rejoined the stage to loud cheers and chants for, of course, “Free Bird.” The song has become a staple in any rock collection, and the live performance of it certainly didn’t disappoint. While all good things must come to an end, fans left, knowing they still had two nights of fantastic music and activities to take in. While some endured a drive home, many kept the after-party going as they reached the areas reserved for tents and campers. With day one in the bag, Exit 111 was off to a mesmerizing start. Saturday showed even more potential with the longest day of the festival at hands while a performance by Gun N’ Roses still loomed as Sunday’s finale.