Ah, RockFest. It’s a beautiful shitshow, a 5-day music festival in the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin. Define ‘beautiful shitshow’,” you say? Well let’s just say that you can drunkenly wander off to find deep fried macaroni and cheese and come back with a belly button piercing–but it’s a good time, and a rock and roll party all along the way. Anyway, the last two years, I attended as a performer with my former band, Vaudeville. They have a great concept really: RockFest gives early day main stage slots to smaller and local bands, which is an awesome opportunity to play on a mega stage and feel like rock gods out on the catwalk.
The 4 side stage beer tents are also taken by local bands providing entertainment during main stage changeovers, which is where I find myself this year as a roadie for another recent band of mine, Kick.
It all adds up to non-stop entertainment for 5 days. Most attendees camp out for the duration, and the campgrounds practically host a festival of their own. There are regulars that have attended for 20+ years, always securing the same campsite, and setting up elaborate party zones where the liquor flows freely and the music literally never stops. Even with this being only my third year at RockFest, I immediately recognised friends and familiar faces from years past. There is an overall feeling of family at the festival; everyone is crammed together for five days to get sweaty, drunk, and have a good time. Is it kind of trashy? Of course. Will you feel disgusting Monday morning? You better, or you’re doing RockFest wrong. Is it worth it? You bet your ass.
In the past couple years, I’ve seen rock and roll history at the festival; bands I never thought I’d have the chance to see: Aerosmith, KISS, REO Speedwagon, Motley Crüe, Cheap Trick, Live, and dozens more all in one place. There really isn’t another word to sum it up besides stunning. Even if these bands aren’t your jam, you have to appreciate the sheer amount of influence that is strutting across that stage.
Enough with my vodka-hazed nostalgia trip though, let’s talk about RockFest 2015. This year had a different feel on several levels. First off, I was only out there for one day, Thursday, not the full festival, and not as a performer this time around. Main stage acts were more current than years past, with the likes of Godsmack, Avenged Sevenfold, Shinedown and more rock-radio staples filling out most of the slots, and the most ‘legendary’ act this year being Judas Priest. Side stages were rotated by more local bands than usual; the two years I played, we had thirteen sets played over two days; this year, each local act had around two sets total. Honestly, I went in thinking that the festival would be a downer after coming off of the last two years of epicness. Where are the staples of the 1970’s and 80’s to sing classics along with and bond with other campers over? Would the locals have enough stage time to connect with the audience and make an impact? Would one day be enough for me to find out?
I rolled up to the festival grounds shortly after 2 o’clock p.m. on a drizzly and wet Thursday. I made my way to the main stage to see the aforementioned Vaudeville already in action. Before I could even make it to the front row, I was grabbed and hugged by a couple of friends I met out there my first year.
The earlier sets weren’t nearly as packed, but Vaudeville was totally captivating the crowd that had gathered. You could tell that the people who do show up for those early sets are true music fans looking to take in as much as they can. It’s a beautiful thing when people are willing to brave the rain to watch bands they’ve never heard of, and that is one of my favorite parts of RockFest.
I made my way back to the side stage, which would be my home for the day, stage-teching for Kick. Admittedly, some of it was probably to find shelter from the rain, but people were already gathered there as well, dancing and digging the tunes. So if nothing else, I was already seeing that the love for music and camaraderie amongst people was still alive and well at RockFest.
This was verified over and over as the day went on, and the deeper into the night I got, the more saddened I was that I was only spending one day there this year. I spent the majority of my time chilling around the side stages with smaller acts and friends. I had the chance to drink and chat with people and bands I’d never met, and reconnect with great friends from previous years. I listened to some amazing musical talent; some being other friend’s bands, others were brand new to my ears, but I was constantly impressed with the caliber of young and upcoming talent showcased throughout the day. I will concede that the main stage headliners did not grab my attention this year, nor was I particularly impressed by any of the national-level acts that I did watch. Huge names, very talented, and great sound, yes, but most of the bands that dominated the main stage struck me as overplayed radio cock-rock, lacking in charisma and stage presence; but that only strengthened my love for the smaller aspects of the festival. The local-level bands giving it their all to impress new ears, and the people and sense of togetherness that you can feel everywhere, that is what made RockFest a blast for me, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. That right there should say something: this isn’t just about seeing some of the biggest names in rock music in one place, this is about discovering the names that strive to someday take their place.
Cheers RockFest, I will see you again next year.