As Day One of the 2016 Carolina Rebellion, the largest rock festival in the mid-Atlantic, opened its bleary eyes to the clouds above, I strolled into the Music Experience Tent and became acutely aware of the activity of my parotid glands. The walls were covered with some of the most beautiful creations by Paul Reed Smith, Epiphone, Yamaha, and the latest Les Pauls. A life-size cardboard cutout of Slash made me feel like if I had one of these marvelous pieces of wood and metal that – as if under the spell of Rumpelstiltskin, had been spun (or rather, cut, rasped, sanded, and buffed) into gold – in my hands, I would somehow be granted the incredible powers of the rock elite. “Follow me,” whispered Slash, as a pubescent boy with greasy hair did some remarkable things with one of the Epiphone samples. Sales reps offered me the opportunity to play some of the guitars that were on display, but I chickened out (much like my guitar teacher chickened out on me with the excuse, “I have to return a video”) and drifted past the Fender amps, Dunlop pedals, and the too good to be true Orange Crush Pro CR60C combo.
There was some rumbling in the distance and I made my way to the main stage to catch Sick Puppies. The guitar flowed and vocalist Bryan Scott delivered the lyrics, inciting the crowd to good-natured revelry. Scott then organized two mosh pits, headed up by the two craziest attendees he could identify from his vantage on stage, for the song “Black and Blue.” The song is a battle cry to soldiering on in the face of difficulty – much like surviving a pit with the craziest guys a metal artist can find in a crowd of metal enthusiasts, I suppose. The drums pounded out the persistent heartbeat of someone who has been knocked down as they get back up. Those drums were my musical pacemaker, the bass shaking my consciousness and reminding me I am alive.
By this point, my initial shock at seeing so many white males in the same place had just about worn off. Then, Lacey Sturm took the stage with a voice bigger than any Billy Graham evangelical event. She wailed and screamed with the same grace with which she mixed femininity and metal – a feat few modern rockers can manage to pull off. Sturm was definitely the only artist of the weekend to don a black and white striped dress and pink Converse. She performed her cover of The Police’s “Roxanne,” the first ‘Roxanne’ a primal cry, as if she were crying for freedom, for liberation from the tired tropes of mainstream society. The crowd writhed as one as Sturm continued, spinning like a top and letting out the wails of a well-trained chanteuse.
Sick Puppies “There’s No Going Back” on Youtube
From Ashes to New, one of the groups I was most excited to see, took their turn on the stage, and off, with various band members crowdsurfing (as they are known to do), without missing a beat. When they struck up “Through It All” the crowd heated to a roiling boil. As they sang the line “through it all you changed me… you changed me forever,” the song effected on the audience the very thing it is about. As he finished up the song’s vocals, Matt Brandyberry launched himself onto the outstretched arms of the crowd (someone with a GoPro got a really good video until Brandyberry’) and every person in attendance was changed, forever.
After FATN, I let the guitars of Black Stone Cherry hypnotize me while the drums, strong like Mariusz Pudzianowski, pounded on. The guitar solo in “Soul Machine” parted the clouds. As the set wore on, drummer John Fred Young channeled something primal, that universal lifeblood that is shared by every human being – even the prelinguistic ones (I’m looking at you, Australopithecus).
I then managed to catch Avatar, who nearly caused me to fill my Moleskine with my hurried scribbles, as frenetic as the performance. After all, the performance is part of the experience, and these guys get it. From their antiquated uniforms to Johannes Eckerström’s clown paint and bemused vocals, Avatar’s parlor show is full of thrashing, wailing, the beating of drums and the weeping of strings. Johannes exudes the confidence of Dr. Frankenfurter performing “Sweet Transvestite” to such a degree, I wonder who his alter-ego is (a Brian Warner type, perhaps?). The group’s synchronized hair swinging brought to my attention the fact that every single member of Avatar has better hair than I do, and I found myself wondering how often they condition. The emotive vocals of “Smells Like a Freakshow” were astounding. (I’d love to see a vocal analysis on Eckerström like the one recently published about .) This performance reminded me that the whole of society is a freakshow, as it took a turn for the circus-like. Who is watching whom?
I saw Candlebox on the lineup and it seemed too good to be true. That voice from my childhood, the band born of grunge and plaid, appeared before me in the flesh, ripped plaid button-ups and all. The years have been kind to Candlebox. Their set was performed with the polished facility of seasoned performers, but with variety that spanned decades in sound and rock ingenuity. Pop Evil’s frontman Leigh Kakaty’s vocals were smooth like a midnight ride in the country, and as they closed the set with “Footsteps (Go Higher),” they manipulated the crowd into a frenzy – the sea of fists and horns pumping in unison resembled sea kelp. The Escape the Fate show was my first sight of blood of the weekend (an eyebrow). Drummer Robert Ortiz played on in sunglasses and the crowd went nuts for “Remember Every Scar.”
Sixx:A.M. graced the throngs with their presence on the main stage. To see Nikki Sixx, DJ Ashba, and James Michael in person was to be in the presence of gods. Indeed, the band played “When We Were Gods,” hitting notes of nostalgia for a retrospectively simpler – albeit equally complicated in its own way – time. Like inhabitants of the Pantheon, they played to a crowd of thousands paying homage to the rock greats. The guitar was regular and strong like a riverboat wheel, as Michael’s voice lapped at its sides, each pushing the other forward toward the guitar solo. Ashba hit notes like a superball launched sideways into a small room. As the reverberations died down, the audience felt the euphoria of having participated in a spiritual ruckus.
Following that otherworldly experience were 3 Doors Down, Collective Soul, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, which while nice to see, simply did not compare to the acts from earlier in the day. Lynyrd Skynyrd included their Confederate flag shtick and the people around me seemed to love it, which was the only moment during the weekend where I felt queasy and unsafe.
I stuck around for the final show of the day: Scorpions. Motörhead veteran Mikkey Dee was on the drums and oh, what a treat that was! He was a conduit of the rock gods, a cosmic delivery of the basic principle of physics of a body in motion. Not once did he stop moving, and the rhythm, force, and artistic selection of the supposedly inanimate bodies he put into motion (i.e., the tom, the bass, the snare, the power crash and hi-hats) was nothing short of godly. Percussive theism, if you will. The age of the lead singer showed on his face and made the lyrics coming from his pipes more believable, perhaps, than twenty years ago. The delicious metal of “No One Like You” hit me like acid wash on a pair of Levi’s. They put the power in “power ballad” and the spark in my night. They revved up the Carolina Rebellion and made me wish the night would pass quickly so I could see what Day Two had in store.