The last time I saw Rob Zombie in concert I got hit in the back of the head with a giant clump of dirt. I was 18, and it was my second Ozzfest, the now-defunct touring festival, featuring Ozzy Osbourne and a whole day’s worth of heavy-metal opening acts. Rob was close to the top of the bill, doing his hillbilly shock-rocker thing for a visibly drunk, near-capacity crowd. As the mechanical stutter of “More Human Than Human” blared from the amphitheater speakers, my fellow festival-goers watching from the downward-sloping lawn section of the Verizon Wireless Music Center began ripping up the turf underneath them and hurling it in the general direction of the stage. It was a sight to see, this apocalyptic downpour, and it went so well with the ruckus being made by the band that I didn’t even really mind when one of those organic projectiles connected with my noggin, almost knocking me to my knees. A little dirt in the hair is a small price to pay for rock ’n’ roll.
I thought about that sky-is-falling moment from my concert-going youth last Friday, when I once again found myself planted in a mess of strangers, watching the Astro Creep himself dust off the most anthemic staples from his White Zombie days. I thought about it—but then, I didn’t feel it. Part of that is probably just that Zombie is, well, older. He still brings the big-top showmanship: the demonic clown makeup, the garish costumes and props (including, this time, some alien sex dolls), the original and classic horror-movie imagery flashing behind him. But here and now, in 2017, that maximalist stage gimmickry has become almost the whole show—a way to compensate for the fact that Zombie, now in his 50s, seems to funnel most of his demented energy into filmmaking, not performing.
And of course, I’m older, too. “More Human Than Human” remains the same, but I’m not. And nothing short of getting beaned by a flying mound of dirt was really going to take me back.
Maybe all willful nostalgia trips are doomed to fail. I could sense mine faltering constantly over this past weekend in the summer sun, watching bands I liked a lifetime ago (plus a few that are still in my wheelhouse). Now in its second year, Chicago Open Air is basically Ozzfest for the destination-festival era; ignore the fact that Ozzy himself headlined this year and you still have a vast lineup of acts that either did play the metal god’s annual jamboree or could have. They’re spread across two stages at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois (home of the soccer team Chicago Fire). The schedule has been designed to insure little to no overlap between sets, meaning that a three-day ticket-holder could conceivably see every single band on the bill. I personally ended up seeing a lot of them. But far from reconnecting me to my youth, the experience just reinforced a sobering reality: In stamina, in enthusiasm, in musical taste, I am not 18 anymore.
It’s no accident that Chicago Open Air falls on the same calendar weekend as Pitchfork. The festival has been conceived as counter-programming—a parallel party for those who would rather see two of Slipknot’s “associated acts” than any recipient of Pitchfork’s coveted “Best New Music” accolade. Everyone from the artists to the attendees to the organizers of Open Air seem to define themselves by what they’re not. The festival offers an array of “Gourmet Man Food,” which the website helpfully explains is “not pretentious,” lest anyone worry that shelling out $10 or more for a hamburger will mark them as some kind of snob. “This isn’t an EDM show,” Seether frontman Shaun Morgan announced, teasing his bandmate that no one here cared about the bass. And the T-shirts on display provide their own study in identity-through-opposition: One festival-goer implores “Die Hipster Scum” in big white letters, while another’s back reads “Kill Justin Bieber.” (Bieber took some heat from the metalheads on stage, too. Fish in barrel, consider yourself shot.)
In a sea of band logos and tattooed torsos, I stuck out like a sore thumb: thoughtlessly decked out in my most short-sleeved button-up, scribbling my impressions on a tiny notepad feet away from a churning mosh pit. But did I ever really fit the profile? It would be pure romanticism to say that nü-metal—that maligned late-’90s subgenre of dreadlocked style, down-tuned guitars, and hip-hop beats—provided a real sense of belonging to a scrawny, shy kid like myself. The irony is that the very aggression that drew me to the music often repelled me; I could sing (and head-bang) along to the tough-guy posturing, and I could enjoy an entire lawn being ruined in tribute to a rock star, but I could never really get in touch with my inner Fred Durst. In that sense, Chicago Open Air is a bit like stepping into my own adolescence—but with the crucial difference that the radio-friendly crunch of, say, Godsmack’s “Whatever” no longer gets my heart pounding, even when played loud enough to rattle my skeleton. I’m still an outsider in this scene, but now I’ve largely outgrown the music, too.
Still, even bad metal can sound good live; it’s made to be blasted out of giant speakers, after all. And part of the fun of a metal festival is that every band is trying to play louder and go bigger—to “win” the weekend, to upstage the headliners, maybe to make a few new fans. At Open Air, where almost no one gets more than 40 minutes, this requires a kind of economical salesmanship—a feverish attempt to grab attention through whatever means necessary.
Stuck with a punishing 12:50 p.m. set on the first day, the hardcore upstarts of Code Orange spent long stretches of their precious half hour telling the crowd how much of an impression they thought they were making, as though saying it will make it so. (Their crushing, stop-start breakdowns could do the trick just fine.) Other bands relied on tried-and-true heavy-metal stage tricks. The spirited, superbly bearded death-metal Swedes of Amon Amarth offered dueling cosplay barbarians and a giant, wooden viking ship with glowing eyes and smoke-billowing nostrils. When they briefly blew out the sound system, it felt like a show of force, not a fuck-up. Fire, too, is a crucial component of their live show. They’re not alone in putting their faith in the cheer-inspiring power of an open flame.
For Ohio Ozzfest veterans Mushroomhead, showmanship is a combination of Halloween-costume theatricality and crowd work. As two drummers sent splashes of color flying up from their kits like malevolent outcasts of the Blue Man Group, other members of the masked six-piece leaped into the ocean of onlookers, inspiring the security guards helplessly trying to pull down crowd-surfers to throw their own hands up in defeat. I may not understand why I ever found the band frightening, but I get the appeal of its live show—though a tribal-industrial version of “When Doves Cry” may steal the title of worst cover of the weekend, even with power-metal goofballs Dragonforce turning “Ring Of Fire” into a speed-demon novelty. (On the faithful cover front, Crobot paused its solid Zeppelin throwback party to pay tribute to the late Chris Cornell by running through Audioslave’s “Cochise.”)
Even the most bare-bones, nothing-but-the-music acts found ways to package their sonic assault for a big audience. In the case of viciously intense three-piece Pig Destroyer, that meant including the unnerving spoken/screamed word samples that break up its bite-sized grindcore assaults on record. As if anticipating the relative minimalism of the band’s approach, the crowd picks up the slack in the spectacle department; a quick scan of the sardine-tight mass of bodies around the stage reveals a guy in a makeshift Spider-Man costume air-drumming, another guy in a pig costume moshing, and a teenager texting while crowd-surfing.
There are times when Open Air feels a lot like a monster-truck rally, and times when it feels like a USO show. Sirius XM’s Jose Mangin, a beanstalk of pure fandom, kept popping on stage to play hype man for the various groups he was introducing. At one point, he’s joined by a line of scantily clad “Monster Energy girls,” there to be ogled while promoting the festival’s major corporate sponsor. (Casual sexism is an unfortunate running theme, extending from some of the between-song banter to overheard conversations across the park.) It was a largely apolitical weekend, too: If these artists have thoughts about what’s going on in America right now, they kept them to themselves. Most of them do, anyway. Introduced by Mangin as the most “dangerous” band on the bill, presumably for straying beyond the lyrical topics of Satan and being tough, Ice-T’s seminal rap-metal group Body Count instantly won over the crowd by opening with a cover of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” The aging rapper then used his band’s abbreviated set to call the president a “dumb fuck,” say the words “Black Lives Matter” to a mass of (mostly) white faces, and lead the crowd in a chant of “Fuck the police” during controversial milestone “Cop Killer.” (“I play one on TV,” the Law And Order star said, noting the irony. “They can still suck my dick.”) It ended up being one of the most electrifying performances of the weekend.
Body Count’s late-afternoon slot takes place on the smaller Blackcraft Stage in the back parking lot, which hosts, almost without fail, the best sets by the best bands. This is where The Dillinger Escape Plan delivered 40 minutes of spastic brutality for what could be one of the last times, if the band makes good on its threat to call it quits; where Meshuggah hypnotized everyone with its thunderous, mechanical grind, sounding like futuristic metal cyborgs on a mission to put the rest of the lineup to shame; where superbly noisy trio Whores—one of the few bands that could conceivably earn an invite to the trendier festival happening in the city proper—hopefully converted some stray Stone Sour fans with some crushingly good music. Hell, even the thrash legends of Slayer found themselves delivering time-tested, down-to-a-science asskickery on this side stage, drawing an audience big enough to surround the larger Monster Energy Main Stage in the stadium proper.
That big stage became a showcase for the more accessible attractions: the eyeliner-wearing Alternative Press darlings, the FM-dominating groups just heavy enough to play alongside proper metal bands, the legacy acts trotting out fine-tuned setlists of old favorites and newer singles. Big Four legends Anthrax take the latter route, but they clearly have a blast doing it, with guitarist and founding member Scott Ian grinning ear to ear as he ripped through classics like “Caught In A Mosh.” During this greatest-hits rundown, a middle-aged man from Virginia struck up a conversation, asking me if I’m old enough to remember the band’s heyday. “Not really,” I reply. “They were past their prime by the time I knew who they were.” He’s here with his wife and also his mother-in-law, who he tells me has just turned 70 and is an “old-school metal fan.” I wondered what it must have been like to have gotten into metal during the genre’s early days, to have heard Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” when there was really nothing else like it out there.
“Are you a big Anthrax guy?” I ask him. ”Man, I remember buying their album on vinyl when it came out,” he tells me, suddenly wistful. “Our memories fade but the music doesn’t. It helps us remember.” He, too, is chasing a nostalgia high.
I get mine eventually. Is it any surprise that Korn was the band to do the trick? If nü-metal has a Metallica or a Black Sabbath—a defining group, a generational giant—it’s Korn. They embody the key characteristics of this perhaps regrettable movement, but also its fascinating contradictions. They presented themselves as lonely outsiders while also creating a whole subculture—a brand, even—around their style. They took self-loathing to new depths, while also turning that hatred outward, converting it into threats of violence. Frontman Jonathan Davies wrote a whole song (“Faget”) about being bombarded with homophobic slurs in high school, only to playfully toss around the same insults during a kind of back-and-forth diss track (“All In The Family”) with Fred Durst. For this particular onetime Korn fan, a big part of the draw was image: the particular blend of goth and hip-hop that constituted their fashion sense, the Todd McFarlane horror-comic imagery woven into their music videos and album art. And Korn appealed to me as a lower-income kid with a frequently dysfunctional home life. They made feeling weird, alone, and different cool.
Maybe I’m over-intellectualizing. Mostly, I liked the sound: the insane-asylum lilt of Davies’ vocals, the pounding bass, the way even the guitars sounded angry, like buzzing insects. All of that came back to me on Saturday night as the band took the stage for its headlining set, flooding the entire arena with lumbering lullabies. (Say what you want about these guys, but they know how to fill a gigantic space.) Korn is still putting out new records, but at least in a festival setting, they’re a nostalgia act, playing the hits to the cheap seats. And as the looping, ghostly guitar hook of “Falling Away From Me” suddenly rang out across the stadium, I’m finally 15 again, cruising around my Michigan hometown in an $800 junker, sure that I’ll never hear a song I like more.
The time-travel sensation faded as Korn moved on to another smash from their back catalogue. And I left before the encore, denying myself “Blind” and “Freak On A Leash.” I’d gotten my fix, the flashback I’d been seeking all weekend. Besides, if I stay to the end, I’d have had to fight thousands of metal fans out of the parking lot. There are some experiences from my teenage years that can safely stay there.