Great Stage Park in Manchester, TN became the home of the inaugural EXIT 111 festival on October 11, 2019. Produced by C3 Presents and AC Entertainment this festival is in the same location where the Bonnaroo festival is held, but with a different vibe in music and scene. I felt honored to be here covering the festival on opening day and it was definitely a day to remember. The weather was near perfect at 78 degrees and overcast. The crowd was smiling and excited to be there. And the lineup for that day was absolutely solid.
Before getting a chance to see any of the artists playing, I walked around the grounds to get my bearings. There were three stages at the festival: Heaven, which was considered the headlining stage, Hell, and Rise Above. The Rise Above stage is connected with Seether’s Rise Above charity. The festival was donating $1.00 from every ticket sold to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE). What caught my eye though was the line of people gathered up to get tickets to see the Paranomal Cirque. A mysterious show that was part freak show and part circus and it definitely had the EXIT 111 fans’ attention. The lines were huge and cast members walked about interacting with the fans. And speaking of lines, the lines for merchandise were massive. Fans were dumping hundreds of dollars to pick up their own EXIT 111 shirt or a shirt from one of their favorite bands playing this weekend. And while people waited in the merch line, they watched motocross motorcycles performing feats of aerial acrobatics.
The opening day didn’t open until 3 PM to give campers and residents of Manchester or those traveling a chance to get there before festivities started. The first artist I got the opportunity to see that day were the Kentucky rockers Black Stone Cherry on the Hell stage. The band was more than pleased to be playing at the festival and put on a hell of a show. Chris Robertson’s vocals were great and Ben Wells kept throwing jump kicks all over the stage. Those who were able to make their set were not disappointed. It was the first time I got to see them live and I’m glad I did. Great music, great energy, and solid hard rock. From there, it was over to the Heaven stage to see one of the legendary masters of thrash metal, Anthrax. They’ve been rocking fans since 1981 and with 11 studio albums under their belt, with the last being For All Kings in 2016, they certainly show no sign of slowing down. The crowd erupted in cheers when they hit the stage and they looked elated to their reaction. Vocalist Joey Belladonna spoke to the crowd often to get them hyped up, but honestly, this crowd did not need any encouragement. The fans were singing along, crowd surfing into the photo pit, and moshing. Anthrax made their mark on EXIT 111 and it was amazing.
The one drawback for fans was having to make tough choices on who to see on the Hell or Rise Above stage. Both stages ran their sets at the exact same time and though you could probably see half a set and run over to possibly catch the tail end of the other, most fans were sticking to seeing one or the other. My choice next was to go see 10 Years at the Rise Above stage. For the band, this was pretty much a local home show. Originally out of Knoxville, TN, the rock band has been hammering the airwaves since 1999. Their musical writing and lyrics are emotionally charged and memorable (once you hear a 10 Years song it sticks with you). And their live performances never let down their fans. And they didn’t that night either. With fog pouring on the stage, the band gave those fans a stellar live performance. I was thrilled to be in the pit photographing when they played one of my favorite songs “Fix Me” from Feeding The Wolves.
After you have Anthrax perform it’s hard to top. Yet, EXIT 111 set up a lineup that day which did just that. Back at the Heaven stage, thousands were already packed in and waiting for another legendary thrash band, Slayer! The California metal band has been around since 1981 and unfortunately made the decision to retire. Though a sad decision, the band has made their Final World Tour one for the ages trying to hit as many cities as they can before calling it quits. I saw them in Orlando, FL in 2018 on this tour, so I was thrilled to get another chance to photograph them. The stage was covered in a drape and when the music started four white crosses appeared on the drape, which slowly turned upside down. The Slayer logo then appeared before they pulled down the drape and the band was ripping into “Repentless”. And this crowd went insane. Tom Araya (vocals, bass), Kerry King (guitar), Gary Holt (guitar), and Paul Bostaph (drums) were energized by the crowd’s reaction and lived up to the hype everyone expected. Tom stood behind the mic belting out the lyrics, and Gary and Kerry were ripping out the guitar riffs with such precision and speed. Paul sat behind his massive drum set smashing out sounds faster than I ever heard. Slayer was on fire and they brought the pyro with them too. It was a phenomenal appearance that night and was listed as their last for the state of Tennesse. If this is the case, Slayer left it all out on the stage for the fans.
But, we weren’t done yet! I headed over to the Hell stage to see one of my personal favorite bands, Killswitch Engage. The metal band has rocked stages since 1999 and has made major airwaves due to their solid live appearances and phenomenal albums. Their most recent album, Atonement, maybe one of their best yet. You can read my review of that HERE. And here at EXIT 111, they put on a great show. Vocalist Jesse Leach had to take some time off due to vocal surgery last year, and he sounded better than ever. He was smiling and looked happy to be on the stage with this festival crowd urging them on. They played some of my favorites from Atonement opening with “Unleashed”, which will get any fan moshing and banging heads, “I Am Broken Too”, and “The Signal Fire”. I didn’t realize until Jesse stated it was the first show they were playing supporting Atonement. The band was having some fun with the fans too. Guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz saw a crowd surfer in a panda outfit. The fan started crowd surfing again. Adam started chanting “Mosh Pit Panda!” and getting the crowd to cheer him on too. Their set that night was perfect with these newly added songs. I hope to catch them again on another leg of this tour.
The weather dropped significantly as the night went on getting into the high 50s. And when the wind kicked up, you can truly feel the difference from early in the day. Though it was cold, the last band of the evening heated up the Heaven stage as legendary southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd! Formed back in 1964, the Jacksonville, FL natives made their mark in rock history with some of the most well known songs “Simple Man” and “Free Bird”. The band had the EXIT 111 fans packed in like sardines and they were fans of all ages too to see them. I was thrilled for this opportunity to both photograph them and see them live for the first time. I was not disappointed! Johnny Van Zant (vocals), Gary Rossington (guitar), Rickey Medlocke (guitar), Mark Matejka (guitar), Keith Christopher (bass), Michael Cartellone (drums), and Peter Keys (keyboards, piano) rocked that stage. The band had announced in 2018 this was their farewell tour labeled the Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour and they ensured the EXIT 111 fans would remember this performance. They, of course, played some of their greatest hits including “Saturday Night Special”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, “Simple Man”, and then encored to close the festival with “Freebird”.
EXIT 111 had a phenomenal opening day for this brand new festival. C3 Presents and AC Entertainment are making a mark with this new festival and I look forward to seeing with Saturday and Sunday.