Sonic Temple Art And Music Festival returned to Columbus, Ohio for the first time after taking three gap years.
Let’s begin with a little context. The inaugural instance of Sonic Temple was in 2019. Leading up to the event, festival promoter Danny Wimmer Presents (DWP) had discontinued an arrangement with AEG Presents to jointly produce Rock On The Range, the festival in Columbus, Ohio that Sonic Temple replaced. So, Sonic Temple needed to be different enough from Rock On The Range to dispel any raised eyebrows about the move. DWP also broke off ties at about the same time with AEG for their jointly created Carolina Rebellion festival and started a new one in its place called Epicenter. While those moves might have been sound business decisions, it still turned out to be a tough year for DWP festivals.
Epicenter was largely a disaster, due to weather and several logistical issues that are common to new festivals. The tales are harrowing – ask anybody who was there. I was not at Epicenter, but I was present for that first Sonic Temple event, and I can tell you (comparing my experiences with the stories I heard) that things went better at Sonic Temple than Epicenter, although even in Columbus the weather played havoc. There were three stages at the three-day Ohio event in 2019, and a comedy tent. Everything was great for the first couple days, with only one major band dropping out. However, on Sunday because of high winds one of the stages was closed all day, and so was the comedy tent. In addition, the venue was evacuated because of lightning for a while, leading to the cancellation of several more bands. It was a good weekend for me, though, because I did get to see Joan Jett perform on Sunday night to close the second stage right after we were let back into the stadium in the spitting rain.
In the end, that first festival was pretty good, really. Weather is always a risk at outdoor events and, while it was a bummer that so many bands got scrubbed in 2019, at least it was better than Epicenter. And besides there is always next year. Right? 2020 rolled around and the headliners were announced for the return of Sonic Temple. DWP was taking chances again, announcing that Metallica would be playing at a few of their festivals on two nights, performing entirely different sets each time. This was big news and it was met by mixed reactions. Not every fan was looking forward to seeing Metallica twice on the same weekend at the expense of another headliner. In the end it didn’t matter because James Hetfield went into rehab and Metallica cancelled. DWP quickly lined up the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tool as replacements because, you know, the show must go on. And then something else terrible happened. Anybody remember what happened in 2020? Exactly: like every other thing, Sonic Temple was cancelled due to the global health emergency.
Sonic Temple could have come back in 2021 – DWP brought back some of its other festivals. But it didn’t come back. And it did not return in 2022, either. The charm seemed to be in a three-year gap. The history of the festival is fraught with challenges and controversy, even law suits. But it has returned now, and 2023 was an excellent year.
Historic Crew Stadium, which was called Mapfre Stadium the last time I was there, is a medium-sized sports arena where Columbus Crew soccer (fútbol) used to be played. Now it is primarily a practice ground and a venue for other activities, like Sonic Temple. A good way to think about this festival as compared to others is that it is a relatively small, boutique affair, which makes this venue a solid choice for the event. The attendee numbers had been growing steadily when it was Rock On The Range, reaching a high of about 140,000 over the three-day weekend at the final event in 2018. The first year of Sonic Temple was announced to be sold out at 120,000 fans. There were noticeably fewer attendees this year, and, spread out over four days, at times the crowd looked quite thin. Under capacity, you might say.
The festival is quite expensive for the amount of music you are getting, but then the experience is much more polished and frankly more pleasant than other festivals. Let’s compare Sonic Temple to another festival coming up this year, Blue Ridge Rock Festival. Sonic Temple ended up with Seventy-two bands performing across three stages over four days. Seventy-two might sound like a lot, but spaced out the way they were, there was a lot of air in the schedule – stages were routinely quiet for around an hour between acts. Blue Ridge Rock Festival, on the other hand, plans to have one hundred fifty-two bands across four stages over four days. Let me get my calculator out … that’s more than twice as many at Blue Ridge. It is a little hard to compare prices because festivals have different levels (GA, VIP, Super VIP, etc.) and the prices change as the festival gets nearer. We do know that the highest price for a GA ticket at both festivals is about the same, and that if you had bought your ticket early at Blue Ridge, you could have grabbed it for about half that price. The broadest spread then is twice as many bands for half the price at Blue Ridge Rock Festival compared to Sonic Temple Art and Music Festival. Of course, they are not the same events – Blue Ridge is more rough-and-ready, while Sonic Temple is more pampered. Sonic Temple is held in a stadium with stages in the adjacent parking lots in Ohio, while Blue Ridge happens in a large, hilly field on the grass in Virginia. You have to weigh your options and what is important to you in order to choose one over the other.
Everything went very smoothly at Sonic Temple this year. Danny Wimmer Presents hired enough staff to do the job (with the possible exception of parking on the first day). There was plenty of security, the grounds were kept clean by a constant effort of staff to pick up trash, and there were numerous professional touches you just do not see at other festivals – little things like signage to big things like the amazing art installations. It is not my favorite festival in the US, but it is one of the best organized, most well-done festivals.
The grounds were arranged differently this year than the first time around. The main stage was inside the stadium, offering thousands of seats for the show – something very different from most rock festivals. The second and third stages were set up in parking lots, and this time there was no comedy tent. The total space seemed a little smaller, but that could be an illusion because of the alternate geometry. The art installations were back, a couple dozen spread across the open areas. They were essentially twelve-foot tall wooden boxes with images on all four sides. Some were poster-like, some looked like paintings. There were themes of horror and science fiction, and, of course, music. In addition, banners were hung around the stadium, many of the same ones that were there in 2019. The banners were quite striking, although I did hear a number of grumblings about cultural appropriation in their themes. In any case, they added a lot to the experience. I found myself strolling around every day and looking at them all over again. They also provided excellent photo opportunities for concert goers, not to mention shade from the standing forms – both aspects were appreciated and exploited continuously.
There were few long lines at the vendors of drink, food, and goods, perhaps because of the relatively light turnout. The line at the merch tent was the shortest on average I have seen at any festival in the past ten years. That was good news if you wanted to buy a t-shirt. As I keep saying, it was a comfortable festival.
The music got started on a sour note on the first day when we heard that Fever 333 had dropped out of the festival. There was no official statement from the festival about why, but I heard a rumor that there was a health issue with one of the band members. I was looking forward to seeing them in their latest incarnation after two of three members quit the band. If the photo posted on their Facebook account can be believed, Fever 333 is now a foursome. Oh well, there is always another festival. Right?
The undercard band that shined brightest on the first day was Bloodywood, a fusion band from India that started making the festival circuit last year and is on an even bigger roll early in 2023. The lineup in the middle was quite strong, with Ohio favorites Beartooth playing an emotional set, and Pennywise, Anti-Flag, and Suicidal Tendencies pulsing at their usual tempos. The biggest surprise of the day for me was Godsmack. They played a very long drum solo with Sully Erna on a second kit and separate tabla-sounding bongos that recounted recognizable lines from Metallica, AC/DC, Led Zepplin, etc. They also played an Aeromsith medley of “Dream On” and “Come Together” with Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford taking a guest spot. There was a considerable amount of displeasure voiced on social media about these two things, and some fans said they would have preferred to hear a few more Godsmack hits instead. I get that, but for me the set was great, and this was without a doubt the best performance I have ever seen/heard from Godsmack.
Tool shut things down. Here again, a lot of complaints emerged on the socials, primarily from people who are not fans of the band. True, you never really see the lead singer clearly as he prefers to hover in the back and occasionally amble toward the drum kit, but he has done that regularly for years. The songs they played were mainly newer, long, and quite involved, so if you were looking for a tune to dance to, well, you would have been disappointed. They sounded like Tool to me, and they ended the day on a high note.
Friday was a little strange. Fame On Fire stopped their show for a while because of a fan in distress. Dorothy did that too, but in a much weirder way, claiming the stricken person had died and had been resurrected, an event that propelled her into to a wild religious rant. Knocked Loose stopped their show after the first song, took a three-to-five-minute pause, then asked the crowd to take it easy so no one (else) would get hurt. I’ve never seen Knocked Loose do that before.
There was also a long list of other religious fanatics on stage Friday as well. Some bands (or lead singers at least) feel the need to tell the crowd a few things. I usually suspect they are just killing time instead playing another song. Sometimes it is an environmental message, sometimes peace and love. Sometimes left, sometimes right. And sometimes, like Friday, it’s about god. I see all these subjects coming up at a concert in exactly the same way: I would rather hear the band’s music instead of the pitch.
There was not a lot of heavy to be found on the stages this day – Knocked Loose being the notable exception. There was a decent helping of good low-key rock, and, with the less-than-capacity attendance, it was a comfortable day in Columbus. The biggest show of the day was probably I Prevail, but then they are always whipped up and ready to go. I had been looking forward to seeing Avenged Sevenfold because it has been a while for me. They were fine, fitting right into the vacation vibe established early on.
The weekenders showed up on Saturday – Kiss day at Sonic Temple. Saturday is the day that had the most bands of the festival, tipping the scales at a modest twenty, until one of the undercard bands, Dead Poet Society, dropped out. The lineup is fairly tame on the decibel scale – if you are a metalhead – but for this festival it was a raucous affair. The most active big bands on the list were Rob Zombie and Avatar. Kiss has a fun show, but there is not a ton of human action from the classic band whose members are in their seventies.
Sure, there were a couple of exceptions. To wit: Attila, a band always filled with aggression and menacing intimations of violence. I have to say I was very surprised to see them at Sonic Temple. I mean, if you cannot see the irony of Mothica playing right after Attila, then it is time for a little introspection. At least they were on different stages.
Falling In Reverse and Avatar were probably the best sets – the sign language interpreter for the former had her work cut out for her. Zombie (without John 5) took a moment to tell the crowd that this was “the first time in twenty fucking years I’ve played a set in the daylight.” Funny, I was thinking the same thing, that it was weird to see Rob Zombie while the sun was still up. More generally, this was an issue for some of the big acts all weekend that played before the headliner. Because there was so much dead air in the scheduling, there was really only one or two bands that played at dusk or later each day. It somehow made the event seem less significant.
Kiss called the festival Sonic BOOM in reference to their album of that name, and that brought a smile to my face. They were great. It should be no surprise that there were a ton of Kiss fans in the audience, showing their allegiance through dress and face paint. This is the fourth time I have seen them on this years-long farewell tour, so there were no surprises for me. They are doing an excellent job with their own send-off, and I think their fans truly appreciate it. I will note in passing that I was putting a lot of stock in the Puscifier set because there has been so much publicity about the band in the weeks leading up to the festival. They were OK.
On the last day of the festival, three bands dropped out: Poor Stacey, Bob Vylan, and The Bronx. I would not call that an auspicious ending/beginning. The band I most wanted to see on Sunday was Jawbreaker, because I had missed an opportunity to catch them a couple of years back and wanted to make up for it. The Deftones were high on my list, too, because of that great photo of them taken at an earlier DWP festival. If you are a Deftones fan I bet you have seen it. Overall, my expectations were moderate.
It was a quiet Sunday at Historic Crew Stadium, a good day to sit down and take it easy. Have I mentioned yet that the weather for the entire weekend was unbelievably suited to festival-going? There was no rain, it was cool, and a slight breeze blew all four days. Because so much of the grounds was concrete and pavement, there wasn’t much dust and dirt blowing around, either. It was ideal for any kind of music.
The biggest and best surprise of the day for me was seeing the British duo of Amy Love and Georgia South who together comprise Nova Twins. They play a fresh and brash type of rock infused with technology and catchy hooks and choruses. They performed on the third stage, and by the time they had finished, the crowd had grown to an impressive size. The show at Sonic Temple was the final stop on their US tour, and they played like they were celebrating. They are a band to look for at festivals and hope that they tour the US again soon.
Jawbreaker was another highlight of the entire festival. They played on the main stage, running dry one-liners in between songs and delighting the modest crowd that had assembled. Curiously, at exactly the same time, Filter was on the third stage. Now, see, I am a bigger Jawbreaker fan, but that is just a personal preference. Filter is certainly the bigger band by any pop music measure, and the number of fans grew beyond the bounds of the adjacent parking lot where they played. I am surprised they didn’t get a slot on the stadium stage, especially with all the time actually available. In any case, both bands were greatly appreciated.
Deftones gave their standard performance, Grandson was befuddling, as always, and the Foo Fighters closed the festival – an appropriate choice for the final feature as they also closed the first Sonic Temple Festival. There is no denying the significance of the band in contemporary rock music. Their status as a live band is even higher. For any non-metal rock fest, Foo Fighters are a big get. They might be getting a little bit overexposed, but if that is actually true there was no evidence of it judging by the reaction of the crowd during their performance. That’s a wrap.
Will Sonic Temple Art and Music Festival survive? It is hard to say. Attendance was lower for this second year than it was for the first, and that is not a good sign. Still, it might have been financially viable. The landing page of the festival website does not reveal whether there will be another one (at this writing), but it does tease “we can’t wait to share what’s in store for you for 2024.” So, maybe.
Should you go to Sonic Temple Art and Music Festival if it does survive? The simple answer is yes, if you can afford it. It is very comfortable (that’s fourth time I have said this, I think) and well done. The main downside is the small number of bands playing at the festival, but that might be different next time. And, of course, it really depends on the line-up, doesn’t it. If there are a couple headliners you like and a dozen or so lower-line bands you want to check out, then pull the trigger, moneybags, and have a nice weekend in Columbus next year.
Photos by Wayne Edwards.
[Note: A different version of this article was published by Ghost Cult Magazine.]
Sonic Temple Festival, https://sonictemplefestival.com/
Ghost Cult Magazine Article, [not yet published]
FFMB review of Sonic Temple 2019, Day 1, https://flyingfiddlesticks.com/2019/05/22/sonic-temple-mapfre-stadium-columbus-ohio-may-17-19-part-1-of-3/
FFMB review of Sonic Temple 2019, Day 2, https://flyingfiddlesticks.com/2019/05/23/sonic-temple-2019-mapfre-stadium-columbus-ohio-may-17-19-part-2-of-3/
FFMB review of Sonic Temple 2019, Day 3, https://flyingfiddlesticks.com/2019/05/24/sonic-temple-2019-mapfre-stadium-columbus-ohio-may-17-19-part-3-of-3/
© Wayne Edwards