The first Exit 111 Festival debuted on a muggy Friday, October 11. T-shirt weather prevailed as the doors opened just after 1 pm and music fans began to stream in to find spots close to the three stages before the 3 pm start times. The festival took advantage of the Bonnaroo Festival infrastructure, utilizing the two main stages, renaming them the Heaven and Hell stages. One of the tent stages became the third stage at Exit 111. Festival organizers partnered with Rise Above Fest and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) to bring Shaun Morgan’s Rise Above Stage to the venue. Morgan, the South African lead singer of Seether, founded Rise Above Fest in 2012 to raise awareness for suicide prevention and mental illness. The festival’s name drew inspiration from the song “Rise Above This” written by vocalist Morgan, who lost his brother to suicide in 2008. In addition to the stage, there was a tent with merchandise and materials relating to the organization. Seether would eventually play several unscheduled acoustic sets during the three-day festival in the tent.
In addition to the three stages, the festival offered a giant sports bar tent with a beer and whiskey bar, multiple big screen tv's and one giant screen TV. Sports fans could stay on top of their teams, with numerous live broadcasts being offered. There was also a motorcycle stunt show and a spectacular adult-themed circus, The Paranormal Circus, with several shows a day. The circus offered up a variety of horror-themed gymnastic skits, with scantily clad hard-bodied men and women and but of humor thrown in with a lecherous little person clown that liked to harass the audience. An offshoot of Cirque de Soleil, the aerial acrobatics were astounding, and many stood in line for the free tickets for multiple shows over the three days. Festival fans were also greeted with a fantastic array of gourmet food booths, bars, and food trucks spread all across the expansive festival site and even outside in the campgrounds.
Kyle Shutt, the lead guitarist of the Austin Heavy Metal band The Sword, opened the festival at 4 pm on the Hell stage with his new solo band. Shutt and his bandmates tore through a 45-minute set of guitar drenched hard rock. The main Hell stage opened shortly after with a neo-classic rock set by Nashville's own The Cadillac Three. The young trio keeps the Southern rock torch burning with new songs like “Whiskey and Smoke” and concert favorites like “Down to the River.” Over on the Rise Above stage at the far end of the festival, another young band was keeping classic rock alive.
Bishop Gunn is a 4-piece blues Americana rock and country fusion band from Natchez, Mississippi. Members include Travis McCready, Ben Lewis, Burne Sharpe, and Drew Smithers. Bishop Gunn is more of a Blues-rock focused group and site influenced by artists as diverse as Wilson Pickett and headliners Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lead singer McCready also played a mean harmonica jam much to the delight of a large audience.
The music took a decidedly different direction just before sunset as the first of two of the “Big Four” bands appeared on the main Heaven stage. By the time Anthrax took the main stage, much of the estimated 25,000 concertgoers had arrived and surged towards the front of the stage. They would be followed later by Slayer. Along with Metallica and Megadeth, they are considered the “Big Four.” According to the Urban dictionary, “the reason they are called the Big Four is that they pretty much influenced almost every metal band after them and put thrash metal on the map.” Anthrax delivered an hour of intense head-banging music much to the delight of an enthusiastic crowd, many in Anthrax and Slayer T-shirts. The band opened a nine-song setlist with the appropriately titled “Caught in a Mosh.”
A large mosh pit instantly developed, and crowd surfers began surging towards the stage in massive waves, many in costumes like a Panda Bear and a bearded metal pirate. The band included a cover of Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time,” played in the distinctive Anthrax style. The group finished with "Antitrust" and "Indians," adding in a bit of "Cowboys From Hell," in a tribute to metal icons Pantera. The hour-long set left fans screaming for more, but they were placated by the fact that Slayer would follow.
Slayer billed their performance as their final show in Tennessee. Slayer and Anthrax are cut from the same cloth, and they're larger than life band members are icons of Thrash metal and heroes to a generation of hardcore music lovers. By the time Slayer took the stage for their 830 sets, the evening had fallen into a drizzly damp night. But it didn’t dampen the excitement in the crowd as an army of security guards at the front of the stage looked on nervously. As soon as Slayer played their first notes, a sea of crowd surfers made the security guards concerns a reality. The band tore through 16 songs in their 75 minutes “Final Work Tour Set.” As the audience surged in waves towards the stage, a steamy fog rose off the sweaty mass in the moist night air. The fearsome foursome onstage kicked off with "Repentless," tearing through its library, including crowd-pleasers like "War Ensemble," "Payback," and their signature song "Raining Blood." Lead singer and bassist Tom Araya addressed the elated crowd, "This is our last festival date show, period,” he exclaimed, "So this is a special evening for us.”
In between the two Thrash metal titans sets another iconic guitar player from a slightly different metal genre, closed out the Hell stage. Zakk Wylde brought his head-banging heavy metal band Black Label Society to the festival. The go-to guitarist for decades for Ozzie Osbourne’s solo band, the singer-guitarist, is well known in the metal universe. Wylde formed Black Label Society in Los Angeles, California back in 1998. Since its inception, the band has released ten albums and seen over a dozen different lineups. But it is Wylde's maniacal guitar playing in full long-haired head-banging mode that most excites his fans. The band played well-known tunes like "Stillborn" and "Concrete Jungle" during an hour-long set that delighted the crowd.
Meanwhile, Seether was busy closing out their curated Rise Above stage with an intense 75-minute set of alternative rock. Seether is a South African rock band founded in May 1999 in South Africa. The group moved to the US and have had mainstream success since 2002 when they released their first hit single “Fine Again.” A large crowd packed the front of the stage, including a large number of young female fans who seemed to regard the band as their highlight of the day. Fans were not disappointed with a raid fire 14 song setlist, including the band's most well-known songs.
Back on the main stage, light rain and cooler temperatures did not dissuade a giant crowd from gathering for the closing set by southern rock icons, Lynyrd Skynyrd. The continuity of the Exit 111 concept was displayed on the first day with an array of classic rock, heavy metal, and new metal all meshing perfectly. Mosh pits and crowd surfers were replaced with clapping, dancing southern rock fans as the band took the stage. Shortly into their set lead singer Johnny Van Zant addressed the crowd. “Some of the members of the band weren’t sure about playing a heavy metal festival.” “But hell, we love heavy metal.” That exhibited a massive roar from an adulating crowd dancing to a hit-laden 14 song setlist.
Although the only remaining original member is guitarist Gary Rossington, the nine-member band has made the classic music their own over the decades, keeping the hits alive. Van Zant channels the spirit of his brother Ronnie, the original lead vocalist, well. It is hard to believe that the original band created so much hit music in less than five years before the fateful plane crash in 1977 that ended the original band. But the timeless tunes sounded awesome reinterpreted by the current lineup. The group is currently on what they have billed as “Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour,” and plan to return to the studio to make a final album after the tour. Originally this was scheduled to be their last live show ever, but we will wait to see how that plays out.
The 90-minute set included a massive multimedia extravaganza including many stirring videos and photomontages of the former band members and their families who have passed away over the years. It was a fitting end to a unique first-year festival that, in some ways, channeled the spirit of Bonnaroo, just in a different manifestation. As many in the crowd head back into the damp night air towards their campsites and motor homes, beaming smiles summed up the consensus on how day 1 played out.