Blue Ridge Rock Festival: Metal and Headaches

Oct 5, 2023

Posted By Hanka

My name is Randall McNeill. I have been a photo journalist for over 10 years working with publications such as a faygoluvers.net noise from the pit Rolling Stone and GQ. My photo journalism took me all over the United States until I moved to Japan. In 2022 I came back to America to continue photo journalism and take photos of some of the biggest bands in the world. I was born in North Carolina raised in South Carolina, but I’ve been all over the world in my pursuit of being the number one concert photographer in the world

Let me start this review by stating this isn’t going to be a slam piece or article bashing the festival, however I will be giving a full recap of my own experiences and talking about the good bad and the ugly.

With that being said, lets get started.

I was sent to Blue Ridge Rock Festival by Noise From The Pit with a goal of shooting some amazing photos of bands all weekend, meeting new and familiar faces, and generally to have a good time.

09/07/23-09/10/23 was a weekend that I had planned around for a while and I was eager to get on the road. It was a short trip from rural South Carolina to even more rural Alton Virginia. This would be my wife’s first music festival in the USA as well so we were both ready to do this together.

Once arriving to the Virginia International Raceway the venue where this event would be held we both were amazed at how large this venue was. Inside this insanely huge venue were 4 stages. 2 stages that were considered the “Main Stages” and 2 “side stages” but with the amount of bands any of these stages could have easily headlined their own respective festival.

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With bands such as Slipknot, BabyMetal, Pantera, Megadeth and so many more you had to absolutely plan out your days around the bands you wanted to see because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to see everything.

We arrived to the staff area to pick up our photo passes and credentials and to the festival’s credit this was a very simple and amazingly fast process. To the lady working that window thank you for your kindness and I hope you are doing well! After this my wife and I walked to what was essentially day 0. This was the pre party show that they were putting on for the camping fans already in attendance.

We arrived a little late and walked to the stage to catch a few of the bands playing. I only took photos of one band this night Burden Of The Sky:

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These fellas knew how to get the crowd into a rush of love. They had some slight sound issues but it was quickly resolved. If this was any indication as to how the weekend was going to go I think to myself its going to be smooth sailing.

As I took photos I met another photographer from Japan named Marina. I walked up and asked if she was from Japan, to which Im not sure if she understood or if the music was too loud. I re-asked her but this time in Japanese. I could see she was a little taken aback. It’s an odd sight seeing a 6 foot 2 fat white guy speaking Japanese but much less at a rock festival in America of all places.

After some introductions and the initial shock wearing off we said we would see each other tomorrow and my wife and I left to our hotel for the night 35 mins away.

Day 1.

Once we get to the grounds the next day we decided to plan our attack. Today was a day where I planned to take photos of about 9 different bands. We arrived and decided to find the media lounge that eluded us from the previous day. Once we had our gear stored and ready we hit the grounds walking around and taking in the day. It was hot… much hotter than I had imagined. No worries we walked over to one of the what seemed like hundreds of food booths. We asked for water to which they replied “we don’t serve drinks you have to go to one of the tents marked BAR” no worries as there were plenty of those as well.

The bartenders were friendly. I ordered 2 bottles of water to help us in our adventures. $8 was the cost of 2 bottles. At $4 a piece that’s what I was expecting at least. However when I pulled out my credit card and ran it the total was $13 before the tip I gave. I didn’t think much of it just chalking it up to maybe a miskey. We walked down to the main stage and started taking photos of the bands that were on the stage. We got set up for what was going to be a long main stage night. After taking photos of Stitched Up Heart, Adema, the band CKY was set to take the stage. As they are getting set up, a woman and man walked out on stage… I couldn’t believe my eyes but it was April and Phil Margera. The parents of Bam and Jess Margera! There were here to introduce CKY! Very awesome to see this as Jess Margera being the drummer of CKY it was nice to see some good feel good moments for some of the Margera family during what has I am sure a difficult time with their family. After CKY I was excited to for the first time in my photography career take photos of Coheed and Cambria. This is a band I have seen many times as a fan but never in a professional setting. Little did I know this was about to be the end of day 1.

Coheed took the stage with a small drizzle of rain starting, they kicked off into Vaxis ||’s intro, and following that Beautiful Losers. During the intro however the rain became intense. 40-60MPH winds whipped up and the rain drops felt like water balloons. I kept shooting all that I could until I hear Coheed utter the words “Thank you!” and they walked off stage. At this point we wondered what would happen. We took our camera gear back to the safety of the media tent and waited. Once we heard thunder and then saw lightning even that tent was deemed unsafe for us and we were told to evacuate the grounds. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t have been bad, however this was a huge music festival with over 50,000 people in attendance. We packed up my macbook and camera and made the what was supposed to be 20 ish minute walk to our car. I wish I could tell you that’s what happened. Unfortunately the mass amount of people trying to evacuate leaving the main gate caused a human traffic jam. We all tried to make light of the situation until the rain started heavy again and this time it hurt.

It wasn’t just rain we were dealing with this time… hail started. We were getting pelted with dime sized hail. We waited on this road with trees on each side of us while in a hail storm wondering why the line wasn’t moving. We decided to run through the woods to try to bypass the line as much as we could to get to staff parking so I could get my gear out of the rain and wet. No avail. We had to sneak and crawl past everyone as best as we could. Once we arrived to the gate where the shuttle buses were supposed to be picking up people there was a lone security guard trying to wrangle the mess of people waiting on the shuttle busses. I tried my best to be calm and understanding and tell and show him our credentials to get past him so we could finish the rest of the 5 min walk to our car from there but he was not having it. He decided to scream at us and everyone else, which in this case wasn’t helping. I grabbed my wifes had and told her to hold on… I basically shoulder blocked my way past this guy because at this point he was in his own zone… I just wanted to get back to my car and try to wait this out.

We ran into a couple other photographers on their way back to their cars who thanked me for pushing through that guy. After that nightmare of being in a rain/hailstorm for over an hour we arrived back at my car. I took off my wet clothes and put my bag into my car. Turned on the car and blasted the heat to try to dry off. I opened my backpack to check on my gear and to my dismay… my macbook was dead. Completely water damaged. No saving it at this point. We waited to see if we could possibly be let back in for the rest of the night but after waiting for 45 mins in the car we didn’t see the sky getting any clearer so we made the decision to go to walmart get some dry clothes and then head back to the hotel. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day so this was just a minor setback and as sad as I was about my MacBook I was just happy my wife and myself were safe.

Day 2.

This was going to be a new day and they were not calling for any bad weather today so I woke up extra early for this day. Woke my wife up and asked her if she was gonna get ready. She replied: Not after what happened yesterday. I need a break and rest. I don’t blame her… it being her first festival I knew she wasn’t used to the crazy that can go on at these things. I got ready and headed back for day 2.

I had to make a quick stop at Walmart to get some supplies for my friends that were out on the grounds camping. 5 hour energy drinks, zip ties, and duct tape for them to help fix their camp site from the storm yesterday. After getting the supplies and heading back to the festival, I made the trip back to the Media Lounge area. I met another photographer from Florida on the walk in, we talked about bands we’ve shot, things we have done and just festival life in general. On this day I had around 7-10 bands I wanted to focus on, but with all of them one I wanted to shoot the most was the headlining act Slipknot. Throughout the day the festival seemed on track for what was going to be great success. Plenty of acts doing their shows I went to one of the side stages and happened to meet up with an old friend who I met on Xbox live over 15 years ago but we have never met in person.

Once I was ready I headed to a stage to get set up for photos. I was told we would have to talk about photographing Slipknot but that wasn’t a huge thought for the time being I had other bands to shoot. I got to the stages and got to work. one by one bands came out and rocked the crowd of what looked like over 50,000 people. Coal Chamber, Knocked Loose, Flyleaf, and then a band who I hadn’t heard of called “Sleep Token” took the stage. This band was some kind of anomaly. All the members are anonymous. I noticed the crowd has SWELLED at this point. This band had up to this point the largest crowd of the entire festival. Their music was a melodic mix of singing, talking and screaming. I was intrigued beyond belief.

After that amazing set I walked up to see what the news about Slipknot was. I was informed I had lost my chance to shoot them. There was limited spots available to photograph them and it crushed me. I knew I still had Motionless in White left to shoot but I was absolutely looking forward to Slipknot. I still did my best but after losing that chance I debated leaving the festival before Slipknot played.

I am glad I didn’t leave because I haven’t seen Slipknot since the 2009 All Hope Is Gone world tour. I stayed in the crowd and enjoyed their set from about 2 football fields back. It was nice to just be a fan for what had been a long but amazing day with no hiccups in acts. Met an old friend from the juggalo world who was selling beer as a vendor on the grounds. Made sure to buy a water from him and toss him a nice tip. (By the way guys always tip those vendors because they need those tips!)

Slipknot came out and played a medley of their hits. I heard all of my favorites and enjoyed the show, once I had seen enough I decided to head back to the hotel and see my wife. Tell her how awesome day 2 had went. Once back to the hotel I sat looking at my photos and had a sense of pride that I was taking amazing photos and working at BRRF. Tomorrow would be day 3 and my most important day. ICP, Dethklok, Megadeth and a band who I have been wanting to shoot in America for a long time… Babymetal.

Day 3.

Day 3 started off with a text from our media coordinator “Storm is coming in, stand by for details on when the gates will open.” or something to that effect. My wife and I decided to sleep in a bit as the rain came trough around 10am. Once the rain had slacked a bit around 1pm we got dressed. We decided to go to a local fast food establishment and grab some energy for the day ahead of us. We were in the line when the news hit. “day 3 has been cancelled.” I was in my car absolutely crushed. Not only do I not get to see my boys in ICP who I haven’t seen or communicated with since I moved back to America… but my chance to photograph Babymetal was just cancelled. I looked at my wife with the most sad look I think I have ever given anyone. “Well what do you want to do darlin’?” We decided to go to the Danville VA mall. This old mall with about 10 shops in it, and a small food court. We hung around the mall for a while just walking around noticing all the Blue Ridge Rock Fest shirts inside we weren’t the only ones who had this idea. It was getting close to dinner time, and it was about that time my phone buzzed in my pocket it was an official post from the BRRF social media account stating that “due to weather the remainder of the festival would have to be cancelled for concert goers safety” This was ultimately the death of Blue Ridge Rock Festival 2023.

We had driven 4 hours for what was billed as one of the biggest and best rock festivals over 4 days only to get 1 and a half days of performances. It wasn’t all bad on my end. I have heard things from concert goers that I’m not going to speak on because I didn’t experience them. However that doesn’t mean I am saying it didn’t happen. This review is my experience of the festival.

At the end of the festival I can say there were some positives. The festival seemed to have plenty of food stalls, plenty of options of food, plenty of drink bars available for purchasing of water and other drinks. Stages had great sound and were on time pretty much consistently.

There were negatives some of which were awful, with the hailstorm and the horrific evacuation plan along with security being less than helpful in that situation.

I can say overall I had a good time with some disappointment sprinkled in. If they do this event again I would like to see more planned out evacuation plans, and some preparation in place in case of bad weather again. I wanna shout out to Noise from the Pit for sending me out there. The media coordinator for the event for being absolutely the best i’ve ever experienced. Everyone I met out there I hope you all can see the event for the positives throughout all the negative.

What did you think of the festival? Did you attend? Did you have a positive experience with the time that we did get?

Let us know in the comments!


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