The inaugural festival draws rock and metal fans from
across the US for an unforgettable weekend of incredible music
Story & photography: Kail Rose
Held in Manchester, Tennessee on a chilly weekend from October 11-13, Exit 111 was everything a music festival could and should be. Featuring a decidedly edgy lineup of rock and metal, it brought together a colorful variety of rock and metal fans –a decidedly under-served genre in the festival world– for a three-day blowout of epic proportions. Drawing huge crowds with classic rock headliners Guns N Roses, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Def Leppard, the festival also seamlessly incorporated acts from a variety of Rock sub-genres; contemporary, alternative, heavy rock, metal, progressive rock and even thrash. Exit 111 brought cult classic favorites, peppered the weekend with the biggest stars in today’s rock world and introduced some ‘newbies’ of the highest caliber. It was a lineup to die for and a mixed that worked well – damn well.
“It’s like someone took the rock lineup out of my wildest dreams and made it happen. Unbelievable.” – Britt H., Oklahoma City
The festival drew a remarkably mixed crowd; fans of all genres, all ages and demographics piled in to Great Stage park on Thursday and Friday to kick off the inaugural event. Over the weekend, I spoke with people who had journeyed from all over to attend: Florida, New York State, the midwest, south, Texas, and even a few from Nevada, Oklahoma, Utah and Arizona. One of the hallmarks of a successful festival concept is one that not only sells tickets, but entices people from a great distance.
Truth be told, Exit 111 made it easy to attend, gave attendees great value for their money and unique offerings. With a convenient venue that allowed everything from rustic motorcycle camping, group camping, RV spots and even upscale glamping. There were a great number of reasonable hotel options in close proximity, making the festival surprisingly easy to attend. Our group, arriving from separate states, had either road-tripped or flown in to Nashville (just an hour north) and selected a nearby hotel. While we love to camp and will probably try out the camping experience next year, we were glad to have a warm hotel and hot shower with the arrival of a nasty cold front the same weekend. The region offers everything from $50-a-night motels to upper upscale hotel and suite options. We selected a Hilton Garden Inn in Murfreesboro and were exceptionally pleased with the accommodations.
By utilizing the existing infrastructure of Great Stage Park in Manchester, TN (just an hour south of Nashville), the festival provided attendees with an immaculate, purpose-built festival facility. This is the same location used by Bonnaroo year after year. The decision to use Great Stage park was an excellent one – it only added to the experience, simplified arrival, setup and attendance, and allowing a large event with big crowds to go off without a hitch. Logistically, Exit 111 felt smooth, simple and entirely feasible. Parking was plentiful, the grounds were spacious and immaculate, we could find bleachers, shade, a large central beer hall, plenty of reasonable restroom facilities and a number of pleasant perks. And the festival grounds were not too large. Unlike some of the big-box festivals, it wasn’t a workout to get from stage to stage.
“Wow, they really kept everybody happy. I mean Lynyrd to Slayer in a single day? That’s just Day One!” – Rob, Kansas City.
In addition to a well-chosen facility, Exit 111 managed to incorporate generous food and beverage offerings into the festival. From the central Beer Hall (-slash- sports bar, which was open all day and drew a significant crowd with comfortable places to sit and watch the game) to the copious food, drink and snack vendors. This certainly seemed a priority and unlike many festivals, I was pleasantly surprised at the variety, availability and lack of long lines for a snack, dinner or just a mid-set Jack & Coke top-up. I did not have to wait more than five minutes to grab a beer or order food at any point during the festival. And the quality of food itself was superb; from grass-fed organic burgers, to a Ben & Jerry’s “adult” ice cream float, or pulled pork loaded nachos. It was almost criminal that the two were directly adjacent to each other – I certainly found myself grabbing one of each on more than one occasion. None of us left hungry.
Aside from the music, which was sheer brilliance from day one, the festival also incorporated a small car show, a freestyle motocross experience, pop-up shows and the disturbingly fascinating Paranormal Cirque and their sideshow performers, who terrified and delighted crowds. The cirque hosted twice-daily big-top circus performances and almost hourly freakshow tricks, contortions and things I couldn’t watch. The lady piercing her neck with a 12-inch needle was a little too much… though the fascinated crowds surrounding her said otherwise.
“How the f*&! are they going to top this one next year?!” – Brad & Jan, Boca Raton
It goes without saying, though: the crowning glory of Exit 111 was the lineup. As if some lucky talent-buyer had jumped inside our brains, or perhaps stolen our beloved Spotify ‘songs that are on repeat’ lists (the latter being far more probable) and curated a lineup of the highest caliber; a little nostalgia, a lot of legendary, and some new and definitely-worth-knowing. They somehow nabbed the best, the brightest and definitely the favorites and assembled them on one weekend, on three impeccable stages with minimal overlap, great sound, friendly crowds and an unmatched energy.
Headliners Lynyrd Skynyrd, Def Leppard and Guns n Roses need no introduction, and drew absolutely massive crowds for three once-in-a-lifetime sets. But early in the day, we were surprised and delighted to discover a set of lesser-known bands who blew our minds to pieces and shattered all expectations; Watermox, Bishop Gunn, Them Evils, Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, Dirty Honey and Graveyard (seriously, add them all to your Spotify right now). Saturday’s lineup incorporated more personal favorites than I thought I’d ever see in a single year, never mind just one day. Ghost, Nothing More, Fever 333 and Gojira were so stunning, so impeccably perfect and yet distinctly unique, that I am at a loss to describe just how happy I was. By Saturday evening, I could have gone home happy. But we returned for Day Three to catch Alter Bridge, Skillet, Lamb of God, (the one and only) Deftones, Coheed & Cambria and to finally, amazingly, wrap an already incredible weekend with Guns n Roses.
Killer. Beyond killer. More than a few commented that they couldn’t fathom how Exit 111 could follow with a bigger, better lineup in 2020.
And finally, my favorite part of the weekend (a common theme among rock and metal festivals) was the superior, friendly, slightly ridiculous, entirely accepting and simply wonderful crowd. If you want a great bunch of people to celebrate great music alongside, look no further than the tatted-up, wild-looking dudes who may or may not have just ridden in on a Harley. They’ll be the ones welcoming you to their space; if you’re shorter than them, to stand in front of you. If you feel like crowd surfing, they’ll lift you up. In the mosh pit, and you fall over? A stranger will be there to help you up and brush off the dirt. Want a recommendation for a good place to grab a bite? They’ll let you try theirs and share the secret spot where the lines are short and the chef gives you extra. Rock and metal crowds are absolutely the best. While I absolutely love the contradiction of a new friend who also looks like the dude your mom would cross the street to avoid, I also sincerely appreciate a good crowd when I see one.
Exit 111 was basically one big party of kindred spirits: great people collecting and connecting over a common love of all things rock. Regardless of whether ZZ Top and Cheap Trick were your favorite, or if you preferred to lose your mind at Whitechapel and Of Mice and Men, this was a weekend not to miss. We found ourselves in a pinch-me moment, over and over – how had Exit 111 managed to curate such a flawless lineup, present it in a perfect venue and maintain a streamlined, seamless attendee experience? Will we be recommending Exit 111 for years to come? You bet. Will we be buying our 2020 tickets the second they go on sale? Abso-f’ing-lutely.