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Gazette files
A fan crowd surfs up towards the front of the stage during the Beartooth performance at the 94.1 JJO Sonic Boom music festival in 2015.

WJJO brings Sonic Boom rock festival back to Janesville

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Greg Little
Wednesday, September 20, 2017

JANESVILLE—Sometimes the stars align.

On Sept. 30-Oct. 1, they'll align at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.

For the fourth straight year, Madison's 94.1 WJJO radio will host its aptly named and wildly popular Sonic Boom rock music festival at the airfield south of Janesville. And for the second straight year, the event will stretch across two days, entertain nearly 30,000 people and feature 29 of the hottest names in the station's “active rock” genre.

“Every year, I try to predict what bands will make everybody walk away and go, 'Wow, they were amazing!'” said WJJO Program Director Randy Hawke.

This year, it appears Hawke and his crew have outdone themselves. Several featured bands either have or soon will be releasing new albums, and the combination of fresh music, increased airplay and fan anticipation tends to equate to strong numbers at the gate.

“I had been sent early demos from Stone Sour and Rise Against, so I knew these guys were going to have great records coming out,” Hawke said. “But I didn't know that when we announced the lineup. We had to predict that.”

Foresight, paired with more than a pinch of luck, has resulted in a show in which half the lineup holds spots on Billboard magazine's most recent Mainstream Rock Top 40 chart. Four rank in the Top 10, including Greta Van Fleet's “Highway Tune” at No. 1.

“When we first announced the lineup on Memorial Day weekend, I told people, 'This is going to be better in October than it is right now,'” Hawke said. “That confused people, but I can't think of a better way to say it.”

As jacked as Hawke is to have so much talent rolling into Janesville, he's particularly proud of the fact the 2017 lineup promises something for all fans.

“I feel like this lineup is even more diverse (than those in the past), specifically with a headliner like Rise Against,” he said. “They are definitely more alternative than rock, and they are a little bit punk as well.

“We did a good job of bringing in the whole spectrum,” he added. “We've got straight-ahead rock like Theory of a Deadman, Halestorm and Stone Sour; hard metal like Gojira, All That Remains and Mastodon; and (Vans) Warped Tour bands like Sleeping With Sirens and Of Mice & Men. Radkey is an incredibly cool band that hardly anybody had heard of six or seven months ago. Then there are regional regulars such as Wayland and Bobaflex that everybody wants to see.”

Add to that recognized names such as Five Finger Death Punch, The Pretty Reckless, Beartooth and more, and you can see Sonic Boom's stature rising.

When WJJO first launched the music festival in 2014, filling out a varied lineup was a task and a half.

“There is so much about this that the passionate rock listener doesn't always understand,” he said. “I can't just make a wish list of bands I want to play. They have to have a tour going, people in the band have to be talking to each other, they have to have visas to get into the country if they're not already here ... all of those factors go into it.”

While there still are obstacles, Hawke notes bands now consider Sonic Boom a specific destination rather than a convenient side trip.

“Now you hear the plans ... 'Hey Randy, just so you know, our new album is going to drop in August. Be a perfect time to headline Sonic Boom 2018,' he said. “Right now is when the groundwork starts being laid. Have I had conversations about 2018? Absolutely. Started taking those calls in August.”

An obvious showcase for national touring acts, Sonic Boom also has been a launchpad for local bands that have shown potential. Two of those—Madison's Breech and Janesville's Versus Me—will be taking the stage this year.

“It's great to have bands in our format that are in the area,” Hawke said. “We always have local bands opening, and hopefully those bands climb their way up the lineup.

“It's not a gift to become one of the local bands at these festivals,” he added. “They work hard, write good songs, make good recordings and make a name for themselves. They deserve to be on there.”

Along with the music, Sonic Boom offers a wide variety of food and drink, concert/band merchandise and any number of diversions for those looking to give their eardrums a rest. Knockerball and the National Guard's climbing wall both return, and Knapton Musik Knotes of Janesville will host “Boomtown,” where fans can try out musical instruments or play Guitar Hero with their friends.

One new addition will be Harley-Davidson's Jumpstart riding experience, presented by Boardtracker Harley-Davidson of Janeville.

Participants mount an actual H-D motorcycle situated on a stationary support stand, start the bike and shift through the gears to see what it's actually like to ride a Hog.

While music always will be Sonic Boom's main focus, Hawke places great importance on the event being an overall experience for rock music fans.

“I want people to consider Sonic Boom to be a memory that lasts for the rest of their lives,” he said. “I love it when people tell me they go to Sonic Boom every year and wouldn't miss it.

“I know there are a million things going on in everybody's lives, and if Sonic Boom is important enough to be one of the main things that is going to happen to them that year, that has to be the biggest compliment I can ask for.”

CONCERT ATTENDANCE NUMBERS STILL BOOMING

At its current rate of growth, Sonic Boom should draw about 3.2 million people at its 10th anniversary concert in 2024.

Ridiculous? Probably. But you can't argue the attendance numbers the music festival has put up since taking off three years ago.

In 2014, 13 bands played on two stages, and more than 8,000 people attended. In 2015, 13 more bands were booked, and the crowd doubled to more than 15,500.

Last year, the event expanded to two days and drew a head count of more than 25,000—nearly doubling ticket sales again.

But don't expect that trend to continue.

“A 50 percent increase is what we did last year, and it came with a lot of lessons and growing pains,” said WJJO Program Director Randy Hawke. “It's not like we thought, 'Oh, we'll just double it and not have any problems.'

“For me and for Midwest Family Broadcasting (JJO's parent company), we have a standard, and we cannot sacrifice our standard in the name of growth. We've talked about things like if there would ever be a Friday night (show added) or camping or things like that, but right now, we're pretty happy with the size it is.”



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