The crowded world of classic rock festivals, as with magazines, seems to be splitting into ever more sub genres. The Hard Rock Hell brand, which has become well established with their holiday camp weekenders already assuming legendary status, launched two new events, HRH AOR and HRH Prog, on the same site, the fascinating venue of Magna, a former steel works turned sprawling- and cold! educational science adventure in Rotherham.
Interestingly the fact that ticket holders received an e mail in the week before advertising the 2014 festivals at a holiday camp in Wales in a suggests the organisers had already determined Magna wasn’t the right venue. There were certainly some teething troubles: hotels and shuttles were organised from Sheffield, but the latter failed to show up on the first day and left before the concert had finished the second, while there were complaints about the cold, and the second room for AOR was ill-suited to the pedigree of acts playing there, tiny with a flat floor rather than a stage.
Nevertheless those of us there for the AOR event lucked out with a large, well equipped and at least decently warm main room. It was a brave move to launch such a festival, as Firefest has cornered the melodic rock market and inspires great devotion, while other attempts have had a chequered history to put it politely, but it proved extremely well attended. Incidentally the name did the festival no favours, with pure AOR a small representation of a wider spectrum of melodic classic rock in all its diverse forms. If headliners Tesla and Skid Row are AOR, I’m a Dutchman.
Comparisons with Firefest are inescapable so here goes: the major differences were that the former prides itself on reviving the careers of long absent bands; HRH AOR had a wider but not so rare parade of the scene’s favourite bands, the majority of whom have toured recently. Moreover, while Firefest has the air of an international convention of fanatics, this time the crowd was overwhelmingly a domestic one.
The atmosphere was therefore less intense, beerier and more relaxed, and without the same pressure in this spacious venue to go down the front and stay there between acts to keep a place, I greatly enjoyed the lengthier opportunities to be in the company of friends I’ve met through the gig scene over the years. I concluded there was definitely room for both festivals in the calendar.
DAY 1- 6 APRIL 2013
After booking a taxi when the shuttle failed to arrive, I missed the opening three acts but arrived in time for the first act with real pedigree, Dante Fox. As usual the focus of discussion was singer Sue Willetts who mixes a superb voice not unlike Heart’s Ann Wilson with an uncomfortable, pained stage manner. , She seemed to be making a conscious if not always successful effort to be more cheerful while despite her spoken voice betraying a cold, she was as powerful as ever.
They impressed with Tim Manford as usual giving his all on guitar and a good range of songs, from old favourites like Under the City Lights- with an intro taken off Lou Gramm’s Midnight Blue – Lost and Lonely and I can’t Sleep, to the more recent in opener Lucky Ones and Walking The Line, easily their strongest chorus, before finishing in their time honoured fashion with an almost carbon copy cover of Remember.
Next up were Romeo’s Daughter, fronted by the ever delectable, statuesque Leigh Matty whose songs may appear simple yet always worm your way into their soul. There was a line up change with no long-time keyboardist Tony Mittman but it was noticeable the extent to which ever smiling bassist Ed Poole was a key figure both visually and with his backing vocals.
Rockers like opener Heaven in the Backseat, Attracted to the Animal- the sole pick from ‘Delectable’ and Inside Out mixed with more sensuous numbers like Velvet Tongue and some lively pop rockers from the new Rapture album including the jangly Bittersweet, Alive and Talking Love. Finishing with the stylish Cry Myself to Sleep at Night, with a sweet solo from Craig Joiner and Wild Child, so good it was borrowed by Heart , I concluded they had raised the bar just a notch from Dante Fox in terms of quality.
Few songwriters though can match Tyketto’s Danny Vaughn, whose talents really should have been more recognised by the wider world. I had been privileged to see a superb show in London just 48 hours before: this one fell a tad short (he seemed somewhat grumpy after the crew were slow to sort a mid set technical malfunction, and ran out of time before London’s encores of Is That All There is and Wings) but still showed off his enduring quality both as singer and a storytelling writer.
He was backed by surely the best solo band he has ever assembled, with the Union rhythm section of Chris Childs and Dave McCluskey, a new guitarist to me in John Sudbury who was a real discovery, playing with great taste and feeling, and Ged Rylands playing a central role on keyboards, rhythm guitar and harmony vocals.
The set focused primarily on his three Vaughn albums from the 2000’s, though Meet Me in the Night and Seasons were dropped in to delight Tyketto fanatics along with the acoustically driven Paralysed from last year’s ‘Dig in Deep’ reunion. Highlights included an aggressive Badlands Rain, Just Like That coming over like the missing song from John Mellancamp’s Uh-Uh album, the passionate, rousing Restless Blood; Was There a Moment with John’s use of the wah wah pedal leading into a classic chorus, and Carry Me Home, which he joked was a song none of his fans ever praised but built into a real climax with some nifty bass work from Chris.
There was even a welcome surprise of Always from his From The Inside project before he ended with The Voice in unusual fashion, as the band were introduced in turn and took their leave of the stage eventually leaving just Danny and his acoustic guitar.
Another familiar act were FM, second on the bill and delivering an edited version of the same set that had so delighted me at Shepherds Bush a fortnight before. After opening with Tough Love, it focused heavily on classic from the Indiscreet debut – I Belong to the Night, That Girl, Hot Wired and Other Side of Midnight, meaning they were one of the few bands to strictly fit the AOR definition.
Some of the songs I thought they might drop stayed in – Love Lies Dying which has become a real revelation live with Jim Kirkpatrick’s fluid soloing, and Does it Feel Like Love- while of the two new songs, Crosstown Train also saw Jim on superb form. Don’t Stop and, later on, Steve Overland’s superlative vocal tour de force Frozen Heart and set closers Bad Luck and Burning My Heart Down made for a cracking atmosphere with the crowd singing along, and the band radiating a sheer joy on stage constantly smiling and moving around to jam with each other, especially on twin guitar heavy songs like Over You.
This was further confirmation that FM are sounding better than ever, that the days of the tramp like Andy Barnett are behind them, and they are thoroughly enjoying their second chance in the spotlight with less pressure to be successful.
Tesla were probably the draw of the weekend for the largest number of people, the Sacramento rockers one of the best loved from the late eighties and early nineties, but intermittent visitors to the UK, most recently in 2009.
Bookended by Hang Tough, I Wanna Live and Breakin Free from their last all new set ‘Forever More’ demonstrated they still have the winning formula, but the gig really took off with Heavens Trail and in particular the storm whipped up on slide guitar by Frank Hannon who is a much underrated guitarist with the spirit of the great classic rock pioneers in his soul.
Jeff Keith’s vocal rasp is the other trademark part of the Tesla sound and the lithe frontman was having fun, even if I find his dumb ass Californian stage persona quite irritating. After the heavy, bluesy feel of Mama’s Fool, he dedicated Getting Better to those, myself included, who attended Tesla’s legendary UK debut shows at the Marquee in 1987, and a surprisingly early Signs had everyone singing along.
They did run a risk of the set dipping in the middle with a series of slower songs- What You Give was to me exceptionally boring though Love Song is a classic anthem and The Way it Is built to a climax with a fiery solo from Frank. It was therefore a relief when Edison’s Medicine rocked things up with a chorus made for punching the air then, after the nights surprise detour in Lazy Days Crazy Nights, the place was going crazy to Modern Day Cowboy as Frank and punky looking stand-in co-guitarist Tommy Armstrong-Leavitt played twin solos.
Disappointingly with a late start the set was sort of the advertised hour and 40 minutes, but another classic from the debut in the anthemic Little Suzi ended an excellent set on a high.
One of the quirks of HRH events is that the supporting cast continue after the headliners. So I took my one trip to the second stage and caught some of the petite but feisty Swedish minx Mia Klose and her young band, with enjoyable songs like Lady Killer and Never Too Late lus a cover of You Could be Mine to match her Guns n Roses leather jacket, returning to find Vega mid set in front of a still decent crowd, looking as if they owned the stage and super confident singer Nick Workman joking after What the Hell and Hearts of Glass that their new album would be called ‘who oah, Hey Hey’, given their penchant for inserting those chants in their choruses.
After the classy Stay with Me, a trio of closing songs with hooks so strong as strong as Into the Wild, White Knuckle Ride and Hands in the Air, made it easy to imagine that with the right breaks they could comfortably headline this sort of event in their own right in future.
DAY 2 – 7 APRIL 2013
Arriving just too late to catch BarbQ Barbies, a long day for me exclusively at the main stage began with Buffalo Summer who owed their place on the bill to touring with Skid Row. Mining the same retro sounds of the likes of Rival Sons, the Welshmen were extremely musically competent, but I felt their rather dry sound was totally unsuited to this particular festival. In another environment I am sure I would have enjoyed them more.
There has been a bit of buzz about Nubian Rose but opinion on their set appeared divided. For my part, I thought the combination of typical Scanadinavian melodic rock, with bald bespectacled keyboardist Fredrik Akerlund prominent in the sound, and the symphonic, almost classically inspired wail of singer Sofia Lilja worked a treat.
She is a striking character, coming on brandishing roses and later reappearing in a Union Jack catsuit, even though she seemed constrained by her halting spoken English. Highlights included Reckless, Your Love, Living For Tomorrow. Sisters had more of the rocking soul feel of an Anastacia, while the set closers Mountain and Ever See Your Face were more in a straightforward hard rock direction.
As previously stated, the running order was not in order of status but even so it was odd that HEAT should be so low down the bill and the young Swedes were greeted by one of the most packed and fanatical crowds down the front.
This was my first to chance to see them since Firefest in 2010 since when new singer Eric Grunwald had bedded in. With a blue military jacket and blond Mohawk reminding me of Kajagoogoo’s Limahl he was a bundle of energy and the band complemented him perfectly, and the massive choruses of Breaking the Silence and Better Off Alone from the last ‘Address the Nation’ new album got the gig off to a flying start.
Oddly though one time classics from their debut such as Late Night Lady and Straight For Your Heart lose something in his hands and it was the newer songs that made the best impact and dominated the set, once Beg Beg Beg was the excuse for a snatch of Zeppelin and some audience participation.
The guitar intro alone to Falling Down had a bigger hook than most songs, Heartbreaker had the choruses straight from the Desmond Child song book, while in contrast more reflective songs like Downtown and In and Out of Trouble with Eric playing harmonica benefited from a big, spacious sound. Living on the Run was another irresistible slice of big chorused melodic rock and the more groove orientated Its all About Tonight got people going to finish what was one of the highlights of the weekend.
Ten are not the most visually exciting of bands so it was always going to be hard for them to follow HEAT, but it is good to see a band that had seemingly given up on touring following up last year’s tour Firefest appearance and they seemed more relaxed than normal.
The set was similar, mixing a trio of new songs – of which Gun Running and Unbelievable combined almost power metal speed with lush choruses- with typically grandiose epics like Ten Fathoms Deep and The Rose. I did fear the piano led ballad Valentine would be to schmaltzy but it actually proved a highlight, with a wonderful solo from guitarist Dan Mitchell, more restrained than his usual rapid fingered style.
Eternal favourites After the love Has Gone, Red and Name of the Rose ended the set: for me they will always bring back memories of the days when Gary Hughes’ band were Now and Then’s house band and invariably headlined the old Gods festival, but it is good to see them back on the scene.
Eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of Uli Jon Roth on the bill, not least as he played both the prog and AOR stages but the man whose gentle hippie countenance seems frozen in time was one of the highlights of the day. I was doubtful whether he would hold my interest but instead we were treated to a set full of Scorpions classics from his years in the seventies marking the 40th anniversary of his joining the band.
It was a delight to witness one of the neglected masters of guitar, with a style pitched somewhere between Blackmore and Hendrix but with a feel of his own. He was assisted by a high pitched singer and bassist in Owen Davidson, although the inadvertent Ainsley Harriott comparisons were enhanced when he said ‘what are you guys like!’
Klaus Meine is a hard voice to replicate and he rather murdered Pictured Life and Catch Your Train, yet after hitting his stride on The Sails of Charon, In Trance was simply stunningly beautiful with great musicianship and We’ll Burn the Sky delivered in an epic fashion that made me want to rediscover it all over again. Uli himself took lead vocals on the Floyd-esque Fly to the Rainbow before they shared vocal duties during a lengthy, jammed out of Dark Lady to end a set that was a revelation.
Moritz provided a second surprise, coming over as a bunch of wisecracking geezers barely able to believe their luck at getting a second chance in middle age to relaunch a career that stalled in the eighties after a couple of EPs. Their sound was classic Brit AOR but given a harder edge by the sandpaper vocals of chunky Scot Peter Scallan.
There were also a few curveballs including Gonna Lose Her that had the funkiness of late seventies Doobie Brothers but in addition to a quite superb ballad, Should’ve Been Gone, the likes of Fire, Without Love, and Who Do You Run To, with Greg Hart playing a 12 strong guitar were instantly likeable slices of AOR before they even finished with a singalong to City Streets.
It is a brave move to come out as the evening enters its climax and with both beer and expectation flowing, armed just with an acoustic guitar, but the reverence with which Kip Winger was heard speaks volumes for his talents. This was a truncated version of the acoustic show that wowed me and others at the Borderline last autumn showing the unheralded strength of this songwriting particularly on the numbers from Pull such as Blind Revolution Mad and Who’s the One.
Considering his brooding, intense reputation, he also has a wickedly dry sense of humour while he also gave the good news that he and Reb Beach were recording a new Winger album. As at every show an audience member was plucked out- in this case a fellow online hack- to help out on Miles Away, still one of the great power ballads.
Although the set primarily of Winger songs focused on his more introspective work there was still a good singalong to Deal With The Devil while a quickfire 1-2 closer of Madelaine and Seventeen (where he playfully changed the title to She’s Only 45!) rocked as hard as one man and an acoustic guitar possibly can. A very special talent.
Skid Row headlined the Sunday, in theory quite a coup when you consider quite how huge they became at the turn of the nineties. However- perhaps as this was one show in quite a substantial tour- I was surprised there were not more people to witness them, certainly fewer than saw Tesla.
Since their heyday, motormouth singer Seb Bach is long gone replaced by Johnny Solinger. The Texan seemed to divide opinion but for me while he does not have a particularly distinctive voice he is a good frontman and able to do justice to the material.
Opening with Slave to the Grind and the fist punching Big Guns it was swiftly apparent that Skid Row are as tight and aggressive as ever with ‘Snake’ Sabo and Scotti Hill a well matched guitar pairing who have barely changed in all that time. However I did wonder whether they were simply too heavy and raw, particularly on songs from the forthcoming EP United World Rebellion like Lets Go, Mudkicker and Kings of Demolition..
New Generation and the cover of Psychotherapy, sung by Rachel Bolan, were equally uncompromising. For my money I did enjoy hearing songs like 18 and Life and Monkey Business while I Remember You defines the MTV power ballad heyday and it was great to hear the relatively rare In a Darkened Room.
A trio of encores, Riot Act, Get the ***Fuck out and the perennial- if no longer accurate!_ anthem Youth Gone Wild showed that while Seb Bach may be gone, the band’s snot nosed attitude remains. While a shortish set of an hour and 10 minutes divided opinion, i thoroughly enjoyed myself even if I do not consider myself the band’s biggest fan.
However by nearly 1 am my energy levels were significantly flagging when Jeff Scott Soto hit the stage. If anyone can lift a tired crowd the hyperactive singer is one such and he has assembled an entirely new, but very talented band from across the globe.
The first half of the set was principally new material from the album Damage Control- the likes of the title track and 21st Century a tad too heavy funk for my taste but the almost gospel like Broken Man, with JSS on piano, and Look Inside Your Heart hit the mark , while the old favourite Eyes of Love and W.E.T’s One Love got perhaps the best reaction.
While the band played an instrumental JSS changed into a t-shirt bearing a picture of his late band mate Marcel Jacob, heralding a medley of Talisman classics like Dangerous, Just Between Us, Mysterious, Crazy and Frozen , then his trademark audience call and response to I’ll be Waiting. Even though the 2am curfew was up, he still squeezed in an encore as he brought on rising star Nathan James to duet on the Steel Dragon number Stand Up, with a cheeky sign off line from Steel Panther’s Community Property- unfortunately hotel shuttle drivers wait for no man.
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable weekend and one which was excellent value with the sheer amount of bands and 2 nights in a decent hotel, all for £130 per person. Despite some teething troubles, it was a successful launch to what I hope will be a permanent addition to the festival season. See you in 2014 campers!
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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