Few festival experiences can match the vibe of Moondance Jam. Set among the beautiful woods and lakes of Northern Minnesota, somehow the tiny town of Walker plays host to one of the Mid West’s premier rock festivals and draws crowds of around 20,000, many of whom year after year give up a large chunk of the miserly holiday entitlement most Americans are given to partake in what is billed as the ‘camping and jamming event of the summer’.
I’d been going for the last four years, using our own more generous Ieave, but was planning to sit 2013 out. However the lure of the best organised and friendliest festival there is called me back as the line up took shape and included a few bands on my shrinking ‘bucket list’ of ones I’d never seen, and a great blend of the classic bands and some of the few modern ones I love. However having left it late the nearest hotels were some 60 miles away, leading to some tiring drives in the small hours and reminding me to plan ahead better in future.
DAY 1 (18 July) – MOTLEY CRUE, CHEAP TRICK, BUCKCHERRY, SHOOTING STAR
Arriving just in time to catch an uncannily accurate Paul Rodgers/Bad Company tribute in the Saloon Bar that hosts regional bands, my first action was Shooting Star, appropriately so as they opened up my debut Jam in 2009.
The Kansas City based pomp rockers have seen line up changes with no violin player (and still no bassist) and yet another new singer in Todd Pettygrove who acquitted himself well despite lacking a bit of power in places. On songs like ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Flesh and Blood’, Van McLain stepped back to play a special guitar tuned to recreate the violin parts.
I thought their set started slowly but ‘Are You on My Side’ saw Todd spark the crowd into life and the set got better and better with ‘Touch Me Tonight Tonight’ with some great guitar and keyboard work and ‘Breakout’, even if the latter was spoiled by an over long guitar solo slot.
The balls out ‘Hang On for Your Life’ saw a highlight as keyboard player Dennis Laffoon took a portable ‘keytar’ to jam away with Van, and epic ‘Last Chance’ closed the set, with its melancholic intro, big pomp sound and a chorus that people were singing along to. This wetted the appetite very nicely for their visit to the UK for Firefest where on this evidence they will go down a storm.
After enjoying catching up with stateside friends on one of the side stages to the backdrop of an enjoyable eighties covers band, Suite 1A, I was surprised to hear Buckcherry open with their most famous song ‘Lit Up’. It took me a while to reach the arena, at which time they were playing the radio friendly ballad ‘Sorry’.
However although ‘All Night Long’ and ‘Crazy Bitch’ the lithe, tattooed Josh Todd is a magnetic live performer, too many of the songs were samey and I found it harder to get into their brand of sleazy rock than when they last played here three years ago.
I’ve been waiting a long time for a definitive Cheap Trick show. The band have one of the most significant back catalogues that influenced countless bands –indeed Motley Crue were to name check them – yet have never fully offered a crowd pleasing setlist, veering into self indulgence and obscure songs. The sandpit in front of the stage at Moondance has long been one of my favourite atmospheres to watch bands so could they add to the list of memorable shows?
Up to a point was the answer: with their iconic chequered stage set, the band were as tight as ever, best demonstrated as they jammed out to Need Your Love, and showing a primeval rawness not always evident on record.
Rick Nielsen was his zany self, his son Daxx provided added drive on the drums and bassist Tom Peterson looked like a hip university lecturer. Robin Zander’s voice was as precise as ever though it was a shock to see him come on stage with his distinctive blond hair shorn. Dressed all in white, cap pulled over his head and barely speaking between songs, he cut an almost ghostlike presence.
From openers ‘Hello There’ and ‘Big Eyes’ the set was very heavily weighted towards the legendary Live at Budokan record with rarer cuts such as ‘Look Out’, ‘Clock Strikes Ten’ and ‘California Man’ were crisp and punchy rock n rollers, but some momentum was lost with some mid set obscurities, never a wise move for a festival crowd.
Fortunately ‘I Want You to Want Me’ picked up the pace and got the crowd signing along, then after slipping in a rare recent song in ‘Sick Man of Europe’, ‘Dream Police’ and ‘Surrender’ got the party really started.
However the lengthy ‘Gonna Raise Hell’ was an odd choice for an encore, followed by ‘Goodnight Now’ and Rick briefly bringing out his famous five necked guitar. I left as satisfied as I have yet been at a Cheap Trick live show, though there were one or two grumblings from others about the set list.
Whether you see them as godfathers of the whole glam and hair metal movement or share Tommy Saxondale’s view that ‘they’re a bit shit’, you can’t deny Motley Crue are a major draw and it represented a major coup for Moondance to book them.
They made a faltering start, ‘Wild Side’ sounding tinny, Vince Neil’s voice whiny and missing out half of the notes and Mick Mars blowing an amp two songs in, but put on a big loud show with strobe lighting, the only disappointment being some of their props such as Tommy Lee’s drum rollercoaster being left behind.
With tarty ‘dancers’ , Vince Neil strumming a guitar with ‘sex’ written on it and hearing new songs ‘It’s All About the Sex and Motherf***er of the Year’, it was a reminder that Steel Panther’s parodies, much as Tommy Lee may detest them, are close to the bone.
After the relatively more melodic ‘Don’t Go Away Mad’ Tommy came down from his kit to play the piano intro to ‘Home Sweet Home’, which featured the best guitar solo yet, the gig became progressively hotter.
With every successive hit, from early classics ‘Looks that Kill’, ‘Live Wire’ and ‘ Too Fast for Love’ and a weighty ‘Primal Scream’ to ‘Dr Feelgood’, ‘Girls Girls Girls’, and ‘Kickstart my Heart’, each with surprisingly good guitar solos, the ululations of delight from a raucous crowd got ever louder and justified their headline status.
DAY 2 (19 July) – SLASH, BACHMAN TURNER, BLUE OYSTER CULT, SWEET
Day 2, the headliner excepted, saw Moondance return to the older acts that used to be its trademark before they bowed to shifting musical fashions, beginning with an unusual experience for me in the Sweet. To us Europeans, this means Andy Scott’s version but bassist Steve Priest appears to have sole rights to use the name in the States and indeed this was a return visit to Moondance for them.
It had a surreal opening as Steve sat on his haunches and the band were ready to play while a pre-recorded interview with him dragged on. Now in his sixties and cutting a chunkier figure, the bassist rather barks the lead lines he used deliver with an over the top yelp in the day, but he holds together an excellent line up of American musicians with Joe Retta a commanding frontman with a good vocal range and guitarist Richie Z a real find with his fluent guitar breaks.
Classic glam rock singles ‘Action’, ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Teenage Rampage’ were well delivered and ‘Love is Like Oxygen’ saw some brilliant interplay but the real pleasant surprise to me was to hear a trio of tracks from Sweet Fanny Adams, the 1974 album that, Martin Peters like, was ten years ahead of its time.
The title track, coming over as a cross between Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, ‘Set Me Free’ with some very Deep Purple esque guitar and vocal call and response; and AC/DC. In addition to the lengthy blues ‘Done Me Wrong All Right’, they were a timely reminder of the too often neglected hard rock side of the seventies teen idols.
However it was the hits that everyone really wanted to hear and I don’t think I have witnessed a 3pm band at Moondance get the reaction that they did to ‘Little Willy’, ‘Fox on the Run’ and set closer ‘Ballroom Blitz’, sadly without the full ‘Are You Ready Steve’ intro.
After a trip even further back in time with one of the original rock n rollers, Johnny Rivers, technical problems meant a half hour delay before Blue Oyster Cult hit the stage, the first time I’d seen them in a decade or so.
Buck Dharma’s guitar was as mellifluous as ever at the centre of some triple guitar jams, while his hair seemed mysteriously seemed more lustrous but, already two songs in during ‘Burning for You’, his vocal struggled to be heard above the background din, especially of a girl incessantly jabbering nonsense behind me, and this was to be a problem all set. In addition, with Eric Bloom a cuddly shadow of his former menacing self, they lacked stage presence.
The frustration was the music was as good as ever with Buck’s Boogie followed by an incredible ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’, with long, increasingly speedy, but melodic solos from relative new boy Richie Castellano, equally adept at keyboard and guitar and a real discovery, then Buck.
But even when ‘Godzilla’ picked up the pace, momentum was swiftly lost with a drum solo. Finishing with ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ to the delight of the crowd, not least the girl holding up a ‘more cowbell’ sign on a piece of card, I was surprised given the time constraints they came back for the relative obscurity of ‘Black Blade’ and ‘Hot Rails to Hell’, Richie adding vocals to his talents. However on balance BOC were one of the very few disappointments of the weekend. Crank it up louder next time!
I had missed Bachman and Turner when they played High Voltage in 2010 so the veteran Canadians were another band to cross off my list. It was easy to warm to the affable stage presence of these old troopers, both in their 70th year, as nightfall provided the perfect accompaniment to a mixed bag of much loved songs, with Fred ‘CF’ Turner barking out ‘Roll On Down The Highway’ and Randy Bachman, no longer the bear like figure of old, ‘Rock is My Life’.
‘Looking Out for No 1′ and ‘Blue Collar’ turned into almost jazzy jams while Randy’s playing was a delight to hear, economical but bluesy. There was a good spread of old favourites- the catchy ‘Hey You’, ‘Four Wheel Drive’, and ‘Stay Awake All Night’, with Randy playing guitar with a drumstick, and new – ‘Rolling Along’ continuing CF’s love of road songs, together with ‘American Woman’ from Randy’s Guess Who days.
Dave Nice and Mike Smash were in my thoughts during ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’, but it was actually the two encores that went down best despite of the distraction of rhythm guitarist Brent Knudsen’s Davy Crockett hat.
‘Let it Ride’ featured some spot on vocal harmonies and the whole crowd were singing along to ‘Taking Care of Business’ which Randy joked was used as a test of Canadian citizenship. A truly fantabulous performance that only whetted my appetite to check out their stuff more – not ‘arf mate!
Friday was headlined by a genuine legend in Slash, albeit one happy to share top billing with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators as his band. The man’s shades, top hat and Gibson guitar pointed skywards are one of hard rock’s iconic images and the Alter Bridge frontman is his perfect foil, with a commanding stage presence but a humble manner and a voice with a fine range and pitch. To these ears it was far more pleasurable than hearing Axl Rose wailing the high notes.
Opening with a couple of songs from last year’s Apocalyptic Love album, it was of course the old Guns n Roses numbers that turned the sandpit at the front into an even more fanatical crowd than usual, beginning with a 1-2 punch of ‘Nighttrain’ and ‘Mr Brownstone’. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and ‘Rocket Queen’ caused outbursts of delight and the odd pogo, and Slash’s guitar hero status perhaps earned him the right to go off on what seemed like a 10 minute solo in the middle of the latter.
However that is not to denigrate the quality of the solo material- Myles made ‘Ghost’ his own, ‘Back to Cali’ was simply swaggering and the beautiful ballad ‘Starlight’ has become his trademark, while ‘Anastasia’ was the pick of the new songs.
‘Sweet Child O Mine’ saw Slash faithfully deliver surely the best guitar solo of the hair metal era, and Myles’ singing did the song full justice, while I was amazed just how many people were getting into Velvet Revolver’s ‘Slither’.
For the encores, an authentic cover of ‘Immigrant Song’ led into ‘Paradise City’ and the atmosphere cranked to levels of excitement high even by Moondance standards, culminating in confetti explosions as Slash played his closing solo ever faster.
Apparently (and I’m afraid this offends my conception of the rock n roll spirit) Slash sent a post-show tweet that the crowd had been one of the best he had played in front of and the feelings of appreciation were mutual.
DAY 3 (20 July) – THEORY OF A DEADMAN, HALESTORM, HEAD EAST
Saturday was a day where old and new collided. Head East are 1970’s Mid-Western contemporaries of Styx and REO who gained a lot of airplay but never matched their breakthrough into arena status.
I had never heard any of their songs until they came on in a friend’s truck on the way to another festival in 2002, and since then have come to symbolise my musical love affair with the USA.
Now with only one original member in keyboardist Roger Boyd, their presence was the deciding factor in me changing my mind and making the trip. Surprisingly they opened in rather cabaret fashion with a cover of Trooper’s ‘Raise a Little Hell’ before their own ‘Get Up and Enjoy Yourself ‘and the Eagles-like ‘Love Me Tonight’.
A medley of ‘City of Gold’ and ‘Fly by Night Lady’ from the classic ‘Flat as a Pancake’ debut showed off their strengths of their classic material which combined the instrumental virtuosity of classic seventies rock with ever present melody.
The current line up interpret it sensitively and one of their defining features was that all band members were comfortable singing not only harmony but lead vocals, and there was a mass swapping of instruments for ‘Prisoner’ as Darren Walker – remarkably close in tone to original singer John Schlitt – temporarily handed over lead duties.
‘Elijah’ with a great solo, and ‘Jefftown Creek’, the song that first got me into them, were simply wonderful with Roger and guitarist Glen Bridger sharing vocals on the latter, while ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ delighted the home crowd who, unlike us Brits, associate the song with their cover rather than Rainbow’s.
The best though was yet to come as they ended with their best loved song, ‘Never Been Any Reason’. Drummer Eddie Jones sang the verses and Roger was very entertaining as he took a synthesiser off his bank of keyboards and moved centre stage, swinging it over his head to jam with the rest of the band, looking in his hat as if he could be a Parisian street entertainer.
An encore of a cover I wasn’t familiar with, ‘Mama Let Him Play’, again lent itself perfectly to his capers with its guitar-keyboard interplay. Moreover, they were one of the few bands to do a signing session for all comers so I had the privilege of meeting them.
Winding forward the musical years and Halestorm’s presence on the bill was another draw for me as their second album The Strange Case Of….. is perhaps my favourite album of the last five years, mixing modern metal beats with insanely commercial hooks and choruses. Not only that, but the long legs and leather hot pants of singer Lzzy Hale were certainly eye candy after a parade of wrinkled old rockers.
Some of those melodic subtleties were lost in an excessively loud sound, particularly the drums of Lzzy’s brother Arejay, a certified hyperactive lunatic who leapt off his stool so high and so often I thought it was only a matter of time before he landed on his ass.
The early pace was unrelenting with Lzzy tackling the likes of ‘Love Bites’, ‘Ms Hyde’, ‘You Call Me a Bitch like its a Bad Thing’ and ‘Freak like Me’ in her usual feisty fashion, while guitarist Josh Hottinger was a perfect foil.
Covers of Dio’s ‘Straight Through The Heart’ and Skid Row’s ‘Slave To The Grind’ also impressed, while Lzzy showed her tender as well as tough side, sensitively delivering the ballad ‘Break In’, playing keyboards, before the band kicked in for the epic ‘Familiar Taste of Poison’.
Once again, in front of a crowd younger than it had been for most of the festival, there was a storming atmosphere rarely seen at Moondance for a band only third on the bill, most notably on debut album favourites ‘I Get Off’ and ‘Its Not You’. ‘I Miss the Misery ‘remains perhaps the best example of how they combine melody and feistiness, while ‘Here’s to Us’ was a great live, arm-waving, beer koozies in the air set closer.
Theory Of A Deadman kept it contemporary and Moondance’s older fans who may have assumed from the name some shouty nu-metallers were in for a pleasant surprise. The Canadians, led by bequiffed Tyler Connolly, have evolved from Nickelback protégés and clones to demonstrate a real commercial sensitivity, albeit accompanied by sentiments on the likes of the ‘Bitch Came Back’ that have seen them accused of misogyny.
Tyler is also a lively frontman with a sharp sense of laddish humour and a master of audience participation. Both up tempo numbers like openers ‘Gentleman’ and ‘So Happy’ and ballads like ‘All or Nothing’ (but ditch the obviously taped keyboards!) and ‘Not Meant to Be’ made for extremely palatable listening.
The sense that TOAD are far removed from old stereotypes only increased when they sat down for a three song acoustic segment including an Alice in Chains cover and ‘Out of My Head’, with its catchy ‘na-na-na’ refrain.
However they showed their more up tempo side with ‘Lowlife’, the singalong ‘Hate My Life’, preceded by a teasing snippet of Guns n Roses, and an irrepressible ‘Bad Girlfriend’ to close, all of which had an increasingly stoked up crowd rocking out.
I joined the rowdy party people in the Saloon to incredibly faithful representations of Dave Lee Roth era Van Halen classics from the Atomic Punks, who had kicked off the day on the main stage. I spent time chatting and didn’t bother with Saturday night headliners The Offspring (who won very good notices but quite simply they have never appealed to me), and perhaps the most enjoyable of the five Moondances I’ve been to was over too fast. And so to 2014, where REO Speedwagon have already been announced. Go on, you know you want to…
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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