Gig review: ROCK THE PARK – London, Ontario, Canada, 26-27 July 2013

My hometown London has been rocking various parks all summer, from the Stones and Bon Jovi at Hyde Park to Springsteen at the Olympic Park. But to our colonial cousins ‘across the pond’ , London is a mid sized city west of Ontario that for the past  decade has staged a classic rock festival, ‘Rock the park’ in downtown Harris Park, that attracts at least 10,000 people a day and raises substantial sums for a children’s health charity.

Spreading my wings beyond festivals in the USA, it was a good choice for me as the second and third days combined some of my favourite classic AOR acts with a sprinkling of legendary Canadian acts who rarely play the UK (the first day incidentally was headlined by huge-in-Canada alternative rockers The Tragically Hip).

The set up of the festival took some getting used to: I decided to order a VIP ticket in the expectation I would get a better place at the front, but VIP and general admission alike both extended to the front of the stage, separated by a lateral fence and with our section rather tucked in a corner (with the poor seated VIPs some distance from the stage). Different sections were also marked out, including alcohol only allowed around designated beer tent areas.

Still, it made for fewer queues for the facilities and less space pressure, and the fact it was such a small area made it easier to get to know faces from one day to the next and I must say I experienced real hospitality from the Canadians and made new friends.

DAY 1- JOURNEY, WHITESNAKE, HELIX, PLATINUM BLONDE

As it turned out, the direction of the sun meant that for much of the first day I needed to go into the general admission section to get better photos. First up was a rare opportunity to witness veteran party metallers Helix, who I saw for the first and only time before a sparse Marquee crowd in 1990.

Veteran singer Brian Vollmer still remains and while he looks the part in his cowboy hat and boots, from openers Wild in the Streets and The Kids are Shaking it was clear that his voice is rather tired and thin these days, relying on a lot of support from his ever enthusiastic band mates. A number of what I assumed were new songs and even their cover of Gimme Good Lovin were lacklustre, and surprisingly it took a couple of mid tempo songs Good to the Last Drop and Deep Cuts the Knife to turn the ship around.

From then on the crowd warmed to some of their classic dumb anthems from the early eighties such as Heavy Metal Love and Dirty Dog and fists were punched to closer Rock You (did Justin Hawkins pinch the ‘Gimme an R, Gimme an ‘O’ off them?)

Platinum Blonde are a Canadian band who were popular in the early eighties who have recently reformed, although I was surprised to hear singer Mark Holmes speak with an English accent. Dressed all in white and with guitarist and bassist sporting peroxide mops a la LA-phase Rod Stewart, it was like being frozen in time. They had more of an indie sound, with elements of The Cure, U2 , but most pertinently, the choppy, slightly funky rhythms, not to say image of a Duran Duran.

For a long time I struggled to get into them, though by the way most of the crowd was singing along it was clear they were being greeted like long lost returning friends. With the likes of Contact, Doesn’t Really Matter and Situation Critical, I was gradually turned around but the highlight for me was the final song, Crying over You, a great piece of hi-tech AOR in the mould of Mr Mister or Glass Tiger.

In a change of musical style, Whitesnake were next up, reprising the double act with Journey that had been touring the UK only a few weeks previously. Having seen the Snakes on both sides of the pond, I knew the set would be subtly different and focus on the post Slide It In-era, though after opening with Gimme All Your Love, I was surprised Ready an Willing remained in the set, Reb Beach and Doug Aldrich taking a solo each, and was delighted to hear Love Ain’t No Stranger which had been omitted at Wembley.

While David Coverdale’s prime time voice is never coming back, he remains a charismatic frontman and great entertainer, chiding the home crowd for the smell of weed in the air and toasting them with ‘Canadian apple juice’.

He has also cleverly assembled a line up in which all but drummer Tommy Aldridge are comfortable with big backing vocals to fill out the sound. They may lack the soul of the old stout bluesers of vintage Whitesnake, but few are better than this incarnation of the band at putting on a brash, loud show.

He had to work hard though to warm up the crowd, at least until Is This Love, before paying tribute to fallen former Whitesnake comrades and surprisingly playing a truncated version of Gambler. As usual a rather boring guitar jam and drum solo gave Mr C a chance to draw breath, at which point with the sun going down I took the opportunity to return to my VIP station.

Forevermore is simply a modern classic and showed off Doug Aldrich’s talent, from an acoustic intro to a lengthy searing solo, then a medley of Slide it In and Slow an Easy was another departure from the UK set (at the expense of Fool for your Lovin) and Bad Boys led into Here I go Again, one of the few songs where David took the vocal weight off the band- in conjunction with the Canadian equivalent of the ‘Whitesnake choir’ of course.

A powerful Still of the Night inevitably completed the set, although for many people I spoke to the abiding memory was of him throwing a strop at the crew at the side of the stage, presumably because of microphone problems.

And so to Journey. Two months previously I had found one of my all time favourite bands in lacklustre form at Wembley Arena, and that was meant to be one of the better shows of the tour. But whether they actually raised their game this time, or it was the psychological effect of warm summer festival on a holiday versus converted swimming pool arena on a school night, this performance was infinitely more satisfying.

As they came on stage in low-key fashion but opened with classics Separate Ways and Anyway You Want It, the sound was crisp and clear while a viewpoint closer to the stage revealed just how much enthusiasm and energy Arnel Pineda expends hyperactively working the crowd- perhaps at the expense of his voice sometimes.

The set was actually virtually identical to the UK one, with the omission of Keep On Running but Who’s Crying Now getting an airing three songs in, allowing Neal Schon to go off on a lengthy solo to take the original into a new dimension.

It was therefore a tried and tested Greatest Hits set, perfect festival fodder with arms waved and lighters in the air to Lights and Open Arms, and clapping along to Only the Young and Stone in Love, which just might be my favourite Journey song.

These were leavened by some of the choice heavier cuts from Escape and Frontiers, including Dead or Alive and best of all a fiery Edge of the Blade with some heavy riffing from Neal. I could forgive the fact that on a couple of occasions they seemed unusually ragged.

Arnel even seemed more confident in between song chat although his stage gear screamed ‘Uniqlo catalogue model’, and as usual excelled on Faithfully. Wheel in the Sky even saw Jonathan Cain join in with a harmonica solo (though he needs to do something about the bored expression he gives when he steps out from behind the keyboards to add guitar!)

An excellent gig came to the inevitable conclusion of Be Good to Yourself and the inevitable Don’t Stop Believing leading to wild outpourings of delight and a spectacular explosion of streamers and confetti.

However, planned or otherwise, unlike in the UK they returned for an encore to stretch out a bit to a bluesy Lovin Touchin Squeezin. They may lack charisma as a live band, but no one can doubt Journey’s quality and this show restored my rather tarnished faith in them.

DAY 2- STYX, TOTO, GRAND FUNK RAILROAD, SAGA, CONEY HATCH

Overnight the weather took a turn for the worse so I arrived to find the Park grey and drizzly, arriving in time to see Coney Hatch. There was an irony in the fact they but this ‘Limey’ was the sole fan in a Coney Hatch t-shirt and had probably seen them more recently at their legendary Firefest appearance in 2011.

Given 35 minutes, this was never going to match that occasion but alongside openers Don’t Say Make Me and Stand Up came a couple of new songs from their forthcoming album- Blown Away and more impressively Welcome to the Boys Club, with Andy Curran’s sleazier vocals carrying the tune. Hey Operator was as usual the pick for me, and Devil’s Deck stirred the crowd somewhat before Andy’s Monkey Bars delighted the person who had been shouting for it.

Another of the legendary Canadian bands Paul Suter used to regale us with in Kerrang’s eighties years, Saga were next and a band I had never seen before.  I was not familiar with most of their material, neither is it immediately was it commercial enough to grab me, but admired the musicianship with some dextrous soloing from guitarist Ian Crichton with and at times, with singer Michael Sadler joining in and bassist Jim Crichton playing a mini moog, we were in triple keyboard heaven. Crisp and tight versions of Scratching the Surface and On the Loose ended a set again cut rather short at 40 minutes.

Never seen in the UK, Grand Funk Railroad are mainstays of the North American festival circuit and always deliver a larger than life show, drummer Don Brewer in particular, even though the set never seems to vary year on year. The early emphasis was on more commercial material, a storming Rock and Roll Soul, the swirling keyboard sounds and scat singing of Footstompin music, and Shine On with Don singing, not to mention excellent former 38 Special singer Max Carl conducting a mass singalong to their rocked up cover of The Locomotion.

After a lengthy blues jam, we witnessed the two sides of them with Don conducting a singalong to Some Kind of Wonderful, but I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home a marvellously lengthy jam, including the low down and dirty bass lines of original member Mel Schacher, of the type that made them one of the true pioneers of metal in America.

Another truncated set ended with the classic We’re an American Band, although I noticed that other than Don putting on his Uncle Sam hat, they made less of a show of it than gigs of theirs I had seen in the USA.

When I originally booked the show, the J Geils Band were slated to play but mysteriously withdrew, but the appearance of Toto meant a third band who would be in the proverbial AOR hall of fame alongside Journey and Styx.

They were not afraid to take chances with the setlist, which perhaps tested the patience of an audience being soaked to the skin at the time. They opened with a lengthy On the Run with a snatch of Goodbye Elenore, and Joseph Williams in fine vocal form. Only three songs in, Rosanna delighted the crowd, yet the band could not resist showing off their consummate musicianship with a jazzy freeform jam that at least doubled the song’s length.

Not content with acting as the frontman and playing sophisticated solos throughout, Steve Lukather also took a surprising amount of the vocals, notably I Won’t Hold You Back and Wings of Time, dedicated to past colleagues like the Porcaro brothers and enlivened by his bluesy, smoky rasp.

Joseph was in danger of being a spare part but finally came into his own on Pamela, with that great mix of a white soul verses and AOR friendly chorus while White Sister simply rocked.

A reworked 99, with a Spanish guitar feel, failed to keep the momentum going but Africa, with David Paich and Joseph sharing vocal duties, was superb, even when given a coda of tribal type chanting, ever smiling bassist Nathan East moving centre stage to conduct it.

Even that was eclipsed though by a storming Hold the Line, where Steve somehow manages always to slightly improvise on the solo and the leather-lunged girl backing singer came forward to belt out a great duet with Joe.

After a memory to cherish, as there was a mass singalong to Love the One You’re With as it was played over the PA, it was left to Styx to close out the festival and they were a perfect choice. Running like dervishes around a well lit though spacious stage, they are quite simply entertainers who, whatever their birth certificates say, seem to take a youthful delight in performing.

While the old classics were all there, beginning with Tommy Shaw’s tour de force Blue Collar Man and a double helping of pomp classics from The Grand Illusion, the title track and Fooling Yourself, it was also an experience to see Styx in Canada for the first time and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, even more theatrically flamboyant than usual, treated as a homecoming hero.

Indeed, founder member James (JY) Young reminded the crowd that Canada had picked up on Styx before their native USA, introducing a trip back to 1975’s Equinox album for the rarely played Light Up, and the classic Suite Madame Blue, building from acoustic beginnings, Lawrence successfully replicating Dennis De Young’s vocals on the slow section, before the music became ever more epic above a chant of ‘America’.

The band’s main singers then each took a turn in the spotlight, JY with his trademark Miss America, then the ever youthful Tommy reminiscing about his auditions for the band before playing Crystal Ball, which was memorable from its acoustic intro to a keyboard passage leading into a great solo, and Lawrence his own A Criminal Mind, with Tommy on mandolin.

All too soon the show was over with Too Much Time on my Hands and- after Lawrence teased with acapella versions of a range of songs from Tiny Dancer to Fat Bottomed Girls- Come Sail Away which saw him even more hyperactive on stage than ever and each of the band, even super cool bassist Ricky Phillips, singing a few lines.

There was a pleasant surprise for the first encore with a stonking Rockin the Paradise which they have rarely if ever played in the decade plus I have been watching them, Lawrence looking like Alice Cooper as he stalked every inch of the stage in his bowler hat and acting as the circus ringmaster, before the familiar strains of Renegade, more concise than it sometimes is live but with Tommy and JY trading lead lines in well matched fashion.

On a weekend of excellent performances, Styx’s sheer charisma and joie de vivre tipped the scales and made them the band of the weekend. It had ultimately been a great festival and maybe I will make the return trip from London to London one day.

 Review and Photos by Andy Nathan

 


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