Gig review: MELODIC ROCK FEST – Arlington Heights, Chicago, USA, 27-29 September 2013

For nearly two decades, Australian Andrew McNiece has been the ringmaster and champion of the worldwide melodic rock community through his website www.melodicrock.com , which brought many of us together at a time when this type of music had been driven totally underground.

Bringing this style of music to America might be seen as selling sand to the Arabs, but the harsh fact is that many of the cult North American bands seem to tour  more often in Europe than in what you might imagine to be their heartland, hence the idea behind Melodic Rock Fest.  I had a memorable time at MRF2 in the Chicago area in 2010, but even a stellar line up headed by Y and T and Winger failed to pull in punters to the levels that the UK’s Firefest attracts.

That seemed to put the kybosh on future festivals, but the intrepid Tasmanian regrouped, cut his coat to his cloth accordingly and used his contacts to assemble a third festival. As someone whose greatest passions in life include travel to the USA and the Mid-West in particular, music festivals and melodic rock, as soon as it was announced in February I knew I would be making the trip.

There was a new venue for MRF in the H.O.M.E. Bar in the Greater Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. Unprepossessingly located in a strip mall, the venue was perfect, with a sports bar complete with the best of American food and a wide selection of beers leading into a decently sized backroom where the music took place.

The facilities were excellent, though I and many other moaned at the ridiculously loud sound and the lighting made it frustrating for us photographers. The atmosphere was also more relaxed than nearly any festival I have been to and in particular there were few barriers between fans and musicians who happily mingled most of the weekend.

DAY 1 – FRIDAY- BONRUD, ERIC MARTIN, KELLY KEELING, GLEN BURTNIK, ROBERT TEPPER, FERRIERA, GARY SCHUTT, LINE OF FIRE, THE RADIO SUN

With a bigger line up than the previous Melodic Fests, Friday kicked off in the late afternoon with a primarily acoustic night. Suitably, it was a young Aussie band The Radio Sun who kicked things off and while I heard most of their set  grabbing a burger while things were relatively quiet, some great harmonies marked them out as a band of promise.

North Carolina band Line of Fire, who have caused something of a stir in underground AOR circles, were next up and the quality went up still further, particularly  in Shawn Pelata’s soaring but pitch perfect voice especially on songs like Paradise and Obsession and a cover of Dokken’s Breaking the Chains.

Gary Schutt I remember being the bass player in Jeff Scott Soto’s band so it was a surprise to see him playing lead guitar, backed by backing tapes which were the first sign that things were going to get loud. He was extremely technically skilled, but not my cup of tea.

Ferreira also broke the mould by going electric, the eager young Brazilians making up in energy with the feel of a young Skid Row what they lacked in polish and the presence of several singers in the band giving them an added dimension.

The first of the A listers was Robert Tepper, a man to cross off my bucket list, and most famous for the anthemic AOR classic No Easy Way Out from Rocky 4. The bemulleted figure in a long cloak from that video is now closely cropped, greying and dapper in a suit jacket, but delivered a set of pure class.

His expressive voice with elements of Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison was really brought out by the sparse arrangements of his best loved songs like Sole Survivor, the aforementioned No Easy Way Out and Angel of the City.

Among his solo material he also played Into the Night, the big US hit single he wrote for Benny Mardones (delighting the person who won the unofficial obscure t-shirt contest), while a surprise was Jeff Paris in his Woody Allen-esque  glasses coming on to jam some blues with him. However the set then abruptly ended after only 40 minutes.

Another man who has given up trying to artificially hold off the ageing process, Glen Burtnik, was even better. Armed only with his guitar, an iPad and an emotional voice with a similar timbre to John Waite or Don Henley , he played a selection of songs from his varied career and it was great to hear forgotten 80’s solo obscurities like Follow You, Little Red House, Talking in Code and Perfect World.

His underrated contributions to Styx’s 1990 album Edge of the Century were showcased by the title track, albeit with lyrics very much of its time, and the Beatles esque All in a Day’s Work. I was reminded that he wrote the massive Don Henley/Patty Smyth duet Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough and hearing him deliver what he humorously described as ‘a medley of my hit’ was quite an emotional moment, before he encored in more uptempo form with Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, his power pop contribution to Styx’s Cyclorama album.

Kelly Keeling was a different type of vocalist, from the throaty and soulful school, but another whose passion and feeling was perfectly brought out by the acoustic format. Switching between guitar and piano he opened with a couple of Baton Rouge classics in Doctor and Walks Like a Woman.

He cut a rather distracted air, fiddling with a scruffy piece of paper, and it seemed to be a contest as some diehards shouted for Baton Rouge songs and he worked out whether he could remember them well enough to sing. Spotted throughout the weekend increasingly ‘enjoying the hospitality’ his set, with songs like The Ghost of You, There was a Time and Desperate whetted the appetite nicely for Baton Rouge’s trip to Firefest.

Eric Martin played before the biggest crowd of the night and the Mr Big singer was arguably the biggest name at the festival. The acoustic format suited his relaxed, friendly charm far better than his parent band whose musical virtuosity can sometimes lead him to be unfairly overlooked.

An interesting set saw him dip into Mr Big’s lesser known and often more reflective songs, like Where Do I Fit In and Goin Where the Wind Blows as well as songs from their neglected  Richie Kotzen era in Shine, Electrified and Water Over the Bridge.

The party was in full swing as various stars of the weekend including Jeff Scott Soto, Erik Martensson,  Glen Burtnik and Kelly Keeling joined him for Wild World, and To Be With You became a mass singalong. But after a grooving Don’t Stop, going way back to his Eric Martin Band debut album, and a surprisingly good cover of Crossroads his set ended well short of the allotted hour and a half. Later it emerged he had been struggling dreadfully with a cold, although I would not have guessed from his performance.

The evening was closed by a full electric set from Bonrud, the eponymous band of  affable guitarist Paul who is one of the long time supporters of the scene. Stand in singer Sean Smith had the classic throaty, bluesy rock voice, and the guitar work was excellent, but in hindsight they were doing the graveyard shift. It was now well past midnight and most of the audience had drifted away, tired, preparing for the next day or, as in my case, queuing for Eric Martin’s meet and greet in a side room. While workmanlike they lacked memorable material  to these ears unfamiliar with it. I am sure that earlier on one of the other days I would have appreciated them more.

DAY 2- HAREM SCAREM, W.E.T. ,MECCA +, HEAVEN AND EARTH, ADRIANGALE, TANGO DOWN, BRETT WALKER, NEWMAN, 7TH HEAVEN

Running late I dismally failed in my duty to catch opening bands The Radio Sun and Evolution Eden, while having missed the hotel breakfast a BBQ rib brunch and coffee refills had to take priority over seeing 7th Heaven, though again the sound was piped into the bar area.  The Chicago based band have the honour of being the only band to play all three MRFs with their brand of breezy pop rock, like a cross between Rick Springfield and Rascal Flatts. They have been famous in the past for a medley of covers but on this occasion it was originals like Better This Way that impressed.

Next up was a source of patriotic pride with Steve Newman and his eponymous band, who I have long admired, being, so far as I know, the only Brits performing at the festival. Unfortunately they were one of the bands most bedevilled by sound issues and also had to cut their set short slightly.

Steve’s baritone gives their sound a different dimension and shone through on the classy ballad Stay With Me and the urgent Primitive Soul, which almost reminded me of Survivor’s rockier moments.  As well as the more straight AOR of their earlier days such as Every Moment and If Its Love, they ended in fine style with Steve strapping on his guitar, pulling shapes with guitarist Shaun Bessant and bravely leading a singalong during One Step Closer. Hopefully the ‘Shermans’ present would have been impressed that us Limeys can grow our own melodic rock.

A poignant moment then followed- cult singer songwriter Brett Walker had been one of the big draws of the festival, not least having just released his first album in many years, Straight Jacket Vacation,  but sadly passed away in the Summer at a relatively young age.

His family were present to see the show go on in a variety of ways: his MTV video for Hard to Find an Easy Way was played over the video screens, and for a couple of songs his band played along to a pre recorded vocal track. However for the bulk of the set Jeff Paris, who inhabits the same musical ball park, stepped in admirably.

When he sang Waiting For Love, the classy US hit for Alias that he and Brett wrote, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Shawn Pelata and Jason Old from the Radio Sun also guested as classics from the Nevertheless album like No Fire Without You and Bad Time for Goodbyes mixed with material from the current album . A fitting requiem for a very talented man lost to us.

Melodic rock is a broad church and the next two acts were at the harder rocking end of the spectrum – with  food, drink and socialising calling I found myself dividing my time between the bar area where the music was still being piped, and  frequent trips into the music room to see for myself. Tango Down are a group of relatively young hungry musicians from the East Coast fronted by the much travelled David Reece. Coming over like a heavier version of his best known band Bangalore Choir it was fitting that after their own material they closed with their classics Loaded Gun and Angel in Black.

Adriangale, fronted by two more seasoned pros in singer Jamie Rowe and talented guitarist Vic Rivera kept that intensity going with the catchy Closer (to the Weekend)  the stand out memorable song.

Heaven and Earth, a vehicle for guitarist Stuart Smith, were originally due to play an acoustic set but ‘plugged in’ at the last minute and provided another diverse contrast with an old school sound owing much to classic Deep Purple and Rainbow – right down to a proper Hammond organ with wires protruding from the front.

Joe Retta, who I saw only two months ago fronting the US version of The Sweet- had the voice to do the songs justice, though easily the most memorable was the eponymous track, which bore all the hallmarks of its original singer Joe Lynn Turner.

The fickle hand of fate that bedevilled this festival pointed particularly harshly at Mecca. Former Toto singer Fergie Frederiksen was unable to reprise the songs he sang on their debut owing to a deterioration in his cancer, and singer Joe Vana it was explained had also been treated for thyroid  cancer.

They gamely plugged on with their stylish Toto esque AOR, on songs like Perfect World and undeniable, as well as the classy Without You from their debut, but were rather undermined both by a poor sound and an amateurish stage presence.

Jimi Jamison in contrast made things appear almost effortless and frankly stole the show as he made a series of guest appearances, from his Survivor classics Burning Heart and set closer I Can’t Hold Back to the more obscure in Too Hot To Sleep and A Dream Too Far, as well as duetting with Joe on Carmen. That song was surely in the set for Fergie to sing and it was touching that at the end Joe, Jimi and Andrew McNiece all held up an ipad to make a video message from the crowd.

The venue had filled up to the most packed it was all weekend for W.E.T. who did not disappoint. Jeff Scott Soto is always a hyperactive and magnetic performer, but the melodic rock supergroup  felt more fluent and natural than on their debut at Firefest two years ago, with Eric Martensson often supporting his Eclipse colleague Magnus Henriksen in a 2 pronged guitar attack, and keyboardist Robert Sall rather in the background.

They opened with Never Walk Away, which is what Journey might have done had they persisted with JSS and the instant hooks of Learn To Live Again. The lush ballad Love Heals and stirring Rise Up were equally convincing, and in a set choc full of instant classics Still Unbroken was anthemic while Broken Wings had a celtic feel to it.

They now have enough material for a headline set, so I was surprised they still dipped into the Talisman catalogue for Break These Chains and I’ll Be Waiting. Indeed my one criticism was the way the latter was extended jokily with guest vocalists; Coldspell’s bassist, Ferriera’s singer and Gary Schutt should in my view have been saved for one of JSS’s solo shows.

They concluded perhaps the most impressive set of the weekend  with a string of songs from their first album that we must now consider classics- the Journey-esque If I f=Fall, the extravagant Comes Down Like Rain, Brothers in Arms and One Love, blending classic melodic rock with  more discordant, contemporary beats.

Harem Scarem are one of the genre’s most revered cult names and this was a form of redemption as many were disappointed when they pulled out of the very first melodic rock fest in 2007 with travel issues. The sense of anticipation was heightened by the fact that they have marked the 20th anniversary of their much-loved 2nd release ‘Mood Swings’ by re-recording the album, and sure enough they opened with the classic opener Saviours Never Cry.

This was not an unalloyed triumph however. The sound mix appeared wrong at least from my vantage point with Pete Lesperance’s ever excellent guitar work buried under the bass and drums (plus the spotlights seemed to shine everywhere but him!)

In addition, HS have always tried to push at the boundaries of the genre but darker, almost grungier songs such as Dagger and even the bonus tracks tacked onto the Mood Swings re-release like World Gone To Pieces sat uncomfortably alongside the more upbeat material.

Nevertheless, Hard To Love had me punching the air and being transported back to the days of Maximes rock nights in Wigan, while there were a couple of other gems from their debut in Slowly Slipping Away and Honestly, the latter delivered sparsely to show off Harry Hess’s voice at its pitch perfect best.

I got the impression he uses humour and a casual manner to deflect the fact he has changed from his past when in his words he had a huge perm and a blouse.  However what struck me was the return of drummer Darren Smith as the yin to his yang – long haired, extrovert and having the time of his life as he sang the verses to Sentimental Boulevard with joyful exuberance.

Other Mood Swings highlights included Stranger Than Love with its massive hooks, a frantic Had Enough and Empty Promises, before Harry reminded us for the encores there were two still to play in No Justice, with everyone singing along, and the rapid fire Changes Comes Around.

Despite reservations over the sound, and a slightly short setlist, this was a triumphant end to the second day, and best of all I would be getting to see it again at Firefest.

DAY 3- ECLIPSE, STEVE AUGERI, TED POLEY, HOUSE OF LORDS, BOMBAY BLACK, COLDSPELL, NO LOVE LOST 

After failing to arrive in time for Loveblast  and briefly popping in to catch Inner Siege and Crossing Rubicon, who I decided were too metallic for my tastes,  my first serious action of Sunday was to watch No Love Lost. Having been a big fan of the North Carolina band’s debut, which harked back to a previous generation of pomp rock in the mould of Kansas, Shooting Star and Sugarcreek, I never expected to see them live, but initially felt disappointed.

There was no keyboard player though occasionally blatantly taped sounds blasted their way through and they were less melodic than expected. In particular, while a good frontman, Scott Board’s voice had a raspy tinge to it and was often drowned out by massed backing vocals.

However having adjusted my expectations, I enjoyed songs like Another Bad Goodbye and the catchy Desiree (surely the most over-used girl’s name in AOR circles) but the revelation was a version of Still Of The Night that few could have bettered in terms of capturing the original Coverdale-Sykes dynamic.  By the time they ended with Don’t Worry Bout the little things, their enthusiasm had made quite a few friends.

Coldspell raised the bar quality wise, the Swedes impressively tight with a full sound that owed a lot to classic Rainbow and Deep Purple, particularly on openers Heroes Of The New World and Out In The Cold. Their new album Frozen Paradise was showcased with several choice cuts, while they showed their diversity with Night Falls, with searing vocals from Niklas Swedentorp, the commercial One In A Million with a singalong,  Straight Things Out which was a more direct rocker with a big riff, and a catchy closer in Time To Live.

Having seen Bombay Black before and with their music on the heaviest fringes of my own tastes, I reluctantly returned to the bar area as a pizza was calling to sustain me through what was going to be a long night. I heard they went down well though notably with a cover of Wasted Years.

House Of Lords were rapturously received and I became aware that they tour unexpectedly rarely in USA. As they opened with Sahara, sole founder member James Christian appeared in excellent voice with no sign of past health scares, while the earlier part of the set heavily featured songs like Big Money  and Come To My Kingdom from the current version of the band that has released four albums in the last seven years.

It was the oldies I was more interested in though, with James doing justice to the emotive Love Don’t Lie, and adding acoustic guitar to their cover of Can’t Find My Way Home. A trio of classics from their debut album – an irresistible I Wanna Be Loved with a great solo from Jimi Bell, the pomp epic pleasure Palace and lascivious Slip Of The Tongue – closed a very successful set.

Ted Poley, backed by a solid band including Maz, the latest in a series of excellent guitarists to play with him, stuck to his tried and tested party formula. He was his usual manic self with constant wisecracking (‘Happy Birthday to all of you if I’m not in your town when it comes around’),  drinking shots and a wander into the crowd during Don’t Walk Away.

Opening with Monkey Business his voice seemed a bit flat but soon adjusted in what was a surprisingly mellow set with the blissfully melodic Feels Like Love and even – gasp!-  a cover of Baby Can I Hold You made famous by Boyzone, and Missing You,  perhaps the best song he wrote in his solo career – but there was Danger Danger-related fun too with Bang Bang. After the crowd sang along to I Still Think About You he closed a shorter set than expected with Naughty Naughty and a cover of Crazy Train.

Steve Augeri was the one artist of the weekend to have brought his own backdrop, but while a few people had attended specifically for the former Journey singer, the gaps in the crowd suggested he was perhaps not the draw the organisers hoped. But for those present a healthy quotient of Journey classics made for the nearest to a party all weekend, even if Separate Ways kicked things off rather hesitantly.

With most of Valentine as his backing band, they were well placed to do justice to the Journey material like Stone In Love and Lights,  while on occasions guitarist Adam Holland and hardworking bassist Gerard Zappa would go off on a spot of improvised jamming. Particularly  impressive was Higher Ground, which I was delighted to hear, from Journey’s Arrival album which Steve sang on.

For me the most positive thing was that this was an overview of the whole of his career and not solely a Journey greatest hits, so Tall Stories’ Wild on the Run was played early on, as was Jamie from the one album he made with Tyketto and some solo material such as Hours In The Day. They all had a more organic, slightly bluesy feel and it was noticeable that he played a surprising amount of guitar on the non-Journey songs.

It was wonderful to be present at such close quarters to hear some of the genre’s best loved songs delivered by a man who sang them in arenas for eight years – Wheel In The Sky, Faithfully, Don’t Stop Believing, and a bluesy Lovin Touchin Squeezin segueing into Rocky Mountain Way, followed by encores of Anyway You Want It and Be Good To Yourself, with snatches of The Who and Led Zeppelin thrown in.

Eclipse were nominally fourth on the bill but went on after the notional headliner. Yet the Swedes were watched by an unexpectedly big crowd, although I and many others were multitasking as the gentlemanly Steve Augeri was holding an impromptu meet and greet by the merchandise booth.

Opening with Wild One and Wake Me Up , the sound was very heavy, even more so than for W.E.T., for whom they provide the bulk of personnel.  The baby faced Erik Martensson was an incredibly energetic stage presence but it is his vocals that keep the sound just on the right side of melodic, just as Joey Tempest does with modern-day Europe.

Battlelines was a Celtic romp later repeated in acoustic format while Jeff Scott Soto (does he ever rest?) popped up to duet on Bleed And Scream, showing off their mixture of melodic hooks and uncompromising playing to the maximum. The semi-ballad About to Break and Hometown Calling also impressed.

There was increasingly an end of the weekend feel to the partying on stage, before they finished  with Breaking My Heart Again. Even then that wasn’t it as Max Explosion,  essentially guitarist Jimi Bell and other House of Lords bandmates, played a 2am set, although I couldn’t get into the material.

Hopefully there will be an MRF 4 in shorter order than the first two and I would love to be there – in the meantime there were enough memories of great music and the friendship of like-minded international people to keep me going till then.

Review and photos by Andy Nathan 


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Power Plays w/c 27 October 2014

LIV KRISTINE Two And A Heart (Napalm)
KARINA That’s What She Said (Castle Hill Records)
STEPHEN KELLOGG Forgive You, Forgive Me (Bread & Butter Music)
LIZZARD Vigilent (Klonosphere Records)
STONEWIRE Vamonos (22:11 Records)
MATINEE Missing Piece Of A Jigsaw (indie)
JULY DAYS Should’ve Told Me (indie)
NEONFLY Better Angels (Inner Wound Recordings)

Featured Albums w/c 27 October 2014

10:00-12:00 WHITE WIDDOW Crossfire (AOR Heaven)
12:00-13:00 BUSH Man On The Run (Sony Music)
14:00-16:00 TONE INDBRYN Songs From The Red Phone (indie)


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