Famous Italian bands can be counted on the fingers of one hand, yet it is an Italian label, Frontiers Records, who have emerged as the world force in melodic rock. Starting with the underground acts, they have accumulated a huge roster over the years with even bands of the stature of Def Leppard. Whitesnake and Journey in their stable.
Up to now they had not dipped their toes into live promotion, but the first ever label festival was a stellar line up, perhaps not of these headline names, but some of the revered figures in the melodic rock world on a rare trip to Europe, combined with showcasing some newer signings to their label who may not get regular gig opportunities.
The gig took place in the small town of Trezzo Sull’Adda, about 20 miles east of Milan and in the shadow of the Alps. An unprepossessing warehouse type building, Live Club, was an excellent venue with a capacity of about 1500 and a courtyard area where people ate drank and mixed with like-minded fans between the sets.
There was a sizeable number of Brits who had made an away trip and a number of other Firefest regulars from elsewhere in Europe, in addition to the natives including some younger fans with massive barnets worthy of the scene’s worst excesses of the eighties.
DAY 1- Tesla, Hardline, W.E.T., Snakecharmer, Three Lions
Unfortunately, arriving in Italy and not realising 1st May was a Bank Holiday, several hours spent schlepping around Milan in vain for my bus and a 90 Euro cab ride, all meant that I missed the opening two acts, Scandinavians State of Salazar and Dalton. I arrived in time for the live debut of Three Lions, the band recently formed by former Ten stalwarts Vinny Burns and Greg Morgan and vocal discovery and bassist Nigel Bailey.
For a band who have only just released their debut album, they received a remarkable reaction as many people seemed familiar with the material, perhaps a reflection of the number of British fans in the audience.
Their impact on me was mixed- some of the material was average, such as ‘Twisted Soul’ and ‘Hellfire Highway’, where they got a singalong going, and at times Vinny would solo excessively over the song, but at their best they were outstanding with two instant classics in particular ‘Don’t Let Me Fall’, building from a quiet beginning in which Nigel’s vocals had the haunting warmth of Vinny’s Dare bandleader Darren Wharton, before exploding in twin guitar solos, and the instantly catchy ‘Trouble In A Red Dress’.
More fellow countrymen followed in Snakecharmer majoring on their self- penned album, opener ‘Guilty As Charged’ with a strong riff and solos in turn from guitarists Laurie Wisefield and Micky Moody and keyboardist Adam Wakeman, demonstrated the traditional blues rock feel reminiscent of Whitesnake, Wishbone Ash and Bad Company that I so love about their sound.
The Free-like grooves of ‘A Little Rock n Roll’, with Mickey adding vocals at the end, and ‘Accident Prone’, classic old school Whitesnake with a classy solo from Laurie kept up the momentum.
However the thought occurred that this might not be what the majority of people weaned on a flashier, more Americanised sound wanted to hear and gaps began to appear in the crowd as the pace dropped with the meandering ‘Falling Leaves’ and Micky’s usual blues solo piece prior to ‘Slow an Easy’.
Chris Ousey has a great voice but little stage charisma, with a bizarre remark about the crowd being like strangled cats falling flat. The other problem is that he sings in a much higher register than classic Coverdale and during otherwise excellent versions of ‘Here I Go Again’ and ‘Fool For Your Loving’ I found his vocal gymnastics a bit over the top.
Yet the fervour with which these were received presents a dilemma for the band going forward, whether to focus on their own material or on the Whitesnake oldies which may go down well but do not play to his strengths.
Current melodic rock supergroup W.E.T. were actually dealt a favour by being allocated a relatively short hour long set. Other than calling for a round of tequila shots, it forced Jeff Scott Soto and colleagues to strip out all excess banter or songs from their other bands, and focus on the now much loved classics from both their albums.
The Eclipse pair of Eric Martensson and Magnus Henriksen gave the sound a guitar heavy crunch, even though Robert Sall’s keyboards seemed to take a back seat in the live sound.
It was a set of two halves, with the latest effort Rise Up contributing the majority of the first part of the set, from anthems such as ‘Walk Away’, ‘Learn To Live Again’, the title track and ‘Still Unbroken’. The lush ballad ‘Love Heals’ temporarily reduced the pace and ‘Broken Wings’ came over like a metalised Gary Moore or Big Country.
They then closed with a quartet from their debut - ‘If I Fall’ was rocker, ballad and melodic anthem all in one song, ‘Comes Down Like Rain’ dedicated to Jeff’s late Talisman colleague Marcel Jacob, and ‘Brothers in Arms’, and ‘One Love’ combined memorable hooks with a contemporary heaviness, all confirming that if present rather than past glories are the yardstick they are worthy headline material.
Hardline delivered a very similar set to last autumn’s Firefest headline, albeit with Italian bassist Anna Portaluppi restored to the line up and being the focus of a lot of people’s cameras!
Johnny Gioeli may be the sole remaining original member but has a puppyish enthusiasm and a real passion to him that greatly contributes to the live show. The current line-up also boasts one of the most tasteful guitarists of the genre in Josh Ramos and it is hard to imagine Neal Schon being able to play his solos better.
Every Hardline live show focuses heavily on 1992’s Double Eclipse debut and is a reminder of what a classic that album is. Yet the encouraging thing was the extent to which the latest Danger Zone album has made a mark, in particular the slow-burning title track which opened the set and the bouncing feel of ‘Fever Dreams’, with a catchy hook blending keyboards and guitar.
‘Taking Me Down’ had seen Johnny struggle vocally for once, but subsequent classics from the debut – ‘Everything’, ‘Dr Love’, ‘Life’s A Bitch’ – got the best reception – and after the ballad ‘Hands Of Time’, it was downhill all the way with a storming ‘Hot Cherie’ and ‘Rhythm From A Red Car’ with an audience sing-along.
Headliners Tesla were cut from a more traditional seventies inspired hard rock cloth, but were a perfect choice to close off the evening. Impressively, rather than just bang out the ‘hits’ from their most successful period as contemporaries like Cinderella do, their set was diverse, opening with ‘I Wanna Live’ from 2008’s Forever More and the likes of ‘Mama’s Foo’l and ‘Into The Now’ getting an airing.
Their real ace in the hole was guitarist Frank Hannon, who with his cowboy hat looks more like a member of a southern rock band these days, but who plays like a demon in a supercharged, bluesy style, whipping up a storm of slide guitar on ‘Heaven’s Trail’, messing about with a theramin, and even playing his guitar behind his head at one stage.
The state of Jeff Keith’s voice these days divides opinion, but the ever skinny frontman’s trademark raspy voice seemed in fine fettle to these ears. However his inter song Californian psychobabble mantras were barely coherent and it was noticeable it was Frank who had the more serious business of introducing a pair of songs from the upcoming Simplicity album – of which ‘MP3′, an ode to simpler days and the traditional musical values of the band, had a good commercial feel and ‘Ricochet’ rattled along at a fair pace.
The same could not be said of an ever dull ‘What You Give’, but ‘Love Song’ featured some lovely twin guitars, both electric and acoustic, from Frank and Dave Rude, leading into the ‘hits’ section of the set with ‘Sign’s and a storming ‘Modern Day Cowboy’, leading into an anthemic ‘Little Suzi’.
There was time for one encore (the natives chanting ‘one more song’), which to my delight was ‘Cumin Atcha Live’ – an excuse for a good headbang, not least to the brilliant twin guitar duel mid song.
People refused to leave, vainly chanting for ‘Edison’s Medicine’, and having seen them numerous times over the past 27 years I can’t remember a show at which Tesla have sounded better.
DAY 2 – STRYPER, PRETTY MAIDS, JAKE E LEE’S RED DRAGON CARTEL, ECLIPSE, LRS, MOONLAND, ADRENALINE RUSH
Swedes Adrenaline Rush were appropriately named with the hyperactive dancing and long-legged pouting of singer Tave Wanning who vocally reminded me a little of Lita Ford. Their material was somewhat unoriginal although the whole band showed great enthusiasm, songs like ‘Change’ and ‘No No No’ were enjoyable enough and a respectable cover of ‘Long Live Rock n Roll’ closed proceedings.
The equally striking Lenna Kuurmaa of Moonland cut a totally different figure – demure in black specs and a polo neck, the joke was she was rocking the sexy librarian look.
The first band of my acquaintance to hail from Estonia, for some reason I was anticipating some gothic symphonic metal, but the sound was pure AOR. Their stage craft was rather tentative but a song written by Alessandro Del Vecchio ‘Open Your Heart’ impressed, as did a ballad, and ‘Another Day in Paradise’ (thankfully not the Phil Collins song) a more up tempo closer. Their debut album will be one to keep an eye on.
The live debut of ‘supergroup’ LRS was worth waiting for , especially as their debut album is a strong contender for album of the year for lovers of traditional, Journey-inspired AOR.
It was another chance to enjoy Josh Ramos’ mellifluous guitar playing and to hear the perfectly matched vocals of Tommy Laverdi, who nevertheless cut a rather peculiar figure, never taking off his shades and perpetually walking from side to side across the stage in edgy fashion.
They opened with a quartet from the album, of which ‘Livin for a Dream’ has the instant catchiness that spells classic and ‘Universal Cry’ was the most interesting, before in a short set dipping into the band members’ past.
However, the vocal duet with keyboardist Alessandro Del Vecchio on The Storm’s’ I’ve Got A Lot To Learn About Love’ was totally undermined by Tommy failing to remember the words even with the help of a lyric sheet, before they pulled it together with drummer Mike Shotton singing Von Groove’s ‘Once Is Not Enough’ and Tommy 21 Guns’ ‘Knee Deep’, whose classic riff it was great to finally hear live. Nevertheless some road work appears to be needed before they appear at Melodicrockfest in Chicago in the autumn.
Eclipse in contrast are assured performers, Eric Martensson delivering his second set of the weekend, this time as lead singer, and with a brand of melodic rock noticeably more intense and uncompromising than WET.
Yet this heaviness is allied to big choruses on the likes of ‘Wild One’, and songs from the more recent ‘Bleed And Scream’ album, notably the title track and ‘Wake Me Up’ went down a storm with a healthily sized crowd at the front considering the time of afternoon.
‘Battlegrounds’ came over as Thin Lizzy at their heaviest and ‘Bitter Taste’ had a more complex, epic feel to it, while it occurred to me, particularly on the almost power metal like ‘Under The Gun’, quite what a criminally underrated guitar hero Magnus Henriksen is, aggressive yet skilled.
The pace dropped slightly with the classic Scandi rock sound of ‘SOS’ and ‘About To Break’, Erik having a slight air of Bryan Adams to him as he donned acoustic guitar before finishing with the uncompromising ‘Breaking My Heart Again’. The good news for me was that I was about to witness this great set again at their London show.
I wondered whether Jake E Lee’s Red Dragon Cartel might be one to skip as I had heard reports they were modern sounding without commercial hooks. This was true up to a point but they were enjoyable enough, even though Jake, sporting his hair in a samurai-style topknot, lacks any stage presence, playing side on to the audience and barely communicating. Darren Smith had the moves of a rock god frontman surprisingly so since he spent most of his career behind a drumkit with Harem Scarem.
Badlands fans were surprisingly rewarded generously including with ‘High Wire’, ‘Shine On’ and the lengthy jam of ‘Rumblin’ Train’, while ‘Feeder’ was probably the pick of their new material.
My highlight was the encore with huge cheers greeting the opening riff to ‘Bark At The Moon’, which it was great to see performed by the original artist, with Jake’s closing solo improvised and expanded brilliantly around the relatively short studio version in a mind that called to mind Michael Schenker’s work with UFO in the seventies.
Pretty Maids, who I never thought much of back in the day, seem to get better and better with age, with craggy Ronnie Atkins master at working the crowd. ‘Mother Of All Lies’ – preceded by an intro tape of various US presidents from Clinton to Nixon – and I see ‘Ghosts’ operate on the very heaviest edge of melodic rock, with a slight modern edge to them.
However there were plenty more commercial moments - ‘Rodeo’, new song ‘My Soul To Take’ and best of all ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’, the old Phillip Lynott obscurity, with a great solo from Ken Hammer.
By the end ‘Little Drops Of Heaven’ and the balls out ‘Red Hot and Heavy’ and encore ‘Future World’ had Ronnie whipping up the crowd who responded in kind.
As for headliners Stryper, I have to admit to having no interest in them in their heyday at all. Never having been a man of faith myself, I found the Christian metal shtick and all the gimmicks that went with it thoroughly off putting. However one of my friends correctly tipped me off I might be in for a pleasant surprise.
A powerful metallic sound was driven on by drummer Robert Sweet sitting side on with a huge kit, with a twin guitar attack of Oz Fox, with some impressively aggressive guitar shredding and Michael Sweet, together with quite superb vocals from the latter.
I enjoyed ‘Free’ and ‘Calling On You’ while new song ‘Legacy’ was in a heavier mould, though as a more casual observer spot on covers of ‘Breaking The Law’ and ‘Shout It Out Loud’ were of more interest.
I could have done without the saccharine ballad ‘Honestly’, delivered by Michael solo with a keyboard backing tape, but the crowd lapped up altogether heavier closers ‘The Way’ and ‘Soldiers Under Command’, before the encore of ‘To Hell’ with the ‘Devil’ had people punching the air in a variety of ways. Even better the ‘God bothering’ was kept to a minimum with the show more important than the message. It completed a day of pleasant surprises.
DAY 3 – NIGHT RANGER, WINGER, DANGER DANGER, JOHN WAITE, JEFF SCOTT SOTO, ISSA, CRAZY LIXX
If Day 2 was in theory of less interest to me, then day 3 quite simply promised to be the best day of melodic rock ever assembled in Europe and a line up no-one would have believed would ever happen again when this style of music fell out of media favour in the early nineties.
Though on the sleazier end of the spectrum I was very impressed with only my 2nd opportunity to see Crazy Lixx – the Scandinavians had a confident stage presence and pushed the right buttons with a hard hitting but accessible sound. The likes of ‘Whisky Tango Foxtrot’ and ‘Riot Avenue’ reminded me of early Skid Row, Ratt or the Firehouse debut.
After ‘Blame It On Love’ dropped the tempo impressively, they finished with the catchy ’21 Till l Die’ and an encore of ‘Heroes Are Forever’, and I did think they had more to them than many of the higher profile younger bands currently spearheading a revival of eighties inspired rock.
In contrast the beautiful Norwegian lssa peddled a brand of pure AOR, done justice by a band not only including Ale Del Vecchio (given his prolific presence as keyboard player and songwriter all weekend perhaps Frontiers fest should have been renamed Ale Fest?) but fellow countryman Marco Percudani on some very tasteful guitar.
Originals like ‘Looking For Love’ and ‘I’m Alive’ were bookended by covers of obscure classics known and loved by AOR anoraks like myself – Boulevard’s ‘Dream On’ and Aviator’s ‘Can’t Stop’.
Surprisingly low on the bill Jeff Scott Soto, with his multinational band, tackled a set of his own material with his usual committed relish – the early songs, mainly taken from new album Damage Control, like ’21st Century’ were a tad in a heavy, funky mode for my liking.
However when Night Ranger‘s Joel Hoekstra guested on an excellent song ‘Look Inside Your Heart’ he had co-written the rest of the show warmed up, with JSS classics ‘Soul Divine’, the ballad ‘Holding On’, with extra keyboards, and ‘Eyes Of Love’.
He ignored time constraints at a festival which had previously run like clockwork, with a medley of the best-loved Talisman classics (I counted about ten!) and after checking to the side stage he still had time, ‘Stand Up And Shout’ from Steel Dragon had people singing along and ended one of the most enjoyable sets I have seen him deliver.
John Waite was another favourite of mine who,, like Snakecharmer, I worried might be out of place and out of time on the bill. Coming on stage rake thin, short haired and in a suit a size too large, his band was a basic guitar/bass/drums set up but the urchin like guitarist, who was introduced as one-time Alice Cooper sideman Kerri Kelli, played his heart out and filled the gaps there might otherwise have been in the set.
He opened with ‘Change’, ‘Back on My Feet Again’ and the sole recent song in a very fine ‘Better Off Gone’, but it was inevitable with this crowd that they would crave Bad English material. When I See You Smile’ began acapella and the crowd took over, while ‘Best Of What I Got’ was also rapturously received.
As a fan of his eighties solo work, I was delighted to hear a rollocking ‘Saturday Night’, but the Babys’ ‘Everytime I Think Of You’ felt bereft without the wall of sound on the original.
The inevitable ‘Missing You’ was beautifully delivered, leading into a rocking ‘Head First’. However, in a short set a closing cover of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ may have been impressively performed, but was more suited to whooping Americans at a Mid-West state fair than this discerning audience. Nevertheless he had pulled out the stops to deliver a better than expected performance.
It seemed a large minority were there specifically to see Danger Danger, who delivered their usual fun packed set even if a few technical difficulties undermined them, some self-inflicted when ever larger than life Ted Poley dropped the microphone.
They reduce their brand of melodic rock to its core essentials of catchy tunes, saucy lyrics and big choruses and it is easy to see how they have influenced current bands like Reckless Love or HEAT.
A blissfully melodic ‘Rock America’ and the underappreciated ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ opened the set, and ‘Hearts On The Highway’ from their comeback album Revolve received as good a reception as the old material.
But the set really took off with one singalong after another – ‘Beat The Bullet’, ‘Bang Bang’, ‘Don’t Blame It On Love’ and ‘Crazy Nites’. During ‘I Still Think About You’, Ted went deep into the audience not to be seen for ages but the band held things together excellently and the inevitable ‘Naughty Naughty’ and ‘Monkey Business’ closed a typically fun set.
Winger’s appearance marked the start of a major tour to promote their new Better Days Comin album and opened with ‘Midnight Driver Of A Love Machine’, its Sympathy for the Devil type chanting instantly picked up on, followed by ‘Madelaine’, placed unexpectedly early in the set, and a noticeably heavier ‘Hungry’.
There was visible joy and camaraderie in the faces of Kip Winger relaxed enough about no longer being the rock god of old to allow a distinctly grey streak into his hair, and Reb Beach, given more opportunity to show his flashy guitar skills than in his day job in Whitesnake.
Like Tesla on the first night, what was pleasurable about Winger’s set was the way the whole of their career was covered. ‘Pull Me Under’, combining melodic choruses with some heavy guitar jamming between Reb and an unannounced second guitarist in a baseball cap, was a surprise from 2009’s Karma, which was also represented with the riff heavy double of ‘Deal With The Devil’ and ‘Stone Cold Killer’. Also delivered was a double of ‘Blind Revolution Mad’ and ‘Down Incognito’ from the hidden classic third album Pull and a blisteringly heavy current single ‘Rat Race’.
Kip then took to the keyboards and after a few technical hitches delivered ‘Miles Away’ in emotional fashion, staying there for ‘Headed For A Heartbreak’, which the loud cheers suggested was a crowd favourite, and gave both Reb and drummer Rod Morgenstein a solo moment in the spotlight.
The gig was coming nicely to the boil and ‘Can’t Get Enuff’ was sung lustily – too much so by an older Italian biker next to me who was oblivious to the fact he had earplugs in! – closely followed by a rollicking ‘Easy Come Easy Go’.
‘You Are A Saint, I Am The Sinner’ was never a favourite of mine, but with some typically clever musical interplay bringing it to a climax I was left eating my words, before they closed with ‘Seventeen’, the lyrics sung with no hint of irony by either Kip or the audience. As with so many bands on this weekend, I can’t remember enjoying a Winger show quite this much before.
And so to headliners Night Ranger. For many years they never crossed over to Europe but after two superb London shows in the past three years, I and many others ensured we were close to the stage to witness a show that was going to be a bit special.
Of all the bands from the melodic rock/AOR heyday of the eighties, NR, together with Styx, are the masters at exploiting their back catalogue with a real sense of infectious fun and energetic, theatrical stage movements, and this combination created a uniquely enjoyable show. Previous acts all weekend had raised the bar high but the Californians were worthy festival headliners.
Opener ‘Touch of Madness’ was a showcase for Brad Gillis’ shredding guitar style and range of grimaces, and he and the long-haired, ever smiling Joel Hoekstra were not only a well matched guitar pair, but pulled some classic poses as they duelled, with relatively new song ‘Lay it On Me’ showcasing their partnership to great effect.
Kelly Keagy, from behind a massive drumkit stage right, sang the bulk of ‘Sing Me Away’, plus ‘Sentimental Street’ which got the full power ballad treatment. The atmosphere was already at fever pitch but heated up even further when Jack Blades said they were going to play Damn Yankees’ ‘Coming Of Age’, to the delight of people in their T-shirts who had been vying with those in Bad English ones to make the rest of us feel envious.
Even songs that are among my least favourites, like ‘Secret Of My Success’, took on a new dimension live, while the title track of forthcoming album High Road with some crisp power chording and an instantly catchy chorus line was treated like an old friend.
Eddie’s ‘Comin Out Tonight’ took the furious guitar jamming to new heights but my own favourite was another Damn Yankees effort in the mega ballad ‘High Enough’, which they did full justice to with Joel opening on acoustic, some spot on vocal harmonies creating a big wall of sound on the chorus and a sweet solo from Brad.
‘Goodbye’, dedicated to the late father of Frontiers founder Serafino Perugino, began with some subtle acoustic guitars and harmonies before building into a trademark wide screen ballad, then ‘Four In the Morning’’s chorus sparked an outbreak of pogoing, with ‘When You Close Your Eyes’ keeping up the momentum and people who remember it first time round going crazy to the guitar battles of ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me’, with a segue of ‘Highway Star’.
The encores were exactly as at every NR show I have seen for the past decade, but ‘Sister Christian’ with Kelly switching between singing at the front and his drum kit remains one of the ultimate power ballads, and ‘You Can Still Rock In America’ epitomised the guitar attack that might surprise those who only know them for the former song from Rock of Ages.
The day had certainly lived up to expectations and a classic Night Ranger display put the seal on one of the most memorable festivals I have ever been to. With speculation at the weekend as to a return, possibly elsewhere in Europe the USA, or even on a ship, if it’s half as good as the debut festival, it will be worth making the trip for.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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Power Plays w/c 13 May (Mon-Fri)
WARM RAIN Here Comes The Rain Again (Rain Recordings)
DARWIN Cosmic Rays (indie)
MICHAEL THOMPSON BAND Love & Beyond (Frontiers)
MARQUIS DRIVE Shine On (indie)
YOUR LIFE & MINE Remind To Remember (indie)
EMERALD SUN What becomes Of You (indie)
Featured Albums w/c 13 May (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 JIM PETERIK WORLD STAGE Winds Of Change (Frontiers)
12:00-13:00 WHITESNAKE Flesh & Blood (Frontiers)
14:00-16:00 BUFORD POPE The Waiting Game (Unchained Records)
Albums That Time Forgot (Mon-Fri)
NEVER THE BRIDE Surprise (2005)
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