There cannot be many places that match the ambience of Moondance Jam as a rock festival, set in beautiful countryside of woods and lakes in northern Minnesota and with the friendliest atmosphere that can be imagined.
Surely the Mid-West of America’s longest lasting festival, it brands itself the ‘camping and jamming event of the summer’ and on my sixth visit, I finally took the plunge and forsook hotel comforts and a tiring drive each day and participated in the full camping experience itself.
To many Moondance regulars, the weekend is an opportunity to hang out with friends eating and drinking and having fun, and although the site is compact, by no means everyone makes it regularly into the music arena. Enjoying this wider opportunity was one reason why, compared to previous years, I saw fewer of the bands so this will be a less comprehensive report.
The other is that, in a trend I personally regret, to make the festival viable and avoid moving in ever decreasing circles of ageing bands, it has moved away from its original billing as a classic rock festival.
This year the newer generation of bands (OK, the last 20 years!) were concentrated on the first of the three days and I will admit that Sick Puppies, Sublime with Rome, Collective Soul and post-grunge angsters Seether, perhaps the least widely known Moondance headliner yet, did not float the old-school tastes of my boat on a day when priority was to settle in and reacquaint myself with Moondance friends.
However I made an exception for the ever admirable Alter Bridge, Myles Kennedy making a return visit after headlining with Slash last year. It is a paradox that, while three-quarters of the band were formed from Creed, who were massive in the States but whose appeal did not travel across the pond, the opposite is true of AB.
They have reached the status in the UK of arena headliners and last month I saw them second on the main bill at Download, but here they were half way down the bill at a much smaller festival. Perhaps it was fitting that on spotting one of their t-shirts, it belonged to my fellow British rock traveller Steve who I have an uncanny knack of bumping into at North American festivals.
Any American agnostics however, associating them with self-loathing post-grunge would surely have been won over from the opening bars of the catchy ‘Addicted To Pain’ and been pleasantly shocked with the passion in Myles voice and the sheer heaviness of Mark Tremonti’s riffing and metallic solos. The latter were particularly on show as he also took on most of the singing during ‘Waters Rising’.
The set only showed a couple of subtle tweaks form that which I had witnessed only recently before at Download with the Blackbird album taking the lion’s share and the title track a sprawling epic with Myles’ solo weaving into Mark’s, while ‘Brand New Start’ and ‘Ghost of Days Gone By’ built from quiet beginnings into stirring anthems and ‘Metalingus’ saw Myles going into the crowd to stir up enthusiasm.
As ever, a rousing ‘Rise Today’ finished an excellent set from one of the new generation of bands to stand comparison with the heritage rockers.
DAY 2 – STYX, FOREIGNER, DON FELDER, AUTOGRAPH
I warmed up on Friday with covers band Arena in the Saloon, where the party continues non-stop with regional bands between the main acts. Interestingly like many American acts specialising in eighties rock covers they use a female vocalist to reach the higher notes and among staples like ‘Still Of The Night’ and ‘Jump’ were a couple of gems rarely heard from their UK counterparts, like ‘No Matter What’ and ‘The Stroke’.
The first of Friday’s five main stage acts were Autograph, which was an interesting taster for me ahead of their experience at Firefest. I was somewhat apprehensive at their comments in the festival programme that they had ditched the keyboards and downtuned the guitars for a heavier sound since reforming.
However Deep End was a perfect opener, combining AC/DC riffage with a hooky chorus and on ‘Dance All Night’ and ‘Loud And Clear’ new singer Simon Daniels (surely the only American with that most English of first names!) had a strong voice in the mould of Sammy Hagar and Dave Meniketti which I actually preferred to original singer Steve Plunkett.
Some of the songs were rather average perhaps offering a clue why they never made the big breakthrough in the eighties. Nevertheless ‘All I’m Gonna Take’ from their Sign in Please debut still sounds a classic after all these years, and the tongue in cheek ‘Blondes in Black Cars’ and ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend Isn’t Me’, and the catchy ‘Crazy World’ all tied in well with their fun loving attitude and metallic poses.
The one thing that was missing was a party anthem that most people recognised, and the inevitable ‘Turn Up The Radio’ obliged, complete with singalong and a typically dextrous finger tapping solo from Steve Lynch. My appetite was firmly whetted for Firefest where by the nature of the festival they will be playing to a crowd who do know them for more than their one hit.
I missed out on Skillet, who perhaps would have been better placed on the first day, partly because I was put off in advance by their overt Christianity, although friends later said they saw much of Halestorm in their performance and I would have enjoyed them.
The rest of Friday was a triple bill of pure classic rock. Indeed Styx, Foreigner and Don Felder have been touring in their own right under the ‘Soundtrack of Summer’ banner. But for ambience there was never going to be any contest between a stuffy arena and a beautiful summer’s evening surrounded by 15000 chllled mid-Westerners.
Don Felder is no stranger to these parts having twice played Moondance in recent years so regulars knew the formula, even if the set this time was slightly truncated .
Eagles classics like ‘Already Gone’ and ‘One Of These Nights’ were given a respectful treatment and created the perfect early evening vibe, with his adequate if unexceptional voice enriched by an excellent five piece band, all of whom could sing harmonies, shown to no better extent than on ‘Seven Bridges Road’.
Variety was provided by a surprisingly good recent song, ‘You Don’t Have Me’, with a ZZ Top driving feel, a cover of ‘Pride And Joy’ and ‘Heavy Metal’, showcasing his always listenable, economical soloing with just the right amount of space between the notes.
‘Victim Of Love’ and ‘Witchy Woman’ showed his edgier repertoire but far too soon we were into the home straight with the crowd rocking out to ‘Heartache Tonight’ and ‘Life In The Fast Lane’, both Don and co-guitarist Greg Suran rocking out on slide guitar, but there had been one obvious omission from the set.
Thankfully, not only did Don bring out his trademark 12 string, but also Styx’s Tommy Shaw both to sing alternate verses and complete the two guitar jam during en even more special version of ‘Hotel California’ than usual.
Having seen Foreigner’s excellent London show in April, I knew they would rock the house, though I was also prepared for the fact that as they hit the stage with ‘Double Vision’ and ‘Head Games’, that no original members were on stage and we were watching a glorified tribute, even though guitarist Bruce Watson performed sterling work on the latter song.
None of this stopped Kelly Hansen on ‘Cold As Ice’ and ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ proving himself both a consummate showman who can emulate Lou Gramm’s warm vocal tones yet provide the added energy to whip up a crowd.
The singalongs to every song were raucous and the cheers even louder when Mick Jones, like an ageing boxer, was brought on mid-set to add some extra drive to ‘Feels Like The First Time’, before ‘Urgent’ saw Tom Gimbel loving every minute of his star turn as saxophonist.
‘Starrider’ may have been an indulgence on Mick’s part, chatter from the crowd drowning out Tom Gimbel’s flute and his singing at the start, but a rapturously received ‘Juke Box Hero’ made up for it with all three guitarists jamming, even if it did not seem quite as drawn out as usual.
Americans take particular pride in their home town heroes so the atmosphere became even more poignant when during ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’, teenagers from the local high school came on stage to form the choir, before rocking order was restored with ‘Hot Blooded’, yet another in a series of US hits everyone present grew up on, loves and still hears on classic rock radio.
Combining such a back catalogue with a well designed chrome stage set, great lighting effects and the right level of movement and energy on stage, Foreigner delivered an arena rock masterclass.
A year ago on my last North American jaunt I felt very similarly about Styx when they headlined Rock The Park in London Ontario, so bringing them to Moondance’s magical atmosphere was an eagerly awaited moment. However for a long time they did not seem to be firing on all cylinders.
Whether through being jostled by a crowd pushing and shoving for position, being spoiled by Foreigner, or discombobulation at ‘Blue Collar Man’ not opening the set, I may not have been in the best of moods but it felt to me during openers ‘The Grand Illusion’, ‘Too Much Time On My Hands’ and ‘Fooling Yourself’ that the sound was poor and, for all the impressive visual presentation, the band were rather disjointed and lacking their usual sparkle.
After Lawrence Gowan helped turn the ship around, jumping from his keyboard to sing ‘Lady’, ‘Light Up’ was very average, enlivened only by a spectacular carbon-dated synthesiser solo.
After calling the Minnesota crowd ‘beautiful inside and out’ (though for the first time in living memory his high pitched ‘hello friends’ greeting was absent), Tommy Shaw introduced ‘Crystal Ball’, which was beautifully delivered building from his acoustic intro through keyboard and guitar solos and some twin lead breaks with James Young, but then there was another surprise when rather than his trademark ‘Miss America’ JY introduced the relatively obscure ‘Superstars’ from Grand Illusion.
Despite some fine guitar interplay it did not really work and more momentum was lost, until a belated ‘Blue Collar Man’ kicked the show back into gear even though for once Tommy’s vocal sounded somewhat cracked and weary.
However belying his 57 years Lawrence was full of life and showmanship, leading a sing-along at his keyboard of ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, ‘Light My Fire’, in a humorous reference to Styx’s tour bus catching fire, and even the mid-section of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ before leading into ‘Come Sail Away’, another of those songs that sits large in American rock folklore which had the whole crowd joining.
A giant confetti explosion heralded the start of ‘Rocking The Paradise’, Lawrence acting the ringmaster in hat and spangly coat, before Tommy’s traditional set closing ‘Renegade’, with swapping of guitar solos and the band making full use of the elaborate stage set.
Respectability had been restored even though the set at an hour and a quarter fell short of what is referred to as the industry standard. I wouldn’t go as far as a friend who suggested Styx had rather phoned in their performance in but the battle of the AOR behemoths, Foreigner won by a comfortable distance on this occasion.
DAY 3 – REO SPEEDWAGON, GEORGE THOROGOOD AND THE DESTROYERS, THE WALLFLOWERS, BADFINGER
With decent food calling at the buffet at the local casino, openers Slaughter were another band I passed on, though for the rest of the day people were singing their praises, especially their drummer’s antics.
The tale of Badfinger is always a sad one to ponder with the suicides of their two main writers. The one surviving member, Joey Molland, is a Minnesota native but you would never have guessed by the way his scouse tone – as thick as the morning Mersey mist – told anecdotes almost as if he could have been McCartney’s younger brother.
Their classy sound was perfect for a summer’s day and he and bassist Mark Healey and besuited keyboardist Steve Wozny jointly contributed to a rich vocal sound.
The lies of opener ‘Baby Blue’, ‘Come and Get It’, the bluesier ‘Midnight Sun’ and ‘Day After Day’ all hit the mark, and it was fascinating to hear their more stripped back version of ‘Without You’, written by the band but made famous in more melodramatic fashion by Harry Nilsson and later Maria Carey.
However their set ended rather abruptly with Joey saying he was not feeling well and handing over vocal duties, and though ‘No Matter What’ was well received, there was a slight sense of anti-climax when they finished after only 50 minutes, when all main stage bands are guaranteed over an hour.
After sound problems meant my glimpse on one of the side stages of a brilliantly authentic ZZ Top tribute ZZ3 was a fleeting one, it was back to the main arena for a firstlook at The Wallflowers, most famous for being Jakob Dylan’s band.
The music was very listenable, Petty-esque heartland rock with a slight country influence, with plenty of tasteful slide guitar and Hammond organ. Unfortunately, not only were the band a very dull presence on stage, but Jakob has inherited his progenitor Bob’s nasal whine, ever an acquired taste, and the old adage ‘there isn’t a Bob Dylan song I haven’t liked, unless he’s singing it’ sprung to my twisted mind.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers are a festival mainstay in the USA and like an American Status Quo you know exactly what you are getting – complete with his ‘how sweet it is’ and ‘I will do everything in my power to get arrested tonight’ catch phrases.
I was slightly surprised though when he came on stage sans guitar and delivering some moves to opener ‘Born To Be Bad’ that outdid Mick Jagger for his mincing camp.
‘Rock Party’ restored equilibrium and the first half of his set was tried and tested favourites like ‘Who Do You Love’, ‘In The Night’, and the drinking songs ‘I Drink Alone’ and ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch One Beer’ all leading themselves to audience participation and George’s twinkly humour.
A contrast was provided when seemingly in a response to a fan’s request he agreed to play my own favourite (in word if not in deed!) , the cheeky ‘Get A Haircut’. From that point on, it felt there was a change of emphasis to George’s great slide guitar planning and his sax player and second guitarist gradually took more of a back seat on the likes of ‘Gear Jammer’ and ‘Move it On Over’.
For the first encore he surprisingly again forsook his guitar for another tongue in cheek song, ‘Twenty Dollar Gig’, before closing with the inevitable ‘Bad To The Bone’ and lashings of slide guitar. Even though the inexcusable absence of ‘Madison Blues’ meant it could not be counted as a vintage Destroyers gig, everyone went away entertained by the evergreen 64 year old.
REO Speedwagon epitomise all the honest values of classic mid-Western rock, so it was fitting that they should close out Moondance, after some words from the matriarch of the Moondance family Kathy Bieloh, widow of Bill whose vision it was to bring bands to this beautiful neck of the woods.
Indeed they seem to be the venue’s favourite sons, having been announced as headliner an unprecedented 12 months before, and in the meantime releasing their last headlining show here in 2010 as a CD and DVD.
Kevin Cronin may have started to look his age since, especially when he came on stage in dark rimmed glasses which, allied to his shock of white hair, gave him the air of a laboratory supervisor at a local state university. But in all other respects the Speedwagon formula is exactly as it has been for the last quarter century and more and made them perfect headliners.
From the moment they opened with ‘Don’t Let Him Go’, a superb sound system and elaborate stage set brought out the best in classic heartland American rock, as the Hammond organ of the ghostly looking Neal Doughty led into a spirited Dave Amato solo.
However what sets Speedwagon apart from their contemporaries is the way this quintet, none of whom will see 60 again, put on a show with such an energetic vitality and with a big smile on their faces, which is truly infectious and should surely be what live performance is about.
They barely paused for breath in an opening quartet of ‘Music Man’, ‘Take It On The Run’, another universally known and loved song in this part of the world, where after Dave played his guitar solo coming down from the drum riser the whole crowd took over the singing, and ‘Keep Pushin”.
Kevin was ever garrulous (though his ‘self-appointed kings of classic rock’ schtick swiftly tired), introducing Minnesota as ‘God’s Own Country’, and even ploughed on despite losing a crown which people at the front could see drop from his mouth mid-song. Introducing the most personal song he had written, ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’. It was beautifully delivered and a very special moment to savour for me and my girlfriend, for whom it has become a signature song.
However it would be misleading to see REO as purveyors only of the sentimental ballad, as proven by some of the songs that surrounded it, ‘Golden Country’ with its early seventies progressive feel, and ‘Like You Do’ with some brilliant intuitive extended band jamming. ‘Tough Guys’ was a welcome return to the set with Dave soling away while some slightly different, bluesier guitar work embellished another eighties gem in ‘That Ain’t Love’.
From that point on, it was the same old Speedwagon show, Dave playing a 12 strong as Kevin led the crowd in a rendition of ‘Time For Me To Fly’, before Bruce Hall had his hometown of Champaign Illinois name-checked and took the mike as people rocked out to the evergreen driving boogie of ‘Back On The Road Again’.
Kevin briefly took to piano at the outset of ‘Roll With The Changes’, which reached new peaks as Neal’s Hammond solo gave way to guitar and Dave and Bruce charged around the stage.
They didn’t even break for the encore charade, merely carrying on with Kevin explaining at his piano how ‘Keep On Loving You’ was written, and especially live it remains a textbook example of a power ballad, especially when Dave’s guitar solo led seamlessly into Kevin’s ‘and I meant….’ bridge before the final choruses.
But REO are far more than a ballad band and Bryan Hitt banging a giant gong heralded a stonking ‘Ridin the Storm Out’, with Dave’s grinning face infectious as he reeled off one passionate solo after another, before closing with ’157 Riverside Avenue’, the band looking as if they were having the time of their life as Kevin sang with Dave and Bruce and engaged in a scat style call and response, before he signed off the show by dedicating it to Bill Bieloh in ‘rock n roll heaven’.
They will never be fashionable and at best a guilty pleasure, but REO have to be one of the most committed, entertaining showmen in rock. This was not only a perfect end to the festival, but perhaps my favourite show of the year and though it was the same REO show as usual, I cannot recall ever enjoying one as much.
Much of this was due to the ambience of this wonderful festival where my vantage point in the standing standpit in front of the stage brought out a very special atmosphere. To coin a phrase, a fantabulous night for a Moondance indeed…
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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