After the success of the third Melodic Rock Fest last September, the attempt to bring to the Americans the cult melodic rock bands that are seen at Firefest and other places, melodicrock.com supremo Andrew McNeice swiftly moved forward with plans for an MRF 4 at the same venue in the Chicago suburbs.
My ticket was ordered last Christmas and I and many others were looking forward with anticipation. However the best laid plans and all that….the withdrawal of sponsors and disappointing ticket sales (itself a sad reflection in a country that arguably invented the genre but where only the long established classic seventies and eighties bands seem to get a look in) led to the original three day event being scaled back to two days, the order restructured and prices lowered.
Yet there was a feeling of defiance in the air, to enjoy the weekend in trying circumstances and make the most of it, accepting that this may be the last of its kind.
DAY 1 – 3 OCTOBER – 7TH HEAVEN, STAN BUSH, WORK OF ART, ADRIANGALE, JOHNNY LIMA, GRAND DESIGN, JOHNNY LIMA, MAXX EXPLOSION, MADMAN’S LULLABY, THE RADIO SUN
On the first day proceedings were kicked off by Australians The Radio Sun, just as they had on two days last year. I had managed to miss both so made sure it was third time lucky and was rewarded with a highly accomplished set of very melodic rock with a slight power pop edge leading to inevitable comparisons with Rick Springfield.
Jason Old’s vocals perfectly suit the music and the likes of ‘Summer Girl’ and ‘Julie’ were instantly catchy with great harmonies and killer hooks. Special mention should also go to the understated but tidy guitar work of Steve Janevski. Paul Laine who produced their album came on for ‘World’s Crazy Now’ and ‘Wrong Things Right’ and a set that got steadily better left me wanting more.
Food was calling and unfortunately, while last year the action was piped through the PA into the bar/restaurant area, this time they played their own music, I was in an unsatisfactory situation of popping in between mouthfuls. Madman’s Lullaby , one of the heavier bands on bill attacked with aggressive vigour and singer David Friday formerly of Talon went into crowd during ‘Standards So High’.
Maxx Explosion, essentially House of Lords without James Christian, were a returning band but in more promising circumstances, having done an impromptu performance at about 2am on the last night of MRF3 when most punters had gone home.
Curly haired bassist Chris McCarvill has a fine voice not unlike Firehouse’s CJ Snare, best shown on the more commercial numbers like ‘Don’t Wanna Break’ and ‘Can’t Stop Falling’. They were technically excellent while there was a richer sound and noise than you had a right to expect from a power trio.
Grand Design were the first of a bunch of bands from the current epicentre of melodic rock, Scandinavia -with big Def Leppard style backing vocals, they were too run of the mill for me, other than the pick of the set, ‘Air Things Out’, and very clichéd although they did get some audience participation for ‘Rock n Roll Heart Attack’ and set closer ‘Let’s Rock the Night’.
Looking like a cross between Bret Michaels and the Jon Bon Jovi of old, Johnny Lima has shown on his trips to the UK that he is a born entertainer. His impressively tight band was boosted by Eclipse guitarist Magnus Henriksen whose guitar runs gave the sound a fresh dimension.
Highlights included the autobiographical ‘Made In California’, the fun ‘Livin Out Loud’ and ‘Hate To Love You’ with its catchy chorus reinforced by some lush keyboards. Songs from his latest ‘My Revolution’ album featured heavily including the opening title track, and ‘Blame It On Love’ which showed off his vocal similarity to Jon Bon Jovi.
He even dedicated a song to a fellow Brit Neil who was present while the closing track ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ seemed somewhat appropriate. It was an impressive performance and a riposte to anyone who may have dismissed him as a lightweight.
Adriangale were making a return visit and played with verve and energy, with guitarist Vic Rivera to the fore, although despite his good old boy persona, Jamie Rowe has limitations as a melodic vocalist. Their set mixed some merely average material with two outstanding songs in ballad ‘Without A Moment’s Notice’ and the catchy ‘Closer (To The Weekend).
One of the most eagerly awaited bands among the home crowd I spoke with were Work Of Art, the classy Scandinavians who have taken the last two Firefests by storm. However it was not the most auspicious circumstances with various sound problems and their normal smooth melodic sound distorted.
Opening with the now familiar ‘The Rain’ and ‘Nature of the Game’ from the In Progress classic, the set was given a fresh dimension by weaving in songs from their excellent new Framework album. The likes of ‘Time To Let Go’ and ‘How Do You Sleep at Night’ had the catchy melodies to make an instant impact.
Indeed I was surprised how many fans at the front were punching the air to the choruses of ‘Over The Line’, plus oldie ‘Emelie’. ‘Machine’ was pleasingly in a heavier mould than most of their material and ‘The Great Fall’ has become their signature song, while ‘Why Do I’ was not only slick and smooth but again went down a storm with the crowd. They are not the most charismatic performers visually, compared to say a Johnny Lima, but that is a minor criticism.
While most of the artists at MRF 4 have come on the scene since the genre’s heyday, Stan Bush harked back to an earlier age. He is not a live natural with an almost scared look in his eyes, and his rather breathless voice seems on the verge of cracking. Yet this vulnerability all contributes to his appeal – not for nothing is AOR sometimes known as music for those who have loved and lost.
The stirring ‘The Ultimate’ (the title track from his latest album) opened things and though his backing band Talon took a while to hit their stride he was excellently backed, notably by guitarist Jim Kee’s extended runs.
His set covered all phases of his long career from newer songs like ‘Something To Believe’, ‘Heat of the Battle’ which was the most impressive, and ‘Unstoppable’, then a contrasting pair from 1987’s classic Stan Bush and Barrage – a storming ‘Primitive Lover’ and a moving version of ‘Love Don’t Lie’ which House of Lords made more famous.
Introducing a song from the 1980’s movie Transformers, he played the lesser known ‘Dare’ (which had the air of an eighties classic) before as expected, ‘The Touch’, which needless to say had people singing and punching the air to one of the great anthems, which sounded more muscular than on record. He encored with ‘In This Life’, lifted by another brilliant extended solo from Jim taking the song off into another dimension.
One of the changes to the festival had been to move 7th Heaven into a late night Friday slot to close the evening. Great supporters of Andrew McNeice and the only band to play every MRF, they have a large following through constant touring locally and therefore brought in a Friday night local crowd.
However the high pitched screams I could hear from a packed front were not from the same crowd of forty something melodic rock anoraks that had been there all day and it felt as if our party had been gatecrashed. Although their pop rock was very listenable with Keith Semple a superb singer, with a long second day ahead I bailed out midway through and returned to the hotel.
DAY 2 – 4 OCTOBER – H.E.A.T., MITCH MALLOY, HEAVENS EDGE, GUARDIAN, PAUL LAINE, EIGHTY-SIX HAPPINESS, BOMBAY BLACK, HOUSE OF SHAKIRA, TALON
Although the second day was late starting owing to sound issues, there was no peace for the wicked as Talon opened proceedings just hours after backing Stan Bush.
The Californians have had something of a stop-start career but with original singer Michael O’Mara back in the fold and looking and sounding the part, they even previewed some new material such as ‘Holly Would’ (sic), the heavy ‘Evil’ and the stand out , ‘Set Me Free’, alongside oldies that I reached deep into the memory bands to recall like ‘Paradise’ and ‘Talon In My Heart’.
While not breaking any new ground they were tight and enthusiastic with a dynamic approach. Ending with their best song ‘Wrecking Ball’, I was thinking it is time for them to make a sustained impact which hopefully they can do through a new album.
I had not seen House of Shakira for many years and the Swedes have gone through many line up changes since. They started well and in Andreas Novak have a fine singer with the melodic instinct of his fellow Swedish countrymen. However after the catchy in ‘Your Head’ it was more recent stuff such as the title track from current album ‘Pay to Play’ that prevailed.
After a while it became a bit run of the mill and samey and their stage presence was a tad dour, at least compared to some of the larger than life characters over the weekend.
Food was calling and having seen Bombay Black before and with them being on the heaviest edge of melodic rock, I reluctantly skipped them. Sadly Mecca were one of the casualties of the event with singer Joe Vana not well enough to perform but his son and band guitarist Joey was given the opportunity to fill in with his own band Eighty Six Happiness.
A power trio, their more contemporary, grungier sound was probably lost on the majority of those present but it gave them valuable exposure to a live audience, and as someone who was helping out backstage all weekend he deserved such an opportunity.
I had seen Paul Laine a few times over the years either solo or with Danger Danger, but this was easily his best (not to mention sober!) performance, and the Canadian was well backed by The Radio Sun, in spite of my pet hate, the presence of taped keyboards.
Despite his current release ‘Dark Horse’ being a country rock project, for this performance he stuck almost exclusively to his big anthems from the Stick It In Your Ear classic – including opener ‘One Step Over the Line’, ‘Is This Love’ with his bandmates providing some great harmony vocals and ‘We Are The Young’ - from his tenure in Danger Danger.
This was a brilliant opportunity to hear some overlooked songs that never feature in the Ted Poley-led DD live set, including ‘Going All The Way’, the infectious ‘Grind’ and classy ballad ‘Don’t Break My Heart Again’. I was also pleasantly surprised by the range in his voice with a number of dynamic screams. Ironically, then, the crowning glory was a great version of one he didn’t originally sing on – ‘Under The Gun’.
Despite saying he would have to cut the set due to late running he took audience requests and ended with a pair of classics- another DD singalong in ‘Going Going Gone’, and his own anthemic ‘Dorianna’. He even squeezed in an encore and ‘Still Kicking’, while not my favourite, was a suitable end to without doubt one of the shows of the weekend from a revitalised figure.
Tango Down were making their second successive appearance at MR Fest and were again not partucularly to my taste, being on the more aggressive end of the melodic rock spectrum though Choir vocalist David Reece was whipping up the crowd. Interestingly he did some of his own songs from Bangalore Choir and other projects including the oddly titled dirty blues rocker ‘Magic Pudding’.
Guardian, the Christian rockers with a long recording history, I expected would be a big draw to many, but popping in and out of the bar area where I was still having a food break, I was surprised how empty the main room was.
They played a variety of songs, some notably heavier such as new material from the ‘Almost Home’ album and ‘Forever And A Day’ sounded like Bon Jovi’s ‘I’ll Be There For You’. However for me the sound was rather dry and once again Jamie Rowe’s vocals were not for me, though had I been more familiar with the material I may have enjoyed it more.
Heavens Edge followed up their performance at last year’s Firefest with one of most accomplished stage shows of the weekend. It was hard to believe the Philadelphia quintet have only played a handful of shows since reforming judging by both their tight musicianship and dynamic stage performance including some synchronised stage movements that they seemed to have spent perhaps a tad too long rehearsing.
Mark Evans still has the looks of an old style eighties frontman and ‘Play Dirty’, ‘Skin to Skin’ and ‘Rock Steady’ opened things in loud, brash and rapid fire fashion. However there is more to Heavens Edge than that and they took the pace down with the likes of a stripped back ‘Just Another Fire’ and ‘Some Other Time, Some Other Place’ and ‘Jacky’, both with acoustic and electric guitars combining to produce a melodic sound.
‘Is That All You Want’ was a showcase for some down and dirty slide guitar from Stephen Parry, while Mark and Reggie Wu, switching from lead guitar to keyboards, took the ballad ‘Hold On To Tonight’ down to its bare essentials.
There was something in their set to cover all bases on the melodic rock diamond with ‘Come Play The Game’ and ‘Find Another Way’ having people singing along to great commercial chorus and ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ and set closer ‘Can’t Catch Me’ showing their sleazier side with Reggie’s Van Halen-esque guitar playing. This was certainly one of the most accomplished sets of the weekend that could have transferred to a bigger stage.
While a regular in the UK including three regular Firefest appearance it is ironic that one of the cult figures of the genre, Mitch Malloy, rarely plays shows in his native USA and his appearance therefore brought a fanatical response.
Coming on stage looking like Mark Evans’ twin brother with his mane of golden curls, he seemed a bit over eager during ‘Mission Of Love’ but soon settled and a surprise cover of ‘Feel Your Love Tonight’ was a reminder that he was once close to joining Van Halen.
Supported by an excellent band including Italian guitarist Mario Percudani and long time musical collaborator and Robert Palmer-lookalike Tim Wheeler, the set focused heavily on songs from his 1992 debut which is a classic on anyone’s book – from the bluesy ‘Over The Water’, to ballads ‘Nobody Wins In This War’ and ‘Our Love Will Never Die’, his voice quivering with the emotion necessary to carry off this style of music. However on faster songs like ‘Stranded In The Middle of Nowhere’ his voice did struggle at times to reach the incredible range of the originals.
His recent album II (hardly his second album in a long career but we will let that pass!) was an excellent return to his melodic rock roots but I was disappointed only to hear a solitary song, ‘Love Song’, as I felt this was a missed opportunity to showcase his current work in front of a discerning audience of fanatics.
Instead we had a cover of ‘Blue Collar Man’ which was admittedly delivered very well but which the natives could probably hear every night in a bar somewhere. Taking off his guitar to work the crowd ‘Forever’ brought the set to a pulsating finish.
For the first encore he resorted to another cover, though with the handicap of no keyboards they made a remarkably good job of ‘Carry On Wayward Son’, but it was his own personal anthem ‘Anything At All’ that had the faithful shouting out and ended a set which was enjoyable, though I felt sold his own talents slightly short.
Worthy headliners for the festival were the current youthful darlings of the melodic rock scene H.E.A.T, making their first ever visit to USA. Strictly speaking this was their second USA show as they had played a special acoustic set for selected VIP ticket holders in the hotel the night before the festival.
There were noticeably more people crowded around the front of the stage, and while I knew what to expect from their regular UK shows, they would have been blown apart by the incredible energy of the band and the distinctive features of hyperactive singer Erik Gronwall in particular, which incidentally is at odds with a cheerful relaxed off stage persona!
Their sound has toughened up considerably since he joined for their third and fourth albums and at times the sound was perhaps too loud as they opened with a pair of new songs ‘Point Of No Return’ and ‘A Shot At Redemption’, and ‘Better Off’ with keyboardist Jonah Tee getting an increasingly rare moment in the spotlight. ‘Heartbreaker’, with its bouncing rhythms and Jovi-al ‘who-oh-oh’ refrain was a fist in the air classic.
The new album was heavily featured and while the likes of ‘Inferno’ and ‘Enemy In Me’ have a tougher, almost modern rock, aggression to them ‘Tearing Down The Walls’ with Erik on acoustic stood comparison with the best of the weekend’s ballads. During the only survivor from their debut album, ‘Late Night Lady’, he took off into the audience and was singing from the top of the bar!
Audience participation number ‘Beg Beg Beg’ tipped its hat to the roots of Scandinavian rock with a snatch of ‘Highway Star’, while ‘Downtown’ and ‘In And Out Of Trouble’ had a more laid back feel yet came to life with the latter taken into the stratosphere with a great solo from guitarist Eric Rivers who was pulling some classic shapes throughout, titling his guitar at an angle almost in the manner of a Slash.
After more catchy anthems such as ‘Danger Road’ and ‘Emergency’, the now rarely played ‘Who Will Stop The Rain’ ended the set in more restrained fashion, before encoring with ‘Breaking The Silence’ and ‘Living On The Run’, the latter in particular another anthem that demands you to leap and punch the air during the chorus.
Theirs was a vigorous, high energy show, even if they have perhaps veered away from their purely melodic roots. I have no idea whether there is a market for H.E.A.T. in a country where rigid radio formats make it hard for younger bands in the classic tradition to come through, but this was a stunning way to launch a Viking invasion. They also won bonus points by staying to meet the fans and do a signing, though by that stage our party retreated exhausted to the hotel after two memorable days.
DAY 3 – 5 OCTOBER – ACOUSTIC EVENT- JIM PETERIK, WORK OF ART, GARY MOON, TALON
There was however a special coda to the weekend on the Sunday to replace the original scheduled festival day with VIP ticket holders treated to some acoustic performances in a function room at the hotel.
Talon kicked things off and many of the songs they had played the previous day stood up well in acoustic format, even if singer Michael O’Mara’s voice showed the effects of late night partying, together with excellent covers of ‘Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’.
The urbane, cowboy hatted Gary Moon was then joined by various guests for a short set which focused heavily on songs he performed during his spell with Night Ranger as Jack Blades’ replacement for much of the nineties, including ‘Last Chance Last Ride’, ‘Music Box’ and the title track of ‘Feeding Off The Mojo’, before a classic NR tune in ‘You Can Still Rock In America’. They were all great songs even if his voice has a harsh edge to it which is an acquired taste.
Work of Art provided a total contrast, not only with Gary Moon but with their own festival set. Stripping electrical instruments from the set shone more of the spotlight on a bespectacled Lars Safsund’s golden voice, and gave the songs much more of a blue-eyed soul feel, perhaps not unlike the direction their musical heroes Toto took on the Fahrenheit album.
They also focused on some of their lesser known tracks that had not been in the live electric set and even a song Robert Sall wrote for the late Fergie Frederiksen on his last album, the moving ‘I’ll be the One’.
The other offer for the VIP event was Survivor founder member and lauded songwriter Jim Peterik doing a book signing, but he arrived mid-event tantalisingly carrying a guitar case, and it was a real treat to enjoy a short set from him, combining songs with droll stories of how they were written.
His deep baritone gave Survivor’s ‘Can’t Hold Back’ real weight although it was poignant to think it would never be sung again by the late Jimi Jamison, followed by ‘Heavy Metal’ his collaboration with Sammy Hagar and Is This Love.
It was inevitable that there would be some form of requiem for Jimi Jamison, given their long collaborations over the years, and he played a song he had originally written for Jimi on the passing of his stepfather, ‘Streets of Heaven’, and you could hear a pin drop at this most moving of tributes.
The gusto with which he attacked ‘Burning Hear’t confirmed my view that it is actually the better of his two million-selling Rocky songs, then he got the audience to recreate the sounds of the horn section for his old Ides of March hit ‘Vehicle’. Better still, during the book signing, he came over as a charming and modest gentleman with a personal message for everyone and happy to pose for photos.
Meeting perhaps melodic rock’s best ever songwriter was a perfect end to a weekend which, despite its troubled genesis, had been memorable for all those attending. While it may not happen again in this format, at least not for a few years, it would be lovely to hope that the bonds in the world melodic rock community formed or strengthened during this weekend can be kept together to continue to create something in the USA in the future.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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