DAY 3 - DANGER DANGER, AUTOGRAPH, CONEY HATCH, BROTHER FIRETRIBE, TOUCH, GUILD OF AGES, AXXIS
The final day of ‘the final fling’ began with a slightly left field choice of veteran German rockers Axxis, and yet they blew the cobwebs off any hangovers from the previous Saturday night.
It is strange how so many German hard rock bands – from the Scorpions and Bonfire onwards – defy the teutonic stereotype to show such good natured fun on stage and a cheesy sense of performance, and Axxis were in that mould, with ponytailed singer Bernard Weiss a master at working the crowd and getting singalongs going on the likes of ‘Hall Of Fame’, ‘Heaven In Black’ and ‘World of Shame And Glory’, before they finished with ‘Kingdom Of The Night’.
One of their more recent recruits, guitarist Marco Wriedt, was also confidently impressive with his concise and fluent solos and the day had started with a real surprise package. One of the few bands to have emerged in melodic rock’s dark period of the nineties, the band variously known as CITA or Guild Of Ages were another to emerge from a long hibernation but you would never have guessed.
What was most impressive about them was the way they seemed one of the tightest bands of the weekend, and they cut out the chat to maximise playing time, even to the extent that one song more or less segued into another with one of my favourites, their cover of Axe’s ‘Silent Soldiers’, curtailed all too soon.
I initially felt they were held back by the lack of a keyboard player, yet came to appreciate the way the songs were rearranged. Singer Danny Martinez, cutting a dapper figure in trilby and waistcoat, not only barely missed a note, but his thick rhythm guitar and occasional lead really buttressed the sound and gave extra space for guitarist Anthony Trujillo to shine, the latter returning the compliment with his harmony vocals.
The songs were also a mixture, from slow burning atmospheric pieces such as opener ‘Stand Or Fall’ and ‘Every Time I Close My Eyes’, to the likes of ‘Say A Prayer’ with bigger melodic hooks throughout the song, and an excellent commercial closer in ‘Through The Years’. Their performance could really not be faulted and I don’t think there was a tighter act all weekend, all the more praiseworthy given their long recent inactivity.
Goran Edman, as well as looking a tad uneasy on stage, with his deep sonorous voice was totally unsuited to recreating the higher harmonies of Craig Brooks.
Everyone had their bucket list bands of the weekend and among mine were Touch – a replacement for the originally billed Tower City who were another! This was their first appearance on UK soil since opening the inaugural Monsters of Rock and their 1980 album is one of my all-time favourites.
This wasn’t quite a full blown reunion as in fact it was only one original member in master keyboardist Mark Mangold with the cream of Scandinavian players collaborating to bring the songs back to life. Unfortunately gentlemanly singer Goran Edman, as well as looking a tad uneasy on stage, with his deep sonorous voice was totally unsuited to recreating the higher harmonies of Craig Brooks.
Nevertheless it was wonderful to again hear joyous opener ‘Listen Can You Feel It’ while on ‘Black Star’ Mark’s incendiary keyboard work called to mind Deep Purple’s namesake Highway, and though at times buried in the mix, Tommy Denander’s guitar was to the fore on ‘Take Me Back’.
‘So High’, featuring dreamy vocals at the start from Mark before the harmonies kicked in, and my own personal favourite ‘When The Spirit Moves You’ – introduced by Goran as appropriate for Firefest to show the power of music in bringing people together - were ‘total pomp death’ as Shades or Kerrang back in the day would have said, whatever my reservations about the vocals.
Rather oddly their classic ‘Don’t You Know What Love Is’, with the crowd roaring along, was placed mid-set – it would have been a fitting climax but instead was followed by ‘My Life Depends On You’, again with vintage keyboard jamming reminiscent of Purple and Uriah Heep, and an unfamiliar song, ‘The Fire Never Dies’, in a more straightforward mould of Bad Company or JLT-era Rainbow, which I understood was a new song specially written for the occasion.
It may have been an ersatz version of the band – and a sound that many of the more hair metal oriented Firefesters would have found dated - but I was delighted to hear these songs again with their wonderful synthesiser and keyboard work.
Brother Firetribe were among the most eagerly anticipated acts as it was a UK debut for the Finns who are also part of the newer wave of melodic rock heroes but whose activities have to be fitted around the day job in Nightwish of diminutive guitarist Emppu Vuorinen. There were only rare hints of his parent band, instead a rich melodic sound with just enough individual distinctness.
There was no disputing the quality of openers ‘One Single Breath’ and ‘Runaways’, the latter not the only song with a hint of Giuuffria. Singer Pekka Ansio Heino has the perfect voice for this material although his new boy band style quiff led various wags to liken him to Christian Slater or even David Beckham.
‘I’m On Fire’ from their debut album went down a storm (despite the lyrical cliché rhyming fire with higher) and other songs like ‘Trail Of Tears’, ‘Wildest Dreams’ and ‘For Better Or For Worse’ also hit the sweet spot, with a cover of Sammy Hagar’s ‘Winner Takes It All’ highly enjoyable.
Once again delight at hearing such an enjoyable band was matched by frustration that it is only Firefest that seems to get these bands, even the newer generation, out on tour.
One of Firefest’s many reunion successes was Coney Hatch‘s performance in 2011, which led them to even regroup for a new album, They made a welcome return visit albeit without guitarist Steve Shelski;, though his replacement Michael Borkoski had a slightly harder style he fitted in very well.
Opening with ‘Blown Away’ from the reunion album ‘Four’, the Canadians offered something different with some AC/DC or Who-like powerchording in places and Andy Curran demonstrating his lived in vocals and sleazy basslines during ‘Stand Up’.
After offering his own more melodic vocals on ‘Don’t Say Make Me’, Carl Dixon pointed out that the more AOR oriented ‘Friction’ was the biggest of their three albums in Europe before reeling off the opening couple of classics in ‘This Ain’t Love’ and ‘She’s Gone’. There also seemed to be great camaraderie between the band on stage, while Andy even got the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to his daughter.
The new stuff harks back to a more basic style, and despite a lively cover of ‘Marseille’ and Andy’s sleazy ‘Boys Club’, four new songs in a row was perhaps too much to hold people’s attention.
However for the rest of the set the yin and yang of Carl and Andy continued to swap lead lines – the former with the still insanely catchy ‘Hey Operator’ (does such a job still exist though?) and melodic ‘Girl From Last Night’s Dream’ – the latter with ‘Too Far Gone’, in which he and thunderous drummer Dave Ketchum recreated a Radar Love vibe, and ‘Monkey Bars’.
They were in danger of running over time but I was delighted there was still time to squeeze ‘Devils Deck’ into a well received set, which showed their comeback performance had been no fluke.
‘Turn Up The Radio’ ended one of the most enjoyable sets in many a Firefest and I looked round to take in a sea of fanatics, many of whom will have danced to it in rock clubs in the past, finally punching the air in delight at hearing it live
In the words of stage announcer Steve Price, it was now ‘time to turn up the f…ing radio’, 30 years after said song was a US hit, as incredibly Autograph were making their first ever UK appearance.
I had advance notice of what to expect having seen them at a summer USA festival but I am sure those sceptical about a lineup missing their distinctive singer Steve Plunkett, not to mention a keyboard player, were pleasantly surprised by the commanding presence and powerful rasp of new singer Simon Daniels from the movement the AC/DC-esque verses of ‘Deep End’ led into a hook filled chorus.
Even on their more average material like ‘Dance All Night’ and’ Loud And Clear’ the band’s tightness and stage moves were highly impressive, while ‘Blondes In Black Cars’ epitomised their sense of fun.
The songs from the debut Sign In Please came off best particularly ‘All I’m Gonna Take’ which had an epic feel to it, ‘Send Her To Me’ and ‘Cloud Ten’, the latter one of many where the ease with which Steve Lynch reeled off his shredding guitar solos was breathtaking.
Simon also joked that the double of ‘My Girlfirend’s Boyfriend Isn’t Me’ and ‘She Never Looked That Good For Me’ (an overlooked gem I was delighted to see in the set) were both about the same person with self-esteem issues. The joke was on him though when he misintroduced ‘That’s The Stuff’ and had to be corrected as another commercial gem in ‘Crazy World’ was played instead.
Needless to say ‘Turn Up The Radio’ ended one of the most enjoyable sets in many a Firefest and I looked round to take in a sea of fanatics, many of whom will have danced to it in rock clubs in the past, finally punching the air in delight at hearing it live.
There could only ever really be one headliner for Firefest’s closing night. With apologies to S Club 7, there ain’t no party like a Danger Danger party. However, this was not just a repeat of their previous exuberant Firefest displays, but they had been persuaded to reform their classic line up, so back into the fold came guitarist Andy Timmons, and keyboardist Kasey Smith, looking remarkably unchanged in 20 years save for a very intellectual looking pair of specs.
They began with a couple of perfect party openers in ‘Crazy Nites’ and ‘Rock America’, summing up their carefree spirit, and the rarely played ‘Turn it On’ but all was not well, specifically a ridiculously loud sound more suited to a rave with drums too high in the mix.
Ted Poley’s vocal performance was also variable but he is the consummate showman and he did his trademark wander through the whole of the crowd during ‘Don’t Walk Away’. It was strange to see regular axeman Rob Marcello not there, but fascinating to see Andy Timmons more intricate and technical guitar style, and while there did not seem the same visual interaction his shredding solo on ‘Beat The Bullet’ was pure quality.
As usual bassist Bruno Ravel was the master of ceremonies, getting back at those who criticised him for talking too much on their previous appearance and teasing that this wasn’t really the last Firefest. Kasey was given a solo slot and accompanied Ted on a rare snatch of ballad ‘One Step From Paradise’ but I felt the set sagged badly in the middle.
Having been braced for a very special climax I was feeling a sense of disappointment. My enjoyment of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ and ‘Feels Like Love’ was spoiled by the dreadful sound, and momentum was lost by Andy’s solos (though to play an instrumental of ‘Theme From An Imaginary Western’ in tribute to Jack Bruce who had passed away over the weekend was a nice touch).
Never the tightest of bands, the cracks showed at times in this one off line up notably when they attempted ‘Going Going Gone’ for the first time as a band.
…onto the stage came … various stars of the weekend … and then the entire Firefest crew… As organisers and fans alike celebrated their common bond the Glee choir had nothing on this.
However the party could not be denied and infectious classics followed one after another as the sound slowly cleared up – ‘Don’t Blame It On Love’ and ‘Bang Bang’, before Ted sang the ballad ‘I Still Think About You’ from the photo pit where the Firefest crew were gathered.
After Bruno reminisced about previous trips to Rock City, the lascivious ‘Monkey Business’, one of their most loved songs, was a fitting climax, as was the encore of ‘Naughty Naughty’, described by Bruno as the sleaze rock national anthem. His long list of thanks included the two returning members before delivering the zinger that he was firing them again.
Now came the mother of all finales to the decade long party, as Bruno said the most fitting way to go out on was to play melodic rock’s best known song. After the band struck out the intro to ‘Don’t Stop Believin”, onto the stage came the festival’s resident guitarist Tommy Denander, various stars of the weekend including Erik Gronwall and Simon Daniels, and then the entire Firefest crew, with Kieran and his family and even his more retiring co-promoter Bruce Mee out front. As organisers and fans alike celebrated their common bond the Glee choir had nothing on this.
There was an outpouring of joy but also tears from the stage as Kieran was forced to make a farewell speech and presented with a book of messages from the fans to the Firefest organisers. It is hard to imagine this happening at your standard festival run as a commercial enterprise.
Firefest, despite Bruno Ravel’s teasing, may have ended its run, but its legacy both in terms of forming lifelong friendships and keeping alive and revitalising the melodic rock genre that had been driven underground by the mainstream media will be a lasting one.
Coney Hatch is interviewed in The Pete Feenstra Feature on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sunday 9 November. More…
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Simon Dunkerley
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