GRTR!’s resident Melodic Rock/AOR expert Andy Nathan has been covering Firefest for us right from the start. Andy’s informed report and Simon Dunkerley’s inspired photos celebrate ‘The Final Fling’ as the festival bows out in style…
The announcement last year that this, the 11th Firefest would be the last seemed to result in even greater anticipation than usual, judging by the countdowns on social media and the way the event was a complete sell out a few months in advance.
Best described as a world melodic rock gathering of the clans, right down to the national flags that hang from the balcony of Rock City, ‘the final fling’ was the usual mix of old and new favourites of the genre with a dusting of rare live performances often from bands persuaded to reform especially for the event by Firefest’s indefatigable co-promoter Kieran Dargan. Having gradually expanded in length as the Festival has grown in success, for the first and last time there were three full days with seven acts each time.
DAY 1 – 24 OCTOBER
H.E.A.T., TEN, THE POODLES, SHY, CIRCUS MAXIMUS, REDRUM, ANGELS OR KINGS
In another break a competition was held to identify an unsigned British band to open the festival. Angels Or Kings won the day, a revived version of AOK who were one of the Brit hopefuls back in the day who I remember supporting Dare.
In a short set they seemed to be having the time of their lives, even if their biker style image and the facial contortions and ‘come on’ shouts of singer Baz Jackson were a little incongruous. ‘Any Other Girl’ and ‘Ice Turns to Rain’ were the standout songs in a good solid performance with the traditional British rock feel. Ending with ‘Angels of Nowhere’ which seems to be something of a band anthem they lost nothing by comparison with higher profile acts.
Redrum were probably the first and last Greek band to play at Firefest, albeit with an added touch of class and experience added by the commanding vocals of former Jaded Heart singer Michael Bormann.
As well as an infectiously enthusiastic stage presence, songs like opener ‘Scream’ and ‘You Can’t Buy a Hero’ showed surprising quality with keyboards giving the sound the added depth of the likes of a Shotgun Symphony.
‘Judgement Day’ owed too much to Whitesnake and Led Zeppelin, but I enjoyed a ballad ‘Heart To Heart’ and closer ‘Dust In My Eyes’ ended an all too short set in very impressive fashion.
This year saw Firefest push at the boundaries of their core melodic hard rock remit, notably with Circus Maximus, providing the rare sound at the festival of odd time signatures, sudden changes of tempo and more progressive sounds, even at times with a slightly industrial feel, from the slightly built, youthful looking Swedes.
Yet through it all the singing of Michael Erikson (who starred here last year with side project The Magnificent) was never anything less than melodic in the trademark Scandinavian manner. While a welcome contrast, as an AOR traditionalist the lack of catchy verses and choruses meant my attention was wandering.
“He remains one of the great characters with a look in his eyes that veers between being on the verge of tears and leaving you fearing he is about to punch somebody”
The biggest cheers yet were heard for a now rare appearance of Shy who have effectively been on hiatus since the sadly premature death of guitarist and main songwriter Steve Harris. Opening with the excellent ‘Skydiving’, the man’s original solos were shared in impressive fashion by Carl Wright and Neil Hibbs.
Some authenticity was restored with original singer Tony Mills back in the fold – his performance was a bit in and out, perhaps reflecting the fact I understand the band had only rehearsed once.
At times he seemed to struggle to get attuned to some of the verses to classic songs and yet his high screams were as pitch perfect as ever. He remains one of the great characters with a look in his eyes that veers between being on the verge of tears and leaving you fearing he is about to punch somebody.
Their 1987 album Excess All Areas, one of the defining moments of British AOR, was well represented with ‘Telephone’, ‘Can’t Fight The Nights’ and ‘Emergency’ all inspiring joyful singalongs, as did ‘Give It All You Got’.
When Tony paid tribute to Steve’s memory I was expecting the classic ‘Reflections’, but instead the smooth ballad ‘When The Love Is Over’ was exquisitely delivered. ‘Break Down the Walls’ was bringing the crowd to boiling point so perhaps it was surprising that the relatively obscure ‘No Other ‘ended the set, albeit in epic fashion with both guitarists again showing their paces in extended solos.
One of the leaders of the new generation of the Scandinavian bands from the last decade and massive in their native Sweden, The Poodles were making a rare UK appearance. After a slow start and the untypically Hammerfall-esque ‘Metal Will Stand Tall’, I warmed to their dynamic stage presence while Jakob Samuel is a magnetic frontman.
Their songs were basic but well constructed songs and after the ‘Give it Up’ chant of ‘Seven Seas’ got the crowd going, ‘One Night Of Passion’ and ‘Caroline’ had a ridiculously catchy rhythm to them. Unfortunately just as the set was getting better and better, technical difficulties and time constraints frustratingly curtailed a promising set.
Gary Hughes, whose curly hair has long given way to a Shearer-esque crop, seems more confident as a frontman than of old, even if he may have overdone the arm-round-the-shoulder-of-his-bandmates shtick.
Standard bearers at Firefest’s predecessors The Gods, Ten have gradually been rebuilding their profile after a fallow period and their second on the bill slot coincided with the launch of a new album Albion, and a revised line up with, for the first time in their career two lead guitarists, of whom the left handed Dann Rosingana was extremely impressive.
Gary Hughes, whose curly hair has long given way to a Shearer-esque crop, seems more confident as a frontman than of old, even if he may have overdone the arm-round-the shoulder-of-his-bandmates-shtick.
Their grandiose approach with his trademark baritone vocals will always divide opinion but I loved openers ‘Feel The Force’ and Still Of The Night’s distant cousin ‘Spellbound’, while it was also pleasing to see their more recent output not cast aside, including ‘Apparition’ and the excellent ‘Lights Go Down’ from the last album.
New songs like ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Alone In The Dark Tonight’, with fans asked to capture the latter on video, suggested that the new album continues their return to form, but it was the oldies people wanted and they obliged with ‘After The Love Has Gone’, on which to these ears at least the keyboards were more prominent than before, and the celtic Thin Lizzy pastiche ‘Red’, and epic ‘The Name Of The Rose’, Dann doing the rapid guitar solo justice. It was probably the most satisfying Ten set I had seen in a long time.
In a genre sometimes dismissed as looking backwards to its 1980′s heyday, it was a source of pride to many that it was the current day darlings of the scene H.E.A.T. who headlined. It was their fifth appearance (a record which will never be broken!) but both in song choice and sound and stage craft they were worlds away from the band that played at their first three Firefests.
The whole band have grown in confidence and assuredness but it was the remarkable hyperactive energy of singer Erik Gronwall that has made the real difference. Having seen them play only weeks earlier at Firefest’s US cousin Melodic Rock Fest, I knew what to expect to some degree but the superior sound and light show and a packed crowd made this an even more intense experience.
Current album Tearing Down The Walls now forms around half of the set and openers ‘Breaking The Silence’, featuring some powerhouse drumming from Crash, and ‘A Shot At Redemption’, with Erik commanding the place, set the tone for what was to come. ‘Heartbreaker’ had massive Jovi-esque hooks and some audience participation, and the title track and ‘Inferno’ blended massive choruses and the youthful intensity of the debut Skid Row album.
‘Beg Beg Beg’ was the opportunity for some audience call and response, not to mention being taught how to swear in Swedish and a snatch of ‘Highway Star’ giving keyboardist Jonah Tee a moment in the spotlight, before he accompanied the sole accompaniment for Eric on the beautiful ballad ‘All The Nights’.
‘In And Out Of Trouble’, with some great soloing from Eric Rivers, was another highlight, but the real treat was when bassist Jimmy Jay paid tribute to Jimi Jamison, as many of the band had backed the sadly departed Survivor frontman on his legendary Firefest appearances. The resulting cover of ‘Rebel Son’ was not only moving in its own right, but a brilliant choice from the left field of the Survivor back catalogue and musically and vocally they nailed it.
Unfortunately after closing the set with more new gems in the more aggressively modern ‘Enemy In Me’, and ‘Emergency’, the curfew was looming so they had to drop one of the two planned encores. However the irresistible hooks of one of the best songs of the current decade, ‘Living On The Run’, was spectacular enough even before the coup de grace as Erik crowd surfed all the way to the back of the hall.
While Firefest may be ending, this performance showed this style of music still has a future and everyone left hailing the new kings of melodic rock.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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Each week David Randall presents ‘New to GRTR!’ on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, with the emphasis on independent artists and labels. During December he replays favourite tracks including power plays featured during the year. This show covers the period January-March and was first broadcast on 1 December 2019.
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