I’ve been hooked on Moondance Jam ever since first arriving in this unspoiled part of the Minnesota countryside with its woods and lakes in 2009. The Jam plays host to a hedonistic four days of holiday relaxation and partying for the 20000 or so mainly Mid-Westerners who come to camp every year, but improbably always seems to pull off a brilliant musical line up.
While other festivals seem to recycle the same bands in the same genre year after year, Moondance has over the past few years offered an eclectic mix with few repeats. This year none of the main acts had played here more recently than five years ago, while although their original days of a pure classic rock line up are sadly over, they have mastered the difficult art of mixing up some of the old favourites with the newer breed of bands, choosing those that might have the widest appeal to us broader minded classic rockers.
So it was with an even greater sense of anticipation that I headed to my seventh successive Moondance, beginning with the traditional pre-Jam party for weekend ticket holders featuring covers acts, headlined by Hairball’s pastiche of the great days of hair metal, complete with a spectacular show and singers in lifelike wigs and costumes, while the oddly named Fabulous Armadillos were musically and vocally one of the most accomplished covers bands I have seen.
DAY 1- SAMMY HAGAR, BLACK STONE CHERRY, POP EVIL, PAT TRAVERS
By an odd quirk, three of the five acts on the first day all played the festival in 2010, while the day had the most ‘modern’ feel of the three main days. It would have been more so but for Nickelback’s late withdrawal from the show owing to Chad Kroeger’s vocal surgery, though for many Sammy Hagar was a more than welcome replacement.
However it was a veteran of the seventies in blues rocker Pat Travers who kicked off proceedings, starting in lively fashion with ‘Rock n Roll Suzie’ trading guitar solos with partner Kirk McKim who took a surprising amount of solo work.
However among the odd gem like ‘’Diamond Girl’, old favourites like ‘Crash and Burn’ and ‘Heat In The Street’ came over as rather plodding, while a cover of ‘Black Betty’ was an unforgivable waste and later followed by two more in ‘Red House’, admittedly showing off Pat’s superb slide guitar playing and ‘Statesboro Blues’.
Belatedly things kicked back into gear with the classic ‘Snortin’ Whiskey’, Kirk taking the solo, and ‘Boom Boom Go Out Go The Lights’ with people singing the chorus surprisingly lustily but I found his vocals were average and the performance disappointingly workmanlike at best.
Watching them initially from the covered saloon while what I assumed was a temporary shower passed, Pop Evil were the first of Moondance’s offerings for those who prefer the rock a bit more aggressive and brutal.
As they opened with ‘Last Man Standing’, like a heavier Nickelback, and ‘Goodbye My Friend’ I was impressed with their energy and stage presence as they gave a dynamic show, guitarists Nick Fuelling and Dave Grahs pulling poses in their angular haircuts, drummer Chachi Riot aggressive and Leigh Kakaty a commanding frontman.
As with many of the best of the current generation of American bands, material at the heavier edge of metal like ‘Boss’s Daughter’ with its ‘hell on wheels’ chorus is accompanied by a smattering of killer ballads of which ‘Monster You Made’ had a massive hook and ‘Torn To Pieces’ was not far behind. Finishing with some heavier numbers like ‘Deal With The Devil’ and ‘Trenches’ they are clearly a band destined for better things.
Having enjoyed them in the UK more times than I care to remember I was looking forward to Black Stone Cherry winning over the crowd, as for some reason they have a lower profile in their native USA. Just as at Download weeks earlier, the heavens opened as they began with ‘Rain Wizard’ and after I sneaked into the crowd during ‘Blind Man’, the rain did not let up and I retreated to the safety of the saloon bar, frustrated the elements had intervened.
All was not well – guitarist Ben Wells took a tumble on stage, the crowd at the front thinned and five songs in they curtailed their set as a ferocious storm of biblical proportions blew over the grounds and refused to let up for a good two or three hours.
While those already in their campsites were battening down the hatches as the grounds flooded, the night was shrouded in uncertainty, and I hung tough in the covered Saloon watching Them Pesky Kids, one of the many excellent regional covers bands who play in between the main acts. When Papa Roach were due on the main stage I craned my neck towards the arena and it was deserted with no sign of a show about to start, while the crew made an announcement they were doing what they could to keep the show going and to stay tuned for further news.
Nearly an hour and a half later, my girlfriend and I , frustrated at how crowded and smoky the Saloon was becoming and the time it seemed to be taking to set up the next covers band, were on the verge of leaving. Then in the course of seconds our grumpiness was transformed into childlike delight as the lights dimmed and on came … Sammy Hagar!
The Red Rocker and his band were game for playing on even on a smaller stage and there could not have been a couple of more lyrically defiant openers than ‘There’s Only One Way To Rock’ and ‘Heavy Metal’, both seeing him play lead guitar which he does not seem to do enough of these days.
With former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony part of the band, it was inevitable VH songs would feature heavily and ‘Top Of The World’ also stuck two fingers up at their former bandmates before Sammy dipped into Montrose days with ‘Rock Candy’ with some tasty soloing from Vic Johnson.
The ever youthful 68 year old was also wisecracking with the crowd, handing out drinks, though I did wonder whether he was genuinely ‘buzzed’ or whether this was an affectation to promote his various alcoholic products. Meanwhile his comradeship with Michael was a delight to witness and there was a lively version of ‘Finish What Ya Started’, rockier than the VH original.
It was a slightly different, improvised set. I could have done without a cover of ‘Fight For Your Right To Party’ with so much other material, while ‘Little White Lie’, ‘Three Lock Box’ and ‘Right Now’ all had an unrehearsed jam feel to them, which somehow suited the surroundings and made the show even more special.
After Sammy joked it was a good job he hadn’t driven to Moondance, a great drum roll from his longtime drummer David Lauser led into a rattling ‘I Can’t Drive 55’, though it was interesting that on this and a few other songs he left many of the vocal lines to Michael and Vic, before ending with ‘Mas Tequila’ which could be a Moondance anthem.
While the set at around an hour was shorter than originally planned, for those of us who were lucky enough to be in and around the saloon when he made his unexpected appearance, a very special triumph was snatched from the jaws of a weather disaster.
DAY 2- DOOBIE BROTHERS, HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS, JEFFERSON STARSHIP, VIXEN, HONEYMOON SUITE
Fortunately normal service was resumed on the second day, the sun shining throughout and the arena dried out remarkably for a line up that of the three days was closest to Moondance’s roots with a diverse range of acts from the seventies and eighties.
As someone whose love of melodic rock had taken me to USA festivals in the first place many years ago, I was delighted that a couple of bands who in the past had graced Firefest opened proceedings, both seeming to win many new friends even though most of the punters only seemed familiar with one song apiece from them!
Honeymoon Suite were first and the laid back Canadian charm of singer Johnnie Dee and his bandmates won people over and reminded me of their compatriots April Wine on this very stage three years ago, right down to being clad in black on a sweltering hot day.
After opening with ‘Say You Don’t Know Me’, it was their first two albums that comprised the lion’s share of the set with highlights including the huge melodic chorus hooks of ‘Burning In Love’ and ‘Feel It Again’ and perhaps the surprise of the set ‘Wounded’.
Even on mellower numbers like ‘Stay In The Light’, and the ballad ‘What Does It Take’, the melodic tone and feel of Derry Grehan’s guitar solos were superb, indeed almost Lukather or Schon like in places.
I could have done without the dreary ‘Wave Babies’ but some mid-set lost momentum was regained when ‘Looking Out For Number One’ rocked hardest of the set before a drawn out ‘New Girl Now’ at least gave the crowd something to sing along to.
Next up were Vixen, likewise making no concessions to the weather in their black leather pants (as our hosts would say) and boots and looking more glamorous than fifty somethings have a right to be.
As they opened with a double from their classic sophomore album ‘Rev It Up’ in the title track and ‘How Much Love’, guitarist Gina Stile (replacing the sadly missed Jan Kuehnemund) was shredding like mad and pulling some classic poses, but my delight was tempered by the fact that against this loud musical backing Janet Gardner’s melodic voice was rather thin and struggling to make itself heard above the music.
With an intro from a male keyboard player (no tapes here!) the mega ballad ‘Cryin’ was a welcome change among heavier numbers like ‘Bad Reputation’ the fun ‘I Want You To Rock Me’ and ‘Streets In Paradise’. I was initially disappointed Janet left the stage for bassist Share Pedersen, who got huge cheers as a Minnesota native, to sing lead on a cover of ‘Rockin In The Free World’ but it did demonstrate the extent to which they are credible musicians in their own right.
I had forgotten quite what a great ballad ‘Love Is A Killer’ was, while some spot on vocal harmonies introduced one of my favourite ever Vixen songs in ‘Love Made Me’, and they closed with ‘Edge Of A Broken Heart’ and people joining in. After the early gremlins this was another triumph that hopefully had people discovering or rediscovering what good songs they had in their too short original career.
In the latter half of the eighties when commercial AOR ruled the airwaves, Jefferson Starship had mutated into Starship. But these days a line up of three old and three new members cover all the earlier aspects of their career (no ‘We Built This City’ tonight!)
They opened with a surprisingly rocky ‘Ride The Tiger’ with excellent new guitarist Jude Gold joining forces with founder Paul Kantner. The latter spent much of the set sitting on a speaker crate, understandable given he is recuperating from a heart attack, in which case it was perhaps unwise to be chain smoking while he had repeated equipment issues!
The real star of the show was singer Cathy Richardson who has a powerful set of lungs and a personable stage manner while the solidity was provided by another veteran in David Freiberg, looking youthful for a 76 year old, who even played a song from further back in his Quicksilver Messenger Service.
I was delighted to hear ‘Find Your Way Back’ from their more commercial period, with Cathy playing a starring role, and my girlfriend dug the seventies soft rock hits ‘Count On Me’ and ‘Miracles’.
However some of the hippier moments were rather lost me, specifically ‘White Rabbit’. It was a pleasant surprise to hear the much imitated keyboard intro to ‘Jane’, though David is no Mickey Thomas in the vocal department, then after lengthy band intros Cathy gave ‘Somebody To Love’ a leather lunged treatment.
Despite running over their allotted time they still came back for ‘Volunteers’ from their Airplane days with Paul belatedly re-energised to end a set I had minimal expectations for but which proved one of the pleasant surprises and a justification for Moondance to continue to book bands from the original generation of rockers with a lineage back to Woodstock.
Booking Huey Lewis and the News could be seen as another gamble and his more pop oriented sound would not go down well at many rival festivals.
However as well as being a hugely impressively tight group of ensemble players, they are proven showmen and had a relaxed crowd eating out of the palm of their hands, especially after a bespectacled Huey sauntered casually on stage for a killer opening trio of well loved ‘Sports’ classics in ‘Heart Of Rock n Roll’, ‘If This Is It’ and ‘I Wanna New Drug’, though to this day I cannot help sing ‘Ghostbusters’ to the latter.
Some of the songs were a little too much in an R and B direction for my liking but ‘Jacobs Ladder’ was a big production number with some excellent playing complementing the lighting show.
Mid set they varied the pace as all the band members came to the front for some close harmony singing even if it was not technically acapella as Huey claimed, with some musical accompaniment, before the horn section took a temporary break for the rather rockier ‘Walking On A Thin Line’ and ‘Heart And Soul’.
The series of singalongs was topped off by ‘The Power Of Love’ by which time Huey’s shirt was dripping with sweat but that wasn’t it, the set extending to a generous hour and a half with the jazzy swing of ‘Bad Is Bad’ enlivened by a guest appearance from Doobies saxophonist Marc Russo and another typically tight rendition of ‘Working For A Living’.
The News have been on a summer co headlining tour with the Doobie Brothers and it was the legendary Californians who were appropriate headliners and ones I was looking forward to, having not seen them since 2004. They made an instant impact with five part vocal harmonies and guitar solos from each of the three guitarist on ‘Jesus Is Just All Right’ and Tom Johnston, who very much acts as the frontman and whose moustachioed look never changes, blasting out the riff to feel-good anthem ‘Rocking Down The Highway’.
However, being bold (or foolhardy?) they took a risk with a proven festival formula by playing a lot of what the Americans would call ‘deep cuts’ from their catalogue such as ‘Clear As The Driven Snow’, an epic that began with a gentle intro from founder member Pat Simmons, starting to mutate into Willie Nelson these days.
Worse still a couple of numbers meandered off into some country style finger picking probably unsuitable to hold a festival crowd’s attention. However a beautiful ‘South City Midnight Lady’ with some great soft rock vocal harmonies and haunting lap steel playing by John McFee was exemplary.
The classic rock concept relies on bands trotting out their greatest hits but in the case of the Doobies they take a risk by ignoring their most successful period with Michael McDonald (even if it is not my personal favourite). However bassist John Cowan did add some high soulful notes to ‘Takin It To The Streets’ and ‘Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)’.
They have covered a lot of bases in their musical career and a lengthy cover of the old blues standard ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’ was a highlight for me as the guitarists and saxophonist traded solos and pulled entertaining choreographed poses, reminding us that they were once a guitar heavy band.
Finally they got round to the hits the crowd had wanted to see in ‘Black Water’ with some great country style harmonies and fiddle playing from John, and ‘Long Train Running’, though I thought the response was subdued considering that the song seems to be played every hour in these parts whether by a bar band or on classic rock radio.
For the encores, Tom cranked out the riff and John the solos to ‘China Grove’ which got the best response from the crowd, but then they slipped in another number I didn’t know (‘Road Angel’ apparently) but which gave scope for some great Skynyrd-esque guitar jamming. Finally Tom sent us on our way with another timeless anthem in ‘Listen To the Music’ though it felt a little quiet from where I stood.
Despite an uneven set that may have lost some people I still felt the Doobies put in an entertaining show, showing quite how diverse a range of classic American musical bases they cover, which was worth the anticipation and closed a great night.
DAY 3 – Shinedown, Peter Frampton, Finger Eleven, Black Star Riders, Thundherstruck
The final day of Moondance was arguably the most eclectic of the lot, and also began with the only non-original act of the main festival line up. However the Californian-based girl quintet Thundherstruck have been Moondance favourites for a long time and the concert grounds were far more packed than they usually are for the opening act.
I had been spoiled by seeing the real AC/DC a fortnight before at Wembley, but most people here will never have been lucky to see the legends, at least not at Moondance. So the novelty of an all female band covering AC/DC with great authenticity and panache was the next best thing.
Singer Dyna Shiraski has a powerful set of pipes while English-born guitarist Tina Wood has the Angus school uniform and duck walking mannerisms off to a tee. With only an hour to do the AC/DC catalogue justice, they alternated between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson-era songs, Dyna donning a flat cap for the latter, and a well chosen selection hit ever pitch with ‘Back In Black’ and ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ before finishing (for now – they ended the festival with a set in the Saloon) appropriately enough with the near eponymous ‘Thunderstruck’.
Despite now being four-fifths American, Black Star Riders have toured the USA far less frequently than in Europe and the result was that there was a significantly smaller crowd than for Thunderstruck. I may be biased as one who has seen them several times and a huge Thin Lizzy fan, but the absentees missed out on one of the performances of the weekend as they rocked the place, tearing through 15 songs (and having to drop another couple with time constraints) with barely a pause for breath.
The safest option would be to retreat to the days of a few years ago when they still toured under the Thin Lizzy banner and do a set based around ‘Live And Dangerous’ but they tackled their biggest American show yet on their own terms. Opening with ‘Bound For Glory’ with the harmony lead guitars that were a constant fixture in the set, after an early concession with ‘Jailbreak, the majority of the set was their own compositions.
Ricky Warwick did seem to have to be trying harder than usual to work an unfamiliar crowd and encouraged people to discover their Irish origins on such celtic themed songs as ‘Soldiers Town’ with its ‘tarra-hey’ refrain, ‘Blood Shot’ and ‘Kingdom Of The Lost’.
Even on old Lizzy favourites like ‘Are You Ready’ and a slightly surprising ‘Suicide’ the guitar team were on fire and it occurred to me that Scott Gorham must be playing as well as ever and has his best foil since Brian Robertson in Damon Johnson, who on home soil was more extrovert than I remembered him, wielding his guitar axe-like and pulling poses for those at the front. His solo on ‘Emerald’ was outstanding.
Although not all the new songs hit the mark, other highlights included ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ and ‘Hey Judas’, while during ‘Rosalie’ Ricky’s usual audience participation extended to trying to get the people on the hill up from their lawn chairs. Newie ‘Finest Hour’ is nothing short of a modern day classic before they closed with a joyful ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ – at last a song that everyone knew, but those present will not forget the Black Star Riders name again.
Next up were one of the more modern alternative bands in Canadians Finger Eleven. They were a new name to me but have been making albums since the late nineties and had hit singles in the States, so I really should have paid more attention to the scene the other side of the pond.
Singer Scott Anderson had an effortless voice and image wise they looked a bit like Pop Evil, but were much more static and lacked stage presence with the exception of hirsute guitarist Rick Jackett who seemed to be playing in his own show.
After a promising start with new songs ‘Five Crooked Lines and ‘Doors And Wolves’, I found their material listenable but rather bland and headed off for food and to listen from the hill, while one of the big hit singles, ‘One Thing’ was drearily repetitive.
Their biggest hit ‘Paralyzer’, with a snatch of ‘Another Brick In The Wall’, had people all the way to the back singing and lifting mugs of beer in the air, but I won’t be rushing to discover their back catalogue on this evidence.
Coming off a tour with Cheap Trick to play Moondance for the first time in many years, my fellow South Londoner Peter Frampton played to a significantly older crowd. For me his singing and songwriting are average but the way he played controlled solos full of fluency and emotion demonstrated that he should be appreciated as one of the true guitar heroes of his age.
However the show was nearly derailed when just after taking to his trademark voice box during ‘Show Me The Way’, in flicking away a beach ball that had been thrown on stage he collapsed backwards. It threatened to be the most notorious inflatable since the Liverpool FC one that famously scored a goal for Sunderland, but luckily the band kept the song together and he swiftly staggered to his feet with good humour.
‘I’ll Give You Money’ featured a mesmerising jam as he traded lines with second guitarist Adam Lester, even if it did clock in at 12 minutes. His guitar foil also cheekily pretended to fall backwards to the floor as it concluded.
Peter then donned an acoustic for ‘Baby I Love Your Way’ which was perfect for a warm summer’s night while his cover of ‘Black Hole Sun’, instrumental other than singing the chorus into his talk box, was the perfect demonstration of his prowess.
‘Do You Feel Like We Do’ was another to have the crowd singing from the start, but with an extended piano solo from Rob Arthur, band intros and more messing about with the talkbox, it weighed in at remarkable 19 minutes.
Another cover for an encore in ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ also showed his lyrical six-string prowess but to play just 9 songs in an 80 minute set does show a degree of self indulgence.
And so to the climax of the festival, as Shinedown got the opportunity to prove they have the right stuff to be festival headliners for now and into the future, They certainly brought a bigger, stadium sized set than I was used to from their appearances in England, with raised platforms at the front and drummer Barry Kerch perched high above, driving the sound on impressively.
They rather oddly opened with new song ‘Asking For It’, but momentum was restored within a couple of songs when in trademark fashion Brent Smith welcomed us by asking us to introduce ourselves to the people to our left and right. He was unrecognisable from the long haired rocker in muscle shirts I remember, slimmed down and short haired, and in a short sleeved check shirt and baseball cap that made me think he was about to ask if I wanted fries with my burger.
There was a younger crowd in evidence, yet the atmosphere was good natured and made very comfortable from my vantage point about halfway back in the pit.
Despite their forceful heaviness, Shinedown’s appeal lies wider than just modern day metalheads. So after a ‘Fly From The Inside’ from their debut album, the early part of the set had a number of more accessible moments including the big ballads from their classic ‘Sound Of Madness’ album’ If Only You Knew’ and ‘Crow And The Butterfly’ and ‘Unity’ with its ‘put your hands in the air’ chorus encouraging people to do likewise. Best of all, ‘Diamond Eyes’ mixed its almost rap like ‘boom-lay’ chant with a great melodic hook.
However after another ballad in ‘I’ll Follow You’ Brent got people to jump up and down at the outside of ‘Enemies’ which heralded a return to a series of more aggressive songs in the second half of the set, including a new song in ‘Cut The Cord’, the slow grinding ‘45’ and ‘Devour’, while ’Bully’ was not my favourite but took on an epic quality live.
However they are not the most talented musicians with guitarist Zak Smith rather plodding, at least in comparison to some of the more technically skilled classic players we saw over the weekend. In addition they had no compunction in padding out the sounds made by the three musicians with pre-recorded parts which is not to my taste.
As I expected when an acoustic guitar was brought out, they ended with their biggest hit ‘Second Chance’ which is truly a rock ballad for these modern times. They never really went off as such but armed with just Brent’s voice and Zak’s acoustic guitar, delivered a brilliant stripped down version of Skynyrd’s ‘Simple Man’ which somehow carried all the way to the back of the 18,000 crowd which was a very special moment.
After relatively few words from Brent by his previous standards, as if to move from past to present they closed with a furious version of the title track from ‘Sound Of Madness’.
People may complain that there will no longer be any larger than life headliners when the current generation hang up their leather pants, but the quality of Shinedown’s songs, stage presence and show made them worthy of their top billing.
It was a fitting end to a Moondance that could scarcely have been bettered for the sheer variety of enjoyable performances. I hope they have something equally special up their sleeve for 2016 when this marvellous festival reaches its 25th year.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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