Considering the previous generation thought rock n roll was a passing fad, and given the pace of change in the industry, it is a substantial feat for any rock festival to reach a 25 year milestone. It is even more remarkable when the festival in question, Moondance Jam, 200 miles from any major cities in a beautiful part of Northern Minnesota, has grown from small origins to one that attracts between 15-20,000 a day and inspires fanatical devotion from its attendees who largely camp (and party!) for the four days.
Some were disappointed that Moondance had not brought in a bigger marquee name for the occasion, but there was the usual eclectic mix of a variety of bands from the past five decades, and impressively they avoid the trap of most festivals of the same bands returning year on year- very few of those playing had appeared at the festival since I first attended in 2009.
The format of the event for the past few years has been for the three day festival to be preceded by a ‘pre-jam’ party, mainly featuring local or tribute acts, to get people into the swing of things. The saloon bar stage – which last year memorably saw an unscheduled gig from Sammy Hagar – plays host to such bands all weekend and on this night was headlined by the latest project Alive- a tribute to Pearl Jam from the stable of guitarist Leni DiMancari who organises the programme of local artists.
On the main stage the two headliners paid tribute to an iconic band from either side of the pond. Two bands, Moondance favourites The Fabulous Armadillos and Collective Unconscious joined forces to deliver an Eagles tribute, fittingly in the year of Glenn Frey’s passing. The result was to have a pool of five or six singers who could not only replicate the harmonies but switch between whoever was best suited to Eagles tracks originally sung by their various different lead vocalists.
The set was beautifully judged, blind Armadillos singer Billy Scherer was a warm, humorous presence and every single song was known and loved by the crowd.
For many years the first day headliner has been Hairball, who replicate the stage show and image of all the big eighties bands, but on this occasion Moondance chose a Queen tribute, Killer Queen, and even imported them from the UK.
Patrick Myers is a remarkable Freddie Mercury impersonator, even with what looked like a prosthetic moustache and front teeth, with all the moves and command of audience participation, while the band are dressed to look like Queen. However, being critical, his voice didn’t quite sound Mercury-esque, lacking its lightness of touch, and the trademark Queen harmonies also seemed less in evidence.
Moreover, whereas at home every small town civic hall plays host to a Queen tribute and the audience know every song, the crowd reaction here brought home to me that over in the USA they are better known for a smaller set of admittedly huge hits, and I was surprised during standards such as ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ that people were leaving in droves.
It was a gamble that had not paid off and perhaps the Eagles tribute – or even the superlative ‘Free Fallin’ Tom Petty tribute that played later in the festival – might have been better headliners.
DAY 1-GODSMACK, BUSH, CHEVELLE, KIX, FIREHOUSE
Overnight a huge storm had passed through the area and knocked out power to the arena and campsites. With dark rumours that some neighbouring areas would be without power for a couple of days it was a near miracle that stage power was restored and that, only ten minutes late, Firehouse got to open the Jam proper. The opener in ‘Shake and Tumble’ was a little rough around the edges but as soon as the multi layered vocal intro to the classic hooks of ‘All She Wrote’ kicked in, we were off and running.
The band put on a committed display with CJ Snare working the stage, Michael Foster a real powerhouse on the drums and Bill Leverty burning up and down his fretboard and, while not the most original of songs, the likes of ‘Oughta be a Law’ and ‘Rock on the Radio’ were very well received with fists punching the air, the pace only dropping once as CJ took to the keyboard and sang the saccharine but effective ballad ‘When I Look into Your Eyes’.
‘Helpless’ and ‘Overnight Sensation’ were particularly impressive before CJ led us through their big US hit ballad ‘Love Of A Lifetime’, with more hands waving at the front than at a puppeteer’s convention, before rocking equilibrium was restored with a storming ‘Reach For The Sky’ (virtually the only song not taken from their 1990 debut) and the inevitable closer of their signature tune ‘Don’t Treat Me Bad’, complete with a snatch of ‘Free Ride’ had fists punching to the chorus in the early afternoon sun.
Two years ago, I saw Firehouse disappoint the Firefest audience with a rambling set, but on this occasion not a second of their 50 minute set was wasted in a full throttle performance.
Kix were a band I had never seen before, but as regulars on other American shows such as M3, and the Monsters of Rock cruises it was inevitable they would eventually find their way to Moondance. They showed all their long experience with a high energy performance which went down a storm.
The long-haired band still look the part and red shirted singer Steve Whiteman was an endearing character with his jovial, quick witted repartee, audience participation games and his bizarre, long legged gyrations.
Yet while their career goes back to the early 80’s, unlike many of the other bands at the festival they were more than happy to plug their latest release ‘Rock Your Face Off’ with the title track among those played.
In truth the music was rather limited with smutty hair metal lyrics over some recycled AC/DC riffing, the exception being the hit ballad ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’, to which Steve donned a maroon beret. However the likes of ‘Midnight Dynamite’, the cheeky ‘Love Me With Your Top Down’, and set closer ‘Blow My Fuse’ were all thoroughly enjoyable.
After the great reaction they received Steve asked if Moondance would have them back next year, perhaps not realising this would be a tall order as unlike some of the aforementioned festivals the line-up is not repeated year on year.
For the past few years the bill has also been a broad church, moving beyond classic rock and into some of the more recent and edgier sounds of the alternative rock and metal scene, and on this occasion those acts were concentrated on the Thursday evening.
Not being our cup of tea, my partner and I left the site for a proper dinner, but fear not, help is on its way (in the words of the Little River Band, of whom more anon). My friend and Minnesota native Curtis Nelson, who was also roped in to preview the bands on the festival’s own message board this year, kindly agreed to offer his reflections on the Thursday night action, beginning with Chevelle who came on with a deafeningly loud stage show just as we left.
Curtis Nelson writes:
Chevelle came out with lots of energy and got the crowd going early. The first thing I noticed was how Dean Bernardini seemed to really enjoy playing the bass and did a great job on backing and harmonizing vocals. Sam Loeffler kept the beat on drums and the two of them did a great job keeping the rhythm section tight. I am always amazed when a drummer sounds like he has a double bass and then realize he just plays one really fast.
Pete Loeffler played the role of front man well with great vocals and blistering riffs, and it is always nice when the newer bands actually sound like the record. You can tell they are related as they knew what each other was going to do and played well off of each other.
‘Take Out The Gunman’ was one of the highlights for me as I really enjoy the song’s pace and power. The crowd grew as the set went on and that really seemed to make the band play even better. ‘You’re Right’ got the crowd going and they just kept the energy going right through to the end. ‘The Red’ started slowly with just Pete on stage and the other two joined and it was a great display of the power of their music.
‘Send The Pain Below’ was a great way to finish the night. Chevelle are the definition of a power trio and the music felt as good as it sounded.
Photo: Kim Nelson
Bush kicked off their set with ‘Everything Zen’ which sounded great, but it seemed to take Gavin Rossdale a few songs to really warm up. By the time the guitars started into ‘Testosterone’ he seemed to be in a groove. Robin Goodridge, Chris Traynor and Corey Britz are all very good musicians and seemed to be content with letting Rossdale run the show as a throwback frontman.
The singer is edgy enough for the guys to enjoy and good looking enough that some of the ladies didn’t seem to care that he was singing. Once he hit the crowd during ‘Little Things’, which saw him make it all the way to the lawn chair crowd on the top of the hill, he had everybody hooked. When the band ripped into ‘Machinehead’ it may have started one of my favourite moments of the jam.
With a four song flourish at the end of ‘Machinehead’, the Talking Heads cover of ‘Once In A Lifetime’, then huge hits ‘Glycerine’ and ‘Comedown’ Bush had the crowd roaring. Gavin’s foray into the crowd was the most talked about moment of the weekend next to the power issues. I thought that once they got going Bush put on a great show and it really was a nice lead in to Godsmack.
Photo: Kim Nelson
Godsmack delivered one of my favourite sets of the weekend, I sang and enjoyed all of the hits from beginning to end. From early hits ‘Keep Away’ and ‘Whatever’, to ‘1000hp’ and ‘Something Different’ off of the newest album the boys brought the energy and really sounded sharp. This being their only announced show this year seemed to make it that much better.
I did have a couple of issues during the show: when you are at a festival it doesn’t seem wise to make fun of the other bands as singer Sully Erma did and you should know your audience. It also wasn’t a great idea to try to get a circle pit going and it turned out as poorly as I would expect at a Moondance show.
Aside from that, the band sounded great with Tony Rombola playing some great solos and his guitar work is top notch. The rhythm section of Robbie Merrill on bass and Shannon Larkin on drums play so effortlessly together you sometimes forget how good they are. The latter looked amazing playing drums and moving so much it was almost as if he didn’t have a spine…just weaving back and forth while banging on the drums.
The highlight of the weekend for me was ‘Voodoo’. I had been waiting for them to play it and they didn’t disappoint as the whole crowd was singing right along with them. Sully is a very low key frontman who seems to keep the attention on the band and the music as opposed to himself. By the time they played ‘I Stand Alone’ the crowd was energized and ready to go all night. It was a great song by a great band that I would love to see come back some time.
DAY 2 – CHICAGO, LOVERBOY, LITTLE RIVER BAND, FOGHAT, JET: WINGS TRIBUTE
Andy Nathan writes:
The second day of Moondance was in complete contrast, a relatively mellow line up of some classic bands from the seventies and eighties. However a dampener was put on proceedings with the ridiculously late cancellation of Rick Springfield, owing to a clash of schedules with TV filming, implying that his acting career seems to be his bread and butter these days.
A Wings tribute band, Jet were promoted to open the festival and their spot on musical interpretation of their neglected seventies classics, plus a finale of ‘Hey Jude’, would have delighted Alan Partridge, but the lead singer had a rasp to his voice which sounded more like Axl Rose than Paul McCartney to these ears.
The next three bands were all moved one place up the order and given slightly more generous sets beginning with Foghat. Though originally British, with founder drummer Roger Earl still full of vigour in his 70th year, you would need to go to the USA to see them tour which I last did, back at my first Moondance in 2009.
They opened with a trump card in ‘Fool For The City’, which featured an outstanding closing solo from Bryan Bassett. However that was merely the start for the flat capped guitarist, who treated us especially during ‘Drivin Wheel’ and ‘Stone Blue’ to nothing less than an orgy of one slide guitar solo after another. Charlie Huhn was a perfect foil, a confident frontman with something of the high pitched yelp of his late predecessor ‘Lonesome Dave’ and pulling great poses with his low slung Gibson guitar.
What was particularly pleasing was that such a veteran act still played for a festival crowd two songs from a brand new album ‘Under The Influence’ with the title track particularly impressive, with, you guessed it, a prominent slide guitar solo.
My one reservation was that they would run out of time with ‘Terraplane Blues’ another hitting the ten minute mark (sadly no ‘Sweethome Chicago’) but fortunately there was time for their two best known numbers, the old blues standard ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’, ending in a twin guitar jam, and a lengthy ‘Slow Ride’ complete with audience participation, to end a set of supercharged bluesy rock that set the bar very high for the rest of the festival.
In contrast Little River Band were mellower entertainment for a beautiful early evening. While they mean little in the UK they had a string of hits in the late seventies in the USA, though not a single member of the original Australian band remains. However affable singer and bassist Wayne Nelson is the link with the past and they opened with his signature song ‘Night Owls’, which had me immersed singing along as it represents the rockier, more AOR direction they took into the eighties.
Rhythm guitarist Greg Hind took a few of the lead vocals during the set and was introduced as the only Aussie in the band, but while his bleached hair and shades were Bondi beach, his accent betrayed his long-time residence in Minnesota.
The smooth harmonies of ‘Man On Your Mind’ and ‘Take It Easy On Me’ allied to the funky ‘Happy Anniversary’ – keyboard player Chris Marion coming out to play his keytar behind his back – ‘The Other Guy’, rearranged into a jaunty slow blues, all seemed to be part of the soundtrack to the youth of many of the punters judging from the way they sang along.
A recent song ‘Lost And Lonely’ was a classic piece of modern pop-rock and went down well with Wayne dedicating to troops overseas, but just as the gig was building up a head of steam with oldies in the Chicago-esque ‘Reminiscing’ and ‘Help Is On Its Way’ the power went out. Initial good humour, with the crowd taking over the latter’s chorus and Wayne holding up handwritten signs to report on progress, gave way to concern for the rest of the set and indeed the evening.
Fortunately after about 20 minute power was restored and LRB allowed to finish their set with more mellow gems in ‘Cool Change’ with a lazy-feeling extended jam complete with twin guitar solo, ‘Lady’ and their best known song ‘Lonesome Loser’, all of which seemed to hold a place in the heart of a certain generation in the crowd judging from their rapturous reception.
Loverboy are another act that my UK friends were envious I was seeing, as they have not toured since supporting Def Leppard in 1988. It was appropriate then that they opened with the title track from their ‘Notorious’ album they were promoting at that time, Doug Johnson shining on both keyboards and harmonica.
However Mike Reno seemed to be having some vocal issues, his sound cutting out and tilting his microphone up and down, and he sounded a strained shadow of himself on ‘Only The Lucky Ones’ while ‘Queen Of The Broken Hearts’ took a while to get going.
They have been American festival circuit mainstays and many of my friends at the Jam had them as their No 1 pick. Indeed a group of them had dressed up in red bandanas for the occasion-although neither they, and certainly not Mike, dared try on his other eighties trademark, the red leather trousers. Unfortunately for them Mike not only had a blue bandana round his forehead but never moved anywhere near their side of the stage.
‘Take Me To The Top’ was a real grower and confirmed what great musicians the band are with Doug switching to saxophone while ‘It’s Your Life’ was a showcase for Paul Dean on slide guitar, although I would have liked to have heard the six stringer in the Che Guevara cap given more scope to rock out.
I was slightly apprehensive at hearing the keyboards intro to one of those great eighties ballads ‘This Could Be The Night’ as to whether Mike could carry it but he struggled valiantly through and then the crowd had no hesitation taking on the vocals during ‘The Kid Is Hot Tonite’.
After a change of pace in ‘It’s Over’ we were into the closing stages with a slightly lacklustre ‘Hot Girls In Love’ enlivened by some very nifty playing from bassist Ken ‘Spider’ Sinnaeve, then after a brief Matt Frenette drum solo, ‘Turn Me Loose’ had various audience members holding their partners and gyrating and the atmosphere as we bounced to ‘Working For The Weekend’ was nothing short of joyous.
As an encore to an 80 minute set that had started slowly but ultimately was a triumph, a drawn out ‘Lovin Every Minute of It’ featured plenty of opportunity for audience participation and I was wondering to what extent Def Leppard had taken its template to inspire ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’.
The headliners for the night were Chicago who in some quarters had been criticised beforehand as not worthy of a headline shot. Whether viewed as the horn-driven jazz rock pioneers from the late sixties, or the later purveyors of lush soft rock ballads, they didn’t cut the mustard for people expecting a heavier act.
However plenty of people were forced to eat humble pie as the veterans delivered a high energy set with the verve of natural showmen, and a superb stage show, with a multi coloured backdrop either of the iconic band logo, or psychedelic or 1960’s images (though a montage of current and former presidents was perhaps unwise in this most controversial of American election years).
The focus was very much on material from their earlier years with a lot of instinctive jamming, with the horn trio to the fore and it was a delight to see founder members Lee Loughnane and James Pankow in particular enjoying themselves and radiating the energy of men half their age.
There were lengthy, progressive workouts such as ‘Questions 67 to 68’ and ‘Dialogue’ amid a leavening of ballads like ‘Colour My World’. However as someone who grew up on the slicker, later vintage Chicago I was frustrated not to hear more of the songs I knew and loved, with only ‘If You Leave Me Now’ during the first half of the set.
However it was proof they have discovered a real talent in touring bassist Jeff Coffey whose high pitched melodic voice, allied to his shock of blond hair, reminded me of Styx’s Tommy Shaw as he met the difficult task of replacing Peter Cetera and latterly Jason Scheff with aplomb.
Later in the set he again shone on their eighties hits ‘Hard Habit To Break’ and an improvised version of ‘You’reTthe Inspiration’, on the former sharing lead lines with keyboardist Lou Pardini whose own vocal talents were rather underused. In contrast, I found that the lounge crooner-style baritone of the suspiciously youthful looking Robert Lamm took the edge off the songs such as ‘Does Anyone Know What Time It Is?’ and ‘Beginnings’ where he sang lead.
A well paced gig came further to the boil with the jamming feel of ‘I’m A Man’, one of the few songs where the horn section took a back seat, with a mid-song drum and percussion duel, before Jeff again did justice to one of the great ballads of all time, ‘Hard To Say I’m Sorry’, complete with its jazzy coda at the end, and ‘Saturday In The Park’ and ‘Feeling Stronger Everyday’ ended the set on a suitably joyous and upbeat note.
There was a solitary encore of ‘25 or 6 to 4’, and guitarist Keith Howland, whose contributions had been admirably tasteful and concise but relatively low key throughout, was finally let off the leash with a bout of epic soloing, with the horn section feeding off him during the latter part.
It was a great end to a set that had been a revelation to any naysayers and justified Chicago’s recent induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
DAY 3 – BOSTON, SIXX:AM, QUEENSRYCHE, BLUES TRAVELER, THUNDHERSTRUCK
The third day of Moondance had a bit of everything with a dizzying shift of styles from one act to the next, but it began in familiar fashion with the return of Moondance’s favourite daughters in Californian all-girl AC/DC tribute Thundherstruck who have graced the festival on several occasions.
After an interesting choice of opener in ‘Are You Ready’ they produced their usual entertaining display featuring English-born guitarist Tina Wood’s Angus-style stage antics and a well-chosen set of AC/DC classics. Singer Dyna Shiraski handled with ease both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson-era numbers, donning a flat cap for the latter although not updating her stage routine for any Axl Rose references!
Blues Traveler were one of the bands I was less looking forward to. I never got into the whole ‘jam band’ movement that for some reason was huge in the States during the 1990’s, and found them extremely boring at a previous festival in the USA about a decade ago. It was also something of a musical departure for Moondance but though the crowd at the front did not seem as thick, when I ventured down there were plenty of fans lapping up their blend of southern rock, blues, funk and jazz.
While at times it was frustrating as one song merged into another and band members went off on solo diversions, there were some such as ‘What I Got’ and set closer ‘Hook’ which involved audience interaction.
An unusual highlight was a cover of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, with singer John Popper’s harmonica taking the place of Charlie Daniels’ violin very effectively. While I won’t be rushing out to buy their albums, an hour of them in the sunshine viewed from a lawn chair was a more pleasurable experience this time.
Queensryche were the nearest to an old school metal act on the line up and sure enough down the front there were a greater number of black band T-shirts. Interestingly they opened with a new number ‘Guardian’ and it was immediately clear that relatively new lead singer Todd La Torre has the vocal range of his predecessor Geoff Tate’s peak years, together with a warmer personality.
They made extensive use of two screens either side of the drumkit for graphics and yet in many ways made for dull watching with minimal movement and stage presence and their material, lyrically and musically, perhaps too intricate for a festival setting. Additionally, for a supposedly twin guitar band it was noticeable that one of the original members Michael Wilton was handling nearly all the solos.
The set seemed to cover the whole of their career, right from earliest songs like ‘Queen Of The Reich’ and ‘Take Hold Of The Flame’, though ‘Operation Mindcrime’ was surprisingly lightly represented other than the title track two songs in.
It was though the numbers from ‘Empire’ that went down best- ‘Best I Can’, the title track, ‘Jet City Woman’ and of course ‘Silent Lucidity’, though I felt Todd’s voice lacked a bit of power. However it may have been sound gremlins – for long periods I was frustrated that in the pit all I was mainly hearing was Scott Rockenfeld’s drums above the vocals and guitars yet others up on the hill said they had no issues with the sound.
The brooding classic ‘Eyes Of A Stranger’ with the twin leads of Michael and Parker Lundgren ended the set and was my personal highlight, but compared to some of the other more lively stage performers, Queensryche came over as a tad dull.
The same could not be said of the elaborate stage set of Sixx:AM. To my shame it had escaped my radar that Nikki Sixx’s side project is now nine years old and four albums long even though Motley Crue only knocked it on the head last Christmas.
The stage show and tattered black clothes splattered with red presented a dystopian image and yet the music was surprisingly accessible – I instantly picked up on opener ‘This Is Gonna Hurt’ while singer James Michael led the audience fist punching during ‘Rise’.
Looking a bit like a young Billy Idol in his bleached hair, he was an excellent frontman but also one with a smoothly melodic, even pop sensibility to his voice. Indeed on the likes of the title track from the new album ‘Prayers For The Damned’ and ‘Goodbye My Friends’ their blend of modern beats, with thudding bass and electronic sounds, and old-fashioned hooks reminded me of last year’s headliners Shinedown.
The diminutive figure of DJ Ashba came out with some stylish guitar licks while Nikki Sixx was content to play the team player, other than with some Gene Simmons-like bass wielding and staring out the audience.
They played several new songs including ‘When We Were Gods’ and another song dedicated to the victims of recent terror atrocities, ‘Rise Of The Melancholy Empire’ while on ‘Everything Went To Hell’, dedicated to an ex-girlfriend, James duetted with one of the two girl backing singers, and ‘Stars’ was another that was enthusiastically received.
The set ended with ‘Life Is Beautiful’ which the whole crowd seemed to know and be singing along to, and after coming into their set with low expectations and mild curiosity, the title seemed appropriate as Sixx:Am ended being certainly my favourite band of the day.
If Moondance were celebrating a 25th anniversary, 2016 also marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant albums in rock history, Boston’s self-titled debut which arguably invented the AOR/melodic rock genre and whose tracks have been played constantly on American classic rock radio stations to this very day.
So, even though mastermind Tom Scholz is the only original member, Boston were a worthy choice to close the festival and certainly one I was most eagerly anticipating, given that no Englishman has seen them on home soil since 1979.
After a low key opener with an instrumental passage including Tom playing the Star Spangled Banner, it was straight into the greatest hits with ‘Rock And Roll Band’, and, surprisingly early, ‘Smokin’, with Tom taking leave of guitar duties to play the lengthy mid-song organ break.
‘Feelin Satisfied’ had all the Boston trademarks of handclaps, dual guitars and some spot on closing vocal harmonies, and even if singer Tommy Di Carlo’s stage movements were a bit wooden, the set had got off to a flying start.
Tom turned the mike over to guitar partner Gary Pihl who asked if we wanted to hear songs from the last ‘Life Love And Hope’ album or old material. Even those who didn’t have the misfortune to listen to that turkey of an album cheered for the latter, and were rewarded as Tom strummed the intro to ‘Peace Of Mind’ on an acoustic and the song was as classic as ever, with the twin guitar melody as hummable as most other bands’ vocal hooks.
But after ‘Cool The Engines’ kept the pot boiling nicely, ominously a roadie came on mid-song with a message for Tom and within seconds he stopped the show with an explanation that lightning was in the area and that they were stopping the show pending a weather report.
As lightning flashed overhead (though with very little rain) the signs were ominous that this might be the end of the set, and though we gathered in the Saloon to fill time watching one of the regional bands, people were leaving the arena and I popped out to see dispiriting signs thanking people for their attendance and stating the show had been abandoned for weather reasons.
It was a low note on which to end a weekend in which, combined with the first night’s storm, power outages and Rick Springfield’s non-appearance, Moondance’s anniversary seemed to have been jinxed. Nevertheless some fresh memorable moments had been added to the history of this well run and friendly festival with an atmosphere second to none, as it moves into its second quarter century.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan (except where indicated)
Additional Reporting: Curtis Nelson
Additional Photography: Kim Nelson
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