From initially modest ambitions, the ‘Just Say Yes’ fundraiser is rapidly establishing itself as a must on the festival calendar for melodic rock fans, sandwiched between Autumn’s Firefest and latterly Rockingham, and Spring’s HRH.
I hugely enjoyed my first festival last year (headlined by Hand of Dimes and Newman) but this year the immaculate contacts book of the JSY and ARFM camps pulled in two acts who headline shows in their own right in Vega and Romeo’s Daughter, not to mention the legendary voice of FM’s Steve Overland. As a result this modest Derby community centre was all but sold out and had probably seldom before witnessed anything like the queues that were forming before opening time.
Far more important than music in the grander scheme of things was the fundraising for a charity that supports children and young adults with cancer. Though it was all done in a subtle way with no heavy handed Smashie and Nicey-style bragging, the event raised over £8000 – no mean feat for a gig with a bargain £18 entry price.
There was a healthy crowd in attendance from the off as Dirty White Boyz opened proceedings. They boast quite a pedigree with some stalwarts of the UK melodic rock scene such as Nigel Bailey and Paul Hume, and most of all the welcome return after years of keeping a low profile of Tony Mitchell, formerly lead singer and songwriter for Kiss of the Gypsy who surely would have followed the likes of Thunder and Little Angels to the top, only to come to prominence a year or so too late just as grunge was changing the musical weather in the early nineties.
For their first ever show they were impressively tight and ‘All She Wrote’ was an impressive opener, even if a couple of the songs struck me as being more average. There were plenty of twin guitars from Paul and Jamie Crees, while Tony’s history of some major support slots in KOTG days showed in his self-confident stage manner and willingness to get the crowd involved.
His voice has a raspy tinge to it which could be an acquired taste to some, but it meshed well with Nigel’s deeper backing vocals and gave the likes of ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Playing Dirty’ a sharper edge, either side of a somewhat Bon Jovi-ish ballad in ‘Ride with Angels’.
This was a triumphant start and despite the rather dodgy moniker a good omen for their forthcoming debut album which hopefully will add them to the growing roster of home grown acts taking on the Scandinavians at their own game.
Slightly different fare was served up by COP UK who- previously under the Crimes of Passion banner- must have been flying the flag for over a decade now. Diminutive singer Dale Radcliffe is an engaging character with his enthusiasm, hand gestures and obvious Ronnie James Dio influences.
They were certainly the heaviest band of the day, though initially undermined by some sound issues and appearing rather more ragged than the band that preceded them. To be frank, many of the songs like ‘Catch Me If You Can’ didn’t suit my own mellower musical tastes, but the soaring vocals of ‘Love Is To Die For’ were immensely impressive while German keyboardist Henning Wanner, stationed stage central, gave the sound an extra dimension, including some harmony vocals to reinforce Dale’s.
The set ended on a high, first with ‘Blown Away’ with an excellent guitar solo from Charles Staton then a cover of ‘Separate Ways’ which played perfectly to this crowd and was better than I had dared expect.
Next up were the one repeat from last year in Blood Red Saints, but this time with a new line up, with a new drummer in Alex Lacey and second guitarist in Neil Hibbs. With keyboards now out of the picture, opener ‘Kicking Up Dust’ showed a new, tougher sound. But for singer Pete Godfrey, the main value of the new boys was as fresh targets for his hilarious mickeytaking- also directed against himself- that have had people describing him as ‘the Peter Kay of AOR’.
There a long tradition of bands combining rock and humour, from John Otway to Bowling for Soup, but I did worry that his stand up routine stopped the music from gaining momentum, despite the quality of songs like ‘Mercy’ and ‘Dangerous’, the latter with a typically slick solo from Lee Revill. Two songs in, a new song ‘Bring On The Night’ (I think!) had an instantly infectious hook while ‘Something In Your Kiss’ had the vibe of the cock rock bands Pete had earlier been satirising.
The two set closers were outstanding, ‘Unbreakable’ with its nostalgic lyrics and ‘hey heys’ reminding me of primetime Bon Jovi, Blue Tears or Danger Danger, and the anthemic ‘Better Days’ with Pete in excellent voice. To me, their potential to make wider inroads rests on making the most of this talent, even if they got away with the endearingly self-deprecating comedy act among an audience of friends like this.
The day avoided one of the normal perils of a festival, missing bands in order to refuel, by building in an hour long food break and, even better, catering was provided on the premises, with my curry, rice and naan a tasty bargain for less than a ‘Lady Godiva’.
There was no excuse then for missing the first Dante Fox performance to my knowledge in a fair while. Opening with an unfamiliar but very impressive song ‘Young Hearts’ (how many times has that title been used in the AOR world!), oldie ‘Fire In My Heart’ was a reminder that the Midlanders were one of the very few bands to emerge in melodic rock’s dark underground days of the 1990s, post-Nirvana and pre-internet.
Despite some line up changes the formula remains the same with the powerful vocals of Sue Willetts, who has become more comfortable on stage over the years. She is still a rather static presence but that is compensated for by the always entertaining facial contortions of excellent guitarist Tim Manford.
Newer songs like ‘Breathless’ and ‘Break These Chains’ showed a tougher though no less melodic approach, but the highlight for me was a double from their ‘Under Suspicion’ debut from way back in the blissfully AOR of ‘I Can’t Sleep’ and ‘Lost And Lonely Heart’. Their trademark closer with Sue belting out an authentic version of Stevie Lange’s ‘Remember My Name’ ended a very solid set and it was good to be reacquainted with a band who don’t seem to tour enough.
The most fascinating name on the bill was a rare solo performance from FM’s unrivalled vocalist Steve Overland, teamed with bandmate Jim Kirkpatrick in an acoustic set. Some wondered if he might play songs from his four studio solo projects which were being sold at the merch table, but rumours also spread in the run-up to the show that other bandmates would be appearing and sure enough Jem Davis was setting up his big bank of keyboards.
Taking the stage to a hero’s welcome, Steve announced they would revisit the days of FM’s early nineties ‘Acoustical Intercourse’ and ‘No Electricity Required’ projects with a set based around covers that inspired them.
No-one could be surprised that Paul Rodgers’ smooth, soulful tones were Steve’s main career influence and sure enough three of the opening four songs were his, with ‘Seagull’ followed by ‘Little Bit Of Love’, Dirty White Boyz’ Neil Ogden joining on drums, and ‘Feel Like Making Love’ with Jem’s keyboards very prominent either side of an FM song, after a fashion, in ‘Heard it Through The Grapevine’ which had people singing along.
However the reaction reached new levels when he brought on Merv Goldsworthy to make it four out of FM’s five members on stage, and suitably enough play a couple of FM numbers in ‘Burning My Heart Down’ where the unfamiliar acoustic guitars worked surprisingly well and Steve’s heartfelt vocal tour de force ‘Story Of My Life’.
Paying tribute to their regular touring partner Bernie Marsden, ‘Here I Go Again’ sparked a huge sing-along, only marred for me by Steve using the 1987-style ‘drifter’ rather than original ‘hobo’ lyric, and they were enjoying themselves so much they exceeded the original half hour set length by half, finishing with Jim taking his turn in the spotlight by singing and playing acoustic slide on ‘Rocky Mountain Way’, with a snatch of ‘Black Velvet’.
For a crowd that almost unanimously loved FM, to see band members at such close quarters and in this relaxed fashion was an unforgettable privilege, but the way Jem’s keyboards were left on stage as Romeo’s Daughter set up suggested this might not be their last word. There is a strong connection between the two bands, even by marriage, but RD are an outstanding and sadly underrated act in their own right.
They made a suitably rocky opening with the Mutt Lange-isms of ‘Heaven In The Backseat’ and ‘Attracted To The Animal’ before another old favourite in ‘Velvet Tongue had the first crowd singalong of the set.
It was clear that while the majority were there for the festival as a whole, diehard Romeo’s Daughter fans were out in force and even any doubters would have been won over by Leigh Matty’s engaging manner and the massive smile on her face.
Even newer songs like ‘Touch’ and ‘Radio’ got a great reception, which reached a crescendo during ‘Bittersweet’ which is something of a modern soft rock classic and the up-tempo ‘Alive’. ‘Tripping Out’ showed a harder edge to their sound and ‘Enemy’ guitarist Craig Joiner’s knack with a deceptively simple melody.
The set then wound its way back to debut album favourites with ‘Inside Out’ generating quite a singalong while ‘Cry Myself To Sleep At Night’ had the epic feel of what has become their signature song, before ‘Wild Child’ rocked the set to its conventional conclusion.
In front of an adoring audience this set felt more rewarding than their support for Tyketto in London a couple of days previously, but the real fun was yet to come. As expected most of FM came back, and it seemed appropriate that Steve and Leigh should choose one of rock’s most famous duets to cover in ‘Stop Dragging My Heart Around’.
But the foundations of the place truly shook at realising the eighties style keyboard intro could only mean perhaps FM’s best loved song in ‘That Girl’, and the fun concluded with a cover of ‘Panama’ with Craig singing and Steve reduced to reading Dave Lee Roth’s mid section ad lib from a lyric sheet, with a sheepish grin on his face!
Vega are the current darlings of the melodic rock scene – and indeed GRTR! critics voted ‘Who We Are’ as top album of 2016 – but the unexpected treat and sense of fun of FM’s guest appearance set an unenviable task for them to follow as headliners.
However storming into perhaps their heaviest song in ‘Explode’, they attacked the challenge head on, not least as it was followed by the irresistible choruses of ‘Kiss Of Life’ from their debut and perhaps the standout ‘Who We Are’ track, ‘Every Little Monster’, then ‘Gonna Need Some Love Tonight’ with lead guitarist Marcus Thurston put through his paces in tasty fashion.
Nick Workman is one of the best frontmen around, constantly bouncing on his toes and radiating confident energy, and despite the limitations of six of them cramming onto a small stage the rest of the band were as animated on stage as I have seen them.
Vega have stripped the genre of any flab – all instrumental solos were within the confines of the songs and there were no bluesy workouts, nor indeed any ballads except arguably ‘Fade Into The Flames’, which for me was the one song that fell a bit flat.
Instead, there was just one anthem after another, helped by now having four albums from which to cherry pick the strongest songs, but given a crisp modern sheen rather than a retro eighties sound. The likes of ‘White Knuckle Ride’ and ‘What The Hell’ with their ‘hey heys’ and ‘who-oahs’ were irresistibly catchy and the energy on stage reflected itself in the hall with people dancing and fist punching , literally so in the case of ‘Hands In The Air’.
‘Into The Wild’ was an old first album favourite but they closed a 75 minute set first with a couple of typical Vega anthems in ‘White Flag’ and ‘Wherever We Are’ with big hooks and uplifting messages, while ‘Saving Grace’ was a bit of a departure, with a riff reminding me of The Cult’s ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ and displaying U2-like influences, but as Nick dived into the audience it took on something of an insistent, epic quality.
These were songs made for arenas, if not stadiums, but we were privileged to see them at close quarters. It ended a memorable evening which Sue Birbeck and her organising team could count as a roaring success on every count.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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