Having grown steadily since its inception in 2008, the HEAT Festival in Ludwigsburg, just outside Stuttgart, can lay claim to being one of the longest continuously running melodic rock festivals in Europe. For most of the last few years their line ups had tempted me, but it was always an awkward time in the calendar, too close to the Firefest/Rockingham equivalent in the UK, and I had been additionally put off by bad reports from friends about poor layout and overcrowding.
However now was the time to finally attend, with a typically impressive line up, having got the travel bug with this year’s Swedish AOR convention and suffering serious withdrawal symptoms through not making a trip to Nottingham for a weekend festival the first time in 15 years. The festival takes place in the middle of an industrial estate in a night club (yes they still have rock discos in Germany!) called the Rockfabrik (literally-‘rock factory’).
I could see the drawbacks of the layout for a festival where there is a lot of movement in and out of the action. The dance floor serves as a relatively small standing area with VIP seating to the side, but in a building hosting a number of covered bars and booths it can only be accessed through two relatively narrow corridors – and these bottlenecks coincided with both a merch stall and an enticing CD sale from record label AOR Heaven.
It may have been my first HEAT festival but for many it was the end of an era as the Rockfabrik is about to close, and whatever my reservations it clearly held a place in the hearts of regulars.
DAY 1- STAN BUSH, TREAT, CRASHDIET, CATS IN SPACE, DARK SKY, BLOOD RED SAINTS, BLACK DIAMONDS, LICENCE
Appropriately enough proceedings were opened by a local Ludwigsburg band, Licence. More suited perhaps to a metal than melodic rock festival, their ace card was singer Jacky Coke, coming on stage in red leather jacket and working the crowd confidently and possessing a throaty roar that even reminded me of Doro Pesch.
‘TurnOn The Radio’ and ‘Heart 4 Ever’ – the latter featuring a duet with Maverick bassist Richie Diver- were enjoyable enough, though the likes of ‘Don’t Touch The Light’ and ‘Rise Up’ were basic in form. Nevertheless it was hard to fault their effort and they ended on a high with the catchy and oh so Germanic ‘Nights of Pleasure’.
Next up were Black Diamonds and I roughly knew what to expect as I’d seen them open for HEAT in the UK a couple of years back. The young Swiss band were energetic and enthusiastic but with a raw, almost power pop style that reminded me of Cheap Trick and Enuff Z Nuff, the latter particularly so with the larger than life image of bassist Andi Fassler, who also relieved singer Mich Kehl of the vocals on one song, but lacked the latter’s melodic sensibilities.
Opening as they planned to go on with ‘We Want To Party’, the likes of ‘Pieces Of A Broken Dream’ and ‘Vampires Of The Night’ were enjoyable enough, but I struggled to fully embrace them until they ended on an atypical note with ‘I’ll Be OK’, a melodic number with some great vocal harmonies at the start.
There were four UK acts present and I couldn’t help musing that this was the last continental festival they would be playing as part of a European Union, trying not to speculate too much on what this might mean for traffic of bands in the future.
The first of them were Blood Red Saints who I have lost touch with slightly, my last live encounter having been at the ‘Just Say Yes’ fundraising gig in early 2017, since when they have released a second and third album. They opened in slightly unconvincing fashion as ‘Kicking Up Dust’ gave way to a rather unnecessary cover of Loverboy’s ‘Working For The Weekend’. Singer Pete Godfrey nailed the vocals but without keyboards, something was lost.
BRS are now very much a two guitar band, and Neil Hibbs and Lee Revill pulled some classic poses together, though it was sad to hear after he played a fine solo on ‘Something In Your Kiss’, that it was announced as the former’s last show with the band.
Pete’s humorous routines, mixing self-deprecation with ribbing his band mates are a big part of the live show and I wonder what the home crowd made of this crazy Englishman, though the banter was relatively controlled compared to previous occasions.
There was a ballad in ‘Arms Wide Open’ while ‘Unbreakable’ never fails to delight with its Bon Jovi or Danger Danger-esque ‘heys’. ‘I’m Your Devil’ and ‘Live And Die’, though tougher, belied reports I had heard that they had lost their melodic touch. The highlight of a fine set though was a superb closer in ‘Best Of Me’, a mid-tempo number showing that Pete is worthy of being classed among the finest AOR voices the UK has produced.
One of the other benefits of a festival on foreign soil is to see bands who stick to their domestic market and might never have played in the UK, and one such was Dark Sky. I am not quite sure how I have missed them as they have released six albums since the start of the century and indeed host Eddy Freiberger in introducing them made a dig at their age.
Opening with ‘Hands Up’ and ‘Empty Faces’, they shared the typically German melodic hard rock style of better known countrymen like Bonfire, Pink Cream 69 and Fair Warning. Singer Frank Breuninger was the star of the show – sporting a quite magnificent black gelled ‘shag’ haircut, he pulled every frontman pose imaginable as he worked the stage, rivalling Bob Catley for his hand gestures.
‘Food For A Million’ had easily the most memorable hook but the heavier ‘Dance With The Devil’ and a ballad ‘Final Day’ also made a favourable impression. ‘Once’ with a catchy lyrical hook of ‘it’s a miracle’ and ‘Judgement Day’ ended a set which was very enjoyable if not quite in the premier league.
From an unfamiliar name to one all too familiar, in one of my favourite current bands Cats in Space- and a consolation for being unable to make their London Christmas show. There seemed to be lot of anticipation both from Brits in the know and locals desperate for a rare sighting of the Cats spaceship, and they began in rocking fashion with ‘Johnny Rocket’ with its air punching ‘going to be a spaceman’ chorus.
‘Too Many Gods’ was absolutely outstanding with harmonies that would put Sweet and Queen to shame and ‘Timebomb’ was a grower while the one ballad in the set, ‘Scars’, had more lush vocal harmonies.
On record, CiS show a variety of seventies influences including the soft rock of ELO and 10cc. However this time the harder rocking side of their nature was brought out, rightly so as band members have the pedigree with exactly the sort of cult names (Moritz, Airrace, Statetrooper) that this audience would salivate over.
Singer Mark Pascall has a fine range and has settled in seamlessly – he lacks the flamboyant charisma of predecessor Paul Manzi, and kept between song chat to a bare minimum, but as my gig going partner observed, the change has allowed the rest of the band to share an equal part of the limelight.
‘Hologram Man’, with its splendidly cutting lyrics, saw them rock out with Greg Hart and Dean Howard exchanging solos and pulling shapes together, but ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’ with its vocal intro from bassist Jeff Brown and epic, pomp feel summed up quite how special the band can be.
In more conventional manner they closed with the out and out Who-inspired rock of ‘Five Minute Celebrity’ and my guilty pleasure ‘Thunder In The Night’ – some very seventies disco synths from Andy Stewart and a bass line not unlike Kiss’ I Was Made for Lovin You’ leading into an irresistible chorus.
Having seen them several times, I could easily have been blasé, but helped by a quite superb sound, they had fairly torn the roof off the place.
Proving that melodic rock is the broadest of churches despite what the critics say, next for something completely different in Swedish sleazters Crashdiet. I’d seen them several years ago and been rather turned off by their image and their frontman at the time but the even more youthful Gabriel Keys is now on board and the blond singer with the eighties-style bandana around the neck was quite an engaging presence.
‘Cocaine Cowboys’ got people jumping and there were some selections from current album ‘Rust’ including the title track and ‘We Are The Legion’ (which I initially thought was ‘We Are Norwegian’!)
As they led a chant of ‘sex bomb love machine’ to ‘Queen Obscene’, it got me thinking that this type of message sounds credible in the hands of young debauched pretty boys who you can imagine living the lifestyle, but just sounds sad in the hands of sixty-ish millionaires (no names mentioned but a band that has recently reformed after promising to split up for good!)
‘In The Maze’ slowed the pace, but I was responding favourably to songs like ‘Breaking The Chains’ and ‘Its A Miracle’ before they closed with the catchiest of all in their anthem ‘Generation Wild’, crystallising those feelings that the torch should be passing to them and contemporaries like fellow Scandis Crazy Lixx, and from my low expectations the set had been a success.
They were followed by Scandinavians of a different generation in Treat, the veteran Swedes who, along with Europe, laid the trail in the eighties for the current generation of bands emerging from Scandinavia. Their name was particularly appropriate as introducing them on stage, Eddy announced they would be marking the 30th anniversary of their Organised Crime album (where did that time go!).
However the first half of the set saw them prove their current relevance with songs post their 2000’s reformation, with an opening pair of ‘Skies Of Mongolia’ and the insidious ‘Ghost Of Graceland’ showing greater complexity and maturity without losing the hooks, on which subject ‘Paper Tiger’ got a great reception.
Since I last saw them at the ill fated Hair Metal Heaven in Hull two years back, they have released a new album ‘Tunguska’ and they aired a couple in ‘Inferno’ which had a almost Euro disco feel and the bubbling melody line of ‘Riptide’.
Robert Ernlund is still a consummate frontman (though my partner remarked on a resemblance to Gene Wilder!) and his voice is still in good condition though there were hints that technology was being used to its full effect, and indeed at one point they stopped when the keyboard player played the wrong song.
Despite the crowd swaying to ‘We Own The Night’ and getting into the uptempo ‘Roar’, having been promised ‘Organised Crime’ this gratification was being delayed a song or two too long.
Finally the pressure was released with that album’s opener, ‘Ready For The Taking’ but, if that has always been a live staple, there were surprises to come. Indeed ‘Hunger’ I didn’t even recognise as it wasn’t on my cassette version of the album in the UK while a rare airing of ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ only really came alive on the chorus.
In contrast ‘Party All Over’ had an irresistible chorus, albeit shorn of the parping keyboards of the original, while another rarely played number, ‘Fatal Smile’ had such a rich full sound with guitarist Anders Wikstrom shredding away at its climax that I found myself wondering how they could and should have been huge in the USA at that time.
Normal service was resumed with a trio of songs from the album that remain live staples to this day – the fist-punching ‘Gimme One More Night’ giving way to the ballad ‘Get You On The Run’ where Robert got the crowd to sing huge parts and thrust his mike in the face of people at the front including Dark Sky singer Frank, followed by fans anthem ‘Conspiracy’, with more great work from Anders on his guitar with the blue album cover painted on it.
Even then there was still time for an encore, with pockets of people jumping around to the chorus of ‘A World Of Promises’ which seems to be their signature song. It took to a generous hour and half a set which had been truly superb, despite the slightly odd pacing.
It also set a daunting standard for the night’s headliner, Stan Bush who defines the term ‘AOR cult hero’, but to me has never seemed the most comfortable live performer. That was not enough to deter a couple of fanatical fans at the front to jump and throw their arms around to every song, while I derived quieter pride from the fact his backing band was a quartet of stalwarts of the UK scene.
He opened with ‘Change The World’ and ‘Warrior’, his songs brimming with an almost desperate passion, accompanied by that expression, real or otherwise, of fear and heartbreak in his eyes. ‘Thunder In Your Heart’ was an early reminder of his status as the ‘king of soundtracks’ in the early part of the set that focused on more recent work including ‘The Ultimate’ and ‘Born To Win’.
His crowning glory for most will always be 1987’s ‘Stan Bush and Barrage’ album, and belatedly we returned to those days with the brisk riffs of a storming ‘Primitive Lover’, then Stan donned an acoustic for an emotional as ever ‘Love Don’t Lie’.
In contrast however he premiered a new song from an upcoming album ‘The 80’s’. Such self referential songs are fraught with danger but the music and lyrics not only captured the spirit of the era, but were so catchy that people were instantly joining in .
Talking of the eighties, while Stan took a break, bassist Nigel Bailey introduced the band around extracts from ‘The Final Countdown’ with solos from Midnite City keyboardist Shawn Charvette and guitarist Lee Revill, doing double duty after playing with Blood Red Saints earlier.
Songs like ‘Never Fall Again’, ‘Heat Of The Battle’- with an enormous secondary hook, and ‘Never Surrender’ were also reminders that the Stan Bush lyrical canon is mainly drawn from that section you see only in American bookshops or greeting card shops marked ‘inspiration’.
As the beer flowed the atmosphere was hotting up with his most famous soundtrack songs – by the time of ‘Dare’ we had the remarkable sight of various younger fans taking off their shirts and twirling them over their heads, but that was nothing compared to the outpouring of sheer joy during a very convincingly delivered ‘The Touch’. That would have been a suitable climax, but an hour and a quarter set ended instead with another motivational stirrer ‘In This Life’ with a ‘who-oah’ climax.
I feared he might struggle to match Treat for impact, but Stan – as relaxed as I have ever seen him on stage – and his excellent band had pulled another cracker out of the bag to finish a first day of almost uniformly high quality.
DAY 2 – STAGE DOLLS, ROBERT TEPPER, MAVERICK, VEGA, DEGREED, AGE OF REFLECTION, DEVICIOUS, BLACK TIGER
The start of the second day saw slightly fewer in attendance at the start, perhaps still recharging their batteries from the previous night’s excesses. I’d stayed for the after show rock disco for a while to unwind with a Dunkel beer but rationed trips to the dance floor to make sure I didn’t join the casualties.
Though any band named after a Y and T album is fine by me, I had modest expectations of openers Black Tiger, for no other reason than there is hardly a pedigree of bands from the Czech Republic making it internationally. I expected a metal band at best, so my jaw nearly hit the floor as baseball capped singer Jan Trbusek delivered the chorus of ‘She’s Liar’ in blissfully silken tones. Though I am not a tattoo person, he got more brownie points from me for having ‘AOR’ inked on his arm.
Indeed the likes of ‘Who Is To Blame’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me’, both AOR at its purest, and ‘Reason To Live’, a little rockier but no less melodic, were extremely well constructed songs and choruses. The only criticism was that the prominent keyboards were piped in.
Even after initially looking rather nervous, the band seemed to feed off the supportive response they were getting. ‘Solitary Man’ was a fine ballad and by the time they closed with ‘Never Too Late’ the Czechs had been the revelation of the festival.
Devicious were a band also from the Baden Wurttemberg region that I had high hopes of, not least as their Facebook page spoke of their love of Hardline and Whitesnake. However I struggled with Italian singer Antonio Calanna – his eye makeup, bare chest, hyperactive antics, and above all helium-fuelled vocals making him a European answer to the equally polarising Justin Hawkins.
He seemed over anxious and overshadowed early songs like ‘Desire’ and ‘Penthouse Floor’ but after a more conventional ‘Saturday Night’, the set did noticeably improve with ‘Everything’, which reminded me a little of Dio’s ‘Rock And Roll Children’, and the most melodically satisfying of their songs in ‘Never Let You Go’.
Next up were a pair of rising stars from the endless conveyor belt of talent from Sweden, beginning with Age Of Reflection. I’d seen them twice in the last year or so, at Rockingham and the Swedish AOR convention, though sadly a recent UK tour did not come within 200 miles of London.
This roadwork seemed to have a dramatic effect as their stage craft was one of the liveliest all weekend with plenty of smiles between band members, notably guitarists Jonas Nordquist and Carl Berglund, with singer Lars Nygren working the crowd.
After opening with ‘Stay With Me’, ‘Evelyn’ with its ‘who-oahs’ was a superb piece of mainstream AOR, and the intro to ‘Here I Stand’ was straight from the playbook of the genre’s master songwriter, Jim Peterik as a power chord cut through a keyboard intro. Almost as impressive were the ballad ‘What If I Break’, the urgent ‘Go’ and ‘Blame It On My Heart’ while the title track of their new album ‘A New Dawn’ was in a slightly more adventurous mould to end a highly impressive set.
In contrast to Age Of Reflection’s firmly mainstream sound, fellow countrymen Degreed have over the years progressively broken the mould, and this was shown in opener ‘War’ as ponytailed bassist and frontman Robin Eriksson barked out the chorus ‘lets go to war’ in harsh, almost angry sounding style, while it was also striking how dominant the keyboards of Micke Jansson were as the lead instrument for the solos.
While ‘Shakedown’ was quite catchy and ‘Blue Virgin Isles’ a symphonic ballad with a nostalgic lyrical message, a number of others in a set that included songs from their new fourth album ‘Lost Generation’ were in a more progressive metal direction.
They were well received, to the extent when they returned for an encore they had to borrow back the plectrums they handed out to the audience. Robin said ‘let the madness begin’ and they played a cover of ‘Bark At The Moon’. It was note perfect plus, as with Bob Dylan, an Ozzy Osbourne song always sounds better sung by someone else, but perhaps an illustration that, despite some of the rave reviews from friends whose views I respect, Degreed have gradually moved in the opposite stylistic direction to the one I would prefer.
Interestingly the two days had a similar final quartet: one of the founders of Scandi melodic rock, a cult American AOR hero, a younger and more aggressive band, and one of the UK’s top current live acts.
In the latter category came Vega who I have seen countless times but this was a rarer opportunity for the home crowd. It was a high energy performance in which second guitarist Mikey Kew is now unrecognisable from the shy fresh faced figure when he joined and drummer ‘Hutch’ has given them a harder edge.
They fairly tore out of the blocks with ‘Lets Have Fun Tonight’ (with its ‘be the life, be the soul’ refrain) and ‘Explode’. Nick Workman followed Age Of Reflection’s Lars Nygren as the lively frontman with floppy blond hair, though many of his mannerisms, turning his back and swinging around, were more reminiscent of Joe Elliott.
Despite their excellent musicianship, notably from fast fingered guitarist Marcus Thurston, Vega ’s approach is to strip out unnecessary solos and go straight to the hooks – be it the bouncy chorus of ‘Every Little Monster’, or ‘What The Hell’ and ‘White Knuckle Ride’ with their ‘who-oahs’, while their first single, apparently being re-recorded for its tenth anniversary ‘Kiss Of Life’ had a chorus that demanded jumping in the air. It left me wistfully wondering what an impact they could have made supporting Bon Jovi last summer rather than the low-energy Manic Street Preachers.
With no ballads they made every last use of a short set time, though the effect was slightly sickly with one rabble rouser after another, of which the last three were the most anthemic in ‘Wherever We Are’, ‘White Flag’ and ‘Saving Grace’ with its U2 isms and ‘yay-yay-oh’ chant.
It was a show to whet the appetite for a new album and further touring activity in 2020 and it was great for the Europeans to get a taste of the medicine we have enjoyed for the past few years.
After queuing for the opportunity to meet Robert Tepper, I returned to the stage area just as Maverick were finishing their first song ‘All For One’. All flailing hair with the exception of shaven headed singer David Balfour who was one of the best frontmen all weekend, they were full of youthful energy on ‘Got It Bad’ and ‘Myrmyrdom’. However I had to chuckle as ‘Kiss Of Fire’ used the classic fire/higher/desire rhyming cliché.
‘Forever’, dedicated to the Highlander, had people jumping in the air and their fast, aggressive and uncompromising approach reminded me of Slave To The Grind-era Skid Row, especially when it was matched to the strong choruses of ‘Mademoiselle’, ‘Asylum’ and ‘Whiskey Lover’.
Talking of which, in a great gesture, departing drummer Jonathan Millar was toasted with his replacement Jason bringing on a tray of whiskies, adding to the convivial atmosphere. Closing with ‘In Our Blood’, the Northern Irishmen had delivered a show of almost inexhaustible energy and intensity at the outer fringes of melodic rock.
The nature of the clientele at the front then changed perceptibly for the more AOR strains of Robert Tepper. As he came on stage in a smart suit over a T-shirt with a distinguished head of grey hair, he looked like he was about to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, or a businessman launching a presidential candidacy.
However in captivating fashion his gravel voice – like fellow Garden Stater Bruce Springsteen, but with better diction – lived out every emotion on a pair of memorable openers from his nineties album ‘No Rest For The Wounded Heart’ in ‘Another Place, Another Time’ and the title track, with keyboards more prominent.
He then humorously talked about how his new album ‘Better Than The Rest’ could be seen as boastful before launching into the title track and ‘Why Does Over’, both of which saw his band, led by able guitarist Pablo Padilla, in a more relaxed and at times slightly funky groove.
However having only bought the album at the show I was unfamiliar with it and after a trio of similarly paced songs, ‘Time Just This Time’, ‘My Yesterday’ and ‘Tell Me You Love Me’, a return to his back catalogue was long overdue. It came with a couple of songs from ‘Modern Madness’, with the ‘who-ohs’ of the New Jersey-flavoured ‘Unforgiven’ which he introduced as an attempt to write a gang song, then ‘Fighting For You’ with backing singer Jasmin Perret ushered forward to duet with him.
Graciously he spoke of his pride in coming from the small town of Dale to writing hit soundtracks and sure enough it was time for the moment I and many others had been waiting for in ‘No Easy Way Out’. The most storming of eighties anthems that demands jumping in the air, what was equally pleasing was quite how closely Robert and band delivered it to the original.
There was still time to end a set of absolute class with something completely different in ‘Angel Of The City’, more atmospheric with its Phil Collins-like gated drum reverb, keys and female backing vocals.
The honour of being the last ever band to grace HEAT on the Rockfabrik stage went to Stage Dolls. Back in the eighties, they drew attention to Norway in international circles alongside women marathon runners, A-Ha and excitable football commentators, though an intro tape which stated as much in a bad American accent was unusually boastful for this otherwise unassuming band.
As Torstein Flakne, sporting an animal print shirt, opened ‘Stand By You’ with a crisp riff, it was a reminder that they are fairly unusual in the genre in having a singer doubling up as lead guitarist. ‘Heart To Heart’ got a great reaction from those who remembered it from the eighties while the slightly more guitar heavy ‘Highway Of Life’ was of more recent vintage.
On the lighter songs like ‘Someone Like You’ and ‘You’re The One’, Torstein sounded a little like Bryan Adams while he excelled after donning an acoustic for the ballad ‘Sorry Is All I Can Say’. A tasty solo on ‘Taillights’ was also proof his Les Paul delivered an earthier, more classic rock oriented tone than some of the flashier, faster guitarists during the weekend.
However it was not a perfect set and a couple of medleys with some of their more rock n roll material – plus one of my favourites in ‘Life In America’ – were rather average. Luckily the gig lifted with the catchy chorus of ‘Commandos’ while ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ had a poignant sadness to it.
By now I’d long been counting down the songs and was finally rewarded by the opening double from 1988’s self titled album, my first exposure to them, in the fist punching choruses of ‘Still In Love’ and ‘Wings Of Steel’, the latter with an excellent solo.
After pretending to depart for an encore, ‘Love Don’t Bother Me’ saw the spotlight turned over to the crowd and was an example of how the spacious grooves in their sound were made even greater when one or more instrumentalists stopped playing. ‘Soldiers Gun’ is a fans favourite, but that closed the set, and the question I and other were asking was ‘what has happened to Love Cries (which nearly cracked the top 40 in the USA) ’?
I assumed they had committed the schoolboy error of running out of time but a subsequent glance at previous setlists suggested it was a deliberate and rather puzzling omission. It also confirmed that, while enjoyable enough, the Stage Dolls probably fell short of the excellence of some of the other bands higher up the bill during the weekend.
They left the stage to the strains of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. With a new venue secured and a 2020 line up including Glass Tiger, Kingdom Come and Harem Scarem announced over the weekend, that is certainly my intention after this well-organised festival, with a friendly and enthusiastic crowd, had me wondering why it had taken me so many years to make the trip here.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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In this two hour special David Randall plays a selection of the GRTR! reviewer choices for ‘Best of 2019′ and announces the results of the popular poll. First broadcast Sunday 22 December 2019.
Featured Albums w/c 20 January (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 AUTUMN’S CHILD Autumn’s Child (AOR Heaven)
12:00-13:00 THE RAGGED SAINTS Sonic Playground Revisited (AOR Heaven)
14:00-16:00 AMBERLY CHALBERG Hi-Line (indie)
Power Plays w/c 20 January (Mon-Fri)
Breakthrough Acts 2020
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