Feature: Gigs of the Millennium – ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

Andy Nathan has caused much teeth-gnashing and fist-clenching amongst the GRTR! team with his enviable sorties to the States sometimes taking in a couple of festivals in one visit.  These include Summerfest and Moondance Jam.  Here he recounts a particularly memorable event in July 2003…

Gigs of the Millennium- ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

Back in the nineties, there wasn’t a lonelier person to be in the UK than a fan of classic rock, particularly the more AOR and melodic elements.  This music had never been fashionable but had now been driven completely underground as alternative sounds ruled the roost and by the middle of the decade, even the UK’s own loyal standard bearers like FM, Dare and Magnum had called it a day.

The giants that built the genre were still touring the States, but the chances of seeing them in the UK seemed remote so taking advantage of the research opportunities of the then infant internet, off I flew in 2000 to the places no other tourists touched and realised that classic rock festivals, almost non-existent here at the time, were still big business.

 My first destination was near Wichita, Kansas for Wheatland Jam to fulfil my dream and see Foreigner, Starship, Blue Oyster Cult and Survivor in a single day, but my other stop- specifically to see Styx and REO Speedwagon- was Rock Fest, a huge site in rural Wisconsin dairy country that was on a wholly different scale. I made many friends there, so what was meant to be a one off holiday of a lifetime became a regular gigging pilgrimage to the USA with Rock Fest at its heart.

2002 could scarcely be bettered with a line up over four days including Deep Purple, Journey, Robert Plant, Dio,the Scorpions, Toto, Poison and Cinderella, but 2003 was Rock Fest’s ‘annus mirabilis’ with a remarkable line up of the greats of classic and melodic rock.

Gigs of the Millennium- ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

It was special for other reasons: having made so many friends over the years on the hill (behind the seated benches at the front which were reserved for VIP customers), our ‘hill trash’ jamming, larking about with inflatable guitars, had reached its peak. It was the one year where I met a significant number of fellow intrepid travellers from the UK. And two sets of my US friends even got married there, with everyone, right down to the registrar, wearing the tie dye that was an unofficial festival uniform.

The opening night on Thursday opened with Dokken and though Don Dokken’s dumb ass patter annoyed me, his voice had yet to deteriorate and they played a well-received set of their best songs. Jackyl were not my scene but Jesse James Dupree’s larger than life act with chainsaw and dancing girls on stage was a regular favourite at the festival. Thursday night was headlined by Whitesnake, who at the time had only just reformed after several years absence; indeed  I’d seen them weeks earlier  at Wembley Arena on the Monsters of Rock tour but this time a revised set was aimed more at the post-‘Slide It In’ US market, though David Coverdale was his usual entertaining self. Hard to believe this was just a warm up for the rest of the festival!

Gigs of the Millennium- ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

Day two opened with a stroke of luck. One of the few bands that held no interest for me, War, were delayed by a broken truck en route so Night Ranger just kept playing a near headline length set, in the days long before their twin vocal, twin guitar high-energy shows hit the UK regularly.  Third on the bill were Twisted Sister, who again had only recently reformed. This was my first time seeing them since 1986 and I was reminded how those snot nosed anthems and Dee Snider’s larger than life personality made such an impact on me as a teenager. I also wondered why the video screens kept picking us out, only to realise there was a Dee lookalike behind us!

Next up was Alice Cooper, a huge influence on Twisted Sister and their ilk, and in a 90 minute slot we got a near full version of his legendary show complete with props. At any other festival this would have been a headline slot but in this case the honour fell to Def Leppard. Again I saw them twice that year in the UK either side of this trip, but there was something special about seeing them for the first time in the USA, where they had broken big long before doing so on my side of the pond, and seemed to be going the extra mile as a result. After a typically slickly presented Greatest Hits show with just one song from current album ‘X’, I remember being touched by the way Joe Elliott said ‘Wisconsin, don’t forget us and we won’t forget you’, not realising this was the shtick he uses to sign off every set to this day!

Gigs of the Millennium- ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

The quintet of bands on the Saturday opened with Firehouse – at that time they were still on my list of bands to see and a brisk set mixing their best rockers and ballads did not disappoint, while they also earned brownie points by being the only band I recall to do a signing immediately after at the t-shirt booth. I didn’t go, to keep station for Loverboy, the only retread from the previous year’s Rock Fest. Their set was the same, and still is to this day, but again the chance to see classics like ‘Working for the Weekend’ and ‘Hot Girls in Love’ was not exactly commonplace in England.

The same could be said of legendary veterans  Grand Funk Railroad who boasted former 38 Special singer Max Carl and ex-Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick alongside founder members Mel Schacher  and drummer Don Brewer, who with his grey mullet under an Uncle Sam hat whipped up the crowd prior to their anthem ‘We’re an American Band’.  Second on the Saturday night bill was another artist not seen enough in the UK for many years in Sammy Hagar, Apparently he had been offered the chance to headline but wanted to take a prime slot as night fell.

Gigs of the Millennium- ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

A larger than life party starter, inviting fans and tequila shot waitresses alike on stage, and playing a set of solo, Montrose, and Van Halen classics, he would have been a worthy headliner but the honours went to some fellow American legends in Lynyrd Skynyrd. I saw them weeks earlier at Wembley, where in many people’s eyes they eclipsed nominal headliners Deep Purple. This time a vintage, immaculately choreographed show, which of course ended with ‘Freebird’, was even more special for personal reasons.  My travelling companion and I rode from their hotel with friends from Virginia and Skynyrd’s then new album ‘Vicious Cycle’ was on heavy rotation in their truck, with ‘Red White and Blue’ (‘my hair’s turning white, my neck’s always been red, my collar’s still blue’) something of an anthem.

The final day was even more of a chance to see bands that were beyond the dreams of most English fans, staring with another larger than life character in husky-voiced Eddie Money who breezed through a set of his sizeable US hits, finishing with ‘Shakin’ which was one of the standards of the covers bands that played the beer tents around the site.

This was also my first ever chance to see Rick Springfield who was somewhat cabaret, regularly going into the crowd and letting them sing his hits, to the excitement of ladies of a certain age and to the backdrop of some of his old album covers that one of the characters of the Fest named Albumman was holding up at the front.

Gigs of the Millennium- ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

There was a second Van Zant of the weekend as Donnie, together with his 38 Special band members paid a return visit to the festival with their energetic mix of southern rock and AOR, with so many songs a number of them had to be crammed into medley format. Ignoring the request from a weed-smoking girl ‘do you wanna party?‘, I resumed position for Heart who had recently reassembled after a long period of inactivity with a short- lived line-up that featured Gilby Clarke on guitar. While the set was lighter on the big hair and bigger choruses of their late eighties hit making period, the Wilson sisters were on fine form as they rediscovered their roots and it was still great to see a legendary band back in the saddle.

The festival closed with a worthy final headliner in Boston- having been lucky to see Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Journey on my travels, now I was completing the full set of the behemoths that built AOR. It was an unevenly paced set, though when they played ‘Peace of Mind’, ‘Don’t Look Back’ and ‘More Than a Feeling’ within the first six songs I turned to one of my friends and said ‘I may have just died and gone to heaven’.

Not all of the set matched up to that start, and indeed it was less spectacular than many that weekend, but I left with further fond memories as a whole group of us continued to dance through a massive tropical rainstorm and linked arms as they played the ballad ‘Amanda’.

Gigs of the Millennium- ROCK FEST 2003, Wisconsin, USA

Much has happened in the intervening 17 years.  Sadly some of the great friends who made those good times possible are no longer with us. Rock Fest still is, but over the years the musical policy has shifted a few times and it is now firmly an Ozzfest- style festival.  My last visit was for a solitary day in 2012 but it was like returning to your old school- the buildings might be familiar, but the people and ambience are not.

I continued gigging in the Mid-West, where my personal life was to take some life-changing turns, and discovered superior festivals in Summerfest, for the volume and variety of music, and Moondance Jam, for the friendly and more intimate vibe and a similar range of bands to peak Rock Fest.

Many of those bucket list bands did eventually make it to the UK, where the classic rock scene has been alive for well over a decade with a mixture of old, new and reformed bands, and festivals such as High Voltage and Ramblin’ Man catering specifically for a classic rock crowd. Download 2009, with Def Leppard, Whitesnake, ZZ Top and Journey, even came close, but when asked about the best festival ever, the experience of Rock Fest 2003 will I suspect never be beaten as long as I live.

Review and photos by Andy Nathan

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