Yet another fantastic hard rock/AOR festival has come to a close. Admittedly, the turnout for this year’s Rockingham left plenty to be desired. But, when it comes to AOR/hard rock music, quantity seldom takes merit over quality. I’d rather be surrounded by 100 die-hard enthusiasts, than 1000 passive rock fans wearing Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin shirts to the show, demonstrating little or no interest in anything that happened in the scene after 1992.
From a personal level, there were many highlights related to the show.
Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016
Shortly after arriving at the hotel (the night prior to the festival), it didn’t take long before the reality of where we were again set in. Only a few minutes after walking into the Crowne Plaza hotel (where most of the bands and VIP guests to the show were staying) we saw the one and only Lee Aaron, passing by, asking where the bar at the hotel is. First time I had the opportunity to see Canada’s Metal Queen (at least, in the 80s… today she prefers to brand herself as the Rock Queen). The mood was set. We were ready to rock out for the next four nights.
Shortly after check-in, we made our way up to our room (it was shortly past midnight). I couldn’t hold back, and despite being worn out by the journey to get to Nottingham, I just had to head down to the lobby/bar/lounge area to engage with some of the other early arrivals at the show. It wasn’t long before I ran into the mighty Kandi Andi (aka Andre), along with Jean Beauvoir, his drummer, Hawk Lopez, and a number of other notable names in the scene. It was 4am before the conversation at our table finally wound down (we covered everything from the heyday of the Sunset strip, to America’s plight (current elections) and all in between.
Friday, Oct 21, 2016.
Day 1 of the show. During the early afternoon, I ran into the one and only M. Matijevic (Steelheart) in the elevator. The man does have a presence about him: intimidating, tough, and a no-bs attitude. I briefly spoke to him about music, although… it quickly became apparent I was in the wrong place, the night before: the place to be, the night before was at the bar across the street, where some allege he got up on stage with the local bar band to belt out a few numbers… that would have been something to see).
First band to hit the stage was Art Nation, featuring former Diamond Dawn vocalist. Their set, as expected, was short- but well worth the wait. Their debut is a slab of fantastically executed Scandi AOR. Modern, but only in the most positive sense: it’s clean, loaded with hooks, dynamics, and slick production. The group did not disappoint with their stage presence either.
The second act of the evening, might as well have been the headliner where I (and many AOR veterans) were concerned: the one, and only, Robby Valentine. It was the first time I had the honor of seeing him live. Sadly, the sound on day one left much to be desired. The mix was awful throughout day one, and for a perfectionist, musician extra-ordinaire like Robby Valentine, this was especially problematic. Most of his keyboard and piano runs were barely audible. The set itself was decent, but nothing to rave about. His first three albums, considered by many the man’s apex, were only barely covered, in favor for more recent work. Nevertheless, having the chance to see one of the finest, most talented, and genuinely dedicated AOR/rock musicians of our time perform live for the first time- I was delighted nevertheless. Having my fanboy moment with him after the show at the party in the hotel lobby, was an added bonus. I took the time to convey my most humble gratitude to him for his relentless dedication to the music, despite the criminally underrated status he holds in today’s rock music industry. As expected, he was very soft spoken, mild mannered, and even shy. A surprise, considering the many years he’s spent performing in front of countless adorning fans all over the world since the late 80s.
Next up, was Lee Aaron. The second last act of the opening day. At this point, I was quite hungry… and we decided to run out to get some food, and hopefully catch the last few songs of her set (we assumed they’d be her biggest hits: without doubt, most of which came from her Bodyrock CD, which is to this day one of the best known hard rock albums to come out of Canada). Unfortunately… while we very much appreciate authentic Indian food, we don’t quite feel the same about authentic Indian service, the result of which we ended up missing her entire set, arriving back in time at the venue to catch Trixter starting their set. The group delivered a fantastic set, delivering a healthy dose of tracks from their legendary debut, and subsequent albums. The evening closed off on a very positive note, with Trixter giving everyone their money’s worth on day one.
Saturday, Oct 22, 2016.
This was the day we were most looking forward to. The show started early, with doors opening at 12:30. However, like many die-hard rockers at the venue, we decided to preserve our energy and take our time making our way to the venue, passing on the opening act, Stone Sour. To be frank, I’m still not sure how or why this band made the bill alongside artists like Robby Valentine, Crazy Lixx, and The Defiants. We showed up at the venue just as Blood Red Saints were getting started. Their debut CD, released last year, was easily one of the highlights in the hard rock scene. No-nonsense early Winger-style hard rock. Forget the keys, forget the Scandi style AOR hooks and just think of well produced, hard hitting Winger meets Heaven’s Edge style hard rock, with half the calories and twice the power of early Winger. The gents in the band have certainly seen better days (haven’t we all at this point?), but despite their age, they kicked ass like an unsigned band half their age, opening for the Scorpions in ’91. Their sound was tight, the delivery on target, and the between-song banter quite entertaining (at least, to the local crowd: The band is British. Personally, I couldn’t make out half of it, being Canadian).
Lionheart were up next. This may put a few off, but, I didn’t find their performance overly exciting. It goes without saying, their Hot Tonight CD is a classic, but their stage presence… lacked. I understand, it’s difficult for some to retain the same energy and presence today as they did 30 years ago. But, as bands like Trixter, The Defiants, and Steelheart (ok, at least in their singer’s case) proved over the weekend- it’s not impossible.
Crazy Lixx were up next, and by the quick rush towards the stage ahead of the set, it was clear this was the band many were here to see. Their show did not disappoint. Every essential track was delivered with authority: 21 ti’ll I die, Girls of the 80s, Blame it on love, Loud minority, Hell Raising women, All looks no hooks. Their sound was terrific, and stage presence set a new standard for the evening. After their set ended, we had a chance to catch up with them at the bar. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the singer speaking in Polish to a few friends of ours. Apparently he’s of Polish origin. Interesting tidbit I was personally unaware of.
The Poodles were up next. As I’ve seen them live a few times now, and the band has a consistent level of quality on stage, their neither impressed nor disappointed. They delivered exactly what we hoped for: nothing less, nothing more.
Admittedly, we missed most of the next performer’s set: Jean Beauvoir. I felt bad, especially considered I had spent a few hours with their drummer, Hawk Lopes, as well as Andre Z, and a few other lads chatting the night away until the wee morning hours two evenings earlier (truly a fantastic guy, one of the friendliest, most humble guys in the scene I’ve ever had the honor to meet). We did catch them playing Dyin’ for love, and it goes without saying- they delivered the goods. Jean’s stage presence was nothing short of marvelous.
The headliner of day two, was the (once?) mighty, Steelheart. The performance was met with mixed reviews. Mili Matijevic, the vocalist, was one loaded mutha. He hit stage with more power and conviction than an evangelist in the deep south of the U.S. of A. I personally couldn’t believe the level of energy he had on stage. His voice was absolutely incredible. I wasn’t sure if he could deliver (afterall, he set a standard on their first two albums that were hard to match even in the heyday of the scene). And yet, he nailed every song like it was ’92 all over again.
Problem is: it wasn’t quite ’92, at least… in tems of the setlist. My guess is, instead of playing what most of us spent many years waiting to hear them play (at least those of us, who’ve never seen them live before), they decided to play what they enjoyed playing: not a single song from their second album, only two from their debut (of course, She’s Gone was a given, along with Everybody loves Eileen), three tracks from Rock Star film (or was it four?) and… get this: not one, but TWO covers… of the same band: Led Zeppelin. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of Zep, personally, I didn’t pay to hear Led Zeppelin songs. I paid to hear Steelheart, kicking ass. And, while some may have enjoyed 20% of their precious set time devoted to Milli giving Robert Plant a run for the money, I would have gladly heard even the worst song off Tangled in Reins, in place of both covers (or any track from Rock Star). Then again, was there a bad song on Tangled? I digress. While Milli’s performance was nothing short of stellar, the setlist was utter rubbish.
I think one of the biggest surprises of the weekend at this point at least for me, was how easily I was able to find my room at the end of the evening. By day two, at Firefest 2014, if it weren’t for my girlfriend’s help, I not only would have been knocking on the wrong hotel room, but I probably would have found my way to the wrong hotel altogether. Having her to keep in check throughout the weekend was an added bonus.
The evening again extended well into the night, with a chance to mingle with many of the most respected members of the AOR/hard rock/metal community, not the least of whom included Dr. AOR himself, the esteemed Johan Nylen (who delivered some fantastic news about his new AOR label (Sharp Music Sweden), set to deliver their first release in early 2017). We also had a chance to mingle with one of Sweden’s best known guitarists (no, not «Elvis» Malmsteen), Janne Stark, of the legendary Overdrive, and a shitload of other respected bands, presently with Grand Design. No less than a dozen members of the private Facebook group, Collector’s Corner were also at the show and had a chance to engage in person for the first time. As expected, Kandi Andi missed no opportunity to stir things up, by bringing up a controversial issue from many moons ago, involving three members of the group in an attempt to put me on the spot. My response quickly diffused the attempt, and in classic fashion left Andi wondering how he foiled yet another attempt to stir up some unnecessary drama.
Sunday, Oct 23, 2016.
The final day of the festival had arrived. And, after three days of practice, my girl Risa, finally delivered her most noble attempt to salvage what’s left of my eastern European hair follicles into something that remotely resembles bad-ass rocker hair.
Initially, we weren’t planning on catching the opening act, Martina Edoff. However, with only about 30 minutes before doors opened and she was to hit the stage, I was informed that three members of H.E.A.T. were performing her set with her (one of them, being Crash, a long time favorite of Risa). I thought, it’d make for a great surprise for her. I told her, there was a change of plans, and we were going to see Martina afterall. Once we pushed our way to the front of the stage (ok… there was only about one or two rows of people standing there at the time…) the band ran on stage, and her face lit up: sher recognized them right away, and the mood was set for the rest of the evening. We weren’t familiar with Martina’s work, and… while, neither of us are big fans of Issa (Martina’s vocal style is very similar), the songs more than made up for it. Her vocals aren’t bad: just… not the style of female vocals we like in hard rock or metal. Performance-wise, it was difficult not to credit most of the appeal to the three members of H.E.A.T. on stage. Worth mentioning, was yet another noble gesture by Kandi Andi, in catching one of Crash’s sticks at the end of the show, and making his way over to Risa and I, to offer it to her as a gift. She was pretty stoked as she’s been a fan of H.E.A.T. (and Crash) for several years now.
Next up, were Angels or Kings. Admittedly, I’m not all that familiar with their material so we used this time to head upstairs, and grab lunch. We came down briefly to catch a few tracks performed by the Alessandro Del Vecchio Band (Hardline, Issa). Admittedly, we both aren’t well versed in his solo material but considering his credentials, we did make our way down to the stage area to check out the last few tracks they performed. A pleasant surprise was a Hardline track (Fever Dreams) delivered with authority. The overall performance was solid, and even Alessandro’s vocals were surprisingly easy to digest (I presumed prior to the show he was first and foremost a keyboard player).
At this point, we decided it was time to get some more food in us, so we headed back to the Crowne Plaza hotel where we ended up shooting the shit with The Defiants (Paul Laine, R. Marcello (Marcello/Vestry), B. Ravel (Danger Danger)) at the main lounge area. Ok- you got me: by shooting the shit, I mean I simply walked up to them, asked them what time they’re playing at, and… that was about the jist of it. Although, Paul Laine was cool enough to recall my digital nomad stories I shared with him the previous evening when we ran into them at the nearby Indian restaurant that has become a central meeting point for all hungry rockers who play at Rock City. Needless to say, the few instances we had to talk to Paul Laine, he was surprisingly in tune with us (his fans) and very receptive. Considering the amount of people he surely meets when he tours, all the fans who approach him- hoping he remembers them from «that show» back in _____, it was humbling to see how well he remembered the few brief conversations he had with Risa and I, up to that point in the festival. Truly, a Canadian rocker in all regards: cool, humble, and modest. And man, can he hit the bottle- but, that’s another story for another time.
We ended up missing Fortune (US) and From The Fire (I’ve never listened to From The Fire much, despite several recommendations that I do. I suppose one of the dudes making a modest pass in front of me at my girlfriend a day earlier, left me a little less interested in checking them out (although, I do tip my hat to the man for having the courage to reach so far above his league in doing so).
With only two major league artists left to go before the festival came to an end, we had to savor every last minute.
Pushing through to the front of the stage (just on the side, to the right) we had a great front-row view of the «behind the scenes» or rather, behind the curtain, of The Defiants setting up their set. I recall Paul Laine mentioning to me a few hours earlier that he’s actually nervous. I couldn’t believe it. In my books, he’s one of Canada’s top hard rock singers. Call me what you will, but I rank his voice up there with the likes of Harry Hess. Sure, Harem Scarem may have sold a shitload of albums- but then again- so did Nickleback- so what? While Harem Scarem are without doubt (or… were, at some point, many obi’s ago) Canada’s premiere AOR/hard rock back, I personally feel that Paul Laine’s Stick It In Your Ear CD is as good as Harem Scarem’s debut, or even, their more adventurous sophomore effort. On a warm summer day, if I’m in a convertible next to my babe, 4 times out of 5, I’ll reach for Paul Laine’s CD and crank We are the Young, or, Dorianna in our car, rather than anything from Harem Scarem’s debut. With that said, I couldn’t believe this legend, still felt nervous before a performance after all these years. I suppose, it speaks to his respect and admiration for those die hards among us who continue to revere him, and his music.
In true hard rock fashion, a few hits of Jack Daniels (or, at least, it appeared as Jack from where we stood) took care of any stage fright, and the man was ready to serve us just what the doctor ordered as soon as the curtain fell. Paul’s performance, energy and vocal prowess was one of the highlights of the entire festival. The band had a fantastic set, consisting of a good portion of their debut album, along with several Danger Danger classics (Gone, Beat The Bullet, Grind), and two surprise (and very welcome) tracks from Paul Laine’s solo work: Dorianna, and, We Are The Young (they killed it with that song… the place was in euphoria as soon as that opening riff sliced through the crowd). Bruno, as expected, delivered plenty of comic relief in between tracks, always keeping the crowd entertained. There’s little doubt, the man could have been a stand up comedian in another life.
Finally, the last performer of the evening, was legend Kevin Chalfant. He delivered a fantastic set, consisting of classic tracks by The Storm, 707, The Vu, some of his solo work, and of course, a number of classic Journey tracks. While the performance (and his vocals) were solid, I hate to be the one to state this… after the massive performance by The Defiants, I felt it was a poor choice to have him go on stage after The Defiants. While he no doubt is a bigger and more respected name in the scene, all things considered, he failed to rise to the same level as The Defiants in terms of his on stage performance. I’m sure many will agree, that in retrospect, The Defiants would have been a far better choice to be the final, closing headliner for the festival.
That said, the entire festival was a delight to attend. The turnout was surprisingly low, and during the entire four days there, I heard various theories on why (it appeared) that maybe a third of the crowd that attended Firefest 2014 in Nottingham, turned out. However, the chance to meet so many fantastic people (Bernd (Germany), Bjorn (Norway), Mandie (Poland), Martin (Poland), Anna Poley (Poland), Johan N (Sweden), Janne Stark (Sweden), Andre (Australia), the Brazilian/Argentinian duo (you know who you are… I apologize for not recalling your names!), Hawk Lopez (Crown of Thorns), Paul Laine, and countless others).
I’ll be posting a video of our entire time there here within the next few days.
Cheers to everyone we met there, took the time to hang out and engage with us, and even check this article out!
PJ and Risa