In the UK, Melodic Rock is not a well beast. Sure, there's a lot of fantastic music about, but it's swamped by all the popular mediocrity. The attitude of the general public is keeping it well underground, and this is why last year's Firefest was almost the last one. Thankfully, the organisers realised that they couldn 't live without the punishing organisation work, and their dedication to quality music has meant that Firefest 6 will be followed next year by Firefest 7, and so on until we get to Firefest 50, featuring bands made entirely of Ted Poley's illegitimate children. And White Sister …
After the ludicrously draining two day extravaganza of last year, Firefest 2009 sees a sensible reduction to a Friday night show followed by a Saturday all dayer. The Editors are playing at Rock City, so the Firefesters are relegated to the University down the road, outside which there is a line of people vainly trying to get into their old t-shirts without tearing them. Old rock fans can be a funny bunch, and for every one that has allowed themselves to grow old gracefully, there are ten that haven 't. It can 't just be me that realises tight leather trousers and a pot belly don 't go together, and the less said about portly middle aged women trying to dress like mid eighties Poison the better. That said, there's plenty of people who have retained their cool, as well as their hair, and they're all looking forward to some great bands.
Inside, it's tricky to get into the stage area because someone seems to have spread industrial strength glue over the floor of the bar. The sound of shoes being pulled free of the mire is almost as loud as the bands, but once we fight through into the main hall we're ready to rock (as we used to say in the 80s). It's pretty packed, just your normal box shaped University auditorium, and festival openers Lost Weekend have started the party to much acclaim. They're not given much time, and front man Paul Uttley seems to be limited to about five words between songs as they race through a six song set. For me, they seem to bridge the gap between AOR and UFO type heavy rock quite nicely. Firefest has never short changed punters by having mediocre opening acts, and Lost Weekend are no exception. I've not heard their stuff before, and they prove to be a nice distraction for half an hour or so, although I find it hard to get too excited.
The excitement factor is soon ramped up, though, as Swedish sensations Eclipse take the baton (or should that be stick of ROCK) from Lost Weekend and proceed to run with it like their arses are on fire. Vocalist Erik Martensson graced the event last year when he helped out the vocalist impaired H.E.A.T, and it's great to see him back with his own band in a well deserved slot. Eclipse are one of those bands that remind you just why you like melodic rock, with fun, fast paced songs of the type Bon Jovi gave up on years ago. Their "Are You ready To Rock" album is featured heavily, and the sheer exuberance of songs like "Hometown Calling" , "Wylde One" and "To Mend A Broken Heart" make them a lot of friends. Martensson throws himself round the stage, trying to own as much of it as is humanely possible, whilst still delivering strong melodic vocals that bring real heart to the songs. Top class stuff, and a band that you should all keep an eye on.
Next up it's more Swedishness as Bad Habit launch into "Sad But True" much to the delight of many crowd members. Me, I'm not that impressed, to be honest. The problem with seeing an unfamiliar band is it can be hard to get into them during a short live set. Two songs in, and I have a feeling it's not going to happen with Bad Habit. Last year I was bowled over by Talon and Loud & Clear without hearing them beforehand, but Bad Habit just don 't seem have enough oomph to get me hooked until they trot out "I Don 't Want You" from their latest album, sort of an anti love song. It's a cracking power ballad, really showing off the vocals of Bax Fehling. This followed by another great song in the shape of "Rowena" , a more upbeat melodic rocker, and I start to get right into the band, which is great. What is not so great is that the set gets cut short, giving them about 20 minutes less stage time than advertised. I assume this is because of over running early on, but if so it's a shame to make Bad Habit pay for it out of their set. Suffice to say, my earlier impressions of the band were turned right around, and I resolve to look into them closer when I get home.
Last year, H.E.A.T vocalist Kenny Leckremo pulled out at the last minute for a heart operation (a much better excuse than Motley Crue ever came out with), so 2009 is really our first proper look at the band whose debut album sent shockwaves through the melodic rock community. Despite the quality of the bands so far there's a palpable excitement for H.E.A.T, with some people even going so far as to buy one of their hideously garish t-shirts. Seriously, they look like they were designed by someone who had just watched the entire run of Miami Vice then taken LSD. As the bounce on to the brilliantly catchy "There For You" it's apparent that they might just win the nights "Fluffiest Hair "award, all of them having barnets that suit their retro 80s sound. Although the crowd goes wild and the songs is awesome, the band are let down by some poor sound, with Leckremo's voice sometimes barely audible. It may be the venue, as well as the fact that he has a very unusual (but effective) singing style, but whatever the reason I get the feeling we're not seeing the best of H.E.A.T. Regardless of this, they rock the place like no one else has been able to, and as the set goes on the vocals do get a little better. It's great to hear "Late Night Lady" and "Straight For Your Heart" live, and the whole band are totally into it, enjoying themselves as much as the audience do. "I Cry" slows things down a bit, starting out with just keyboards and vocals, which is actually a bit dull! It's a relief when the rest of the band kick in and the song is allowed to rock properly. "Never Let Go" , "1000 Miles" (the band's attempt at Eurovision) and "Keep On Dreaming" end the set on a massive high, and the audience goes absolutely mental, demanding an encore. Well, this is what we get, but not before the band let a guy up on stage to propose to his lovely lady, who says yes whilst everyone goes "aahhhh" . The band then rip into "Stay" , the Japanese bonus track from the album, which I hope will be the couple's wedding dance at least. Despite some dodgy sound, it's been a great set by a talented young band who could go far, and there's lots of smiley faces.
Only Treat to go, and it's a pleasant surprise to bump into Steve Newman (of Newman, natch) in the bar. After witnessing his great set at Z Rock earlier this year, it's good to hear he's going to be releasing a new album in a few months time. Hopefully this will pave the way for a Firefest 7 appearance from him and his band, so let's start the "Newman For Firefest" campaign now guys! Okay, so it's just me then …
Back in the main hall it's time for Treat, and although there's still loads of people it is noticeable that some were definitely here mainly for H.E.A.T. Treat aren 't without their loyal fans though, and use their experience and back catalogue to deliver some classic songs like "Changes" and "Gimme One More Night" . Robert Emlund does his best, but although it's clear that they are worthy headliners they just seem a bit off tonight. Even a friend of mine who is a massive Treat fan is left less that overjoyed by the end, although it's hard to put your finger on just what wasn 't there. Their chorus led anthems are a good way to end the night, but today has been all about the H.E.A.T, and we go off looking forward to a good day tomorrow, hopefully with better sound.
Saturday dawns, and we make our way to Rock City full of anticipation for a day of great bands. There’s a lot to look forward to, not least the return of F.M, a band I first saw way back in 1985 and many times since. After watching their brilliant “Back In the Saddle” DVD from Firefest 4, I have been absolutely gagging to see them live again, so it’s with a happy heart I wander into the packed club (at midday no less) to see brit veterans Airrace kick things off. For the uninitiated, Airrace are a genuine blast from the past, having only ever recorded one album way back in 1983, and noted mainly for having John Bonham in their ranks. This is a little unfair to the band, as that debut was a scorcher that for some reason didn’t sell in the numbers it should have. The ace (pun not intended) up their collective sleeve is vocalist Keith Murrell, who would later help Mama’s Boys attack the AOR scene with “Growing Up the Hard Way”. He’s a great front man, blessed with a smooth voice that is tailor made for AOR. As openers, the band only get a short set, but they take the metaphorical bull by it’s metaphorical horns and hang on like crazy. Top class songs and a shitload of happy energy serve them well, with special mention to the nifty fretwork of Laurie Mansworth. This sort of thing is really what Firefest is all about - dragging back bands that disappeared years ago and finding out they are as good as (or better than) they were back then. Airrace certainly fall into that category, and it’s great news that they will be recording a new album soon. Can’t wait.
Next up are The Poodles, this sixth Swedish band to play this weekend. It must be something in the water over there, as they are throwing top class melodic rock acts at us like a kid chucking water bombs. Although I’ve heard some Poodles stuff on album, I wasn’t that mad on it, and so am not holding my breath for a great show. The first song (“Too Much Of Everything” I think) really is a weak track, not a show opener at all, and I’m almost ready to switch off. Sure, they look pretty good, especially lead dandy Jakob Samuel (think Jack The Ripper meets Willy Wonka), but if this is the best they can do it’s gonna be a long 40 minutes. Thankfully it all gets pretty fucking mental after this, as they follow it up with new track “Caroline”, which immediately gets people moving about and singing along with the catchy chorus. After the first song the applause was minimal at best, but now they’ve got people by the throat and it really is plain sailing from here on. The high energy, catchy tunes come thick and fast, with “Metal Will Stand Tall” encouraging fists to punch the air, and “Seven Seas” resulting in 1200 people chanting “Give It Up” when prompted. The sound is brilliant, and there are no problems amplifying Samuel’s soaring vocals. He even buggers off to change his clothes during a short instrumental, and any man who is prepared to do that in such a short set is a real Rock Tart, and I salute him for it! Put simply, The Poodles raised the bar for the rest of the bands with a really classy, energetic set of funtime anthems, and I hope they come back soon.
With the crowd well and truly warmed up by two excellent opening acts, everything is in place for the triumphant return of Drive, She Said. Now I remember Drive, She Said when they crawled out of the woodwork in 1989, bringing an absolutely superb self titled debut with them. With this in mind, I am looking forward to their set, and it’s great to hear the opening riff for “Don’t You Know What Love Is”, a song that pretty much defined the band. It’s at this point it all seems to go tits up, as vocalist Al Fritsch really isn’t sounding too good. Add to this a sound mix that has dropped in quality quite dramatically since The Poodles, plus some technical difficulties for keyboard wizard Mark Mangold, and you have a musical calamity waiting to happen. The songs are, naturally, of the highest quality. It’s so good to hear “Maybe It’s Love”, “Hard Way Home” and a very heavy version of “Driving Wheel” that it’s still enjoyable despite the difficulties. Unfortunately those difficulties don’t go away, marring what should have been one of the days highlights. Fritsch doesn’t sound comfortable all the way through, and Mangold keeps losing sound completely. The balance between vocals and instruments sounds messy, and on the whole the band just don’t sound tight enough. A shame, but Drive, She Said failed to impress today.
It’s time for things to get interesting, as another of my old favourites, Romeo’s Daughter, prepare to take the stage. RD are one of those bands that many dismissed as heavy pop rather than rock, but their Mutt Lange produced debut still holds up 20 years later as a fine piece of music. After the messy set from DSS we are a bit worried that the sound will not be great, but as they kick off with “Wild Child” (covered by Heart back in the day) it’s apparent that sound will not be an issue, thank God. Vocalist Leigh Matty looks pretty nervous, no surprise when you’ve not done any gigs for over 15 years (bar a couple of warm ups), but she has absolutely no problems onstage. Her vocals are smooth as they ever were, and after a couple of songs she seems to allow herself to relax a bit. The set is culled mainly from the debut, with the likes of “Inside Out”, “Heaven In The Backseat” and “Don’t Break My Heart” going over really well. From the beginning, the audience reaction is simply amazing, providing some of the loudest roars I have heard at the festival. It’s a true compliment to the band, who are tighter than ever. Things rock out nicely with “Addicted To the Animal”, and even when they slow it right down for “Stay With me Tonight” the massive smiles on many faces are testament to the quality in front of us. The bit that gets the emotion going, however, is when Matty sings “Hynm (Look through Golden Eyes)”, a tune that relies totally on her voice. I may sound like a big girly when I say this, but it was absolutely beautiful, a joy to listen to. Despite some great sets by others, this is certainly the best thing I have seen this weekend, possibly even better than anything I have yet to witness at a Firefest show. Yes, they were that good, and I hope they can carry on for a bit alongside their rejuvenated mates FM.
Last year was a bit special for a lot of people, especially the festival organisers, as it marked the long overdue return of White Sister, last seen on these shores supporting FM in the Stone Age or something. Everyone agreed that they did a great job, and so it was a nice surprise when they were announced as returning this year. Following Romeo’s Daughter was never going to be an easy task, but White Sister bounce onto the stage full of confidence to a rousing reception. The setlist isn’t a great leap away from last year, with “Don’t Say That You’re Mine”, “Promises”, and mainly others from the first album cropping up. We do get a couple of new songs that promise good things from the bands forthcoming album, and in general it all goes swimmingly for the not so twisted sisters. One thing about White Sister is the fact that they are so AOR they even have two keyboard players. Gary Brandon plays one of those keyboard/guitar type things that is slung over the shoulder, allowing him to prance around having a laugh, whilst poor Eric Ragno does the donkey work at the back, no doubt wishing he could bounce around a bit too. When he’s not plinking and plonking away, Brandon also acts as second vocalist, which is another odd thing. The thing is, White Sister have an exceptional vocalist in the shape of Dennis Churchill-Dries, whose voice is fantastic as well as pretty unique. I could listen to him sing the phone directory and still ask for an encore. Gary Brandon, on the other hand, has a very good voice, but is never going to match his bandmate for sheer quality. Maybe it’s just me (it usually is) but I don’t really see why they bother both singing. In any case, White Sister equal their performance of last year, although they do lose some of their edge due to most of the crowd having seen it before, as it were. It wouldn’t surprise me if they pop up again next year, and hopefully they will have some new product to plug if they do.
Okay, so I’m sure there are plenty of you who want to read about Crown Of Thorns, but you’re not going to do it here. Standing in Rock City all afternoon is pretty exhausting, especially if your as old and flat footed as me, so we decided beforehand that we would miss one band to go and find some nice grub and have a rest. Crown Of Thorns drew the short straw, and so all I can really report is that they played a set and plenty of people said they were very good. Bugger…
Returning in time for Canadian stars Honeymoon Suite, we realise that we may have skipped the wrong band. This is not to say that they are a bad band, or that they weren’t tight, or even that they played bad songs. No, Honeymoon Suite, for me, are a very average AOR band. They make all the right shapes, sing some nice tunes, and in Johnnie Dee have a fine voiced, upbeat front man. It’s odd, but I just can’t get into them at all, and it creates a nasty inner conflict, because this is exactly the sort of thing that I’m supposed to like. Suffice to say, they really go down well with everyone else, so don’t worry about my niggles, I’m probably just annoyed that they’re standing in the way of me and FM. Sorry, Honeymoon Suite, but you’re just not my cup of maple syrup. Maybe next time.
So this is it. This is what the last twenty hours have been building up for, and what I’ve been waiting for since I first saw the announcement. Not only are FM back, they’ve started recording again and have got a scarily young guitarist to replace Andy Barnett. From the off, it’s clear that we’re in for a great show. Steve Overland, as always, sings his heart out, the consummate AOR vocalist. Pete Jupp is always good value on drums, throwing in creative fills all over the place that really add to the music. Jem Davies is once more allowed to escape briefly from behind the keyboards to play a bit of harmonica, and Merv Goldsworthy wears a suspicious hat throughout the performance. It’s a tradition that rock stars who are going bald hide beneath a hat, so it looks like Merve has joined the follically challenged these days. Much focus is on “the new kid” Jim Kirkpatrick, who must be a good decade or three younger than the three original members of the band. Any doubts about him are erased as soon as we hear him solo, and as he whacks out the right notes with the occasional personal flourish, I have a good feeling. The whole band give the show their all, bringing out most of our favourite songs as well as the very heavy (for FM, anyway) new single “Wildside”, as well as the long overdue return of “Dangerous”, a song now recorded in the studio at long last. The only downers for me is that a couple of my own favourites were omitted, but then that’s always going to be the case. Mind you, I’d happily have swapped “Frozen Heart” for “American Girls”, and almost any song for “Say It Like It Is”, but then again nothing’s ever good enough for a contrary bugger like me. Even so, the set is wonderful, with top notch sound and not a note dropped all the way through. Steve Overland does that funny thing with his head as he sings (I’ve missed that) and even bangs out a few guitar solos hot show the new kid he’s not the only one who can do it. The best moment, however, has to be the encore, which is “Purple Rain”. No, I don’t know why either, but that’s what it was. Unbeknownst to the band, a motley crew made up of Dave “Fluffy” Ling, some of White Sister and some of the organisers came onstage dressed up as FM when they first started in the early Eighties. Ling looked suitably garish in a pink suit and old school Goldsworthy wig, with the creations being dubbed Merv Notworthy, Pete Juggs, Didge Miserable, Chris Overworked and Steve Overweight. It’s truly funny, and worth seeking out on YouTube.
As usual, Firefest delivered, once again proving itself to be a superior festival. Many have thanked Keiran Dargan and Bruce Mee for their efforts, and Rock United would just like to add itself to the list. Bring on Firefest 7 (with Newman!!!!)…
Report by Alan Holloway, alan [at] rockunited.com
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