Rock Weekend AOR - 19-20 February 2016 - En Arena, Stockholm, Sweden
Well it was about time. Sweden has been the hotbed of melodic rock for quite some time, so it was only natural for someone to set up an AOR festival there.
With so much homegrown AOR talent in Sweden, most of the line-up was Swedish. Probably a wise choice for the first edition of this festival, since flying in international bands isn’t an easy or inexpensive thing to do. There were some foreign artists though, headliners FM came from the U.K. and Ted Poley flew in from the U.S.A.. The RWAOR ALLSTARS band had a couple of Italian guests, Michele Luppi and Alessandro Del Vecchio.
The Friday’s 4-band line-up was marketed as ”a Toto afterparty”. Toto played a gig at a nearby venue earlier that night, and the RWAOR schedule was designed to cater to the Toto fans. They had enough time to walk from the concert venue to En Arena.
En Arena might be a lunch restaurant during the week, but apparently it could be transformed into a rock club type of a venue. I thought it was a rather good location, close to the hotels and public transportation. Inside the venue there was a decent sized stage, a room for the merch, two bars and a V.I.P. area. There was even a dedicated balcony for us press people to take a break and get some ”aerial view” shots of the bands. The main floor had a part of it separated into a V.I.P. ”golden box” or whatever, which seemed to me a little unnecessary. The venue was so compact in size that virtually every spot of it was a V.I.P. spot.
I’ll have to congratulate the sound people for making all the bands sound very good. The volume levels were mostly reasonable and apart from some minor technical problems everything worked out smoothly. The only band that didn’t have a spot-on sound was FM, who played way too loud for this kind of a venue. Some of the keyboard ”parps” were just ruthless! Thankfully they had a few ”mild-mannered” songs which gave the poor ears some time to recover. But more of FM later…
The first of Friday’s acts was ART NATION. This new band features the former Diamond Dawn vocalist Alexander Strandell and released one of the best debuts of last year. I was looking forward to seeing them live and they didn’t disappoint. Strandell is a good frontman with a fine voice, and the rest of the band are competent players. Considering that the band’s sound is quite keyboard-heavy, it was strange to see them without a keyboard player but thanks to modern technology, the keys were present. I don’t know what has happened, I know they had a keyboard player but his name has been erased from the band’s Facebook page. Oh well.
Art Nation played a short set, consisting of the highlights of their debut album. Their sound is quite similar to that of H.E.A.T., and Strandell’s stage presence bears some resemblance to that of Erik Grönwall, but I can’t really hold it against them. Their song material is so strong that in a couple of years they’ll be serious contenders… especially if they find their own special thing. Anyway, one of the highlights of the whole festival. And somewhat off-topic… does guitarist Christoffer Borg look an awfully lot like the keyboard player Tomi Nikulainen of Brother Firetribe? Never mind, let’s get back to the business…
I Need You To Understand
DEGREED have released three critically acclaimed albums so far. They were one of the less familiar bands for me. I’ve only heard their latest album and quite liked it, but didn’t have much knowledge of them otherwise. For example, I had no clue what they’d look like… I was kind of expecting young guys with trendy hair cuts, so it was a bit of a surprise when vocalist/bassist Robin Eriksson came to the stage looking very casual and rugged, like a member of southern Rock band or something. Nothing wrong with that of course. Guitarist Daniel Johansson looked like a rocker and drummer Mats Ericsson could pass as a hard core punk drummer, so in the end it was only keyboard player Micke Jansson who looked anything like I had imagined they’d look like.
Degreed sounded a bit harder-edged than most other bands of the festival. Luckily they had enough hooks and melodies to keep the AOR loving crowd happy. Some of the highlights for me were ”Better Safe Than Sorry”, ”Shame On Me” and ”The Scam”, all from the new album ”Dead But Not Forgotten”. ”Shame On Me” is apparently Ted Poley’s favourite song, and he did a cameo appearance during that one.
Considering that the band actually had a keyboard player, the keys were pretty low in the mix. It seemed that they were mostly audible during the intros, once the rest of the band kicked in they were drowned.
Kill Your Darlings
The hard rockin’ Degreed were followed by Peter Friestedt’s LA PROJECT. The project has released two albums, all-star affairs with west-coast giants such as Joseph Williams, Randy Goodrum, Bill Champlin and Michael Ruff. With Toto in town, I guess most people were hoping for an appearance from Joseph Williams, but that was not in the cards.
The ”R” in LA Project’s ”AOR” is definitely a lowercase one, as their sound was very light and jazzy. They’re super-talented musicians, but this kind of music rarely appeals to me. Somehow I got the vision that I had walked into a scene in Miami Vice, where Crockett and Stubbs are looking for the bad guy in a bar, and a smooth band is entertaining the partygoers…
The band’s special guest was Frank Adahl, a bit of a cult figure in the Scandinavian west-coast scene. He was an impressive singer even though he looked like an algebra teacher or a business man. The keyboard player Stefan Gunnarsson sang most of the songs.
The set consisted of LA Project originals, some covers and ”Carry On” from the recent Champlin Williams Friestedt album. I have a feeling that song was tailored for Williams to come up and sing… it could very well be that something had been agreed on, but Williams was already suffering of the pneumonia that kept him from singing in Helsinki two days later.
HOUSTON were the last band of the day, although LA Project seemed to be marketed as the headliners and had a longer set. Their set was scheduled to start 5 minutes past two, but they actually started a few minutes earlier. As we were taking a break at the hotel, we missed the two first songs. The songs that we did get to hear sounded great, and they were among my favorites of this festival.
The band released a new single just before the festival, but that new modern rock/pop-oriented song wasn’t in the setlist, it was all ”pure AOR” for the diehards. We were treated to a couple of covers, Sir Michael Bolton’s ”Carrie” and Dakota’s ”Runaway”, but I guess it says something that the Houston originals could stand proudly next to those songs.
The biggest shocker of the Houston set for some was probably the new look of vocalist Hank Erix. He’s grown himself a massive beard, probably the first of its’ kind I’ve seen on a melodic rock frontman. What’s next? A cover of Jackyl’s ”The Lumberjack” complete with a chainsaw? He could pull it off more convincingly now than Jesse James Dupree ever…