Firefest really is a beacon of light for the melodic rock genre and even though it was announced that last year's festival was to be the final Fest of Fire, thanks to fan pressure not only did we get a Firefest VII, but by all accounts it was the best one yet. The weekend's Firefest-ivites kicked off in the smaller Nottingham Trent University Student's Union, before the two main days moved to the larger Nottingham Rock City.
The honour of opening this year's show belonged to Finland's Reckless Love and it has to be said that they got things off to a tremendous start. The four piece hit the stage with an amazing amount of energy and while singer Oli Herman initially struggled a little, it wasn't long before they hit their stride. Herman is a great showman, with a look and stage moves heavily influenced by David Lee Roth and Poison's Brett Michaels, engaging the audience well - even if his pink boots leave a lot to be desired! Bouncy upbeat songs like "So Yeah" and "Love Machine" hit the spot and even with an unnecessary cover of Def Leppard's "Hysteria", Reckless Love must have made some new fans tonight (me for one!) and were going to be a hard act to follow.
So it proved, with Sweden's Crazy Lixx finding it difficult to match the enthusiasm that Reckless Love had shown and while they undoubtedly are a talented bunch of musicians, it all felt a little forced and flat and I'd go as far as to say that guitarist Andy Dawson actually looked a little disinterested at times. It's not that they were bad, and their set certainly picked up towards the end, but I think they might have fared better opening the bill.
The headliners for Friday completed the Scandinavian theme with Sweden's Heat, fresh from a change of frontman, bringing an end to day one. The recent departure from the band of Kenny Lekremo left some onlookers wondering how Heat would replace such a gifted singer and eyebrows were raised further when it was announced that "Sweden Idol" winner Erik Gronwall had the job. However on the evidence of tonight's performance, it may prove to be a masterstroke! Gronwall doesn't quite have the vocal range of his predecessor, but his attitude and exuberance more than makes up for it and to say he silenced his doubters would be an understatement. Looking every bit like a young Billy Idol, he took complete control of the stage and the crowd, to give a masterful performance that his band mates did well to match. Match it they did though, with the be-hatted guitarist Dave Dalone firing out licks and tricks with ease, but what stuck out most was the stage craft this six piece have and just how much effort they put into entertaining the audience, even if Crash's drum solo was largely uninspired and unneeded. "High On Love", "Who Will Stop The Rain" and the apt "Everybody Wants To Be Someone" were particular highlights and their choice of cover version, Skid Row's "Eighteen And Life", proved a huge success. With Firefest 2010 well and truly burning, Heat illustrated why those who have been heralding them as the "next big thing" would appear to be absolutely spot on!
After the triumphant opening night, Saturday got off to a less auspicious start with the in-house sound board deciding to give up just two hours before the opening band were meant to hit the stage. Unfortunately that impossible to foresee glitch led to an almost two hour delay, but what it did mean was that when Grand Illusion (once again from Sweden) finally hit the stage, the hall was packed and the crowd was desperate to be entertained. Quite impressively the sextet didn't appear to be fazed by the delay one bit as they tore through a fantastic set that mixed some of the band's early classics with tracks from their recent album Brand New World. "Never Find Her Alone" and "157th Breakdown" were the standouts and with the vocals from Peter Sundell being absolutely spot on, this was a performance that set the bar extremely high for those that had to follow and was still being spoken about at day's end.
Next up were America's Beggars & Thieves, who found it a little hard to hit their stride, with their bluesy, gritty hard rock coming over as a little dull after the glorious melodies they had to follow. The fact that their new EP sold out on the day shows that they did make an impact with a fair few in the audience, but for me their music lacked bite and failed to make a lasting impression. Closing with "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" as a tribute to Gotthard's Steve Lee, who recently passed away in an accident was a nice touch, although it highlighted the lack of quality in their own material.
With the time that had been lost and the venue imposing a strict curfew, all efforts were being made to turn the bands round in super quick time and it is to everyone's credit that most bands were on stage within fifteen minutes of the previous finishing their set. Continuing the American theme came the reformed Bangalore Choir, who had been advertised as playing all of the songs from their "cult" album On Target. However with one of the best heavy melodic rock albums of the year under their belts, it was no surprise that they shelved that idea so they could include some new songs as well. For those that had come hoping for those classic tracks, they were treated to a set packed with the likes of "Angel In Black", "All Or Nothin'" and "Just One Night", but for me new songs "Martyr" and "Power Trippin'" were even stronger. Singer DavidReece was in imperious form, prowling the stage and belting out the vocals with a force and majesty that showed why he is regarded as one of the best in the business, while the guitar pairing of, original member Curt Mitchell and new sparring partner Andy Susemihl were obviously having a ball, cavorting around the stage and throwing shapes like their lives depended on it. That said what really sets Bangalore Choir apart from other bands playing music of this sort, is Reece himself and the manner in which he worked the crowd and spat out the lyrics was a joy to behold. It may have taken Bangalore Choir nearly twenty years to play in the UK, but there's no doubt they'll be welcomed back with open arms.
Sometimes when you go to festivals like this, it is the bands that you know little, or nothing about that really make a lasting impression on you and New Jersey five piece Shotgun Symphony did just that. What made this feat all the more impressive was that it has been eight years since they had last played together and add to that, that they had only had a couple of months to prepare after being asked to reform following Saraya's withdrawal from year's show and this performance was all the more astounding. Singer Tracy White, who admitted to me after their set that he had been unsure if he could even sing like he used to when they first started rehearsing again, was simply fabulous, hitting all his high notes and adding an authority to his vocals that many frontmen lack these days. The other four members of the band, Ed Avila on bass, Charlie Calv on keys, Mike Maino on guitars and drummer Chris O'Hara, were obviously loving being back on stage again and that joy fed out into the crowd, who got into Shotgun Symphony's set more than any other of the weekend so far. Maino in particular was outstanding, with his fretboard dexterity being simply jaw dropping. From being a Shotgun Symphony novice, I have to say that the band's set made me a convert to their music and I'm delighted to say that White also mentioned that they hope to begin work on a new album in the not too distant future.
I have to admit that Bonfire have always been a band that have never quite struck a chord with me and while I enjoyed their set, which was based round their classic Fireworks album, I can't say that I saw, or heard anything to change my mind. That said they went down a storm with those already committed to their cause and being the seasoned veterans they are, Bonfire do know how to give value for money. Airing nine of the eleven tracks from Fireworks, this was a set that was always going to please their fans, but still left me slightly scratching my head as to their popularity. Steve Lee was once again paid tribute to and it was a really classy gesture that the only song Bonfire played that wasn't from the best known album, was Gotthard's "I'm On My Way".
Dare's 1989 debut album Out Of The Silence, has often been cited as an AOR masterpiece (I am inclined to agree!) and with the recent return of guitarist Vinny Burns to the fold, hopes were high for a vintage performance full of fan favourites from that album. Boy did Dare deliver! Airing five songs from Out Of The Silence (plus "I Will Return", which is a re-working of "Return The Heart" from the debut) and opening with their best known song "Abandon" ensured that the audience were immediately on side. Darren Wharton's stage presence and voice are still completely intact and Burns added that crunch that the band have lacked in recent years, with newer songs "Dreams Of Fire" and "Dublin" definitely benefiting from his guitar skills. Not to be out done Richard Dews, who vigorously strummed an acoustic all set, delivers a great backing to Burns fierier efforts and with no bassist in the line up keyboard player Marc Roberts also put in a sterling effort. A great energetic performance that for many in the hall was set of the day flew by and it really was great to hear the likes of "Into The Fire", "Runaway" and "The Raindance" one more time. Superb!
George Lynch's rejuvenated Lynch Mob had the distinction of headlining day two and it has to be said that the onetime Dokken guitarist has put together an impressive line up this time round. Oni Logan is back on vocals and with bassist Robbie Crane (Vince Neil, Ratt) and the amazing Brian Tichy behind the kit, there was no doubt that this was going to be an explosive performance. However opening with a mixture of lesser known tracks from the band's excellent Wicked Sensation album and songs from 2009's Smoke And Mirrors effort caught the crowd a bit unaware. The technical dexterity of all four musicians was never in question, but coming after so many bands that had worked so hard to entertain, it did feel a little like being played at, rather than being played to. Lynch was going all out to impress with his fretboard pyrotechnics, but for every person he amazed, he seemed to lose another and in truth the crowd did begin to thin as the set wore on. All four musicians seemed to have a quick meeting round the drum riser and from there the tone of the show changed completely, with Lynch playing his Dokken tour de force "Mr. Scary", which saw him, Tichy, (who was without a doubt the best drummer of the weekend) and Crane tear the place apart and those who had remained to see it, were completely won over. Following that masterstroke with a trio of Dokken's "Into The Fire", "Wicked Sensation" and "Tooth And Nail" (another Dokken number), raised the roof and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Special mention has to go to everyone who managed to get the new sound desk in place and Pontus Norgren, who was in charge of front of house sound, not only for providing a tremendously clear mix (Bonfire brought their own sound man and suffered for it!), but also for clawing back almost an hour in time from that lost at the start of the day.
The task of opening the third and final day of a festival is never an easy one, some people are slow to get back into the venue after two days worth of "celebrating" and those that do are often the worse for wear. So credit is due to Sweden's Grand Design for getting the crowd involved from the off and while their interpretation of Hysteria era Def Leppard is more than a little derivative, they put on a good, if unspectacular show.
Newman on the other hand really took the bull by the horns and for my money were the revelation of the weekend. Steve Newman himself made no secret that he was thrilled to finally be invited to play Firefest and make no mistake; he did not waste the opportunity. The feel good melodic rock that Newman made look so easy was perfect for this occasion and Steve's vocals were powerful and full of character, while recent recruit Shaun Bessant wrung every note from his guitar and really was spectacular. Songs like "Hero To Zero", "If It's Love", "Coming Home Tonight" and "One Step Closer" had the crowd in raptures and rather than a debut Firefest appearance, Newman were treated like home coming heroes. I'd never really taken any interest in this UK outfit before, but I scurried off to the merchandise stall as soon as their set finished to get their double CD best of, "Decade" and I haven't been disappointed!
Following that was no easy task, however with wily veterans Stage Dolls confidently strolling on stage, there was never any fear of them being over-awed. The Norwegian trio are bolstered by keyboard player Ronny Wikmark on stage, but it is the casual authority of guitarist/vocalist Torstein Flakne and bassist Terje Storli that really sets the tone for Stage Dolls stint. The pair have been together for nearly three decades and that experience showed as they blasted out a great set full of the strongest songs from their catalogue. Coming on stage after the previous band have torn the place apart is never easy, but it did ensure that the crowd were well and truly warmed up and the singalong to "Love Cries" was the loudest of the weekend. Drummer Morten Skogstad was thrashing the kit to within an inch of its life, but it was Flakne that had the audience eating out of his hands, with the wonderful "Commandos" and "Wings Of Steel". Stage Dolls are a band capable of laying down some thick, melodic grooves that completely seduce an audience and on this occasion they did that and then some.
The rejoining of singer Terry Brock with guitarist Ian J Stewart and drummer Jim Drummond under the guise of Strangeways, has been enough for some AOR fans to have palpitations. Therefore goodness only knows how the prospect of seeing this band on stage in the UK for the first time in 22 years must have affected them! With the two albums from Brock's first stint in this band being held as classics, it was no surprise that both 1987's Native Sons and 1989's Walk In The Fire were plundered, that said, the songs from the band's new album Perfect World transferred to the live arena with more clout than they have on CD. Brock has a voice to die for and with his pitch perfect tone hitting home every time and I don't think many would argue against this being the best pure vocal delivery of Firefest. For those already converted to the joys of "Where Do We Go From Here" and "Love Lies Dying", the change of pace offered by the ultra smooth AOR was bliss, but as someone who has never quite been seduced by this band, I have to say that I did enjoy them much more than anticipated, with the precise drumming of Drummond and the sublime guitar work of Stewart, complimenting the supreme vocals wonderfully. Strangeways weren't the most energetic band of the weekend, and ending on a slower paced number wasn't the wisest move, but they were very enjoyable none the less.
With Pretty Maids experiencing travel problems (their flight from Paris was rescheduled to a later time, then their bus was stuck in traffic), one time Survivor frontman Jimi Jamison was good enough to bring his set forward, in the hope that Pretty Maids would arrive in time to go on after him. It was a gracious move by Jimi, but maybe not too gracious for Pretty Maids, as it meant that they had to go on after the loudest crowd response that any band received all weekend. I've never really been a massive Survivor fan, but Jimi's voice was amazing and his backing band, made up of members of Heat and guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Denander, were outstanding. Denander in particular illustrated why he is such a sought after session musician, with a display of guitar playing that was as masterly as it was explosive. For the most part the set was made up of songs from Jimi's time in Survivor, but that was exactly what the fans had turned up to see and their response was almost deafening. The closing trio of "Burning Heart", "I'm Always Here" (the theme from Baywatch!) and "Eye Of The Tiger" was an amazing way to close his show and the message to the just arriving Pretty Maids was clear. Follow that!
It was something that Pretty Maids struggled to do, although it does have to be reiterated that they did arrive in the building literally minutes before they went on stage – so massive credit to them for that. After the euphoria of the upbeat melodic pomp that Jamison blasted out, the more overtly hard rock/metal outlook of Pretty Maids music was a little surprising and while there was a healthy hardcore of support for them, a lot of people took the opportunity for a breather before the final band of the night.
Nelson are best known for their 1990 debut album After The Rain, which sold three million copies worldwide and were playing their first show on UK soil. Wisely they decided to air six songs from that debut, with "Fill You Up" opening the set to huge acclaim. That momentum was unfortunately allowed to slip away as the gig wore on, with guitarist Neil Zaza, fantastic though he is, given too long an opportunity to showcase his talents through the song "I'm Alright", and a so-so drum solo from Brian Burwell, that included him body popping across the stage while Gunnar Nelson took over on the drums. That said the other diversion from Nelson's best material gave second guitarist Mark Slaughter the chance to revisit his old band Slaughter's biggest hit "Up All Night", which went down very well. The first on stage technical issues of the whole weekend also cropped up, with not one, but two amps blowing during Nelson's set and it was impressive to see that as Zaza was about to take one of his guitar solos, but found no sound from his amp, Gunnar immediately and seamlessly stepped in. If I hadn't been watching, I would never have even known that a problem had arisen. With both amps instantly replaced, the show grew towards its crescendo with Matthew and Gunnar unable to stop themselves from grinning during their biggest hit "(Can't Live Without Your) Love & Affection", which brought this year's Firefest to a fitting close.
Firefest 2010 was a spectacular success, with some extremely memorable performances from an eclectic mix of bands. Heat fended off Reckless Love to be the highlight of Friday, Shotgun Symphony and Dare stole the show from Lynch Mob on Saturday while Newman were the revelation of Sunday - although it was Jimi Jamison who received the weekend's best reaction. The real winner however was melodic rock and long may that and Firefest continue!