Having gained an unsurpassed reputation for serving up the best bands, most current music and eagerly anticipated reformations in the world of Melodic Rock, Firefest has had to continually evolve to maintain the ridiculously high standards that it has set for itself. Firefest VIII was no exception with the three day festival expanding again to incorporate 18 bands and also moving the Friday pre-show to the Festival's main and larger venue of Nottingham's Rock City.
Being the first band of day one of a three day gathering is never an easy task. However it has to be said that Welsh AOR act Serpentine made the best of their allotted time and seemed to make quite a few new friends in the process. With their ex-singer Tony Mills (Shy/TNT) now in the past, new frontman Matt Black did his best with his predecessors material and while he is a little "whiney" on the high notes, on the whole makes a good fist of it. Not the most mobile of bands, Gareth David Noon (keyboards) and Chris Gould (guitars) are a talented partnership, although even with three songs apiece aired from their first two albums, the results are a little samey. More solid than spectacular, Serpentine were still well worth their spot on the bill.
As ever the amazingly quick turnaround of bands at Firefest keeps the action flowing nicely and it only takes around fifteen minutes before Houston bound on stage with singer Hampus "Hank" Erix in his trademark, if rather cheesy silk boxing robe. Thankfully a little slicker than on their recent UK tour – and having ditched the overlong guitar solos, Houston still struggle at times to convince, with too much shape throwing and posing replacing genuine stage-craft. Watching guitarist Christopher Fabes Vetter jump into the crowd to play a solo and then realise he couldn't actually get back on stage was a little ridiculous – if unintentionally entertaining! That said the crowd lapped it up, although closing with a storming cover of the Touch classic "Don't You Know What Love Is" only served to highlight that Houston don't quite have the songs they think they do. Still the audience reaction suggested this won't be the band's one and only invitation to Firefest.
With only four bands being featured on the pre-show Friday, Terry Brock proved to be an assured and confident warm up for tonight's main event and the jump in class from Serpentine and Houston to the Strangeways and Giant frontman was plain for all to see. Greeted like an old friend (well Strangeways did play at this festival last year as well as returning with a different set on tomorrow's bill) and exuding a confidence of a man who knows that this is a crowd destined to hang on his every word, Brock was a force to be reckoned with. With a minimum of fuss and certainly more music and less fluff than Houston, he set about delivering a well balanced set taken mainly from his two solo albums Back To Eden and Diamond Blue with the most seductive songs arriving in the shape of "Broken" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy". However being a huge admirer of the debut album from the collaboration album by The Sign, on which Brock contributed some vocals, it was a pleasure to hear Terry run through a storming version of "Forever Again" from that release. With one of the best, pure singing voices on show all weekend, Brock continued to impress with his smooth delivery, to which he can add an aggressive edge when the need requires. Paying tribute to his backing band Valentine the set comes to an end with an excellent rendition of their "Soul Salvation", which in truth Brock handles better than the man who originally sang the song (Hugo) and brings the house down in the process.
While Brock did play at last year's Firefest with Strangeways, the first of three bands returning one year down the line arrives in the shape of day one headliner Jimi Jamison, who once again has hired three fifths of the band Heat and the most prolific guitarist in Melodic Rock – Tommy Denander, to lay down the backing that he will once again thrive on. Whether it was the euphoria of hearing Survivor classics live for the first time at last year's bash, or just the passing of time I'm not sure, but Jimi didn't seem to be in quite such fine voice as last year. However that didn't stop him from being the consummate entertainer and serving up exactly the sort of set the crowd had come to see. Belting out classics such as "Burning Heart" – which came pleasantly early - or "Rebel Son", Jimi is a real showman and one of the few frontmen who can truly own the stage on which he stands. However that didn't stop him from acknowledging on numerous occasions just how impressive the musicians he had on stage were, especially Denander who was given the time to treat us to a tasteful, yet restrained guitar solo. Unsurprisingly "I'm Always Here" the Theme from Baywatch received a huge ovation, which turned to howls of laughter when the Firefest crew appeared on stage wearing Baywatch t-shirts and carrying surfboards! Something the singer was obviously not expecting!! Regaining his composure Jimi closed the show with "Eye Of The Tiger", a song he may not have originally sang on, but has undoubtedly made his own, although the rather drunken backing "vocals" provided by members of Serpentine and Houston did rather blunt the effect. Maybe not quite as breath-taking as his performance last year, Jimi Jamison still made sure that day one ended on an undoubted high!
One of the best things about attending these type of events is that you are almost always impressed by a band or two who've previously passed you by. This year was no exception, with Talon being the first to take that honour. With a tight, gritty yet melodic sound and a twin guitar attack they took complete control of the early afternoon crowd, shaking away any sleep with returning frontman Mark O'Mara being a commanding physical and vocal presence. Airing new tracks from the as yet unreleased III and even an excellent unreleased track from their past ("Evil"), this was no nonsense, yet hugely enjoyable stuff, with "What About Me" being a great example of what this band are all about. Special mention also goes out to keyboard whizz Eric Ragno who embellished the guitars of Jim Kee and Korey Voxen to great effect.
The second band of the weekend who had previously been unknown to me to make a lasting impact was good-time UK AORsters Vega. Yes they've received more than their fair share of hype in recent months (which I've resisted), but on this showing it has been well deserved. Twins James (keyboards) and Tom Martin (guitar) have crafted some finely honed and hook infested songs for their debut album Kiss Of Life (I picked it up at the merch stall immediately after their set), which made for numerous huge sing-along moments and fist pumping aplenty, of which the chant of "Hearts Of Glass" was the most enthusiastic. Add to that the easy stage presence of one time Kick frontman Nick Workman and Vega really do have all the ingredients to break through into the mainstream while still having just enough edge for the rock crowd. With both Talon and Vega whipping the crowd into an early frenzy, it would be fair to suggest that the rest of Saturday provided somewhat of a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows.
The first low for many were Silent Rage, although I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed them. It may have been their more Metallic approach, or less glossy sheen compared to many bands over the weekend, but the crowd seemed to dwindle and many I spoke to afterwards who had stuck around had been decidedly nonplussed by the American four-piece. The set was mainly based round their 1989 Don't Touch Me There album, although all four Silent Rage releases were represented, including a version of the title track from 2008's Four Letter Word album which far surpassed its recorded interpretation. Guitarists Jesse Damon and Mark Hawkins, as well as bassist EJ Curse all handled lead vocals at one point or another, making for a varied set that never got bogged down. Many didn't agree, but I found the brasher, less polished attack to be a well timeed change of pace from the rest of the day's entertainment.
Having last played in the UK some 18 years ago, it was fair to say that when the inclusion of AOR legend Jeff Paris was announced it caused quite a stir amongst those of a pink and fluffy persuasion. Although it also led to some questions as to how polished he would be after many years away from the Melodic Rock scene. In truth it was a mixed bag, with some rather off the wall between song wise cracks combining with an uneasy stage manner to make for an at best unusually paced set. Using the same backing band as Jimi Jamison had the day before, the boys from Heat and Tommy Denander didn't seem quite as relaxed as with the ex-Survivor, which came across in the songs - although to be fair things did improve as the set wore on. A beautiful acoustic tribute to both Jani Lane and Ronnie James Dio seemed to focus Jeff, although the inclusion of covers of tracks he'd had a hand in writing with Vixen and Mr Big was a surprise, before the fantastic uptempo closer "Wired Up" left things on a high. On reflection Jeff did a good job of rescuing a set that never felt a million miles away from collapse – although a partisan audience and his infectious personality certainly helped.
W.E.T.'s inclusion at Firefest VIII came as a direct result of Warrant's utterly selfish and stupid refusal to travel to the show long after they'd already been announced as Saturday headliners. That said I didn't speak to a single person all weekend who actually cared that Warrant hadn't bothered to make the effort for their fans, especially with W.E.T. squeezed into the show as compensation. Fronted by the enigmatic, energetic Jeff Scott Soto, W.E.T. proceeded to tear Rock City apart with by far the most frantic performance of this year festival and when you consider that they only started rehearsing for their first live show ever a few weeks before hand, the results were nothing short of spectacular. The band name W.E.T. is an acronym from the previous outfits the main three players have previously been in (Work Of Art for guitarist Robert Sall, Eclipse for Erik Martinsson and Talisman for JSS) and it was a pleasure to hear Erik handle vocals, while JSS played keys for the Eclipse classic "To Mend A Broken Heart" and the WoA number "The Great Fall", while Jeff revelled in Talisman's "Mysterious". The band were, as on the record rounded out by Eclipse guitarist Magnus Henriksson and Prey drummer Robban Back and considering that W.E.T. were really only intended to be a studio project, the tight, cohesiveness was quite awe inspiring. A moving acoustic tribute to some of those from the rock scene who have passed away in recent years saw snippets of songs from Dio, Y&T, Gotthard, Gary Moore and (ironically) Warrant, brought a clever change of pace from the in your face attack from W.E.T.'s debut songs. Would it have been a gamble too far to have slid W.E.T. into the headline slot for Saturday? Well considering their lack of rehearsal time and only having one album, probably yes. However a quick look at the packed hall and the fact that many of the other bands playing this weekend crammed into the VIP balcony to witness this show tells you everything, and in hindsight asking anyone to follow this outstanding show was a tall order. W.E.T. were the first real triumph of Firefest VIII.
Having played a hugely successful set mainly based round their 2010 Perfect World album at last year's event, Strangeways were the second band this year to play consecutive Firefests. While they are hugely respected in AOR circles, I have to say that even with the majestic voice of Terry Brock (making his second appearance of the weekend) and the simply mesmerising drumming of Jim Drummond on board, Strangeways remain a little lost on me. Having been requested to concentrate on their Walk In The Fire album this time round, the contrast between the vibrancy of what had come before and the super smooth melodies of Strangeways couldn't have been more stark and really any hope of Brock, Drummond, Ian J Stewart on guitars, his brother David on bass and David "Munch" Moore on keyboards making a lasting impression were dashed before they began. Brock seemed to be struggling to reach the vocal heights he'd hit during yesterday's solo stint and in truth the set just never really got going. That said a core of Strangeways fanatics showed their appreciation after every track, but constrained by the slow, intricate songs from the album they were revisiting it all felt like a bit of a letdown - and going off and coming back on for the first encore of the weekend felt ever so slightly indulgent. However a stonking run through of the heavier "Only A Fool" and "Where Do We Go From Here" made for a more assured and hard hitting crescendo.
And so with the absence of Warrant it fell to the second ex-Journey frontman of the night to close out day two of Firefest and while Jeff Scott Soto chose rightly to completely ignore that side of his career, Augeri had been asked to perform on the basis that he would highlight it – and so he did. To be fair there is much more to Augeri than his stint with Schon and Co and it was a pleasure to hear Steve open with "Jamie" from his one album with Tyketto. Resplendent in a white silk shirt and spotted neckerchief Steve looked the cat that got the cream as he belted out the Journey classics "Separate Ways" and "Ask The Lonely". I know some people had a problem with what could have been construed as a very authentic tribute act, however it is easy to forget that Augeri sang with Journey for just under a decade, so almost has the right to treat these songs as his own. As they did for Terry Brock, it was Valentine who worked as the Steve Augeri Band and it does have to be said that they gave another flawless masterclass, especially during the Journey numbers. Highlighting that band's Arrival album was a nice touch, considering that Augeri sang and wrote on that release and "Till We Meet Again" especially thrived in the live arena. Two new, as yet unreleased solo songs dragged a little momentum out of the set, with neither "Down By The Riverside" or "Rich Man's World" really hitting the spot, although the Tall Stories "Sister Of Mercy" number was an unexpected bonus. From there it was Journey all the way, with "Wheel In The Sky" and "Lovin Touchin Squeezin" leading up to the inevitable "Don't Stop Believing" although unlike on the recent tour from Journey themselves, there wasn't a mass exodus of Gleeks before the triumphant "Anyway You Want It". Oddly there seemed to be some confusion as to whether an encore was to be played, but after a little to-ing and fro-ing the night was concluded with another Arrival number "All The Way", before an impromptu second rendition of "Separate Ways" brought the curtain down on day two. Not everyone's choice for headliner, Steve Augeri and his make shift band put on an entertaining and on the whole crowd pleasing set. In truth though,everyone was still talking about W.E.T. as they left the venue for the second time this weekend.
The final band to play Firefest in both 2010 and 2011, Newman were the second last minute addition to the bill when it became apparent that Far Cry would sadly, due to financial and travel difficulties not be able to attend. Last year Newman made a triumphant debut at Firefest and Steve Newman wisely chose to stick with the same winning line-up that included the impressive Shaun Bessant on guitars. However faced with a tired and sparse audience, Newman didn't quite hit the ground running this time round, although that didn't stop the likes of "Heaven Knows" and "Primitive Soul" being irresistibly catchy. Not in quite as fine voice as he'd hoped Steve still cajoled and coaxed the ever growing crowd to life and by the time he introduced Far Cry's Pete Fry (which was a nice touch considering the circumstances) to help out on guitar and vocals on "Stay With Me" things were in full flow. Donning his guitar to spit out a tasty solo on set closer "If It's Love", Newman the man and band once again illustrated what an under rated outfit they are and while maybe not as victorious as last year they'd set the bar reasonably high for the third and final day.
Travelling all the way from Australia, White Widdow fulfilled a dream by being asked to play at this year's Firefest and clearly it was an occasion that they were out to enjoy, bounding around the stage and generally having a ball. Having said that enthusiasm actually took a toll on the band's performance and it took the band a couple of songs to find their feet. Even then singer Jules Miles really seemed to struggle to replicate the strong vocals he has provided for the band's first two albums, which when you consider he is an ardent supporter of Firefest, was a real shame. That said his dynamic energy was infectious and he has the ability to really connect with the audience, which resulted in them going down extremely well, when in truth this was at best an average performance.
Average however was a word nowhere near the reformed original line up of Alien, who provided a master-class of how to deliver a set of pumping AOR anthems - never setting a foot out place in the process. Reuniting in 2009 after just over two decades apart, the original and best version of Alien have been sporadically performing together since, and that stage time paid off big style, with the most assured and confident display of any band so far. Singer Jim Jidhed was in magnificent voice, handling all the high notes and offering a more aggressive lower register with skill ease and no little passion. However his peerless display was easily matched by the smooth, measured guitar work of Tony Borg and the confident, if a little quiet keyboard stabs courtesy of Jimmy Wandroph. Not to be out done drummer Toby Tarroch never put a stick wrong, while the shaven headed, but long pony-tailed bassist Ken Sandin was stalking the stage like a man possessed. Fantastic versions of "Tears Don't Put Out The Fire" and "Jaime Remember" illustrated why the band's debut album is so highly revered, while their Swedish number one hit "Only One Woman" provided the loudest crowd chant of the weekend so far. Ushered back on for a hugely deserved encore, Jidhed out did himself on the vocals to "Touch My Fire", before the only new song the band have recorded since reconvening, "Ready To Fly" topped off a tremendous set from a fantastic band. Yes, I know I enjoyed W.E.T., but on this evidence Alien were band of the weekend – so far!
Every time the Firefest line-up is revealed you can be sure of the odd curve ball and even more than yesterday's surprise inclusion of Jeff Paris, when Kane Roberts was announced as appearing at Firefest VIII the AOR community almost gave a collective gasp. Kane, who is undoubtedly best known for a reasonably short stint as the muscled, machine-gun shaped guitar wielder in Alice Cooper's band when he came out of hibernation in the mid eighties, Roberts has also released a trio of solo albums, with his 1991 release Saints And Sinners still being much sought after. Since his 1999 effort Under A Wild Sky, Kane has somewhat disappeared from sight and at the risk of sounding harsh, this performance went a long way to explaining why. Backed by Talon (minus singer Michael O'Mara – although he did help out on vocals on occasions) Roberts seemed to be in an time-warp, unable to comprehend that such a large crowd had travelled from across the globe to witness this event, but more than that he was under prepared and in places verging on shambolic. With Pete Newdeck (Tainted Nation/Eden's Curse) also adding vocals and guitar alongside Talon's six stringer Jim Kee, it was at times hard to work out exactly what Roberts really added to "his" band other than some widdle happy solos, as singing and playing guitar at the same time seemed to be completely out of the question. Battling through some material from Saints And Sinners and a couple of Alice Cooper songs, including "Freedom", the set was bizarrely interrupted to introduce two dancing girls to "augment" "Dance Little Sister", although to be fair some extra entertainment was required as by this stage the set was flagging badly. Up next came an elongated cover of Kiss's "Take It Off", which Roberts co-wrote with Paul Stanley, but by this time it was clear that Roberts was struggling with the vocals and all the other musicians on stage seemed unsure as to what their befuddled leader would do next, with everyone standing still, watching Roberts in the vane hope of working out when he'd actually end the songs. To be fair to him Kane must have realised just how unconvincing at had all become, as he disappeared from the stage fifteen minutes before his set was due to end and didn't return.....
Mitch Malloy had no problem putting things back on track and while I have to be honest and say that his FULL ON vocal style has never really been my cup of tea, this is a man capable of writing some classy songs. In sharp contrast to Roberts, Malloy was at complete ease on stage, drawing the audience into his performance with his likeable manner and a smile containing the whitest teeth in Rock! Playing songs that spanned his entire career, it was much to his credit (and the merch stall's delight) that the songs from his new album Mitch Malloy 2, were as convincing as some of his celebrated early material. His band were no slouches either, with the tasteful work from keyboard player Alessandro Del Vecchio (Edge Of Forever), drummer Alessandro Mori (Moonstone Project) and bassist Anna Portalupi (Lionville) being a real highlight. Shining Line guitarist Mario Percudani kept things simple, allowing Malloy to show his fret craft, with the two combining well to make a mighty team. The closing one-two of "Anything At All" and "All My Friends" gave Mitch's fans exactly what they had been waiting for and while not really my favourite act of the weekend, it was impossible to deny that Mitch does what he does very well and set up what went on to become a phenomenal end to the festival.
Now I have to be honest and say that I was positively moist with excitement at the prospect of seeing Coney Hatch for the first time - at what was the band's first show in the UK, and I'm ecstatic to say that I wasn't disappointed one iota. A little rougher in attack, more straight ahead in delivery and eschewing the keyboards that featured on occasion on their albums, this was a band on a mission to prove that twenty six years after their last album Friction, they could not only still cut it, but do so in a far more convincing manner than bands half their age. Drawing songs from their three albums (Friction as well as 82's Coney Hatch and 83's Outta Hand) we were treated to guitarist Carl Dixon and bassist Andy Curran swapping and sharing lead vocal duties to phenomenally catchy, yet fiery songs like "She's Gone", "We Got The Night" and "The Girl From Last Night's Dream", while lead guitarist Steve Shelski put in the type of assured display the few have the poise to match. Drummer Dave "Thumper" Ketchum lived up to his name, but don't be fooled into thinking he is force over skill, as he replicated the fills, tricks and flurries from these songs to perfection, but still with the power he was renowned for. Personal favourites came and went at a blurring pace, with "Hey Operator" and "Devils Deck" whisking me back to my youth, before Curran closed the set out with the quirky, insistent call of "Monkey Bars". It was touching that the band all brought their families over from Canada for this performance and seeing the joy and surprise on their faces illustrated just how well their husbands and Dads had done on stage. Coney Hatch were magnificent and no mistake. On this form they were worth the price of a three day ticket all on their own.
Even with all that had been witnessed across the nearly completed three days of Firefest VIII, there was an energy and air of anticipation like nothing that had come before as it came closer to the time for Unruly Child to hit the stage. Having released some 19 years previously a self titled album that is still spoken about in hushed tones of reverence in AOR circles, this was Unruly Child's first performance outside of the US, first with all five original members in just under two decades and first since Mark Free took the life changing and courageous decision to become Marcie Free.
As the first band of the entire weekend to employ an intro tape and also to incorporate computers into their keyboard set up, it was inevitable that they also served up Firefest VIII's first technical glitches. However these were swiftly dealt with and as that intro gave way to the opening notes of "Love Is Blind" the atmosphere reached fever pitch. With the band already in full flow, Marcie entered the fray to the sort of acclaim that showed the love and understanding that the often misunderstood Rock community has in abundance, with everyone in attendance showing their encouragement. Understandably so, it was an extremely moving moment for Marcie, the band and indeed everyone in attendance. For everything that has changed in Marcie's life, she still has a voice that is dripping with emotion and passion and is possessing of a mighty power which she exploited to the full from start to finish. At times she did rely on a lyric book and her stage talk was overly, if unsurprisingly gushing in its praise for love and understanding, however the important part, her vocals, were flawless and a joy to hear. Guitarist Bruce Gowdy was obviously overjoyed to be on stage with Unruly Child again and he combined quite magnificently with Guy Allison on keyboards, bassist Larry Antonino and drummer Jay Schellen, although that said opening with four songs from the band's most recent – if excellent – album Worlds Collide was exactly what the audience had expected or hoped for. "Lay Down Your Arms" from the debut was greeted like an old friend and by now the band were all completely at ease, tearing their way through new and old songs alike. An unnecessary bass and drum slot took the wind of their sails a little, but a mighty rendition of "Take Me Down Nasty" got things back on track again, before "Neverland", "Talk To Me" and "Who Cries Now" ended the main set. An encore was demanded and received in the shape of "On The Rise", before ""When We Were Young" brought an end to a historic and memorable performance.
Firefest just seems to get better and better and while there was the odd disappointing act this year, the standard of music and performance on show was nothing short of spectacular. Add to that an amazingly well run event both on and off stage and it is easy to understand why Firefest has such a celebratory, joyous atmosphere. Band of the weekend? No surprises for guessing that Coney Hatch walked away with that honour, but special mentions are also deserved for W.E.T., Alien, Talon and Vega.
Roll on Firefest IX!!