Can it really be ten years since a group of passionate Melodic Rock and AOR fans decided to take matters into their own hands and create the festival that they would like to see? Indeed it is. Having grown from a one day show into the three day extravaganza it now is, there's little doubt that Firefest is now THE Melodic Rock Festival in The UK, Europe and truth be told, probably the world. Something that makes it all the more galling that the announcement has already been made that next year's bash will be the last... So for the moment, let's savour a 2013 line-up which featured headline acts Harem Scarem, Hardline and Legends!
So the honour of kicking off the tenth anniversary bash of Firefest fell to live debutants THE MAGNIFICENT, whose authentic blast of Melodic Rock on their one and only, self-titled album was all the more surprising for coming from key members of Prog Metallers Circus Maximus (singer Michael Eriksen) and serious Rockers Leverage (guitarist Torsti Spoof). Live the pair were augmented by members of their other projects, bassist Sami Norbacka (did he really need six strings for this set...?) and guitarist Tuomas Heikkinen from Leverage, keyboard player Lasse Finbraten from Circus Maximus, while drummer Rolf Pilve spends his days in Stratovarius. However there was absolutely no suggestion of this band being cobbled together hastily, instead The Magnificent did their utmost to live up to their name and made sure through catchy, punchy songs like the blistering "Smoke & Fire", the keytar solo featuring (I kid you not!) "Satin & Lace" and steamrollering "Bullets", that the first band on stage would still be getting spoken about at the festival's conclusion two nights later.
If you'd have tied me to a chair and tortured me to name the band I really wanted to see at Firefest X (although why you couldn't just have asked politely I'm not sure?), I would have eagerly blurted out EDEN'S CURSE, especially since their new album 'Symphony Of Sin' introduced new vocalist Nikola Mijic in fine style. However with the multi-national act fighting sound demons right from the off (Firefest does sometimes struggle to present heavier acts well) and struggling with faulty in-ear monitors, neither Mijic, nor bassist Paul Logue, who handles harmony vocals, really had a chance to show their best. The issues basically sapped the life from the title track from 'Symphony...', while the song which gave album number three, 'Trinity', its name fared little better. Mijic was clearly failing to make the desired impact, pulling the right shapes and desperately trying to draw the audience into the show during "Fly Away", but it wasn't until "No Holy Man" that things finally clicked, allowing the Curse to fire up all their cylinders at last. Suddenly drummer Pete Newdeck's neck snapping snare blasts found their mark and guitarist Thorsten Koehne's searing solos drew blood. The closing trio of "Unbreakable", "Evil And Divine" and "Angels And Demons" illustrated what could have been, new keyboard player Steve Williams also appearing in the mix, while the latter track featured a wonderful cameo from current MHR darling Issa who put in a mighty (and dare I say set stealing) performance alongside Mijic. On their day Eden's Curse are a stunning force to be reckoned with. Through little fault of their own, this wasn't that day, even if the ever enthusiastic crowd still showed their warm appreciation.
Thankfully the sound gremlins went back to their lair for 2012 Firefest heroes WORK OF ART, the three piece expanded to a quintet on stage, returning twelve months down the line to prove their class. Vocalist Lars Safsund is a grittier proposition in the flesh, adding a real passion to "The Great Fall" and "The Rain", while the classy trade-offs between guitarist Robert Sall and live keyboarder Jonas Groning took "Lost Without Your Love" and "Never Love Again" to impressive heights. Some onlookers suggested that WoA were stronger last year, but that was possibly more to do with the band making such a blistering first impression than any shortcomings in their 2013 set. "Why Do I?" set Sall's "other" band a high standard to follow, while new track "Time To Let Go" bodes well for this act's future, as did the crowd reaction they received.
And so it was that the "other" band featuring Sall - as well as Jeff Scott Soto and Erik Martensson wasted no time in proving that their last minute show stealing turn at Firefest 2011 was no fluke. Again the initial shock at just how good this band are on stage had slightly worn off through familiarity, everyone in attendance expecting, rather than hoping for another peerless performance, and again W.E.T. didn't disappoint. Soto really is the consummate frontman, captivating the audience through his energetic charisma, yet drawing his band mates into the spotlight willingly. He clasped his arm round Martensson's throat so the guitarist could take on vocal duties during "Invincible" and when he sang the words 'Do you feel good, Do you feel strong, Do you feel Invincible?', the answer was a resounding yes! The long intro to "Brothers In Arms" allowed JSS the opportunity to fight his way through the crowd to the bar to grab some drinks for his band-mates, leaving Sall, Martensson and the latter's Eclipse mates Magnus Henriksson (guitar) and Robban Back (drums) (a musically incestuous theme that would continue all weekend) to really stretch out, before "One Love" brought a thoroughly excellent set to a close.
DARE are old hands at this Firefest malarkey, likeable singer Darren Wharton and his band having been frequent visitors to the festival over the years. The band's debut album is still (rightly) held by many as an AOR classic, so it was a brave decision to wait until the seventh song to plunder its riches. However kicking off with the feisty "Wings Of Fire" and "We Don't Need A Reason", both from the underrated and heavier follow up 'Blood From Stone' made for a pleasant, welcome surprise. From there latter day Dare was represented through "Silent Thunder", "Sea Of Roses", "Where Darkness Ends" and "Beneath The Shining Waters" and while I'm a card carrying, all album owning fan-boy of the band, it has to be said that the easy-ozy Celtic Rock flavours deflated the early momentum built up. In fact even the video screens either side of the stage (a new addition to Firefest and one that refused to function fully from start to finish on any of the three days), lost interest and started to scroll through their options menu... Debut album classic "Abandon" veered things back on track, album mates "Into The Fire", "I Will Return" (a re-worked version of "Return The Heart") and set closer "The Raindance" allowing guitarist Vinny Burns to come to fore once more. A confident easy performance from Dare that most of the audience lapped up; however in all honesty the middle of this set was a band simply hitting cruise control before applying the accelerator just in time to avoid complete defeat.
Hot on the heels of re-recording their classic 'Mood Swings' album after their unexpected recent reunion, HAREM SCAREM wasted no time in illustrating just how delighted they were to be back where they belong, headlining the stage at the premier Melodic Rock festival. Most eyes in the audience were thoroughly transfixed on the ball of energy otherwise known as singer and sometime guitarist Harry Hess. However for many of the guitarists from the other bands in attendance, they only had gooey eyes for a certain Pete Lesperance, who repaid the adulation with a stunning, poised six-string performance. Something emphasised further by Harem Scarem having followed the ultra-smooth Dare. Staying true to their promise, all eleven songs from 'Mood Swings' featured, "If There Was A Time", "Jealousy" (which started wonderfully as simply guitar and voice) and "Mandy" proving standouts. That said debut album track "Hard To Love" and "Dagger", which had a groove the size of Nottingham, from the 'Overload' album fared even better. For some Hess's 'F-Bombs' were maybe a little too frequent but there's no denying that the reason behind his run of mother-funking expletives was the sheer joy to be Harem Scarem-ing once more.
So after what can only be classed as a rousingly successful opening Firefest day, it fell to Swede's NATION to keep the ball rolling; something they did with surprising ease. One of the less celebrated bands over the full three days, those in the know were genuinely salivating at the prospect of seeing this long lost band for the first time, Nation having initially split way back in the mid-nineties. Still you'd never have known, the military jacketed frontman Isaac Isaacson bounding around the stage and giving a stronger vocal performance than he ever did on CD. "Throw The Dice" and "Live In A Lie" illustrated the heavy, slightly progressive edge this undoubtedly melodic band possess, although finishing with the Abba classic "Waterloo", even though it does feature on the second Nation album 'Without Remorse' did end the set on a slightly throwaway note. A strong return from a band who drew a healthy, if not as strong audience as the Friday or Sunday opening acts, we can only hope Nation have re-found the appetite for a second bite at the R'n'R cherry.
Any festival bill will throw up the odd band that you don't really have an affinity with and I have to say that VON GROOVE have never really ticked by personal boxes. However if first impressions are anything to by, live this act are a smooth, slick, mean machine; especially singer Michael Shotton who, with the possible exception of Harry Hess, gave the first true "frontman" performance of FF-X. He demanded audience participation, engaged everyone within his eye-line and beyond, as well as climbing on the PA stacks and even diving through the audience to sing a chorus or two of "Two Nights In Tokyo" from the VIP balcony. If only he'd stop chewing gum for the entirety of the VG set he'd have given an almost flawless performance; the muscle man even banging a cowbell through opener "Can't Get Too Much" and frequently using a microphone/megaphone. Allowing me, with only eight bands having performed at Firefest X, to have already circled all the boxes for Firefest bingo, having witnessed a keytar solo, megaphone usage, two six-string basses, a cowbell and a muscle-strapped-frontman! For many however the true beauty of the Von Groove performance was the reunion between Shotton and two-tone silk shirted guitarist Mladen, the pair not having performed together in over a decade. Neither disappointed! Von Groove didn't end their stint at Firefest as my favourite band, but it was impossible not to like them, and they certainly gave a headline performance, even though they were much further down the bill.
The same can't however be said for HEAVEN'S EDGE, another act brought out of hibernation for Firefest X, the band's second 'Some Other Place, Some Other Time' album being posthumously released in 1999, nine years after their self titled debut. To be fair they went down a storm and many I spoke to thought they hit the nail on the head with their retro choreographed moves, guitar round the body flinging tricks and shape throwing. However a more sharply observed companion of mine commented that they spent "a lot of energy to hide the mediocrity" and with singer Mark Evans struggling to find any sort of comfort zone vocally, while hitting all his dance moves, it was hard to argue. That said "Skin To Skin" hit a groove, drummer David Rath pounding with such authority that he snapped the snares on his main drum and guitarist Stephen Parry put in a superbly poised yet energetic turn. However if this was the edge of Heaven, maybe that's why I like the Devil's music....
Making Firefest's achievement of reaching its tenth birthday look paltry, Sweden's TREAT have as of 2013 been in existence for three times that length. Therefore that they were a slick, ordered machine on stage came as no surprise and hearing genuine MHR classics such as "Get You On The Run", "Ready For The Taking" and "Conspiracy" was a real joy. Singer Robert Ernlund with his dated poodle perm was in fine voice and the only other surviving original member, guitarist Anders Wikstrom was also in sparkling form. Newer tracks such as "Papertiger" and "We Own The Night" from 2010's 'Coup De Grace' fared equally well, with a medley (the only one heard all weekend) of "Changes/Rev It Up/Party All Over/Too Wild" proving just how much great material this band has. Encores "Skies Of Mongolia" and "World Of Promises" maintained the early momentum and while they were neither the most flash, or showy band on display, Treat didn't put a foot out of place and deserved the adulation that came their way.
If only there was a way to plug H.E.A.T. singer Mark Gronwall into the National Grid, the energy crises that the world is slowly slipping into could be avoided with ease. For some his epileptic fit like moves and whirling dervish inability to stand still for even one second, comes across as a little forced and clichéd. However for others it made H.e.a.t., late replacements for the initially announced Trixter, the band of the weekend. Proof that you simply can't please everybody all of the time. For me Gronwall is a huge asset to the band and one that will find H.e.a.t., if any from the MHR scene, break out into a wider conscience. While not wanting to take anything away from his band mates who all performed superbly and have their own slick moves, this was the t-shirt rippin', long Mohawk shakin', hip gyratin' frontman's show. However H.e.a.t. also have the songs to make the grade, "Breaking The Silence" exploding the set into life, "1000 Miles" cranking things up further and "It's All About Tonight" being a fitting crescendo. I could complain that a drum solo was more than a little self indulgent in a 65 minute set, but to be fair a couple of minutes rest for this band couldn't really be seen as undeserved.
Following H.e.a.t., who are undoubted Firefest favourites and almost a force of nature right now was never going to be easy, so in a way it was a masterstroke to put a band on after them who looked to take a completely different approach than what had just occurred. SHOOTING STAR are veterans dating back to 1977, although from my viewpoint of never had heard them prior to this weekend, a view shared by many others, a second on the bill slot seemed a little misplaced. However keyboard player Dennis Lafoon, who looked every bit like Christopher Lloyd's 'Back To The Future' mad professor, put in a stunningly energetic display (even though his efforts were a little deep in the mix), while guitarist Van McLain laid out grooving riffs and stylish solos. However special mention needs to go to Steve Thomas behind the kit, his clean unfussy style marking him out as a drummer of real talent and possibly the best on show all Firefest X; his beats completely negating the fact that SS operate without a bassist. Singer Todd Pettygrove, the day's second muscle pumping frontman also gave an assured performance, ably backed by the wonderful vocals of McLain and Lafoon. From the whole twenty bands on this three day bill, Shooting Star found themselves Rockin' an older, more relaxed sound. However the half empty hall at the beginning of their set showed they weren't the draw that the day's previous bands had been. That said through wonderfully crafted tracks like "Summer Sun", "Last Chance", "Bring It On" and "Tonight", Shooting Star gave one of the best performances of the whole shebang and those filtering back into the hall during the second half of the band's set begun to realise they'd missed something pretty special.
Initially a side-project of Journey mainman Neal Schon with future Journey mate Deen Castronovo on drums, the Gioeli brothers Johnny and Joey on vocals and guitar respectively and Todd Jensen on bass, since 1990 HARDLINE has become an ever evolving beast. The Firefest X line-up only consisted one of those members, singer Johnny Gioeli, his backing band now made up of ex-The Storm (and returning Hardliner) Josh Ramos (who competed for worst hair style of the weekend), Firewind/Helloween/Tainted Nation drummer Mark Cross, Frontiers go-to keyboard/producer Alessandro DelVecchio and bassist Nik Mazzocconi. The Hardline debut album 'Double Eclipse' is rightly hailed as a classic, so it was no surprise that half the album's fourteen tracks made the cut in only the band's second performance since The Gods festival in 2002. "Danger Zone" and "Takin' Me Down" kicked in on a high gear, "Everything" and "Fever Dreams" keeping the momentum. However from there things slowly slid ever so slightly off the rails, Gioeli overindulging in long in-between songs monologues about, well not much really, and indulgent bass, drum and keyboard solos, the latter especially, deflating much of the early energy. However (another) cameo from Jeff Scott Soto, (which made for with Gioeli, Ramos and JSS an interesting mixture of Journey related musicians on stage at one time) for "My Cherie", reinvigorated the band and crowd, before "Rhythm From A Red Car" ended day two of Firefest X on a high, even if the overall set from Hardline was a little unsteady.
If there was much fatigue (self inflicted or otherwise) in the Firefest faithful, it certainly didn't show early doors on day three, ECLIPSE romping through a stunning set to an eager and packed audience. If some of the faces on stage looked familiar, it was because they were, Erik Martensson and Magnus Henriksson already acquitting themselves superbly with W.E.T.. However Eclipse is their main concern alongside the equally talented Robban Back (also a live member of W.E.T. on drums) and Lars Peter Hallgren (bass) and it has to be said that Martensson positively thrived in the vocal limelight, giving a performance that many forget he is capable of. However unlike some outfits, Eclipse's main strength is their songs, "Wylde One", "Ain't Dead Yet" and "Wake Me Up" setting a blistering pace before "Battlegrounds" cleverly pulled back the intensity. The foot was however firmly back on the gas again for "A Bitter Taste" and "Bleed And Scream", where unsurprisingly Jeff Scott Soto popped up (yet again!) to assist on vocals, Martensson far from overshadowed by his illustrious co-vocalist. "S.O.S." proved Eclipse are equally effective with a mid-paced grunt as they are at full pelt, while "Breaking My Heart Again" closed an all too short set superbly. You could argue that either of the day one (The Magnificent) or day three (Eclipse) openers wouldn't have been out of place higher up the bill. However what both (and Nation) achieved was to shake off any early cobwebs or hangovers and get the crowd up for the remainder of proceedings big style and for that I take my hat off to those who decided this year's running order.
Having performed at Firefest IX, Canadians BRIGHTON ROCK made a quick-fire return, offering up their brasher take on Melodic Rock. Some onlookers had suggested that this five-piece had struggled to make the required impact at last year's bash, so a thinning crowd could possibly have been expected - and so it proved. However the opening salvo of "Young Wild And Free" suggested otherwise, guitarist Greg Fraser firing out a continuous barrage of meaty riffs and hooks. However as the set progressed and Brighton Rock began to ease off into more melodic territory, so the vocal woes of Gerry McGhee became apparent, the energetic singer clearly struggling to hit the correct notes (many were tried, but few hit the mark...) and even he commented that this was 'much easier when we were 22!'. In the end it became clear that Brighton Rock are a good Hard Rock act, but less assured Melodic Rock band and even McGhee donning his famous silver face mask later in the set couldn't convince most in the hall otherwise.
Bringing a harder and ever so slightly more Progressive edge to proceedings, PROPHET gave the sort of display that made new friends, delighted their already dedicated followers and surely left themselves with a satisfied grin. Plundering their hugely regarded 'Cycle Of The Moon' album for the majority of the set Prophet quickly established a technical edge that sacrificed neither melody or accessibility and while some of the fare at Firefest could sometimes be accused of following a formula, it is an accusation this band have always easily avoided. Vocalist Russell Arcara gave a controlled demonstration of how to hit both the low and stratospheric notes, guitarist Ken Dubman and keyboard player Bill Delicato locking together skilfully to create memorable choruses and rewarding instrumental sections. Whether through "Can't Hide Love", "Cycle Of The Moon", "Red Line Rider" or "Asylum", Prophet needed no gimmicks or tricks to easily become one of the best bands witnessed all weekend.
From heavier, more intricate fare to out and out smooth AOR through another set of Swedes ALIEN, who proved that their triumphant Firefest VIII performance was no fluke. Since the original line-up of this band came back together they have become a serious live force once again and with singer Jim Jidhed back in the band not only are they rightly concentrating on their much loved self titled debut record, but they also possess a superb singer and to these ears the best we heard all weekend. Nine songs were repeated from their previous Firefest appearance, but with bassist Ken Sandin (who still sports the oddest horse-main hairstyle) in great backing vocal form and guitarist Tony Borg sharing the limelight equally with keyboardist Jimmy Wandroph, "Touch My Fire", "Jaime Remember" and "Go Easy" still seduced and amazed. New track "In Love We Trust" squeezed seamlessly into the set, boding well for the forthcoming new Alien album, before "I've Been Waiting", the only new Alien track released since their reformation "Ready To Fly" and "Dying By The Golden Rule" sealed the deal on another scintillating set.
With all sorts of bands having entertained the Firefest audience over the two and a half days so far, BATON ROUGE frontman Kelly Keeling decided to offer up a new take on "entertainment" altogether. Having been missing before action right up until twenty minutes prior to when his band were due on stage, KK proceeded to harangue and confront his band mates before during and in between songs, offering up strange stage raps and basically pissing off anyone in his way. He grabbed Scott Bender's bass and attempted to play it (badly) while his "mate" was still wearing it and in essence followed guitarist Lance Bulen round the stage, getting in his face and trying to one-up him at every opportunity. Instead he merely embarrassed himself and made everyone else on and off stage cringe. The real travesty of the pathetic petulant possibly "self-enhanced" display from Keeling was that Bulen, Bender and drummer Corky McClellan (who also cameo'd on acoustic guitar) could have been something special, with Bulen's guitar work and (ironically given his singer's "issues") vocals in particular being spot on the money. What did they play? In the end it didn't really matter, although "All Messed Up" was apt and impressive, while a new unnamed track had a groove the size of the UK. Strange, bizarre, a missed opportunity and entertaining in a train-wreck kind of way, Baton Rouge invited us into their home and proceeded to argue and throw toys out of the pram as we looked on aghast. Only time will tell if the reunion can withstand Keeling's antics.
The politics behind JSRG (JanetShareRoxyGina), or in essence Vixen without founding member Jan Kuehnemund, were placed in sharp focus merely days before Firefest when Jan sadly lost her long battle with cancer. However, with the much-missed ex-band mate running her own separate and properly named version of Vixen alongside JSRG, the rumours of an imminent reunion may have been just that, or not. However with JSRG fittingly dedicating tonight's performance to their fallen ex-colleague, let's put all of that to one side and concentrate on a display that lived up to high expectations and was as slick as it was polished. There's no denying that the male contingent in the healthily genre, race, continent and age varied Firefest mix, were eager to squeeze almost as close to the girls on stage as the ladies' leather skirts and pants were to their bodies. However for those of us more reserved, what made the strongest impression was just how good Janet Gardner's vocals still sounded and just how fiery guitarist Gina Stile's, the most recent addition to the band (when I say recent, I mean 1998), fret work was. In fact I'd go as far as to suggest she was one of the most talented sing-stringers on show. Vixen classics were fired out in quick succession, "Rev It Up", "Cryin'" and "Streets In Paradise" only interrupted so the girls could convince everyone in Rock City to do an 1980s "hair-flip", before they ran through a straight, if AORed take on Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World". From there a well rehearsed and well received set offered up "Never Say Never", "Wrecking Ball" and "Edge Of A Broken Heart". The girls then being enticed out for a well deserved encore of the Adele song "Rolling In The Deep", although in truth closing with a Vixen track would have had far greater impact with this audience. Either way it was a classy job done from the four girls who later on snuck into the photo pit for the Firefest X finale.
And what a finale it was, Tommy Denander's LEGENDS romping through a set of AOR classics that had the whole venue Rockin' and Rollin' for all they were worth. Ably backed by a band consisting Sayit Dolen (who proved to be every inch an equal to the more celebrated Denander on guitar), Pontus Engborg on drums and P-O Nilsson on keyboards, the true Legends behind the band name arrived in the shape of three hugely respected singers. First up we had Graham Bonnet, who part sang and part screamed his way through two Rainbow songs from his time with that band, "All Night Long" and "Love's No Friend", which sandwiched the Michael Schenker Group number "Desert Song". Explaining his recent dental work was "driving him mad", the odd missed note could be forgiven (although some missed notes were VERY odd indeed), especially when you factored in his self deprecating humour and even a reference to his on stage personal appendage (which he described as now being old and wrinkly and looking like Madonna's arm...) revealing incident which resulted in him getting his marching orders from MSG. It was impossible not to be endeared to a performer most here thought they'd never see on stage again in the UK. Next up Eric Martin added his own zany humour, Denander and co breathing life into a selection of highlights from the Mr Big catalogue, "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy", "Alive And Kickin'" (where Jeff Scott Soto (yes him - again!) pretended to guitar tech for Martin) and the utterly superb "Addicted To That Rush" going down a storm. However it was a cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" that brought the house down, Magnum frontman Bob Catley making a surprise appearance to duet with Martin! With two legendary singers come and gone, Toto founding member Bobby Kimball then took to the stage, proving that he still has the voice to carry off the unmistakable "Girl Goodbye" and "Africa" where the vocal interplay between Kimball and keyboarder Nilsson was something to behold, as well as the glorious "White Sister" and "Rosanna", where Denander and Sayit seriously stepped up to the plate trading solos of jaw dropping level. From there Martin reappeared for a version of "To Be With You" aided once more by a note-book with lyrics written on (!) Catley and (you've guessed it) Soto, before Bonnet belted out possibly the best known Rainbow song ever "Since You've Been Gone"; doing so in much finer style than his earlier efforts. Leaving Kimball to lead the now fully assembled cast, which included, as the entire set had, Alien's Ken Sandin on fantastic backing vocals, through a simply amazing version of "Hold The Line". Hearing not one, two, three or four, but (including Catley and Soto) five of the most amazingly talented singers in Melodic Hard Rock trade vocals, and some of their best known work, was a truly special and audience bonding experience, and one which made all in attendance forgive and forget that it was other Rainbow and Toto singers (the otherwise engaged) Joe Lynn Turner and (sadly unwell) Fergie Frederiksen who had initially been announced as being part of this line-up; a simply stunning set and performance bringing down the curtain on yet another immensely successful and eventful Firefest.
As expected Firefest X was another smoothly run weekend which saw top-line performances from W.E.T., Eclipse. H.e.a.t., Work Of Art, Von Groove, Alien, Legends and especially Shooting Star and Prophet. In fact the only real let down was Baton Rouge, although they sure won't be forgotten. However as ever the real highlight was the camaraderie between bands, fans and organisers; if there's a better run, or received festival anywhere in the world, I'm yet to hear of it and the very fact that John Parker of the band Talon turned up to help backstage and that Royal Hunt's DC Cooper also compared day two - both unpaid, tells you exactly how those who have participated in Firefest over the years feel about it. And the fans feel exactly the same way too.
Can Firefest 2014 really be the final fling? Sadly it would appear so. You know you really have to be there.