Sunday, 23 October 2011

Gig Review: Firefest Friday (Rock City, Nottingham, 21 Oct 2011)

Nottingham’s Firefest has become a true Mecca for die-hard AOR/Melodic Rock fans (and bands for that matter) from around the world, and at last I managed to get myself to one, even if circumstances meant I could only attend the opening night of a three-day festival. This brief taste was more than enough proof that everything I’d heard was true, with an amazing atmosphere and a roster of the finest acts (both obscure and well-known - although well-known in this genre is what most people would refer to as...obscure...such is life) the genre has to offer. I won’t go into what I was forced to miss on the second and third days, as I’d only upset myself, but this is what the Friday had in store for those of us lucky enough to be there at all...

Serpentine kicked the whole thing off in fine style, despite not originally being on the bill. One of the organisers saw them perform earlier in the year and felt they simply had to be added to the already-complete line-up. I’m not surprised - while I might have seen the name mentioned a few times in the last year, I really had no knowledge of them whatsoever, and from the opening notes it was plainly evident that they are, quite simply, brilliant. New vocalist Matt Black (who is yet to make his proper recording debut with the band), ably set a high standard for all lead vocals to be measured against for the rest of the weekend. The band play as though they’ve been performing together for decades, which is clearly not the case, but they just made it look so easy (and yes, fun). Superb vocal harmonies and Gareth Noon’s fine keyboard work were just two of the ingredients that sucked me in in a big way. On the back of this all-too-brief set I had no choice but to buy both of their albums. Hate it when that happens...(10/10)

Serpentine's Matt Black

Next up were the first band to actually be named on the ticket: Houston. This group arrived on the scene last year and were quickly embraced by followers of modern AOR. The hyperbole surrounding them had made me curious, so I was looking forward to seeing them, but while they were well-received I wasn’t won over. They had a nice energy going for them, but suffered for following the far tighter Serpentine, especially in the vocal department, and the songs didn’t stand out as anything particularly distinctive to these ears. They’re to be commended for bucking trends and making music they clearly believe in completely, and for having won a sturdy fan base so quickly, but I won’t be adding them to my collection in the near future. (6/10)

The well-travelled Terry Brock was up next, and ultimately delivered a highly entertaining set, after a bit of a slow start. Maybe it was just the result of already having heard a good hour+ of material I was unfamiliar with already by that point (or maybe it was confusion as to why he’d seemingly come dressed as Roy Orbison) but it took me two or three songs to warm to him, though warm I did. Amongst tracks from across his career he featured several from last year’s well-received Diamond Blue, which certainly caught my ear and makes it the most obvious place to start when I end up buying an album or two of his somewhere along the line...curiously Brock got his start as a backing vocalist for Kansas on their Drastic Measures album, which, thanks to Rock Candy, finally completed my Kansas collection just last month. Seems I’ll forever be playing catch-up with somebody or other though (and that’s just fine by me!). (8/10)

The headline act was the real reason I’d made sure I was at least there for the Friday night of the festival in the first place. Prior to an appearance at last year’s Firefest legendary Survivor vocalist Jimi Jamison had never performed in the UK before, but his reception at that event ensured a swift return, and the rapturous response from the crowd this year will hopefully convince him to make more visits to the UK in the near future. Jamison’s had a highly successful career for decades, but he was nonetheless clearly moved by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction. It’s not as if it had been quiet before then, but it truly went into overdrive from the moment Jimi appeared, and only let up for a couple of brief moments during the set.

Now, for all you non-AOR devotees out there it’s worth explaining at this point that Jamison didn’t sing on the Survivor song that you’ll know (for those who are extra’s Eye of the Tiger) as he joined a couple of years later; however he did sing most of their other big hits (Yes, it’s true – Survivor actually had a serious run of big hits in the mid-80s, and you thought they were one-hit wonders, shame on you...). The set was largely made up of Survivor classics, but he did venture back to his pre-Survivor days for a Cobra number, and forward (just!) to Chasing Euphoria from the (Bobby) Kimball/Jamison album that should have been in our hands already, but was delayed for a week for reasons unspecified by Amazon! Oh, and, naturally he played the theme from Baywatch, mandatory in some ways, being the song more people have heard him sing than anything else. 

Jimi Jamison in action

Hearing a vocalist perform outside of the group that made him famous can often be disappointing, but Jamison had assembled a cracking band (led by Swedish guitar legend Tommy Denander) for his 2010 set and they were only too happy to return with him this time around, so beyond the fact that his voice remains in first class shape, justice was more than done to the Survivor numbers, which included some of the hits big and small (Burning Heart, High on You, First Night, Didn’t Know it Was Love) and fan favourites such as Desperate Dreams, Rebel Son and I See You in Everyone, which featured an extended solo from Denander that I dare say wasn’t beat by any other solo of the weekend! One of my personal Survivor favourites -  namely Oceans, also got an airing, but strangely received a more muted reception from the crowd. Jimi described it afterwards as a ‘more obscure number’ which, I presume, means it hasn’t been on many of the 17 000 Survivor compilations that are out there!

Despite not being ‘his’ song, a lynching would have taken place if Eye of the Tiger hadn’t been performed, so the set ended with this rock classic, and the roof was blasted off and away into the stratosphere as a result. A fitting end to a fantastic evening, headlined by one of the genre’s all-time greatest vocalists...I’ll continue to buy anything he releases! (10/10)

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