Thursday, 31 October 2013

Gig Review: Firefest Sunday 2013

After a day's restful shopping and eating in sunny Nottingham I was re-energised and ready for another full day of melodic rock, which is, more or less, what I got...  

Following W.E.T.'s outstanding performance on the Friday I was looking forward to Sunday openers Eclipse, which, for the purposes of Firefest, at least, is basically W.E.T. sans Säll and JSS  (apart from his entirely anticipated guest appearance on one song) , and has the wonderful Erik Mårtennson up front and centre. The band played up their early afternoon Sunday slot by arriving on stage in dressing gowns, and Mårtennson managed to get the crowd energised by telling us so often that we ended up believing that it really was Saturday night at 11pm. Not being restricted by instrumental duties allowed him the freedom to leap about and around the stage at will and prove what a fine frontman he is in his own right. A great start to the Sunday, and a performance that would take a while to be surpassed.

Most folk who know me claim never to have heard of any of the bands I follow, which is vaguely depressing, but never mind. They wouldn't have stood a chance with the next two bands, as even I couldn't claim to know a thing about them before Sunday (well, Friday, when I read their potted biographies in the programme!). Brighton Rock seemed to me to be very schizophrenic - great musically, but destroyed by ghastly tuneless, shouty vocals, which were nigh on impossible to listen to or past. Prophet fared better overall, but didn't really leave a huge impression once they'd departed the stage. Both bands did establish a good rapport with the crowd, and the Brighton Rock guys certainly revealed a solid sense of humour, not least during the only real moment of 'technical difficulties' I witnessed across the weekend.

My main Sunday draw card, Alien, were up next and their hour-long set was worth the price of admission on its own - and then some. After a couple of disappointing vocalists Jim Jidhed showed how it’s done, and delivered the performance of the weekend, as far as I’m concerned. The set was anchored by a stream of classics from their 1988 debut including Go Easy, Tears Don't Put Out the Fire, Jaime Remember and set-closer Dying By the Golden Rule. To me, they sounded at least twice as good in a live setting - and about a million times better in the case of their local (Swedish) mega-hit - the Bee Gees-penned Only One Woman, which is a lowlight of said debut album (albeit a highly catchy and memorable one), but became somehow much classier in a live setting. One of the unexpected highlights was brand new song In Love We Trust – talk about an instant earworm! If the rest of the forthcoming album is as catchy as that they may manage to top that debut.

I'm always happy to give bands I don't know a fair hearing, so was quite prepared to starve in the name of music if what was on offer warranted it...sadly a few songs into Baton Rouge's set I suddenly realised I was very hungry (almost) all accounts I left at the right time, as the set, which started fairly badly, only disintegrated further as lead singer Kelly Keeling's (alleged) substance-fuelled antics drove both his bandmates and the audience to despair and calls of 'car-crash' started to flood the Firefest Facebook page. Oh well, that's rock and roll for ya...

I returned in time to catch all but the opening track of the set by J-PEG or JLS, or whatever they're called (Oh sod it, it was Vixen, currently going by their members initials, which are impossible to remember even whilst looking at them in print, okay?). This is another group who fall into the 'not really my flavour of ice cream' category, but they certainly delivered a great show regardless and unlike most present I was only paying attention to their music and stage presence - as possibly the only gay in the Firefest village their apparent amazing looks passed me by entirely.

The final act of the weekend - and another serious draw for me - was Legends, the group led by Swedish guitar hero Tommy Denander that features a rotating cast of classic rock vocalists belting out their best-known hits. The originally announced line-up for Firefest consisted of Joe Lynn Turner, Eric Martin and Fergie Frederiksen, but ultimately only Martin made it on the night, with Fergie sadly missing due to a turn for the worse in his ongoing cancer battle, and JLT pulling out because...he needed to stay in and catch up on Breaking Bad (or some other entirely pathetic excuse - doesn't matter, he wasn't missed!). In their places were Graham Bonnet and Bobby Kimball, so Rainbow and Toto nuggets were both still prominently featured in the set.

Bonnet was first to hit the stage and while, unlike some of his contemporaries, he looks every bit as old as his 66 years (if not older), he proved he could still deliver the goods and, amid much daft stage banter with the crowd and Denander, ran through two Rainbow numbers, along with MSGs Desert Song, before handing the spotlight over to the impossibly baby-faced Eric Martin. Martin saw Bonnet's banter-level and raised it, resulting in much hilarity (and at least one shout of 'get on with it') throughout his set of early Mr Big classics, following three Lean Into It tracks with Wild World, for which he brought on a special guest vocalist (No, not Jeff Scott Soto, amazingly enough) to swell the ranks of legends onstage even further - for it was none other than Bob smeggin' Catley. If my weekend hadn't already been made several times over that right there would have done it, especially in what has been my first Magnum-less year since landing in the UK. Uncle Bob got to plug the upcoming Magnum album and tour before he and Martin departed and Bobby Kimball took to the stage. I'll freely admit that Fergie is my favourite Toto vocalist and I was dying to see him for the first time, but I can't ever complain about an opportunity to see Bobby, and he was on fine form. Bobby has come in for some flack online for variable vocal performances in recent years, but while he is undoubtedly better on some nights than others I've never encountered a poor performance from him personally. This time he wasn't quite the very best I've ever seen him, but it was pretty close. My only complaint about his set was that he really doesn't sing enough of Africa to justify its inclusion (despite its mega-hit status) and the keyboardist's lead vocal on the verses was only passable (if only Mr Catley had come back to perform this part!). When it comes to all things Toto my standards are impossibly high, and to be fair I haven't seen any other negative reaction to the performance. In any case it was quickly made up for with brilliant renditions of White Sister and Rosanna (during which Bobby sang both his own and Luke's part, though this did highlight why it was split between them in the first place!).

Then it was encore time, with each vocalist returning for one more number, and in every case the choice was as obvious as it was obligatory - Rainbow's Since You Been Gone for Bonnet, To Be With You - the song that put me off Mr Big for two full decades  - for Martin (joined again by Bob Catley, which had the surprising effect of making a song I've always loathed immensely enjoyable) and Toto's Hold the Line for Kimball, which proved an entirely suitable climax for the entire three days. Certainly the set silenced any doubters who had questioned the wisdom of including a ‘cabaret’ or ‘karaoke’ act as a headliner.

All that remained was the (presumably traditional) thank you to and from the crew, and an outpouring of affection to clearly-touched (not like that!) organiser Kieran Dargen, that was as close as you'll get to the reaction at a Marillion convention outside of ...erm, a Marillion convention. It was great to be there for the end of the festival for the first time - we'll have to wait and see what is unveiled for next year's swansong, but while there are enough faithful regulars to have seen the VIP packages sell out before any bands have even been announced, I'll be waiting for the final line-up details before deciding just how many days I'll be spending in Nottingham this time next year...but you can pretty much guarantee there'll be something on the bill to entice me!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Gig Review: Firefest Friday 2013

Another October, another Firefest Friday review! Well, keep traditions running for as long as you can, I say…sadly, this appears to be one that won't last past next year. But let's not worry about the future for now, the very recent past is much more pressing!

The first band of the day has traditionally been a revelation, and this time around the honour belonged to The Magnificent. They certainly lived up to both those heady expectations, and their own modest name, even if they weren’t in quite the same league as Lionville or Serpentine, Friday openers from the previous two years. So much music has passed through my ears since these guys hit the stage that some of the specifics have abandoned me, but suffice to say their album is heading to an Amazon locker near me very shortly!

Eden’s Curse weren’t really my cup of tea, although their set did pick up towards the end with Unbreakable and the single from their latest album, the first to feature new vocalist Nikola Mijic. I’ve never heard Michael Eden (live or otherwise), so can’t compare the two, but Mijic made a reasonable account of himself, though his stage act appeared to consist of adjusting his jacket every 12 bloody seconds or so! Not a band warranting further investigation from me though.

My first real draw of the day, Work of Art, were up next and Lars Säfsund again proved he is one of the finest vocalists in the genre, although I have to say his performance last year with Lionville was even better (I didn’t catch Work of Art’s own set last year, but the consensus seems to be that this year’s return stopped slightly short of matching it). Some have said that the introduction of two new songs slowed the momentum mid-set, but they were great songs and seemed to get a pretty favourable reaction from where I was standing. Certainly the well-chosen selections from the first two albums were deserving crowd-pleasers one and all.

W.E.T. are a band I’ve semi-consciously avoided up until now – I’ve always been suspicious of groups put together by record label executives (Yes folks, I’ve just labelled W.E.T. as the One Direction of the Frontiers roster!), but my unwarranted cynicism was shattered within the first few minutes of their set and they unexpectedly won the coveted ‘my band of the day’ award (well, it would be coveted if people knew it existed, I’m sure).

This was my first time seeing Jeff Scott Soto live, and everything I’ve heard about him turned out to be spot on – great voice (you don’t get called in to rescue Journey mid-tour if you’re a slouch vocally, after all), great personality, great performer – the times where he and (the impossibly young-looking) Erik Mårtensson shared a mic were especially magical. Special mention must also go to drummer Robban Bäck (which sounded suspiciously like ‘Robin Beck’ when announced on stage, but amazingly enough they don’t look that similar, so such confusion was short-lived!), the finest skins-basher in sight on the night (and on Sunday as well, which I may or may not get to in a subsequent post!).

Speaking of such things most Firefests involve a few musicians doing double-duty somewhere on the bill, but with the standard 20-minute turnaround between acts, Robert Säll’s transition from Work of Art guitarist to W.E.T. keyboardist must be some kind of record? As great a musician and songwriter as he is, though, it must be said that, at this point in time at least, a beer-soaked set-list has greater stage presence. That said, when you’re sharing the stage with the likes of Lars or JSS maybe you don’t need to be super-exciting yourself (this is making me think of John Deacon for some reason…)

The other band on the bill that would have had me dishing out my cash regardless of the rest of the line-up was Dare, who stunned many by opening with a pair of rarely-heard tracks from fan-favourite – but crucially not band-favourite – Blood From Stone. While there wasn’t a duff moment in their set, the excitement levels did drop off a tad after this, but ending their slot with a brace of tunes from classic debut Out of the Silence was just what the doctor ordered – and ending with my personal favourite, The Raindance, was as good as it could possibly get. That album may be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but Darren Wharton’s voice remains as strong as ever. Seeing Vinny Burns on guitar was a treat as well, though second guitarist Richard Dews, who was mostly on acoustic, was equally fine, though he did make me devote far too much of the set to half-pondering which Game of Thrones character/actor he reminded me of!

After three cracking sets in a row I was prepared for a come-down and while recently reformed headliners Harem Scarem are favourites of the melodic rock scene, their appeal has always been lost on me. I was willing to be proved as wrong about them as I was about W.E.T. but after 5 songs had failed to invoke anything more positive than a ‘meh’ from me I left them to it. By all accounts the faithful were pleased with the set, so all good!

Overall then, yet another fantastic Friday evening of obscure and uncool melodic rock/AOR. Props as ever to Kieran and the gang for their organisation of this rather large undertaking – and special thanks for the warning on merch-closing times this year, the lack of which I moaned about this time last year!

I’ve never managed more than a Friday at a Firefest before, but while there wasn’t a band on the Saturday line-up to tempt me into parting with my cash, I did stick around in Nottingham for the full weekend this time around and rejoined the Firefest madness on Sunday…which, as I say, I may or may not get around to telling you about!