The second day of Firefest’s Final Fling promised to be the strongest, in terms of the quality of the names on the line-up, and this was reflected in the fact that breakfast had barely settled in the stomachs of most of the some 1,800 who queued outside the venue to get a piece of the Saturday afternoon/evening action.
Rage Of Angels – a band built around former Ten keyboardist/Tyketto guitarist Ged Rylands – get the lunchtime proceedings off to a suitably loud and proud start with the title track of their debut ‘Dreamworld’ album: the heavy ended bass riffs and soaring guitar melodies are complemented by precise vocal harmonies which echo just how, despite being an apparent disparate band of musical brethren, tight and proficient this collection of musicians are. Guitarist Neil Fraser has the honour of producing the first extended guitar solo of the festival, while frontman Rick Chase – stepping in after the departure of Jason Morgan (to concentrate on business life) and the subsequent unavailability of proposed stand-in Ryland’s former band mate Danny Vaughn – has both the charisma and the voice to carry the role with aplomb. Ryland’s old friend Tommy Denander even joins in the fun on what turns out to be a number of appearances over the course of the weekend.
The Saturday is a day of firsts – the first (sic) of which is the UK debut of the much-vaunted, and re-ignited, From The Fire: unfortunately, despite the hype, the result is a mundane set of mid-paced middle-of-the-road Boston-meets-Toto melodic rock of the sort that cluttered up the US airwaves during the late 80s / early 90s. Perched behind his keyboard stage right, Joe Kelly is enthusiastic in his interaction with the audience, among which diehard fans are obviously appreciative of the band’s re-emergence. Anchored by the legendary John McCoy, adopting his usual stoical stance stage left, it nevertheless is a faultlessly flawless performance, highlighted by a seering duet with Issa Oversveen.
Canada’s Boulevard have also come out of a lengthy “retirement phase” (as saxophonist Mark Holden mockingly puts it) – this time one lasting more than 20 years, and again are making their UK debut. Musically, they plough the same roughly the same MOR furrow as their predecessors on the stage, but do so with much more spit and verve, especially in the vocal department, and to this reviewer prove very much the surprise package of the weekend. Appropriately opening with ‘Dream On’, the guys obviously are here to have fun, as shown when vocalist David Forbes introduces “a song from our latest album – from 1990” – which prompts charismatic keyboardist Andrew Johns to don a period wig! Again appropriately, the song in question is ‘Where Are You Now’ (from the aforementioned ‘Into The Street’ release): the answer is right here, grinning from ear to ear in front of an increasingly enthusiastic, clapping, singing crowd who are enjoying the show as much as the six guys on the stage, who prove that they have fire in their hearts and, with a new EP now apparently in the offing, I have a feeling that the walk along this particular boulevard is not quite at an end yet!
By way of total contrast, San Franciscans Babylon A.D. literally punch their way onto the stage with the quick one-two combination of ‘Back In Babylon’ and ‘Hammer Swings Down’. With the band thumping, pounding and grounding the audience into submission, Derek Davis is another frontman who is just a complete ball of energy, covering every centimetre of the stage and constantly urging the crowd to pump the intensity level up to 11 – not they need much encouragement, as this is one of the most eagerly anticipated acts of the weekend. ‘Maryanne’ is as acerbic and vicious as its subject matter, while the band also unveil a “new” song (from a recently rediscovered 20 year-old session, as Davis explains) in ‘Love Blind’, and a harder-edged reworked ‘Bang Go The Bells’ sounds fresh and vibrant, and receives a suitably uproarious response. They close with a suitably high energy ‘The Kid Goes Wild’, and so does virtually the entire room for this equally high energy show.
Pretty Maids were another act I had really been looking forward to seeing live for the first time, as I’ve been a big fan of their recorded output since ‘Red Hot And Heavy’ first hit my death decks nigh on 30 years ago – and, again, the band did not disappoint. Ronnie Atkins still has tonnes of charisma, and his voice is in terrific shape, while Ken Hammer and the rest of the band play with bags of energy and enthusiasm. It’s very much a crowd-pleasing set drawing on the full depth of the Maids’ 13 album career, from ‘Nuclear Boomerang’ right back to ‘Love Games’, from ‘I See Ghosts’ and the towering ‘Sad To See You Suffer’ (from last year’s brilliant ‘Motherland’) to the rabble-rousingly rambunctious ‘Rodeo’ and the fiercesome finale of ‘Future World’ itself. The only stumble along the way was a rather mundane and needless, in the circumstances, rendition of John Sykes’ paean to the late Phil Lynott, ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’, which did nothing to stir this Norn Oirish heart in the way the rest of the set made it sing with joy.
Returning to the UK for the first time in 30 years, Black ‘N Blue frontman Jaime St James looks like he is stuck in 1984: always regarded, in my humble opinion anyway, as a sleaze rock version of AC/DC – i.e. their songs stick to the same basic formula and sound – the band are tight and efficient, especially in the interaction between guitarists Brandon Cook and stand-in Stacey Blades.
However, they lack the fire and vivacity of what has gone before – with St James looking like he’s going through the motions, leaving Cook the only one to really interact with the audience – and it takes them half a dozen or so songs to find their stride. With ‘Target’ the only track to be aired from their most recent album, ‘Hell Yeah’, the decision to dedicate the last third of the set to tracks from their self-titled 1984 debut proves to be the right one, as they really put their foot to the floor with ‘’The Strong Will Rock’ and, given their slow start, surprisingly rousing versions of ‘Wicked Bitch’, ‘School Of Hard Knocks’ and a tongue-in-cheek ‘Hold On To 18’.
Journalists carry many things with them when they set off to review gigs, and festivals in particular: notebooks, pens, tablets, cameras, energy drinks, etc. On this occasion, this reviewer’s backpack also contained several pairs of clean knickers, as the female half of the PM team was rather excited – to say the least – about the prospect of finally seeing one of her favourite bands in the flesh! Unfortunately, Firehouse‘s second night headline set was a bit of curate’s egg – highlighted by all the expected hits but dragged done by unnecessary, drawn out (and, to be frank, at times very boring) instrumental workouts.
Guitarist Bill Leverty slides nonchalantly onto the stage, and just as gracefully the band ease into their set, and they immediately have the crowd – and especially the women – eating out of the palms of their hands and singing along with every word. However, in the midst of the opening salvo of high energy hits, including an obstreperous ‘You’re Too Bad’, Leverty suddenly takes things off at a complete tangent with an inexplicably jazzy workout.
Tonight’s set also had been billed as featuring the band’s debut in its entirety – and this again leads to problems, and fairly quickly… when most bands advertise a set of this nature, the expectation is that they will play the album in question in full and in its published order: however, as the band launch full throttle into an equally full-blooded version of ‘Rock On The Radio’ they quickly change tack yet again as, after just two tracks from the aforesaid self-titled debut, they slow the pace down and move forward to its follow up with the stirring ‘Look Into Your Eyes’ – into which they introduce a drum solo, an extended call-and-return with the audience and a confusingly elongated intrumental workout.
There is no doubt that Firehouse are hugely talented musicians with a tremendous back catalogue of great songs – the highlights of which this evening were the thump and groove of ‘Don’t Walk Away’, the bluesy ‘Tryin To Make A Livin’, with its rather fine keyboards v guitar duel, the huge ballad ‘Love Of A Lifetime’, which featured an equally huge scream from CJ Snare, and a rousing ‘Reach For The Sky’ – but the general feeling was that if they had cut some of the unnecessary showmanship and musical wankery (for want of a better phrase than the one used at the time by The Dark Queen) then they could have fitted in a few more songs and delivered a much more overall crowdpleasing set.
And so Team PM, feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, ventured forth into the dark, cold night to seek out a much-deserved pint of Nottingham’s finest ale, ready to fortify themselves for the third day and last hurrah of Firefest’s Final Fling…
Photos by Sean Larkin and The Dark Queen.