First there was Firefest. An annual celebration of classic melodic rock which, despite being hugely popular and attracting some of the top names in the genre – many of them catalyzed to reform by the event – as well as fans from all over the globe, sadly came to an end last year. Now, in its place, there is the cunningly named Rockingham. Same idea, same venue, same format,with 21 bands, a mixture of seasoned veterans and up-and-coming acts, running the gamut of the genre, playing across three days.
Finnish upstarts Santa Cruz  had the task of opening proceedings, and they get things off to a high energy start with their quality sleaze mixed with a classic rock vibe. They certainly pull all the right moves and shapes, and do so with balls aplenty, as well as bounce, grit and verve. Serpentine  deliver tight, proficient hard-edged melodic rock with plenty of grunt in its groove. Adam Payne is a charismatic vocalist, although the atmosphere on stage does seem a little tense, with little interaction between the band members. Their recent collaboration with Gary Hughes is clear in the delivery of their newer material, which does have a heavy Ten feel to it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if they can manage to retain their individuality at the same time.
The dark, throbbing melodies of Romeo’s Daughter  underpin Leigh Matty’s elegant vocals. The frontwoman has an easy grace about her, very much in the vein of Ann Wilson and Stevie Nicks, and captivates the audience with both her charm and power. The mid-pace of the set slows things down to a late afternoon stroll compared to what had gone before, but it’s a welcome breather and another superb set from a band whose experience makes their live appearances seem unforced and natural.
One act from whom I genuinely did not know what to expect was Robert Tepper : what he delivers is classic melodic rock by and large ripped from the heart of the 80s and transplanted into the next millennium. Tepper’s voice is rich and mellifluous, and his performance is heartfelt. One of the set’s highlights is the joyous duet, ‘Fighting For You’, with Gabriella La Val. The Spanish backing band are tight and highly professional – only let down by the keyboard player forgetting to set up his stand up properly, with the result that it crashes to the stage midway through ‘Le Bel Age’, meaning that the hugely recognizable intro to ‘No Easy Way Out’ has to be omitted – and the result is that Tepper’s debut UK performance earns a deservedly rapturous response.
Eclipse  up the energy levels again, getting their hour-long set off to a high impact start with the huge singalong harmonies of ‘I Don’t Want To Say I’m Sorry’. Vocalist Erik Mårtensson leaps around the stage, bounding on and off monitors, with the energy of a four-year old dosed with a packet full of Skittles, and at the same time engaging with the audience on every level. Their classic Scandinavian sleaze is filled with massive melodies, and they stage one of the nicest interludes of the weekend when they raise a toast to mark the birthday of Jeff Scott Soto, before a timely cover of W.E.T.’s ‘One Love’. And, of course, it won’t be last we see of Mårtensson over the course of the weekend…
During the final half hour changeover, the anticipation slowly builds for headliner Tom Keifer . The former Cinderella frontman strolls on stage, resplendent from head to foot in black, before slowly rolling into his grunty, ever-so-slightly-sleazy country blues set via ‘Bad Seamstress Blues/Fallin’ Apart At The Seams. The first acoustic interlude comes as early as the third song, ‘A Different Light’, before the booties in the room need no second invitation to ‘Shake Me’.
The main acoustic section features two songs from his Cinderella career – ‘Heartbreak Station’, which features the whole room as his backing choir (although his own gritty vocal still fills every corner of the packed auditorium), and ‘Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone), which of course normally would feature as a duet with his wife Savannah, but unfortunately she has had to stay at home recovering from an emergency appendectomy – on either side of a roof-raising ‘The Flower Song’. The band switches back to full electric mode and it the venue had aisles then they would be jammed with dancing bodies as he pleases the crowd with ‘Nobody’s Fool’ and ‘Night Songs’. He doesn’t really need any help from his friends as he rattles through a cover of the Beatles song, before bringing the evening to a fitting, if somewhat (curfew-limited) early conclusion with a magnificent journey along that ‘Gypsy Road’.
And so the first day of the first Rockingham came to a conclusion, and set the tone of the rest of weekend. Happy, content and knackered (well, we had left home just after 5am!), your PM team headed for the comfort if somewhat cramped haven of our nearby hotel to get some well-deserved rest and prepare for day two…
- Photographs by The Dark Queen.
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