Firefest IX @ Nottingham Rock City – Saturday 20 October 2012

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Review by Paul Quinton and photos by Sean Larkin

Saturday’s bill began with US singer JOHNNY LIMA, and amazingly the hall was packed when he began at the decidedly non-rock and roll hour of ten to one in the afternoon.  His early albums showed a strong vocal resemblance to Jon Bon Jovi, but over time he’s turned into a Vince Neil soundalike. His set woke the crowd up somewhat, but a lot of people were there ready for the UK debut of WORK OF ART, and the Swedes did not let the crowd down. Two albums of perfectly crafted AOR, not to mention guitarist Robert Sall’s involvement in the stupendous W.E.T. album, suggested this might be a bit special, and as suggestions go, that was spot on. With Sall and writing partner, drummer Herman Furin, augmented by Lars Safsund on vocals, Andreas Passmark on bass and the impressively bearded Jonas Groning on keyboards, the band gave us 50 minutes of the highest quality melodic rock. If it took the crowd a few songs to really wake up, a stupendous ‘Why Do I’ and ‘The Great Fall’ brought them to their feet and seemed to have almost everyone singing and clapping along. A great set, and another band that’s welcome back anytime.

Having a single UK top 5 hit, doesn’t seem much at first glance to earn a Firefest appearance, but there’s so much more than that to ROBIN BECK. Yes, she did play ‘First Time’, which gave her a hit single when it was used in a Cola advert, but her 50 minutes on the Firefest stage featured songs from a long and high quality recording career. Backed by a band that included the estimable Tommy Denander on guitar and her husband, House of Lords vocalist James Christian on bass, she put in a high energy performance that soon had the crowd safely in the palm of her hand. There were excellent renditions of songs like ‘You’re The One’, dedicated to Firefest organiser Bruce Mee, and the Kiss song ‘Hide Your Heart’, but, perhaps oddly, the set didn’t end with ‘First Time’, the big hit being followed by an unreleased song, but overall a high quality set which had a great reception from the Firefest crowd.

Saturday at Firefest can be quite a long day, and with the lack of facilities at Rock City, both to take the weight off and for refreshment other than alcohol, you have to pick your time to refuel. For Midlands Rocks, and for a lot of the audience by the look of it, the set from Canadian power trio SANTERS was the most expendable on Saturday. Anyone hearing their workmanlike but unremarkable cover of ‘Alright Now’ would have marked the very noticeable thinning out of the crowd, but to be fair that was the low point of the part of the set that I heard. Santers are a solid unit, at times reminiscent of fellow Canadians Triumph, and Ric Santers is clearly a fine guitarist. The problem was there was too little to follow the energy and exuberance of Robin Beck, or the lush magnificence of Work of Art, and while they got a good round of applause, it wasn’t one of Firefest’s most legendary sets.

It was interesting that XYZ put some thought into their entrance onto the stage, which is unusual for bands at Firefest. They started with drummer Joey Shapiro. alone on stage, hammering out a beat before being joined by the rest of the band, one by one, last of all singer Terry Ilous, and the whole band were there playing ‘Come On and Love me’. Simple but effective. XYZ are a solid, no-frills melodic hard rock band, coming from the same DNA as Van Halen and Montrose. There’s no flash, just some good songs and the confidence to inject a bit of variety into the template. There was a little blues in ‘Slow Down’ and they were the first band over the weekend to play some acoustic songs. These seemed to provide a bit of a breather for both band and crowd, as when the full band came back together they seemed to have found even more energy. Pausing only for bassist Pat Fontaine to be presented with a cake on the occasion of his birthday, they steamed into the climax of the show, culminating in a full-on ‘Inside Out’, with full audience participation. A good band to have on a bill like this, good songs, professional and guaranteed to get the crowd up. An excellent set.

MITCH MALLOY made a very welcome return to Firefest, this time second on the bill. Using four members of Lionville as his backing band, and extremely tight they were, he gave his usual set, packed with well-written highly melodic songs, and he always gives good value. Unusually for Firefest, there were minor sound problems during some of his set, with feedback making its presence felt regularly, but it did nothing to disturb the band, nor did it affect the audience’s obvious pleasure in seeing a genuine professional at work. With a new album on sale, a revamped version of his classic ‘Shine’ album, there were plenty of much loved songs to hear including a belting ‘Anything At All’, but with a 70-minute scheduled, it was a surprise when the band walked off after only 50. However they were soon back for a three song encore with included Danger Danger’s Bruno Ravel playing bass for the first song. Mitch Malloy has so many good songs and is such an excellent singer, the Firefest team can rarely go wrong when they add him to the bill.

Of all the bands appearing at this year’s event, there was one that was not only highly anticipated, but also promised to be one of the most emotional in the history of the event. Following the awful death of singer Steve Lee in 2010, this would be GOTTHARD’s first appearance in the UK with new vocalist Nic Maeder, and the number of Gotthard t-shirts in the crowd showed how many people wanted to see the band. The atmosphere had already built and built, not diminished by what sounded like a lengthy soundcheck, but when Leo Leoni led the band out the welcome was almost as ferocious as it was heartfelt. There must have been a sizable lump in a lot of throats to see the band on a UK stage again, and you could almost touch the crowd’s desire to see the band do well.

It might have been expected that the band might turn the show into an extended tribute to Steve Lee, but commendably, and probably wisely, they didn’t. This is still a working band, with a new album, ‘Firebirth’, and while they did look back, they also did plenty to prove that they’re still one of the best live bands on the scene, mixing a healthy selection from the new album, with some old favourites. In addition, Nic Maeder seems to be an excellent choice as the new singer. As well as looking uncommonly like a young Bob Geldof, his voice bears a passing resemblance to Steve Lee’s, and he handled the more more well-known songs extremely well, as well as the inevitable tribute to the late singer. Early on, the scorching power ballad from ‘Firebirth’, ‘Remember It’s Me’, was dedicated to ‘the big shoes he had to fill’, and it was a powerful and affecting performance. Even more so later on, when, accompanied only by Ernesto Ghezzi on piano, he sang a  song that will now forever be associated with Lee, ‘One Life, One Soul’. It was a perfect tribute, received in almost perfect silence by the crowd.

The end of the set was ‘Lift You Up’, and the inevitable encores were a scintillating ‘Master of Illusion’ and ‘Anytime Anywhere’, which again threatened to take the roof off. The roar at the end of the set was deafening, then as the band took their bows, something happened that I hadn’t seen at Firefest before. With the band bowing and waving, the crowd began to sing, quite spontaneously, the chorus from ‘Lift You Up’. You can see it on Youtube, and it was obvious that the band, Leo Leoni in particular, were quite moved by the response. It had been a great set, even without the emotion involved, a welcome return by a great band, and for me, the highlight of the whole festival.

And you can see more shots from the Saturday show here: