Firefest IX @ Nottingham Rock City – Sunday 21 October 2012

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Review by Paul Quinton and photos by Sean Larkin

Lionville’s task in opening Firefest at 5.40 pm on Friday may have been tricky, but I suspect the most thankless slot is first up on Sunday, which this year fell to New Jersey’s FAR CRY. There’s already been a lot of fine music and some of the crowd may be feeling a little fragile, so it can’t be easy making an impression. Nevertheless Far Cry came out and made a good job of opening Sunday’s bill. They used the time-honoured tactic of good hard rock songs, well-played but without really catching fire. Singer Mike Ledesma tried to liven things up, with references to the Olympics and namechecking his British influences, but you often felt he was fighting a losing battle. They had been scheduled to play in 2011, but organisational problems conspired against them. They’re a good band and they’ve probably had better days.

FIONA was one of the pin-ups of the 80s AOR/melodic rock scene, but dropped out of music after a short stab at acting and then starting a family. But after a two decade break, she returned with the ‘Unbroken’ album and Firefest gave her the opportunity to finally make her UK debut, with the same band as backed Robin Beck. Unfortunately, this performance wasn’t really as good as her many admirers in the crowd might have hoped. There were rumours that she was suffering from a cold, but it’s also a fact that she’s performed very little in the last two decades, and at times her lack of match fitness was awkwardly obvious. While you can’t know how good the on-stage sound was, she seemed to be having particular problems with the higher notes. At the end of the set, choosing to cover as well known a song, and one as associated with another singer, as ‘Shadows Of The Night’, only served to highlight the problems even more. Apart from the excellence of her band, this wasn’t the best.

A lot of people had waited a long time to see ROYAL HUNT. Apart from a single London date a few years ago, it was the last Gods Festival in 2003 when they last graced a UK stage, and a chance to see these titans of neo classical prog metal was long overdue. Now reunited with singer D.C.Cooper, and with a fine new album, this was the last date in a lengthy European tour. Technical issues delayed the start by nearly 15 minutes, before Andre Andersen led the band onstage to begin with ‘One More Day’.  Because of the late start they opened played for 40 of the scheduled 50 minutes, but definitely made my day with a searing version of ‘The Mission’ and by rounding off their set with a monumental ‘Message To God’. For all that they’re signed to the European melodic rock label Frontiers, they were a bit different to most of the bands, and maybe they were a bit too prog for a lot of the audience. But equally for a lot of people they were a revelation and got a great reception.

As mentioned during Saturday’s review, there comes a time on every day at Firefest when you have to decide when to take on sustenance. For this Sunday, after hearing them open with a somewhat underpowered ‘Unleash The Rage’ and ‘Young, Wild and Free’, the decision give the remainder of BRIGHTON ROCK’s set a miss was taken. By all accounts the set perked up considerably after the opening, but from what we saw, the fact this was only their second show in nine years looked clear.

Missing Brighton Rock meant we were all present and correct for one of the more pleasant surprises of the weekend, New Orleans’ LILLIAN AXE. I thought they might be a little too dark and heavy to completely fit in at Firefest, but like Royal Hunt, the quality of their songs and playing carried them through. They concentrated mainly on the first few albums of their career, opening with ‘Deep Freeze’, from 1993, with only a couple from their most recent album. There was also an interesting cover of Badfinger’s ‘No Matter What’ to end the main set, before an encore of ‘Show a Little Love’. Maybe we could have lived without Steve Blaze’s guitar solo, although it wasn’t that long in the context, but this was a really good set from the band. Here’s hoping they get the chance to come back to the UK, as they’re really worth checking out.

A couple of years ago, Norway’s STAGE DOLLS, played an absolutely storming set at Firefest, and no doubt it was on that basis they were signed up as second on the bill for Sunday night. They do say lighting never strikes twice, so maybe it might have been too much to hope that the band could recapture the magic of the previous performance, but nobody need worry, because bless me if the band didn’t deliver again. They have two things going for them live, firstly Torstein Flakne has a wry, quirky sense of humour that instantly gets the crowd on his side, and secondly a set full of highly melodic songs that are not only made for, but almost demand audience participation, such as ‘Love Don’t Bother Me’ and ‘Wings of Steel’.  Again, maybe a couple of short piano solos did slow the pace a little, but yet again Stage Dolls delivered a set that was an absolute joy from start to finish and left the Firefest crowd howling for more. If not for the magnificence of Royal Hunt, they would have been clear winners of Band of The Day, but this time, I have to call it a tie.

And so to the last band, one of the best party bands of them all, DANGER DANGER,  As might be expected, their set relied heavily on the first two albums, but it would be a big mistake to describe this set as predictable as you were never sure quite what was going to happen next. During one of the newer songs, ‘Killing Time’, Ted Poley grabbed his mic and announced he was going to meet the crowd, and proceeded to leave the stage and wander around the hall while singing, including going up into the balcony, which apparently came as a surprise to everyone, including the organisers. Maybe some of the between songs chat went on a bit too long, even guitarist Rob Marcello started to amuse himself by cranking out random riffs while Poley and bassist Bruno Ravel chatted, including Kiss’ ‘God of Thunder’, at which point Ravel instantly began singing the verse, then he saw a member of the crowd hold up an iPad showing the message ‘Play Afraid of Love’, so the band promptly improvised a few bars. The encore of ‘Monkey Business’ saw the band joined not only by Mitch Malloy, but also by two unidentified miscreants in monkey suits, who threw bananas into the crowd, one of which was returned with admirable accuracy, catching Malloy a nifty one on the ear, to general amusement, which left only ‘Naughty Naughty’ where the band were joined by Robin Beck, Tommy Demander, Terry Ilous from XYZ and James Christian. It may not have been the most musically awe-inspiring set of the weekend, but the relaxed, loose, ‘let’s just have a good time’ vibe of the set was the perfect way to end the weekend.

So that was Firefest IX, 2012. As ever the event ran pretty much like clockwork, apart from the occasional technical hitch, and at time of writing the Firefest team have already stated that they have half of 2013’s bill in place. There was an awful lot of great music this year, and for the most part Firefest has a great atmosphere. The only reservation is that, to a certain extent, Firefest is in danger of outgrowing itself, and Rock City as a venue. There were apparently people from 34 countries at this event, when most of the bands were on it was almost impossible to move around the hall  and the facilities at the venue could regularly be described as ‘under pressure’. Nevertheless, it’s one of those events you pencil into your diary a year in advance, and where you feel you just have to be. Roll on 2013.

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