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Added by Central Electronic Brain     January 15, 2014    
 
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Melodic Rock Fest 3 - H.O.M.E. Bar, Chicago (USA) - 27th, 28th & 29th September 2013

Australian melodic rock guru Andrew McNiece hadn't made a penny on his previous two festivals (2007 and 2010) but nevertheless we found ourselves at the third MelodicRockFest anticipating a very long three days with almost thirty artists running from noon until the wee small hours. Arriving at the official Holiday Inn Express two days before the start gave us a while to get over jetlag and spend some time in downtown Chicago before a low-key pizza and drinks get-together with other festival goers and Firefest regulars in the hotel ballroom. The entertainment for the evening was provided by JSS alumni and prolific solo artist Gary Schutt and his one-man Gary-oke, where several people, including my better half, demonstrated the trickiness of doing karaoke without having the lyrics scrolling in front of you – she'll probably never live down forgetting the words to The Tubes' 'Talk To Ya Later'. The highlight of this marathon event, apart from Schutt's awesome guitar playing, was No Love Lost's Scott Board doing an impressive job on Priest's 'Victim Of Changes' and some drunken attempts from Eclipse's Magnus Henrikssen and Robben Back that weren't actually too bad for two guys who couldn't stand up.

First impressions of the H.O.M.E. Bar in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights were very positive, it's a huge sports bar with excellent food and reasonably priced drink, we liked it so much that we got there an hour before kick-off every day to have lunch. The concert room was also quite large, with a big stage and a good view from everywhere. The first day had a slightly later start and was largely acoustic, starting off well with Andrew's fellow countrymen The Radio Sun, followed by North Carolina's Line Of Fire, with excellent vocals from Shawn Pelata and backing from guitarist Nikki Dimage and new drummer Brent Enman on tambourine and occasional guitar. Their version of Dokken's 'Breaking The Chain' was quite special but still didn't outshine their own songs, of which 'Obsession' from 'Momentum' and 'Paradise' from the debut were the highlights.

Gary Schutt made his second appearance in as many days, choosing to plug-in and shred over his backing box of tricks, alternating between vocal and instrumental tracks and delivering everything with his infectious wry humour. His instrumentals were particularly ear-catching, but probably not what most of a melodic crowd want, even if I enjoyed them. Recently blocked at customs and refused entry into the UK, cult artist Robert Tepper was the first bigger name, dishing out 'Angel Of The City' and his Benny Mardones co-write 'Into The Night' early in the set. Spookily his 'No Easy Way Out' classic unexpectedly came on the TV as the theme for a UK darts tournament as I was writing this, and it's still his best song, although the highlight of the set was when he was joined by Jeff Paris for a blues jam.

Glen Burtnik was up next, skilfully mixing solo songs like 'Follow You' and 'Talking In Code' with tunes from his time with Styx in 'Edge Of The Century' and 'Kiss Your Ass Goodbye'. However, it doesn't get any better than his awesome ballad 'Perfect World', the self-deprecating humour and low-key delivery of the man not managing to hide his immense talent, only the absent 'Love Is The Ritual' could have made it any better. In contrast, Baton Rouge, Michael Schenker and Blue Murder frontman Kelly Keeling was ill-prepared, quickly scribbling a setlist on creased paper moments before going onstage. He switched between acoustic guitar and piano, playing back catalogue tunes in an astonishingly chaotic but quite entertaining way, but he always seemed to be on the verge of a meltdown and barely kept it all together.

Probably the true headliner without being the last artist on, Mr Big front-man Eric Martin is an experienced solo acoustic showman, mixing Mr Big, solo and a couple of well chosen cover songs in a light-hearted ninety minutes, and despite a sore throat. Great versions of 'Just Take My Heart', 'Voodoo Kiss' and Frankie Miller's 'Don't Stop' were obvious crowd pleasers, as well as 'Wild World' and 'To Be With You', on which he was joined by Jeff Scott Soto, Glen Burtnik (on bass drum), Kelly Keeling, Heaven and Earth's Joe Retta and Eclipse's Erik Martensson, whom Eric has now adopted as his son, for obvious reasons! Working the early morning shift, a full electric set from Bonrud came off better than anyone could have hoped considering they'd lost singer Rick Forsgren with a family bereavement at the eleventh hour. Last minute stand-in Sean Smith did a wonderful job of helping Paul Bonrud and his band through a lively and very loud set. The songs were all memorable and the backing vocals were particularly strong, and considering they switched drummers halfway because neither knew the full set, they acquitted themselves better than many bands I've seen who'd rehearsed for months.

The first all-electric day again started with The Radio Sun, who have a decent singer and were all the better for being plugged-in, however, local rockers Evolution Eden would have fared better without the off-key vocalist. Thankfully the next local act were the familiar 7th Heaven (at one point managed by Bon Jovi's Alec Jon Such and Styx's James Young no less!), who this time left out their legendary thirty song AOR medley to rely solely on their own catchy tunes. Singer Keith Semple has recently returned to the band, giving guitarist Richie Hofherr's songs an energy that's impossible not to like, the infectious 'This Summer's Gonna Last Forever' being stuck in my head for quite some time after they'd finished.

With the brilliant 'Siren' under their belts I was really looking forward to seeing sole UK representatives Newman, but with things already running late it was sad to see them have to cut their already short set, and even worse that Paul Boyle's keys and Shaun Bessant's guitar couldn't be heard for most of it, but the crowd were sympathetic and by the time they ended with 'One Step Closer', Steve and his band had gained a few new fans. Brett Walker should have originally been next, the respected performer and songwriter sadly dying suddenly a few weeks before the show, but his band - including drummer Tommy 'Mugs' Cain, brother of Journey's Jonathan - played anyway and invited a few guests. Line Of Fire's Shawn Pelata and The Radio Sun's Jason Old both chipped in with some of Walker's best known songs, and Brett's own vocal tracks were used too, but none were more effective than Brett's friend Jeff Paris' on the Alias hit 'Waiting For Love'.

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Even with David Reece on vocals, Tango Down left me cold until the closing duo of Bangalore Choir's 'Loaded Gun' and 'Angel In Black', but the return of former Guardian singer Jamie Rowe and guitarists Vic Rivera and Eddie Campbell to the AdrianGale moniker was much better. Mixing old songs and selections from the new 'Sucker Punch' opus, Jamie still has the pipes and the band sound like they've never been away. Originally billed acoustically, Stuart Smith's Heaven And Earth arrived, plugged in and blew the roof off with a full electric set of old-school classic rock, with amazing musicianship, a frontman in Joe Retta who was an absolute revelation, and a keyboard player who was a master of the Hammond. On the other hand, the biggest disappointment of the weekend for me was the no-show of Trillion singer Thom Griffin for his proposed guest spot with Mecca, but the band still played well and Joe Vana and Jimi Jamison put in performances that, whilst less visual than Joe Retta, were just as note perfect, especially Jimi's 'Burning Heart' and 'I Can't Hold Back' from the Survivor catalogue.

Popular supergroup W.E.T. certainly have a chemistry together, and here Jeff Scott Soto, Robert Sall, Erik Martensson and the rest of Eclipse delivered the best of their two albums with an assured intensity that belied their lack of rehearsal, the Swedes obviously revelling in their fanboy moments during Talisman's 'Break Your Chains' and 'I'll Be Waiting'. Headliners Harem Scarem have a rich and varied back catalogue, but their current flurry of reunion shows are all about 'Mood Swings' and paying homage to their most popular release. Harry Hess put more effort into his vocals than I've seen previously, with returning drummer Darren Smith singing those trademark harmonies and lead vocals on the excellent 'Sentimental Blvd'. However, Pete Lesperance is the star of the show with the gorgeous guitar instrumental 'Mandy' and plenty of fireworks on 'Karma Cleansing', 'Had Enough' and the recently recorded bonus track 'World Gone To Pieces', the encore of 'No Justice/Change Comes Around' keeping the faithful spellbound into the early hours.

On the Sunday I rapidly lost interest in the opening three local bands who were cliched, unsuitable or just plain amateurish (not necessarily in that order!), but was keen to see No Love Lost after singer Scott Board had blown everyone away at the Gary-oke. The band are certainly no spring chickens, but even though their own songs have verve and originality it was their version of Whitesnake's 'Still Of The Night' that brought the tired and hungover shuffling into the room. Sweden's Coldspell are another great live band, and whilst it took a while to get their sound right, the likes of 'One In A Million' gained them many new fans as their modern take on old-school hard rock consistently hit the mark, even with a stand-in keyboard player. However, I did feel for their new bass player when he almost concussed himself on the suspended PA mid-set, but on the whole they were as sharp as the edges of Micke Larsen's Flying V.

It was also great to see Bombay Black again, particularly bassist and MRF soundman Ty Sims who's lost an astounding 160 lbs so far on his diet - remember their t-shirt? 'The heaviest band at Firefest, by about twenty stone'. The US quartet impressed with a set of originals and two well-chosen covers; Night Ranger's 'Don't Tell Me You Love Me' and Steel Dragon's 'Stand Up And Shout', the latter coaxing a raised fist of approval from original singer Jeff Scott Soto as Erik Johnson matched his high screams. The current House Of Lords are much better on album than live, where their reliance on backing tapes overshadows some great musicianship. However, it's a good setlist from right across their catalogue and the crowd lap it up. Unfortunately for Ted Poley he initially had the second worst sound of the weekend, but it's soon corrected and those Danger Danger classics began to sound close to how they should. He went for an inevitable walk around the venue during 'Don't Walk Away', and generally hit every note despite throwing himself around every available inch of the room.

Steve Augeri and the guys from Valentine stuck mostly to Journey's faithfully (sic) performed 'dirty dozen' along with the superb 'Higher Place' and Tall Stories' 'Wild On The Run', the only other surprise being when 'Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin' unexpectedly morphed into Joe Walsh's 'Rocky Mountain Way'. To be fair it was just about the best solo Augeri show I'd seen, but with the band leaving for a show the following night, Eclipse were promoted to headliner. The Swedes ripped through high-energy rockers like 'Wake Me Up', 'Bleed And Scream' and 'To Mend A Broken Heart' with a vitality that belied the fact that they'd been hanging around all day signing autographs and watching the other bands. Unfortunately old age and a wish to avoid squeezing onto the last shuttle bus meant that we missed an impromptu set by House Of Lords offshoots Maxx Explosion that apparently went on into the night.

MelodicRockFest has a similar relaxed and friendly vibe to Firefest, and despite only having between 200 and 400 people in attendance at any given time, the VIP packages more than covered the costs. Hopefully we'll be back at the same venue for MRF4.

Phil Ashcroft

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