Moondance Jam 23 in Walker, MN

Moondance Jam 23
, Minnesota
July 16-19, 2014
By Dan Wall
Pics and Ad Lib: Ace Collins

The 23rd annual Moondance Jam has come and gone, and once again the four-day festival proved to be one of the best classic rock gatherings in the country. A heady mix of music, booze, debauchery and friendship, played out this time under clear skies and fabulous weather. The MJ is certainly revered in rock circles as a magical place where fans (from as far away as New York and California, or farther when Ian attends) gather to see some of the best live music performances of the summer and party like the rock stars they worship. It’s overwhelming how much goes on during the four days and how fast it all goes by, but plans are already underway for the 24th edition next July 15-18. See ya there!

Now, let’s take a look at the bands that played MJ 23 this year:

Wednesday 7-16

Mountain Ash opens the pre-Jam party with an hour-long set of classic covers and deep cuts, the same recipe that has kept the band performing locally since the Reagan administration. Jam production stalwarts (that’s what these guys do when not playing), guitarists Mark Kirchhoff and Kevin Abernathy play the tasty riffs and licks of Blue Oyster Cult, Queen, The Who and Judas Priest, while manic lead vocalist Rogar Anderson entertains the crowd with his throaty vocals and class clown antics. Mountain Ash is always welcome to open the main stage and has been doing so for the last 17 years.

Another great thing about the Moondance Jam is that there is no downtime when it comes to music. There are a few side stage / side bars that even a lawyer would love. I ventured over to the Saloon Stage and caught Bad Animals, a tribute to Heart after catching Shena Ray singing with Urban Myth earlier. The Animals have been regulars here, and they are a quality regional act led by Leni DeMancari doing his best Roger Fisher impersonation… I miss Roger… Heart doesn’t rock as hard without him…

The Fabulous Armadillos are a band from Central Minnesota that continues to impress the pre-party crowd each year. This was the band’s second straight appearance on the main stage, and one day this group will headline the opening party on Wednesday if the buzz about them continues to grow like it did from 2013. With regular vocalist Billy Scherer away mourning the loss of his mother, the band was still able to muster the same energy to match Scherer’s amazing performance last year (he can channel Daltry and Brian Johnson like no other). Female vocalist Pamela McNeill emulates Stevie Nicks during a riveting “Rhiannon,” but it’s the full band performance of Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” with stand-in vocalist John Carlo that causes shock and awe amongst the musicians and fans gathered. “It sounds better than Boston,” is the familiar cry, and the group leaves to a rousing ovation. Paul Diethelm gets all the classic guitar tones out of his Orange amp, EVH Strat and Fender Tele while putting on a cover band guitar clinic. Yeah, you wanna be IN this band… call me if you need a lousy rhythm guitar…

The Wednesday night stalwart for the past six years has been Hairball, a wonderful classic rock tribute act that features several rotating lead singers who dress up as the 80’s best front men (Gene Simmons, Dee Snider, Jon Bon Jovi, David Lee Roth, Steve Perry, Brian Johnson, Bret Michaels, Vince Neil, Steven Tyler, etc…) and hammers out every great 70’s and 80’s hair band hit with a crack unit that can play just about everything from that era. The group has a stage show and pyrotechnics to rival just about any band it portrays, and leaves with bombs, smoke and confetti flying during “Rock and Roll All Night”-just like KISS does. The Jam is off to a great start with another big pre-party crowd

Thursday 7-17

Thursday kicks off with Sick Puppies, a band originally from Sydney, Australia, now based in Los Angeles. Easily one of the best opening bands the Jam has ever seen, the Puppies make quick work of its hour onstage, doling out big hits (“Die to Save You,” “Odd One,” “Riptide,” “Maybe” and “You’re Going Down”) along with a few album cuts and a song from their first album. Stardom has yet to find this band, but that could change when a new record comes out next year. Until then, this trio, led by guitarist Shim Moore (getting some fat tone out of his black Epiphone Hollow body), and featuring the powerful rhythm section of bassist Emma Anzai and drummer Mark Goodwin, will continue to entertain crowds with a big, thick, wall of sound, one that features equal doses of classic and modern rock sounds. Shim encourages the crowd to come front and center and gets everyone bouncing. The closer we got, the cuter Emma got… thanks for asking. The Puppies and its crowd provide the Jam with one of its earliest surprises.

I wouldn’t be the first person who attended this festival to say that Sublime featuring Rome was a weird act for the Moondance genre, but once those decisions are made, there are only a couple of things you can do-accept it, or go back to your campsite while they perform… I kinda did both. Due to the fact that Rome Ramirez seemed to be a pretty good guy, and all-star drummer Josh Freeze was onboard pounding the skins, I decided to give the band a chance. While I will never listen to this band on a regular basis, I will admit that for what they do (a ska-punk hybrid built for days on the beach with a side of herb), the trio does well. Ramirez will never be the charismatic Bradley Nowell, the legendary guitarist he replaced in this act (Nowell died in 1996 from a heroin overdose), but Rome can play that worn-out Fender Strat, and he sings in the same playful way that Nowell did. Bassist Eric Wilson’s stoner-like presence belies the fact that he lays down the same thick grooves with his 4-string that put Sublime all over the radio back in the band’s heyday. And Freeze, the former drummer for Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle, Guns N Roses and Devo, can play as well as anyone and keeps the hour-long set flowing along. Once again, not my cup of tea, but not the apocalyptic end-of-the-world outcome that some predicted. When I returned from my brief trip to the campsites to check on everyone’s liquor status, I noticed a faint smell of bud in the air. I guess the crowd liked Sublime, and that’s all that matters. 

Alter Bridge was on a lot of people’s lists as a “must have” band for this year’s line-up, but I wish a lot more of those ‘wishing’ had attended. The venue just did not seem that full or energetic as it did for Friday’s shows (this was repeated for both the Collective Soul and Seether time-slot, so maybe the attendance for the Thursday crowd was just not that large). Maybe it was because Alter Bridge was so loud the music could be heard out in the neighboring campsites (or in Minneapolis, for that matter), or maybe it was because the previous Sublime crowd left because it had the munchies and needed a nap. In any case, Alter Bridge did what it does best: rock hard ‘n’ heavy like a modern day Led Zeppelin. Vocalist Myles Kennedy was here last year with Slash, and his distinctive high-pitched voice still holds up well, even after all that he puts it through. Guitarist Mark Tremonti is a true guitar hero, the rhythm section is locked, and the band sounded great, especially on “Ghost of Days Gone By,” “Come to Life,” “Ties That Bind” and “Isolation”. It will be interesting to see what direction these guys go in next, with Kennedy off doing Slash gigs in the middle of an Alter Bridge tour.

Collective Soul put on a sterling performance in the special guest slot. I’ve seen the band twice at festivals after dark, and both times the band was better than when they went on in sunlight. A tie-in with HBO vamp thriller True Blood? Perhaps…The smoke/fog, colorful lights and the silhouettes of Ed Roland and company against the lighted backdrop really knocked this performance out of the park. Collective Soul, with its mix of rock, a touch of country and a little southern soul arrived and put on an energetic and melodic performance, even though some of their gear was still on a bus just outside Albuquerque. With longtime cohorts, brother/guitarist Dean Roland and bassist Will Turpin by his side, along with new drummer Johnny Rabb and guitarist Jesse Triplett, the band played basically a 75-minute greatest hits set, with a couple of new numbers from a record that is due early in 2015. The run for home that featured “Gel,” “Where the River Runs,” “The World I Know,” “Shine” and “Run” was spectacular, especially “Shine,” which started with a gospel-tinged opening that led to the all-out guitar assault we know and love. Collective Soul has so many hits (15 Top 20’s since 1994) it could leave out a couple and still play a brilliant show, and the boys did just that here on Thursday night.

Seether is one of my favorite modern rock acts. The group has as solid of a catalog of albums and songs as any band treading the boards today. Virtually every song that the band has released to radio has gone straight into the Top 20, and the band’s latest long player, “Isolate and Medicate,” debuted in the U.S. Top 5. This is clearly a band that has made a mark in America. But onstage, despite the great songs, the band’s overall talent and leader’s Shaun Morgan’s vice-like grip on the band’s image and direction as post-grunge gods is such that the group is never as good as they can be. Seether has a weird habit of running all of its songs together (it drives my travel partner Phil, er, Ace Collins crazy). Whether using a looping device that replays a hastily played parting  riff / solo until the next song, or just leaving his guitar plugged-in emitting feedback while switching to another, there is never any silence between songs-all by design. In addition, there is also no coherent connection or flow between the tunes when the band performs on stage. At times, like on the opening duo of “Gasoline” and “Needles,” this ploy works because the songs’ vibe and tempo sound okay running together. But why would you begin a song with screeching feedback as you plug in an alternate guitar and go right into a tune as gentle as “Broken”?  Or to the new hit “SaveToday,” which just might be one of the best songs Morgan has ever written? This is just bad manners, and not very conscientious to those of us who are north of 40 years old. Maybe there are some youngsters out there that still have most of their hearing that think this is cool stuff from a tortured soul. Hey, it’s up to him, but with a catalog that features songs such as “Tonight,” “Breakdown,” “Rise Above This,” “Country Song,” “Fake It” and “Remedy,” Seether could be one of the best live acts out there today. It’s a small change, but I believe it could do wonders for the band’s future onstage if the group would just let the show breathe a little.

Friday 7-18

Autograph is one of those great little stories that make me still believe in rock and roll. Opening the main stage on Friday afternoon, the So Cal hair rockers (now sporting a little less hair and more black onstage) really let it fly during its hour onstage. Reformed for just over six months now, the band has been playing most of the classic rock festivals and some headline gigs, and sound better than the original band to these ears. With the original lead vocalist Steve Plunkett opting out of the reunion, it fell on original guitarist Steve Lynch and bassist Randy Rand to recruit Simon Daniels as the band’s front man. Daniels does a great job updating the band’s sound to 2014. Without keyboards but adding another guitar to the mix (Daniels plays), the group rips up 12 songs with a thicker, riff-oriented sound that I think would have made the quartet stars if this is how the group would have sounded back in the 80’s (I either never really liked the keyboards, or I might just be an ass-kisser as the band told me backstage THEY didn’t like the keyboards. Anyway...) “Deep End,” “All I’m Gonna Take,” “Send Her to Me” and the huge hit “Turn Up the Radio” all sound massive played on their new DBZ Diamond series custom guitars and bass, and pounded out on the skins by Marc Wieland. BAM! …the group comes off as the first surprise act of the festival.

And then there was Skillet. This was the real surprise of the whole weekend, as far as I’m concerned. Skillet is a band that can be described in many ways-rock band, Christian band, metal band, modern band… or “Chameleon Band”. The group decides to downplay the religious affiliation (they don’t really throw it in your face like Stryper did back in the heyday), choosing to not be introduced as a Christian band, but just go out and rock the place. (Warning: An actual Christian band would be mindful of Luke 9:26) Leader/vocalist/bassist John Cooper is now a seasoned pro, with a strong voice and a veteran’s command of the stage. His wife, lovely Korey, could barely play an axe when the band first started, but is now a solid guitar player in her own right, slingin’ a PRS Custom 22 and just barely avoiding whiplash. Seth Morrison adds solos and riffs on his PRS guitar, and the group also employs two crazy cellists who flesh out the sound and run wild onstage. The group is loud, heavy and tight, but that still isn’t what makes Skillet go. It’s drummer Jen Ledger, a lovely, diminutive English girl with flaming red hair who absolutely rips the shit out her DW drum kit. Yeah, she’s cute… real cute…thanks for askin’. Heads turned, mouths were open, and anyone who was starting up the ‘drums’ after this show went home looking for a new hobby. “Sick Of It,” “Awake and Alive,” “Rise,” “Monster” and “Rebirthing” are just a few of the highlights, and Skillet leaves triumphantly-but I doubt if this is the last time they play the Jam.

Another bar area that the Moondance Jam proffers is the Tiki Bar Stage, back behind the venue, accessible to the campsites. This weekend I was able to see some quality tribute acts covering the likes of the Beatles, ZZ Top, Rush and Tom Petty. After Skillet, I wandered that direction to get my singer-songwriter groove on and catch local Mark Allen doing his thang. I ordered a Corona and a drink with an umbrella and sat back and enjoyed. Eventually, my classic-rock instincts took over, and after I yelled out “Freebird!” and “Stairway!” I was ushered out of the bar to the sounds of Brown Eyed Girl… perfect timing, as now I was ready to yell out “Hotel California!”

Don Felder is now officially the mascot of the Moondance Jam. Three shows in five years will do that, but it didn’t matter to those gathered-Felder was just as good as the last two times he played here. He didn’t get to play as long as those past visits (he came in as the opener of The Sound of Summer tour that features the night’s two headliners), but he pulled out his flame top Les Paul and made good use of his hour by playing nothing but great songs. Aside from his own hits “You Don’t Have Me” and “Heavy Metal,” it was nothing but Eagles songs that Felder either recorded, wrote or played on that drove the crowd into a nostalgic frenzy. “Already Gone,” “One of These Nights,” “Victim of Love,” “Witchy Woman,” “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California” (pulling out the white Gibson EDS-1275 double neck guitar, with Tommy Shaw guesting on 2nd guitar and vocals) kept the crowd cranked up after that sparkling set from Skillet. Felder has a great band (featuring our California friend and Whitesnake alum Timothy Drury on keyboards), and is continuing to get more recognition around the country as a great classic rock act, a show you definitely want at your festival.

Foreigner should not be as good as it is. There is no way a band that features only one original member (guitarist Mick Jones, who only plays the last six songs of the set with his emblematic tobacco-burst Les Paul) should make you feel like you are seeing the original band onstage… but this version of the band might actually be better than the original Foreigner. The understanding that none of these guys wrote the songs, developed the image or put in all the hard work that goes into making a band a superstar act (especially in the 70’s) tempers my excitement just a bit, but this band is really that good. Most of the credit goes to Jones for picking Kelly Hansen as his vocalist. He sings the songs made famous by Lou Gramm (HI Lou, I still love you) exactly like Gramm did, but without the years of travel, rust and wear subtracting from his delivery. Hansen has also studied his Steven Tyler/David Coverdale book of front man moves for years (he was the singer for Hurricane back in the 90’s~ another great band). His voice soared over the sound provided by guitarists Jones and Bruce Watson, bassist (from Dokken) Jeff Pilson, drummer (from Whitesnake) Chris Frazier, multi-instrumentalist Thom Gimbel and keyboardist Mike Bluestein. I won’t list the set, because you know it-11 songs still played on the radio every day. The band left to a rousing ovation after “Hot Blooded,” and just about everyone I talked to thought that Foreigner won Best of Show at this year’s Jam. I can’t think of a better tribute band that is actually THE band.

Styx is still one of America’s best concert attractions. Like Sammy Hagar, Lynyrd Skynyrd, REO Speedwagon (who played Saturday), Eagles, Chicago and The Doobie Brothers, these guys fail to age, or suck. It’s really kind of amazing that this band, which has been around for over 40 years, is probably better now than it’s ever been.

The line- up of guitarists Tommy Shaw and James Young, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, bassist Ricky Phillips and drummer Todd Sucherman are easily on par with the band’s classic line-up and concentrate on the heavier rock side of the band’s history. This was not the best I’ve seen the band in recent years, but that’s my own personal fault…how do you not play “Suite Madam Blue”? That’s like any great band not playing its best song, and I don’t care if you think “Renegade,” “Superstars” or “Fooling Yourself” is the best Styx song-it’s not, it’s definitely “Suite Madam Blue.” We can arm-wrestle later. Aside from that little glitch, the live set here sounded amazing, with the band’s two guitarists cutting through the quintet’s sound with riffs and solos that belied the softer side of Styx, Tommy with his Les Paul, and JY with some custom Strats incorporating Fernandes Sustainers and Floyd Rose trems. Gowan (singing the DeYoung songs) and Shaw do all of the vocals, and Phillips and Sucherman (with a massive Pearl / Sabian kit) power the rhythm section. Just about every great rock song the band has produced was played, with “Crystal Ball,” “Blue Collar Man” and “Come Sail Away” providing some of the set’s most memorable moments. And the vocals were lush and powerful, which sounded just like they did back in the band’s 80’s heyday.

(Side note: Friday night also turned out to be one of the most interesting of my groupie career. I’ve managed bands back in high school. I’ve done lights for Anthrax, Armored Saint, L.A. Guns, Badlands, Savatage, Foghat, Dave Meniketti, Lita and many others in local clubs and theaters. I’ve written about, seen, interviewed or met just about every major rock act out there. But until Friday night, I had never hung around long enough to tear down the stage of a major act-or tour- like The Sound of Summer tour. Recruited along with Ace Collins in his flip-flops by our production-manager-buddy Mark, we helped tear down the backline and sound system-monitors-subs-and dozens of flying PA speakers and load said-stuff into one of the six semi-trucks this tour employs. I’m usually back at the hotel watching Law & Order re-runs while Ace snores about 3 a.m., Jack ‘n’ Coke or craft-beer in hand… but on this night we banded together to help the Jam staff get the job done-and all that volunteered did a great job… we didn’t leave the venue till after 3 a.m. having had a few more beers while wearing our complimentary Styx Roadie Crew T-shirt.)

Saturday 7-19

This day started too early. When I got back to the Country Inn after tearing down the stage, they were making breakfast… Me and Ace volunteered to help pour some brew during a Craft-Beer tasting for a couple of hours before I interviewed Slaughter for the JumboTron gig… there’s no better way to get back on your Rock ‘n’ Roll horse than to be surrounded by ‘Free Beer’… Thanks to organizer Craig for keeping our buzz going!

Slaughter is another one of those perfect bands to kick off the show at 3 pm. Armed with just enough hits (“Real Love,” “Fly to the Angels,” “Up All Night”) to get those who are hung over from Friday out to the concert site, and enough good deeper cuts (“The Wild Life,” “Burning Bridges,” “Mad About You”) to fill out the rest of the set. The veteran hair band, now based in Las Vegas, had no trouble winning over those in attendance. Mark Slaughter’s voice actually held up pretty good on this day (there had been rumblings he was having trouble with it, and he can’t really hit that highest register anymore), bassist Dana Strum was a rock as usual, and guitarist Jeff Blando played all the riffs and solos on his Les Paul Studio (which were originated by Tim Kelly) with aplomb. It was drummer Zolton Chaney, who in keeping with the theme of great drummers on the weekend blew everyone away with his over-the-top moves and constant manic motion. Not something you usually see from a drummer, since most are usually firmly rooted into their thrones, but Chaney managed to play over half the set while standing up.

Badfinger was an interesting choice for inclusion on this year’s show. No doubt buoyed by the band’s recent resurgence by the inclusion of its classic cut, “Baby Blue,” on the series finale of Breaking Bad, Joey Molland (the band’s only living original member and a gentleman to hang with) has put together a touring unit that plays all of the group’s classic hits (“Baby Blue,” “Come And Get It,” “No Matter What,” “Without You,” “Day After Day”) as professionally as possible. The only problem is this-those five songs represent the best of Badfinger, and nothing else played comes close to being that good. This act would play well as an oldies act with 5-6 bands playing the 5-6 hits they are known for, but an hour is just a bit too much time to fill out for this act.

Trying to get my brain to pick up the tempo again, I sauntered back over (well, I didn’t ‘skip’, and I didn’t drag my feet) to the Saloon Stage to catch a regional band named Patrik Tanner and the Faraway Men. There was something about this band… waaay too smart for rock ‘n’ roll, but too heavy for knee slappin’ country. Great original material, but unfortunately at a venue more suited for cover bands. Patrick led his merry men thru a crazy rockabilly cover of "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden", with some big bottom end by bassist Mark Juenemann, drummer Pete Johnson and some raucous hollow body guitar from Jonathan Benson. I think I get it, and I dig it. Check them out on YouTube and in the Twin Cities.

The Wallflowers went on stage next, or what’s left of them. Hitless for longer than a bad baseball team (only leader Jakob Dylan remains from the band that made “Bringin’ Down the Horse” in 1996; the rest of this act seems to change every time I see it), the group still manages to mildly entertain for 70 minutes. A few things stand out: the crowd only knows the big hits from that record, the band hardly moves onstage and Dylan is only slightly more jovial than his dad. “Three Marlenas,” “6th Avenue Heartache,” “One Headlight” and “The Difference” are well-received, but nothing else is really known, so Dylan pulls out covers of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and “The Letter” to make up for the gaps in the set. I like “Sleepwalker” a lot, so about half of the set makes this feel like a rock show. The rest proves what I’ve always said about this band-great in a club, not so much at a rock festival.

George Thorogood takes the stage at 9 pm and does what George Thorogood always does: plays his blues-based classics (“Bad to the Bone,” “Who Do You Love,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, “ “Night Time,” “Move It on Over”). Moondance ate it up. I’m not the biggest Thorogood fan, but George can really work a crowd in a festival setting like this… he won me over backstage; I asked him a short question, and I got 14 minutes of Rodney Dangerfield-esque one-liner discourse that had me nearly in tears. Then he was late for his meet-and-greet. Thorogood plays the blues three ways-fast, faster, and mid-tempo…not a ballad in sight. But if you’ve seen this act in, let’s say the last 40 years, nothing about it has changed. For fans of George, that’s great, and I assume that’s what everyone wants. The promoters like the fact that beer flows like the broken water main on Sunset Strip while he plays. So Thorogood and his longtime backing unit are a hit at a show like this, whether you love him or not. NOTE: I just heard Ace yell,”NOT.” He’s mumbling something about guitar solos that are twice as long as Slash, with half the notes.

REO Speedwagon is a band that just about everyone likes. While not many would claim that this is their favorite band, just about everyone likes them. The girls tend to sing and sway during the ballads (“Keep on Loving You,” “Can’t Fight This Feeling”), while the guys dig the rockers like “Ridin’ the Storm Out” and “Keep Pushin’”. Everyone gets into “Roll with the Changes,” and therein lies the beauty of this band-everyone enjoys something about them, and when they are on, like “Roll with the Changes” or the encore of “157 Riverside Avenue,” they are one of the best straight-ahead, melodic rock bands you will ever see or hear. Lead vocalist Kevin Cronin is the consummate showman, and can still sing all of the classics with ease. Guitarist Dave Amato with his ultimate Gibson Les Paul exhibition has settled into Gary Richrath’s vacated spot so easily you would hardly know the difference. Bassist Bruce Hall, drummer Bryan Hitt and keyboardist Michael Doughty are solid in support roles. This is a band that knows its game, knows its fans, and very seldom disappoints onstage, and they didn’t on this night. The quintet also tweaked the set list a bit, allowing “Golden Country” into the set as the fifth number, and played “Like You Do” and “That Ain’t Love.” I would love to hear “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight,” “Heavy On Your Love” or “Lucky For You”-something a bit different and a bit heavier, but with all of the classics included, it was hard to argue with the band’s set on this night. REO is a great way to close out a festival and say goodbye to Walker, MN for another year.

Thank you, Goodnight! Once again, thanks must go to Mark Kirchhoff, Kevin Abernathy, the Mountain Ash guys, Kathy Bieloh, Bernie, Steve, Tim, Craig, Richard, Justin, Jeb, Big Schu and all the security and Jam staff, the cookie crew at the Country Inn, the Montana Mobile Mafia, all my media friends and the DJ’s, Ace Collins’ wife for letting him go, Famous Dave’s, Selena for the round-trip airport accommodations, and all the others who make this such a memorable happening. It’s not just a concert, it’s vacation with the rockin’ family that I actually like. Hope to see you all again next year!