Moondance Jam 2016

Moondance Jam #25
Walker, Minnesota

July 20-23, 2016

Words By Dan Wall
Photos By Brad Neville


Our mercurial Web-leader and mid-west classic rock legend Jeb Wright likes to talk about “Moondance Magic.” This phrase was coined 10 years ago when Jeb first visited the bucolic site that transforms from a calm, beautiful piece of Leech lake land into one of the country’s best concert sites every July. And ever since, that phrase has held up to his lofty standards when considering the crowds, the staff and the music that makes MJ special.

This year (and for the past 2-3 years, really) that magic not only applies to those attributes listed above-it also has to do with the “magic” that is pulled off daily as the crew deals with crazy weather, power outages, band requests and everything that goes on behind the scenes. Do you really think one of these things is easy to pull off? Join me in not only a review of the weekend’s music but a rundown of the other stuff that happened behind the scenes at 25th anniversary of the Moondance Jam.

Wednesday

The pre-jam party, which was originally held to get campers out of their tents and trailers and into the concert site to buy more beer, has become a real-deal concert. Now, booking decisions are made on not only numbers but the quality of the entertainment. In past years, Hairball has been slotted in on this night, but the classic rock jukebox is otherwise engaged, so Killer Queen is brought in from England to play its first U.S. show and headline the pre-Jam party.

Prior to that band’s arrival onstage, our good friends and classic rock stalwarts Mountain Ash make it 19 straight years of performing at the Jam. Not only does the group play, but guitarist Mark Kirchhoff is the production manager for the festival, and the rest of the boys help out around the site during the long weekend. Performing this year without longtime guitarist Kevin Abernathy (and here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for our favorite meet-and-greet coordinator), the band pumps out its classic rock sound with Kirchhoff handling all riffs and leads, drummer Brandon Fjetland and bassist J.J. Benson powering the rhythm section and class clown/all-around nice guy Roger Anderson growling through standards such as “Hair of the Dog,” “Metal Gods” and “Highway Star.” These guys are always a welcome sight at the Jam, and without them, it wouldn’t even happen.

The Fabulous Armadillos are Central Minnesota’s tribute band superstars. These guys appear in different configuarations and line-ups each year, play every style of classic rock imaginable, and even do entire band tributes when asked. Tonight, the group does its Eagles tribute “Takin’ It To the Limit” with the help of Collective Unconscious, and with as many as 11 musicians up onstage, nary a chord is missed nor a note not sung pitch perfect. The tribute to the band and the late Glenn Frey goes off without a hitch, as this large conglomerate plays virtually every big hit in the Eagles songbook, and a few surprises. Guitarist Paul Diethelm squeezes ultra-tone from his Les Paul and Tele, while Bill Scherer, Jeff Engholm (Collective Unconscious) and friends handle the multi-part vocals. For the fourth straight year, The Armadillos (and friends) leave to a rousing ovation. Maybe it’s time for this outfit to headline the pre-party next year.

Despite the absence of festival favorites Hairball, people were excited to see something different in the Wednesday night headline slot, and it turned out to be Killer Queen, billed as England’s best Queen tribute. Despite front man Patrick Myers’ absolutely dead-on imitation of Freddy Mercury (including bad dentures), the set only soared to the heights of the original band on a few occasions. This could be attributed to a couple of things: one, the band used way too many canned vocals, making the live mix sound more like a recording than a live track. Two, the quartet plays most of the band’s hits, but focuses on a ton of material recorded after 1982, when Queen’s popularity faded a bit in the states (it was still a massive draw in the rest of Europe, Asia and South America). Thus, in the place of songs that the U.S. crowd may favor (“Keep Yourself Alive,” “It’s Late,” “Stone Cold Crazy,” “Sheer Heart Attack”), Killer Queen came with “Radio Ga Ga,” “The Show Must Go On” and “Who Wants To Live Forever.” It took the final run for home that started with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” included “Tie Your Mother Down” and ended with the classic medley of “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” to really get the band and the crowd on the same page.

After the show, during our annual post-midnight hamburger run down at the local casino, the power started to fail on a number of occasions; lights were dimming as people pumped in more currency into the slot machines. Convinced it was nothing more than a minor blip, imagine our shock when we exited the building and it was revealed a storm had blown through the area, with 80 m.p.h. winds toppling trees, power lines and anything else in its way. Downed trees with unfortunate vehicles attached dotted the highways on our drive back to the resort where we staying, and when we arrived there, the power was out… and there was no water. And our cell phones were dead. And, the hookers we called couldn’t find the place in the dark. (Just kidding about one of those-guess which one… hookers are actually pretty skilled in the dark). Not knowing what to expect, we did the only thing a bunch of drunk, well-fed rock critics could do-sleep.

Thursday

When my eyes opened at noon, still no power, water or hookers at the resort, and the production crew is in full panic mode when we arrive at the concert site on Thursday, since power has yet to be restored there either! It finally comes back on around 1:30 pm, and here’s where that Moondance magic is once again summoned. Despite not having power for the first six hours of set-up and possible sound checks, Firehouse hits the stage at 3:05 pm. Tragedy averted (we wouldn’t always be that lucky-read on).

Firehouse has become a staple of the Midwestern festival and fair circuit, and is a great band to have play right after a scare like the one this morning. The melodic rock/hair band influenced quartet proves it’s more than a two-hit wonder, (“Don’t Treat Me Bad” and “Love Of A Lifetime” are aired), but “Reach for the Sky” shows off lead vocalist C.J. Snare’s considerable vocal talents, and the rest of the band (guitarist Bill Leverty, bassist Allen McKenzie and drummer Michael Foster) are solid pros. The 10-song set features all of the band’s best songs, including “Shake and Tumble,” “All She Wrote,” “Reckless” and “Overnight Sensation”, and the solid 60-minutes is much appreciated by the crowd, some who slept in a puddle of water last night. (These puddles did not rival the ones from last year, however, when an ark was seen carrying animals towards Duluth).

I have been suggesting for years that MJ bring in Kix, and 2016 finally proved to be the year that they listened (or figured it would be the only way to shut me up).

Kix has been back together for nearly 10 years now (credit the first Rocklahoma with helping make that a possibility), and I swear to you that the night I saw them at the hurricane-ravaged Rocklahoma in 2008 still goes down as one of the greatest live performances I have ever seen. Kix was so good that night that the band rose about 100 spots on my all-time greatest band list. The quintet is still rocking just as hard, and played all of its big songs with a tightness it didn’t have six years ago. “Girl Money,” “Midnight Dynamite,” “Cold Shower” and a few new ones all factored into the set, which closed with three of glam metal’s best songs-“Cold Blood,” “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” and “Blow My Fuse.” Steve Whiteman, Jimmy Chalfant, Ronnie Younkins, Brian Forsythe and Mark Schenker should be applauded for becoming a festival favorite and putting on some of the best live shows in the business.

Chevelle is a very different band. Some people absolutely love it, some kinda like it, and many have never heard of it. But those that love it fall very close to a Rush-like admiration for this Chicago-based trio, who pack a ton of bludgeoning riffs, hypnotic lyrics and sneaky melodies into a mid-tempo based grunge sound that has lit up the radio in the Midwest. Chevelle can hardly get arrested out west, however, and it usually takes a Midwestern setting like this to see the group live. Featuring brothers Pete (guitar, vocals) and Sam (drummer) Loeffler, along with brother-in-law Dean Bernardini (bass), Chevelle is one of those bands that absolutely believes in everything it does, and it shows in the band’s performance here. These guys just pound you over the head until you get it, or you’re welcome to leave. I fall in to the ‘I kind of like it’ category, but I will admit, when the band is on, with tracks such as “The Red,” “Send the Pain Below” or the epic “Sleep Apnea,” the band rocks just as hard and is just as powerful as any of the modern rock bands touring today.

If someone would have told me that Bush would steal the show on Thursday night and become the surprise band of the festival, I would have asked to see their medical marijuana card. But make no mistake, Gavin Rossdale and the boys received one of the most over-the-top reactions that I have seen in my 11 years attending this festival. I was always a fan and not a fanatic of the band’s modern rock sound, but after I got home from Minnesota I immediately downloaded 10 more Bush songs I didn’t have in my mp3 player. Rossdale is as cool as the other side of the pillow, the longtime star crooning and playing (slashing would be more like it) his guitar as if his life depended on it. New guitarist Chris Traynor is a big improvement as the lead guy, while bassist Corey Britz and longtime drummer Robin Goodridge were just as solid as the guitarists. But it was the big, emotional, melodic songs- “Everything Zen,” “The Sound of Winter,” “Warm Machine,” “Little Things,” “Machine Head,” “Glycerine” and especially “Come Down”-that won over the crowd on this night.

Godsmack made its first appearance here and played its only live show of the year, taking a break from other projects and the studio to rock Walker for the first time. The quartet was loud and heavy as usual, playing the 80-minute set on a bare bones stage (the group even dropped the dueling drum solo between singer Sully Erna and drummer Shannon Larkin). The Smack played all of its biggies, with “Speak,” “Keep Away,” “Voodoo,” “Whatever,” “Straight Out of Line,” “Awake,” “1000 mph” and “I Stand Alone” keeping the crowd energized. Vocalist Erna portrays a larger-than-life figure as the band’s front man, and it doesn’t take long to figure out who runs this band. Guitarist Tony Rombola’s a pro’s pro, and is a true master of the wah-wah pedal. Bassist Robbie Merrill is as solid as they come, but its drummer Larkin who is the true onstage star. Larkin is a constant blur of motion and tasty licks who could easily rival Tommy Lee as the most entertaining rock drummer on the planet. Aside from the songs and Larkin, the big highlight for me was the encore of “Something Different,” a new song that was pushed down in the set and absolutely floored the place.

Friday

Poor Moondance... Another year, another late cancellation… Rick Springfield pulls out on Monday, claiming he is filming a movie. What? He didn’t know this a week or two before?? (Remember, Nickelback cancelled last year just a few weeks before the festival took place). I think some people just want to see their names printed on tour shirts.

The band Jet: A Tribute to Wings takes Rick’s place, playing a 60-minute set of Wings songs and not Beatle hits. Fronted by a female vocalist, it’s nice to hear stuff like “My Love,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Band on the Run” and “Hi Hi Hi” instead of the constant barrage of songs from Paul’s other group. This move also pushed the rest of the bands on the bill up one slot, with Foghat moving to 5 p.m.

The veteran rockers named Foghat are still churning out the best in blues, rock and boogie after nearly 45 years on the road, and on this day Foghat still has the ability to rock the house with a 70-minute set of hits, choice album cuts and a few cover tunes. Drummer Roger Earl, the only remaining original member and the gatekeeper of the band since its inception, has assembled a top-notch quartet that helps maintain the group’s legacy while showing off the needed musical muscle to add to it. Guitarist Bryan Bassett, the ex-Wild Cherry and Molly Hatchet string-bender has been with the group for 16 years now, and he capably fills in for the late Rod Price, one of rock’s greatest slide players. Charlie Huhn (formerly of Victory, Ted Nugent, Humble Pie, Gary Moore and many other projects) is a great blues-based singer (you’d have to be to fill in for Humble Pie’s Steve Marriott) and a capable second guitarist, while longtime Pat Travers bassist Rodney O’Quinn holds down the bottom with his hocus-pocus flair. The set list hasn’t changed much in the over 40 years I’ve been attending the group’s shows, with “Fool For the City,” “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” and “Slow Ride,” which amounts to a Foghat triple-shot on virtually every classic rock radio station still going, being this day’s highlights.  The band performed a few tunes from their new album Under the Influence.  We are happy to report the band's new material is every bit as rockin' as their biggest hits!

In the past, I could happily rip a band like the Little River Band to shreds. Not for the music, which isn’t really my cup of tea, or talent, of which the band definitely has. My main problem 10-15 years ago would have been that this is not the Little River Band. Not one guy is an original member of the band… or a distant cousin. This Melbourne, Australia band now consists of guys from Virginia, Missouri, Texas, Minnesota, and… But look around, Dan the music critic, just about every other non-newbie group does the same exact thing. The band headlining tonight features just three of its original seven members. How many bands tour with its original line-up, anyway? So having now cut the LRB group some slack for that realization, I will admit the band’s sound is great, the song replication pulled off with ease, and with a set list that includes “Happy Anniversary,” “Lady,” “Help Is on the Way,” “Cool Change” and “Lonesome Loser,” it would have been really hard not to enjoy the music presented by the LRB on this day.

However, right smack dab in the last chorus of “Help Is On The Way,” which is certainly an ironic song for this to happen, the power went out... again. POP! Stunned silence… MJ staffers and crew members had a certain look of horror on their faces for much of the 20 minutes the power was down. The thought was, “how can this keep happening?” (Last year, Black Stone Cherry was pulled from the stage, Papa Roach never played and Sammy Hagar had to relocate to the upper bar area during the yearly storm of the century.) Just two nights prior, another large storm hit the area and the power barely came back in time for the Thursday show, as reported above. And now, another power outage. This time, Mother Nature was not to blame, nor Moondance… the power company decided to perform a ‘reset’ or some other technical thing for the entire region, and didn’t consult their Rock Festival customers if ‘that was OK…’ LRB went into A cappella mode, getting the crowd singing, “Hang on… help is on its way… I’ll be there as fast as I caaaa-aan…” Luckily, everything turned out fine and the LRB were able to finish up while dodging another near disaster. But wait…there would be another miscue looming for Saturday night.

Now… Loverboy is one of those bands that really benefited from the massive stage and sound here. Sometimes lumped into that hairband, power ballad category, these guys can really rock when given the opportunity. The boys certainly rocked here, when turned up to 10 and blasting out all of the hits (“Lucky Ones,” “Take Me To The Top,” “The Kid Is Hot Tonight,” “When It’s Over,” “Hot Girls in Love,” “Turn Me Loose,” “Working For the Weekend,” “Lovin’ Every Minute Of It”) and only one of the ballads (“This Could be The Night”). Vocalist Mike Reno is the only guy you could have picked out of a line-up ( bandanna being a helpful clue), but the quartet of musicians behind him, which includes original guitarist Paul Dean, drummer Matt Frenette, keyboardist Doug Johnson and bassist Spider Sennaeve are far from faceless. Five Canadian guys who play rock and roll, and have quite a back catalog to pick from. Not the best band of the festival but not the worst either… by a long shot! Reno sounded great, Dean was in compression-overdrive mode, and the crowd got exactly what they hoped for!

If we’re going to give Foghat and the Little River Band a break for carrying on without much of its original band on tour, I shouldn’t be too harsh on Chicago either. The band is simply another one in a long line of classic 70’s performers who are still out on the road in 2016 with replacements for legendary members who have either moved on or passed on. Keith Howland may not be Terry Kath, but he is a phenomenal guitarist. Drummer Tris Imboden, who replaced original drummer Danny Seraphine in 1990, is particularly adept at changing from rock to ballads to funk and back, and his solid work was a highlight. Longtime bassist Jason Scheff is off the road for personal reasons, but his replacement Jeff Coffey tries his best to shatter glass as the fill-in for the Peter Cetera bass and voice.  A number of other session and road vets flesh out the sound behind original keyboardist Robert Lamm. Luckily, most of the band’s original horn section is still going strong, with Lee Loughnane (trumpet) and James Pankow (trombone) stage front, and Ray Herrmann filling in for original sax player Walt Parazaider while on leave. If there is a problem with the set, it’s that a lot of the younger fans in attendance only know the really big hits such as “Make Me Smile,” “Saturday in the Park,” and the encore “25 to 6 or 4.” More identifiable to the older crowd are bits like the first measure of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” which sounds even better live, as Pankow, Loughnane and Herrmann lay down the blueprint for the horn-based rock songs that finally got the group elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

Saturday

Thundherstruck are truly the mascots of the Moondance Jam. I’m convinced that if MJ spent a ton of money on a big headliner like Aerosmith or Tom Petty, that the crowd here would welcome these gals as a headliner-on the main stage! A must-see act on either the main stage or closing down the bar later at night, this all-female AC/DC tribute act plays both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson-era songs, and the crowd here goes absolutely batshit for it all. Lead vocalist Dyna is not only gorgeous (I’d use my once-in-a–lifetime wife-given sexception on her) but does a great job of singing the songs of two very tough singers very well. Guitarist Tina is a ball of constant motion, channeling Angus Young’s solos while showing off in the school “girl” outfit. Drummer Stephanie is as crazy as a loon, but she could probably play in the real band. Guitarist Diana and bassist Andrea look good as the backdrop to the mayhem and play the Malcolm and Cliff roles well. Once again, one of the weekend’s best acts-just how do you not invite them back for more?

Blues Traveler is an awesome band, if you need to go get another beer. They were fine, just were not visually magnetic. They played a few covers, including The Charlie Daniels Band‘s “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” with John Popper shredding on the harmonica. Brothers Chan and Tad performed “Run-Around” and “Hook” with Ben on the keys and Brendan on the kit. I continued to fetch beer, mostly for the girls of Thundherstruck.

Queensryche is another one of the bands currently out on the road that is trying to prove it can carry on with a new singer in place of an original legend. New guy Todd LaTorre is as good as they get, and even though Geoff Tate wrote and sang all this stuff back during the band’s heyday, LaTorre has brought a new fire to the current Queensryche’s power metal. Along with original members Scott Rockenfield (drums), Michael Wilton (guitar) and Eddie Jackson (bass), the group performed a 75-minute set of hits (“Silent Lucidity,” “Empire,” “Jet City Woman”), choice album cuts (“Queen of the Reich,” “Take Hold of the Flame,” “Eyes Of A Stranger”) and a few surprises. The music end is still tough and polished sounding, with guitarist Parker Lundgren (subbing for Chris DeGarmo, who left the band years ago) adding fire to all of the great guitar work with Wilton, while Jackson (simply one of the best bassists in rock) and Rockenfield are locked-in like few drum/bass combos are. If you are going to continue with a new line-up after a serious breakup, this is the way to do it.

Did I mention how great Todd LaTorre sounded?

When Sixx A.M. plays live, Nikki Sixx must think just how lucky he is to finally have a real singer in his band. For the uneducated, Sixx had to deal with Vince Neil for all of those years in Motley Crue, and if anyone was listening, Neil’s voice went south years ago. Not so James Michael, the singer in Sixx’s new band, who along with guitarist D.J. Ashba, pump out, polished, melodic hard rock, aided by drummer Dustin Steinke and two female vocalists, Amber Vanbuskirk and Melissa Harding. The group’s first three albums were good, but its latest is its best, as “Prayers For the Damned” is the first that Sixx could concentrate on solely as the bands leader without the constraints of still being in the Crue. The band played all of its current biggies (“This Is Gonna Hurt,” “Rise”, “Lies Of The Beautiful People,” “Stars” and “Life is Beautiful”) with a modern sound that favors band’s like Shinedown and Breaking Benjamin, with nary a comparison to Crue in sight. My only disappointment is the quartet failed to play “You Have Come To The Right Place,” which I am convinced is the band’s next hit. Other than that, Sixx A.M. is proving that there is life after Crue for Mr. Sixx and his bandmates.

Boston played five songs. Yes, you heard right, Boston played five songs. The rock and roll band had promised a two hour set in celebration of their 40th anniversary, taking the final night of the Jam from 11 pm to 1 am, with a meet and greet for some lucky fans at 1:30 am. You might think I am fooling, with all of the other disasters that have hit our tiny little MN oasis over the last two years, but severe lighting (there were reports of over 300 strikes nearby) cost MJ another band’s performance. It’s tough to review a band after just five songs, but I can report that what I heard on this night started out great…

I was helping break down the Thundherstruck band in the Saloon when  I think I heard Tom Scholz go into The Star-Spangled Banner, then the cheering crowd was treated to “Rock & Roll Band,” “Smokin',” “Feelin' Satisfied”… Lead guitarist Gary Pihl asked the crowd if they wanted to hear a new song, or an old song… the crowd cheered for another vintage favorite, “Peace of Mind”…  but, halfway through the next tune the band came to an abrupt stop. Lightning caused what we thought would be a delay. The band left the stage and the area was cleared of all human life. Boston waited to return to the stage for 30 minutes before being told the show would not go on.  It was a disappointing end to the start of a great show.  

My associate Brad ran into the saloon and said, “Boston just left the stage...we need a band onstage NOW in the saloon… here comes 15,000 people…” I found saloon-stage manager Leni, Leni found the band Arena, and rock n roll and beer was flowing together again in less than 20 minutes. Leni rocks!

Once again, thanks must go to Mark Kirchhoff, the Mountain Ash guys, Kathy Bieloh, Bernie, Steve, Tim, Justin, all the security and Jam staff, those 12 girls from Canada, Classic Rock Revisited’s Jeb, James and Brad, the Ice Cream Girl, all my media friends and the DJ’s, plus all the others who make this such a memorable happening. See ya at MJ 26!!

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