July 18-21, 2012
By Dan Wall
The focus of last year’s Moondance Jam was on one man-Bill Bieloh, the festival promoter of 20 years, who passed away in September of 2010. Last year’s festival was also about the ability of his family and staff to prove that they could carry on the spirit and the institution known as the Moondance Jam, and show that the weekend-long party could still make money while securing the future of the Bieloh family. Last year’s festival was a minor success (it could have made significantly more money if not for the elaborate sum laid out to KISS), but enough money was made to ensure that the show would go on in 2012. And go on it did, with the 21st annual festival drawing its biggest crowds ever to see Kid Rock on Thursday night. Huge gatherings also attended John Fogerty and Heart’s sets on Friday and Saturday, and with the outlay of money for talent nowhere near what it was in 2011 (thanks to our beautiful new booking agents for helping out with that), it has already been announced that MJ 22 will happen on July 18-20, 2013.
The opening night pre-party for ticket holders has become almost as big as a regular day at the fest. What began as a beer bash in the side bar has become a full-fledged night of music with three bands playing on the main stage and four groups in the bar. Hairball, a note-perfect tribute act that features rotating lead singers who dress up as the 80’s best front men (Gene Simmons, Dee Snider, Jon Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler, etc…) hammers out every great 70’s and 80’s hair band hit backed by a blazing trio that can play just about everything from that era. The senior citizen class clowns of classic rock from the Midwest, Mountain Ash, lay down a mean groove over an hour and shock with a set list that included Honeymoon Suite’s “New Girl Now,” Montrose’s “Rock the Nation” and Alice Cooper’s “Elected.” Honeymoon Suite? “New Girl Now”? That’s what I call digging deep into the catalog. Bad Animals, a very decent tribute to Heart that feature a female vocalist who nailed “Alone” (no easy feat), are warmly received and the Jam is off to a great start with one of its biggest Wednesday nights since the pre-party started.
Let’s get this straight right off the bat-as a musical choice, Kid Rock would never be my first option. But one thing I have learned at these festivals over the years is that it is not always what you want that makes the most sense-it has to do with booking agents, personal agents, managers, routing, contracts, performance fees, additional expenses, how much money it costs to house the band, where the band is traveling from, where they might be traveling to, etc, etc, etc… get the picture? So after seeing how much money KISS sucked out of the festival coffers last year (truth be told, though, the old geezers packed the place), it would be foolish of me to even suggest that Kid Rock wasn’t a better option for this festival at this time, because he was.
He wasn’t overpaid, but he was paid handsomely. But his time slot also drew the most fans into the grounds in the festival’s history, and the beverage sales were through the roof, all good things for the promoters. How was the music? Not bad, although there are probably 500 bands (Honeymoon Suite, Loverboy, Moxy, Turbonegro, The Ramones, Uriah Heep, Riot, The Carpenters, Rick Springfield and The Raspberries included) that I would rather listen to. It doesn’t mean Rock is bad, just not my personal cup of tea. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not big on hip hop or country, and that’s pretty much what Kid Rock does best. I will admit that “Bawitdaba” is still a heavy metal rap song that I can listen to, “Picture” is as emotional and moving as any country ballad of the last 10 years, and “All Summer Long” is a toe-tapper of the highest order. But if Kid Rock is what it takes to fill the place up at a decent price and ensure the viability of this enterprise for the next 20 years, then so be it.
Just one thing, though… could just one headliner who plays here take more than five minutes and spend a little time with the people who pay their salary-the fans? Kid Rock was in his limo and out on Highway 200 before the Twisted Brown Trucker Band had finished “Born Free.” But I guess that helps explain one thing about a Kid Rock show-it is all about him. The band could be any 10 people picked up out on the long bus ride in, save for vocalist Shannon Curfman and drummer Stefanie Eulinberg. Rock raps, Rock dances, Rock kicks people off of their instruments and tries to play them (even though I’m a better drummer and my photographer Phil is a way better guitarist than he will ever be)-the point being, when you go to a Kid Rock show (like a Ted Nugent show), there isn’t any question who the Kid Rock guy is up there. He’s loud, brash and cocky, and I doubt if anyone out there is really surprised by any of that. It would be nice to make some acknowledgement to all those up there helping make all this music-and money, however.
If I had told you five years ago that we had been invited onto the Hinder tour bus for Jaeger shots and beers by guitarist and all-around nice guy Blower (Joe Garvey), you might just be wondering which groupie I scored and how many days it took me to figure out I was still in Minnesota. It’s a kinder, gentler Hinder now-there are no groupies, just a bunch of guys talking music, sports, babies, marriages-imagine that, civility backstage at a rock festival. You see, back in 2006, when massive single “Lips of An Angel” was played once every 10 seconds on American radio, Hinder could get laid by, have drinks with or take home any girl in America (and probably did). But all these guys are now married or engaged, and with families at home are just living the life out on the road, still having a good time, but without the usual rock star trappings and debauchery tacked on.
That does not mean that Hinder still can’t kick your ass, and over the band’s 75-minute set demonstrates why this band is one of the most beloved of its kind in this time-Hinder simply forgot about the 90’s, Nirvana or grunge rock and forged ahead playing the music of its heroes (Skynyrd, Aerosmith-these boys want to look and act like Aerosmith, circa anytime in its career, GNR). Hinder lay down a thick groove of loud guitars, solid bass and heavy drums behind the faster stuff (“Use Me,” “How Long”), the mid-tempo scorchers (“Striptease,” “Two Sides of Me”) and even the ballads. The sing-a-long to “Lips of An Angel” is frightening, and when the band exits with a storming “Get Stoned”, there is no doubting why this band had been on so many lists as a “must-see” here for so many years.
Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound has nothing on Skid Row’s Wall of Sound. The New Jersey sleaze rock merchants come out roaring, all loud guitars and a heavy bottom, with lead singer Johnny Solinger doing his best to shout out the lyrics over the bands Marshall-fueled rampage. It doesn’t take one long to figure out a couple of things about Skid Row in 2012-no one in SR wants Sebastian Bach back in the band, and Solinger isn’t the singer that Bach is. So what does one do? Carry on, just like the band has for the past 12 years, with a decent replacement (Bach’s voice is very unique, and Solinger is simply doing the best he can) and put out some new music every once in a while to keep the fan base interested (the music released without Bach is not that bad, really). So, while Solinger sings, ace guitarists Scotti Hill and Dave “Snake” Sabo roll out the riffs and solos, bassist Rachel Bolan (Bach’s most vocal critic) lays down the groove and drummer Rob Hammersmith hits the happy beats. Some of the lesser album tracks sort of sit there for some reason, but when the band pulls out “18 and Life,” “Monkey Business,” “Slave to the Grind,” “I Remember You” and “Youth Gone Wild,” it doesn’t matter who’s singing, the place goes bonkers.
April Wine is a perfect band to open up this show. As the first big name band on the main stage, the Canadian quartet has just the right amount of classic rock- based sound and big guitars to wake up everyone still sporting a hangover from the pre-party. No longer the three-guitar based army that it was in the 80’s, 42-year vets Myles Goodwyn and Brian Greenway still play all the big hits, albeit in a style more suited for a nice theater sit down show. Neither looks like he has changed clothes, shaved or put a comb in their hair since the bus turned left at Thunder Bay, but it doesn’t seem to matter, since most of the gathering hasn’t done any of that today, either. Big versions of “All Over Town, “Just Between You and Me,” “I Like to Rock,” “Sign of the Gypsy Queen” and “Roller” do the trick nicely, showing sometimes it’s just the music that makes the show.
John Fogerty is another act that wouldn’t top my list of acts if I was doing the booking, but following the simple formula laid out in the Kid Rock rumblings above, he fit in fine on a rather weird Friday. Sticking to a simple formula of big CCR hits and bluesy fillers, Fogerty rocked a lot harder than in previous appearances and won over another huge gathering. I’m not going to list all of the songs because he played every major Creedence classic, but I liked this set better because he stayed away from the pop songs and country stuff and just flat out rocked. Aided by drummer Kenny Aaronoff (one of the best in the business, let’s get Chickenfoot here next year, Kenny!) and a crack band that features John’s son, Fogerty kept the party going on a hot, sweaty Friday night.
I know everyone out there figured that Three Days Grace would be slotted in as the special guest on Friday night, right? One of today’s biggest rock acts preceding a guy who’s already in the Rock and Roll Hall Fame. This one didn’t make a lot of sense, but at these summer festivals you sometimes have to throw everyone a curve ball, and this wasn’t the worse I ever saw (Def Leppard, Alice Cooper, Night Ranger and Twisted Sister with War still tops my list of good nights).
The youngsters made their way down to the pit to hear Adam Gontier and his rowdy bunch tear things up (just check out the You Tube video for “Riot”), and when 3DG stuck to playing its songs, these guys could have easily been the best band of the weekend. But since this is my favorite band currently, I also see the bad-especially in the band’s live show. These guys always seem to make a mistake or take a big chunk out of the set with a drum solo (not the absolute worst thing since Neil Sanderson is easily one the best drummers currently treading the boards) or by talking, or adding a cover song. The band had been playing Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” which would not have been such a bad choice for a festival, but on this night its Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,”a song that had been played about 10 times already this weekend in bars and on the main stage. The band cut “World So Cold,” “Time of Dying,” “The Chain” and “Run For Your Life” for a cover, a drum solo and too much stage banter-I guarantee you if 3DG had stuck to the original set list and left out the filler, this would have been the best show of the weekend. It was still very good, and I am glad that this band is finally getting the attention it deserves in the American rock scene (a new album is due in October).
Don Felder is now the official mascot of MJ-invited back for the second time in three years to replicate an Eagles set that the promoters here will never be able to afford if names such as Frey, Henley and Walsh remain on the varsity squad. I never really understood just what Felder brought to the Eagles until seeing his act, but he plays only Eagles songs that he wrote, played on or toured as a member of the band. His playing is smooth and professional and his band plays these songs with such a passion that it’s really hard to tell it isn’t those other guys up there playing with him. He adds his own “Heavy Metal” and a few new songs which fit nicely with the Eagles Greatest Hits set that features most of “Hotel California” and my personal favorites “One of These Nights” and “Already Gone.”
Cavo is one of those groups that will be playing festivals and county fairs for the rest of its career due to one song, “Champagne” (“could have been the champagne, the champagne, could have been the cocaine, the cocaine”-you might have heard it just before last call), a song that topped the modern rock charts two years ago. A stint on the Crue fest and a number of other hits led to album number two for the band, “Thick as Thieves,” and while that album doesn’t have that one signature song, it is a stronger collection of tunes and proves that Cavo is no one-hit wonder. Onstage, these four guys from St. Louis can play and sing as well as anyone and thoroughly entertained a lot of people in attendance just there to hear the hit.
The women of Heart are still able to put together a pretty decent set of hits, but as I was reminded many times during the night, it’s really not a classic Heart up there, is it? It’s the sisters, for sure, and those two are just as much Heart as anyone has a right to be. But for those of us lucky enough to have seen the original band before it imploded, or the more classic rock version that ruled the late 80’s, we know that this band is just those two women and four musicians who could be just about anyone. There really isn’t any cohesion, any connection, or anything spectacular happening up onstage aside from the talents of the Wilsons. Ann Wilson’s performance was damn near perfect, as always. I thought people were going to start tearing up during “Alone,” and “Barracuda” is always a stunning vehicle for her voice. Nancy Wilson was elegant and classy as always, and her vocal on “These Dreams” is always a highlight. But the new songs sort of laid there and died (why play three new songs, and especially open with one, when the new album isn’t due out for three months), and the band left so many great songs off the set list that I preferred the cover band Bad Animals tribute set list to this one.
Grand Funk Railroad put on one of the best performances of the weekend, and one of the best I’ve seen GFR play since the band brought in Max Carl and Bruce Kulick to replace Mark Farner. The band does its best to mix it up with the party songs (“Rock and Roll Soul,” “Footstompin’ Music”), the epics (“Closer to Home”) and the biggies, such as “We’re an American Band.” Original members Mel Schacher (thumping bass) and Don Brewer (solid drums) are still around to add a bit of authenticity to the proceedings, but it’s the mix of professionalism, showmanship and those great songs that make the package so special.
Now that’s a great review, right? Problem is, I wrote it three years ago, the last time GFR played here. In those three years not one thing has changed about the band’s show. Same set, same songs, same musicians, and oh, by the way, same boring opening song (where’s “Are You Ready,” one of the greatest openers ever), same 15-minute drum solo, etc. You see it once, great… the same thing three years later, and you are kind of over it. It doesn’t mean the band wasn’t good, and if it was your first time, it probably went down well with you. But a lot of these fans come every year, and if you are going to play here once every 2-3 years, then change the frickin’ show up a tad.
Night Ranger was easily the best band of the day and probably the most consistently enjoyable single act on the whole bill. The quintet is one of the best melodic hard rock bands still slugging it out on the road from the 80’s, and parlayed a couple of killer new songs and all the hits into an 80-minute set that had the entire crowd singing along. Two distinct voices (bassist Jack Blades and drummer Kelly Keagy), two great guitarists (Brad Gillis and Joel Hoekstra) and a back catalog that is the envy of many contemporaries allow Night Ranger the ability to craft a great show, one that many other bands from its era have a hard time following. The group was as tight as anyone on this weekend, and those two guitarists really tore it up, especially on “Eddie’s Coming Out Tonight,” the live set’s tour-de-force. “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “Sister Christian” and “You Can Still Rock in America” are a pretty good series of songs to close out a set with, and Night Ranger walks off with the unofficial “best in show” trophy for the weekend.
One of the real surprises of the festival was the Atomic Punks, an L.A. based band who can probably make travel plans to return to next year’s show tonight. Playing vintage Van Halen better than the real band can today, these guys nearly stole the show with the chops and songs that people expect from VH. Guitarist Lance Turner did the solo to “Eruption” so well that I wanted a DNA test. Vocalist Brian Geller is David Lee Roth, with the smirk, the moves and a similar voice (he also remembered the words, a big plus). The rhythm section of bassist Joe Lester and Scott Patterson is as rock solid as the originals, with Patterson showing off why he is one of the best drummers on the planet (amazing that he doesn’t have a higher paying gig with a huge act). The same three musicians join another singer in Motley Inc., and that band is actually better than anything I’ve seen the actual Motley do over the past 10 years. That band opened the show with 10 Motley songs and proved to be another tribute band that is almost better (and far cheaper) than the originals.
Once again, thanks must go to Mark Kirchhoff, Kathy Bieloh, Bernie, the Mountain Ash guys, Brad/Phil, Steve, Richard, video Tim and all the others who make this such a memorable happening. Hope to see you all again next year.