Moondance Jam 24
July 15-18, 2015
Words By Dan Wall
Photos by Brad "Ace Collins" Neville
It was bound to happen, wasn’t it? For years, the bucolic site that transforms from a serene, beautiful piece of lake land into one of the country’s best concert sites has held up under the unpredictable weather of the upper Northwest. The Moondance Jam has survived an occasional storm or heatwave, but it hasn’t seen anything like what was in-store at MJ 24.
After a calm but erratically sprinkled pre-party on Wednesday night, Thursday evening saw rains of biblical proportions hit the concert site, turning the state of 10,000 lakes into one of about 10,050, and leaving the entire concert grounds, wet, flooded and downright nasty. Rumors of an ark and multiple animal breeds floating by in pairs were never confirmed, but the four hours of rain sure did plenty of damage-and forced the cancellation of all main stage bands after 7:30 pm.
Pat Travers and Pop Evil did play full sets, but Black Stone Cherry was forced off the metal-roofed stage by lightning after five songs, while Papa Roach and Sammy Hagar sat in the flooded lower dressing room area deciding what was the best way to proceed (P. Roach never played, while Hagar did find a way… more on that later).
A lot of concert goers could have cared less about who was onstage-they were more worried about whether their campgrounds and RV’s had survived. Areas once displaying uniquely decorated trailers, barbeques and ice chests full of refreshments were turned into mini-lakes, and it was Friday morning before anyone or anything returned to normal. The musical portion of Friday and Saturday went off without a hitch, but it was Thursday that will always be remembered as the day that the rains came to Walker, and anyone who sat thru the storm will never forget it.
The Wednesday night pre-party has turned into a must-see show for those holding three-day concert passes. Our buddy Leni (from the stage crew) leads his latest tribute band, Alive, out at 7 pm to kick things off. A solid replication of early Pearl Jam, the five-piece group tears thru most of the band’s biggest songs (“Alive,” “Black,” “Animal,” “Even Flow”) to get the party started in 2015. Lead vocalist Scott K. channels his best Eddie Vedder, while Leni kicks it big-time on his cherry sunburst guitar. Previously replicating Seattle’s Heart, and now Pearl Jam, what’s next for our buddy Leni? Queensryche? Nirvana? Wait and see…
The Fabulous Armadillos are a band from Central Minnesota that has impressed the MJ crowd for the past two years, and 2015 would prove to be one of the group’s crowning achievements. Easily one of the best cover/tribute/re-imagining bands I’ve ever had the pleasure to review, the band features three vocalists who sing an amazing variety of songs behind the band’s core five musicians. Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, Yes, Kansas, Rush, ELO, Heart and Boston were just a few of the groups recreated onstage by the band, with vocalists Billy Scherer and Pamela McNeil doing yeomen work on the tough covers and guitarist Paul Diethelm leaving the thousands in attendance shaking their heads in amazement at his dexterity and expertise. The Armadillos could be the headline band at the Jam party one day, unless they prefer being in bed by midnight.
The Wednesday night stalwart for the past seven years has been Hairball, a six-piece act (now with three vocalists) that plays like a Broadway show tribute to classic rock. Every 2-3 songs, a new vocalist arrives, not only sounding like but looking like the best front men from the 70-80’s classic rock heyday. Paul Stanley, Dee Snider, Jon Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury, David Coverdale, Alice Cooper, Axl Rose, Steve Perry and Ozzy Osbourne are all trotted out, as the band’s trio of ace musicians hammer out nothing but big hits. The group also features a video show, great lighting, confetti cannons and as much fire and brimstone as any headliner-it’s no wonder these guys get to kick things off every year.
I never thought that I would care so much about the weather in any place but my home in California, but I’ve learned while attending festivals in Wisconsin, Montana, Oklahoma and here in MN that it never hurts to follow the local storm patterns. The area just outside of Walker was hit with a major storm just days before the festival began, and the advanced weather reports a week out showed rain for Thursday. Now, having been there for the past 10 years, I’ve seen storms materialize out of nowhere, while massive black cloud banks just missing the concert site, like someone pushed the clouds just wide at the last minute. No one seemed to be too worried as the show started with Pat Travers on Thursday, but by 7:30 pm, it was a real good idea to have a canoe nearby if you needed to make a quick escape… being from California, I erroneously brought a beach ball.
Travers and company kicked things off this day (in sunshine, amazingly) with his usual 60-minute set of guitar-heavy, bluesy rock. It was a coup for the venue to secure such a polished national act for the 3pm time slot as opposed to a Bon Jovi tribute band. Not much has changed for P.T. over the past 38 years with regard to his core tunes, and I doubt if it ever will. Travers hammers out a collection of his best songs (“Rock N Roll Suzie,” “Heat in the Street,” “Snortin’ Whiskey,” “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)”) along with some dubious choices that make this set great, but not amazing. Lead guitarist Kirk McKim blazes out some scorching riffs from his new psychedelic axe, bassist Rodney O’Quinn delivers more of his low-end hocus-pocus, and drummer Sandy Gennaro pounds out some well-timed riffs (especially those featured during “Black Betty”) while doing their best to make the whole performance outstanding… but you could put Jimi Hendrix up there and even he couldn’t make songs like “Diamond Girl” or a cover of “Black Betty” better selections than some of the choice unused Travers classics (such as “Hooked on Music,” “Life in London,” “Makin’ Magic,” ”Stevie,” or the rockin’ “Need Love”) which were left off the set list. That is just my personal preference, as Pat and crew tore up what they did proffer.
Pop Evil currently holds the title of “my favorite modern rock band,” but really guys, this is just a classic rock band dressed up in today’s clothes, tones and sounds. Kicking off a 65-minute set with “Last Man Standing” against blue skies and white clouds, the band wastes little time showing the rapidly gathering crowd who is the best live rock act on the circuit today. Lead vocalist Leigh Kakaty is a cock-sure front man with a great set of pipes. Guitarist Dave Grahs and Nick Fueling knock out all of the signature riffs and solos, while bassist Matt Dirito and drummer Chachi Riot hold down the thunder onstage. Just about every song is a hit, but it’s the closing trio of “Footsteps” (from the band’s new album, “Up,” due August 21), “Deal With the Devil” and the amazing “Trenches” that kick the whole thing up a notch amidst a brewing thunderstorm. Everyone is pumped and ready to rock after Pop Evil, but it wouldn’t be long before Mother Nature showed up and pretty much ruined those good vibes.
Good buddies and all-around nice guys Black Stone Cherry are five songs into their set when all hell breaks loose... possibly because they were paying “Rain Wizard”. I’ve seen storms before (the hurricane during Rocklahoma in Pryor, OK will always be number one on my list), but this one ranks right up there (for four hours, anyway). After BSC guitarist Ben Wells tumbled on the slick surfaces, no more Cherry… here is a picture of me ‘n’ the boys backstage right before they were carried away in a flash flood….
Well, after a bit of back stage negotiating falls flat, no Papa Roach… at all! It seems the band can’t relocate to the rather large indoor Saloon Stage on the concert grounds due to a lack of backline equipment and other considerations. This might be the only picture of the group taken on this day…
So it’s left to Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and crew to save the night-and they do just that! Hagar heard about the bar stage (where bands play sets between the main stage acts) and immediately agreed to go old school, just like at the Cabo Wabo and other clubs he’s torn up during his career. (“They got Marshall’s on that stage… Let’s PLAY!) Playing with a heavy security presence along the front of the small stage in a club the same size as my local S.F. Fillmore, Hagar, bassist Anthony, guitarist Vic Johnson and drummer David Lauser (remember Dave, I got you the hamburger) played a loose but explosive 75-minute set that featured Montrose (“Rock Candy”), Van Halen (“Top of the World,” “Finish What You Started,” “Right Now”) and the cream of his solo stuff (“One Way to Rock,” “Heavy Metal,” “I Can’t Drive 55,” “Mas Tequila”) before a jam-packed crowd just happy to see some music… any music. But it’s a special thing to see Sammy and his buddies in a small club setting, pouring Patron Silver from the bottle into outstretched arms grasping open Moondance mugs. This set helped save the night and gave the assembled and drenched crowd some hope for the rest of the weekend.
It is still kinda early, as far as MJ standards are concerned, and a local down-to-earth bar band called TripWire takes the same stage after Sammy and company vacate. Wondering out loud how they are supposed to follow an act like that, the band made the attempt. TripWire was a hilarious hit with the crowd, and they are the only band I have seen that gets better as their musicianship diminishes. You will have to visit MN, WI or trip over them on YouTube to see what I mean.
Friday usually starts out with a bit of fun, as me and Ace Collins celebrity bar-tend at the “Beer Tasting” event… and I use the term ‘celebrity’ with exaggerated embellishment… I’m a writer, for goodness sake.
Honeymoon Suite is the type of band that makes these festivals special for me. The Toronto-based act is now over 30 years into a career that has seen the band prosper in its home country and struggle to leave its mark in America. It’s too bad, because Honeymoon Suite was just as good (and probably more explosive onstage) than most of its mid-80’s melodic rock contemporaries. Known in this country for the big hits “New Girl Now,” “Burning in Love,” “What Does it Take” and “Feel it Again,” the quintet plays loud and loose during its 60-minute opening set on Friday… another 3pm WIN for the Moondance booking agents. Long requested to appear here, the band seems genuinely surprised by the warm reception from the crowd (who now appear to have dried out from Thursday’s downpour). Vocalist Johnnie Dee still has his voice, and longtime bandmate Derry Grehan can play and sing harmony as well as anyone in this genre. This group rocked their time slot and set the bar for the rest of the day.
Let’s face it folks, when Vixen first appeared on the scene back in the late 80’s, it was all about the girl’s looks, outfits and very little about the music. These were truly four of the best looking girls to ever hit a stage together, and it really didn’t matter what was being played as long as the hair was extra-poofy and the pants ultra-tight. Back in those days, it was all about selling an image of sex, and Vixen did it very well. Fast forward to 2015, and here’s Vixen, looking just as good as ever, with guitarist Gina Stile replacing the late Jan Kuehnemund, along with original members Janet Gardner (vocals, guitar), Roxy Petrucci (drums) and Share Ross (formerly Pedersen on bass). But there’s a difference with Vixen today: while still looking great, the band sounds very good and proves once and for all that they can play. Musically tighter than the last time I saw the group, the band trots out “Rev it Up,” “How Much Love,” “Cryin’,” “Love Is a Killer,” “Love Made Me”-it’s a hit fest, and after 65 minutes onstage and a closing run through “Edge of a Broken Heart,” Vixen leaves to a rousing ovation… male and female…
It’s somewhat tragic what is happening to the Jefferson Starship right now. With the Jefferson Airplane’s 50th anniversary rapidly approaching, 74 year-old guitarist/vocalist/Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Kantner still leads the band, alongside a youthful 77 year-old guitarist/vocalist and former Quicksilver Messenger Service member David Freiberg. In addition, a longtime acquaintance of mine, Donnie Baldwin sat behind drums. The current line-up also includes premier vocalist Cathy Richardson, guitarist extraordinaire Jude Gold and keyboardist Chris Smith. The tragedy, you ask? It’s just Kantner, who is a shell of his former self and should either close shop or hand over the reins of this band to his touring mates. Kantner, having recuperated from a heart attack 4 months prior, spent the entire show sitting perched on an equipment road case, chain-smoking, fumbling with his guitar and having trouble delivering some of the rock world’s most iconic songs... even with the music stand infront of him. It’s sad really, and Kantner should possibly follow his old squeeze Grace Slick into retirement. I say this primarily because it was his ‘attitude’ that was most distracting on-stage: walking off and on stage with a guitar-without a guitar, arguing with his newly-hired guitar tech, sitting on a road case singing his version of the back-up vocals while signaling to his tech, “Is my guitar ready YET??”, and having the band play extended interludes between songs while he got his ‘act’ together. Despite that major visual distraction, the rest of the unit were more than adequate on Airplane songs (“White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love,” “Wooden Ships,” “Crown of Creation,” “Volunteers,”) songs from the actual early Starship band (“Count On Me,” “Miracles,” “Ride the Tiger,” “Fast Buck Freddie”), tunes from the Mickey Thomas-era Starship (“Jane,” “Find Your Way Back’) along with a Quicksilver tune sung by Freiberg (“Fresh Air”) and a cover of the Youngbloods classic “Get Together.” It was a lesson in San Francisco rock history, but it may need to be done without its most famous member. All told, the overall sound was excellent, people were tapping their toes to the all-familiar songs, and Jude Gold’s guitar playing mesmerizing… but the guy who wrote some of this stuff was not really a piece of the days success.
I really don’t know how to review Huey Lewis and the News anymore. I’ve seen the group numerous times, and nothing ever really changes. It’s the same songs, same musicians and same middle-of-the-road approach to performing. I’m not a huge supporter and never will be. Now having said that, the group certainly isn’t bad, and I understand why people like the boys-Lewis and his eight-piece backing unit run thru all of the hits and sound very good. But aside from “Heart and Soul,” none of the tunes do much for me. Lewis looks and sounds like he’s just up there doing another low-key Vegas act in another town for a nice paycheck. It’s like when George Thorogood, Johnny Lang or The Spin Doctors show up at these events-you may like it, I don’t, and I guess we may always agree to disagree on this subject.
The Doobie Brothers close out the night of classic rock with a 90-minute set that is typical of this band- at this point in the bands career, it’s pretty much impossible for the Doobie Brothers to play a bad show. Guitarists Tom Johnston and longtime partner Pat Simmons still power the group, and have been doing so since the band reconvened in 1989 (and started the group back in 1972). Alternating lead vocals and solos, the two long-time friends were in fine voice and have never played the guitar any better than they do right now. Johnston ripped up the rockers, such as the opening duo of “Jesus is Just Alright,” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” the set-closing “Long Train Runnin’,” and the encores of “China Grove” and the recently added-back-to-the-set “Road Angel (my favorite song of the night, by the way). Simmons is much better at the slow burners, and his “South City Midnight Lady” is always a highlight. He also pulled out the eloquent and pretty “Clear As the Driven Snow” from The Captain and Me, one of the 70’s greatest records, and the well-worn acoustic campfire singalong, “Black Water.” John McFee has been a Doobie for a long time now, playing guitar, pedal steel and violin, and serving as one of rock’s best sidemen. Keyboardist Guy Allison and saxophone legend Mark Russo figure in the live mix, with new drummers Ed Toth and Tony Pia taking the place of the band’s fallen ex-drummers, Keith Knudsen and Michael Hossack. Bassist John Cowan fills out the eight-piece group of solid pros, and the band has seldom sounded better than it did on Friday night.
Thundherstruck are the mascots of the Moondance Jam. The wild women from Los Angeles have become a must-see act here in Walker, and the crowd loves them. The all-female AC/DC tribute act plays both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson-era songs, and the crowd here laps it up like a cold beer (which the fans –and the band- do very well here). Lead vocalist Dyna is not only curvy and gorgeous, but does a great job of singing the songs of two very tough vocalists extremely well. Guitarist Tina is a ball of constant motion (sometimes she is playing AND rolling on the ground), channeling and perfecting Angus Young’s solos while showing off in the school “girl” outfit. Drummer Stephanie is out of her mind, and she could probably play in the real Aussie band (there may be an opening). Guitarist Diana and bassist Andrea look good and play the Malcolm and Cliff roles with aplomb. The group played two sets, one on the main stage and one in the Saloon bar, and it could probably be argued that the girls were the most, uh, visually popular act of this day.
In my opinion, Black Star Riders were not only the best band on Saturday, but the quintet was the best act of the whole weekend. Unfortunately, much like the legendary band that serves as an inspiration for BSR, the crowd was good but not great for this Thin Lizzy-like group. Lizzy never took off in America the way it did around the rest of the world, and despite a great showing and warm reception, the crowd response still didn’t match the talent up onstage. Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham made a wise decision to change the band’s name three years ago, and despite the influence and resemblance of sound, this is really a gathering of talented veterans who have made Black Star Riders a band all their own. Guitarist Damon Johnson (Alice Cooper, Brother Cane), bassist Robbie Crane (Ratt), drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (Y & T, Megadeth, Alice Cooper) and vocalist Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) have all been stars in their own bands, but together, make up one of rock’s most powerful units. BSR originals were mixed with Lizzy classics (“Jailbreak,” “Emerald,” “Rosalie” and “The Boys Are Back in Town” were all aired), and virtually every song featured the Lizzy trademark vocals and twin-guitar sound. Yes, that is me in the top-left portion of the photo below… I am giving my “Rock Critic discerning” look…
Finger Eleven was an odd choice for this slot on Saturday night. This is where Tesla, Jackyl, Night Ranger or practically anyone would have possibly fit better. It’s not that this band is horrible, but this group is not well-known in America and struggled to make much of a mark on this crowd aside from the playing of its two hits, “One Thing” and “Paralyzer.” The set started off odd, as guitarist Rick Jackett somewhat accidentally threw his axe to the ground while stomping off-stage (ran out of instrument cable), and later attempted to yank/disconnect the monitor speakers in front of him (hey, they are ‘Speak-on’ cables, you gotta ‘twist first’). Despite winning Junos and having gold records in Canada, Finger Eleven just isn’t big enough to play this high up on the 5-band bill at a festival of this size.
Peter Frampton was once the most unstoppable force in music. That was back in 1976, when his “Frampton Come Alive” circulated millions of records and tapes, while his concerts drew millions of fans. Fast forward to today, and the once angelic-looking heartthrob now looks like a proper, balding Englishman…or your grandad. He still plays like a son-of-a-bitch, though. I was lucky enough to see some of Frampton’s biggest shows in the 70’s, and consider him to be a better guitarist now then he was then. Playful with his originals yet respectful to the audience that made him a platinum selling act 20 times over, the veteran axe-slinger played note-perfect recreations of his recorded solos most of the time, yet left plenty of room to spread out on the lengthy numbers that closed the set. If there was a problem with the set, it was those longer songs at the end (“Black Hole Sun,” the usual marathon -just shy of 20 minutes- “Do You Feel Like I Do” and a ‘just okay’ encore “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) tend to drag when placed so close to each other. The opening five (“Something’s Happening,” “Doobie Wah,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” “Lines on my Face,” “(I’ll Give You) Money”) were solid, and Frampton went down (pun intended; ask me later) as well as could be expected.
Shinedown was a huge disappointment to me, and that’s because I really love the band. Let me re-phrase: they were only ‘disappointment-huge’ in the wake of my lofty rock-heavy expectations. I was so excited months back when the MJ line-up was announced; I just didn’t think that the show from the headliner would sound the way that it did. But ever since Shinedown released “The Sound of Madness,” an album that spawned four #1 singles back in 2008, the group’s sound has changed from rough and heavy to slick and radio-friendly. The original tour for that album featured two guitarists and many of the band’s early songs, and the incredibly heavy sound of that tour still resonates for this writer-that show was phenomenal. But since that first leg, the band has removed a guitarist (and never replaced him) and has had to add more of its hits which, to be fair, are more melodic and not that heavy. So the set list now features those same hits, just one guitarist, and a weaker guitar sound that is now combined with additional backing tracks and sequencers than on real, raw, guitar-packed rock and roll. It didn’t matter that the quartet played hits like “If You Only Knew,” “The Crow and the Butterfly,” “Devour” or “Second Chance,” and vocalist Brent Smith was his usual, phenomenal self-IT JUST DIDN’T SOUND THAT GOOD TO ME. I’ll certainly give the band another chance, but for me, I just hope this isn’t where the group’s live presentation is heading.
Local favorites Mountain Ash also played on Saturday, the class clowns of Minnesota rock still playing their collection of famous covers and classic B-sides to an adoring crowd. Next year, the band has agreed to change its set and add a bunch of new songs-I can verify this, because I have been put in charge of this new set. I can’t wait to start that project!
Once again, thanks must go to Mark Kirchhoff, Kevin Abernathy, the Mountain Ash guys, Kathy Bieloh, Bernie, Steve, Tim, Richard, Justin, Big Schu and all the security folks, the fabulous Nina and Jill and the rest of the Jam staff, the cookie crew at the Country Inn, the Bloody Mary Montana Mafia, all my media friends & DJ’s, plus all the others who make this such a memorable happening… and the guy who I travel with that just corrected all the spelling in this review, who I left out, possibly intentionally, but strategically always has the last word… PHIL.
See ya at the MJ 25th Anniversary, July 21, 22, 23 -2016!!