The Moondance Jam in Walker, MN

Moondance Jam
Walker, Minnesota

July 19-22, 2017

https://www.moondancejam.com/

By Dan Wall

When our editor Jeb Wright first visited the Moondance Jam in 2005, he coined the phrase “Moondance Magic.” It was a feeling that he, the many fans, staff and musicians who have visited or worked there feel every year while watching, partying and performing at this beautiful site. And for the most part, as I have witnessed while visiting here 11 of the past 12 years, that magic has held up.

Sure, there have been some bad times, and just about all of them have had to do with the weather. A storm can come in and cause havoc on the best day, and on the worst, you know how Lt. Dan felt in Forest Gump. Amazingly, twice those storms have led to the relocation of big bands to the onsite bar (and second stage), which led to even more magical times for all involved (more on that later).

But this year, things might have changed up the magic for good. Owner Kathy Bieloh, who has been the sole owner of MJ since her husband Bill passed away tragically in 2010, has shouldered the burden of planning, booking and running the show every year since. This also meant paying for it, and for a family that basically lived off the profits of this festival, one bad year could spell doom for next year’s show. Now no one knows if that’s what happened or not, but just before this year’s fest took place, it was announced that Kathy was looking to bring in an outside investor (the deal has yet to be finalized at press time), and that these new investors would join her in running (and financing) the show starting next year.

The rumor around Walker is that things will go ahead as they have for the past 26 years, but those of us in the know (and believe me, I’ve been involved in four situations like this in my life) understand that no matter how much someone says things will remain the same, there are always going to be changes when new money comes into play. Now, I’ve seen it happen with great results twice, and I’ve seen it shatter companies twice as well. So, I can only hope, as someone who has great love for the festival and tremendous respect for the Bielohs, that the Moondance Jam will continue for years to come. Some changes are good, but I do not feel that the whole thing needs to be torn apart to once again attain the great heights this festival rose to during its heyday of 2006-2010.

Wednesday

The pre-jam party started years ago as a small show in the bar to get people used to walking the paths from their camp sites to the main venue, and to start buying beer. Now, booking decisions are made on not only numbers but the quality of the entertainment. That mean’s our good friends and classic rock stalwarts Mountain Ash make it 20 straight years of performing at the Jam, followed by Van Halen tribute band The Atomic Punks and the Jam’s new darlings, The Fabulous Armadillos.

Mountain Ash hits the stage first, with MJ production manager Mark Kirchhoff and his right-hand Kevin Abernathy handing six string duties, while drummer Brandon Fjetland and bassist J.J. Benson power the rhythm section. The real star is vocalist and class clown/party-starter Roger Anderson, who is the bastard child of Jim Dandy and anyone with a mild drinking problem. To celebrate its 20th appearance here, the band has added some new songs (Mott The Hoople’s “One of The Boys,”-what?) to standards such as “Hair of the Dog,” “Heading Out To The Highway” and “Highway Star.” These guys are always a welcome sight at the Jam, and without them, it wouldn’t even happen.

The Atomic Punks may well be the best Van Halen tribute band in the world. Heck, they just might be the best Van Halen musical act in the world, including the real band. Vocalist Brian Geller is not a David Lee Roth clone-he can actually sing in key and remembers the words to the songs. Guitarist Lance Turner is no Eddie Van Halen, but he is more than adequate imitating his hero. Bassist Joe Lester, plays bass, sings and runs the band’s business, while Scott Patterson is one of the world’s best drummers, tribute band or not. You get all the hits from this act for a much more palatable price and no headaches (read Noel Monk’s great new book on VH and you’ll learn all about the headaches).

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 blow away the crowd every time. I’m convinced this band could tour the country and headline small theaters and clubs with this act. It’s not so much a tribute as a re-imagining of songs that the Armadillos make their very own. Vocalist Billy Scherer is an amazing singer, taking on the best of Joe Cocker and Roger Daltry with the ease of a seasoned pro. Pamela McNeill does Stevie Nicks and Pat Benetar as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. And guitarist Paul Diethelm, who once toured with Johnny Lang, is one of the best guitarists you’ll ever hear, and his work during the band’s best “cover,” Boston’s “Long Time,” has been a set highlight each time I’ve seen the band.

We can’t forget my buddy Lenny and his Pearl Jam tribute band Alive, who do two sets in the bar and show off amazing chops with a tribute performance to one of the 90’s best bands.

Thursday

I’m helping set up the merch booth when word comes in that Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington has been found dead. Not long after that, it is confirmed as a suicide. With this news coming so soon after Chris Cornell’s death (and the obvious ties), it casts a pall on an otherwise outstanding day of modern rock music. Too bad there are so many tributes to these fallen stars later in the show tonight, because these were bands once hoped to be included in future shows here.

Thursday is definitely girl’s day at the MJ. Cold Kingdom kicks things off at 3 p.m. with an hour-long set that neither sets the world on fire or makes everyone run back to their campsites. It’s another band of tough looking guys locked in rhythm and motion playing guitar-based, melodic modern rock fronted by a beautiful female singer with a good set of pipes. The songs (“Let It Burn” is a great) roll by in a loud rumble, and while nothing is revelatory, nothing is less than pretty damn good. This band, with vocalist Dani singing her ass off, could have been bigger. The four guys are all solid musicians, and the riffs and songs are memorable. Unfortunately, unless Michael J. Fox shows up and takes us back in time, Cold Kingdom will probably never play a bigger show than this.

The same could be said for Dorothy, but I have a feeling that this band, with its namesake lead singer, might be in for bigger and better things. To start with, Dorothy (the band) doesn’t sound like every other group out there. There is a swampy, southern base to the alternative rock that Dorothy (the singer, stay with me here) sings. It’s looser and more blues-based than most music done by bands fronted by women today. Dorothy herself is a small, saucy beauty with an amazing voice and the look and attitude to pull it off. And the band has some great tunes as well, with “Kiss It,” “Wicked Ones,” “Down to the Bottom,” “Whiskey River” and an amazing cover of “I Put A Spell On You,” being the best of the bunch. With the right push and tour, Dorothy and her backing band might just have what it takes to set itself apart from its rivals in the music scene today.

Up next is another popular female singer, Vince Neil. Ha, we all know Vince from his career (just finished) with Motley Crue. Despite this fact, and a set chock full of that band’s biggest hits, this is nothing like a Motley Crue concert. First, his backing band is Slaughter without Mark Slaughter (bassist Dana Strum, guitarist Jeff Bland, drummer Zoltan Chaney)-that’s the good news. It’s the first time I’ve seen three guys play Crue music this well since 1991.These men are solid pros and play the Crue hits just as well as the original band. And Bland helps when Neil takes a mid-set break to check his make-up and heart rate while the band rips through “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heaven and Hell.” Therein lies a big problem with this show-the promoter paid for Vince Neil, not 40 minutes of Neil and 20 of his back-up band. When featured, Neil manages to wheeze his way through the Crue hits and barely sings any of the memorable choruses-it’s left up to the crowd to make up for the singer’s obvious declining health. Despite all this, the hour isn’t the worse thing I’ve ever seen, especially at a festival.

What a weird little band The Pretty Reckless is. Is it modern rock the band? Punk? Pure rock with a big guitar base? Or all the above? You can tick of all of these boxes here, because TPR plays melodic hard rock with a punk attitude, while guitarist Ben Phillips fills song after song with his stinging solos. But the real star of the band is Taylor Momsen, the former Gossip Girl star who is either on drugs or a great actress (I’ll leave that decision up to you, but both times I’ve seen the band, I have been asked repeatedly if she is on some sort of substance. The answer-I don’t know, I wasn’t invited backstage to share it). She does play the tortured soul/female singer role with great aplomb, but at times it runs contrary with her talent and natural beauty. Having said that, the quartet does rock pretty hard (in a Joan Jett meets Halestorm kind-of-way), the backing band is solid and there are some catchy hard rock songs on display- “Follow Me Down,” “Sweet Things,” “Heaven Knows” and “Going to Hell” are the highlights. I do find The Pretty Reckless to be interesting and am always curious to see the band perform live.

To finish off this very interesting day of music, Halestorm was hand-picked to headline the show. The band had put on an unforgettable show as the 7 p.m. band in 2013, and in the past four years, have put out another best-selling album. Thus, Lzzy Hale and the boys were ready to do a full set of music for the first time here. Now I could watch Lzzy do polkas for 85 minutes and be happy, because I think she is gorgeous. But those there for the music had nothing to be worried about either. Ms. Hale has the greatest female rock voice of this generation, with comparisons to such legends as Janis Joplin, Ann Wilson and Benetar. And the backing band of her brother Arejay (drums), Josh Smith (bass) and Joe Hottinger (guitar), are just as solid as the vocalist. But there are not too many rock stars who have the talent and looks package that Lzzy does. She can sing like a siren (she did a solo piano turn on “The Rose” and “Dear Daughter” that was chilling). The hits were sung with great energy (“It’s Not Me,” “I Get Off,” “Love Bites,” “Apocalyptic”). But four songs absolutely blew the crowd away-a cover of Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night,” was incredible, and the set closing run through of “Mayhem” and “I Miss the Misery” would have blown the roof off the place, if it had one. The tour-de-force was “Familiar Taste of Poison,” a slow, moving ballad that only one person on this planet could sing-Lzzy Hale.

Friday

How many of you could name a member of the group Cowboy Mouth? How many of you would know if one of them was peeing on your lawn? For those of you who have never seen Cowboy Mouth, the group is quite a revelation.

With drummer Fred LeBlanc (who claims to beat his drums like their his wife’s divorce lawyer’s face) set up front and center onstage, the group followed his every lead through an hour of punky pop that turned out to be a great big ball of fun. Rock and roll church is what it looks and sounds like, with preacher LeBlanc leading the crowd through various sing-alongs, dance moves and crowd participation bits. I doubt if Cowboy Mouth will ever be one of my favorite bands, but for an hour or so, the quartet is very entertaining.

It’s always nice to reconnect with an old friend like Mickey Thomas. I’ve been lucky enough to know Mickey since the late 70’s, when he employed my old high school buddy and Little League foe Brett Bloomfield as his bassist. Brett spent many years with Mickey and ended his music career on the road with Starship. Nothing much has changed over the years-Thomas does the hits and a version of “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” the massive hit he sung as a member of The Elvin Bishop Band. He also pays homage to the lineage of the Jefferson Airplane connection with Jefferson Starship and now Starship, and uses back-up vocalist Stephanie Calvert to do the Grace Slick parts on “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” “Layin” It On The Line,” “Jane,” “Sara,” “We Built This City”-it’s a hit fest, and it’s great to see Mr. Thomas still out there and delivering after all these years.

Black Stone Cherry has a very interesting history with the Jam. The band’s first appearance came back in 2010 during a slight drizzle. The infamous storm of 2015 nearly blew the band clean off the stage, and the quartet was forced to shut down its set after just six songs while the crowd sought refuge from the worst storm to ever hit the festival. So, when the forecast for Friday was for sunny, warm weather, the group was welcomed to the site with a “it will be nice to see you guys play a full set without rain.” Not so fast, guys and gals.

A storm can blow in here at any time from any place, and as luck would have it, a big batch of rain and wind hit the concert site about 30 minutes before the band was about to take the stage. Another cancellation-not this time. Luckily, I have a friendly relationship with these guys (a great bunch of dudes), and it was mentioned to singer Chris Robertson that all might not be lost-the group could simply relocate to the bar, where Sammy Hagar blew the place up on the same night that BSC was forced off the main stage two years ago. So, after a small bit of negotiating and friendly banter, it was off to the bar (“we’re just a bar band to begin with” was Chris’ comment about the move) for another incredible, “it could only happen here” moment at the MJ.

So, did Black Stone Cherry pussy foot around after being forced into the bar after Melissa Ethridge’s set? No, the boys hit the stage like this was meant to be all along, and ripped up a 50-minute set of classic rock (think Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Metallica for the uneducated) and a few surprises. “Me And Mary Jane,” “In My Blood,” “Blind Man,” and “Lonely Train” were just a few of the songs played, but it hardly mattered what was on offer aside from the fact that ANOTHER BIG BAND WAS IN THE BAR! It was loud, it was raucous, and I got to do lights. Enough said, and thanks to Chris, Ben, Jon and John, along with road manager Brandon, for a great show and being true gentlemen. BSC live is always a great night of rock, but this is truly something I will never forget.

Due to the move, Black Stone Cherry’s set came after Melissa Ethridge’s at 9 pm, and because I helped the band set-up and ultimately do lights, I didn’t see much of her act. I am not the biggest Melissa fan to begin with (she’s a bit out of place at a rock festival), but I do enjoy some of her music, and can attest to her power as a live act. She is also a classy lady backstage, so I made sure to at least see the big hits like “Come To My Window” and “I’m The Only One,” which both sounded great. Her band is top-notch and the lady can sing, so her inclusion only added to the MJ experience on this night.

The revitalized Live closed the show with an 80-minute set that included nothing but the band’s biggest hits. You might ask, who is Live and why is the band headlining this festival? “Operation Spirit,” “Selling the Drama,” “I Alone,” “Lightning Crashes,” “All Over You,” “Lakini’s Juice,” “Turn My Head,” “The Dolphin’s Cry” and one monster album, “Throwing Copper,” that’s why. All Top 10 modern rock hits for the singles, and a number one record made Live one of the mid-90’s most listened to acts. But vocalist and chief songwriter Ed Kowalczyk decided to leave the band for a solo career in 2009, and the rest of the guys (guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey) thought they could move on without him as Live with a new singer. Bad choices by both, as it turned out, as both acts failed commercially, and a reunion was made official in 2016. Since then the quartet has been playing big shows with a solid set of hits, led by Kowalczyk’s strong voice and the overall strength of the band’s sound (huge choruses, big guitars, solid thump behind it). Live, like most bands who made it big with its original line-up, is a much better proposition together than it was apart.

Saturday

I wrote the following review about Thundherstruck last year:

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 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 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 and play the Malcolm and Cliff roles well. Once again one of the weekend’s best acts.

So, I’ve decided to re-print it here because the quintet showed up for the seventh time since 2007, and nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing, and it shouldn’t, because these girls do what they do as well as any tribute band I’ve ever seen. Hopefully, the new investors will remember how important Thundherstruck is to the history of the festival and invite the girls back after a few years away.

Poor Jack Russell. He really is just a shell of himself at this point in his career. Now fronting a band known as Jack Russell’s Great White, the former star now walks with a limp and uses a cane due to a fall in his bathroom where he cracked two vertebrae and herniated a disc back in 2009. Along with alcoholism (he is now sober), Russell has had a hard time since his band’s involvement in the infamous Rhode Island fire back in 2003 that killed 100 people at The Station night club. Despite the history and everything that has happened in his life, Russell still tours with a quality band and does his best to sing the Great White classic such as “Save Your Love,” “Rock Me” and “Once Bitten Twice Shy” (written by Ian Hunter, of course). But it’s really tough to see a guy who was once of the best frontmen of the 80’s in this state.

Better Than Ezra was easily the most disappointing act at this year’s Jam for me. I had been looking forward to seeing these guys for the first time in over 10 years. But the whole set sounded like a throw away, with little focus and not much care or thought put into it. These guys have a bunch of good songs- “King of New Orleans,” “Good,” and “In the Blood” were aired, but how about ”Roselia” (which was on the setlist but not played)? Or “Desperately Wanting,” “At the Stars” or “Live Again,” all great songs that we’re not played, while junk like “Juicy” was. When a band has an hour to impress a crowd that hasn’t seen much of it in the last number years plays live, it plays the hits. All the hits! This was a massive missed chance for a band that isn’t really that big to begin with.

Peter Frampton was one of my favorite artists back in the ‘70’s. I was lucky enough to be at Winterland back in 1975 when he recorded the tracks for the “Frampton Comes Alive” record, and at the Day on the Green a year later that helped send his career into the stratosphere. So, it can be difficult seeing him now and explain to people how incredible he was then and what it’s like seeing, this older, gentler version of Frampton now. He can still play wonderfully, and the songs literally sound the same live. “Lines On My Face,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do” are all played, but it just isn’t with the same fire and polish that Frampton and his backup band could pull off 40 years ago. That could be said for a lot of bands, and I understand the aging process, but I really miss those shows. It’s not until the encore of Humble Pie’s “Four Day Creep” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” that the set really ignites.

A lot of people like Steve Miller. I tolerate him. I do not believe he is anywhere near the greatest guitar player of all-time, or the greatest songwriter (“Abracadabra”-really). My belief is that his simplistic rock simply came along at the right time, when his multiple hit songs sounded good blasting out of the radio back in the 70’s. Some of these songs have aged well, others should be retired. On this night, Miller came on at the wrong time-last. Everyone was burnt out from the long weekend, and abandoned the place when he brought Frampton out for a four-song blues set that was easily the best part of the set. Frampton and Miller simply burned the place up with great blues licks, but the crowd wanted the hits, so Miller finished up with “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Rock ‘N Me,” “Jet Airliner” and Jungle Love” to a rapidly dimishing crowd. To play the 11pm spot on the last night at a big festival, you really must bring it onstage. Miller did the same act as he has done for the past 40 years-some people got it, but most of us are a bit over it.

Once again, thanks must go to Mark Kirkhhoff, the Mountain Ash guys, Kathy Bieloh, Bernie, Steve, Tim, Justin, all the security and Jam staff, those 12 girls from Canada, Black Stone Cherry, all my media friends and the DJ’s and all the others who make this such a memorable happening. And thanks to my buddy Jeb for introducing me to this place back in 2006. I’ve made a lot of good friends and always look forward to the week in Walker. See ya at MJ 27-hopefully!!

https://www.moondancejam.com/