Friday, September 30, 2011

My M3 Experience: Day 2

After spending the night back at the local Hampton Inn after the festivities of M3: day 1, along with what seemed to be an entire hotel of M3-goers, I was about as well rested as a middle aged guy who partied and went to a 5 hour concert the night before could be.

This was to be a much earlier start, since day 2 would feature a lot more bands than day 1. Good thing the free breakfast at the hotel provided an added incentive to get up a little early. Once my friend Mike and I got back to the venue, we quickly decided that we would be fine missing out on main stage opening bands Modern Superstar (who?) and Danger Danger in favor of a little tailgating. I made a point of dusting off my old 1988 Whitesnake tour shirt for the day, in honor of the nights headliners, but they were a good 10 hours away.

The first band we saw that day was Firehouse who, with 3/4 of the classic lineup intact (minus the bassist), I considered close enough to be "original", especially in a sea of bands missing many founding members. Since it's been 21 years since their debut, it's easy to forget how many hits they had, or memorable songs, at least. The band did an admirable job of warming up the crowd as the first real "name" band of the day. Though not able to hit all of the ridiculously high notes of "Don't Treat Me Bad", vocalist CJ Snare brought great energy and a good-time party vibe that has been absent from hard rock music since the grunge era. The fact that most of the band now have short haircuts makes me think they probably all have day jobs, but if I closed my eyes, it brought me back to the time I saw them opening for Tesla back in '92; very little in their sound and delivery had changed.

Up next on the main stage were Slaughter. (Ever notice, their name is one letter away from "laughter"? Just sayin'.) Now I've never been a big fan of theirs, and this performance certainly would not do anything to change that. It was a little freaky seeing a pudgy Mark Slaughter screeching on stage when, last I saw him, he was the cute pin-up boy all the girls had up in their lockers. (I had to break the news to my sister gently.) To me, they sounded just as pedestrian and uninteresting as they did when they opened for Kiss back in the summer of '90, but I watched their entire set, just the same. Call me lazy, but I just couldn't bring myself to walk up to the second stage to watch Pretty Boy Floyd instead.

The next main stage act was Great White. Great White?. Pass. There's just too much bad karma with that band for me to even be interested in their existence any more. I know some people think I'm too harsh when it comes to my opinions of them, but I just can't get past the whole Station Nightclub fire incident. In light of that horrible tragedy (and yes, I know the band lost a member in the fire), I find it ironic that vocalist Jack Russell is having all kinds of health problems, and that Jani Lane was supposed to be their fill-in vocalist, but apparently that was an ill-fated combination, too (and I still don't know the name of the Brit who was fronting the band). The band is just cursed and the less that is said about them, the better.

Instead of Great White, I checked out Gary & Marcus Cherone's new band Hurtsmile on the second stage. It was a little bizarre seeing Gary perform in front of about 500-1000 people in a parking lot behind the lawn seats. I mean, this guy was in Extreme and Van Halen! Not surprisingly, the band kind of sounded like Extreme. Though their material wasn't particularly memorable, the band was tight, professional and, in a different era, might actually have a chance at success. Really though, it's just something for Gary Cherone to do while he waits for Nuno Bettencourt to finish touring with Rhianna.

Afterwards, I went back to the main stage to see the newly reunited Mr. Big, who were just starting out on their first tour of the states in many years. Just one word: superb! They were almost perfect in every way and they were possibly the most talented and professional sounding group of the festival. Every aspect of their performance was spot-on, with 3-part vocal harmonies so good, you would have sworn they were prerecorded, but we all know better, don't we? The most surprising part of their set, however, was the incredible lack of interest from the large crowd watching them, even during "To Be with You" and "Green Tinted 60's Mind". This was rather puzzling to me. It's as if there weren't enough f-bombs or crotch grabs coming from the stage to satisfy the audience. How dare they try to impress us with talent! It's a pretty sad day when Slaughter gets more applause than Mr. Big, but what are you gonna do?

Between fruit smoothies, beers, southwestern wrap sandwiches, and more beer, I managed to sneak back to stage #2 to see a little of Black and Blue & Faster Pussycat's sets. B&B, though sounding great (minus Tommy Thayer, who is too busy playing in that other band to reunite with his old mates), had way too much bad-boy, f*ck-you attitude for a bunch of aging rockers playing a friggin' parking lot. Seriously. I don't want to hear how we're not loud enough, etc. etc.; you should be happy that people want to watch you at all. I suppose it all could have just been a put-on, but that schtick is a little tired in 2011. Perhaps singer Jamie Saint James was just bitter about having been fired from Warrant in 2008 to make room for Jani Lane, the guy he replaced.

On the other hand, Faster Pussycat seemed to have the bad-boy attitude thing down; everything's done with a wink and a nod. In other words, it's all in good fun. By the time they got to playing their signature power ballad "House of Pain", there were so many of us watching that many, including myself, were behind the stage. When singer Taimie Down turned around and noticed all of us, he acknowledged our presence with a Cheshire cat grin that showed us he was having as much fun at that moment as we were.

Sebastian Bach was next on the main stage. Having never seen him, or the original Skid Row perform, I thought his sometimes childish, douche-bag-like personality would have gotten in the way of his performance; boy, was I wrong! I can't explain why but, live, somehow it all works. If you've seen him perform, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. It's as if his larger than life persona cannot be contained in traditional media formats, but is right at home on that stage.

Opening with Skid Row's "Slave to the Grind", Baz meant business, and he was quite the showman, with a crack band that sounded raw, yet tight, and bristled with the energy of a classic metal show, without sounding dated, whether playing songs from his solo effort "Angel Down", or anything from the Skid Row catalog. Oddly, Baz and his band may have been the only true "metal" act on the bill at M3.

Following Baz were Telsa, the true road warriors and one of the few "real rock" bands of the 1980's, who made their presence known in grand fashion on the big stage. They certainly benefited from the growing darkness of night, which gave their entrance a very big, arena-rock feel that transported the audience right back to 1989. The band didn't really seem to be any different than they were back then, in spite of the fact that newest member Rick Rude replaced a troubled Tommy Skeoch a few years back on rhythm guitar. Jeff Keith's voice, though raspier than in the past, still conveys the feel and flavor of the unique Tesla sound, seamlessly blending a set consisting of old and new material. Again, right on queue, the big moment for the boys was during their signature power ballad "Love Song", which always goes over really well live. In addition, songs like "Heaven's Trail" and "Modern Day Cowboy" showed why their twin guitar attack is still fantastic, and used to great effect. By the time they were done, I couldn't help but think that it was nice to see them back on a big stage where they deserve to be, if only for one night.

I had one last opportunity to sneak off to the second stage and, by that time, it was starting to rain, but that didn't do much to stop those who wanted to see Lita Ford. She easily drew the largest crowd for that stage, but I think she really should have been on the main stage earlier in the day.

I only had a chance to listen to Lita perform 2 songs (I say "listen" because the geniuses who set up the second stage put it at the top of an incline, making it impossible for anyone under 6 feet tall to see the stage when a large crowd was present). Both of the songs I heard were classics: "Falling in and Out of Love" & "Close My Eyes Forever". From what I understand, Lita is trying hard to get out from under the shadow of her now ex-husband, former Nitro & Tuff singer Jim Gillette. Her 2010 "comeback" album was, by all accounts, something that sounded nothing like a typical Lita album, and it's monumental failure was blamed on Gillette's Svengali-like influence. Clearly, her performance was meant to help her get back to basics and to her core audience. So far, so good.

At long last, the final band of the night was Whitesnake. As most people know by now, the 'Snake is not really a "band", per se, rather, it is a musical vehicle for David Coverdale. This is nothing new, in fact, over the years, the band has had dozens of members. The most famous lineup of the band was the late 80's version, that was featured on the tour for the 1987 self-titled album (though that was not the same band that actually recorded the album). That's the album with all the big hits that we in America know and love, including "Still of the Night", "Here I Go Again", "Is this Love?" and "Give Me All Your Love". I know that Whitesnake's music and history are viewed very differently in Europe (with more emphasis on their late '70's/early '80's material), but whether DC likes it or not, his legacy in the US is comprised of 1984's Slide it In, 1987's self-titled, and 1990's Slip of the Tongue albums, yet a total of only 6 songs from these 3 albums were included in the set. I understand that he feels the band has a rich history, but the US is simply a different market, and there are probably very few "die-hard" fans in the US that even know any of the material recorded prior to 1984. That's not to say that the deep cuts are not any good, in fact, "Ain't no Love in the Heart of the City" is a great, bluesy Coverdale tune, if ever there was one, but the singalong DC was hoping for was anemic, because nobody in the US knows it!

The band also featured a few new songs from their current album Forevermore, which were fine, but they just can't stand up to the songs that Coverdale wrote with guitarist John Sykes for Slide & 1987. Unfortunately, that songwriting team will likely never work together again, though they are at least on speaking terms. At least Coverdale's current band is a great-sounding lineup. Guitarists Reb Beach (also of Winger) and Doug Aldrich (formerly of Dio) have both been with DC for nearly a decade, and it shows in their comfort level and overall performance. At this point, both players know the material inside and out and, along with rest of the seasoned band, and they gave Coverdale the foundation he needed for his performance. I'll give the guy credit, though his voice is not in top form, it still has a very cool, bluesy quality and he can still let out a good scream, when called for. I wasn't too pleased with the fact that the drummer and both guitarists got extended solos, though. The very idea seems dated, and it's not like these guys are the stars of the show but, then again, given Coverdale's vocal issues in recent years, I'm guessing that they are a built-in resting period for his pipes.

The extended solos notwithstanding, DC never left the stage, unlike many other singers around his age (59, at the time of the show) who don't seem to have the stamina. He preened and strutted, and performed many a mike-stand-over-the-head twirl, just like old times. It also has be said: the guy has damn fine hair! Now that's a true survivor for you!

All in all, M3 was a great experience, and well worth the money. I'm sure that, at some point, if the festival continues on long enough, many bands will make return visits to the show and the format will begin to repeat itself but, as long as they can have a healthy amount of lineup differentiation from year to year, I will be back, again and again.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My M3 Experience: Day 1

Hey everyone. Long time, no post.

I can't believe how long it's been since I've written a new "Throwing Forks" entry (well over a year). So much has gone down in the world of hard rock and heavy metal since then, that it's almost impossible for me cover all of the possible topics, so I won't even make the attempt, I'll just try to update the blog over the coming weeks and months with some of the more interesting stuff from the recent past. And, to that end, we begin again...

M3 2011: Day 1

Back in May, I had the pleasure of attending the M3 Rock Festival in Columbia, MD, about 20 miles south of Baltimore. Now that I'm living near Philly, it's less than a 2 hour drive to the venue, called the Merriweather Post Pavilion, where the event is held annually (this being the 3rd edition of the event).

For those of you who don't know, M3 is strictly an 80's hard rock/metal festival (now expanded to 2 days) held in late spring in an outdoor shed-style amphitheater. Fortunately, it's not your typical outdoor shed, as this venue has a 40+ year history and was designed by architect Frank Gehry. The facade is made entirely of wood and the grounds are nestled in the forest, making Merriweather the antithesis of your cheesy, cookie-cutter concrete and steel concert venues. It more closely resembles Tanglewood than, say, PNC Bank Arts Center or the Comcast Center (aka, Great Woods, to those of you from MA). The point is, this is a nice place to see any show, never mind a metal show.

Another good thing about the event: the folks who put it on are smart enough to know their market and not make it traveling show that would, ultimately, result in its own demise. Simply put, having a one-off destination festival makes it that much more "special". Think about it: Lollapalooza was once a traveling festival, but became less and less successful over time, to the point where it was scrapped all together, only to be reborn years later as a destination festival in Chicago, which is now, once again, one of the bigger rock festivals in the world. Besides, when something only happens annually, people tend to want to see it that much more, i.e., great concert attendance!

M3 proved, once again, that this model works. The festival which, for the first time, was held for 2 days, had the venue nearly sold out for both of those days. This, in an era when 80's metal is only just beginning to reveal a hint of nostalgia in the public consciousness. What makes the possibility of a near sell-out seem even more unlikely is the fact that the first night was headlined by none other than Maryland natives Kix. That's right: Kix, you know, "Don't Close Your Eyes", "Cold Blood", "Blow My Fuse"? Remember?

Arguably a "fringe" band of the 80' hard rock era, the group enjoyed support from openers Jetboy (whom I missed, due to tailgating festivities), LA Guns, with "Stacey Blades" replacing founding guitarist Tracii Guns (cute, huh?) and a Jani Lane-less Warrant.

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much from LA Guns, but I was pleasantly surprised. I never got to see them "back in the day", but to my ears, they sounded as they should, with Phil Lewis' voice soaring over the top of fan faves like "Never Enough" and "Rip & Tear". Can Phil still hit all of the high notes? No, of course not, he's in his friggin' 50's! That said, the quality & tone of his voice remain intact and the overall sound of the band was what you would hope for. Their big moment was, of course, during "Ballad of Jayne" which many would agree is a pretty damn good ballad, "power" or otherwise.

Warrant followed LA Guns, their lineup now consisting of 4/5 of the original band. At the time of the show, former lead vocalist, and chief songwriter Jani Lane was still living, but had infamously been replaced by Robert Mason (formerly of Lynch Mob) when a newly sober Jani fell off the wagon in front of YouTube nation on the ill-fated 2008 Warrant reunion tour. Sadly, Jani died a couple of months ago, most likely from his long-term battle with substance abuse. That notwithstanding, Warrant's performance at M3 would feature Mason on vocals, especially considering the fact that that version of the band was promoting a new album.

This was the first time I had seen the mostly-original band since 1989, and the first time without Lane. The result? Meh. Admittedly, the original 4 guys (Sweet, Dixon, Allen & Turner) sounded great, were clearly playing well and were well-rehearsed. Mason? Great vocalist, to be sure but, sorry folks: the magic is gone. Their new single "Life's a Song"? Forgettable, and regrettably so. Clearly, so much of what Warrant was, was about Jani Lane's voice and songwriting. So many great songs! But hearing them with someone else on vocals is like hearing a tribute band and, ironically enough, they had more original members than several of the other bands at M3. Well, I can't blame them for trying, but I can't imagine that they'd be able to make a good living at this for much longer.

As for headliners Kix? What can I say? I was, once again, pleasantly surprised. I wasn't sure what to expect because, frankly, the Friday show was the "add-on" day this year, with the more lightweight bands on the bill to warm things up for Saturday. Billed as the "Kix-off Party" (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk), the band clearly were the featured act, and they took full advantage.

Front man Steve Whiteman came across a bit as a poor man's Steven Tyler, but the guy was funny, had great stage presence, and still has a great voice with a good amount of power left, even after all these years. To hear him tell the story of his reaction when he was told that Kix was going to headline the first night of the festival was priceless; even he felt it was ridiculous, but the formula worked! There had to be about 15,000 people there having a great time. So what if they weren't Motley Crue? Unlike the Crue, they actually worked for your applause and deserved it. And who knew they could fill a 2 hour set? Personally, I would have been happy with 75-90 minutes, but you can't blame them for carrying on, after all, it was probably, literally, one of the biggest gigs of their career, nearly 30 years on.

A fine warm-up show, indeed. And, with a ticket price of a measly 25 bucks, well worth the money.

Up next: M3 2011, Day 2.