As with my inaugural visit last year to the 3-day melodic rock festival that is Firefest I again found myself in Nottingham’s Rock City for the opening Friday night only. This year the line-up for the remaining days didn’t excite me enough to book the whole weekend, which I suppose is an improvement on 2011 where other circumstances prevented me (needlessly, as it turned out, to my immense annoyance!) from catching the likes of Steve Augeri and Unruly Child (to name but two). This time around there were again four acts to take in on the Friday alone, the first two of whom I knew not the first thing about before entering the venue...
2011 opened with an astounding set from Serpentine, who instantly became my favourite ‘new’ band, so this year’s openers, Lionville, had the weight of expectation on their shoulders. While they only had a half-hour slot for a 5-song set, they made the most of every second and got proceedings off to a suitably stunning start. One of the exciting things about Firefest is the black curtain that shrouds the stage at all times – you never quite know what’s going to be revealed when it is dropped (especially if you’re unfamiliar with the bands!), and in this case what I saw shocked me into the realisation (expressed inwardly only, I hasten to add...), ‘Cor, that’s Lars (Säfsund) from Work of Art, that is!’. That was the first thing I noticed, the second was keyboardist Alessandro Del Vechio’s Kansas t-shirt - endearing to a Wheathead like myself - and the third (these were all in quick succession by the way!) was that they were brilliant. Lars is simply one of the great vocalists working in the genre today, and to see him was a joy, not least because Work of Art were the band I’d most wanted to see out of the rest of the weekend’s acts (but not enough to justify another day’s worth of ticket/hotel/etc!). Not content with having one amazing vocalist in the group, band founder/guitarist Stefano Lionetti (who didn’t come up with the band’s name, believe it or not) also proved to be no slouch in the vocal department, and when the two harmonised it was especially magical. Suffice to say I was very impressed and would never have guessed that this was, in fact, the first time the group had ever played together in a live setting! Within hours of my return home the album was ordered (with a second to follow when their sophomore effort is released next month). (10/10)
With Lionville having (almost) matched Serpentine, I was worried that 2011’s pattern would continue, which would mean second band Dante Fox would be the major disappointment of the night. My fears were quickly proven unfounded as they delivered further blasts of hook-laden melodic rock of the finest order one after the other. After seeing The Reasoning and Touchstone a week earlier, this set, featuring yet another excellent female lead vocalist in the form of Sue Wiletts, seems to confirm that I’ve been cured of my aversion to the female of the species in rock bands (though I may go into remission should I ever accidentally catch Curved Air live again!). Guitarist Tim Manford may not have the look of a rock God, but his playing was some of the best of the night (no mean feat). Their new mini-album Lost Man’s Ground was released at Firefest to tie in with their appearance, but while I didn’t get a chance to pick one up (more on this in a moment...) it will certainly be joining the collection sooner rather than later! (9/10)
Next up were Ten - a band I had heard of, but was unfamiliar with until the release of last year’s Stormwarning album, their first after a five-year hiatus. Sadly, it wasn’t represented in the setlist, although two tracks from the brand new Heresy and Creed album were showcased to keep the set up to date. With only 50 minutes stage time (and the largest discography of any band on the bill) it was inevitable that something had to be missed and the old favourites (well, old favourites for those who knew them, that is!) certainly went down a storm. The line-up underwent a fairly major overhaul late last year, but the end result is good for all, with the inclusion of new guitarist Dan Mitchell perhaps the best thing about it of all. Leader Gary Hughes’ reputation is built more on his songwriting and production skills than any virtuosity in the vocal department (in fact he has quickly become one of my favourite songwriters, and the news that he is to work with Serpentine on the writing of their third album is some of the best I’ve had all year) and while there were no significant sound issues at any point of the night, in Ten’s case I saw the keyboards being played a lot more than I actually heard them in the mix, which combined with the lack of a Stormwarning track or two, made this the disappointment of the evening for me. As ‘disappointments’ go it was almost too mild to notice, and there was certainly nothing that would put me off seeing them again – quite the opposite in fact! (9/10)
Closing the show were Tyketto – a legendary group in melodic rock fan circles, but knowing that and actually being able to track down their pair of classic albums from the early 90s are two entirely different things, so it wasn’t until the release earlier in the year of the long-awaited new album Dig in Deep that I finally added the Tykes to my collection. Fortunately they played a few tracks from that album (three of the best in fact: Faithless, Here’s Hoping it Hurts and Let This One Slide) so I didn’t have to go the whole night without hearing a single familiar song! Again it was the old favourites that most were there for though, and based on a first hearing it was readily apparent that their reputation was well-deserved. As had also been the case with the unfamiliar (to me) Ten songs, most of Tyketto’s classics had instantly memorable choruses,and other suitable ‘sing along’ moments, so I wasn’t the lone silent voice in Rock City for too long. Everybody knows why this band never became huge (horrific timing), but it’s still a shame that more people aren’t familiar with them, especially as Danny Vaughn is one of the finest frontmen I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. He certainly seems more than content with his lot (the whole band were clearly having a blast – actually the same was true of every band on the bill), so maybe there’s something to be said for never breaking beyond ‘cult’ status anyway. With a reception as rapturous as they received on this occasion you’d be hard-pressed not to be chuffed – and that is a large part of the Firefest experience for fans and bands alike. (10/10)
Now in its 8th year under the Firefest moniker this event is a well-oiled machine – turnaround times between acts is an ultra-tight twenty minutes and technical difficulties are remarkably rare. The only organisational point I’d query was the decision to close the merchandise stand early (and with no announcement until it had already happened) so those of us planning to spend up large on our exits who weren’t coming back for the rest of the weekend (and they must have known there’d be some as all three nights sold out at different times of the year!) were left without a chance to part with our cash. A kind soul at my hotel provided me with a programme at least (be grateful dear reader, as without it I’d just be making up names for half of the musicians mentioned above!), but the inevitable stack of CDs eluded me. Ah well. Presumably this decision had something to do with the merch being downstairs instead of at the back of the main room, as it was last year. That seemed like a perfectly good idea to me at first, but if it really was the cause of the early closure I may have to revise that opinion! But this is a minor quibble – the night was all about the music and on that front it succeeded completely. Overall I’d rate it more highly than last year’s Friday night – while nobody quite reached the Serpentine and Jimi Jamison level of amazingness, the remarkable consistency of all the bands gave this year’s line-up the edge. Now, how will they try and top that this time next year...? (Overall rating...you guessed it - 10/10).