Try to follow along. The Nelson brothers were there. Hey! It’s Joel Hoekstra on guitar! He’s in Whitesnake now, used to be in Night Ranger. They play later on. But between now and then, it’s John Waite, with his sometimes guitarist, Kerri Kelli.
Kerri took Joel’s place in Night Ranger. Winger was there. Hey! It’s Reb Beech! He’s in Whitesnake too! I get to see both of Whitesnake’s guitarists without having to hear Is This Love? Bonus. Oh wait. Tom Keifer was there, with his band. Keyboard player? Yup. Paul Taylor. Ex-Winger! Wrote Miles Away.
Howard Leese was there. He was in Heart! Big time! His duty this weekend is as Paul Rodgers’ guitarist. Howard has been in Bad Company too. More on that later. Let’s see, what else. Robbie Crane’s back in Ratt, or at least what Bobby Blotzer is taking out as Ratt. I wonder if Robbie still has his Black Star Riders gig? We may have a Marco Mendoza factor if not. There’s your “family tree,” at Sunrise, Florida’s Rockfest 80’s. At least the branches I witnessed.
What we have here is a timely family vacation, some help from Rock Cellar Magazine, and my first stab at “covering” a fledgling 2-day music festival. Kind of an “away” version of my home states M3 Rockfest (Merriweather Post Pavillion, MD), except the FL gig takes place in expansive (and I mean massive) Markham Park. It took 10 minutes to drive from the entry gates to the parking spot, then another 10 to get to the festival entrance (my first rickshaw/Pedi cab ride – well worth the $5). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Rockfest 80’s promoter Roy Anthony secured the PR staff at Mad Studios, and together they offered up a presser/surprise pre-performance at a nearby resort. I imagined rock stars on a podium and jumped at the opportunity to ask someone, something, about anything.
It turned out to be a mingle-schmooze hang for about one hundred staff, media, and VIP types. Eddie Trunk, along with iHeartRadio’s Ron & Paul Young (from Miami’s BIG 105.9) hosted the event. I had the opportunity to say hello to Eddie, a guy I could write a whole other story on, and one day might.
Everyone was very nice, open bar, great shrimp (hey, somebody’s gotta go first) and I even managed to get the Mrs. and my 18-year-old birthday daughter to join us, where we were treated to a solo acoustic set from none other than Kip Winger. Now, my wife poo-poo’s much of the “hair band” genre, but there are exceptions, and Winger tops the list.
Playing a 12-string acoustic, Kip offered clever workups of the tunes we all know and love, and both from the stage and post gig mingle, he exuded proverbial cucumber cool. The uniquely talented, chill, and grounded Kip Winger, and his cocktail gig, made me rethink my arrival time for Rockfest 80’s day two on Sunday. The adjustment proved prudent.
So, I’m at the gate, Day One (Saturday), my magical media pass allowing me to bring in my fully prepped festival bag, and off I go looking for the “media tent.” The tent proved mythical early on, so I happily approach the stage where Nelson is doing their thing, and quite well. The brothers look and sound good, Joel Hoekstra (!) is in the mix, and the songs I caught, Love & Affection and After The Rain were as good as I thought they were back in the day, but never publicly acknowledged (dudes didn’t typically acknowledged their Nelson fandom back in the day). Verdict? Recommended.
John Waite was next on the main stage, so I got myself a beer and a good spot to watch it all go down. I’ve always said that music is best enjoyed in a field, under sunshine, with a cold beverage and a little elbowroom. Waite was the reason I was there. John still possesses the most stellar of rock voices, and songs to die for.
Tim Hogan (John’s longtime guy Friday) held stage left with his undeniable cool. Imagine an imposing Ramone in a 3-piece suit with a Les Paul bass. Unfortunately, the aforementioned Kerri Kelli on guitar seemed unrehearsed. Understandable, as he’s in Night Ranger mode these days, but I was hoping for better. That, combined with John’s agitated dissatisfaction with the monitors, had the gig going a bit sideways.
Teetering towards shambolic really, but they held it together, John even reveling in it a bit. A man very much in the moment, John Waite gets equal charge out of things going south as he does them going swimmingly. Verdict? Recommended. Always. In fact, he began the Wooden Heart acoustic tour after this appearance, which runs through late May, and features rarely performed songs from the man’s catalog.
A stab at actual work followed, so it was off to the media tent for the scheduled appearance of Mr. Waite. John is engaging and puts up with my headiness. We talk a range of subjects (teetering sets, the Wooden Heart tour, the stereo system he’s yet to hook up, and my pitch that he should do a Faces cover album). Whew. Went well.
Reveling in my first face-to-face interview with a rock star, I enjoyed the perks of the media tent. Shade, AC, a seat, iced coffee, all’s right with the world. Feet up time! Moments pass and there’s a murmur in the tent. A scramble to the front ensues for the next rock star. This time, Tom Keifer.
I figure what the hell, I’m going in, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s happy to engage. It seems the artists dig the “non-scripted” questions I’m bumbling their way. I went so far as to mention to Tom that a friend/gifted songwriter from Leesburg, VA (Todd Wright, look him up) called me once from Nashville to alert me that he’d seen Tom walk from his car to the mall in full stage regalia. Tom chuckled, smiled broadly and said, “This is who I am!” He’d prove it in a bit.
Time to wander amongst south Florida’s rock and roll people, and that I did, beers in hand as I stumbled into a picnic table seat with the self-professed “Mayor of Hollywood.” He actually looked like Don Johnson, and apparently was his stunt double, or something like that. We discussed Waite’s set, which duly impressed the Mayor. As Warrant churned on downfield from us, it hit me just how strong the songs are for that band, and what an inspiring job Robert Mason does at the helm of Jani Lane’s body of work. I Saw Red? Uncle Tom’s Cabin? These are big, powerful, moving rock songs. Warrant? Highly recommended.
Night Ranger was my next order of the day. This band has delivered for me since their first glimmer on MTV. I still remember hearing Dawn Patrol on the “midnight albums” they’d play on DC rock radio, and was hooked early on. So, we already have inkling that I’m going to have issue with Kerri Kelli, but he fills the Jeff Watson/Joel Hoekstra role admirably, if not quite at the same strata as his predecessors.
Brad Gillis, on the other hand, is better than I’ve ever seen him, if that’s even possible. This might be the byproduct of not having the same caliber flanker, (sorry Kerri, you seem like a good guy, and certainly play rings around many) but whatever the reason, it’s welcome, and at it’s core is a big (life) reason a band like Night Ranger sizzle on the festival circuit. Jack Blades was his usual effervescent self, while Kelly Keagy (Blades admitting the confusion of having the Kerri Kelli/Kelly Keaggy line up dynamic) sounded -a little- rough in spots vocally.
Could be he’s coming back to earth with age, but the way he plays around the parts and melodies with Jack is such a natural dance that it more than makes up for it. Night Ranger. Always recommended.
It’s Tom Keifer time on the main stage. Tom has been riding his The Way Life Goes record for over two years now, an admirable amount of time in this day of slapped together side projects. Keifer is a stalwart in the field of rock front folk, but this is very much a band effort. It’s no surprise they cover Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help From My Friends.
The Tom Keifer band “sounds” like that song, but instead of Mad Dogs and Englishmen we get a humble yet confidently unified bunch of Yanks, and the effect on the crowd is as big as the Keifer catalog. The Way Life Goes is out in deluxe reissue form later this year, including a documentary film on the band that looks to be like good watch.
Day two brought a more relaxed approach from your scribe, and I rolled in late afternoon. On the walk to the catch Winger on the side stage, I had to stop and witness the Bobby Blotzer-led Ratt parading on the main stage. This Ratt is a bit odd, in that the only “heritage” member of the band is Blotz, although the aforementioned Robbie Crane did do some time in a more robust/recent version of Ratt.
On this day, it must be said that the singer is quite good, frankly better than Stephen Peary, and I rooted for the kid. The stage right guitarist seemed aloof, but almost in a disdainful way, while the other guy looks a lot like Warren DeMartini. I could still hear them from across the field as I waited for Winger, and had to quizzically turn my head towards the stage at perhaps one of the worst drum solo vamp intro/sing-alongs ever. You’re In Love is not the right song for this kind of pandering. Seriously.
Who starts a song that begins with guitar and vocals with a drum solo? Swing and a miss, for sure. Blotzer’s Ratt? Umm, not so much.
I already knew Winger would deliver, so I could live with Kip’s voice being a bit shredded (he sang much better 3 days prior). Consummate pro’s this lot. Reb Beach brought an unexpected capital WOW factor. The guy’s flat out amazing, especially on the outro of Headed For A Heartbreak. I would recommend Winger anytime to anyone, something I wouldn’t have said before this weekend.
Back to the main stage for what seemed to be the most anticipated act of the festival. Ace Frehley, the reason so many of us play guitar, rode the crest of hoopla for his new covers record, Origins Volume I, landing smack dab in Markham Park. Ace’s band proved to be highly apt in their respective roles.
Co-vocalist/guitarist Ritchie Scarlett was made for the big stage, and I developed a full-fledged man crush on bassist/sometime singer Chris Wyse. His bass solo/Strange Ways turn at the mic were the highlight of the set for me. Ace played Emerald, where he curiously “tweaked” the set in stone Thin Lizzy riff to a more, let’s say, Ace-friendly pattern. Hey, if you can rework Thin Lizzy riffs and get away with it? That’s gravitas!
Ace would eventually end up in the hospital a week or so after this show, due to a grueling travel schedule. I actually had a feeling he was overdoing it with the Florida gigs, directly to LA for that video shoot with Paul Stanley, and then right back to the North East for more shows. Rest up Ace, your band’s shit hot and you’ve got a buzzing record. Recommended.
When Ace went into the Kiss standards, I knew it would be a good chance to get back to the media tent for one last William Miller moment. Because really, I don’t need to hear Detroit Rock City ever again.
The tent was buzzing with the appearance of festival closer Paul Rodgers, a bona fide member of British rock royalty.
The Mad Studios crew was adamant at limiting press to one question, and made sure to remind me specifically, as I’d been a bit long-winded with Waite and Keifer the previous day. So it came to me, last question of the last artist of the weekend, and as I stood face to face with Paul I went fan boy in the moment. I managed to get out my question about Rich Robinson taking over for Mick Ralphs on the upcoming Bad Company/Joe Walsh tour, and Paul was a gentleman with his informative and thoughtful reply, and didn’t hide his amusement as the geek in me came out to party.
Paul and company played an effortless set. Rodgers is so good at what he does, that at times he comes across as detached, but not to the detriment of the crowd’s enjoyment. Nice to hear a couple of The Firm’s songs aired. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched Howard Leese, if he was going to be relegated to “B” guitar status in Bad Company, what with Robinson coming on board. Watch this space. Bad Company with Rich Robinson and Joe Walsh this summer? I can’t not see that.
So, Rockfest 80’s. Word is there was 12-15,000 in attendance, but that would seem to be a total tally, as the crowd felt much smaller for the most part. A park staffer mentioned that an annual Christmas concert (Paul Anka, anybody?) routinely drew 30,000. From my vantage point, the festival ran smoothly.
Seeing a bit of “behind the scenes” with my trusty media pass, it struck me how massive an undertaking events like this can be. I’m guessing it’s a thankless job. With that, I leave the smell of bubble gum vape, and the people of South Florida behind, and urge you to attend at least one festival per summer, so we can keep these things in business.