(sorry, this turned into a much longer post than originally intended – feel free to skip it if it’s of no interest. I thought about posting this elsewhere, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere suitable that people actually visit, and most people seem to check out the threads in here anyway.)
We’ve just come from a trip to the States to what turned out to be a fantastic rock festival called Moondance Jam, in Walker, Minnesota. This is a short (well, not so short really) review of the festival and the bands that played. It’s not exactly Journey related but there were a few Journey tunes played and they have played at the festival before, so it may be of interest to some readers.
We’ve been to many festivals over the years, including the first 9 Donnington Monsters of Rock Festivals in the UK in the 1980’s, but I have to say that Moondance Jam was far and away the best organised and most enjoyable festival we’ve ever attended. Below is a review of some of the bands, but before that, maybe a little background to the event is in order.
Moondance Jam started 16 years ago, when a guy called Bill Bieloh organised a party on his ranch for his wife Kathy and invited a few local bands to play. Every year since then Bill and Kathy have put together a better and better show, and now the festival extends for four full days, with 20 or more major bands playing on the main stage plus several other local bands playing on a second stage. The festival takes place near the tiny town of Walker, Minnesota (pop c. 1000) and attracts a crowd of around 60,000 spread over the four days. If you’ve ever been to Minnesota (a northern US State on the Canadian border) you’ll know that there is very little there north of its capital Minneapolis, apart from trees and lakes and a few thinly populated towns. So to get such a large crowd up there is a really big deal for the area.
Journey have played at Moondance Jam a couple of times in the past, but this year the bill included REO Speedwagon, Moody Blues, Def Leppard, Kansas, Tesla, Cheap Trick, Toto and many others.
OK, now to our experience at the festival. Sue and I met up with our friend Val (who you may know as ‘RocknRoll’ on BT and MR) in Chicago and the three of us flew from there to Minneapolis and then hired a car to drive the 3 hours north to Walker, checking in at the Northern Lights Casino hotel, which just happens to be literally a five minute drive from there to the festival. We don’t do camping any more (LOL) although it seems most of the festival goers do camp and the facilities there make camping a big part of the experience for many people – huge RVs and tents are scattered all around the festival grounds.
This was our first experience of Moondance Jam, but it certainly won’t be our last.
We had contacted Bill in advance with a request for a photo pass for me, and he’d agreed and also provided me with two passes to the backstage bar area and a contact name to liaise with about the photos. In return I had promised to write a review for some of the rock magazines back here in the UK. A quick word of thanks also here to Richard, who was managing the photographers on site, for looking after us and making sure I got into the photo pit when I wanted to.
We had also purchased VIP tickets, which offered the following advantages over the standard festival tickets: private covered and tiered viewing area to one side of the stage (with its own private toilet facilities, a big plus according to Sue!), seating and tables, free food all day, free beer all day, free cocktails all day, access to a viewing area above and behind the stage while the bands were playing, special VIP parking right next to the entrance. At a price of $375 (equivalent to about £200 for the whole four days) we thought this was fantastic value. It was less than we’d paid for ILAA tickets for some of the Journey shows last summer.
The festival ran from Wednesday to Saturday. Most days we arrived at the site around Midday, to get a good seat for the day and to have a wander around the stalls etc. It’s refreshing to see food/drink/t-shirts etc selling for much less than the rip-off prices you find in most festivals. Depending on what tickets people had, for which days (some people only came for specific days rather than the whole event) everybody had different coloured wristbands and/or laminates, and the staff at the festival were all friendly, courteous and efficient in granting or denying access to certain areas of the site. There was none of the heavy handed shepherding that you find at most other festivals.
Because of our passes we could get into the backstage bar area (actually a tented area to the side of the stage opposite to where the VIP area was) and this was where all the press, many of the staff and friends of the bands accumulated etc. The bands themselves didn’t go there (with one exception I’ll tell you about in a moment) but it was a cool place to hang out and it meant I could talk ‘shop’ with all the other press photographers there. In fact, our presence caused quite a stir (they don’t get many visitors from the UK) – so much so that I got interviewed for an article in the local newspaper The Pilot Independent.
The press pit at the front of the stage was a very crowded place and the stage was very high, and I didn’t even attempt to get in there for most of the bands – it would have meant looking up their noses most of the time. Instead I was able to wander around just behind the pit, and from a viewing platform at the side of the stage accessible from the backstage area, and this I think gave me better shooting angles, as you’ll see when I’ve finished editing and uploading the pics.
One of Sue’s all time favourite bands is Cheap Trick, and she was ecstatic when it was announced they would be on the bill. That was about the only time I made a specific request to get in the photo pit. But while we were hanging around the backstage bar waiting for them to come on stage, Robin Zander (lead singer) wandered over to greet some of the fans waiting there. Sue came out with the immortal words ‘We’re from England’ and Robin signed her laminate and posed for a few photos with her. He also promised that Cheap Trick would be touring the UK in the Fall. The grin on Sue’s face for the next few hours was permanently fixed – again, you’ll see that in the photos when they’re published.
Each day, the entertainment started around 3pm, usually with a local band, and the last one came on stage around 11pm until about 12.30am. The exception to this was Friday, when bad weather (the only real rain we encountered in the whole trip) meant a couple of hours delay in the later bands, and the headliner that day (The New Cars) didn’t come on stage until about 12.45am.
It was also a real treat to be able to get from our seats in the VIP tent back to the car, out of the venue and back to our hotel room every night in under 10 minutes. At most other festivals it seems to take hours just to get out of the car park (once you’d managed to find the car, that is). I can’t stress enough how well organised everything was here.
Right, now to some short comments on each of the bands. We saw 19 of the 21 bands that played the main stage. The two we missed were early on the Friday, and we’d deliberately missed them to give us the opportunity to explore some of the local countryside that day prior to arriving at the festival early in the evening.
In order of appearance:-
– a local band to kick off proceedings. Not bad. A bit of a bikers band, apparently they play here most years and one of the band members also doubles up as event manager for the festival.
– Another cool and popular band. Very energetic and heavy and they got the crowd going. Their finale has been nicknamed the chainsaw song, and includes the lead singer ‘playing’ a chainsaw in tune with the music. Musically, they reminded me a little of Blackfoot (remember them from a few years ago?).
– Anybody remember this band from the 80’s? They used to be a very pretty bunch with lots of girl fans. They are a lot older now and their looks have long since gone, but they still sound good.
– Best band of the day. Full of energy, strong songs, great showmanship. Apparently they have a new covers album out, so we’ll have to check it out. They had some hit albums in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but they’ve been relatively quite of late so it is good to see them back. To anybody that hasn’t heard them, they sound a little like Georgia Satellites or Black Crowes, especially live.
– A band that does what it says on the tin. You ALWAYS know what you’re going to get at a Def Leppard show, as their stage routines and interaction, both among themselves and with the audience, seems to be the same every time. It’s always a good show, and they are consummate professionals on stage, but to me it just lacks a little spontaneity. You always know what they are going to say or do at any given moment in the show. Having said that, this was the best Def Leppard show I’ve seen for a few years (certainly better than any of the shows I saw them do with Journey last year).
- Three gorgeous girls took to the stage for a song and dance routine that certainly got the attention of all the males in the audience. Another local Minnesota based band, they did mostly covers of rock and soul songs and all had great voices. Highlight of their show was when they did three consecutive Journey songs, to the obvious delight of the crowd.
- Everybody knows ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ but Kansas are a band with quite a catalogue of impressive tunes. They have a very full sound, with keyboards and electric violin supplementing the guitars and bass etc. They sounded good, although maybe a little too polished and ‘Yes’ like for my taste.
Big Head Todd & the Monsters
- I’ve never heard of this guy before, but he seemed to be well known around these parts and looking at his bio he has an impressive history. A big guy, possibly of native Indian or Asian origin, he sounds a lot like Bryan Adams. Singing and playing guitar, supported by a backing band he sounded good. However, from a photographer’s visual point of view, his show was pretty boring. He stands there, he plays, he sings, and there is no movement on stage from him or his band, making it very difficult to get interesting shots.
- This was THE show that my wife was really looking forward to, and they didn’t disappoint. Now here is a band that knows that a show is as much about the visual experience as it is the music. Guitarist Rick Nielson is a human dynamo on stage – he just cannot stand still or stop pulling faces. Looking for all the world like Eric Morcambe with thick rimmed glasses and a suit, he covered every inch of the stage, playing a collection of impressive looking guitars (including his famous five necked guitar). This was a good show, and a pleasure to photograph. (Sidenote: I had a slight accident in the photo pit here. Conscious of all the other photographers there I tried to keep out of the way as much as possible, but ended up tripping over a trailing cable. As I stumbled forward I would have recovered had my very heavy camera not swung round and pulled me headfirst and horizontally into the stage. Luckily the camera survived and I escaped with just a few grazes and an embarrassed expression.
- We’ve seen REO a couple of times before and they are a great band live. They always put on a good show. I just wish Kevin Cronin wouldn’t spend half the show telling stories to the audience. They could probably fit in three or four more songs if he’d tone down his opinions. This time it included a five minute rant about the war in Iraq and all the ‘heroes’ the US has over there protecting our freedom to hold festivals like this.
- (Sorry, missed this one)
- (Also missed this one)
- After a rain delayed spell, the Fixx took to the stage. They sounded OK but uninspiring, like a poor man’s U2. Unfortunately, I don’t like U2 so the Fixx did nothing for me.
- These were an extra added to the bill at the last minute. Two lovely ladies supported by a backing band. They are actually a heavy country & western band, here to promote the Moondance Jammin’ Country festival. Although on the face of it a country band at a rock festival sounds out of place, they really rocked quite well. They ended the set with one of the girls climbing the lighting rig at the side of the stage to play her electric violin about 20 feet above the stage.
- Another late addition to the bill, replacing Smash Mouth who’d cancelled at the last minute. I’d not hear much of them before, but they did a decent enough set. They comprise mainly the two guys on guitar and bass, sharing vocal duties and again sounding a little like Bryan Adams. The crowd seemed to enjoy them.
The New Cars
- I thought these were a big disappointment. As headliners for the day, in the only timeslot that was permanently in the dark, I thought they’d at least put on a ‘show’. All the other headline acts had impressive lighting setups and good visuals. The New Cars came on with minimal stage lights and very little movement on stage. They went through the motions of singing their songs, Todd Rundgren did some solos, but there was no sense of atmosphere. It was late, well after midnight when they came on stage, and we didn’t feel inclined to sit through the whole set so we left after about 45 minutes.
- The first band on was supposed to be The Original Family Stone, but they pulled out 24 hours earlier, so Scarlet Haze, from Minneapolis, were promoted from the other stage to the main stage for this set. I thought they were pretty good. A female fronted band, they were hard and a little edgy.
- One of the revelations of the entire festival. ThundHerStruck are an all girl AC/DC tribute band…. And they are absolutely fantastic! I love AC/DC but these girls really do sound as good as, if not better than the original – and they are much easier on the eye. The lead guitarist has to be heard to be believed (absolutely note perfect) and the singer has a really powerful voice. They are full of energy on stage and the audience lapped it up. They’d been playing several short sets on the smaller stage during the weekend and were pulling bigger crowds there than some of the major bands on the main stage. If you ever get a chance to see these live you won’t regret it.
- Lots of highs and lows with this band. Musically they are very, very good, and if they kept to the instrumentals I’d have a lot more time for them. Unfortunately, lead singer Bobby Kimball simply cannot sing any more. At best he croaks his way through the few songs he’s allowed to sing, but most of the time his voice seems to fade in and out. Can’t argue with Steve Lukather’s talent, however.
- These were technically the headline band for the day, although they went on at the earlier slot of 9pm (probably because 11pm would have been after their bedtime LOL). Another pleasant surprise. I was expecting laid back variations on the theme of their best known hit ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ but for a bunch of guys in their 60s they actually rock quite well. Very blues oriented compared to the latin/jazz base behind Toto’s sound, the Moody Blues had the audience captivated for the whole of their hour and a half set. A couple of people I spoke to afterwards commented that they’d been coming to Moondance Jam for many years and that was the best set they’d seen here from any band. I’d certainly go and see these again in concert.
- He never really made it on the British side of the pond, but in the US he is something of a cult figure, and on this showing I can see why. Although his sound is very ‘80s rock’ it is catchy and it is surprising how many of his tunes you would recognise. What sets Rick apart from most other acts, though, is his interaction with the audience. As well as running around the stage a lot playing his guitar and singing (and collecting bras and knickers thrown from the audience LOL), he really connects with the fans and at one point came twenty rows out into the audience to sing amongst the crowd. He has been around singing for decades, but is one of those guys that still looks like he is in his 20’s. A great crowd pleaser and a fantastic way to end the festival.
In closing, I’d just like to say that we really enjoyed every aspect of this Moondance Jam festival. So much so that we are definitely going to try to get back again there next year and will probably make it an annual trip. If you’ve ever been to and maybe been put off by some of the worst elements of UK festivals (quagmires to stand in, filthy toilets, heavy handed policing, over-priced food and drink, extortionate t-shirt prices and lots of crap bands to suffer through before the headline act etc) then come along to Moondance Jam so see what a rock festival should be like. Bill and Kathy and the organisers of Moondance Jam really have put in place everything necessary to make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
If you want to find out more about Moondance Jam, take a look at their official website http://www.moondancejam.com
. I’m still sifting through the 4,000 pictures I took, to get down to a couple of hundred photos to represent the festival but they should be done by the weekend. I’ll publish a link to them here.