“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.”
– George R.R. Martin
For the past five years, thousands of aging metal heads have spent their last days of summer in Hinckley, MN for the annual Grand Rocktember Festival. With bands featured in the pages of Circus Magazine and Hit Parader between 1982-1990 filling the stage over two days. For the sixth year the folks at Grand Casino decided to add a third day. Who wouldn’t want that? Based on the attendance those first two days, that answer would be most people.
It was a move I have to believe resulted in some second guessing from the fine folks putting this event together. From people working the event to the those attending, adding a third day was a recurring complaint. And it showed in the attendance which for the first two days was a far cry from years prior. Not even half capacity as the headliner took the stage either night. Considering the light ticket sales had to have been known, it seems odd the promotion for the concert never mentioned that a reunited Dokken would be headlining the second night. Instead their website just mentioned George Lynch and Don Dokken (among many others) as special guests of Scrap Metal, the Nelson Brothers all-star cover band.
Day one opened with the largely unknown, even for this crowd, Vain. Vain were late to the hair metal party and sort of got lost in the shuffle. But lead singer Davey Vain has assembled a solid band and for a way to kick off this fest, they were a good choice. Next was Rocktember vet Eric Martin who’s backing band featured members of Trixter. They ran through the hits of Mr. Big admirably even if Martin looked like we had woke him from a nap.
Next up was Great White featuring brand new singer with shiny bright teeth, Mitch Malloy, replacing the recently departed Terry Ilous. Hard to say for sure if this was an upgrade. Mitch has the rock star look but the sole of Perry Como. Hearing them perform Great White classics like “Lady Red Light” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” reminded me of the time Pat Boone went metal. I know the story and I get why they can’t work with former singer Jack Russell anymore. But every time I see this band it feels like they are wasting away without him. They deserve a singer who can perform these songs.
Day 1 wrapped with another semi regular act Skid Row. This is a band that knows a thing or two about replacing a legendary singer. They have had three since deciding Sebastian Bach was a bigger headache than replacing your singer every few years or so. And they’ve always picked good ones. Current singer ZP Theart may be the best fit they’ve had since first replacing Bach with Johnny Solinger a couple decades ago. He has the right combination of stage presence and ability for classic songs of this bands catalog. Seeing these guys it’s hard to accept that most of their work comes from two records. Makes you wonder.
Day 2 started with vendors waiting for people to arrive as a local country musician treated them to grunge classics from Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, it made me wonder if adding a third day wasn’t the only error in judgement. No worries. Maryland ass kickers KIX were back and in fine form as they plowed through their 1988 masterpiece Blow My Fuse. Normally I don’t care for these ‘play the whole record in sequence’ shows but this one delivered. This band has managed to stay fit and sound great. In 80’s terms. They kicked my ass.
By the time Winger took the stage the crowd was about as sparse as the previous night. They didn’t miss much here. Opening the show with 4 deeper cuts. Pausing to restart the second song as lead singer Kip clumsily apologized for starting to play the wrong song. The one saving grace for Winger was guitarist Reb Beach who clearly hasn’t lost a thing.
The last time Stryper played Grand Rocktember I may have referred to their show as a sleep deprivation study. Tonight wasn’t much different. At least their outfits were more toned down and with Perry Richardson taking over bass duties previously held by Tim Gaines, they now had someone besides singer Michael Sweet who could walk and play at the same time. Michael Sweet is an ageless wonder in both appearance and performance. He seems better than ever. Missing was guitarist Oz Fox who is recovering from a fairly serious medical scare. Early reports on Oz are positive but he will be unable to tour for some time. Get well soon Oz.
Next was the Nelson Brothers all-star cover band Scrap Metal, who were much better suited as a midday bathroom break than a headliner. But complications with RATT, who was originally slated for the headliner slot, Scrap Metal scrapped together some friends to keep the party going. How it wasn’t in every radio spot, ad or even on the Grand Rocktember website, that Dokken was going to play a 10 song set to close out Friday, is beyond me. The only thing I can think is they didn’t know. So it was a treat for those who did come and stick around. Don Dokken is making huge strides in helping break the stereotype that you need to have a heartbeat and be able to sing to front a band.
Day 3 was another beautiful day (weather all weekend was perfect) that finally saw the crowd show up. The first two bands Hericane Alice and Tuff are almost mirror images in that they are two lead singers (Bruce Nauman, HA & Stevie Raichelle, TUFF) with local roots (Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively) and who’s bands are more a product of last minute planning than active entities and both have just enough name recognition to be the first or second band at one of these 80’s fests. And both were the perfect way to start day three.
I saw Autograph (another Grand Rocktember alum) earlier this year opening for Tom Kiefer and it dawned on me how they benefit from having only one song everyone knows. Because of that, they can take greater liberties with adding new stuff to their set list which they once again took advantage of. Guitarist Steve Lynch is one of those guys from the 80’s who was a little over looked. He performs like a man much younger than he is. Which is to his credit.
George Lynch stuck around from the previous night with Dokken to perform with his own band Lynch Mob. Lynch Mob is basically what George does between side projects at this point. George has enough name recognition to draw fans of his playing by himself. But Lynch Mob may be over-slotted playing this late in the day. While Autograph has that one monster hit that still gets played today, Lynch Mob can largely attribute its popularity to George coming from Dokken. That said, this was one of their better shows in recent memory.
Much like Skid Row, Queensryche replaced a fairly iconic singer some time back. Also similar in that both bands seem to be here every year, performing the same set. But I didn’t get the sense that mattered much this day. Day 3 kept the vendors busy and the bathrooms full as it had to come close to a capacity crowd by this point. It started to look like Grand Rocktember of yore. Groups of people taking in music, having a little too much to drink and taking tailgating breaks. Hope has returned that this amazing adult getaway before the start of school may not be on the verge of extinction.
Grand Rocktember, and for the most part summer, ended with Saturday night headliners Tesla reminding all they haven’t lost a thing. The Sacramento quintet has never really gone away over the decades. Guitarist Frank Hannon remains one of the stalwarts of the 80’s. Lead singer Jeff Keith has a voice that dwarfs himself. This band has been playing together for so long it almost seems too easy. Drummer Troy Luccketta confirmed as much in a conversation with him a week earlier in Nashville. This is not a band people leave early for and they are not a band that makes you regret that.
One would hope the party responsible rolls this back to a two day event. At its best, this has been a weekend getaway for the older rockers. Groups of people, family and friends, would make matching shirts and camp for a couple nights while occasionally taking a break to listen to some music. Adding a third day devalued the experience. Did you really want to use an extra vacation day for roughly the same amount of bands? Did you really want to pay for another ticket for roughly the same amount of bands? Another night at the hotel? Apparently not. Those people who came in groups every year didn’t come this year. Not in the droves they had. At best Thursday and Friday reached 20% capacity. Saturday did see a significant uptick. I really hope this isn’t the end of a great festival. People coming together once a year to celebrate their youth. Based on the feedback I got from attendees and staff all confirmed the same sentiment. Sometimes less is more.