HRH AOR – Pwllheli, Hafan-Y-Mor 14/01/2015

The third day of Hard Rock Hell dawned just as the previous one had for Team PM – early, cold and with an early trip down to the sports hall which this weekend was serving as the cavernous media sanctuary for another busy round of interviews.  Unfortunately, scheduling of the latter meant that we again missed the main stage openers – this time in the shape of Wakefield’s Euphoria Audio and the vanguard of today’s Scandinavian invasion Reach – but we managed to make the trudge back up the hill and into the bar area just in time to catch Melbourne blow-ins White Widdow and their impactful brand of classic melodic rock.

White Widdow at HRH AOR, March 2015With their tight musicality and good use of vocal harmonies, there is no doubt that Jules Millis is another of the plethora of charismatic frontmen strutting their talent this weekend; he covers the stage well, and interacts with the crowd on the most effective level – even taking time to have a joking swipe about The Poodles vocalist Jakob’s comment about how far his band had travelled to play Pwllheli (“their flight must have been a killer”!).  The band themselves are tight and the set is a solid and well-paced way to round off the latter half of the evening’s proceedings.

Setlist:  Reckless Nights / Cross To Bare / Angel / Do You Remember / Below The Belt / Broken Hearts Won’t Last Forever / Frontline (Aviator cover)

Eclipse – the fourth Swedish band of the weekend and the first of this afternoon’s triptych of acts from that corner of planet metal – increase the energy level considerably and build their own momentum right from the start with their adrenaline-fuelled hyperactivity.  I don’t know what they’re putting in the Scandinavian water but it’s helping them produce not only a whole slew of great melodic rock bands but also a generation of frontmen who don’t know the meaning of phrases such as “slow down” or “stand still” – a characteristic which Erik Mǻrtensson once again displays, only doing the latter when he dons an acoustic guitar for the ballad ‘Break Down’.  The music by turns growls and soars with an easy eloquence, with its huge harmonies counterpointing its crunching riffs, as the band rip through their set with appropriate zest.

Setlist:  I Don’t Wanna Say I’m Sorry / Stand On Your Feet / Wake Me Up / The Storm / Battlegrounds / Breakdown / Blood Enemies / Wide Open / Ain’t Dead Yet / Bleed & Scream / Breaking My Heart Again

Crazy Lixx at HRH AOR, March 2015Crazy Lixx introduce a sleazy groove to proceedings as they keep the intensity level ratcheted up with opener ‘Hell Raising Women’.  However, with vocalist Danny Rexon recently having taken up guitar duties as well, this development soon seems to be rather restrictive, and the initial energy levels soon drop.  The band are still tight and compact musically, but the extra charisma and dynamic – and stage craft – of a solo frontman is sadly absent, and the band seem content to veer towards the more middle-of-the-road elements of their discography.  I have seen Crazy Lixx do better than this and hopefully, once Rexon settles into his new dual role, they will do again.

Houston really take the foot off the accelerator, slowing things down to a more mid-tempo.  They play to the smallest crowd of the evening, at least in the front half of the arena, but that doesn’t stop them delivering an almost flawless set, filled with massive melodies and intricate harmonies – aided by a crystal clear sound mix which helps showcase Hank Erix’s impressive vocal range.  Closer ‘Return My Heart’ sees them give pit security their first (and only, as it turns out) fright of the day when both bassist Soufian Ma’Aoui and guitarist Calle Hammar take to the barriers.

Setlist:  Glory / Don’t Look Back / I’m Coming Home / Carrie / Runaway / Standing On The Moon / Truth Slips / Return My Heart

Romeo's Daughter at HRH AOR, March 2015Romeo’s Daughter may be firmly rooted in their late Eighties / early Nineties origins, sound wise at least, but they prove once again that they are very much a relevant and vital force, with a set which not only flies by but also serves as an introduction to their forthcoming new album, ‘Spin’, most notably via the excellent first single, ‘Radio’.  However, it is their older songs which predictably, and deservedly, get the biggest receptions, with the clamour introducing ‘Inside Out’ almost raising the roof and ‘Cry Myself To Sleep’ threatening not to leave a dry eye in the house.  The still waif-like Leigh Matty also remains one of the most beautiful women in the genre, and retains an almost hypnotic stage presence.

Setlist:  Trippin’ Out / Attracted To The Animal / Radio / Bittersweet / Alive / Touch / Inside Out / Cry Myself To Sleep / Wild Child

Steve Overland of FM at HRH AOR, March 2015Now, I’m going to admit that never been a fan of FM – an appreciative listener but not what you would call a big “fan” proper.  Having got that out of the way, there is no doubt that they produce solid, dependable AOR, asd is proven right from the outset this evening, with ‘Tough Love’, with its pumping beat and rich layered harmonies mixed with an anthemic singalong chorus.  With the band as tight and professional as you would expect from a group of musicians of this calibre and experience, they also retain plenty of passion and commitment for what they do, while Steve Overland has a voice which definitely benefits from its growing maturity.  The songs previewed from new album ‘Heroes And Villains’ sound strong and vibrant, as FM stop the evening’s Swedish invasion more effectively than their Saxon forefathers capitulatory efforts a millennium earlier.  And, of course, there is always one song which every band simply has to play, no matter what, and in the case of FM it is ‘That Girl’, which sounds as fresh and eager as ever and has the first half a dozen or so rows bouncing and dancing, and proving – if it needed proven – that this is one band who have been able to ‘Tough It Out’ and retain their enduring appeal, especially when it comes to delivering one of the tightest sets of the weekend… and one which was the perfect appetizer for the epic main course to come…

Setlist:  Tough Love / I Belong To The Night / Don’t Stop / Closer To Heaven / Digging Up The Dirt / Let Love Be The Leader / That Girl / Wildside / Bad Luck / Tough It Out / Crosstown Train / Burning My Heart Down

Night Ranger at HRH AOR, March 2015Fifteen minutes later than their advertised stage time, the biggest band yet to play HRH AOR made their appearance – but, if anyone was grumbling about the comparatively miniscule delay, then they had the sense to keep their gobs shut tight, as Night Ranger proceeded to deliver what can only be described as a masterclass in the art of live performance.  It honestly has everything – superb songs, stunning musicianship, charisma, humour…

Despite obviously feeling the effects of the cold Welsh climate Jack Blades displays a youthful vigour as he struts and kicks around the stage during the opening duotych of ‘Touch Of Madness’ and ‘Sing Me Away’.  He almost instantly develops an easy, almost laidback, rapport with the crowd, as he points out that not only have he and his bandmates never played outside London before, but this is the first time they have played more than one show in the UK on any touring cycle;  he also jokes with the audience about the remoteness of the location and the length of the drive to get here (a joke Brad Gillis happily helps along with), demonstrating that this is an entertainer who knows exactly what his job is – and that is to entertain.

Night Ranger at HRH AOR, March 2015The entertainment value is added to when a rousing ‘Secret Of My Success’ is followed by an “impromptu” version of ‘Hey Jude’:  as the audience raise their own voices, Blades could lead a singalong of anything from Abba to One Direction (or, as our photographer proferred, even the theme song from Thomas The Tank Engine) and everyone present would gleefully lap it up!  Covers of ‘School’s Out’ and ‘Crazy Train’ pay homage to the band members’ musical heritages, and show that only a band of this calibre could get away with peppering a set spanning a career which has produced 12 albums with this sort of stuff!

With the set having now clocked in at an awesome 95 minutes, the energy levels show no signs of abating, as the band finish the main part of their set with an uplifting ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love’, while the encore of ‘Sister Christian’ and ‘(You Can Still) Rock In America’ seeing them shave the two hour mark and showing that the “old guard” are still more than capable of showing the young upstarts how do it with a stunning set that can be summed up in only one word:  sublime.

Setlist:  Touch Of Madness / Sing Me Away / Rumours In The Air / Lay It On Me / Four In The Morning / Coming Of Age (Damn Yankees cover) / Sentimental Street / Knock Knock Never Stop / The Secret Of My Success / Hey Jude (The Beatles cover) / School’s Out (Alice Cooper cover) / Crazy Train (Ozzy Osbourne cover) / High Road / Don’t Live Here Anymore / Eddie’s Comin’ Out Tonight / High Enough (Damn Yankees cover) / Goodbye / When You Close Your Eyes / Don’t Tell Me You Love Me

Encore:  Sister Christian / (You Can Still) Rock In America

After one of the best live performances anyone present will witness this or any other year, it will be interesting see how the HRH team top this year’s event (and that is word used here in its truest sense, as Night Ranger’s set can be described as an event in its own right).  Are there any other bands out there who can have been as eagerly anticipated and rewarded that anticipation on every level?  Maybe?  Maybe not?  We’ll wait and see…

Photographs by Sean Larkin.

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About Mark Ashby

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