Canadian Classic Rock Alive And Kicking

Canadian classic rock music is alive and well and living in Spanish Ontario.

This could be the only conclusion drawn from the success of a two-night festival, “Come Rock N Roar” August 16th and 17th staged at the Four Seasons Waterfront Complex at scenic Spanish Ontario located on the north shore of Lake Huron.

Ron Stolar isn’t exactly a rock music promoting ace like Michael Cohl, or Bill Graham or Harvey Goldsmith. Matter of fact, by day Stolar’s association with rocks comes from toiling in a mine shaft in Sudbury, yet this guy sure knows how to stage a rock concert. Bringing together six major acts; Loverboy, Streetheart, Lee Aaron, Sweeney Todd, David Wilcox and Coney Hatch along with one local band, Zone, and five local Battle of the Bands finalists, Stolar, for the fourth year running, has staged a highly successful event.

Yes the location is idyllic, at a spot where the Spanish River flows into Lake Huron, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect, sunny but cool, temperatures mid 70’s and the fact that attendance is restricted to 3,500 mainly local patrons, virtually all camped out at the top of a hill in front of the stage. Yes this is a very local production, especially when you find out the township’s mayor, Gary Bailey, is on site selling festival t-shirts!

DAY One: August 16

Photography by: Ted Van Boort

Knowing how rare it is to assemble such Western based acts as Loverboy, Streetheart and Lee Aaron on one stage in Eastern Canada, Music Express had decided months ago we had to cover this event so with motel rooms in nearby Massey Ontario secured well in advance, yours truly, trusted lens man Ted Van Boort and his partner (and sometimes concert reviewer) Karen Uildersma headed north on the 400 in their trusty Subaru Outback from Toronto towards the Sudbury area.

Time in the car is passed as the three of us engage in a game, featured in the Still Crazy, rock movie where participants out duel each other to guess rock bands and solo performers names that also feature body parts. Names like Heart, The Headpins, Talking Heads and Badfinger are quickly dispatched. Yours truly scored a triple with Blood Sweat and Tears but then the names started to get obscure (Nine Inch Nails, Tragically Hip, England Dan and John Ford Colon!) and then somewhat off-colour (Kate Bush, Pussycat Dolls, Cockney Rebel, Marianas Trench) finally drawing a line at Throbbing Gristle!

Arriving at our Massey Motel location (not exactly the Ritz Carlton but it would do in a pinch) we hooked up with my youngest brother Gordon, who I was treating to a belated birthday present, and we drove the final 14 kilometers to the Spanish concert site. A quick flash of my Music Express business card secured us a parking spot in the VIP area and literally the first person we bumped into was Mr. Stolar himself who directed us to the Will Call where VIP passes were rapidly secured.

At first the stage set-up was decidedly underwhelming. There couldn’t have been more than 20 people stood in front , watching local band The Zone. Where was everybody? The answer came when we looked back to the top of the hill and saw a mass encampment of tents and trailers. I guess the local punters preferred to party on their own rather than check out a local band!

At 6 p.m. we were invited to join the other 50 VIP ticket holders at a meet and greet inside the Four Seasons complex with Nick Gilder’s Sweeney Todd, Streetheart and a rather grumpy David Wilcox. One act at a time, they were paraded into the main room where they mingled with the punters, signing autographs and posing for photos. Sweeney Todd’s Nick Gilder greeted me like a long-lost brother (even though I hadn’t interviewed him in something like 30 years) and it was great to hook up with Kenny Shields (who handed me a copy of his new solo CD “Letting Go”), guitarist cohort Jeff Neill and original keyboardist Darryl Guthiel.

As Sweeney Todd hit the stage, spectators started to roll down the hill and quickly filled up the venue. From our third row seats, we enjoyed an unrestricted view and Ted was like a kid in a candy store, running around the front and side of the stage, totally unimpeded by two static security guards positioned at each side of the stage.

Knowing Gilder and Sweeney Todd only had a couple of hit singles in their collective arsenal, I wasn’t sure how they would come across but from the onset they were amazing. Great chemistry within the band, guitarist Joe Wowk was a show on his own and tracks like `Hot Child In The City’, `Rated X’ and of course the ubiquitous `Roxy Roller’ had the fans on their feet. Throw in two scorching covers like Deep Purple’s Highway Star and Billy Idol’s `Rebel Yell (the band’s encore) and the bar had been set for follow-up group Streetheart.

Sweeney Todd may have set the bar but Streetheart did a collective `Fosbury Flop’ over it. Kicking off with a storming cover of Them’s `Here Comes The Night’, Streetheart could do no wrong. A constant stream of hit songs poured off their set list; `Hollywood’, Small Faces’ `Tin Soldier’ `Miss Plaza Suite’, `Look In Your Eyes’, `What Kind Of Love Is This’, `One More Time’ and `Snow White’. Shields’ new `covers CD’ also provided Los Bravos’ `Black Is Black’ and for the band’s first encore, a stunning version of The Rolling Stones’ `Angie’.

And of course, the band had to stretch out with their trademark cover of The Stones’ Under My Thumb’ with all six members taking a turn in the spotlight including drummer Tim Sutton and bassist Jake Jacobs who executed a masterful interpretation of Ken `Spider’ Sinnaeve’s original bass solo.

With the collective excitement of the first two bands ratcheting up the energy level, it seemed an odd choice to close the first night with David Wilcox. Yet it should be note that this was a mature audience (age demographic 35 and up) so Wilcox’s more laidback offerings surprisingly went over well with standards like `Bad Reputation’, `My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble’ and Laying Pipe’ mixed in with other tracks like `Rattle Snake Daddy’ and `Money In The Bank’ sending the punters back to their trailers happy.

DAY TWO: August 17

Photography by: Ted Van Boort

The advantage of having only one restaurant in town (Massey) serving breakfast is that everyone eventually gathers there. As our group finished off IV-ing coffee into our collective veins at the Country Kitchen, we are greeted on the street by Loverboy bassist Ken (Spider) Sinnaeve with guitarist Paul Dean strolling by shortly afterwards. With most of the day to kill, our group headed for Elliot Lake, the former Uranium capital now converted into a retirement centre. Both Gordon and I graduated from Elliot Lake Secondary School and Ted’s partner Karen was born there.

After visiting St Peter’s Church where Gordon and my parents’ ashes are interned in the church’s Remembrance Garden, our old house on Blackwell Road, Karen’s first house on Central Avenue, a quick visit to Ground Zero of the doomed Algo Plaza (which collapsed disastrously last year) and a nice visit to the beach overlooking the actual Elliot Lake. We then drove up to the watch out tower for a wonderful panoramic view of the area when Ted and Karen got their first ever picture taken together.

Then it was off back to Spanish to catch the last couple of acts in the festival’s Battle of Band’s contest. In an effort to retain a local element to the festival, 10 local bands are selected to compete for five coveted spots at concert. The five winning entries all played back to back with the fifth place band going first. The running order being Thrill Junkies, The Nye-Nyes, Jekyll’s Secret, Broad Daylight and contest winners; Sudbury’s Icebreaker.

All were cover bands of varying degrees of musicianship and ability with one or two actually trying original material but only one exhibited any degree of showmanship, that being contest winners Icebreaker. Think of Jack Black’s School Of Rock movie but instead of one teacher, Icebreaker has three teachers (plus a truck driver) joining forces with three students; 17-year old Taylor Boivin-Brawley, 16-year-old bassist Cole Szanto and 12-year-old guitar wiz, Carter Morin.

And these guys were really good. Their covers were challenging, Heart’s `Barracuda’ and interesting mash-up of The Police’s Message In A Bottle with Blondie’s `One Way Or Another’ along with hard rockers like Def Leppard’s `Animal’, Whitesnake’s `Here I Go Again’ and their set finale – Motley Crue’s `Kickstart My Heart’. Their cover of Van Halen’s `Hot For Teacher’ allowed Morin to show his Eddie Van Halen prowess and it also doesn’t hurt that teachers; Andrea Therrien, drummer Scott Zoldy, keyboardist Allan Zoldy and guitarist Denis Chaperon also provided experienced tutorage on stage.

The 6 p.m. meet and greet hooked us up with Coney Hatch, Lee Aaron and Loverboy. Coney Hatch’s Andy Curran buzzed about the band’s forthcoming new CD Coney Hatch 4, Lee was thrilled by her first visit back east in ages while Loverboy’s Mike Reno enthused over the band’s recent four-song gig at Calgary’s Alberta Relief Concert and the fact that the band will soon be releasing a CD of archival material from previous recordings.

Of course hanging around with rock stars is old hat to me and Ted but my brother Gordon was in seventh heaven, beaming from ear to ear as he posed for photos with the likes of Lee Aaron, Streetheart and Sweeney Todd  which gave him bragging rights when he got back to work at Sudbury’s Inco Mines.

Coney Hatch on stage announced they are definitely back in business. Curran was quick to point out that he, guitarist Steve Shelski, drummer Dave Ketchum and lead vocalist Carl Dixon are the band’s original lineup going back to 1985, Dixon is so lucky to be alive after suffering a horrendous car accident in Australia in 2008 but the band has reunited and with a couple of gigs under their belts already this year appear set to launch Coney Hatch 4 in September.

Kicking off their set with `Don’t Say Make Me’ from their second Outta Hand release, Coney Hatch stormed through their gig like they had never been apart. The chemistry between Curran and Dixon was particularly evident as they rattled off hits like `Devil’s Deck’ `Monkey Bars’ and `Hey Operator’ mixed with album favorites like `Wrong Side of Town’, `This Ain’t Love’ and `First Time for Everything’

The four tracks they previewed off the new release; Angel City cover `Marseille’, `Boys Club’, `Down N Dirty Way’ and debut single `Blown Away’ provided a strong sampling of what should be a strong comeback record and their on-stage chemistry is a positive indicator that they are once again heading for headline status.

Strangely, they were the only major act not to earn an encore, the locals probably not as familiar with the band as people in major centres would be. But this did not dampen their enthusiasm as I joined them for a beer in their dressing room where talk was of their new record and rumours of a possible Triumph tour next spring.

Lee Aaron looked as amazing as ever and her set combined her `Metal Queen’ persona with more sophisticated blues and jazz numbers. Her band (including drummer husband John Cody) are obviously top-notch jazz pros and it was testament to their skills that Aaron could combine metal standards like “Hands On’, `Powerline’ , `Rock Candy’ and of course `Metal Queen’ with more adventurous selections like `Handcuffed To A Fence’, `Some Girls Do’ `Concrete And Ice’ and `I’d Love To’.

Aaron’s only impediment was the `Jurassic mosquitoes’ whose constant attacks on her were so vicious she at one point, stopped the show to beg for some insect repellant – which was duly delivered by a security guard.

Over the past two nights, we’d endured some raucous behaviour by a bunch of local radio types (wearing their `Fuck Cancer’ t-shirts) but there was one individual called Alex who looked like Mark Volman’s (from Flo And Eddie) larger brother. Wearing gaudy outfits, a Liberace-type wig, and crazy sunglasses, he stomped and preened in front of all the bands, yelling out song titles, calling out band members and mimicking their songs. Most of the bands ignored him but Aaron encouraged Alex to the point of inviting him on stage to sing along on her set-closing `Whatcha Do To My Body’ and to his credit, Alex played along and was quite the character – his five minutes of fame captured by my brother Gordon’s camera phone.

Encoring with `Metal Queen’, Aaron provided an ideal set-up for the night’s big stars Loverboy. There actually isn’t much more you can say about these Vancouver/Calgary veterans. They have an awesome set list that can literally be milked for decades. As keyboardist Doug Johnson told me afterwards, “There’s little incentive to write new material when all the crowd wants is our old songs.”

The quintet of Mike Reno, guitarist Paul Dean, bassist Ken (Spider) Sinnaeve, drummer Matt Frenette and keyboardist Doug Johnson are so tight they probably play their set list in their sleep. Still familiarity is counter-balanced by a boyish enthusiasm still evident in their performance.

`Notorious’, `Only The Lucky Ones’, `Take Me To The Top’ (mashed with The Doors’ `Riders Of The Storm’), `It’s Over’ and of course the monster hits; `Hot Girls In Love’, `Queen Of The Broken Hearts’`Working For The Weekend’, `Turn Me Loose’ and `The Kid Is Hot Tonite’ provided the ammunition for a none-stop barrage of golden oldies.

Lee Aaron re-emerged on stage to join in for a sizzling cover of `Loving Every Minute Of It before the band wrapped up the festival with `Jump”. Back in Loverboy’s dressing room for a beer, I was introduced to Lee’s husband John who was quizzing me about his wife’s early history. I didn’t have the heart to tell him they probably wouldn’t have met if Lee had accepted Iron Maiden’s manager Rod Smallwood’s offer for her to move to England to join his Sanctuary Music stable

Following day at that Massey restaurant, Coney Hatch’s Andy Curran and drummer Dave Ketchum trail us in for a morning power boost before we collectively head down Hwy 69 back home. Having said farewell to Gordon (who is adamant that we do it again next year), Ted, Karen and I try to beat the Sunday traffic back into Toronto.

On the way home, we introduce a new variation to our name game, this time identifying rock groups with a geographical association. Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Chilliwack and even The Bay City Rollers are quickly dispensed with. Ted and Karen have an advantage on the country music side with Alabama, Dixie Chicks and the Kentucky Headhunters but I bounce back with my knowledge of English counties by scoring with Keith Hampshire and David Essex. Oh one more Ted! Buffalo Springfield – that’s a double!

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