By the time Houston — the self-styled saviours of retro AOR — take to the stage, the bar’s already been set incredibly high by fellow countrymen Eclipse and Crazy Lixx. The former are surely on the brink of the big time with their stylised, hard-edged melodic rock, while the latter have added a sleazier side to their pop metal pomp. Under pressure, Houston pitch their pastiche perfectly, harnessing the best of big hitters Boston and Journey with the likes of lesser lights Dakota: three songs in and there’s no doubting their authenticity or commitment to the cause.
Houston. Image: Will Ireland
Despite the mellow tones underpinning the Michael Bolton cover Carrie and the stunning original I’m Coming Home, frontman Hank Erix manages to energise the floor and teach old stagers Dare a thing or two. Houston’s keen attention to musical detail is matched only by the band’s determination to hone their stagecraft, and there’s plenty of classic posturing to complement the glorious throwback sound. Return My Heart wraps up the perfect set – following a minor glitch affecting Calle Hammar’s guitar – with the band in the crowd and the Hard Rock Hell faithful convinced that Erix and co. can exist far beyond the studio.
If Houston are relatively new to the live arena then Romeo’s Daughter are old hands when it comes to cajoling a festival crowd and ramping up the atmosphere ahead of the headline acts. Fresh from an intimate acoustic set earlier in the day, Leigh Matty looks and sounds like a frontwoman reborn, and the confidence with which she delivers new tune Radio, from forthcoming album Spin, confirms the enchanting chanteuse as one of AOR’s most compelling artists.
Romeo’s Daughter. Image: John Burrows
It’s impossible to ignore the echoes of Chrissie Hynde during the deep and soulful vocal on Bittersweet, while Alive morphs into a totemic rallying call ahead of this summer’s hotly anticipated tour with FM. Drummer Andy Wells is celebrating his birthday but Romeo’s Daughter need no incentive to party hard, with Craig Joiner delivering a masterclass in melodic rock riffage. Understated but far from underrated, the beanie-wearing guitarist can’t disguise his obvious star quality. I Cry Myself To Sleep At Night and traditional set closer Wild Child allow Matty the final flourish as she flies the flag for female-fronted AOR and relaunches a thousand late 80s fantasies.
Watching on from the wings, FM are feeling especially smug knowing Romeo’s Daughter will be warming up their crowds within weeks. It already looks like a domestic double bill that’s too good to miss, and Steve Overland’s overlords of British melodic rock give homegrown talent a shot in the arm in the face of intense competition from Scandinavia’s bullish new breed. After a largely inauspicious opening day on the AOR stage, the memorable sets just keep on coming en route to Night Ranger’s headline slot, with FM right in the mix in the race to be crowned band of the day.
FM. Image: John Burrows
Earlier, illness had forced the cancellation of an acoustic set in front of Hard Rock Hell United’s VIPs but this is a band in rude health as they bid to become the festival’s beating heart. Tough Love changes FM’s tough luck in a stroke, and by the time Closer To Heaven’s rich Hammond organ sound sweeps across Hafan Y Mor there’s no hint of a medical emergency. There’s time for these bonafide national treasures to showcase the pounding Digging Up The Dirt, from forthcoming album Heroes And Villains, but nothing sounds better than That Girl almost 30 years after it kicked off debut album Indiscreet. Time flies but FM’s time is now.
It’s a significant coup for Hard Rock Hell supremo Jonni Davis that Night Ranger are on site to bring another brilliant weekend to a predictably outlandish conclusion. Strangers to these shores for so many years, Jack Blades insists his AOR titans are on a mission to reconnect with their British fans and the flamboyant frontman talks of an incremental approach to future trips – adding another date to the band’s itinerary each year for the next five years ‘if Brad Gillis is still alive by then!’.
Night Ranger. Image: Will Ireland
True to their pre-show word, the supercharged San Franciscans play almost two hours and there are treats aplenty for those prepared to see in the early hours of Sunday morning. A Damn Yankees double of Coming Of Age and High Enough is genuinely affecting while Gillis and Keri Kelli are each afforded lengthy introductions courtesy of the Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne covers that reflect their rich and varied careers. Drummer Kelly Keagy supports Blades with lead vocals on a slew of classics – hitting his peak on the supreme Sentimental Street. Goodbye celebrates the 30th anniversary of Seven Wishes in fine style and Keagy comes to the fore again as Sister Christian ushers in an encore built to last. Given Blades’ assurances that the band are committed to heading back across the pond at the earliest opportunity it’s a brave move to sign off with (You Can Still) Rock In America. You know what Jack? You can still rock here, too.
Images: Houston/Night Ranger: Will Ireland. FM/Romeo’s Daughter: John Burrows