Concert Review: Rock’n the Valley brings energy, but not crowds

Skid Row guitarist Snake Sabo. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By John Parks

Rock’n the Valley hit the Winnebago County Fairgrounds this past weekend, July 13-14, and lasted 48 straight hours, featuring more than 50 bands.

To begin with, to put this show in perspective, a word must be said about attendance at recent events in the area.

Cheap Trick played a few weeks back to a less-than-capacity crowd, the Verne Fest at Davis Park was also under attended and, unfortunately, this event was no different.

Ticket prices for Rock’n the Valley de-escalated from $45 to $22, before the event was just labeled a free show on the final day, Saturday.

Even as a free event, the attendance was still far less than the organizers, bands and vendors expected. Understanding there’s a poor economy in the area and lots to do in the summertime, an event featuring the headliners (Skid Row, The Last Vegas, Trixter, Warrant) at this show would still normally draw a much bigger crowd in many areas.

You can’t complain about the lack of things to do in the area if you don’t get out and support the bands that do come through town.

That said, the bands and audience that came out made the best of it, for the most part. I certainly didn’t catch all of the acts, but Friday night headliners The Last Vegas were fantastic. They went on again before the final acts on Saturday, and both times played with tremendous energy and swagger.

The Last Vegas guitarists Adam Arling (left) and Johnny Wator. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

The Chicago band (with Rockford roots) has instantly hooky material and has made sincere waves worldwide, garnering respect and loyalty within the hard-rock world.

If you’ve seen The Last Vegas live, you know why. There was no band on the bill other than Skid Row that could match the raw power they brought to the proceedings, and the guys played like they were in front of 30,000 fans.

A great deal of The Last Vegas’ set was composed of new songs from their soon-to-be-released album, Bad Decisions, which is even better than their last album, Whatever Gets You Off (produced by Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx). Vocalist Chad Cherry has obvious stage presence, and the new material went over just as well as the songs they’ve gotten airplay with like “I’m Bad” or “Loose Lips.”

There is something real and honest in the DNA of The Last Vegas, because even when performing a lone cover song like “School’s Out,” they were blistering and organic, so much so that it seemed drummer Nate Arling literally channeled original Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith. You absolutely have to go see the band when they play here at On the Waterfront.

I caught another Chicago band called Hessler, which played early on Saturday. The band already has a pretty devoted following, many of whom showed up early in the hot sun to see them, which is pretty impressive to begin with.

Hessler is led by vocalist Lariyah Daniels, a stunning blonde Polish import (she’s also a fairly well-known model) who is a little more than she appears to be at first glance. Honestly, after having seen more of the band prior to actually hearing them, it was shocking to hear how incredibly powerful and guttural her vocals were. At various points, Daniels sounded like a dead-ringer for German metal legend Doro Pesch.

Hessler’s songs were memorable, their stage show was fun and over-the-top, but best of all, there is something unique about each member and their individual performances. That, along with the songs, is what will keep this band rising steadily and help them be something more than just another band with a female singer.

The crowd that actually turned up came to see the headliners, and they certainly seemed to have a good time and the bands didn’t disappoint.

Trixter lead guitarist Steve Brown. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

Trixter was the first headliner up after a long break between bands, and the crowd responded very favorably to them, especially since most of them probably haven’t seen the band since their breakout hit in 1990, “Give It to Me Good.” Back then, the band was routinely labeled as a pin-up band, but those in attendance saw a group that played with a lot of exuberance and no lack of technical skills.

Trixter vocalist Pete Loran still made the girls in the crowd sit at attention, but to be fair, there were plenty of male rockers headbanging along with bassist P.J. Farley, who went out of his way to entertain.

All the songs from Trixter’s Dial MTV era were represented, as well as material from their latest album, New Audio Machine, before the Trixter guys gave way to Warrant.

Shockingly, people in the crowd somehow still thought the late Jani Lane was still singing in Warrant. They apparently hadn’t heard he was replaced by vocalist Robert Mason even before he passed away.

Warrant bassist Jerry Dixon (left) and lead singer Robert Mason. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

Regardless, a great majority of the crowd turned up to see the hits, and the band certainly delivered them, opening with “Down Boys” and closing with “Cherry Pie.” The guys played the songs flawlessly, so much so that if there is anything to be critical about it’s that the performance seemed a little too calculated and clinical.

Warrant has found a goldmine in Mason on vocals, as he sings perfectly and also engages the crowd as a frontman should. But perhaps too much of the burden to entertain has been placed on him. There were patches of the crowd paying lots of attention to original members of the group, like Erik Turner and Joey Allen, but they really didn’t return the favor or even take off their sunglasses or take a moment to talk to the crowd like most of the other bands.

Still, if you’ve seen Warrant in the past, it is clear they are indeed focused and sound as good — or more likely better — than ever before. Drummer Steven Sweet deserves special mention: he’s always been something of a secret weapon in the band, anchoring the drum kit while singing the vast majority of the background vocals perfectly — and he was fantastic at Rock’n the Valley.

Skid Row was the final headliner and were amazing on every single level, most notably in terms of the level of energy they played with, which reminded me of the first time I saw them in 1991 opening for Guns N’ Roses.

Skid Row opened with “Big Guns,” played every single hit you would expect (with the possible exception of “Wasted Time”), and really, really made it a point to connect with the very weary audience on a personal level.

Vocalist Johnny Solinger and guitarist Dave “The Snake” Sabo stopped the show at various points to make personal, local references to what the Rockford area meant to them, and Rachel Bolan did the same before taking a microphone turn to sing the Ramone’s classic “Psycho Therapy.”

The band and their classic material was the perfect ending to the festival. People truly seemed to be pleased by how much Solinger had grown into his job and how the other guys were exactly as they remembered them.

Skid Row closed out the show very late with their original hit “Youth Gone Wild,” and the best thing that can be said is that by the time they finished, all of us in the crowd seemed to have a bit more energy.

From the July 18-24, 2012, issue

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