FESTIVAL RECAP: 80s Nostalgia Takes over South Florida During ROKISLAND FEST 2023 (January 19th-21st, 2023)

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Words by Jonathan Smith | Photos by Joel Barrios

The middle of winter might seem the most ill opportune time to hold an outdoor music festival for those living north of the Mason-Dixon line, but it’s the order of the day for those whom call Florida their home given its unique and highly inviting climate. Indeed, the fair weather of a holiday destination like Key West during the month of January is all but the perfect eventuality for the sort of celebratory atmosphere that the bands of the Sunset Strip became known for about 4 decades ago, hence why it has now become the home of the recently conceived RokIsland Fest, which recently enjoyed its second installment at The Truman Amphitheater from January 19th through the 21st. Boasting a veritable who is who of the 80s glam scene, alongside some surprising entries that either predated and influenced said musical movement or otherwise co-existed with it, it’s fast becoming the premier event for one to get their needed dose of 80s rock nostalgia.

A combination of scheduling and logistical reason prevented coverage of the entire 3-day extravaganza, but it would prove a forgivable shortcoming given the gravitas of the acts that would grace the stage during the latter 3 day period. Starting things off at roughly 5 PM of January 19th would be Lynch Mob, the brainchild of former Dokken guitarist and renowned shred extraordinaire George Lynch, and though some eyebrows were raised a couple years prior when he’d mused over dropping the band’s original name over potential racial implications, this quartet was in full form for their entire 10 song set. The changeover from Andrew Freeman to newcomer Gabriel Colon at the helm was a seamless one, as the latter’s powerful pipes and leather jacket shtick proved a perfect fit, though later when said singer opted to go shirtless his appearance and mannerisms resembled a young Chris Cornell in his prime. The rhythm section of bassist Jason Gulino and fill-in drummer Jordan Cannata were naturally on point as well, though it was ultimately Lynch’s stage as his wildly expressive and flashy guitar work riveted from start to finish with most of the highlight points being classic Dokken tunes such as the furious instrumental “Mr. Scary”, the infectious hooks of “Into The Fire” and the epic grooves of “Unchain The Night”, all of them ornamented further with fancy improvised elements from Lynch’s bottomless well of brilliant licks.

LYNCH MOB Photo Gallery:

The second fold of titans to commandeer the amphitheater would be American metal pioneers Quiet Riot, whom proved no less explosive but added a more poignant flavor to things. The recent passing of all-time drummer Frankie Banali and the continued absence of charismatic and original front man Kevin Dubrow had left what one might have concluded to be a different band from the one that conquered the 80s, but the return of original bassist and showman Rudy Sarzo and a stellar showing by the rest of the band quickly quelled such a notion. Singer Jizzy Pearl would pour his heart and soul out on stage and prove an adequate stand-in for the iconic Dubrow, while guitarist Alex Grossi rocked the 7-string like a champ, but it all but turned into Sarzo’s show as his 72 year old self energetically worked the stage and slammed away at his bass like he did in his 30s, with his bass solo slot being a high point of their set. Indeed, apart from some technical problems with Grossi’s equipment which would cut into most of the opening speed rocker “Run For Cover” lead guitar high-jinks, it was a near flawless showing, with Grossi’s brief rendition of “Crazy Train” in tribute of original guitarist Randy Rhoads (who became better known as Ozzy’s original solo axe man) also standing tall alongside banger anthems “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” and signature covers of Slade hits “Cum On Feel The Noize” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”.

QUIET RIOT Photo Gallery:

The disposition of following such a pair of energetic performances might have been an unenviable one, let alone trying to kick things up a notch in the process, but Vegas-born glam rockers Slaughter would rise to the occasion as darkness fell upon Key West. Jordan Cannata would rock the kit for a second time following his fill-in role with Lynch Mob earlier, and would prove a force of nature behind the kit as he laid the foundation for one of the heavier performances to grace the amphitheater. Mark Slaughter would shatter glass at nearly every turn with his piercing and ageless wail that resembled a more intense and exaggerated Brian Johnson to go with the band’s more metallic nod to AC/DC’s style of raucous rock on noted bangers like “Mad About You” and “Burnin’ Bridges”, and would morph into a nastier variant of Robert Plant on a crushing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. Blas Elias’ bass performance would further bolster the heavy tone and character of each hard rocking entry, while guitarist Jeff Bland’s technically impressive solos and animated stage presence brought the impact factor to a fever pitch.

SLAUGHTER Photo Gallery:

In a rather curious twist, this first day of glam-steeped rock would be headlined by Florida natives and southern rock legends .38 Special, and while their flavor would be a pretty massive stylistic departure, they would elicit an equally strong crowd response. Though original front man Donnie Van Zant has been absent from the fold for almost 10 years, their blend of 70s rock sensibilities with an 80s rock twist be no less potent as they sloughed through a marathon 90-minute set of highly catchy fair and conformed themselves well to the tone and tenor of the evening while still standing as a massive contrast to the fiery character of the three preceding acts. Co-founder and current lead vocalist Don Barnes did an apt job of filling the role vacated by Van Zant and brought his own old school southern swagger to the fore as he led a large ensemble though such noted radio classics as “Hold On Loosely”, “Caught Up On You”, power ballad “Second Chance” and bangers from the Revenge Of The Nerds 2 original film soundtrack “Back To Paradise”.

.38 SPECIAL Photo Gallery:

With the onset of Friday and another quartet of classic 80s outfits gracing the stage, the festival would prove no less engaging or lustrous. Kicking things off would be what one might dub the opening act of opening acts for the decade in question in Black N’ Blue, given both their relatively obscure status among their contemporaries and them being the preferred opening act for the likes of KISS and Aerosmith during the height of their career. They embodied every characteristic of the era to a fault despite featuring several younger members, and for their parts, rhythm guitarist and newly recruited member Doug Rappoport and slightly less recent pickup and lead player Brandon Cook gelled with their older band mates seamlessly and presented as experienced showman. Naturally they garnered the biggest audience response from their lone hit “Hold On To 18” at the tail-end of their set, but front man Jaime St. James and company kept things interesting for the entire time, with vintage anthems like “Nasty Nasty” and “Rockin’ On Heaven’s Door” shining bright among a consistent 12 song presentation of vintage 80s sleaze.

BLACK N’ BLUE Photo Gallery:

While California was always a focal point of the glam craze dominating this event, one of its favorite songs and Orange County residents Stryper would bring a more metallic flavor into the equation. As a band that has had one foot in the visually exaggerated character of their 80s glam contemporaries and the other in the more aggressive sound of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, these heavy metal icons with a Christian message put forth a set saturated in as much high-impact energy as they’d done in their formative days, commanding the sort of respect befitting a band that has weathered changing musical landscapes over multiple decades and continuing to put out high grade music in the studio up until the present day. The smooth yet powerful pipes of Michael Sweet, the master kit work of brother Robert Sweet, Oz Fox’s expressive guitar lines and the steady bass work of more recent member Perry Richardson combined their respective crafts like mighty machines forming a colossal cousin of Voltron as they wowed every onlooker with 13 classic anthems, each coming off heavier and more metallic than their original studio incarnations, with “Soldiers Under Command”, “To Hell With The Devil” and “Free” garnering the loudest cheers.

STRYPER Photo Gallery:

The succession of hard-hitting 80s goodness would continue to reign with a latter-day edge with Extreme, their very name befitting the raucous performance that they would bring as dusk fell from the Florida sky. Lead vocalist Gary Cherone would rival the highly animated stage persona and crowd relations work of vintage David Lee Roth, reminding all in attendance as to why he was chosen to front Van Halen following their aforementioned amateur gymnast turned singer and his grittier successor Sammy Hagar’s exodus from the fold, but the showing by the whole band would be on another level, with guitarist Nuno Bettencourt also functioning as a second front man via a fluid and gusto-driven playing and vocal input, while the foundation provided by drummer Kevin Figueiredo and longtime bassist Pat Bader was rock solid. The set of transitional hard rocking goodness that originally bridged the 80s to the 90s proved as versatile as it was impactful, with heavy anthems like “Decadence Dance”, “Li’l Jack Hory” and “Play With Me” (which featured a nice reference to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) sharing the hour with the smooth acoustic balladry of radio hits “Hole Hearted” and “More Than Words”.

EXTREME Photo Gallery:

As with the previous day, Friday’s festivities would end with a noticeable stylistic turn, albeit less extreme (pun intended), to the 70s arena and progressive rock handiwork of Styx, whom were nevertheless an influential band on the 80s outfits that have generally dominated this event. Age has continued to be a non-issue for these elder statesmen of the realm of hard rock as they proceeded to unleash a grueling 17-song set of mostly classic offerings in a headlining capacity. Distinction in quality between each chapter of their epic presentation was nonexistent as Tommy Shaw would share the vocal helm with Dennis DeYoung replacement and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, with riveting performances of classics like “Blue Collar Man”, “Crystal Ball”, “Come Sail Away” and “The Grand Illusion” being key notes of a veritable marathon showing. Other key moments would involve guitarist vocalist James Young rising to the occasion with a gritty rendition of “Miss American”, while original bassist Chuck Panozzo would also join the band for a number of standout anthems including that of “Lady” and an explosive encore performance of “Renegade”, but at the end of the day, what sold this headlining set was the colossal character of the collective sound of the whole arrangement, which also included multiple live support musicians.

STYX Photo Gallery:

The 3rd and final day of this grand affair of 80s nostalgia would generally follow the same format as the previous day, albeit in a more ratcheted up, over the top fashion. Starting things off in the late afternoon was what one might consider another contender for the distinction of ultimate opening act in Autograph, an outfit largely known for being a one-hit wonder/also ran, but a casual listening to the material that would round out their 10 song set tells the story of a band that had all the right elements in place to conquer the decade that birthed them, but ultimately failed to do so due to a combination of genre saturation. Though now considered something of a glorified tribute band given the lack of any original members still in congress, 2013 replacement for original vocalist Steve Plunkett and Brazilian born de facto helmsman Simon Daniels led a quartet of newly recruited members that also included former Metal Church member Steve Unger on bass through a set of infectious anthems steeped in 80s tropes and excess, with their smash hit “Turn Up The Radio” stealing the show at its conclusion, though other entries like the turbo-charged “Loud And Clear” and the tuneful anthem “All I’m Gonna Take” proved quite fetching, with the shred work of Jimi Bell doing an apt job of emulating the Eddie Van Halen on crack approach sported by original guitarist Steve Lynch back in the day.

A less than subtle hint that heavier material was on the way would drop with the resounding roar of a recording of Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” to introduce iconic vocalist and Ratt helmsman Steven Pearcy. Though his vocal performance would occasionally sound haggard and rough, he and his fold of live musicians led the crowd through a 14 song marathon of classic antries courtesy of the aforementioned band that he original cut his teeth with during the 80s. Audience response would prove a ceaseless roar that somehow fell short of robbing this legend of his hearing as he offered up one banger after another, with fist-pumping anthems like “Lay It Down”, “I Want A Woman” and “Round And Round” bringing the decibel level dangerously close to the boiling point. Then again, one couldn’t help but notice the insane energy level that would be accomplished during the blistering rendition of speed rocker and entry from The Golden Child original movie soundtrack “Body Talk”, all but to the point of the crowd reenacting the classic scene where Eddie Murphy and Charlotte Lewis took down an entire biker gang barehanded.

STEPHEN PEARCY Photo Gallery:

Night having thus fallen, the promise of a full blown metallic assault loomed like a Sword of Damocles with the entry of Seattle progressive metal icons Queensrÿche to the amphitheater, entering to a recording of Pantera’s “Walk” to boot. Their presence would stand as the most telling statement of the 80s being far from a one-dimensional period in history, as the towering array of classic songs showcased would coincide with the height of the Sunset Strip sound, all the while sounding virtually nothing like it. With only two of this iconic outfit’s original membership still in tow, the colossal showing that would commence might as well have been performed by the original band at the height of the 80s, with Geoff Tate’s replacement Todd La Torre’s blaring wail embodying the same otherworldly level of power and pizzazz, and upped the ante in the aggression department. The dual guitar assault of original member Michael Wilton and later on and off again six-string foil Mike Stone, along with the pummeling foundation provided by bassist Eddie Jackson and former Kamelot kit man Casey Grillo were not far behind in terms of intensity, resulting in a collective sound that could have shook the pillars of the earth that night. Pointing to a lone standout moment would be an exercise in futility, though the manner in which La Torre perfectly rivaling Tate’s signature wails on “Queen Of The Reich” and “Take Hold Of The Flame”, and the ringer performances relative to their studio incarnations of “Empire”, “Warning”, and “Screaming In Digital” were among the summits of a performance that could only be described as one for the ages.

QUEENSRŸCHE Photo Gallery:

Things would wind down on a subdued and somewhat mixed note with the concluding set of evening headliner and glam icons Tesla. Though they were saddled with the near impossible task of following the gargantuan display of raw energy displayed by Queensrÿche, they made a respectable showing. The tempo and feel of their set had a feeling of reserved slowness relative to appearances prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, while the voice of front man Jeff Keith often came off as hoarse when in the upper part of his register. The surrounding instrumental display provided by guitarist Frank Hannon and his fellow axe-slinger David Rude accomplished a comparable synergy and luster alongside the foundational work provided by bassist Brian Wheat and drummer Steve Brown, resulting in competent renditions of signature classics like “What You Give”, “Modern Day Cowboy” and a duo of rocking covers in Ph.D’s “Little Suzy” and a closing performance of Five Man Electrical Band’s “Signs”. It was by no means a bad showing, but even when accounting for the riveting display that preceded it, the atmosphere felt a bit more subdued than it should have, but audience response and stage presentation ultimately carried things to the finish line.

TESLA Photo Gallery:

The final take away from this near week-long event, even beyond the featured attractions that graced the amphitheater, was one of total professionalism. In comparison to recent logistical difficulties that this journalist had to endure during several 2022’s Blue Ridge Rock Festival, to speak nothing for the nightmare scenario that was the Hell & Heaven Metal Fest of the same year, the infrastructure that was put in place in Key West proved highly efficient for journalist, fan and band alike. Granted, this particular festival was a comparatively small one that included a single stage rather than 4 or 5 running simultaneously, but even when accounting for scale, the well staffing and control of every access point to the amphitheater, the inclusion of free catering and air-conditional bathroom facilities for media, and a minimum of difficultly in acquiring the needed credentials to efficiently navigate the event, a good time was enjoyed by all, including and especially those that have brought to you the coverage of this event.

 
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