July 16, 2009 – Moondance has done it again. The Minnesota rock festival is a long-running summer escape that aims to please its attendees by providing a fun and safe atmosphere to experience live performances by some of the best bands in the world. With an opening night that offered Journey, Sheryl Crow, Kansas, Foghat, and Shooting Star all on the same stage, who could turn down a trip to Walker even if the weather was less than inviting. The day began with a gradual build of fans and excitement. Apart from a few peeks of sun, cloudy skies were the rule while temperatures hovered near 60 and the wind blew steady. Indeed it was time to layer some clothing for the cool evening ahead. Shooting Star took the stage promptly at 3:00, and before long became a crowd favorite and one of the day’s early surprises. Packing an arsenal of finely crafted songs and delivering a tight set with incredible energy, the band is a hidden gem in the world of classic rock. The group formed in 1979 and encountered moderate chart success in their early years. Although they never quite made it into mainstream recognition, they have kept the music alive and well by giving it their all on songs like “Last Chance” and “Tonight”. Vocalist Ronnie Platt covered challenging high notes with ease and clarity, while guitarist Van McLain and violinist Janet Jameson dueled on stage with a frenzy of notes. Violins aren’t necessarily something you expect at a rock concert, but Jameson’s skill and enthusiasm made it a welcome addition. Hours later, Kansas’ violin player would create the feat of two acts with violinists on the same night. The general admission sand pit in front of the stage was lightly packed for the band’s opening song, but by the end of Shooting Star’s set this was not the case.
Foghat came on stage with the unusual quality of being opened and followed by bands with violin players. While the quartet known for “Slow Ride” didn’t have violin accompaniment, they sounded just as tight as they have in years past, which is a great accomplishment. Drummer Roger Earl is the sole remaining member from Foghat’s classic line up, and today he leads the group with vigor and energy. Although the old days will never return since two members of the original Foghat have passed on in the last decade, the diverse recording and touring backgrounds of vocalist Charlie Huhn and guitarist Bryan Bassett make for a very new and diverse sound. Huhn sings with a style of his own while maintaining the integrity of the group’s classic hits, keeping the band alive as a 40 year milestone approaches. When the end of their allotted hour began to approach, cheers for the signature “Slow Ride” were heard, but first up was “Fool for the City”. Both songs have been on endless rock radio rotation ever since their release, so with the sound of the original versions so present in the minds of the crowd it can be a bit daunting to re-create it on stage. Fortunately the band had already earned their approval from the Jamming crowd, and cheers erupted by the time the final strains of Slow Ride were played. A trio of seventies hit makers concluded with Kansas, a band that has stayed true to their form and kept a strong legion of fans all the while. Blending rich guitar, strings, vocals and rhythm, Kansas forged their way through an eclectic set of hits and deep cuts alike. Thanks to a fine-voiced Steve Walsh and impeccable instrument play, “Carry on My Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind” both sounded eerily similar to the studio versions done over three decades ago. Continually touring around the world, Kansas is a true live treat.
Sheryl Crow was originally invited to headline the evening’s festivities, but upon the signing of Journey she was given the 9:00 spot. The screams were loud for the country-rock sensation as she emerged on stage with her back up band with the sing and strum-along hit “Change“. With an estimated 18,000 in attendance for the star-studded evening there was very little walking room as the crowd packed in. Even though Crow may seem like the odd one out at a classic rock festival like Moondance, her musical ties to the likes of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton along her stage sensibility made for a perfect fit. The evening was cool, and the set was a laid back yet enthusiastically delivered blend of expected plays and even some surprises. Unfortunately and ironically for Sheryl and the crowd, rain began to pour as soon as she began to sing “Soak Up the Sun“, a signature hit from her extensive catalog. A cover tune in the form of Led Zeppelin‘s “Rock and Roll” was in order for her final song, which was perhaps the perfect fit for the festival atmosphere.
There is no better feeling than waiting with anticipation for a band like Journey to hit the stage, especially knowing that you’re about to witness the first show on a major tour. As soon as Sheryl Crow ended her set, the wait began, and it wasn’t long before the members of the sensational rock band came out and started into the haunting “Separate Ways” melody. Many things have changed in the band since 2005 when they made their last appearance in Walker. Its members have somehow managed to look even younger, and with the addition of singer Arnel Pineda, the youthful element of Journey is fully restored. The band’s set consisted of just about every mega-hit encountered over the past few decades, along with live rarities and deep cuts including “One More” from 1996′s Trial By Fire. Instead of sticking to a given formula, the hits are re-worked for this year’s tour and given new life. There’s a new vocal chant in “Don’t Stop Believin’“, extended instrument grooves during “Wheel in the Sky“, and “Stone in Love” is packed with more guitar soloing than you could possibly ask for.
It’s hard to sum up this remarkable group as a whole, so some observances on the individual level are in order. Now on his second world tour with Journey, singer Arnel Pineda is a force to be reckoned with on stage. With uncontainable energy and emotion, his personality literally reaches out from the stage and into the crowd. It’s hard not to stare and be captivated by his presence as he nailed the ballads and guitar driven cuts alike without missing a beat. The amazement in the eyes of those fans young and old who were at their first Journey show was very noticeable. Keeping the bass energy flowing, Ross Valory is always a riot to watch. Easily one of rock’s most unique personalities, you simply can’t predict his facial expressions or hand gestures. He has years upon years on the road to his credit, but appears to be having more fun than ever before. And Neal Schon – the man and his guitar. Every solo seemed to be twice its normal length, but how can you put a limit on Schon’s clean and unique tone that has made him one of rock’s most prolific players. Drummer Deen Castronovo didn’t get to showcase his vocal ability on any tracks during the set, but put his energy to use on the drums. There was a health concern a few weeks back for Deen, and he was in fact hospitalized for a short period. It’s with pleasure, however, that I report his full recovery (from an audience perspective). Now playing not just the keyboard, but spending more time on guitar and even harmonica, Jonathan Cain strives for perfection on stage. Faced with strong winds, rain, and 50 degree weather, there’s no doubt that the band was freezing cold, but that certainly didn’t stop an incredible show.
New songs from last year’s million-selling Revelation were also a highlight of the performance. “Never Walk Away“, “Wildest Dream“, and “After All These Years” were played. A harmonica solo from Jonathan Cain provided the lead-in to “Wheel in the Sky“, perhaps the most explosive song of the night. Arnel could not be contained on the stage as he ran from corner to corner and led the audience in clapping and singing. There was a funny moment a bit later when the singer leaned forward into the crowd and made gestures to mock a group of people who were smoking things other than cigarettes. The band played one encore in the form of “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”, and then left the stage after nearly two hours, making their set the longest of any band’s for Moondance Jam 18. Indeed the first night of the festival set the bar high for the remaining two nights, and Journey proved themselves as relevant and impressive as ever.