M3 Festival 2014 – Winger, Lita Ford, Extreme – Concert Review – Day 1 (4/25/14)

The sixth year for the two-day M3 Festival and they took a gamble with the dates… and basically lost. The M3 Festival is held in Columbia, Maryland and pretty much anyone who lives in the MD/VA/DC area raised their eyebrows when the dates for M3 were first announced… April! Really? It can be damn cold in Maryland in April, even if it is the end of April. As it turned out, we had snow here only a few short weeks back, so my eye was on the weather as the show date approached. Dang it! Rain was forecast with about an 80% certainty for the Friday night and 30% for Saturday, and both came true, though the downpour on Friday really sucked, as it caught pretty much everyone since it rained from about 4.30PM (doors open time) to about 8PM or so. Hopefully this is a lesson learned for the organizers.

A quick recap, for those that don’t know what M3 is, or who (shamefully) didn’t read my review of the show last year… M3 is perhaps *the* defacto 80’s/90’s hairband festival in the country and takes place in the organically pleasing Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue, in Columbia, Maryland. According to Billboard magazine, Merriweather is the second best amphitheater in the USA and I really like the venue. I don’t know what the attendance figures were for this years show, but it was stated they were the highest ever for any M3. The max capacity for the Merriweather site is 19,319, and I’m sure it wasn’t sold out, but there were a lot of people there, a very big lot! This is good.

The show runs over two days, with the Friday evening kicking off with the doors opening at 4.30PM, and the first of five bands starting at 5.10PM. All the bands play on the main pavilion stage on Friday, while on Saturday, an additional stage, called the Festival Stage, is set-up toward the opposite back of the site from the Pavilion, giving a near continuous stream of music alternating between the two. I will cover the fun and frivolities from Saturday in Part 2 of this review, but for now I’m going to focus on Friday.

So, the line-up for Friday was five bands, starting with a youngster school age group called “Bad Seed Rising” who we managed to completely miss unfortunately. Word was they did a fine job. ‘Nuff said. So in the following I will cover Winger, Lita Ford and Extreme. Wait, that only accounts for four bands… what about the fifth? Groan. Somehow, it has become cast in stone that Kix (who are local, originating from Baltimore, MD), will play Friday night, headlining all years, except last year, when W.A.S.P. took the honors. Now, I have no significant axe to grind with Kix or their music – but, it is evident that once you have seen Kix play one show, you have seen pretty much all their shows. Let me guess, there will be a lot of lame jokes between songs, balloons and a set built around the same core songs that fail to set my heart racing as they played last year, the year before that and before that… since they were playing last, it was the perfect opportunity to leave early, and establish a defensive position at the bar! A much more worthy way to spend their set time. Apologies to those diehard Kix fans, but this is my blog and I decide!

Winger

OK, since this is a festival review I really will skip my usual historical insight into the band that I tend to lead off with, and simply say that Kip Winger is one of those musical geniuses that has done far more than most people would ever realize, despite the first two Winger albums both reaching and exceeding platinum status. He has co-written a lot of songs, including the Kix track “Midnite Dynamite” – ah ha, a local connection!

The latest Winger album (“Better Days Comin’”) was released earlier this month and had arrived just the morning of this show, so it was and still is relatively new to me, but it was already clear after just a couple of spins that this was a much less heavy record than the previous CD (“Karma”) which I thought was an outstanding record. As it stands right now I am still trying to make up my mind about the new one. Most people have been giving it decent praise, but I certainly need more spins to make sense.

So, Winger were effectively the first band of the day, and took to the stage with a number off Karma called “Pull Me Under” which is a good paced rockin’ track. In reality they made it look easy, with Kip dominating the center of the stage on bass and lead vocal, Reb Beach on lead guitar, John Roth on 2nd guitar and Rod Morgenstein on drums. Reb Beach is a seriously good guitar player and checking out some of the video from the show only re-enforces that position. He played some very nice hammer-on arpeggios that seemed to reach from one end of the neck to the other at times.

They managed to fit one new song into the nine song set, this being “Rat Race” from Better Days Comin’ which is one of the more up tempo numbers from the record, with the remaining seven coming from the first three albums. In particular “Easy Come Easy Go”, “Heading For A Heartbreak” and the closing pair of “Madalaine” and the classic “Seventeen” stuck in my mind. It wasn’t an outstanding performance in any way, but nevertheless a lot of fun and high on entertainment value – a solid 8/10 for me and a good start.

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Lita Ford

I have to be honest; when I saw the running order for the show I was a little troubled by having Lita follow Winger. I’ve seen Lita Ford a couple of times previously in small club settings and while she is a fun entertainer, I was never convinced of her as a lead vocalist. I get it that the Runaways legacy is a significant feather in her cap, but it isn’t a get out of jail free card, and let’s not forget she was the guitarist… and even here I think “competent” is a fair label. Many reading this may not agree, but side-by-side, in a blind listening test, I think you’d be hard pushed to pick Lita Ford over a very, very long list of other guitarists. Unfortunately, this seemed to come to a head during this show.

Her set opened with “The Bitch Is Back” which would have been fine, except it completely lost that initial impact since her radio mic wasn’t on… Yes, I know it’s not really her fault, but when you’re the one standing at the front of the stage pulling fish-out-of-water impressions it’s hard to see past that. Eventually after what seemed more than a few seconds that was sorted out. My next niggle was her guitar sound seemed horribly raw, which might work for some players, but these days it’s very easy to find a nice effects unit that can just tighten everything up and add a little polish. One other thing; for some reason Lita was wearing some kind of fingerless glove on her right hand, which was a great distraction to me – it just looked goofy.

To be fair, there were three other musicians up on stage with her, but I have no idea who they were, but they were not the same band I had seen previously, I’m pretty sure. The bass player and drummer were perfectly competent and I can’t really fault them for anything, except they have completely erased themselves from my mind. The was also another guitarist up there, sporting a Les Paul, but again, all I can say is one word: adequate. I don’t really understand it; I’m sure Lita Ford could assemble a pretty kick-ass band around her if she wanted, but unless I am completely missing the point this wasn’t the case.

There was a small ray of light when after the fourth song of the set, the “big surprise” was revealed (this had been hinted at after the first song); she was joined on stage by Cherie Curie, lead singer of the Runaways. This had the potential to lift things up a good bit, but unfortunately it really didn’t. Now, least any of you reading this think I am being completely unfair, take a look for yourself. The following link isn’t my recording, but is from someone in roughly the 4th or 5th row > http://youtu.be/EY4knbS-Pn8 (apologies for the drunk commentary from whoever was filming this!). What really bugged me during this part of the set was an inordinate amount of what seemed like sucking up to each other. You can see and hear it for yourself in the video.

If you do watch the video you will see why I’m coming down so hard on the guitar playing from Lita – check out around 7 mins 28 secs in with a real clanger and the well iffy guitar solo at 11 mins 22 secs. After four songs with Cherie Curie, we were treated to what might just be the absolutely worst moment of the 2014 M3 Festival… The song “Close Your Eyes Forever” on record is an absolute classic, what we were treated to at M3 was perhaps one of the biggest train wrecks I’ve seen on such a prestigious stage. In the video this song starts at about 13 minutes and 28 seconds. If you can make through to the twin guitar solo at 16 minutes 40 seconds and keep the video playing you are a brave one indeed – unfortunately Lita’s guitar is out of tune from the very beginning, which in this day and age is a beginners mistake, but the solo is the epitome of all that was wrong with this performance: the attempted harmony solo is destroyed by the mistuning and I’d venture howling street cats would have more melody. Sorry, but I say it, the way I see it. Ouch.

The final song, “Kiss Me Deadly”, is normally a fine tune also, but the same out of tune guitar was still being played out of tune, and it just sounded rough. At the time I thought I was just being unkind, but seeing the video has actually just convinced me I was being overly kind; it was a horrible performance and definitely the worst of the weekend. My score for Lita Ford: 3/10.

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Extreme

I have never seen Extreme before, so I had a pretty decent level of expectation for them, in particular having been a fan of Nuno Bettencourt since the beginning. Extreme are a bit of an enigma these days, but it seems they are on a world tour of sorts and have a few festival dates in the USA. The core of Extreme always has been Nuno and Gary Cherone, and they continue the partnership, with Pat Badger on bass and Kevin Figueiredo on drums. This line-up has been stable since reforming back in 2008, even if the band hasn’t been continuously active. It seems in part this has been due to schedule conflicts with Nuno playing lead guitar in Rihanna’s touring band (yes, the popstar…gulp!).

So, following on the heels of a less than stellar performance from Lita Ford, they had what I will call a soft start – it would be hard to be anything other than a lot better than we had just witnessed, but Extreme came out of the starting blocks with a growl and roar! They opened with “Decadence Dance” and they came out with an intensity and energy as if they were there to whip the venue into frenzy. This was good and wiped any thoughts of this being a lame M3 immediately from my mind.

From the opening notes it was clear my expectations related to the guitar-god status of Nuno were met. There really aren’t enough superlatives available to me to express how good he was and I spent their entire set with my eyes glued to him, particularly whenever the big screen zoomed in on his fretboard. He’s a very interesting player, with a metal-funk vibe that few others can touch. There were some particularly neat hammer-on arpeggio runs that he made look insanely easy that I know would have my fingers tied in knots.

Gary Cherone was also on fire and delivered a note perfect performance, through a sequence of gtreatest hits, including: “Kid Ego”, “It(‘s a monster)”, “Rest In Peace”, “Am I Ever Gonna Change” and “Play With Me”. All this was high energy stuff, but this came down to earth with a bump, with the song that so many will associate with Extreme, the acoustic, “More Than Words”. Of course, Nuno and Gary did this song the justice it deserves and had the whole crowd, and I mean everyone, singing along. Awesome.

After picking up the pace with “Cupids Dead”, Nuno got the spotlight again with “Flight Of The Wounded Bumblebee”, half of which I managed to get on video, along with “Get The Funk Out” which you can see here > http://youtu.be/MOpL-XjHbbY. The set closed with “Hole Hearted”. There’s really nothing negative to say, whatsoever, and Extreme were great – my score 9/10.

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After-show Fun

So, as indicated earlier, as soon as Extreme left the stage, we made a run for the hotel, so those hoping for a Kix review should look elsewhere. One of the coolest things about M3 is your ability as a fan to get access to the rockstars that one minute are up on the stage and the next you might find sharing an elevator ride in the hotel, or even checking into the room next door. The primary hotel in question is the Sheraton, where pretty much all the artists stay. Of course, after a long day rocking out you need to eat and drink, and this usually involves a visit to Clyde’s which is a short 5 minute walk from the hotel. I’m not going to make this a play-by-play, but after the show we met: Robert Mason (Warrant, who was just hanging out for the weekend), Nuno Bettencourt, Gary Cherone, and Jake E Lee. Heck, I might be forgetting a couple too! So, Day 1 of the 2014 closed with a couple of very decent performances and one that really was off boil… Day 2 to follow!

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