Rocktember: Day Two At Grand Casino Hinckley In Hinckley, Minnesota 9/10/2022

 

 

Rocktember….

Apparently, this is a festival that the Grand Casino, up in the Great White North of Hinckley Minnesota, has hosted for 10 years now. Over the course of two days in early September, Rocktember Music Festival sets the stage for upwards of fifteen hard rock and metal acts to strut their stuff.

I live just outside of Chicago, so this was quite the road trip for me. After seven and a half hours of interchanges and chicken coop transport trucks, I had arrived at this beautiful venue. I have to begin by telling you how clean and well organized this was. This business of rock and roll can be turbulent, and things very rarely go as planned. Soundboards and electronics taking a dump, bands needing more time, security having an issue with a knucklehead or two (or dozens), and the infamous “I don’t see anything here for you” when I go to get my credentials. This is what I expected because, honestly, it’s fairly standard in my experience. No sweat though, I’m ready.

I walked up to the gate, they sent me to will call, everything was there waiting for me. Got into the pit, talked with some great and competent security folks, and the crowd was chock full of “my people.” No incidents, no drama, just a great time for everyone beyond the front gate.

The night before (Friday, September 9) I saw Jackyl headline a seven band extravaganza. This was the night after and I was preparing to see eight bands, with ex-Cinderella frontman Tom Keifer as a headliner. The first act, Burning Witches was scheduled for 1:00pm and Keifer was to hit the stage at 9:15pm, and I’ll be damned if that didn’t happen. Not sure how they defy the laws of rock and roll shitshow, but kudos to the Rocktember staff. Bravo!!

One of the bands I was most excited to see was the first of the day was Burning Witches. This all-female band not only photographs well, but they kiss your ears with a brutal punch of pure metal. In a festival where the majority of acts are of the hair metal persuasion, Burning Witches stands out as a bit more punishing than the rest. Once you get past the absolute perfection of singer Laura Guldemond’s appearance (and it takes some time), you realize that she is as talented as she is beautiful. As she and the rest of the band made great use of the long catwalk, prowling and slinking like a small zoo of gorgeous wildcats, I was pleased that it never detracted from the bombast that they were delivering through the speakers. This entire band looks great on a t-shirt, but they sound even better as their playing punches you in the gut. A startling image and super high energy with great songs and musicianship. Look for Burning Witches to be headlining a few of these festivals in the future.

 

Burning Witches

Laura Guldemond – vocals

Larissa Ernst – guitar

Jeanine ”Jay” Grob – bass

Romana Kalkuhl – guitar

Lala Frischknecht – drums

 

 

SETLIST

1.) Executed

2.) Wings Of Steel

3.) Flight Of The Valkyries

4.) Hexenhammer

5.) Black Widow

6.) Burning Witches

 

As the crew worked efficiently to clear the stage, Killer Dwarfs came on at the time promised and delivered another high energy set of rock and roll. Hailing from Canada and taking pride in that Canadian Rock sound, the Killer Dwarfs have been a band that has stayed quietly relevant throughout my life. With a straight forward jeans and t-shirt kind of hard rock groove, the Dwarfs delivered a set that felt like it was performed by a troupe of hungry talented teens. Singer Russ Graham vaulted onto the stage, spinning as if Tasmania was in Canada and he was a devil. He would keep up that ambition until the end of the set, doing a headstand along the way. This was a tight set that was played with endless smiling and infectious energy coming from a group of veterans that appear to have plenty left in the tank.

 

Killer Dwarfs

Russ Graham – vocals

Darrell Millar – drums

Gerry Finn – guitars

Johnny Fenton – bass

 

 

SETLIST

1.) Comin’ Through

2.) Hard Luck Town

3.) Tell Me Please

4.) Method To The Madness (instrumental)

5.) Doesn’t Matter

6.) Keep The Spirit Alive

7.) Dirty Weapons

 

Up next, I would witness the band Liliac for the second time. Liliac is the other end of the spectrum from Killer Dwarfs; an extremely young band of brothers and sisters from the Cristea family. The eldest member of Liliac is guitarist Samuel, and he is a mere 22 years of age. Make no mistake, this band is a legitimate force in the new age of hard rock and metal. They were raised on classic metal like Sabbath, Dio, and Metallica, and that integral pedigree shines through in their live set. With covers like Dio’s “Holy Diver” and Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” played almost perfectly, I feel like the band is most impressive when they play their original songs. “Mars” and “Dear Father” are especially excellent songs, and their new song “Carousel” held great weight in this set. Powered by the deep, throaty vocal talents of Melody Cristea and the guitar acrobatics of her brother Samuel, this is a band that is talented at every position. And judging by the rabid reaction of the audience during and even after the set, look for this band to only get bigger.

 

Liliac

Melody Cristea – lead vocals

Samuel Cristea – lead guitar

Abigail Cristea – drums

Ethan Cristea – bass

Justin Cristea – keyboards

 

 

SETLIST

1.) Not Afraid

3.) Crazy Train

4.) Enter Sandman

5.) We Fight, We Fall

6.) Holy Diver

7.) Carousel

8.) Mars

9.) Chain Of Thorns

10.) Seven Nation Army

11.) Dear Father

 

Progressing along, the show went from the youthful Liliac to the classic veterans Lillian Axe. Steve Blaze and company are another band that has followed me throughout my life. There is a certain something that happens when a veteran band steps out and plays great songs. It’s almost like a security blanket for the fan. As soon as the first note was played I felt like I was going to be taken care of, and taken care of I was. I was expecting guitarist Steve Blaze to play the razor sharp riffs and the crazy solos from the classic songs as well as the tunes on their new album, From Whom To Tomb. Blaze did not disappoint. He just might be the most underrated guitar player in the metal genre. He is just top notch at every turn. He brings a band that is impressive, especially singer Brent Graham. Graham did great justice to the classic era material, and he is stellar with the new material as well. Lillian Axe is a class act, and upon hearing the new music in the live setting I have every reason to believe that this band will continue to follow me through my life, and it’s great to have this music on the journey.

 

Lillian Axe

Steve Blaze – lead guitar, backing vocals, keyboards

Brent Graham – lead vocals

Sam Poitevent – guitar, vocals

Michael “Maxx” Darby – bass guitar

Wayne Stokely – drums

 

 

SETLIST

1.) I Am Beyond

2.) Misery Loves Company

3.) All’s Fair in Love and War

4.) True Believer

5.) Letters in the Rain

6.) Body Double

7.) Ghost of Winter

8.) Deepfreeze

9.) Show a Little Love

 

The Metal Cowboy! Ron Keel has seen many different generations of rock and roll and has come out a survivor. This guy is a seasoned professional that has always kept his integrity at the forefront of every project. Coming up in the 1980’s heyday of the Sunset Strip metal scene with Steeler, he has seen and done it all. Ron Keel brought his legacy with him on this Saturday afternoon, along with a killer band. The set began with Keel sauntering out to the middle of the stage to welcome his people with the mellow bellowing of “Calm Before The Storm”. Only someone with an extreme amount of confidence in his abilities would open a show with this almost a capella performance. This is the equivalent of standing in front of your high school English class in your underwear, reading your poetry. That poetry better kick some serious ass. Let’s just say that the whole school loves Ron Keel from this point on. This was a great way to open a rock show.

The metal cowboy brings a rock and roll machine with him. Guitarist DC Cothern just rips all day long. His guitar tone has a really raw bite to it. He makes it scream and cry upon demand, and brings a new level to the older material especially. Keel’s longtime bassist Geno Arce is one of those guys that makes you feel confident. His expertise and swagger just screams “I got this.” Keel and this well-rehearsed machine treated this crowd to a great mix of old and new, with a highlight being the new single, “When This Is Over”. It’s easy to get the hands in the air with classics like “Speed Demon,” “Somebody’s Waiting,” and “The Right To Rock,” but it’s a real feat to get people swaying to a new song. The Ron Keel Band did all of the above, and they did it with grace and strength. Mr. Keel ends his set by taking an appreciative and respectful knee in front of his adoring fans. There isn’t a rock star that can possibly love his fans more than Ron Keel, and he’s not afraid to show it.  This was the point in the day where I thought, “It really was worth driving up here.”

 

The Ron Keel Band

Ron Keel – guitar/lead vocals

Dave “DC” Cothern – lead guitar

Geno Arce – bass

Jeff “The Rev” Koller – drums

“Dakota” Scott Schmitt – keyboards

 

 

A band that I always loved in the 1980’s was TNT. I thought Tony Harnell had a voice that was almost supernatural. The high, crisp, clear tone and the strength behind it was extraordinary. Waiting for Harnell to take the stage, I was hoping to get a small scrap or remnant of that vocal magic. I knew Tony was coming up on 60 years on the planet, so I knew it wouldn’t be like the twenty-something voice I fell in love with. Well, I was very wrong.

I spent most of Harnell’s set scraping my jaw off the concrete. I had goosebumps for the duration of his time with the mic. Standing just feet away from the speaker that sent out sound to the large pavilion, I was shivering as if it was the middle of January. What a special gift this guy has, and what a privilege it was to here that gift here. He started off a bit toned down with the opener, “As Far As The Eye Can See,” but as he ran through TNT classics like “10,000 Lovers (In One),” “Seven Seas,” and “Everyone’s A Star” with pure perfection, he sang them all as they were written. He didn’t lower the key, didn’t dodge the high notes or have the crowd sing half the song. Just to be clear, I’m not really against any of that, but it is beyond impressive to be able to sing this incredibly difficult and vocally taxing material note-for-note at the age he is. It’s almost supernatural.

He brought a great band with him, too. Aside from Harnell’s vocal, TNT had one of the best guitarists of the genre in Ronnie Le Tekro. Guitarist Gaurav Bali did a fabulous job with Le Tekro’s framework, while putting his own style and pizazz into it. Harnell would do the “we’re not worthy” thing in front of him at one point, and it was well deserved.

 

Tony Harnell

Tony Harnell – vocals

Luis Espaillat – bass/vocals

Gaurav Bali – guitar/vocals

Dan Douchette – drums

 

 

SETLIST

1.) As Far as the Eye Can See

2.) Desperate Night

3.) She Needs Me

4.) Seven Seas

5.) Downhill Racer

6.) Northern Lights

7.) Forever Shine On

8.) Tonight I’m Falling

9.) Listen to Your Heart

10.) 10,000 Lovers (In One)

11.) Intuition

12.) Everyone’s a Star

 

As the sun started to set and darkness settled in, so did a massive crowd. It seemed like the audience doubled as Winger was preparing to launch. This is another band that comes armed with an absolute assault weapon in Reb Beach, and don’t even get me started on drummer Rod Morgenstein. When the band did hit the stage, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the guitar that would be jiving with Reb on this night would be under the control of one Howie Simon. Howie is a guy that is on everyone band’s speed dial. If you need a guitar player with little to no notice, he’s the guy. I’ve seen Howie stand in for a few people over the years and he has pulled it off each and every time. Tonight would be no different. This set of hits would see solos from Morgenstein, Beach, and Simon. Going with the “if you got it, flaunt it” frame of mind, the band seemed to be having the time of their lives. This was Reb Beach’s first show back from his time with Whitesnake, and he was well prepared and his same ol’ fun and funky self. Beach is one of the most expressive players out there, feeling every note with his face and body. Kip came equipped with his now signature headset, which allows him to move around the stage and interact with his entire arsenal of weapons. As the audience sang along to hits like “Easy Come Easy Go,” “Seventeen,” and “Down Incognito,” Winger would stop his band during “Can’t Get Enough” after the crowd failed a sing along opportunity. The first attempt at the responsive “I’m still hungry” was pretty lame. When the band kicked back into the tune and the crowd gave it another shot, I could swear the roof of the pavilion moved. Every voice in that sea of people was at attention and giving 100%.

 

Winger

Kip Winger – bass, vocals

Reb Beach – guitar

Rod Morgenstein – drums

Howie Simon – guitar

Paul Taylor – guitar, keyboards

 

 

SETLIST

1.) Battle Stations

2.) Seventeen

3.) Hungry

4.) Miles Away

5.) Down Incognito

6.) Time To Surrender

7.) Deal With The Devil

8.) Headed For A Heartbreak

9.) Can’t Get Enuff

10.) Easy Come Easy Go

11.) Madalaine

 

The crowd was primed and ready to take on the final act of the day, Tom Keifer and his entourage made their way onto the stage. As they gathered together in front of the drums for what appeared to be a brief group prayer under dim lights, they would soon come alive to give a salivating audience a large dose of Rolling Stones/Aerosmith-like, attitude driven rock and roll.

Keifer is a frontman that has a certain stage presence. He seems like he’s 10-feet tall and just stepped foot off his spaceship that came from a planet of rock and roll. He fills the stage with his impressive band, too. It seems like there are 30 people out there grooving and dishing out their brand of bluesy hard rock. For me, having two female backing singers shaking their maracas and adding a soulful tinge that fills out these songs is what makes this something special. It kicks my mind back to the classic blues rock bands that injected so much soul inspiration into their music. I think it legitimizes what Keifer sets out to accomplish. It’s that little something extra that makes all the difference in the world. I feel as though Keifer is a guy that blends late 1960’s and 1970’s blues and soul with 1980’s hard rock better than anyone. This set was littered with moments that had me flashing back to Ike & Tina or The Stones as much (or more) than it had me flashing back to 1980’s hair metal.

 

Tom Keifer

Tom Keifer – guitar, vocals

Savannah Keifer – backing vocals

Tony Higbee – guitar

Billy Mercer – bass

Kendra Chantelle – backing vocals

Jarred Pope – drums

Kory Myers – keyboards

 

 

Like all the other bands on this day, Keifer and his mates played the hits that we know and love. There was no shortage of smiles in the crowd as the music of the day transported everyone back to a long gone, wonderful time in their lives.

Good people, great music, and smiles all around….

It’s too bad Rocktember only happens for two days out of the year because this was really something special.

 

Follow Burning Witches online:

Follow Killer Dwarfs online:

Follow Liliac online:

Follow Lillian Axe online:

Follow The Ron Keel Band online:

Follow Tony Harnell online:

Follow Winger online:

Follow Tom Keifer online:

Hello everyone! My name is Scott Itter, but some know me as Dr. Music. I am a music journalist and photographer out of the Chicagoland area, and I have been in practice for over 20 years. I grew up in the 70's with two big brothers that showed me all kinds of rock and roll. As I grew older I ventured out into different genres like jazz, funk, folk, and whatever else I could wrap my ears around. As I read every liner note and every Circus and Hit Parader like they were the Old and New Testament, I came to realize that I just love sound and appreciate all the people that create it. I later became a stay-at-home dad and started honing my writing and photography skills to keep my mind from turning into mashed peas. My kids are now adults, my mind is only slightly mushy, and I am thrilled to have the honor of presenting my work to you!

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