FINALLY — THE M3 ROCK FESTIVAL IS BACK!
Date: Friday, July 2, 2021
Venue: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Location: Columbia, Maryland, USA
Event: M3 Rock Festival
Reviewer: Jeff Onorato
Photos: Christopher Carroll ROCK Photography
YouTube videos: Jim Powers
Loyal fans of ’80s hard rock and metal rejoiced as the much beloved M3 Rock Festival made its heralded return to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland from July 2nd to 4th. After taking a year off for some unknown reason, the three-day event finally resurfaced in July of this year following the “all clear” for concert events to resume mostly normal activity. News of the returning event was countered with widespread elation by adoring fans, who flock to the three-day concert year after year for an onslaught of great music from an era gone by.
Sirius XM and That Metal Show host Eddie Trunk was on hand to serve as master of ceremonies for this year’s installment, both introducing acts from the retooled line-up and dishing out musical trivia between sets. I tune in to Eddie’s radio show on a regular basis and I’m always amazed at not only the sheer amount of musical knowledge he’s able to retain, but also inform his listeners with. With this year marking the return iteration of the festival, I thought he was the perfect choice to serve as ringleader as he’s done in years past. He got an assist in hosting duties by local radio legend Stash, most notably of 98 Rock and 105.7 The Bay fame. Stash was an on-air personality in the heyday of many of these bands and has a true passion for rock n’ roll that doesn’t seemed to have waivered over the years. He shared stories from the stage, such as seeing Enuff Z’Nuff on their first tour when they played at Baltimore’s renowned Hammerjacks. His enthusiasm for great music was apparent and he had the crowd pumped up.
Gates opened to VIP ticketholders at 5:30 on Friday night and to the general public at 6:00. Typically, there is a “VIP” artist performing a short, unplugged set for that echelon of ticketholders but not this year. Mike Tramp was booked to perform an acoustic set on the original schedule, but for whatever reason did not make it onto the updated bill. It would be the first of several subtle changes that I anticipated going in, and I had the outlook that I would just roll with things and be grateful there was even a festival going on. That frame of mind would serve me well as the weekend rolled along. And it certainly did — at warp speed!
The most noticeable change was the plexiglass shield that surrounded the artist table in the meet and greet area. I heard various reports that some bands wanted the barrier up for signing in a conveyor belt fashion, while others insisted that it be removed to allow the meet and greets to carry on as they have in years past. The general consensus is that the barrier was removed or put into place at the discretion of each artist, and that’s certainly their prerogative in a post-pandemic climate. Whatever the case, there always seemed to be long lines for the VIP area so I don’t think that anyone was deterred from attempting to get an autograph or photo with their favorite band.
The Iron Maidens
The supremely talented (and fun) The Iron Maidens popped the cork on the 2021 edition of M3, paying homage to the legendary Iron Maiden while putting their own spin on those classic metal songs by one of England’s greatest bands. Generally speaking, I’m not really into tribute bands. However, The Iron Maidens do what they do so well that it’s hard not to like them. I thought that they were a curious choice to kick off the festival but figured that I would reserve judgment until I actually saw their show. Kicking things off with one of my favorite songs from the Brave New World album, “The Wicker Man” won the Maidens a warm welcome from the audience. “Wasted Years” followed, and I wondered if that was a subtle nod to the times that we’re living in and perhaps that was why the band chose to play it. It’s also entirely possible that I read too much into song selection and they chose it simply because it rocks. Whatever the case, their rendition sounded spectacular.
The crowd seemed to love The Iron Maidens too. I can’t recall an opening band ever being as widely accepted and talked about as the Maidens were for the weekend. That may be due to the fact that fans have missed live music so much, or they could see that the band was having so much fun onstage. Current Iron Maidens vocalist Kirsten Rosenberg (aka Bruce Chickinson) is also no stranger to Maryland. She paid her dues in the Maryland based cover band HighWire. She’s also the band’s longest running vocalist, having occupied the lead singer position for well over ten years now. Rosenberg made various costume changes and selective use of props throughout the Maidens’ short set, donning a Revolutionary War jacket for “The Trooper” while waving the Union Jack flag as Bruce Dickinson is famous for doing. All in all, I thought that The Iron Maidens were great, and I’d love to see them again. I don’t know that M3 was necessarily the optimal outlet for what they do, but I could see them touring with a band like Steel Panther and doing very well.
The Iron Maidens’ setlist (as per setlist.fm):
01. The Wicker Man
02. Wasted Years
03. Sun And Steel
05. The Trooper
06. Hallowed Be Thy Name
The Iron Maidens performing “Powerslave” and “The Trooper” live at the M3 Rock Festival on July 2, 2021:
Tokyo Motor Fist
Veteran rockers Ted Poley and Steve Brown are no strangers to M3, having played the festival in previous years with the bands that made them famous many moons ago (Danger Danger and Trixter, respectively). Their joint outfit Tokyo Motor Fist were a last-minute addition to Friday’s line-up (replacing Heaven’s Edge). While I was disappointed to hear that Heaven’s Edge would not be performing, seeing Tokyo Motor Fist on the bill was more than an adequate substitution and definitely a highlight of Friday night. I’m a huge fan of Danger Danger and thought that their performance at the 2019 festival was standout of the day. Steve Brown actually filled in on guitar for Danger Danger at that appearance, where they were met with much fanfare and undoubtedly a crowd favorite. Ted Poley is such an energetic, charismatic performer. He knows how to connect with the audience and that always leads to a great show. Couple that with Steve Brown’s six-string virtuosity and you have the perfect match to helm this supergroup, rounded out by bassist Greg Smith and drummer Jordan Cannata (filling in for Chuck Burgi).
I thought Tokyo Motor Fist’s debut album was good, however their 2020 album Lions bested it by a notch and saw them reach a new plateau. Leading up to Friday’s show, I was hoping they’d play “Youngblood”, “Monster In Me” or maybe even the title track from the disc. Each of those are superb cuts from the record, which has been out for almost exactly one year as of this writing. As the band took the stage and started into their opening song, Poley appeared wearing a bejeweled commander hat that looked like something straight out of Chip Z’Nuff’s closet. Sure enough, the opening song was “Youngblood” and it sounded great. Drummer Chuck Burgi couldn’t make it for the eleventh-hour booking, but Jordan Cannata did a stellar job behind the kit on short notice. He hit the skins hard and fast and fit in with the band perfectly.
Poley expressed a genuine sense of gratitude to be back at M3 and performing again. He paraded through the audience (with a security guard) while the band played “Love”, which the audience did. I saw several people in the audience that were moved to tears by the serenade. Score for Ted Poley! He’s without question a seasoned performer, but who knew that bassist Greg Smith also has a great set of pipes? He took the mic at center stage to tackle lead vocals on Tokyo Motor Fist’s rendition of “Street of Dreams” by Rainbow. And quite well, I might add. Danger Danger and Trixter were not about to go unrepresented at a Tokyo Motor Fist show. The guys covered two of their biggest hits — “Bang Bang” by Danger Danger and “Give It To Me Good” by Trixter, with guitarist Steve Brown showing off his skills on the latter cut. I think Brown’s voice is better suited for that song since he has a higher pitch on par with Pete Loran. Tokyo Motor Fist managed to squeeze in ten songs, and I could have watched them play for another hour!
Tokyo Motor Fist’ setlist (as per setlist.fm):
03. Decadence On 10th Street
05. Street of Dreams (Rainbow cover)
06. Bang Bang (Danger Danger cover)
07. Around Midnight
08. Give It To Me Good (Trixter cover)
09. Pickin’ Up The Pieces
Tokyo Motor Fist performing “Youngblood” live at the M3 Rock Festival on July 2, 2021:
The last time that I saw Slaughter perform live in October of 2019, they played very well and sounded great. But Slaughter do love their cover songs, and my only gripe was that their setlist that night turned into more of a classic rock cover jam, with their original songs seemingly taking a back seat to Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits. With such a strong bank of their own music to draw from, I was hoping that Slaughter would stick to their own material this time around and for the most part they did. I realize that being in a band and playing the songs that inspire you as a musician is fun, but it can, at times, become overkill to an audience. I’m relieved that my concerns over hearing “Stairway to Heaven” or “Black Dog” were mostly unwarranted during the band’s performance at M3. They dug deep into their biggest selling album, Stick It To Ya, as well as sophomore effort The Wild Life. Not a shocker given that these two records are their most successful commercially.
“Burnin’ Bridges” sounded sinister and snarling as it blared from the P.A. and is one of my all-time favorite songs by the band. It was cool to hear this since they haven’t played it the last few times that I’ve seen them. On the day of the show, Mark Slaughter was about to celebrate his birthday and guitarist Jeff Blando called that out while toasting him from the stage as the band (and basically everyone at Merriweather) sang “Happy Birthday” to him. And just when I thought we were in the clear with no cover songs, “Immigrant Song” reared its head to transport us back to the ’70s. I’m not mad about it though. I do hold my stance though that one of their heavier songs like “Revolution” and “I’m Gone” would just burn and they should include some of their lesser known songs. The Wild Life had a fantastic showing, in that three of its finest tracks made their way into the setlist and sounded killer. “Days Gone By” was a particularly poignant moment given the context of the song and the time that performers have had to spend away from the limelight. “Real Love” and “The Wild Life” followed it up.
The guys all looked and sounded great for their performance, and Mark Slaughter’s voice is still in tip-top shape. A rarity given the style of music and the upper register that he sings at. As you may have guessed, “Fly To The Angels” and “Up All Night” closed out their show with a small snippet of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” thrown in at the end to my chagrin (see opening statement). With Slaughter about to unleash the deluxe edition of their 1995 album Fear No Evil on vinyl, I thought for certain that they’d play “Searchin” from the record. No dice. Not even a mention of the re-release. With their older albums garnering new interest and getting the reissue treatment, I’m holding out some small glimmer of hope that we might see a new record from the band in the future. I’m not sure how realistic that is, and fans of the band will just have to wait and see as far as new music from the band. In the meantime, Mark Slaughter has shown off his notable skills as a guitarist with his new side project 7 Angels. They’ve just released a brand new single titled “Walk Through The Fire”, which is available now on all digital platforms.
Slaughter’s setlist (as per setlist.fm):
01. Mad About You
02. Burnin’ Bridges
03. Spend My Life
04. Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin cover)
05. Eye To Eye
07. Days Gone By
08. Real Love
09. The Wild Life
10. Fly To The Angels
11. Up All Night
12. Won’t Get Fooled Again (The Who cover)
Slaughter performing “Up All Night” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” live at the M3 Rock Festival on July 2, 2021:
There’s an old saying, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” and KIX seem to thrive on that adage. The M3 kingpins resumed their anchor position on Friday night again this year, in what is now unofficially deemed the “KIX off” of the festival by fans. Whether you love the band or hate them, seeing them headline the opening night of the weekend concert is almost a religious experience and truly a spectacle to behold. With energy and anticipation thick in the air, Maryland’s hometown heroes took the take the stage in Vegas-style jackets and scarves as the opening chords of “Midnite Dynamite” were cranked out to signal the beginning of what everyone was really there to see. Slaughter should have taken note of this marketing tactic, since KIX recently released their landmark album in a remastered format and Steve Whiteman wasted no time in pointing that out. That ultimately worked out in favor of the audience though, as we were treated to “Scarlet Fever” which I can’t recall hearing at any KIX shows in recent years. It’s one of my personal favorites from the album, but from what I understand the band is not particularly fond of performing it live.
All of the usual staples of their repertoire were performed and when the songs sound this good, that’s perfectly fine by me. Hot Wire saw representation via “Girl Money”, and we saw that coming as soon as Whiteman donned those infamous dollar bill-adorned shades. As the band whipped into the beginning of the song and Whiteman belted out his token “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”, it occurred to me what an underrated performer he is. If you’ve seen them live, you know that his voice hasn’t really changed over the years. That’s remarkable given that the man is now in his mid-’60s. Steve Whiteman can still hit all of the high notes and never really stops moving for the hour and a half that they’re onstage. If KIX ever call it quits, he has a promising career as a standup comedian and that banter between songs has come to be expected. In a rather candid moment, the singer did reveal that M3 are one of the few festivals that KIX get to headline thanks solely to the fans that keep coming back to see them.
Although “Love Me With Your Top Down” has become business as usual at a KIX concert, we were also treated to deep cut “Wheels In Motion” from Rock Your Face Off. It was fun and frantic all at the same time and the driving tempo makes it a great addition to the show with that heart racing momentum. Amidst all the craziness, vocalist Steve Whiteman nearly forgot to give new guitarist Bob Pare a proper introduction to the audience, but quickly rectified that slip and even took a few moments to candidly explain Ronnie Younkins’ absence to the crowd. I thought that was commendable and understates the relationship that the band has with their hometown fans. Pare looked every bit the rockstar and has such a cool presence onstage. If I didn’t know differently, I’d swear that he’s been in the band since day one. That being said, I am disappointed that Ronnie Younkins is taking a sabbatical from the band although I understand the reasons to some degree. He brings a cool, darker bluesman vibe to the band and balances out their whole vibe. In the professional world of entertainment, the show must go on. However, from a fan perspective it’s always disappointing to see an original member sidelined on a temporary or permanent basis. I’m hoping that his hiatus is the former and not the latter.
Before their closing number “Blow My Fuse”, drummer Jimmy Chalfant turned in a dizzying drum solo that punctuated what a truly skilled player he is as the backbone of the band. I can’t think of too many drummers that perform an entire set while wearing a polka dot jacket and shades, but Jimmy did under sweltering lights! KIX are more than just a band, they’re an institution. M3 simply wouldn’t be the same without them.
KIX’s setlist (as per setlist.fm):
01. Midnite Dynamite
02. Lie Like A Rug
04. The Itch
05. No Ring Around Rosie
06. Get It While It’s Hot
07. Scarlet Fever
08. Girl Money
09. Love Me With Your Top Down
10. Don’t Close Your Eyes
11. Wheels In Motion
12. Cold Shower
13. Guitar Solo
14. Cold Blood
15. Drum Solo
16. Blow My Fuse
KIX performing “Midnite Dynamite” live at the M3 Rock Festival on July 2, 2021:
Friday night came and went in the blink of an eye! Granted, only four bands performed in comparison to Saturday and Sunday which were seemingly jam packed. The fireworks spectacle that took place on the lawn during night one was not only a celebration of Independence Day, but also the return of one of hard rock’s most popular music festivals. Day One of M3 was a welcome sight for sore eyes and only whet my appetite for what was to come on Days Two and Three. It was great to be back.