M3 Rock Festival 2023 (Day One) Concert Review

Maryland’s Gargantuan Hard Rock Gathering Returns for a Fourteenth Year

Date: Saturday, May 6, 2023
Venue: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Location: Columbia, Maryland, USA
Event: M3 Rock Festival
Reviewer: Jeff Onorato
Photos: Christopher Carroll ROCK Photography (Child’s Play, Quiet Riot, Lita Ford, Slaughter, Winger), Jeff Onorato (Count’s 77, Britny Fox, Voyage, Styx)

Merriweather Post Pavilion’s annual convergence of all-things hard rock returned for a fourteenth year in 2023, albeit in a slightly truncated format with a broader gamut of talent in continuation of the changes that began to unfold in 2022. Yes, our beloved festival is now well into those “terrible teen” years. Traditionally, the festival has been held over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in recent years spanning the duration of the weekend. Technically, M3 was still something of a three-day event this year however Mike Tramp’s Friday night performance (with American Jetset in support) was reserved exclusively for VIP ticket holders and held at the Merriweather Lakehouse Ballroom. 2023 saw the M3 Rock Festival’s full line-up days consolidated down into a shorter two-day event, taking place on Saturday and Sunday only. Still an increase over the festival’s early days, but a noticeable decline from recent iterations of the event in the past five years or so. With Loudness having been replaced by Heavens Edge and the “Soundcheck Rock Academy Band” (Kill The Darkness), the number of bands performing was also reduced – from 21 in 2022 down to 19 in 2023. These may have been cost-saving measures by the promoter or perhaps just a response to dwindling consumer demand. After all, one less day of crowds equates to a smaller overheard of crews, security, and concession personnel. There’s less consumption of electricity, equipment rentals, catering, plane tickets, accommodations for talent — you get the idea.

Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t a lack of band availability. Off the top of my head, I can think of five bands within the M3 scope that were available for potential bookings. With Friday night all but slashed from the calendar, did ticket prices reflect that vanishing act? Nope. Give or take a few cents, I paid almost exactly the same price for a two-day ticket this year that I paid for a three-day ticket in 2022. Much like any pubescent teenager, M3 is going through changes. To be fair, Friday night never was a full day of bands in comparison to Saturday and Sunday. In recent years, they’ve scheduled four bands for Friday (playing full sets) with a VIP act performing an acoustic set. Even so, from a consumer standpoint, that’s significantly less bang for the buck. Even M3 isn’t safe from the dark cloud that is inflation. Looking back over line-ups and schedules in previous years, there’s always been some ebb and flow with regard to schedules and how things operate.

Expansion, and now contraction — it could simply just be the way things fell this time around. And the reality is that I really look forward to the festival each year, and I suppose I’d rather see the organizers make efficiencies to protect their bottom-line if that means that M3 sticks around and continues to thrive. Saturday’s line-up included incredible bands, with most of them returning from previous instalments. When the set times were revealed about two weeks prior to the festival, I was intrigued that a few bands were placed in the timeslots that they were – particularly for Saturday’s line-up.

Count’s 77

It can’t be an easy thing being the first band to go on at the start of a big rock festival. It’s early, the crowd is still filling in, and during a party weekend like M3, some people aren’t even out of bed yet at 11:50 am. Much as they did during their performance in 2022, Count’s 77 made the most of it and kicked things off to a promising start. For those of us running on caffeine and up early enough to catch their set, Count’s 77 cracked the can open on M3 2023. Led by charismatic frontman and namesake Danny “The Count” Koker, Sin City’s down and dirty blues rockers unexpectedly won me over at last year’s festival. Distinguished partly by Koker’s gruff lead vocals, their hard-edged southern rock is perfectly tailored for a warm, summer night concert. Or in this case, a brisk spring afternoon.

With former Britny Fox frontman Tommy Paris on keys and background vocals, that detail won the band automatic points with me last year since I was unversed in their catalog and had no real expectations. Tommy’s first album with Britny Fox, Bite Down Hard, is one of my favorites in their discography so I was interested to see what he would bring musically to Count’s 77 and I wasn’t disappointed. As was the case last year, their very short, seven song set was inspired, well played, and didn’t veer too far off course from the remainder of the bands that played on Saturday. Much like Little Caesar, The Four Horsemen, Junkyard, and even Lynyrd Skynyrd, Count’s 77 have a rough and tumble exterior, but their music is defined by Koker’s smokey voice, fiery fretwork by guitarist Stoney Curtis, and the rich tones of the Hammond B-3 that fill out their sound. I was a bit surprised to see them returning in 2023 though, but only because it’s uncommon to see the same band booked for two consecutive years, and particularly when they don’t have a new album to promote. I exclude KIX from that statement, as they’re in a unique situation and something of an institution at M3.

Those classic rock elements that permeate the band’s sound slapped us hard to start up the day. However, I don’t really consider Count’s 77 to be cut from the same cloth as the majority of bands that appear at M3. They incorporate multiple facets of southern rock and a jam band feel into the mix of their sound. Looking every bit the imposing rock n’ roll shaman in his bandana and shades while towering aside his bandmates, Koker drew in the lean but attentive congregation of listeners with his soulful wail that breaths a great degree of character into the music of Count’s 77.  Their customary opening number “Riding With The Sons of Perdition” has a nice swagger to it and guitar licks galore. It’s a fair assessment of what’s to follow for those who might not yet be familiar with Count’s 77. With powerhouse background vocals piped in by keyboardist Tommy Paris, the melody of the song takes it up a notch. Though the crowd was still thin at this early hour, “Riding With The Sons of Perdition” surely woke up early attendees who were just trickling into the Merriweather Post Pavilion to start the day.

Four of the seven songs in their show were ones that they played at last year’s festival, however “My Machine” followed and was not one of them. This was one that I found instantly likeable and destined to be a staple. Much like their opening song, it has those big vocals and screaming guitars that showcase the talents of guitarists Stoney Curtis and John Zito. Curtis tackled most of the leads while Zito held down the rhythm. Both guitarists have a very bluesy style to their playing that compliments one another. “Summer of ‘77” was another returnee from 2022 and a song that I’d say fully summarizes what Count’s 77 are all about. It’s a good time rock anthem destined for inclusion in beer commercials of the future. This one is sticker than flypaper. All joking aside, I consider “Summer of ‘77” to be the perfect kind of feel good anthem to open up a big rock festival with. How this song didn’t become a hit back in 2017 is beyond me, because it’s like a boomerang that keeps coming back to me.

Powered by the relentless percussion of drummer Jeff Tortora and Stoney Curtis wailing on the Strat, “Sin City Boogie Man” was exactly the high-energy sendoff that we needed for what was to follow. Dedicated to “the devil’s summer home in Vegas”, the Count advised that “he likes the heat” in this cautionary tale about the band’s hometown of Las Vegas. With a strong ZZ Top vibe that once again spotlighted Curtis’ scorching guitar leads, this extended jam brought a climatic finale to the Count’s 77 set.

Count’s 77’s setlist:
01. Riding With The Sons of Perdition
02. My Machine
03. Summer of ‘77
04. End of The Day
05. Your Love Ain’t Right
06. Do You Feel Me?
07. Sin City Boogie Man

Count’s 77 performing “My Machine” and “Summer of ’77” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from LORDOFTHE80S‘ YouTube page):

Child’s Play

It’s about time. It only took 33 years, but Baltimore’s prodigal sons of ballsy, in-your-face hard rock are FINALLY receiving some of the glory and rediscovery that they rightfully deserve! Can you believe it’s been THAT LONG (almost to the day) since their classic debut Rat Race was released by Chrysalis Records? I can’t. May 10th marked the official anniversary of this underground classic. It’s an album that I hold sacred, and I’d go so far as to say I grew up on it. As a very young kid cranking up that cassette on my boombox, Rat Race was a huge influence and one that helped to shape my profound love of all things hard rock and metal. I can still remember “Wind” riding the 98 Rock airwaves all summer long and waiting for the video premiere of “Rat Race” on Headbanger’s Ball.

Sadly, the band couldn’t be joined by frontman/guitarist Brian Jack (who passed away in 2012) for this brief moment of glory, or his replacement Tommy McRae (who is also now deceased). Following their late-2022 tribute concert held for founding member Brian Jack, the band has rightfully been resurrected to grace the M3 stage. In an eerie twist of fate, Jack’s successor in Child’s Play, vocalist Tommy McRae, also passed away in recent years, leaving drummer John Allen to assume lead vocals full-time with an occasional assist from friends, such as Ronnie Younkins of KIX, pitching in at the microphone. Hearing that they would be gracing the Merriweather stage for this year’s festival gave me a slight suspicion that original singer Larry Hinshaw might join them (as he did for the memorial show), however that was initially just mere speculation on my part. It was until the weeks leading up to the festival that Hinshaw’s participation was publicly confirmed, rendering this a reunion of Child’s Play’s formative version, the guys that released Ruff House and slugged it out at street level prior to signing with major label Chrysalis Records.

Taking the stage as the line-up closely resembling their Rat Race era, John Allen handled vocal duties for the band which also consisted of Nicky Kay on lead guitar, Idzi on bass, and John Allen’s Stone Horses / Charm City Devils bandmate Jason Heiser on drums. They were joined by original (pre-Rat Race) bassist Phil Wiser, who switched over to rhythm guitar for this show. As most know, in addition to playing drums for the band, Allen also sang lead on several songs on the Rat Race album. Hearing him at the microphone once again felt totally natural and not as if I was hearing a new singer at the microphone covering Brian Jack’s vocals on old songs. They kicked things off with the title track from their debut album, and it was pure magic hearing “Rat Race” across the P.A. once again. Much like “Rat Race”, “Good Ol’ Rock And Roll” is another song from their album that features Jack on the recorded version. However, hearing Allen belt it captured that spirit contained in the original and it was quite the trip hearing the band rip through the song as the singer was perched high atop the monitors with Idzi and Nicky Kay below and beside him. Truly a sense of déjà vu.

I wouldn’t be doing the band justice if I didn’t mention their sophomore release Long Way. Released independently via the band’s “Chryplus” imprint (get it?), this came out in 1993 after the band had split with Brian Jack and replaced him with vocalist Tommy McRae. Nonetheless, it features a lot of solid work by the band — namely, the title tune and “I Can’t Believe” — both of which were dusted off for this show. In a cool twist, the band then shifted into their “pre-major label” line-up as they brought out another founding member – vocalist Larry Hinshaw. With John Allen reverting to his original role behind the drums, Hinshaw joined the band for “L.H. Blues”, “Damned If I Do”, and a duet on the ballad “Wind”. Written by bassist Idzi, this song was a huge radio hit for the band locally. The only thing missing was flying corks as the guys crossed the finish line with the anthemic “My Bottle”.

Child’s Play’s presence at M3 2023 was a quick trip down memory lane. In every way, a celebration of all eras within the band’s history that lived up to my lofty expectations. To that end, drummer/vocalist John Allen released the buried treasure “I Can’t Believe” to all major streaming platforms back in July of 2022. It features the late Brian Jack on vocals, recorded prior to the version that appears on Child’s Play’s Long Way CD. This lent some credence to the possibility that the full-length Lost Tapes album might see the light of day in the near future. The song is killer, and immediately takes me back to that magical time and place when I’d blast Rat Race at top decibel in my parent’s basement. I’m sure I speak for many fans when I say that I’m dying to get my hands on this collection of rarities and unreleased material when it’s eventually unveiled. My anticipation was met — this show was an affirmation of Child Play’s career in every sense of the word. I only wish they had played longer. Spanning multiple chapters in their story, it was great to see the band back in the spotlight once more.

Child’s Play’s setlist:
01. Rat Race
02. Good Ol’ Rock And Roll
03. Long Way
04. When Hell Freezes Over
05. I Can’t Believe
06. H. Blues
07. Damned If I Do
08. Wind
09. My Bottle

Child’s Play performing “Good Ol’ Rock And Roll” and “Long Way” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from LORDOFTHE80S‘ YouTube page):

Britny Fox

Finally! My long-awaited opportunity to scratch this Philadelphia area band off my concert bucket list had arrived. Well, not exactly. I’m an old school Britny Fox fan circa the “Dizzy” Dean Davidson days and found the Tommy Paris era to be equally inspired. Regrettably, I never had the opportunity to catch the band live though. The arena tours that they supported didn’t cross my neck of the woods, and they disbanded before I was able to legally get into clubs and that’s even during the Paris-fronted run of the band. When I saw the Britny Fox logo on the rundown of M3 2023’s bands, I took an educated guess that it might be the Tommy Paris-led version of the band performing. After all, Paris would already be there playing with his other band, Count’s 77. That was not to be, and it does pain me to state the following. The four musicians that performed as Britny Fox at M3 were that band in little more than name only. No “Dizzy” Dean wailing on the mic, no Johnny Dee keeping time, and no Michael Kelly Smith on lead guitar. In this bulldozed version of the original line-up, long-time bassist Billy Childs was joined by vocalist Ronnie Rogers, guitarist Greg Polcari, and drummer Henry Nowak. All excellent musicians but amounting to what was essentially just an impressive Britny Fox tribute band. The long and short of it is that this really isn’t any different than half of the bands still at the plate in this genre.

Now that we have that out of the way, you may be wondering how they sounded. Pretty damned good! Britny Fox version 3.0 threw in obscure songs such as “Stevie” and “Plenty of Love” from Boys In Heat, even going so far as to open their show with this pair of gems. I was something of a skeptic going into their performance but hearing that pair right out of the gate turned things around for me. I could hear the heartbeat and feel the pulse. “Stevie” and “Plenty of Love” are killer songs, and exemplify the merits of Britny’s sophomore album, which unfortunately didn’t get the recognition that it warranted. If you have your own reservations as I did, the members involved in this recreation are absolute pros and that detail was cemented for me following these first few songs.

Looking cool in his head-to-toe black garb, Ronnie Rogers has a tremendous set of pipes and belted out the Britny classics with ease from behind his perch at center stage. He does sing at a lower pitch than Dizzy Dean but doesn’t everyone? This brought some distinction to his delivery and a slight gap in how fans might have expected to hear the songs performed. Even so, he has a powerful voice that I hope to hear more of with future projects. Things continued on the up and up from there, with “Dream On” clocking in at number three. It’s easily one of the best songs in Britny’s short discography, and this version was a faithful rendition that satisfied my hopes of ever hearing it live. The only minuscule difference being that the acoustic “strum” that drives the original was swapped out for an electric guitar here.

Of all the members, guitarist Greg Polcari appeared to be having the most fun up on stage, smiling and moving about as he played. He appeared careful not to let crowd interaction cause him to lose focus on his playing, which is understandable given the degree of skill required to properly execute those guitar parts. And the solos that he fired off were faithful enough to Michael Kelly Smith’s originals that I couldn’t detect any noticeable flaws. Minor changes – sure. But I was particularly in awe of his solo and playing throughout “Long Way To Love”, which was impeccable. Surprisingly, long-time Britny bassist Billy Childs was mostly reserved in his vibe up on stage although he appeared to be happy to be there and gave a solid but low-key performance. He was cool and collected, not trying too hard to impress anyone and I like that about him. Comprising the other half of the rhythm section, drummer Henry Nowak was hulking over his kit but kicked ass. He was right in step with Billy’s bass throughout the band’s performance.

Surprisingly, the guys didn’t finish out their set with “Long Way To Love” or “Girlschool” as expected. They may have originally intended to, but with a few extra minutes left on the clock the band slid into “Sweet Hitchhiker” and “Fun In Texas” to wrap things up with the former pulled from their Forbidden Fruits: The Bite Down Hard Demos Vol. 2 CD. I have a huge appreciation for the fact that this band chose to dig into the history a bit and throw in some buried treasure for real fans rather than just sticking to the MTV hits.

As I alluded to before, this was a line-up that appeared to have been assembled for the sole purpose of selling the Britny Fox name to promoters. They wouldn’t be the first to do it. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s a music BUSINESS, and musicians need to make money too. More than that, Child’s Play would have been better off billing this as what it was – a Britny Fox cover band. Uphold some integrity and call it “Gudbuy T’Jane” or “Boys In Heat” – monikers that would link up a connotation to the original band without pulling the old “bait and switch”. Doing so would help this outfit build a solid foundation for what it is that they do and potentially result in more bookings. And they’re a blast to listen to! This performance by Billy Childs and co. was smoking and came across better than what it realistically was – a Britny Fox tribute band with an original member sitting in. They wouldn’t be the first (or last) to pull this off and casting those footnotes aside – their presentation was actually pretty cool. Their sound was a well-rehearsed, entertaining nod to one of Philly’s best. It was a highly noble bid at recreating music by a kickass band that, quite frankly, were not in the building.

Britny Fox’s setlist:
01. Stevie
02. Plenty of Love
03. Dream On
04. Livin’ On A Dream
05. Louder
06. Long Way To Love
07. Girlschool
08. Sweet Hitchhiker
09. Fun In Texas

Britny Fox performing “Girlschool” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from Ron Murdock‘s YouTube page):

Quiet Riot

Much like Autograph, Quiet Riot are one of those bands that have taken some degree of flack in recent years for continuing on without any original members. Long-time (but not original) bassist Rudy Sarzo has been in and out of the band since the late ’70s but resumed his role in the band in 2021, replacing Chuck Wright. Seeing Rudy perform is always a masterclass in both showmanship and bass playing. He’s a monstrous four-stringer and his movements around the stage are so fluid and natural. Having been a part of the band during their most commercially successful era, Sarzo brings a needed familiarity and nostalgia back to the stage from an audience perspective. As far as the other members, it’s worth noting that guitarist Alex Grossi has spent more collective years in the band than most of the musicians that have come and gone throughout Quiet Riot’s storied career. Let’s not forget, Grossi has been in the fold since Kevin DuBrow (R.I.P.) was still fronting the group! He’s been helping to carry the torch for a huge block of time in their career.

Current lead singer Jizzy Pearl has a history of replacing original frontmen and was a seasoned veteran of the Los Angeles music scene well before that as the voice of Love/Hate. His jaunts with L.A. Guns, Ratt, and now Quiet Riot prove his versatility as a vocalist and his own individual star power, if you will. King Jizzo is an experienced live performer, which he’s honed that into the trajectory of the band. Drummer Johnny Kelly was an integral part of New York’s pioneering doom metal band Type O Negative, playing for them during their most successful years. My point being that there’s some star power and homage involved in recreating this material live. And the reality of it is, the owners of the name have decided to carry it forward celebrating the band’s musical legacy and audiences can choose to buy tickets or not. For me personally, I’m a fan of the four well-established musicians that comprise this current line-up of the band, so getting the chance to hear them bang out some Quiet Riot tunes on a Saturday night at M3 is cool with me.

This steamroller of a band did just that during their performance, delivering what was one of my favorite sets of the entire weekend. As Sarzo, Grossi, and drummer Johnny Kelly kicked into opening number “Run For Cover”, lead singer Jizzy Pearl stormed the stage and had all eyes on him just as any great frontman would. I can’t think of a better song to open their show with. It’s urgent, up-tempo, and a composite representation of everything that Quiet Riot do well. “Slick Black Cadillac” followed and was but the first of many crowd-pleasers that this band hit us with. Detouring slightly into their Condition Critical LP with “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”, the results were no less receptive from the audience, who just ate up the hit after hit that this band slammed out. A bit later in the show, “Party All Night” was their second venture back to this 1984 album, with equally positive results. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Quiet Riot’s set focused on Metal Health although you’d be hard pressed to find any complaints about that. The songs from arguably their biggest and best LP have withheld the test of time and still sound every bit as raucous and unbridled as they did way back in 1983! “Love’s A Bitch”, “Thunderbird”, and “Let’s Get Crazy” were but three of the five numbers that the band played from this album on Saturday night.

Following “Love’s A Bitch”, Rudy Sarzo took the microphone to share that this was his very first time playing M3. He went on to reminisce that their next song (“Thunderbird”) was written by the late Kevin DuBrow in tribute to former guitarist Randy Rhoads. While many are already aware of this, it was still a moving reminder and perhaps one that will resonate with younger audience members and inspire them to look into the work of this legendary guitarist who left us way too soon. During “Let’s Get Crazy”, the band segued into a few bars of “Crazy Train” and “Black No. 1” in homage to both Rhoads and Johnny Kelly’s former band, Type O Negative. While the riff of “Crazy Train” was easily identifiable to the crowd, I’d venture to say that many missed the snippet of “Black No. 1” that the band played. As a Type O Negative fan, my ears went right up, and it had me grinning from ear to ear when I detected the nod. In what was to become one of my top performances of the entire weekend, this Quiet Riot of today made no efforts to pass themselves off as the original line-up of the band. Throughout their set, clips of Kevin DuBrow, the late Frankie Banali, and Randy Rhoads played behind the band in tribute to the musicians that made Quiet Riot a household name. They’re gone, but their names live on through the music and they’re never forgotten.

Quiet Riot’s setlist:
01. Run For Cover
02. Slick Black Cadillac
03. Mama Weer All Crazee Now
04. Love’s A Bitch
05. Thunderbird
06. Party All Night
07. The Wild And The Young (with bass solo)
08. Let’s Get Crazy (included snippets of “Crazy Train” and “Black No.1”)
09. Cum On Feel the Noize
10. Metal Health (Bang Your Head)

Quiet Riot performing “Cum On Feel The Noize” and “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from Jim Powers‘ YouTube page):

Lita Ford

It’s been forever and a day since we’re heard any new music from the Black Widow. If the saying “good things come to those who wait” is true, then this long in-the-works ninth solo album (ten if you count the compilation Time Capsule) by the former The Runaways guitarist should be right up there with Back In Black or Appetite For Destruction in terms of quality. Suffice it to say, I’m raring to go for that new Lita Ford record. Could this be the year that we finally see the follow-up to 2012’s Living Like A Runaway? That still remains to be seen, but Lita returned for another stab at M3 in 2023 with long-time guitarist Patrick Kennison, drummer Bobby Rock, and new bassist Marten Andersson (who replaced Marty O’Brien in 2022) in tow. I’ve seen Lita perform live several times, and she always turns in a fiery set endowed by jaw dropping musicianship and all those big ‘80s hits which fans know and love her for. My last Lita Ford concert was back in 2021, at this very festival. And while it was a killer show, she was definitely dialed in to (and agitated by) perceived sound problems that weren’t really detectable from an audience perspective. Several times during that performance, Ford looked side stage, motioning to her crew that she was having technical issues with regard to either her guitar or monitors. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of her dissatisfaction that day. Ultimately, she shrugged it off and steamrolled us with a fantastic set. I can understand that for a musician though, the song is their craft, and they want that art to be presented in an optimal way.

Luckily, there was no evidence of any gremlins in the backline for this go round. Like a heat-sinking missile, Lita and her crew were aimed to destroy from the moment that they took the stage. Opening with “Gotta Let Go”, Ford took us straight back to 1984 with one of the best songs from Dancin’ On The Edge. It was like a rush of adrenaline, which continued flowing through the throbbing “Larger Than Life”. I consider this to be one of her best live songs. It’s got that pounding beat, the drive, and melody to lather the audience up into a sweat. Or does it? Perhaps it was her early afternoon set time, but Ford had to make repeated attempts to wind the M3 crowd up for a reciprocal exchange of energy. Playing at the 4 o’clock hour slot, it’s possible that people were still recovering from partying the night before. Although, I don’t recall Quiet Riot (who went on before her) receiving such a tepid response during their set. It’s hard to say, but certainly not a reflection of the band’s performance. “Relentless” was a welcome surprise that gave Living Like A Runaway some much needed representation. With it being her most recent studio offering, I feel as though it’s uncharted territory for much of Lita’s fanbase. “Devil In My Head” is another one that would set off the fire alarm if Lita threw it into her show. If you haven’t heard Living Like A Runaway, you don’t know what you’re missing.

“Back To The Cave” was the first of several songs from her chart-topping, eponymous 1988 album to turn up. It featured a sultry vocal that went into a nearly acapella break before Marten Andersson threw down a cool bass solo. Turning the spotlight to guitarist Patrick Kennison, a guitar duel then ensued as he and Lita traded off licks. Perhaps not evoking the response that she expected from this jam session, the singer asked the audience, “Are you guys alive?” as she caught her breath following that musical rampage. I was and couldn’t get enough of what I was hearing. Proudly proclaiming their next number as one that was “co-written by Lemmy” out of love for the departed Motörhead frontman, the band ripped into “Can’t Catch Me”, which was an absolute onslaught. Simply fantastic. How this didn’t elicit a roaring applause is just beyond me.

Drummer Bobby Rock followed it up with a very tribal sounding drum solo that stamped his card as one of the many tremendous musicians to grace the Merriweather stage. “How many black leather guitars have you guys seen?” was questioned of us as things moved along to, you guessed it… “Black Leather Heart” from Time Capsule. And then, the moment that many had waited for. Armed with her double-neck, white B.C. Rich, Lita began to strum the somber notes that signaled the start of her timeless ballad, “Close My Eyes Forever”. Effortlessly wielding the oversized guitar like a mighty warrior’s shield, she was joined by guitarist Patrick Kennison on vocals for the duet. Tackling the co-leads provided by Ozzy Osbourne on the recorded version, I thought Kennison did a respectable job of recreating the original. Ozzy’s voice is by no means easy to replicate, although Patrick made the part his own within the constraints of the song. Lita Ford still looks and sounds great. Leading me to believe that it’s true what they say. Rock n’ roll keeps a person young. I can only hope that when I’m in my mid-sixties, I’ve aged half as well as she has. Still the “blond bombshell from hell”, Ford shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Lita Ford’s setlist:
01. Gotta Let Go
02. Larger Than Life
03. Relentless
04. Back To The Cave
05. Hungry
06. Can’t Catch Me
07. Cherry Bomb
08. Black Leather Heart
09. Close My Eyes Forever
10. Kiss Me Deadly

Lita Ford performing “Gotta Let Go” and “Larger Than Life” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from Jim Powers‘ YouTube page):


Slaughter were one of many acts that returned from the 2021 festival, and I’m always happy to see their logo appear on an event poster when the line-up is unveiled. They’re one of my favorite bands circa the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and I’ve seen them on countless bills over the years. I’ve never walked away from one of Slaughter’s shows disappointed by the performance, sound, or chemistry within this present line-up (or any line-up for that matter). In fact, just the opposite. I was fortunate enough to catch them in 2022 and they still sound spectacular and deliver a highly energetic, entertaining show comprised of their greatest hits and (sometimes numerous) cover songs. Their often-abundant inclusion of said cover tunes is my one point of dismay with Slaughter’s repertoire if I had to choose one. Now in his late 50s, does Mark Slaughter’s voice sound like it did when he was in his 20s or 30s? No, of course not. I can’t think of many vocalists who don’t experience a change in their voice over time. It’s just the human condition. Nonetheless, his tone is still there for the most part, and he does a respectable job of still traversing the high octaves and reaching the lead-vocal plateaus that he’s known for hitting.

The last time I saw Slaughter was July of 2022, and with a few exceptions, they performed the exact same songs in precisely the same order that they did at M3 (minus a few that had to be left out due to time constraints). Following the blare of police sirens screaming their arrival, “Mad About You”, “Burnin’ Bridges”, and “Spend My Life” followed. These are all fantastic tunes from Stick It To Ya, but they were rolled out in the very same configuration that I’ve heard them at the past two shows I’ve been to in the same number of years. Changing it up a bit would keep things interesting for repeat attendees, and I’m sure there are many.  Any of those Slaughter fans that frequent their concerts will tell you the same thing, that this band likes to play covers. True to form, “Immigrant Song” popped up at number four in the rundown. I knew it was inevitable and anticipated this development like a trip to the dentist. Those that know me well are aware of my love for Slaughter’s music. It’s only because of this that I want them to stick to original material that often is neglected in favor of Led Zeppelin covers. Fortunately, that was pretty much it for this go around.

Moving into “Fly To The Angels”, Mark Slaughter dedicated it by saying “Every time we do this song, we like to send this one out to all of our family and friends who are no longer with us, because tonight we celebrate life”. This version started out closely paralleling the original, but things went a bit off course with the vocal gymnastics that were attempted at the home stretch. It seems like this is an attempt to compensate for the singer’s inability to sing the song in the way that it was recorded, so he just repeatedly screams out of key. Whatever the reason, it’s a fan favorite and would fare better if Mark Slaughter just sang it the way that the song was recorded. Joining the band on drums for M3 was Jordan Cannata, replacing Will Hunt, who also plays shows with the band as his schedule permits. Cannata is best known for his stints in Adrenaline Mob as well as Tokyo Motor Fist. The guy hits fast and he hits hard! Following “Eye to Eye”, they cut him loose for a quick drum solo that was absolutely dizzying to watch. Much like a spinning top, Jordan is a cyclone behind the tubs rivalling the great Zoltan Chaney. Jordan’s style brought Zoltan to mind as he stood over his kit during the finale to bring the thunder as hammered down on the snare. Following that performance of their biggest hit and an instrumental of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, Mark Slaughter appreciatively left us with “Thank you for all the years, we love you guys”.

Leaning too heavily on well-known, past works without the incorporation of lesser-visited or new material can cause the waters to run stagnant for any band, and that’s sort of where I’m at with many of M3’s acts. Realistically, how many times can a fan see a band perform the same ten songs in the same order without it becoming tired? I’m by no means saying that established acts shouldn’t build sets around their hits, only that they should change things up occasionally and throw something new into the mix. Slaughter has entire albums that they never touch on (such as Fear No Evil, Revolution, and Back To Reality). “Get Used To It” is a cool song that would make for a fantastic opener. “Revolution” would melt faces. Hell, play “Heaven It Cries” and kill two birds with one stone! They make efforts to re-release this music on vinyl, but can’t play a song or two at their show in favor of another Led Zeppelin cover? Fan perspective and artist logistics are often two very different vantage points, and I’m sure that’s the case here. Although my criticism of this practice might seem harsh, it’s only because I’m so passionate about this genre of music that I hate to see parts of it become a castaway.

Slaughter’s setlist:
01. Mad About You
02. Burnin’ Bridges
03. Spend My Life
04. Immigrant Song
05. Eye To Eye
06. Days Gone By
07. Real Love
08. Fly To The Angels
09. Up All Night / Won’t Get Fooled Again

Slaughter performing “Up All Night” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from LORDOFTHE80S‘ YouTube page):


In my mind, 2023’s M3 Rock Festival will forever be remembered as the year of cancellations. First Loudness, then Extreme just days before the festival, and lastly Mike Tramp on the day of his performance. That old saying that “the show must go on” is no longer common practice. But in the world of entertainment, that’s just the way it goes. Things happen, people get sick, and you have to be ready to adapt. Just as they did in 2022, Extreme cancelled their appearance at the festival last-minute leaving organizers with the difficult task of lining up a replacement at short notice. Reports surfaced that guitarist Nuno Bettencourt sustained a knee injury on the Monsters of Rock Cruise the week prior and would be unable to perform. Some artists will still perform with an injury (think Axl Rose in the chair), while others will not. That’s their prerogative. Acclaimed Journey tribute band Voyage were tapped to fill in for Extreme and elevate Saturday’s offerings back up to a respectable level. Like many, I wasn’t thrilled with the news of this development when I heard about it on Friday night. I really wanted to hear Nuno play that “Rise” solo! However, Journey have released some of the most recognizable, commercially successful arena rock n’ roll of our time, some of which is so infectious, it could be said that they’re standards within the very format. I can’t argue with that assertion.

Voyage perform Journey’s greatest hits with great accuracy and attention to the details in their songs and visual presentation. Personally, I’m not a huge Journey fan although I can appreciate their hits and wouldn’t mind seeing them live if the opportunity ever presented itself. I respect the high level of success that they’ve achieved and their talent as songwriters and musicians. In all honesty, I’m just not big on tribute / cover bands, so when the news came in that I’d be hearing one at M3, it wasn’t met with open arms. In due credit, Voyage deliver such astounding replications of these classics that it’s difficult not to be captivated by their presentation. Fronted by former Valentine vocalist Hugo Valenti, Voyage encapsulate all the elements that make Journey so adored by fans. Namely, Hugo’s uncanny resemblance to vocalist Steve Perry which borders on a doppelganger-level likeness. That was apparent right from the start of their first song — “Separate Ways (World Apart)”. It’s often been said that current Journey frontman Arnel Pineda can mimic Steve Perry perfectly. Well, Hugo Valenti is no slouch either. And, with Perry’s stage moves down to a science, looks exactly like him too.

The similarities to the Bay Area giants didn’t end at the microphone. Much like original Journey guitarist Neal Schon, Voyage six-stringer Robby Hoffman brings that same hard rock edge to the songs with both his playing and stage persona. Where I felt the band members were lacking was in their interaction with one another onstage. At times, things were a bit robotic up there and I didn’t get the sense that the musicians were having any fun doing what they do. That was until “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin”, when the band was joined onstage by M3’s goodwill ambassador himself, Mr. Ted Poley. Ted’s presence buoyed things and brought some excitement back to the stage during this time up there. In paying tribute to one of rock n’ roll’s biggest bands, there’s more to it than just dialing up Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Perhaps a mere coincidence but Voyage drummer Dana Spellman also plays in Hurtsmile with Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone. I was thinking this might have been the connection that won Voyage this understudy position, but that’s only speculation on my part. All in all, a faithful and professional representation of the classic rock giants that are Journey. As a replacement for Bean Town’s long-running purveyors of funk-metal, it was a hard sell, but fortunately not one that had me saying “bon voyage” without closer inspection.

Voyage’s setlist:
01. Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)
02. Only The Young
03. Stone In Love
04. Lights
05. Who’s Crying Now
06. Feeling That Way
07. Anytime
08. Wheel In The Sky
09. Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’
10. Faithfully
11. Be Good To Yourself
12. Don’t Stop Believin’

Voyage performing “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” and “Only The Young” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from LORDOFTHE80S‘ YouTube page):


Like several of the acts on this year’s M3 itinerary, Winger returned from the 2021 line-up where they performed brilliantly but were slightly maligned in preceding Accept on the bill. With the exception of Queensrÿche (who headlined that night), I don’t consider any of the bands that performed that day to be musically compatible with Accept in a live setting. Apart from that, I’ve always considered Winger to be a grossly underrated unit for their other-worldly musicianship, perfected songwriting craft, and consistent live shows. Put quite simply, their music is accessible and catchy, but not at the cost of intricacy. There is layer upon layer to what they do. The band members have such a strong musical chemistry on stage, compounding into what is just a force of nature. And how many bands can say that they still have their original line-up intact 35 years since their inception? Not many.

It’s a line-up that they expanded upon with the addition of guitarist John Roth in the ’90s, who was originally a replacement for guitarist / keyboardist Paul Taylor during the Pull campaign. The band’s first and second albums are hard rock classics, with their grittier third record, 1993’s Pull, standing tall as a decommercialized masterstroke that saw Winger fully grow into the formidable act that they were destined to become. Pull was a rude awakening for the band’s critics, who had seemingly fallen asleep at the wheel on that long drive up to Seattle. Thankfully, fanfare for what Winger do seems to have come full circle, with the stigma that was attached to their name long having died down and enthusiasm for their catalog long rekindled.

From their masterpiece In The Heart of The Young, “Can’t Get Enuff” was but the first song in a set that consisted of hit after hit. Guitarist John Roth stole the spotlight early on with his guitar solo on this one. I listened for this specifically, as the recorded version of “Can’t Get Enuff” features one of my all-time favorite guitar solos. It’s technical, nasty, and lifts the song to another level all at the same time. Isn’t that the point? We knew it was inevitable, and “Seventeen” was next. I say that in jest, as this song epitomizes the glory days of ’80s hard rock like no other. Some may counter that the song’s popularity was the root of Winger’s banishment from mainstream view, but I beg to differ. If you take yourself so seriously that you can’t find something to like about this song, perhaps rock n’ roll isn’t the right place for you. It’s also built upon the very first riff that Reb Beach ever played for Kip Winger at their first meeting, as he recanted from the stage during Winger’s performance. I find that kind of trivia interesting and store it in the hard drive between my ears.

I’m always singing praise for Winger’s Pull LP, so hearing “Down Incognito” in concert will probably never get old for me. It showed another side of the band at a time when seismic shifts in the record industry were trying to brainwash us into believing what was quality and what was not. This CD landed at a time when I needed to keep the faith and find affirmation that good never goes out of style. A highlight was hearing Reb Beach howl that famous harmonica outro in the final lap of the song. Much like the captain of a mighty ship, the band’s namesake Kip Winger stood front and center while simultaneously firing off lead vocals and remaining locked into the rhythm that he was throwing down with drummer Rod Morgenstein. Following their performance of the ballad “Rainbow In The Rose”, we were treated to an absolute jaw-dropping drum solo by Morgenstein, who I consider to be one of the most underrated drummers in all of rock n’ roll. He’s worthy of far more acclaim that he receives.

The biggest surprise of Winger’s show was that, with seven albums now under their belts, they formed their set exclusively around the Atlantic years. There was no “Midnight Driver of A Love Machine”, no “Deal With The Devil”, and no “Rat Race”. I guess it just comes down to limited stage time, fans wanting to hear the hits, or the nostalgia factor that’s basically unwritten law when playing a big rock festival. By my estimation, “Time To Surrender” was the deepest that we went into album cuts. At the very least, I had hoped to hear “Proud Desperado” but I do get that it’s still a relatively new song that might not yet be where they want it to be for mass consumption. Much like their label mates Heavens Edge, Winger are another veteran act that bestowed new music unto their fanbase this year. Their new album Seven hit the streets on May 5th, just one day before their M3 performance. With lead single “Proud Desperado” in rotation since mid-March, we have yet another LP that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get my mitts on. “Tears of Blood” is another epic cut from the new record that would fare extremely well in concert. Fingers crossed, I look forward to hearing a song or two from Seven live this summer, as Winger embark on their stateside tour with John Corabi and Tom Keifer.

Winger’s setlist:
01. Can’t Get Enuff
02. Seventeen
03. Down Incognito
04. Miles Away
05. Time To Surrender
06. Rainbow In The Rose
07. Headed For A Heartbreak
08. Easy Come, Easy Go
09. Madalaine

Winger performing “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “Madalaine” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from Jim Powers‘ YouTube page):


When I initially saw the line-up for M3 2023 back in early December, “one of these things is not the same” was the sentiment that immediately crossed my mind. Styx headlining Day One? Um…Ok. The long-running Chicago band certainly have a revered musical legacy, and my statement is by no means a jab at them. They’re brilliant at what they do. But that factor alone doesn’t deem compatibility with a hard rock festival that’s stylized to commemorate the glory days of over-the-top arena rock fueled by MTV pageantry.  Styx have a respectable catalog of classic and soft rock hits that they’ve built a career on and continue to tour off of to this day. However, their blend of theatrical, progressive, synth-flavored rock just doesn’t jive with the generally hard-hitting, electrified debauchery that is synonymous with the M3 banner. For many, it’s that congregation of good time, fist pumping rock n’ roll that fans love about the festival. That isn’t to say that one can’t pump his or her fist to Styx, however I just wasn’t foreseeing a climatic finale as warranted per the standards of most attendees. Would you rather close out Saturday night shaking your ass to “Get It While It’s Hot” or the soothing sounds of “Come Sail Away”?

Although the bulk of their hits were released in the mid to late seventies, Styx continued to strike gold in the early ’80s with “Mr. Roboto”, “Too Much Time On My Hands”, and “The Best of Times”. While most of M3’s bands were doing a “Decadence Dance” throughout the ’80s, Styx had begun to throw acoustic-leaning, soft rock elements into the soup. Not night and day removed from the Sunset Strip era of MTV, but definitely not cut from the same cloth as the remaining eight bands that played on Saturday. Try as I may, my brain feels the need to categorize music beyond the simple classifications of “good” and “bad”. Despite my admitted predisposition, I set out to enjoy Styx without bias. After all, I do like their music and having seen them live before was familiar with what it is that they do.

Amidst a backdrop of neon-lighted circuitry, “To Those” marked blast-off. A logical choice, given that this is a modern attempt at encapsuling all the musical facets which Styx are famous for. It’s big, boisterous, and flaunts those attributes well. And if it plugs their latest album Crash of The Crown, all the better. But It wasn’t until “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” that I felt like we were truly getting down to business. Lawrence Gowan’s opening keyboard line made this song instantly recognizable, fulfilled by Tommy Shaw’s passionate vocals and guitar solo. It really isn’t fair that any one human can sing AND play as well as Shaw does. What he does isn’t learned. You either have it or you don’t. “Are you ready for a rock show?” was the question at hand as the band moved into “The Grand Illusion”, and the audience’s reply would concur. If they weren’t, this song surely brought them around. Easily one of the most recognizable classic rock tracks of the past 45 years, it’s pure ear candy. “The Grand Illusion” was so expertly performed, I couldn’t differentiate this from the recorded version – it was that good.

With guitarist and sole original James “J.Y.” Young front and center, that precision continued on with “Lady”. Again, the tinkering of keys drawing us in to the symphony that erupts at the huge, gang vocal chorus of the song. As I listened to this magnificent song, I almost forgot that I was at M3 for a few seconds, and I found that to be the case often throughout the band’s show. Do with that what you will. Coming back around to their 2021 album Crash of The Crown, I’ve always found the vocals to this title track from that release to be slightly cumbersome until they reach the chorus. Hearing it live, that was still the case. Guitarist Will Evankovich produced this album and began touring with the band as a supplemental musician in 2021. He also served as the producer on 2017’s The Mission. Towards the end of their set, the band brought out original bassist (and co-founder) Chuck Panozzo to join them onstage for “Rockin’ The Paradise” from the ever-popular Paradise Theater LP. Although they do this regularly, it would seem no less appreciated by Styx’s throng of fans.

With good reason, Styx are one of those bands that all the other acts flank the sides of the stage to watch. Regardless of where you clock your appreciation for their works as a music listener, it’s a near impossibility not to be captivated by the whirlwind that they conjur up in a live setting. It’s a circus. They’re tight, virtuosic, and as influential as a cult leader. Their songs are, in part, the soundtrack to the many of our youths. In spite of all that prestige, I can still think of at least half a dozen U.S. based bands with new albums out (and still touring) that would have been a more optimal fit to headline Saturday within the scope of what might appeal to M3’s target audience. For what the promoters paid for Styx, they could have brought in several mid-tier bands that fall within the genre that M3 used to exclusively cater to. Times they are changing.

Styx were a bedazzling, 90-minute finale to Day One that at times bordered on an epic display of classic rock. Alas, that greatness bore little context within the parameter of performers and momentum of Saturday’s lineup. Despite their untouchable group harmonies, hit parade, and lavish showmanship, I still found myself at odds with the maligned billing. Exuding abundant visual and audio effects to deliver and enhance their repertoire of one radio smash after another, Styx are still a stand-alone spectacle at this stage of their career. As the anchor to an ’80s hard rock festival essentially celebrating an era of excess and rebellion, Styx were prancing as the horse of a different color.

Styx’s setlist:
01. To Those
02. Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
03. The Grand Illusion
04. Lady
05. Lorelei
06. Crash of The Crown
07. Miss America
08. Crystal Ball
09. Rockin’ The Paradise
10. Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
11. Too Much Time On My Hands
12. Khedive
13. Lost At Sea
14. Come Sail Away
15. Mr. Roboto

Styx performing “Lost At Sea”, “Come Sail Away” and “Mr. Roboto” live at the M3 Rock Festival on May 6, 2023 (video from Jim Powers‘ YouTube page):