June 8-11, 2016, Norje, Sweden: Approaching Norje, it feels that time has not gone by at all and you were actually here yesterday, instead of one year ago. Same shops, same gates, same stages. And then you start to meet the people you know and the people you met before and it starts feeling like… you know… home! Although the first day is always lower in attendance, so you always have this feeling before the party is about to start and you wait for the first guests.

The festival is nowadays always sold out and in the following days it’s buzzing with people. You wander the paths between the campings, the lucky cabin owners and the main entrance, and you try to refrain yourself from buying your next langos, your new cowboy hat, or another album for your collection, you pass by people relieving themselves in the bushes and drunken groups standing in the crossroads chatting with the passers-by… like the guy trying to find some hobby to use his fingers… At the festival entrance, access was smooth, with the check being swift and efficient. The stages haven’t really changed from last year, neither the general layout of the food stalls and the exhibits. If you don’t want to see any band, eat or drink, you can always pass by to check the motorcycles, test some jeans quality or check out the new Sweden Rock t-shirts (and realize that the artist edition – no matter how nice it looks – it has Adam Lambert instead of the Queen on it).

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Considering the love of the Scandinavians for rock music, it’s no wonder that Sweden Rock has become one of the legendary festivals in Europe, together with Wacken. With 83 bands playing this year, it was a heavy schedule for those that didn’t want to miss any of their wishlist bands but always the relaxed and pleasant occasion for those who only wished to spend a crazy drunken long weekend with only the t-shirt as a memory.

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First band I watched was Saffire at the 4Sound stage. Classic metal sound with melodic solos from this band from Sweden. The reference to Dio is inevitable not only due to the vocalist Tobias Jansson’s very similar vocal tones, but also due to the riffs’ style. But if you look for visual similarities, you won’t get them…

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Moving to Sweden stage for some “local” superstardom with Mike Tramp of White Lion. The band came on stage while Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down was playing on the headphones. I have to admit that the band was emitting more energy than the songs themselves and the whole 45 minutes sounded like a band playing electrically, an acoustic set… Complicated? It sounded more boring in reality. The show ended with When the Children Cry and Broken Heart, while between the songs we were greeted in 8 (!) different languages and comment of the kind that Sweden Rock is a safe place as the world was during Reagan. Whatever…

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Headed back to the 4Sound stage to see another Scandinavian band, Eclipse. These guys might not look like the regular rock’n’roll guys you’d expect, but they surely sound like ones! Good voice, good performance, catchy melodic songs and the audience seemed to enjoy them. A little Whitesnake here and there and a lot of Blackfoot (and Send me an Angel) at their closing tune Breaking my Heart Again. Well, it was very nice, I’m not accusing them.

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Then we went to another Sweden band, a quartet named Bonafide. Now, if you knew bona fide before you learnt the band, you would pronounce it like that ˌbəʊnə ˈfʌɪdi (both in Latin and English). But if you heard the band first, then there is a good chance your pronounce them like… well… like you don’t know how it’s pronounced. Which reminds me of an interview we did 13 years ago with Anathema’s Danny Cavanagh who told us how cool he thought the name of the band sounded in English, until he heard how it is pronounced in Greek (with the accent on the second a and the e sounding like e and not like i) and then he was disappointed. However you pronounce them, Bonafide is a cool band, with Bon Scott vocals. Great support from the audience who also welcomed the guest appearance of Ralf Gyllenhammar, to join Pontus Snibb on the 1975 classic song by Björn Skifs, Michelangelo.

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Everyone appeared to be excited about Amaranthe, while discussions in the male groups being about whether the female singer of the band is beautiful or not. A similar subject seemed to dominate the female discussions on the band. Besides, Amaranthe have two male for “clean” and growling vocals and one female singer, just to take place the niche missing in the music globe for metal songs with both male and female, clean, rough and opera vocals. Anyhow, although they gave an adamant performance, they were quite indifferent to me, adding nothing more to this quickly saturated genre of metal music. That and the fact that despite the little time available in these festival shows, they had a drum solo, well… I saw them once.

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At 22:15 it was time for Graham Bonnet. Being the first time to see this legend live, I was very excited. And to be fair, I was really happy with the result. The band was very good. Bonnet himself was excellent, a true showman with a still amazing voice, considering his 69 years of age. All the songs were hits from Alcatrazz, MSG, Impelliteri and Rainbow and it was a joy listening to these classics live. He was veeery chatty also, describing why, how or the situation when each song was written, disregarding the limited time and the stressed tour manager who hadn’t stopped doing signals to Bonnet to speed up. But Bonnet didn’t really care. Surprisingly, he finished on time and I don’t think he missed a song off the setlist nor a story he wanted to share. I arrived when All Night Long was on, and the rest of the set included S.O.S., Stand In Line, God Bless Video, Will You Be Home Tonight, Jet To Jet, Night Games, Suffer Me, Dancer, Desert Song, Island In The Sun, Since You Been Gone, Assault Attach (which he dedicated to his bass player – and girlfriend?), and Lost in Hollywood as a perfect ending to a wonderful performance.

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Back to Sweden Stage, where Blind Guardian were the headliners of the first day of Sweden Rock 2016. I expected more than what this band can actually deliver. They do have great songs; that is undoubtable. But the performance of the Germans on stage are best to watch on a dvd rather than live. I must admit, when I saw them the first time, some years ago, it hadn’t crossed my mind. But now, seeing the band in a large stage, immobile most of the time, except for Hansi who was casually walking around, it seemed that for Blind Guardian, it was another day at work. Even the calls towards the crowd sounded boring and uninteresting. This and the chilliness of the night made lots of people to take their way to bed. Besides, there was a heavy schedule coming up the following days. The setlist included The Ninth Wave, The Script For My Requiem, Nightfall, Fly, Tanelorn (Into The Void), Prophecies, The Last Candle, Lord Of The Rings, Bright Eyes, Time What Is Time, The Curse Of Feanor, Imaginations From The Other Side, Sacred Worlds, Twilight Of The Gods, Valhalla, Into The Storm, The Bard’s Song – In The Forest, Mirror Mirror.

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Second day of the festival… I was heading towards the Lemmy (ex-Rock) stage where Lordi were playing, when one of these things that can happen only at a festival as huge and diverse as Sweden Rock ruined my planning. On the Sweden stage, a bunch of middle-aged guys, with long hair were playing some really catchy southern rock tunes, while the drummer, with its huge sideburns, made an impression, visually (actually he reminded me of Balin from the Hobbit) and musically. I decided to stay there for a while to reflect on my sudden dilemma and enjoy the Kentucky Headhunters on their first European concert.

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I promised myself to give them another chance in the future, so after a few songs I headed to my initial destination. Lordi were playing with the majority of the crowd. As Mr. Lordi said, it was the earliest they have ever played a concert. Nevertheless, for me It was a very enjoyable hour, as I recalled the first time I ever heard this band, maybe a couple years before their breakthrough at the Athens Eurovision. I still remember getting the promo version of The Monster Show, and being surprised that it was a compilation of a few awesome, hard rock, with humorous horror lyrics and, by the way, amazing video clips! It was still the time that I could learn the lyrics of the songs, so it was a great flashback. The band was very active, probably part of their mutant superpowers. Noone from the crowd seemed horrified though. I suggested to Mr. Lordi, when we met later after the show, that maybe that was the reason they were set to play at noon… The complete setlist: Nailed By The Hammer of Frankenstein, The Kids Who Wanna Play With The Dead, The Riff, Dynamite Tonite, Blood Red Sandman, My Heaven Is Your Hell, Sincerely With Love, It Snows In Hell, Devil Is A Loser, Hard Rock Hallelujah, Who’s Your Daddy?, Would You Love A Monsterman?

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Leaving the horror behind, I took a break before seeing Sixx: A.M. an hour later. This was the first time the side project of Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue would play live at Sweden Rock. The band was really amazing, constantly moving on stage. Great vocals by James Michael and I found awesome the backing vocalists and Dj Ashba on the guitar. The people loved them also, which resulted in a huge queue at the signing session after their show. They also commemorated the victims of the Paris terrorist attack, after which they wrote the Rise Of The Melancholy Empire. Setlist: This Is Gonna Hurt, Rise, When We Were Gods, Everything Went To Hell, Live Forever, Skin, Dead Man’s Ballet, Prayers For The Damned, Goodbye My Friends, Lies Of The Beautiful People, Stars, Rise Of The Melancholy Empire, Life Is Beautiful.

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Shinedown may look like the guys next door, but they already a huge name in Sweden – and elsewhere of course – so the Festival stage was indeed crowded. You’d also notice a decrease on the average age. It’s a rather common sight at this stage to see bands feeling awkward with the extra space available to move around. But Shinedown had no such issue, as they were extremely comfortable in the huge (considering also the lack of equipment) stage. The whole band was ever moving, with Brent Smith even getting off stage for quite a while. He also liked talking… a lot. Natural superstars? Why not. Setlist: Asking For It, Fly From The Inside, Diamond Eyes, If You Only Knew, Cyanide Sweet Tooth Suicide, Unity, Enemies, I’ll Follow You, Cut The Cord, 45, Devour, Second Chance, Simple Man, Sound of Madness.

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Anticipating the show of Queen later the same evening, I passed by the Lemmy stage for Graveyard. I had seen this quartet live before, opening for Deep Purple at Gothenburg (Graveyard’s hometown), a few years ago. The band revives the 70s psychedelic hard rock; if that’s your thing, then it is definitely a band you should check them out. The numerous audience is a good sign for another Swedish band that know how to do their job.

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I didn’t stay long, as I wanted to take a look at LA Guns. It was my first live experience with the sleaze rock band from Los Angeles, and to be honest, they looked like a sober version of what I would expect from a Los Angeles 80s hard rock band. The overall performance was too plain. On the other hand, it gave off some honesty, and down-to-earth attitude that you don’t find in the extravagant shows of other bands of the genre.

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I only spent a few minutes at Vanilla Fudge on my way to get a good position at the Festival stage for Queen. You always feel a heartbeat before the headliners are about to come out. If those headliners is one of your favourite bands it’s like a dream come true… Of course it becomes a little more complicated since they are missing their flagship and are half of the original band, lingering between your excitement and your fear of disappointment. I love the little intro that shows the band walking backstage before coming on stage (and if someone can remind me which dvd shows the same with Freddie, please do it), but I do have to admit that seeing Adam Lambert wearing those space glasses, while Brian May and Roger Taylor were walking casually (as they should) next to him, something didn’t fit… Nevertheless, the band came on stage almost like the old times, under the intro of One Vision. Adam Lambert indeed had his own singing and performing style, and although in occasions he is more flirty and playful than needed, he fits with the band and seems to have been delivering 100%. Of course, I never saw Queen with Freddie Mercury and John Deacon, so I can’t really compare. Another thing that stroke me was that all the songs were played slightly slower than they were supposed to…? Or is it my impression? Roger Taylor was also accompanied occasionally by his son, with whom he also had a duel. I think everyone had a great time, the musicians were joking with each other, showing a very solid band. If you hadn’t known the background, you wouldn’t feel all the time that something was missing…

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Setlist: One Vision, Hammer To Fall, Seven Seas of Rhye (cut short), Stone Cold Crazy, Another One Bites the Dust, Fat Bottomed Girls, Play The Game, Killer Queen (where Adam Lambert made fan of his flamboyant jacket and declared how big fan of Freddie Mercury he is), Don’t Stop Me Now, Somebody to Love, Love of My Life (which ended with Freddie Mercury singing), A Kind of Magic (with Taylor on vocals), Drum duel, Under Pressure, Crazy Thing Called Love, where all three of them came to the corridor part of the stage, I Want to Break Free, duel between Lambert and May, I Want It All, guitar solo, Tie Your Mother Down, Bohemia Rhapsody (with a few drops of rain at the end, fitting amazingly well with the song), Radio Ga Ga and for encore, We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions.

So, would I go to see them again? Definitely. Would I prefer the original band? Well, who wouldn’t. But as we can’t have Blackmore play with Gillan or Dio (for different reasons each), we would also have to accept that Queen moved forward, after really long time in the background, and they want to get on the road and do what they really like (and they are so good in) doing. Even if Mercury and Deacon are missing.

Text and photos: George Anasontzis