Rokisland Festival 2023: ‘80s Glam Rock Sounds Invade Florida Southernmost Amphitheater
January 29, 2023, 8 months ago
Maybe it’s the salty spray of seawater over sand. Maybe it’s the golden rays of a gentle sun in the middle of winter, not a snowflake in sight. Maybe it’s the rustling of palm trees that wave in welcome to visitors and residents alike. No matter the particular avenue of allure, Florida has long been a magnetic epicenter of heavy music festivals in the United States, and the recently established RokIsland Festival in Key West is no exception.
2023 marked the festival’s second consecutive year after a successful 2022 debut, and RokIsland makes its mark by catering almost exclusively to the ‘80s rock scene. The festival is a relatively small-scale affair comparable to the Monsters of Rock Cruise, and this year’s roster was teeming with bands from the hair and glam movement, with the sole notable exception of metallic hard-rockers Queensrÿche. Once again gathering in the Truman Amphitheater, thousands of fans flocked to Floridian shores for three days of rollicking fun.
After numerous festivals gained considerable notoriety for poor organization in 2022, Mexico’s Hell & Heaven Metal Fest among them, RokIsland was a welcome breath of fresh air. This is a festival that was well-composed from the roster to the boots on the ground on show days. Every access point to the amphitheater was controlled by scanners and security guards, with the crowd flow controlled by active staff members. A wristband was the only item needed to access the festival grounds, and it functioned without issue for the duration of the festival. And perhaps most welcome of all was the cordiality and access extended to media personnel, which led to strong ongoing coverage of the festival and a great array of photographs to choose from.
Of course, there was also the music itself to enjoy. That’s what everyone was there for, after all.
Thursday, January 19
Opening the festivities on Thursday was Lynch Mob. This brainchild of renowned Dokken guitarist and all-around revered axe-slinger George Lynch has gone through many changes over the years, including multiple hiatuses, and as of 2018 they were touring with Andrew Freeman at the helm. The same could not be said for the 2023 iteration, these new faces both fresh and eager to impress. One thing that has remained steadfast across the years and rotating cast of band members is Lynch’s ability to play and naturally call the spotlight with his onstage charisma. The Lynch Mob newcomers, Gabriel Colon at the mic and Jason Gulino on bass, did a great job embracing the band’s material through the 10 songs setlist. Fill-in drummer Jordan Cannata punished his drumkit mercilessly, a small taste of what he would bring to the stage when taking the drum throne with Slaughter later on.
Although the venue was still filling up for this first band of the day, all in attendance went absolutely haywire when Lynch began to play the first chords of the Dokken’s instrumental “Mr. Scary,” a title which came to be Lynch’s own nickname. Closing track “Unchain the Night” was widely cheered and met with an eager crowd-led singalong. It was pleasant to see an act so committed to consistency as they brought to life time-tested material. With Lynch confidently leading at the forefront, this was an act that performed with chemistry and enthusiasm.
Quiet Riot was next to the stage, and although they too sport changes to their classic lineup, this adjustment comes with considerable sorrow attached. After the devastating loss of all-time drummer Frankie Banali, who lost his battle with cancer in August 2020, Quiet Riot announced on their Facebook page that they would continue on without Banali, who had wished that they keep the music and legacy of the band alive. If nothing else, the iteration of Quiet Riot at RokIsland showed that Quiet Riot is not just alive, but alive and exceptionally well. Singer Jizzy Pearl did justice to the band’s big hits, and guitarist Alex Grossi’s work on the 7 strings was also praiseworthy. Rudy Sarzo was his usual envigored self, moving around, slamming his bass, and pushing himself with the energy you’d expect of a man half his age. Suffering one of the only technical problems during the entire festival, Grossi guitar didn’t work for the entirety of opening song “Run For Cover”, yet the technical crew quickly fixed the issue, and the rest of the set went off without a hitch. But to Quiet Riot’s credit, they didn’t stumble a single step, and delivered a set that was otherwise without fault.
Towards the end of the set Grossi played the initial riff of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” and the whole venue went nuts, and then he followed with a tremendous guitar solo. After a teasing snippet of “Metal Health” at the very beginning of the set, Quiet Riot closed out their set with a full rendition of “Metal Health,” and one last display of Grossi shredding away to his heart’s content. It was a scene worth memorializing.
Drummer Jordan Cannata reappeared for his second display of percussive mastery of the night, this time for Slaughter’s set. This band truly upped the ante after Quiet Riot’s presentation, bringing abundant energy and enthusiasm in spades. Frontman Mark Slaughter sang with his usual relentless vigor, and he worked with the crowd like the veteran performer he is. To add to the show were bassist Blas Elias and guitarist Jeff Bland moving around the stage like practiced dancers, their incessant movement adding an even more dynamic element to their show. The moving parts and melody collided for an all-consuming immersive experience.
Cannata’s contribution cannot be understated. Not only was he on fire and in perfect time with every song, but he was also the centerpiece of an extended drum solo that could bring any rock ‘n’ roll fan to their feet. Adding to the air of nostalgia was the choice of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” as a cover about halfway into the Slaughter set. These eleven songs were a great balance of energy, contribution from each musician, and entertainment through fan favorite. By the time Slaughter took their final bow, the amphitheater was abuzz with excitement.
Thursday’s headliner was .38 Special. If there was one word to describe their set, it would be ‘endurance.’ These rockers pulled off an impressive 21 song set, packed full of infectious melody and a good variety of cover songs. As much as it was enjoyable to hear these long-time favorites on the live stage, .38 Special were frail when sized up against their peers earlier in the evening. To put this slog of a set up after Slaughter’s sheer energy, even with a mix of cover songs like “Radar Rider” and “Good Times” to add variety, .38 Special found themselves in a tough spot after the electricity left in the air by the previous bands.
Despite that, there was still lots of talent to be seen on stage. Formed in 1974 in the very state of Florida, Don Barnes is the only founding member of the band that remains after original bassist Ken Lyons died in 2012. Jerry Riggs took over lead guitar duties in 2019, and he clearly made the best of his extensive experience in the American rock music scene with dexterous and engaging playthroughs of classic .38 Special material. And as with any headlining set, there was no better way to wrap up with a crowd-pleaser, this time in the form of a Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, “Travelin’ Band.” All in all, this was a satisfying conclusion to the end of a relatively mellow Thursday slate.
Friday, January 20
Black N’ Blue was tasked with bringing Friday’s crowd to its feet, and they did so with the confidence of well-practiced entertainers. Although they were part of the later wave of bands that made their debut in the Sunset Strip heyday, they have been best known for their song “Hold On to 18” from their eponymous studio album “Black ‘N Blue,” released in August 1984. When they began their set the bulk of attendees had yet to arrive, but newest members Brandon Cook and Doug Rappoport were on absolute fire at either end of the stage, their guitars under masterful control. And unlike many of the bands in attendance at RokIsland, this band maintained three of its original members, despite being initially founded in 1981. At the front was vocalist Jaime St. James, who seemed to have his performance well-choreographed, confidence emanating from every footstep. The band has long made the rounds at rock festivals and cruises around the world, and this opening set showed their comfort on stage in a festival setting.
There are no other bands in the genre that have managed to stay quite as relevant between periodic album releases and steadily increasing heaviness as Stryper. Most other band playing at RokIsland had not put out new material in quite some time, and those that have still rely heavily on the nostalgia of their sound to entice long-time listeners. But not only have Stryper kept releasing music, they have done so while maintaining consistency and quality that brings in new listeners. This studio material is brought to life on stage with exceptional skill, and the Sweet brothers, Oz Fox, and Perry Richardson are absolute veterans at what they do. It’s difficult to believe this band is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.
Those years of experience showed in the best possible way. Michael Sweet is known from across the rock scene for his vocal and guitar skills, and he has long enticed spectacular guest and session musicians to add richness to the Stryper fold. His performance at RokIsland lived up to his legendary name, particularly on the fiery closer “To Hell With The Devil,” and his magnetic charisma drew eyes to his spot at center stage. It was just as hard to tear one’s attention away from Robert Sweet on the drums, thundering through an eleven-song set with fantastic precision and endurance.
Following Stryper, Extreme were magnanimous, their presence filling the amphitheater from the second they took to the stage. Gary Cherone is one of those frontmen you can’t look away from, as he doesn’t stand still for a single second, and by the end of the set there wasn’t an inch of stage he hadn’t touched. Guitarist Nuno Bettencourt is well known for his proficiency on the guitar, and he played with enviable fluidity and unparalleled gusto. Although his name is well-known in the rock scene, it’s a mystery as to how he hasn’t attained a higher status in the hierarchy of guitar-wielders. A rousing rendition of fan-favorite “Get The Funk Out” not only brought the crowd to its feet, but it gave drummer Kevin Figueiredo a chance to soak up the spotlight. Much of the band’s original spirit and passion clearly remained, despite being decades out from the peak of their popularity.
Given how strong the last two Styx studio albums have been, it was no surprise to see them sweep the crowd off their feet on Friday’s headlining spot. The layered vocal melodies from “Crash Of The Crown” and “The Mission” sounded just as alluring live as they did in the studio recordings. And although their sound has often sat somewhere in the middle ground between arena rock and progressive rock, there was little doubt that their fire was meant to fill a stadium (or in this case, an amphitheater). The more progressive elements present in their most recent albums truly came through in this set, one which was heavily balanced between old and new material.
Although co-founder and bassist Chuck Panozzo has shifted to part-time status in Styx due to health limitations, he made multiple appearances in the RokIsland set. He came on early to play “Lady,” and made four subsequent appearances, including during the encore closer “Renegade.” The rest of the band, particularly other original member James "J.Y." Young, highlighted his abilities with enthusiasm. Young takes to performing with a commanding charisma, one that works particularly well to bring powerful engagement as a compliment to complex melodies. The atmosphere was a celebratory one, and recitations of familiar favorites alongside new material gave a particularly youthful air to the fabled band’s headlining set.
Saturday, January 21
The final day was opened by Autograph, and for an opening act, they were absolute masters of crowd engagement. Even if the folks at the barricade weren’t there for them, frontman Simon Daniels absolutely demands audience participation, and they gave it to him. This band is somewhat unique in its recently refreshed lineup, but the atmosphere was more authentic than that of a mere cover-band. Marc Wieland kept the percussion conversational as the final day’s crowd filtered in, reviewing the band’s popular hits and stoking a fire of excitement for the rest of the day to come.
As with any festival that relies on nostalgia and near-bygone times to entertain the masses, there will be some acts that are all but bit painful to watch. Those musicians who are later in their years begin to struggle with their own material, falling short of faithful renditions as they still claw desperately for the glory dates of yore. While many aging bands passed muster in prior days, Stephen Percy certainly fell short. As lovable as his solo material has been, and as impactful as Ratt’s Invasion Of Your Privacy and Out Of The Cellar have been, RokIsland was not Pearcy’s best night. While the band kept up with each song as it was meant to be played, Pearcy’s voice lagged behind, sometimes sounding as though he was merely speaking to the audience rather than singing.
But for all this criticism, there was still unspeakable joy in the air. The crowd was having the time of their lives, particularly as the set consisted almost solely of Ratt material, including a closing with hit “Round And Round.” The end result was an audience both satisfied and entertained.
Queensrÿche is easy to love and have been since the ‘80s. The shift into the twenty-first century saw more albums and an even deeper embrace of their classic, but when Queensrÿche took the RokIsland stage, it was clear that they came to blow the rest of the festival out of the water. Todd LaTorre sounded as fantastic as ever, with his bandmates firing on all cylinders. The addition of some reverb to his mic became a bit more noticeable in some occasions, particularly apparent during the long and high notes of “Take Hold Of The Flame” and “Queen Of The Reich,” but given that those are almost impossible to begin with, this technical assistance made the Queensrÿche magic even more immersive.
Given that Queensrÿche was the heaviest band of the weekend, they were something of the oddball of the festival. Oddity or not, this set was one to remember. LaTorre’s singing voice and style pay great homage to Geoff Tate’s flair in the 1980s and early '90s, while at the same time adding his own flavor. His tenor register is matched a variety of ranges, sometimes even including some growls and heavier singing, nuances that have upped the metallic fury in the band’s more recent studio material. Despite having recently released their new album “Digital Noise Alliance”, just mere months ago, Queensrÿche erred more towards classic material, which considering the age demographics of the crowd was a wise decision to make, only featuring one song from the band’s latest studio output. There wasn’t a soul in the crowd that was silent during “Jet City Woman,” and the most raucous applause came during the victorious finale “Eyes Of A Stranger.” Queensrÿche lives on again, bold and victorious, every ounce the titans they first became in the '80s.
To conclude the festival were the indomitable Sacramento hard rockers Tesla. Long known for their energy and kick-ass attitude, there was incredible excitement crackling through the crowd as Tesla prepared to take the stage. And in a way, for this writer, they were one of the greatest dissatisfactions of the entire festival lineup, particularly given the high expectations and energy put on by Queensrÿche. Their songs seemed slower than usual, and Jeff Keith’s voice appeared to stagger to keep up. Frank Hannon and Dave Rude played with their usual energy, and the rhythm section made up of Brian Wheat and Steve Brown (filling in for original drummer Troy Luccketta until further notice) brought their A-game into the equation, but something in the overall tempo seemed to lag. I’ve seen Tesla playing live before – in more than one occasion – and I can certainly say they have sounded better.
Regardless, their compact setlist was a smart choice to maximize their impact. Clocking in at only fourteen songs, they really aimed to get the most bang for their buck as headliners. There were two decent nods to debut album Mechanical Resonance with both “Changes” and “Modern Day Cowboys,” as well as less dated material added to the mix. Most songs from the setlist were drawn from Psychotic Supper, including predictable crowd pleasers that invoked engagement without overt effort from the band themselves. They have long held a legacy of maintaining their most commercially successful sound, and even if this performance trailed slightly behind, it was still easy to see why the name Tesla has maintained such consistent acclaim across the decades.
From the star-studded bill to the stellar organization and outstanding performances, Rokisland was by all measures a success. Given that this was only the festival’s second year of operations, it is thrilling to consider what these promoters may have in store for the future.