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RokIsland Festival 2023 Recap: A Multi-Day Hair Metal Extravaganza Invaded Key West

Featuring performances by Lynch Mob, Quiet Riot, Extreme, Tesla, Queensryche, and more!


The warm and inviting climate of South Florida is among the more fitting venues for a good time away from the daily grind, and such an occasion also bodes well for those looking to revel in the party-obsessed nostalgia offered by the iconic 80s rock bands of the Sunset Strip.

As fortune would have it, the holiday destination of Key West, Florida has recently become the home for such an event, as the aptly dubbed Rokisland Festival enters its second year of delivering vintage, over-the-top hard rock goodness to the masses over several days in the middle of a Florida winter, which would be a fair spring day for the rest of us. Rounding out the assembly of heavy-hitters from four decades back for the 2023 sequel to this raucous celebration of sonic excess is a veritable who is who of the 80s glam scene, along with a few surprising entries that prove said decade to have been a more multifaceted point in history than some might suggest.

Though running five days in length, most of the high points would rest towards the latter end of this event, and by Thursday, January 19 things had progressed to a resounding roar. Kicking things off at around 5pm would be Lynch Mob, the brainchild of 80s guitar shred maestro George Lynch following his late 80s exodus from Dokken, and their appearance would see some noteworthy changes from when Andrew Freeman was at the microphone.

Naturally Lynch's wildly expressive soloing and elaborate riff work stole much of the show, but an impressive performance would be turned in by vocal newcomer Gabriel Colon, whose shrieking pipes and leather jacket melded perfectly with the band's 80s rock sensibilities, though once opting to go shirtless later in the set bore a resemblance to Chris Cornell's early 90s incarnation. The rhythm section that was rounded out by bassist Jason Gulino and fill-in drummer Jordan Cannata would prove no slouches either as this outfit plugged their way through a riveting 10-song set that included several classic Dokken entries, with the metallic fury of instrumental classic "Mr. Scary" and the infectious hooks of "Into The Fire" standing a few inches above the rest.

A little later the entry of pioneering American metal mainstays Quiet Riot would strike an equally exciting, yet somewhat more poignant note. With the recent loss of all-time drummer Frankie Banali, along with the prior loss of original and highly charismatic front man Kevin Dubrow, one might have dubbed this an appearance by the shell of a former classic, but the re-entry of original bassist and master showman Rudy Sarzo and the performance turned in by the rest of the band's current lineup had other ideas. Vocalist Jizzy Pearl would pour his proverbial soul out on stage and do full justice to the irreplaceable persona of his iconic predecessor, while guitarist Alex Grossi's work on the 7-string would also prove a strong point, but one couldn't help but be taken by how effortlessly the 72-year-old Sarzo energetically slammed his bass and worked the crowd, all but becoming a second front man in the process.

Apart from some technical issues with Grossi's equipment that would rob the opening speed anthem "Run For Cover" of its signature lead parts, their set would slay from start to finish, with Grossi's partial rendition of "Crazy Train" in tribute to Randy Rhodes (who had been with the band prior to their commercial breakthrough) and subsequent guitar solo riding high alongside bangers like "Metal Health (Bang Your Head)" and the band's signature covers of Slade classics "Cum On Feel The Noize" and "Mama Weer All Crazee Now".

Though it might have seemed that following two highly energized performances from the likes of the two aforementioned 80s rock staples the energy level couldn't be kicked up an additional notch, the entry of Vegas-born glam impresario act Slaughter would do just that as night fell over the Florida sky. Drummer Jordan Cannata, whom had already had a rousing warm-up session with Lynch Mob earlier in the day, was a veritable force of nature from behind the kit as an hour of heavy rocking nostalgia rang out from the amphitheater.

Vocalist Mark Slaughter raised the concept of shattering glass at every turn to an art form as he wailed and howled his way through AC/DC-inspired anthems like "Mad About You" and "Burnin' Bridges", and would match the range and up the intensity factor of original high-ranged shrieked Robert Plant on a pummeling rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song". The bass work of Blas Elias would further bolster the bottom-heavy character of each hard rocking number on display, while Jeff Bland's highly animated stage movements and technically charged solos ratcheted the impact factor even further.

Headlining things would be a rather curious choice in southern rock mainstays and Florida natives 38 Special, and though they brought a very different flavor to the festivities, garnered a strong crowd response. Despite their roots in the 70s and stylistic similarities to contemporaries Lynyrd Skynyrd (unavoidable given that former front man Donnie Van Zant had a blood relation to said outfit's original and now current singer), their massive collection of smash hits from the 80s would make them a strangely fitting and very much welcome change of pace, though they naturally stuck out in comparison to the impact-based fire of the three bands that they were following.

Co-founder and now vocal helmsman Don Barnes did an apt job of filling the shoes and emulating the old school southern swagger of former leader Van Zant and led a large ensemble through a 90-minute medley of mercilessly catchy fair, with the infectious radio fodder "Caught Up In You", "Hold On Loosely", Revenge Of The Nerds 2 soundtrack anthem "Back To Paradise" and power ballad "Second Chance" capping off a very strong showing.

Things would prove no less engaging as Thursday gave way to Friday and another quartet of certified classics would grace the stage. Leading things off would be arguably the most longest running opening act of the 80s in Black N' Blue, given their somewhat obscure status among the heavy hitters of the decade and their status as a preferred opening act for the likes of KISS and Aerosmith during glam's heyday. They naturally embodied just about every characteristic of the era despite that they would feature a couple of much younger members.

For their parts, rhythm guitarist and newly recruited member Doug Rappoport and lead guitarist and slightly less recent pickup Brandon Cook worked the stage quite well and gelled seamlessly with the remaining original membership. Though they would garner the biggest response from their lone smash hit "Hold On To 18" at the close of their set, front man Jaime St. James and the rest of the fold kept things interesting for the entire duration of their set, and vintage anthems like "Rockin' On Heaven's Door" and "Nasty Nasty" shone the brightest of a consistent 12 song foray of finely aged 80s sleaze.

The California flavor of this event would be maintained but take on a much more metallic texture with the entry of Orange County's favorite sons and Christian metal pioneers Stryper. Having always had one foot planted in the visually exaggerated character of the bands they were sharing the stage with at this event and the other in the more aggressive stylings of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, theirs' was a set steeped as much in high-impact energy as it was 80s grade saccharine, and their continual relevance was underscored by a performance befitting a band that had soldiered through the changing musical landscape of the past several decades and continued to put out high grade music in the studio.

The Sweet brothers, Ox Fox and relative newcomer Percy Richardson (honestly he's been in the fold for quite a while) were on fire from start to finish, sticking mostly to their classic 80s repertoire, but managing to have it all come out meaner, heavier and very much in line with their current metallic sound, with signature classics "Soldiers Under Command", "Free" and "To Hell With The Devil" standing at the summit of a colossal, 13-song mountain of a performance.

The now roaring fire of hard-hitting 80s excess would be continued with a latter-day edge via Extreme, their namesake naturally befitting the riveting performance that they would deliver as dusk entered the picture. Frontman Gary Cherone would rival the crowd work and animated stage persona of vintage David Lee Roth, leaving little mystery as to why he had been tapped to front Van Halen when their original gymnast turned vocalist and his gravely successor Sammy Hagar had vacated the fold, but the performance turned in by the whole band was on another level, with Nuno Bettencourt functioning as a de facto second helmsman between his fluid and gusto-driven guitar work and vocal input, while the foundation put forth by bassist Pat Badger and drummer Kevin Figueiredo was nothing short of rock solid.

The set of turn-of-the-decade hard rocking goodness proved as versatile as it did rousing, with punchy groove machines like "Decadence Dance" and "It (‘s A Monster)" trading blows with the smooth acoustic balladry of radio hits "More Than Words" and "Hole Hearted", even when it was their set closer "Get The Funk Out" which brought the response from the audience to deafening levels.

Friday evening's festivities would end on a slightly less extreme (no pun intended) point of contrast relative to the previous day with 70s arena and progressive rock icons Styx, arguably a heavily influential figure to the 80s outfits dominating this event, in a headlining role. Advancing age has continued to be a non-factor for elder statesmen of the hard rock realm as they proceeded to unleash a massive 17-song set of mostly classic entries with the distinction in quality between their performance and the studio incarnations of each song being virtually nonexistent.

Tommy Shaw would trade the vocal helm with keyboardist and Dennis DeYoung replacement Lawrence Gowan, and though their riveting performances on fan favorites like "Blue Collar Man", "Crystal Ball", "The Grand Illusion" and "Come Sail Away" were key notes of their marathon showing, the band's true power would be in the massive collective sound that would be attained through each musician in congress, including several featured appearances by original bassist Chuck Panozzo, particularly on classic anthem "Lady" and the explosive encore performance of "Renegade", and one would be remiss to gloss over guitarist/vocalist James Young's gritty rendition of "Miss America".

The final day of this extended extravaganza of 80s nostalgia would largely mirror the format of Friday, though it would ratchet things up even further in just about every respect. Kicking the afternoon off was arguably the pinnacle of opening acts in Autograph, a band that epitomizes the very concept of a one-hit wonder that had a whole lot more to offer the decade and scene that birthed them, but ultimately failed to due to the heavy saturation of acts sporting a similar sound.

Though saddled with the label of being a glorified tribute band given that no original members are involved now, Brazilian born vocalist/guitarist and helmsman since 2013 Simon Daniels led a quartet of newly recruited members through a solid set of 80s entries by this outfit, with their smash single "Turn Up The Radio" being the brightest highlight, though other rocking entries like "Loud And Clear" and "Gotta Getcha" proved formidable, as did the technically-charged guitar work of Jimi Bell, who performed aptly in emulating the Eddie Van Halen on steroids approach this band sported during their heyday.

Hints of the day progressing in a more metallic direction were in the air when a recording of Judas Priest's "Painkiller" rang out as an introduction to Ratt helmsman Steven Pearcy's entry onto the stage. Though Pearcy's vocal performance proved a bit rough at times, he and his assembly of live musicians led the masses through a 14-song assembly of certified classics courtesy of the band that he originally cut his teeth on during the height of the 80s.

The crowd response was a ceaseless roar that somehow failed to rob the iconic singer of his hearing as he delivered one entry after another, with smash radio anthems like "Lay It Down", "I Want a Woman" and "Round And Round" sending the surrounding decibel level into the proverbial stratosphere. However, from a purely musical perspective, the high point that truly stole the show was the high octane rendition of speed rocker "Body Talk", which all but transported all in attendance to that classic scene of The Golden Child that it was originally featured in with Eddie Murphy taking on an entire biker gang.

With the night sky now fully in view, the looming promise of a full-blown metallic assault became palpable with the entry of Seattle progressive heavy metal icons Queensryche to the stage, to a recording of Pantera's "Walk" no less. In many ways, their presence stood as the most blatant testament to the 80s being anything but a one-dimensional period in music's history, as the vast majority of the classic entries showcased coincided with that of the dominant Sunset Strip scene, but bore very little resemblance to it. Though only a couple members of their original lineup were still present, the spectacle that unfolded could well have taken place at the height of the 80s, as Todd La Torre's blaring wail embodied the same otherworldly character that Geoff Tate brought to the table during the band's glory days, while the dual guitar assault of Michael Wilton and Mike Stone, alongside a pummeling rhythm section display courtesy of bassist Eddie Jackson and newly acquired kit man and former Kamelot drummer Casey Grillo all but made the earth quake.

Picking a highlight out of the sea of classic metallic entries from 1983 through 1990 would prove a fool's errand, but between La Torre's perfect signature howls on "Take Hold of The Flame" and "Queen of The Reich", and the ringer performances of classics like "Empire", "En Force" and "Eyes Of A Stranger", this was a performance for the ages and the audience responded accordingly. Not relying only in their most successful anthems, they included in the setlist "Behind the Walls", a track off their most recent, and widely celebrated, studio album Digital Noise Alliance.

The headliner of the final day of this celebration of rock's most excessive era would be a more typical figure in that of hard-rockers icons Tesla, and though they were saddled with the near impossible task of following a riveting showing by Queensryche, they did their best to keep the crowd excitement as high as possible. The energy factor would seem a bit lessened even when adjusting for the difference in style compared to the above-mentioned preceding act, as the songs seemed to coast at a slower than usual tempo, and vocalist Jeff Keith came off as hoarse when displaying the higher part of his vocal range.

Nevertheless, the instrumental performance provided by guitarists Frank Hannon and David Rude established its usual synergistic luster and the foundation provided by bassist Brian Wheat and drummer Steve Brown was solid as they worked their way through signature entries like "Modern Day Cowboy", "What You Give" and a pair of rocking covers of Ph.D's "Little Suzy" and Five Man Electrical Band's "Signs" at the tail end of their set. Comparatively speaking, it was a more subdued showing compared to what had occurred earlier in the evening, but the crowd response and stage presentation ultimately got the job done.

With festivities having thus concluded, the primary takeaway from this near week-long event was one of professionalism, and it went beyond the grand performances that were its primary feature. Having dealt with less than favorable conditions during 2022's Blue Ridge Rock Festival, let alone the chaotic mess that would ensue south of the border at the Hell & Heaven Metal Fest of the same year, the system that was put in place in Key West was a highly efficient one for bands, fans and journalists alike.

Naturally the scope of this celebration was considerably less than the 4-5 stage mammoth that typified the two aforesaid festivals, but between every access point to the amphitheater being well staffed and controlled, free catering and air-conditioned restroom facilities, and a minimum of fuss being involved in everyone receiving their proper credentials, a truly enjoyable time was had by the fans who flocked the three days, the musical fêtes paired with beautiful sunsets and the breezy weather of the Florida coastline. Rokisland Festival has announced its return for 2024, and even when no line-up announcements have been made at this point, I am sure they will have little to no trouble in gathering another massive attendance.

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