@Sölvesborg Sweden, June 4 2015

It was billed as a long overdue tribute to the music of Frankie Miller and included a welcome celebration of the much-missed Free. However, the opening act on Thursday’s Sweden Rock Festival Stage offered so much more than mere nostalgia to the astute music fan out bright and early in the Sölvesborg sun. 

Spike’s Free House (8/10) was booked to start the party and the fact that this star-studded collective of rock and roll talent included a wealth of timeless classics ensured Wednesday night hangovers were not an option.

Moving to the beat of former Free drummer Simon Kirke and the understated talent that is Nick Mailing, flanked by Paul Kossoff devotee Luke Morley and Magnum’s keyboard wizard Mark Stanway, de-facto band leader Spike was back on the Sweden Rock stage just hours after stealing the show with his Quireboys.

It could have been a set too far for one of the busiest singers in rock but Newcastle’s bandana-clad tyro had spent far too long building his Free House to allow fatigue to rock its very foundations. It was Kirke who later admitted he was blown away by Spike’s trademark stagecraft as he watched open-mouthed from the best seat in the house.

Reinterpreting Wishing Well, Mr Big and All Right Now was never going to be a task free from pressure. Doing justice to the back catalogue of family friend Miller made the job just that little bit harder.

However Spike, still disbelieving that his dream of playing this set live had finally become reality, fed off the talent, experience and enthusiasm of the men alongside him to add another memorable chapter to a colourful career.

Three songs in and one question had already been asked over and over: when will this band play live again. Sunday’s sole UK date at London’s Borderline will bring down the curtain on the Free House for now but a shared desire to rekindle this special project means a full tour is moving ever closer.

The affable Miller’s engaging Scottish storytelling style might have been lost forever were it not for Spike’s keen interest in a long lost legacy and it’s testimony to songs like Other Side Of Town, Cheap Hotel and Brooklyn Bridge that the far more familiar Free anthems didn’t dominate an eclectic set.

Sure, Mailing and Kirke killed their take on Mr Big with a rhythmic tour-de-force that the late Andy Fraser would surely have admired. And Morley’s guitar work on Wishing Well – a personal favourite of the Thunder man – was worth the admission money alone.

However it was Miller’s Fortune, a track recorded as a duet with Bonnie Tyler on 2014’s 100% Frankie Miller album, that afforded an emotive Spike the opportunity to prove why his Free House was worth its lengthy and often troubled journey from genesis to Sweden Rock main stage.

 

Slash (9/10) might have rolled up a little too late to join in with All Right Now but the former Gunner has amassed his own raft of iconic rock anthems during the last three decades. The pick of the bunch soundtracked a stirring set that lent weight to the argument that his co-Conspirators are more band than brand despite the legend that is their enduring founder.

It’s unlikely anything Slash records under his own name will ever eclipse the impact and reach of songs like Nightrain, Sweet Child O’ Mine and Paradise City but in You’re A Lie and Anastasia (featuring the last decade’s most definitive rock riff) the post-GNR generation has fret-fuelled treasures they can call their own. On Anastasia, in particular, Stoke’s most famous guitar hero married glorious dexterity with an expression of grizzled determination. Working harder and faster than ever, it seems Slash is in no mood to rest on his laurels and let the royalties roll in.

With Myles Kennedy by his side why would he? It’s more difficult than ever to imagine why the vocal foil to Slash’s instrumental genius would devote any more time to Alter Bridge when this is, undeniably, where he belongs.

Kennedy stalked the platform like a man possessed before introducing the first marriage proposal of the day – showing a softer, human side to slow the pace of a set becoming as fast as it was furious.

It was a momentary pause for breath. The three-song finale of Sweet Child O’ Mine, Slither and Paradise City might have been utterly predictable but Slash knows how to slay a festival crowd. The no-risk policy paid off big time – roll on Download.

 

They might not boast the hit-laden back catalogue but Aussie noiseniks Airborne (7/10) are all about the boyish charm, fist-pumping energy and keen attention to rock’s finest clichés. Celebrating volume, beer, partying and women – in no particular order – the genre’s fabled staples remain in safe hands thanks to AC/DC’s petulant little brothers.

Always Ready To Rock, it was no surprise to see Joel O’Keeffe flout health and safety rules to embark upon his favourite pastime of scaling the tallest available piece of rigging. Disappearing behind a stack of speakers and emerging 20 feet above the stage, Airbourne’s fearless frontman played on with nerves of steel – and thousands of new fans.

Live It Up and Runnin’ Wild would rouse any festival crowd in danger of slipping into a sense of early-evening complacency and Sweden Rock awoke with a jolt just as it seemed O’Keeffe and co. were done for the day.

 

The potentially jarring juxtaposition between Airbourne’s rugged rock and roll and Toto’s (7/10) polished AOR could have spelled disaster for the latter. But America’s great survivors were up for the fight.

Founder member Steve Lukather arrived on site still fuming at a recent feature, published in a major rock magazine, that charted the band’s colourful history using the choicest of quotes. Publicly venting his anger in the backstage area prior to the band’s main stage set – before security stepped in – weeks of pent-up frustration and raw emotion manifested itself in a spiky performance that occasionally perplexed audience and fellow band members alike.

Lukather has had plenty to deal with – personally and professionally – during his near 40-year association with the Californian hit makers but throughout it all his technical prowess has rarely wavered. And even with his emotions running wild – a mid-set tribute to lost ‘brothers’ was genuinely affecting – the 57-year-old never missed a note.

Lukather is justifiably proud of his band’s brilliant new album XIV and appeared to put everything he could muster into ensuring Toto’s latest work was afforded an appropriately passionate platform. In fact his unwavering faith in XIV’s finer moments – fresh material filled more than a quarter of the set – prompted an almost laissez faire approach to the classics.

Pamela went down a storm out front but Lukather – still playing to perfection – looked unconvinced. Hold The Line held the crowd’s attention without appearing to hold any special place in the hearts of those on stage and even Rosanna lacked a certain spark. Perhaps this was a day when the past was simply too painful and focus was fixed firmly on what the future might hold.

Yet, in spite of everything, a simply sensational version of Africa ensured a fluctuating set ended on a triumphant high with Lenny Castro, in particular, delivering a masterclass in percussion and David Paich enjoying his moment in the vocal spotlight. Toto weren’t flawless – but then they never were.

Simon Rushworth