Words and Pictures by: Jonathan Sippel
Date: July 6, 2019
Location: Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Main Bands: Queensryche, Skid Row, Great White
Opening Acts: Split the Skye, Sierra, Villain
Highway 401 is the busiest highway in North America. It covers the main stretch between Toronto and Detroit; the two main destinations that Southern Ontario metalheads have been travelling to for years when in desperate need for distortion. Although it felt wrong, I had to exit the 401 before hitting the GTA because this time I was heading to the all-new Slam Fest in Kitchener, Ontario.
Headliners like Queensryche, Skid Row, and Great White made Kitchener feel like the right place for all the right people to be. Just several days prior, Roxodus- another music festival in the area- was cancelled. To help ease the blow, organizers at Slam Fest generously offered free admission to any Roxodus ticket holders, in efforts of bringing the rock community together. On the Facebook event page many Roxodus patrons were praising Slam Fest, like Kelly Conti who posted, “Whoever made the decision to allow Roxodus ticket holders into the show for free…YOU are a CLASS ACT :)”
The outdoor festival is located on a sloped grassy field just east of Bingeman’s, a theme park filled with rides and waterslides. With the weather as hot and muggy as it was (91 fahrenheit) it was tempting to pop over for a quick cool down before the show, but I set my priorities and trekked past on to get a good spot at the show.
I decided to wait in line with the general admission attendees to listen in on any commotion that was stirring. Dark storm clouds were lingering in the sky not far from the event, and people were glued to their phones comparing weather reports from different apps in hopes that the weather wouldn’t affect the show. One person pointed out that on the event website it stated all shows are ‘Rain or Shine’, and a show would only be cancelled if threatening conditions are present like lightning or high winds. Before too long the gates opened and people rushed through security.
Upon entering the festival grounds, I noticed there was only one food vendor (Fork’N Good) who sold several variations of fries. I immediately headed to buy a water bottle to try and stay hydrated, which cost $5 each with no lid. There were no refill stations or fountains on the premises which was a little disappointing. There were also a few alcoholic beverages to choose between including a local beer called Waterloo Brewing, Land Shark, and the classic Smirnoff. I heard several festival attendees talk about their disappointment in there being no merch booth present for any of the bands.
Enough about the layout of the land. No more than 20 minutes after the gates opened, Toronto’s Villain (https://heavymetalvillain.bandcamp.com/releases), a 4 man heavy metal group took the stage sporting several notable outfits. After the first song, the armored frontman and guitarist Caleb Beal said he recognised a lot of faces from back in Toronto and thanked them for coming out. Ryan Staffa, who also played guitar, stole the show when blood started streaming from his mouth. He spit a nasty blood-loogy up in the air that landed on his forehead and began dripping down his face and onto the stage. It all seemed somehow fitting with his pale skin, black hair, and red knee high boots. Though Villain was the first act to perform, they got right down to business and set the tone with an energetic 20 minute performance.
We had a bit of a weather scare during the first performance as a few big rain drops began to fall. I shit you not, as soon as ‘Split The Skye’ hit the stage, the clouds dispersed and the weather became really desirable. STS is a 3 piece band, local to the Kitchener/Waterloo area. Their sound was a little slower than Villain’s, but the growing crowd swaying and tapping their toes showed approval for their nu-metal sound. I’d compare them to somewhere between Incubus, Deftones, and your favorite uncle Steve. Before their last song, the singer mentioned to follow them on their social media (https://www.facebook.com/splittheskyeofficial/).
Third up to bat was Sierra (https://sierrariff.bandcamp.com/), another local K/W metal band that has been touring since 2012 and opening for notable bands such as: Weedeater, The Obsessed, and others. The crowd began to fill up the cheaper seating area on the grass at the back. Singer Jason Taylor made a quick shout out to support the other two opening acts just before starting their last song. It was at this point it started to actually feel like a real concert as fans began to sing along to all the lyrics and a small dance pit erupted in the front center area of the growing crowd.
The first 3 bands only had 20 minute performing slots each, with just a quick break in between sets. The next 3 bands were more established, and therefore would play longer sets, first of which was Great White (Not to be confused with Jack Russell’s Great White) who energetically launched into a 50 minute set with their 1991 hit ‘Desert Moon’.
Frontman Mitch Malloy made everybody feel at home with his energetic stage presence, and went into ‘Lady Red Light‘ by exclaiming “Oh Canada, I’m looking for a lady! Any takers?” A lot of couples were attending the show together, and often you’d see the ladies screaming, dancing, and whipping their arms and hair through the air as their boyfriends/husbands would stand still beside them like awkward teenagers at a school dance.
Playing a mix of Great White’s classics, along with some of their newer tunes, the audience really connected with the show. All the band members were regularly making eye contact with audience members and it made for a very personal event.
Something I thought was interesting was a security guard who approached a person smoking a joint, but instead of booting them out, they politely asked the audience member to proceed to the designated smoking area. Times have changed, and pot is now legal throughout our home and native land.
While waiting for the bands to switch up I ran into a super cool father and son duo, Dion and Ethan. This will be the eighth time Dion has seen Queensryche since 1988, and he shared a sentimental story with me about the band. In 1994 he made a mix tape for his then girlfriend that included a bunch of his favourite songs because, well, it was 1994 and nothing screams true 90s love like a mixtape straight from the heart. His girlfriend took a particular interest in ‘Silent Lucidity’, and Dion said from that moment he knew she was the woman he wanted to marry. The rest is history; the two got married and tonight is their son Ethan’s first concert ever. Happily ever after, eh?
While Queensryche was still just over an hour away, the next band to hit the stage would be Skid Row. The audience was pumped, every song that came on between bands more people would sing along to. The last one was ironically Blitzkrieg Bop, and the crowd was all revved up and ready to go (it seemed appropriate).
All of a sudden it was as if time stopped and all 5 members were walking straight towards us. The crowd went wild, threw their hands up in the air, and the band launched into ‘Slave To The Grind’.
After playing a wicked guitar solo, Scotti Hill threw a pick into the audience near where I was standing. The people around me seemed peaceful, friendly, and chill. In the blink of an eye it turned violent. A young girl was going to grab the pick off the ground from beside her foot when a fifty-something year old guy lunged at her. He kicked her foot out of the way and pushed her with his body. The two fought over it, kicking the pick from place to place, unaware that the young girl’s friend had already got it. Things cooled down and the young women celebrated.
After ZP finished singing ‘Ghost’, he passed the mic to Rachel Bolan who spoke about how great it was to be back in Canada, “So we got into town and a friend of mine told me that a lot of bands have been cancelling around here. You know what, there is nothing that could have made us cancel this show. We don’t come up here near enough and we thank you guys from the bottom of our heart.” He then listed all the band shirts he could see in the audience, pointing to each person as he read the band names, winding up on Skid Row. “We’re from the States, we’re in Canada. Tonight we unite the nations for rock and roll baby!” The crowd cheered, and he launched into ‘Psycho Therapy’, a Ramones cover which Bolan appropriately led on vocals, sporting a Ramones button pinned to his vest.
There was a brief thundery interlude as they set up an acoustic guitar for original member Dave Sabo. The moment he began to play the crowd knew exactly what they were hearing. ZP came back on and said “You guys have been waiting for this one right? Am I gonna hear you all sing? Give it to me…” It was their 1989 single, ‘I Remember You’.
There is nothing like sharing something you feel nostalgic about with your loved ones. Slam Fest is an all ages event, which made it really special for the parents who brought their children along.
Skid Row’s set lasted a fantastic 60 minutes packed with memorable tunes. Even after the band left the stage an inebriated audience member went to the side of the VIP section and called ZP over to tell him he was a beautiful man. What’s nice is that with a crowd this small you really could just call over a band member from back-stage. Skid row will be heading off to play Norway Rock Festival later this week.
The wait was over, I can only imagine how excited Dion and Ethan must have been, as Queensryche was up next. The sun had set and the crowd had peaked, and people who I had noticed sitting in the back earlier had all moved up to the front.
Frontman Todd La Torre appeared from the dark stage, with a blood red halo illuminating him as he sang their first song, ‘Blood Of The Levant’.
The crowd roared with excitement. Todd thanked everyone for coming out and said he hopes they enjoy the show. As he was speaking the drums began to play a contagious rhythm, which fans knew could only be the beginning of ‘I Am I’.
Parker Lundgren and Michael (The Whip) Wilton would often stand side by side in the middle of the stage and co-solo. They moved in sync, feeding the audience the most amazing and energetic guitar duos ever.
Todd asked the crowd to sing along to this next song, as the hauntingly beautiful acoustic guitar began to play. After singing the first verse he paused and said “I’d like to dedicate this song to a young man who passed away. His name is Dean. This is for you.” Several people further back laid back looking at the sky and swayed their arms in the air for this song. The song was played so perfectly it sounded just like the original recording from 1990. As the song finished I was shocked to see some people beginning to leave, even though they were only about halfway done their set.
Queensryche would go on to play an additional 3 songs during the encore, ending with ‘Empire’. Todd thanked the crowd for embracing the new material. And said “You’ve been a great audience tonight!”
The weather remained clear ever since Split the Skye performed, and for the last few songs a crescent moon floated above the stage. Slam Fest turned out to be a very engaging experience that felt more personal than your average festival. I’d say they did a pretty great job for their first year. Kitchener could be the next big festival destination along the 401 bridging the gap between Toronto and Detroit. I’m looking forward to coming back in Summer 2020.