LITTLE CURRENT—This past weekend, Manitoulin put the “rock” into the Flat Rock Entertainment Centre as bands from across Canada arrived to play shows for enthusiastic fans at the inaugural Rockin’ the Rock music festival.

To start on Friday afternoon, three local groups participated in a Battle of the Bands competition: Rural Roots, Deadline and Pop Mach!ne.

All three groups brought something unique to the competition. Rural Roots, from the Tehkummah and Assiginack areas, took to the stage first. Their set offered a good range of musical styles that showcased the band’s versaltility. Although they set an impressive baseline performance, Deadline was undeterred, and determined to prove that the Island is big enough for two bands that definitely rock. Deadline, consisting of Brent Pyette, Scott Riching and Jared Nardi, pumped out finely-tuned grunge, alt and indie rock. They proved three people can rock as hard as six and filled the centre with their heavy tones.

Last in the competition was Sudbury’s Pop Mach!ne, a group whose median member age is only 15 years old. Their setlist of audience favourites proved to be a good choice, as they received enthusiastic crowd support during their set. In the end, Pop Mach!ne came out victorious as the winner of the opening set for the next day’s program.

After that competition, Railroad Steele came out to play. The five-piece band is based in the Sudbury area and its lead vocalist Glenda Massicotte does double duty on keyboards as well as singing. It was a family affair: Glenda’s husband Laurence plays lead guitar and bass in the group, and their daughter Jenny plays rhythm guitar, sings harmonies and co-writes some of the band’s music.

Their style offers a mix of blues and roots influences entwined with the rock spirit that drove the whole event. Attendees eagerly supported this local group in their musical efforts.

Kitchener-founded Helix jumped on stage to deliver their brand of hard rock and metal music. The band’s most well known song is ‘Rock You,’ a single released in 1984. The audience was very receptive and clearly appreciated the effort the musicians put out on stage.

Headpins closed off the day’s programming, a band that bills themselves as “the loudest band to ever come from Canada.” Ab Bryant and Brian MacLeod of Chilliwack fame started this group as an aside to their main band in the late 1970s.

Loud they were. They made the most of the Flat Rock Entertainment Centre’s 275,000 watts of sound power with their repertoire, drawn from appropriately-titled albums ‘Turn It Loud’ and ‘Line of Fire.’

Fortunate Losers followed Pop Mach!ne’s Saturday performance, bringing more high-energy music to the stage. They played some songs off their new, first album they released in April 2018. ‘Cable Cars’ excited the crowd and more fans gathered around the front of the stage. Then, the band paid tribute to the late Chris Cornell of Soundgarden fame with another original song, ‘Silhouettes Divide (Alice).’ Finally, their set culminated with the wailing guitars of another original, ‘Compass.’

Mell and Chris of 92.7 Rock, who were emceeing the event, noted that drummer Dan Moir’s shirt only lasted for about half a song before he took it off.

Harlequin took to the stage following Fortunate Losers. They opened with a crowd favourite, ‘I Did It for Love.’ It was immediately clear that this would be an impressive performance. After sharing a few words of encouragement for the crews battling wildfires in B.C., the band set into ‘You Are the Light.’

Lead vocalist George Belanger noted that keyboardist Gary Golden was part of the band’s original lineup. Mr. Belanger then got big cheers when he exclaimed “marijuana’s almost legal!”

“I want to send this one to the government,” he added, then led the band into their major hit ‘Don’t Let Me Down.’ Some songs later, after a selfie with the audience, the band played ‘Thinking of You’ and ‘Superstitious Feeling,’ before launching into the grand finale, ‘Innocence.’ As the first chords played, scores of attendees had already risen to their feet. Mr. Belanger got them to sing along for parts of the song as the band cut out, though it was clear that after such an intense set, his energy stocks were starting to run low.

Stage crews took over as Harlequin said their goodbyes. The sun lowered in the sky, leaving behind only a burnt orange trace of the day that had passed. Soon, smoke machines engaged as shadowy figures stepped onto the stage. A man stepped behind his keyboard and began producing a long, low drone. More figures appeared and began steadily building the sound until finally, the spotlights came on and the unmistakable opening chords of Prism’s ‘Spaceship Superstar’ boomed out of the sound system.

By an anecdotal count of t-shirts in the audience, this was the band many had come to see. The fans, they swarmed like meteorites to the Flat Rock concert stage. They were jumping and waving their hands excitedly as they heard some of their favourites, such as ‘Flying,’ ‘Virginia’ and ‘See Forever Eyes,’ before dipping into an extended instrumental jam.

Frontrunner Al Harlow and the band worked the crowd masterfully. During the jam, Mr. Harlow even held a chord and walked the full width of the stage, allowing front-row rockers to strum his strings.

Prism lead singer and guitarist Al Harlow provides a virtuoso turn.
photo by Warren Schlote

“We hope it’s a night to remember for all of you,” said Mr. Harlow as the group started playing ‘Night To Remember,’ a fitting choice to say the least.

Prism’s closer was ‘Armageddon,’ with a local touch: References to Memphis were substituted with Little Current. However, that song was introduced with a curious line that left some scratching their heads: “Please rise for the national anthem.”

While the stage crews began setting up once more, Mell and Chris once again took to the stage to excite the audience for Big Wreck. The wait after they left was tense; so many people were so excited to see their rock heroes, they could not stand to wait all night.

Not a moment too soon, however, the band came out and the audience went wild for their hard rock sound. People waved, screamed and held out their hands towards the musicians they adored. Some people at the front held up a banner thanking the band for 20 years of music.

Big Wreck gave a small ode to Pink Floyd by opening their song ‘Ladylike’ with some lyrics from the latter group’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’ ‘Ladylike,’ although a crowd favourite, gets tiring for the band as lead singer Ian Thornley bemoaned. They played some new music, too, such as ‘Digging In’ off their latest record.

While the band was jamming at the end of ‘Ghosts,’ the lighting system failed. But that was not about to stop the rocking from on-stage, nor was it going to stop the fans that immediately pulled out lighters and phone flashlights to create a sea of stars at the stage front. Mr. Thornley appreciated the gesture.

“Thanks to you guys, they can still see us so I don’t mind this one bit,” he said. “Honestly, this is kind of refreshing—usually we blow the sound system!”

Big Wreck started into ‘Albatross’ and the lights suddenly sprang back to life. In the dark, Mr. Thornley had switched to his double-necked guitar, just like in the music video for the band’s hit 2012 single. The group played other fan favourites like ‘The Oaf’ before closing their set.

With that, Manitoulin’s first annual Rockin’ the Rock had come to an end. Event co-organizer Craig Timmermans said over 2,000 people attended the festival, just above the expected range of attendees.

“So how long has Rockin’ the Rock been going?” asked Prism drummer Gary Grace following the band’s performance on Saturday night while chatting with The Expositor’s Michael Erskine. Informed that this was the first year, Mr. Grace and his bandmates expressed surprise. “This was one of the best organized events we have ever played,” said Mr. Grace, a sentiment immediately backed up by other members of the band.

The years of experience Mr. and Ms. Timmermans gained by hosting Manitoulin Country Fest certainly helped the smooth operation attributed to Rockin’ the Rock by the artists.

As word of the new festival spreads and more big names are drawn in, Mr. Timmermans says he hopes the event grows. But it won’t happen overnight—after all, it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.