There has always been an evident effort towards establishing an effective balance between pop and rock in past editions of Malta's biggest concert, but this year in particular, it was openly stated that this year's edition would be the 'rockiest' ever, putting the rock back in ROCKESTRA and then some! It was therefore no surprise that the setlist was brimming with some of the best-known classic and modern rock anthems and hits but, with ROCKESTRA being more of a mainstream event, I dare say a few of the selections may have been lost on a big chunk of the audience perhaps more accustomed to commercial radio output. That said, I must say that the atmosphere was more than electric inside the venue, boosted in no small way by the amazing stage set-up and the stunning lighting and visuals.
ROCKESTRA however, is all about the music - not forgetting the good cause of course, but it really is all about the music, and while there was plenty of it to go round, some songs worked better than others. I do like the contrast of having artists from the pop, rock and metal scenes together in one event; it spices up things nicely, perhaps even more so when they actually perform together, as was the case with Julie Zahra and Frank Calleja's rendition of The Phantom of the Opera. Zahra's prowess in this field is proven, but extreme metal vocalist Calleja must have surely felt it challenging, although I have to say he pulled it off well enough to make this duet one of the highlights of the entire evening.
It wasn't the only highlight either; Emilia Wisniewska's instrumental rendition of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit was quite a standout, even if her violin was a bit too low in the mix. Leo Stivala's Mr Crowley was every bit as heartfelt and entertaining as I expected it to be and heck, Pawlu Borg Bonaci's I Want To Break Free certainly worked a treat, even if he only sang a verse or three, leaving the rest to the audience who were only too happy to oblige. Kenneth Calleja's Carrie was very well-executed even if I did cringe as the first notes played out. I admit I've never liked the song, but the crowd did, and they showed it too.
After the interval, the concert kicked off with this year's special guest, Malta's biggest rock export to date, international rock star Marc Storace, whose double helping of Krokus classics was as powerful as ever. I would have liked to hear the entire audience roar to Long Stick Goes Boom and (especially) Bedside Radio, but the diehard rockers down the front did a good enough job of it on everyone else's behalf, and Storace's voice - still one of the best in the heavy metal world - was a welcome feature to this electric rock performance.
The second half was the better part of the concert really, offering a string of outstanding performances. Michael Portelli's Mama I'm Coming Home, Ludwig Galea's Uprising, Raquela Dalli Gonzi's A Thousand Years, Chris Grech's Fear of the Dark, Mikaela's So What... all of them amazing interpretations, but my personal favourite was Justin Galea's take on Hozier's Take Me To Church. His was a (seemingly) effortless performance that took full control of the song and cranked up its impact, as was evident from the crowd's rousing response.
On a different note, there were some issues with sound quality and levels at times, some of the songs lacked the oomph one expects of such a concert and, last but not least, wouldn't the set list have rocked just as much without having four Queen songs, two Ozzy Osbourne and Coldplay numbers? It's not like there's a shortage of options folks! Not wanting to end this review on a negative note, a special mention goes to guitarist Luca Colombo for his sterling work alongside the orchestra and band, and also to new act Kafena, who gave us the only Maltese language song on the night; an enticing original number that is but a tiny teaser of what is still to come from this duo. All the best and lesser moments considered, this year's edition was another resounding success, but one that can still be improved and outdone.
This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta's Escape magazine (25 October2015)