New singer helps Skid Row retain its edge; band performs at Wellmont, Sept. 8

by JIM TESTA
skid row interview

CHUCK ARLUND

Skid Row (from left, Dave “Snake” Sabo, Scotti Hill, Erik Grönwall, Rob Hammersmith, Rachel Bolan) performs at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Sept. 8.

Skid Row, who formed on the Jersey shore and catapulted to fame amid the hair metal craze of the early ’90s, will be back in their home state as their The Gang’s All Here tour comes to the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Sept. 8.

Bassist Rachel Bolan, who formed the band in 1986 with guitarists Scotti Hill and Dave “Snake” Sabo, enthused that the band always looks forward to playing Jersey. “Every time we go back, we see all of our family and all of our friends, we compare gray hairs together,” Bolan said. “Usually the next day is a full recovery day, because we see people that we haven’t seen in a while, and we think we’re still 25 years old and can hang like we used to, but we’re all a little older now and feel it the next day. But it’s always a really good feeling to go home.”

The cover of Skid Row’s album, “The Gang’s All Here.”

The tour, with openers Buckcherry and Kurt Deimer, takes its name from Skid Row’s 2022 album, The Gang’s All Here, which reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Current Hard Music chart, earned positive reviews in the States, and charted in the Top 20 in nine countries. The first new full-length from Skid Row in 16 years, it also introduced the band’s fourth lead vocalist, Erik Grönwall.

Grönwall replaced ZP Theart, who had a rocky relationship with critics and longtime fans. “Bringing in Erik worked out really well: His voice really fits our music,” Bolan said. “So it was a pretty seamless process when he came into the band. And you know, he did a great job on the record, not knowing anything before we were already into pre-production. He did a really good job. And fans will be really happy hearing him sing the old stuff. He kills it.”

Grönwall’s road to Skid Row makes for fascinating reading in itself. He found fame winning Sweden’s version of “American Idol,” auditioning with Skid Row’s “18 and Life.” He became the lead singer of the successful Swedish metal band H.E.A.T., and played Simon Zealotes in NBC’s 2018 live television production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” starring John Legend. In 2021, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but successfully fought it and joined Skid Row just four days before a show in Las Vegas.

“I know we’ve gone through quite a few singers, but this is a steady gig for me, I’m a lifer,” said Bolan. “I’m a fan of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and they’ve gone through a ton of singers. It is what it is. You just keep rolling.”

Skid Row’s original lineup (from left, Scotti Hill, Dave “Snake” Sabo, Rob Affuso, Sebastian Bach and Rachel Bolan).

Bolan — born James Richard Southworth in Toms River — first formed a band called Godsend with his boyhood friend Scotti Hill, then joined Snake Sabo in the nascent Skid Row in 1986. “The first time I ever got on stage was a battle of the bands or some high school thing at Manasquan High School,” noted Bolan. He took his stage name by mashing together the first names of his brother Richard and grandfather Manuel, and paying tribute to his boyhood idol, Marc Bolan of T. Rex.

“We started out playing Mingles (in South Amboy) and another place called Close Encounters in Sayreville, and we’d hit the Jersey shore whenever we could, playing the (Stone) Pony (in Asbury Park) and places like that,” Bolan recalled. “We hit the Jersey club circuit pretty hard.”

Sabo had grown up with a Sayreville classmate named John Bongiovi, and the two aspiring musicians made a pact that if either of them hit the big time, they’d lend a helping hand to the other. “And thankfully Jon kept up his end when he became so huge,” Bolan said. “It was a huge help. Jon hooked us up with his manager and that got us our record deal.”

Bolan recalled how the band was on tour opening for Bon Jovi on the day when Skid Row’s debut album came out. “The album came out the day of the first show of that tour, and we went from playing places like the Pony that fit 350 people and then the next week we’re playing in front of 18,000 people and had a hit record out and it just steamrolled. It happened so fast that it was like I was watching it happen to someone else, that’s how crazy it was.”

That overnight success was fueled in large part by the group’s charismatic lead singer, Sebastian Bach, and heavy rotation on MTV. “Before we knew it, we were adjusting to being famous; whatever privacy we once had was just gone,” Bolan said. “People knew who we were wherever we went. But that’s exactly what we wanted.”

Fame takes a toll, though, and by 1996, internal tensions led to Bach being fired and drummer Rob Affuso leaving the group. Skid Row went on a three-year hiatus but returned to touring in 1999 with new lead singer Johnny Solinger. By that point, grunge had supplanted pop metal on the charts and Skid Row found itself playing smaller venues, but they have remained on the road consistently over the last two decades. Sollinger was replaced on lead vocals first by Tony Harnell (of Norway’s TNT) and then by ZP Theart (of the British band DragonForce), with Grönwall taking the mic in time to record The Gang’s All Here.

The new album has been hailed a return to form, with strong tracks like “Hell or High Water,” “Time Bomb,” and “Tear It Down” recapturing the excitement of the band’s eponymous debut and the mega-hit Slave to the Grind.

“As unexpected as it is welcome, The Gang’s All Here is an exciting, edgy rock ‘n’ roll record with a heavy metal heart,” exclaimed Blabbermouth.net. UltimateClassicRock.com agreed: “For the first time in nearly 30 years, they’ve got a singer who can fill Bach’s shoes, allowing them to embrace their past while paving their future. It almost sounds like the Skid Row you remember.”

CHUCK ARLUND

From left, Dave “Snake” Sabo, Scotti Hill, Rob Hammersmith, Erik Grönwall and Rachel Bolan of Skid Row.

Bolan claimed that writing the new album didn’t differ much from what he has always done. “Snake and I write all of this stuff together, and we really haven’t changed anything in our process,” Bolan said. “It always starts with a conversation that could go on for an hour or two, and always comes around to, ‘Okay, what you got? You got riffs, you got titles, you got storylines?’ And we just go from there. Our songwriting is very organic. We don’t try to fit into any formula or songwriting method, it’s just how we roll.”

But Bolan acknowledged that life experience does play a part, and writing a song in 2023 isn’t the same as doing it in 1986. “Getting older changes your perspective on things, and we try not to sound too much like, ‘Hey, kid, get off my grass,’ ” he joked. “We’re in our 50s and we still have teenage angst in there for some reason, but yeah, we just let it flow. You know, you have your whole life to write your first record, and from then on, you just have to go find inspiration, sometimes from experience or maybe something you just heard someone say.

“Sometimes I’ll be on a plane and I’ll just write down some ideas, maybe a few verses of lyrics, and then I’ll call Snake and ask him if he has anything this could fit into. Sometimes we’ll just start playing a riff and it builds from there. It’s like putting a puzzle together. The whole thing’s just a Jenga.”

While the venues that Skid Row plays have changed over the years, Bolan said that his rig has stayed pretty much the same: “I still use a Gallien-Krueger 800RB head. The only thing I’ve changed is my cabinet: I’ve gone to an Orange 410 because you can really drive them and I get the punch I need. And I still play a Spector bass. I don’t use any effect and that’s it. I like to keep things simple. Really, really simple.”

Skid Row, Buckcherry, and Kurt Deimer will perform at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Sept. 8, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m.; visit ticketmaster.com.

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