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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A View From The Mountain: Steelhouse Festival 2016 (Review By Paul)

Steelhouse Festival, Hafod y Dafal Farm, Aberbeeg 23-24 July 2016

The Welsh Classic Rock Festival is now in its sixth year and continues to improve. Building on such previous stellar acts as Europe, Magnum, Michael Schenker, Saxon and UFO, Steelhouse combines the cream of long established bands with up and coming exciting fresh outfits. This is the event where we first saw a youthful The Temperance Movement, the power of Northern Ireland’s Trucker Diablo and a resurgent The Treatment amongst many others.

A change to the layout of the site this year meant a slightly longer walk from the car park (probably a whole two minutes!) and the camping relocated to another field due to the arrival of a large number of solar panels on the previous camping area. The rest of the layout remained as before and the road to the site continues to take no prisoners. The large stage dominates the small arena with a limited number of decent catering wagons including crepes, pizza, pulled pork and burgers all doing a roaring trade. In the large bar area the Tudor Brewery competed with Trooper ale and the usual Tuborg lager alongside a couple of bars doing cocktails and spirits . As a real ale fan, the Tudor Brewery always get my full patronage with their Mountain Rock ale brewed especially for the festival and the pomegranate and sherbet Blitz kicking hard at 5.0% 

Day 1

So what about the music. Well, as the sun blazed through the cloud to create a blisteringly warm afternoon, Wigan’s Bigfoot (9) kicked off proceedings with an addictive display of ballsy gritty hard rock which got a very solid response from the early crowd. Frontman Antony Ellis refused to let their status as openers have even the slightest impact on him or his band mates as they put in a really great performance. In fact, they played like they were the headliners. Songs from their debut EP Stone Soldiers were cheered loudly by the band’s hard core contingent and the double guitar of Sam Millar and Mick McCullogh provided Steelhouse with a hard and heavy opening set.

London’s Dirty Thrills (7) arrived on stage with all the swagger and confidence of a band from the smoke. They also had a slightly less engaged approach, and although they warmed up as their set progressed with their bluesy rock their slightly aloof attitude was in stark contrast to the enthusiasm of the previous band.
The sun was blazing down on the field by now, factor 30 and a good hat very much the order of the day. Unsurprisingly the beer was also going down a treat and Stratford Upon Avon’s AOR maestros Vega (7) made sure that everyone continued to have a good time. They do little for me but as AOR outfits go, Vega sit in the higher levels. Their saccharine coated melodic rock does what it does, and approving nods from around the field complimented the die hard fans who really gave it their all. Vocalist Nick Workman is an engaging front man, whilst the Martin twins on keys and bass caused the odd double take. New tracks from their recent fourth release Who We Are were mixed with older tunes in a forty minute set.
Great things are expected from Tax The Heat (8), one of the UK’s hardest working bands at the moment. They are getting a lot of promotion from Planet Rock and their debut album Fed To The Lions  is receiving decent reviews (especially this humble blog - Ed). The Bristol based outfit started slowly but soon increased the temperature higher in the arena with their hard yet melodic rock. The band’s dapper image was severely tested by the high temperatures but although jackets were removed the smart shirts remained. Another well received set with a fair proportion of the audience impressively familiar with the band’s material. I hadn't seen them since they opened the second stage at Download in 2014 and they have improved immeasurably with a confident delivery. Set closer Highway Home aptly demonstrated why Tax The Heat could be much higher up the bill in a couple of years. 

Finally, a non-British band. It was starting to look like a Brexit convention! No, I jest but it is rare these days to have such home grown talent in front on you. Thankfully Steelhouse have a good strike rate on talent from the UK, and the classic rock field is very healthy at home these days. Still, a bit of continental influence is never a bad thing and The Von Hertzen Brothers (8) are a class act. Kicking off with New Day Rising, the title track from their latest album, the band were supercharged from the start and delivered an hour of absolute quality. Brothers Mikko, Kie and Jonne are the focal point of the band with their interaction just fabulous. The solid pounding of Mikko Kaakkurninemi and Juha Kuoppala’s layered synths add to the overall sound of a band who have already been around for nearly two decades. The Finns really know how to put on a show and with five albums worth of material are now in the fantastic position of being able to vary their set although unsurprisingly the majority came from the more recent and less prog tinged releases. A few new fans gained no doubt.
Now I was surprised that Blues Pills (8) were higher on the bill than VHB but they demonstrated their quality with a splendid set which held the attention from start to finish. The Blues tinged psychedelia which is the band’s main sound fitted perfectly in the sun drenched hillside. Opening with their debut album’s opening track, High Class Woman, the stunning voice of the beautiful Elin Larsson, complete with tasseled cat suit and high energy tambourine continues to astound. Of course, the band are made up of three other magnificent musicians with Dorian Sorriaux transfixed in his own world as he continues to play some of the best guitar I've ever seen. The debut release formed the bulk of the set, but we also got the treat of a couple from the soon to be released Lady In Gold. The band were also bulked out with a second guitarist who played a fine rhythm which allowed Damian to unleash his trademark riffs. Highlights also included the slower paced Black Smoke which quickly makes the transition to a wild gallop and the raucous Devil Man which closed a brilliant set. Well worth making the trip to Bristol in November to catch them with Kadavar.

Few bands sit as comfortably at Steelhouse as those from Northern Ireland. Twice Trucker Diablo have really impressed but the band that are guaranteed to make you smile, clap and sing is The Answer (9) who were making their third appearance on the mountain. Now I've seen these guys a lot and they never disappoint. This year the band were celebrating the tenth anniversary of their debut Rise which they played in full. Clearly massively popular with the very healthy crowd, the band started at speed and didn't let up throughout their hour and quarter set. Frontman Cormack Neeson was in fine form, evangelical and charismatic, encouraging audience participation at every opportunity. He may be greying at the temples but he still retains the Robert Plant hair and swagger. He can also sing quite magnificently with Preaching a huge highlight. The band closed their impressive set which had focused mainly on the past with Spectacular and two new songs, Thief Of Light and Solas, the title track of their new album which will be released in October.

It was going to be tough to follow that set but if there is a band better equipped to headline a UK classic rock event than Thunder (10) then I'd love to see them. Full of the confidence that their many years rocking across the globe has given them, Danny Bowes, Luke Morley, Harry James, Ben Matthews and Chris Childs were in imperious form. Backed by a fine light show Thunder tore through a set packed with their classics which had the crowd eating out of their hand from the opening bars of Wonder Days. Thunder’s stock in the UK has risen greatly over the last couple of years and they fully deserved the headline status. Bowes is quite the front man, combining a rock star’s swagger with a humility often absent (comparisons with the approach of the Dead Daisies John Corabi spring to mind). The band’s music is strong enough to throw Back Street Symphony into the middle of the set. A stunning Love Walked In complete with excellent Welsh singing closed their set and with the crowd baying for more, Thunder duly obliged and rounded a fantastic first day off with everyone’s favourite Dirty Love.

Day 2

Day 2 saw a return to more typical British weather conditions although for those of us who had been to Download this year this was more of a light drizzle. Arriving in time for the openers Last Great Dreamers (6), a British band who operated in the 1990s before splitting and then reforming in 2014, we grabbed a beer and watched from the beer tent. To be fair, the Sunday morning slot in drizzle after a day on the lash in glorious sunshine has got to be a bit shit. Last Great Dreamers didn't float my boat but gave it a good go and the relatively sparse crowd gave their dirty rock ‘n’ roll a decent enough reception. A much more enthusiastic reception awaited Steelhouse regulars Hand Of Dimes (7) whose brand of soulful melodic rock was a welcome lunchtime sound. The Welsh roots stretch far with this lot, the older members of the audience possibly might have remembered Kooga from the 1980s which was where frontman. Nev MacDonald and keyboardist Neil Garland first cut their teeth. Nev still leads from the front and the band played a range of songs from their self-titled release.
As the rain struggled to make up its mind whether to totally empty down or stop, the all round pretty boy of lightweight pop rock James Toseland and his outfit arrived on stage. Having seen Toseland (7) at The Globe earlier this year, I was familiar with the band and they do what they do well. Pretty generic rock in the Alter Bridge/Shinedown ball park. James is a good solid frontman who engaged well with the crowd. Playing a range of tracks from their earlier release as well as newie Cradle The Rage they delivered a decent 40 minutes which made me forget the rain. A slightly shambolic ending as they overran meant they didn't get the finale they deserved but overall a solid performance from a band who have already obtained support slots with the likes of Deep Purple.
Three piece rock outfits are quite rare these days but RavenEye (9) have more balls about them then many quintets. Led by the charming and totally crazy Oli Brown whose manic running around whilst shredding like Hendrix on heat is an absolute joy, the band kicked hard from the start and provided an absolute treat for those unfamiliar with their energy and quality. Tracks from their EP Breakin’ Out mixed with a couple of newies from the soon to be released debut Nova. Bassist Aaron Spiers makes sure that all four legs of the outfield part of the band are working hard as he ventured out onto the walkway although it was Brown as ever who stole the show. Whether he is talking shit into the microphone, jumping off Kev Hickman’s drum kit or being carried across the stage on Spiers shoulders, Brown is simply mesmerising. He's like a metal Russell Brand with more flexible fingers (I'd say their finger work is on a par but used for entirely different reasons - Smut Ed) As the band closed their set, with Brown bemoaning the fact that their van broke down leaving them devoid of merchandise, the best news of the day broke with the news that the band will be back in South Wales later in the year.
By now we were a little weary and Mrs H, whose festival days were thought to be long behind her was flagging somewhat. Although the rain had eased, standing in a field for two days is quite knackering work. Up next were the Dead Daisies, a supergroup of sorts from the USA. And yes, you knew the Americans had arrived as soon as they hit the stage. The charm and humble status of Oli Brown was replaced by a brash arrogance of a band that, let's face it, are a bunch of also-rans. With the sound hitting a new level, Dead Daisies (5) took to the stage to a huge reception, the vast quantity of air play that Planet Rock have been providing them obviously working. For the uninitiated, the band was formed in 2012 via Australia and California and have had a number of members in various line ups. The problem for me, and I appear to be in a very small minority judging by the online reaction, is that Dead Daisies are just a competent collection of session musicians who managed to litter an hour’s set with six cover versions (Free’s All Right Now being the most recognisable and average) interspersed with some really average rock songs from their two full length releases. Lock And Load is about as close to a rock painting by numbers as it gets, whilst the new tracks such as Make Some Noise contained as much subtlety as the early works of Kiss.
What was even more infuriating as the crowd lapped it up was the sheer arrogance of the band. John Corabi strolls around like a Steven Tyler who’d had to eat his way out of a pie shop, whilst Marco Mendoza morphed in Derek Smalls early on. The fact that this guy played in a Thin Lizzy line up is a disgrace to Phil Lynott’s memory although if I remember correctly he was just as much of a strutting cock when he played in the Lizzy line up at St David’s Hall in 2012. Newest recruit Doug Aldrich, a journeyman guitarist who spent time with Whitesnake and Dio looked relatively constrained by the limited opportunity to cut loose. Meanwhile David Lowry stood in relative anonymity with his rhythm guitar work stage left. The fun didn't stop with covers though and a Brian Tichy drum solo was just the icing on the ego. By the time cover number five arrived (Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival for those interested enough) my patience had just about run out. A final cover of the Beatles Helter Skelter saw the band obtain a raucous response. I just don't get it. Maybe the Steelhouse crowd wants unoriginal covers more than fresh new music. It certainly helps when you are on your eight pint to have something to sing along to. Who knows?

Flashback to Download 2016 and after several hours in the pissing rain The Wildhearts put a smile back on my face in the tent with an hour of Ginger’s inimitable throw away rock. With a billing far higher than warranted, and even I would admit that Dead Daisies should have been higher, another of Ginger’s projects, Hey! Hello! (6) careered onto the stage for the tea time slot. With the band having hemorrhaged female vocalists, Ginger had recruited a new singer whose name I was unable to catch. Unfortunately she couldn't sing and her interplay between songs suggested that she was incredibly nervous (or a little bit thick). Opening with Swimwear the band, completed by The Rev, Toshi and drummer Ai got into their stride quickly. Unfortunately their generic brand combined with the vocal quality of a cat with it’s paws in the mangle didn't enhance the experience. By the end of their set we were ready to leave and get home in the light due to a concern about the strength of a back tyre that needed some TLC. Trooping out in advance of Terrorvision is always a good feeling and we forwent The Darkness in order to get home.

Editors Note: The Darkness by all accounts raised the roof as the headliners. Their set was full of the tongue-in-cheek bravado and more importantly massive self-penned sing-alongs, basically everything The Dead Daises seemed to lack. They showed that they were well worthy of being the headliners of this festival and reinforced that the UK is indeed the home of rock music and that you don't need to have a history with famous bands to be popular, you need great songs, the right attitude and a shit load of good-humoured British fun.

So, a record crowd, some stunning weather and enough good bands to support the appetite of the rock palette. Steelhouse once again came up trumps with the goods, with a friendly and family vibe throughout the site. Next year Mrs H is insisting on camping – it is seriously that good.

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