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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

A View From The Top Of The Mountain: Steelhouse Festival 2017 (Live Review By Paul)

Steelhouse Festival 2017 - Hafod y Dafal Farm, Aberbeeg, Wales

The annual Welsh International classic rock festival, situated high on a mountain top in South Wales, has grown in stature year on year. The feedback improves after each event, with the friendliness of the staff and the quality of the bands drawn to this remote location repeatedly highlighted. 2017's line-up contained a mouth watering selection of bands, arguably the strongest in the seven year history of the event.

Disappointingly, the dismal weather forecast for the weekend became all too real and once again UK hard rock fans spent an uncomfortable weekend wading through six inches of gloopy mud, soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone by the 14mph winds that at least ensured that the storm clouds were hurriedly moved across the open skies above the site. A disastrous start to the event, with massive queues snaking up the mountain side on the Friday evening, the car park eventually closed and punters told to leave their cars at the side of the track, slog up the steep hill to the sodden campsite and sort things out in the morning. It was immediately noticeable that there was an absence of stewards or communication from those running the festival. Sitting in cars for over two hours with no news was pretty frustrating although I appreciate decisions were being taken by those in charge.

Now, I am under no illusion about how challenging running any festival is. The Steelhouse Festival is set extra challenges due to its location. But that doesn't excuse some basic planning for the weather. Time and time again, festival goers are told that the "exceptional" weather causes the difficulties. I'm sorry but this is bollocks. It always fucking rains in Ebbw Vale, and it would be irresponsible, no, downright outrageous, not to have contingency plans. One of those has to be ensuring that those attending and paying good money for the festival receive at least some of the facilities and amenities offered. As it was, many who had paid for camper van parking were resigned to spending the weekend parked at the side of a dirt track with no access to toilet facilities or fresh water.

Similarly, many car drivers also chose to sleep in their cars for the first night, including us. The speed in which the site turned into a quagmire could and should have been prevented, through the use of straw or wood clippings (of which there will be a fuck ton available - our allotment site gets tons of it delivered every week). The lack of communication was abysmal, with the absence of security staff and stewards throughout the weekend noticeable. The eerie quiet of the site at 6am on Saturday morning as we attempted to locate some drinking water was astonishing. A single Show Sec member, asleep in the main cabin had no idea about anything, unbriefed and completely unprepared for any accident or incident. Clearly the impact of recent events was not utmost on the minds of the organisers. The absence of updates on social media was also very noticeable. Poor. Very poor.

So, having got that off my chest, what about the music. Well, unfortunately the Steelhouse Live winners Revival kicked off the evening whilst we were still sat in the queue, so it was left to Armagh regulars Trucker Diablo (8) to get our groove on. And what better band to take your mind off the pouring rain than the Northern Irish outfit. Their groove laden hard rock was just what was needed, and with a pint of the beautiful Tudor Brewery ale in hand, it was time to party. A mix of songs from the band's three albums got the heads nodding, and a cover of Proud Mary got the sing-a-long started. Tom Harte and the boys stuck to their drinking anthems with a well paced and refectory chosen set and having seen them a number of times, it's clear to see that despite the party attitude Trucker Diablo are improving on every viewing. Harte leads the band magnificently, and the rain was forgotten as the band closed with the anthem Drink Beer, Destroy. Suddenly things were a little better.

Another beer calmed the tension and as smiles began to emerge, another old friend of the festival and the South Wales music scene appeared on stage to really deliver some quality. Hand Of Dimes (9) played at Steelhouse in 2013 and 2016 but their performance this evening would obliterate that. Led by the charismatic Nev McDonald, the band's soulful melodic rock was absolutely superb. A lengthy set sped by, with more people braving the elements, drawn by the enthusiasm and sheer quality on the stage. Alongside Nev, guitarist Colin Edwards and Mark Maybry on bass, as well as drummer David Stephenson and co-founder member Neil Garland on keys and mean harmonica. The band whizzed through a number of their tunes including Bad Reputation, Pinstripe Arrogance and Jacobs Ladder

All fantastic stuff and delivered with such enthusiasm and joy. We'd also been promised a treat with the legendary Bernie Marsden due to join the band and he kept that promise, turning out to be one of the troopers of the weekend (more later). The band delivered four classic Whitesnake tracks, with Nev easily maintaining the 1980s Coverdale vocal range. Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues was the highlight for me although festival song of the weekend was Here I Go Again with the 1982 version from Saints and Sinners given the first of three outings. Full audience participation was a given, and allowed the small but enthusiastic crowd to end the sodden evening on a high.

Saturday

Pitching your tent at 6am in the dry is a damn sight easier than at midnight in the rain. So that's what we did, having spent a few hours trying to snooze in the car. We weren't the only ones. Having managed an extra hour or two of horizontal rest, it was time to layer up and wade back through the swamp to catch more music. First up, and with a lot of local support, was Merthyr three piece Florence Black (6). Despite a technical bass problem, the band made a real good start to the day, with their brash rock receiving a decent reception from the larger crowd. Their tracks are decent but forgettable, although their set was ideal to ease the first pint of Mountain Rock down the throat.

Following the Merthyr lads was Tequila Mockingbyrd (7), the female trio who hail from Melbourne. Having spent six weeks touring in Europe, Louisa Baker, Jess Reily and Josie O'Toole were sharp and enthusiastic. Their brand of punk-pop eliciting a warm response. The ladies gusto and sheer joy made watching them much more enjoyable, even though their music is pretty binary. Tracks such as I Smell Rock N Roll and Fight And Flight prompted a decent response from an audience who were primed to sing at any occasion.

Walsall's favourite rock outfit Stone Broken (7) were up next. Having seen the band support Cheap Trick a month previously, I was aware exactly what was coming. Lots of energy, huge pearly white smiles and pointing to friends and fans in the crowd whilst their inoffensive Black Stone Cherry lite rock touched bases with many in the audience. Maybe its the band's sheer determination, and youthfulness that drives them forward. They certainly fit the Planet Rock profile and the huge reaction from many in the ever swelling crowd suggests that this band will continue to climb for some time. I don't get the fuss personally. Too generic, bland and a little too manufactured in style for me. Still, they got a great reception.

Having trudged back to the tent for something to eat, it was time to catch Bernie Marsden's (8) acoustic set. The man is certainly a gifted musician and his voice was quite a surprise although I'm not overly familiar with his solo work. Marsden's set comprised solo work and another selection of work from his Whitesnake era, including a quite magnificent Ain't Gonna Cry No More. It was at this point that you realised that Here I Go Again was coming up for its second hearing of the weekend. Still, the crowd, by now larger and certainly with fewer sharp edges, went crazy and Marsden received one of the best ovations of the weekend. The man is a guitar god. And he wasn't done yet!

Now I'm in the minority within the classic rock world, but I don't see what all the fuss is with Inglorious (6). Nathan James has a stunning voice, but for the majority of this show he appeared as a frontman with a backing band, rather than as part of a group. His adoring public certainly lapped his kimono bedecked performance as he strode back and fore along the extended walkway but at times he appeared totally disconnected. Meanwhile the rest of the band certainly put the effort in. It just appeared a bit contrived. That may be me, but I'm mistrustful. 

Apart from anything else, any band who adds a bass/drum solo in the middle of their set needs help. their radio friendly rock is certainly listenable and they have some catchy hooks and melodies. Tracks like Holy Water, Change Is Coming and I Don't Need Your Loving all get the toe tapping. I just don't get the hype which they receive. Manufactured? Probably not but that's the way it appears to me.

There is nothing manufactured about the balls out hard rock of Canadians Monster Truck (9) Who took the mountain by the scruff of the neck and despite the pouring rain blasted through one of the sets of the weekend. Guitarist Jeremy Widerman made the decision to play the entire set shirtless and at the mercy of the elements, much to the appreciation of the dripping fans at the front. If you haven't heard Monster Truck then the best way to describe them is exactly what their name suggests.

The band are a careering exaggerated beast of a vehicle who play fast and dirty rock and roll. Vocalist and bassist Jon Harvey's energetic vocal is matched by his furious bass lines whilst Brandon Bliss's keys add some Southern flavour to the band's sound. Drummer Steve Kiely completes the line-up. The band roared through a good 45 minute set, which maintained momentum from the off. Don't Tell Me How To Live, The Enforcer, She's A Witch, the ironic Sweet Mountain River and the rousing The Lion all featured in a blistering set.

Rain continued to fall with only slight intermissions to allow any respite but the crowd, who by now had increased by my estimates to maybe 1500 - 2000, were certainly making the most of the day. Special guests Last In Line (8) needed little introduction. With three quarters of the original Dio line-up present when they formed, the band can rightly lay more claim to the Dio crown than any other band. With the passing of Jimmy Bain the band now has Phil Soussan pulling the bass strings and Erik Norlander tinkling the keys replacing original Dio keyboard player Claude Schnell. They are joined by Vivian Campbell and Vinnie Appice alongside vocalist Andrew Freeman, formerly of Lynch Mob and The Offspring. 

The band released a very competent debut last year, and their set contained a couple of tracks from Heavy Crown. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of Last In Line's set was Dio stuff. Campbell's slicing riff to opener Stand Up And Shout never fails to get the hairs on the back of the neck elevated and a range of classics including the ever popular Rainbow In The Dark gave the faithful an hour of nostalgia.

As darkness fell and the rain continued to fall, it was noticeable that the arena had become emptier. When Steelhouse announced that Newport's ragga metal outfit Skindred (7) were the first headliners, there was much derision, outrage and disbelief. Skindred live are a different class, and having seen them many times before, they rarely disappoint. Benji Webb and the gang blasted onto the stage with power, opener Volume allowing the hardcore fans at the front to bounce and jump. Rat Race followed before the first of several long speeches from the imposing frontman. 

Whether it was the weather, or the audience, this was not Skindred's finest show. Long breaks between music whilst Benji spoke to the crowd slowed the pace, and the preamble to Nobody has been doing the rounds for several months. As the crowd thinned further under the barrage of the relentless hammering from the skies, Skindred closed a short nine song set with Warning. The amazing sight of hundreds of Newport helicopters in the pouring rain as the band closed out day one was worth seeing but overall this was a below par show from one of rock's most scintillating live bands.

Sunday

Waking to find two of your party had left the site in early hours was a surprising way to start the day and we made our own decision to get off the mountain at the end of the evening after Saxon closed the day down. Having packed most of our gear into the car, the remaining members of our party headed back through the mud to the arena. Openers The Texas Flood kicked off proceedings, but not before a delayed soundcheck had pushed things back. This was a timing issue that got worse as the day continued.

An attempt had been made to make parts of the arena safer with segments of hay bales laid at the front of the stage and around the field. Far too little and too late. When The Texas Flood (8) did get started, the day well and truly improved. The Neath Port Talbot boys took their time, engaged in some terrific banter and laid down 30 minutes of Black Crowes style swagger filled rock. Tom Bradford, Ben Govier and Tom Williams are a band full of quality and no little amount of confidence. Having honed their skills with hard gigging schedules over recent years, the band were sharp, slick and most definitely on the same page. A band that are well worth looking out for. 

Another band I had been looking forward to seeing was Broken Witt Rebels (8), having not been able to get to their recent gig at The Globe in Cardiff. I was not disappointed as the Birmingham four piece encouraged the sun to break through the clouds with their indie fused with blues and southern rock 'n' roll. Vocalist Danny Gore's astonishing voice cut loud and proud through the Welsh countryside, close your eyes and you could be watching a band from the Deep South, not the industrial heartland of U.K. The band's set consisted tracks from their Georgia Pine, Howlin' and This Town Belongs To Me EP. With the swagger and confidence of a band on the up, Gore, flanked by guitarist James Tranter and bassist Luke Davies, supported by drummer James Dudley soon had the crowd baying for more. This is a band on the up and well worth a watch. A special afternoon indeed.

Jared James Nichols (7) provided a virtuoso set shortly afterwards with his tighter than a ducks arse backing duo of Erik Sandin and Dennis Holm.Nichols is a native of Wisconsin and plays American blues rock to great effect. His picking style is both laid back and intense and although many of the audience were unfamiliar with his work, he soon had the crowd interested with some smashing play. Two interesting covers in his set, with the Nuge's Cat Scratch Fever receiving faster, more urgent treatment before a version of Mountain's Mississippi Queen excited the oldies and youngsters alike. His recent stints on the road with Blue Oyster Cult and UFO have provided wider exposure and although the market is awash with good looking pearly white toothed guitar heroes, Nichols looks a good bet for top billing in the future.

As the crowd blinked in disbelief the sun continued to cause havoc and most, sat in waterproofs and multiple layers, just resigned themselves to the inevitability of the showers to come. Still, it was fun whilst it lasted although sustaining sunburn to the cheeks on a weekend like this seems more than a little unfair. Toby Jepson's latest outfit, Wayward Sons (6) strutted their stuff next. It was all a little routine and whilst there was nothing remotely unpleasant it was nothing special and a trip back to base camp for some food took preference.

With King King forced to withdraw due to illness, the mid-afternoon slot allowed a welcome return to Nev, Neil and Hand Of Dimes (7) for a bit extra. Amazingly, we also got Bernie Marsden again and unsurprisingly Here I Go Again (and again). Whilst the guys pulled out another quality slot, it was impossible to match Friday evening's classic gig despite the sight of Planet Rock presenters Reddick and Danter taking over bass and drum duties respectively alongside Marsden and the Dimes for Free's Wishing Well. Still, full marks to all for filling in at short notice.

A long wait due to a lengthy sound check preceded the arrival of Iron Maiden's Steve Harris and British Lion (7). As the weather once again threatened ominously, the band ploughed through most of 2012's self titled debut release with a muddy sound slowly improving. Vocalist Richard Taylor impressed with his clear voice, reminiscent of Magnum's Bob Catley at times. British Lion's songs focus more on the progressive and traditional classic rock but there is no mistaking Harris's thunderous galloping bass. The Maiden master only has one way to play, full throttle and 110% at all times. Foot on the monitor, charging from left to right, voicing every word of every song, this is Steve fucking Harris right there. What a pleasure, even if the songs aren't as memorable. Us Against The World is a tune though and the band, with David Hawkin and Graham Leslie shredding magnificently either side of the stage finished strongly to a well deserved ovation. 

Further showers arrived as the evening began to darken slightly and people started adding those extra layers to keep out the chill. Yes, it was damp and cold. There was no way we were going to stay cold though with Sunday's special guests. Long Beach, California must have seemed a million miles away to the astonishingly brilliant Rival Sons (10) whose master class in cool sophistication was just a joy to behold. The sheer quality of the band made all the shitty wading through mud, the horizontal rain and the lack of sleep worth it.

Up front the talents of Jay Buchanan, vocal range stepped in historical influences of Plant, Rogers et al, captured the breath. Strutting, every inch the rock star in black leather jacket and black shirt, Buchanan's inter song banter limited to a few short introductions and admiration for the stoicism of the audience. Like several other bands on the bill who had been interchanging venues over the two days, the Sons had performed at Rambling Man Fair in Maidstone the night before. There were no ill effects whatsoever. To Buchanan's left, one of the coolest guitar players around, Scott Holliday, whose sublime mastery of his art was mesmerising. The band played a full hour, opening with Hollow Bones Pt I and closing with Keep On Swinging. In between, we had several gems from the band's catalogue, including Electric Man and a breathtaking Memphis Sun. Holliday and Buchanan are ably accompanied by Michael Miley, Dave Beste and touring keyboard player Todd Ogren Brooks, whose performance was as great as his beard.

Thirty minutes behind schedule, it was finally time. As AC/DC's Long Way To The Top hit the speakers, anticipation peaked and in a blinding show of lights Biff and the boys stormed on stage opening with Battering Ram. Yes, the mighty Saxon (9) were back on the mountain. As in 2013, the heavens opened once more and it decided to pour down for the remainder of the set. That didn't put off Saxon one bit, with Biff in imperious form out on the walkway getting totally soaked. At one point the legendary frontman was singing under an umbrella. The closest comparison you'll ever get to Gene Kelly. As in recent years, Saxon's setlist comprised both old and new stuff although it was predominantly greatest hits which is what the crowd wanted. Their cutting edge remains as sharp as ever, with Sacrifice, 20,000ft, And The Band's Played On and a storming Dallas 1PM all as fresh today as when they first hit the decks. 

With the giant eagle lighting rig in situ, The Eagle Has Landed was possibly the track of the festival. Imposing, grand and majestic, Nibs Carter and Nigel Glockler held the powerful bass line whilst Paul Quinn and Doug Scaratt's razor edged guitar work was magnificent. It's Biff that keeps the attention though, and his voice shows no signs of aging. As the rain continued Biff confirmed that the band would continue without an encore, which allowed time for Wheels Of Steel and Crusader amongst others. Saxon are always magnificent. This was no exception and a fitting band to close another Steelhouse Festival.

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