Sunday dawns at Steelhouse Festival, and the weather finally looks to be clearing. We are kept waiting at the gate as Saxon’s road crew complete a very meticulous sound check. When we are finally allowed into the arena, the organisers have laid down large piles of hay to try to soak up some of the mud. Unfortunately, we are also greeted with the news that King King have had to cancel due to Alan Nimmo being unwell, but that a treat had been arranged to cover that slot…
Opening the stage were Neath based power trio The Texas Flood. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed their brief set, with the ridiculously catchy “Let The Wind Blow” being a particular highlight, alongside Ben Govier’s acrobatic leaping around with the bass. Tom Sawyer’s vocals and guitar add a mature edge, and if you have never heard of these boys, they are well worth a listen.
Following them were the West Midlands emerging stars Broken Witt Rebels. Led by the sensational vocals of Danny Core, who sounds like Paolo Nutini found the whisky bottle and turned Rock n Roll. His voice is beautifully highlighted on “Guns”, with its catchy chorus. Another stand out tune is the ridiculously raunchy guitar/bass intro from James Tranter and Luke Davis that leads into “Low” and some sensational vocal histrionics and a great singalong with the crowd. Add in powerful rhythm from sticks man James Dudley and they gave a great account of themselves, and no doubt won a few new friends in the process.
From across the Atlantic for our next act, Wisconsin guitarist Jared James Nichols. Blonde hair streaming in the breeze, his technical wizardry with a guitar is beyond doubt. He mixes some great covers into the set such as “Cat Scratch Fever” and a barnstorming version of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”, alongside self-penned material. His playing style is unique, and left me watching open-mouthed at times as he shredded his fretboard with both hands. Probably one of the most head banging, guitar focussed, virtuoso sets of the weekend. As great to watch as to listen to.
The return of an old, friendly face followed, as we got to meet Toby Jepson’s new band, Wayward Sons. Telling us that this was only their fourth gig together, and that we should please excuse him as his voice wasn’t great as he was ill, he really didn’t need to apologise, as they wowed the crowd. Old friend Nic Wastell has joined him on bass (and doesn’t stand still for a second), new friend Sam Wood on guitar, Phil Martini on drums, and Dave Kemp (occasional song writing partner) on keys and harmonica. This is a band that doesn’t mess about and just plays simple, great music. “Until The End” is a perfect rocker that showcases everything good about this new project.
Now onto that empty slot, and up stepped Friday night’s heroes Hand Of Dimes, complete with Bernie Marsden, and a version of “Wishing Well” that featured Planet Rock’s Ian Danter on drums and Darren Redick on bass (complete with bedroom rock god leap at the end). If anything they were even better than Friday, with the sun shining down on a bigger crowd who loved every second. Bernie appeared even more bemused at the attention, and at one point told us, disbelievingly, that backstage they had renamed it “Berniefest”. Once again, we got Nev’s amazing vocals and a great set list, ending with the four Whitesnake songs and a huge singalong of “Here I Go Again”. This will be my over-riding festival memory. One of those occasions where instead of something going wrong it went gloriously right, and a legend was created… or in Bernie’s case, re-created.
By now, the organisers had caught up some of the time lost to the morning sound check, but the road crew for British Lion spent so long testing and re-testing everything that it was all lost before Steve Harris’ side project took to the stage. For me, if you take the Iron Maiden legend out of the equation, what we experienced was very ordinary indeed. It is always enlightening to read fan forums talking about festivals as you write a review in case you simply don’t get something everyone else raves about, but almost unanimously, the fans of Steelhouse and Ramblin’ Man voted them the biggest disappointment. Maybe it was because they followed the emotion of the stand in set… maybe it was because they preceded the performance of the festival from Rival Sons, but despite Harris expending huge amounts of energy for the cause, the music was forgettable, and I hoped for more.
As dusk started to fall, it was time for Rival Sons. I had read lots of comments that they should have headlined the other festival on at the weekend rather than Extreme, but as they were a new band to me, I had no idea why. Well, I soon found out. Led by one of the most charismatic front men I have come across in Jay Buchanan, with his voice of both range and power, Rival Sons blew me away. Every member has a unique look. Guitarist Scott Holiday mixing delicious slide with a perfectly waxed moustache. Bassist Dave Beste and drummer Michael Miley laying down a gorgeously grooved rhythm, and Todd Ogre-Brooks on organ and beard of the weekend. Every song drew you deeper into the set and it was clear that in their recent role as support to Black Sabbath they had developed into an act that are rather special.
All good things come to an end, and that end for Steelhouse Festival was Saxon. Biff and the boys were my intro to heavy metal as a kid, and although I have caught them a couple of times at Download, it has always been well down the bill as a “legacy” act. Tonight though they brought the eagle and a full stage show, and as the weather finally decided to remind us we were on a mountain top, they gave the crowd what they had braved the mud for. Biff’s voice is in great nick, and if you close your eyes, you could be back in the 80’s. The set list has it all “The Band’s Played On”, “The Eagle Has Landed”, “Heavy Metal Thunder”, “Princess Of The Night”, “Wheels Of Steel”, “Crusader” and “Denim And Leather” amongst others, showing how strong their catalogue is, and how they influenced a generation. We get pyro, smoke, a huge light show, and Biff’s infectious humour and showmanship, fronting a band that have done this so many times they make it look easy. The crowd love it, I love it, and, as the idea of a curfew seems somewhat pointless up a mountain, they play on well past the 11pm scheduled finish, and on towards midnight.
The last notes die, whipped away in the wind and rain, and I trudge back through the mud, wondering how long it will take me to extract myself from the quagmire of a car park, ears ringing and a smile on my face. Thank you Steelhouse for the chance to be a part of the friendliest and best value festival I have had the pleasure of attending.
Review and images from the weekend – Rob Wilkins