For those who aren’t familiar with the Steelhouse Festival, it’s a small, 5000 capacity, single stage, family friendly affair, now in its ninth year, delivering the very best in both “old” and “new” classic rock – all from top of a mountain. For comparison purposes and to put it into context, the arena itself is about one third of the size of Maidstone’s Ramblin’ Man Fair, both in terms of its area and capacity.
Based on the edge of the Brecon Beacons just outside the Welsh village of Abergeeg, Steelhouse is probably one of the more remote festivals in the UK. Access to the site is not the easiest however in a strange sort of way, that just adds to its charm and the camaraderie that exists amongst those that make the trek. From the main road, the only clue that you’re in the vicinity of the festival is the small, solitary, “Steelhouse Festival” sign pointing up towards the unmade, pot holed, winding mountain road that takes you the final mile to Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm, the site for the festival. This final leg of the journey, rising all the way to the top at a rate of between 5% and 10%, takes a good five minutes by car at an average speed of no more than 10mph, which amusingly seems to make the 20mph speed limit signs somewhat redundant. This was our second year at Steelhouse, last year being the first, and as we arrived at the top we were greeted by the always smiling and friendly staff who directed us to the parking area where we were charged the princely sum of £5 for a parking pass to cover us for all three days. The car park is no more than five minutes walk to the arena entrance and midway between the two we came to the portakabin that serves as the box office where we showed our tickets in order to collect our weekend wristbands. A cursory search of our bags at the entrance saw us inside the arena where we headed straight to the front of the stage so that we could grab a prime spot from where my camera carrying partner in crime could take her pictures. On this occasion we seemed to have judged our journey from our hotel in nearby Merthyr Tydfil just about right as we planted ourselves in “our spot” with a wait of no more than 30 minutes before the first band of the weekend were due on stage.
Day one, the Friday night, had been billed by Steelhouse this year, as “Four Nations” night, as it was to feature bands from, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. First up this evening, hailing from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, were melodic heavy rockers, Blackwater Conspiracy, fronted by former Myke Gray vocalist, Phil Conalane. The five piece delivered a lively opening set to get the festival underway, including some great soloing from lead guitarist, Brian Mallon. Unfortunately, from my perspective anyway, Blackwater Conspiracy were one of several bands over the weekend, whose performance was hindered by a less than perfect sound mix, in this case, far too much bass drum and insufficient vocal.
Second up on stage were Edinburgh foursome, The Rising Souls; a band I’d been looking forward to seeing having heard how well they’d gone down as headliners on the Rising Stage at last year’s Ramblin’ Man. They took to the stage with front man, Dave Archibald, handicapped in terms of any guitar playing as a result of having his left arm in a fairly hefty looking sling. It didn’t affect his voice though. As his strong powerful vocal led the way, The Rising Souls delivered a series of soulful, hard rocking tunes. With Archibald ably supported by Kelso on bass, Reece Braid on drums, and lead guitarist Ciaran Hanratty, sporting his best Gary Rossington outfit complete with hat, they delivered a thoroughly enjoyable set, despite being limited to just 40 minutes. The only downside to their time on stage being that like Blackwater Conspiracy before them, the sound mix didn’t appear to be quite as it should.
I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of the next band to take the stage, Bridgend’s, Those Damn Crows, making their second consecutive appearance at the festival. With plenty of support in the growing crowd, they delivered a series of fast, hard rocking tunes, which were a mix of tracks from their first album, “Murder and The Motive”, and new tracks yet to be released. For the majority of the set, front man and vocalist Shane Greenall, prowled every inch of the stage, like a hungry caged tiger, however it was the excitable crowd who were quickly eating out of his hands, hooked on his every word and leap. He was seated briefly however as he took to his piano for the band to deliver a semi acoustic version of “Blink of an Eye” as the enthusiastic crowd sang along from beginning to end, despite Shane’s admission that it was the first time they’d played the song live in that way, inferring that it probably needed a bit more practice! With the set in full swing we also heard “Someone Someday” during which we were treated to a quick burst of “Pinball Wizard” from Shane before Ian “Shiner” Thomas and David Winchurch (guitars), along with Lloyd Wood (bass) and Ronnie Huxford (drums) gave us a riff or two from Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” and even threw a little bit of a James Bond theme into the mix, before finishing off the song they’d started. The sixty minutes were soon up and after their regular closer, “Rock n roll Ain’t Dead” and the now compulsory band “selfie” on the end of the stage jetty, the Crows departed to chants of “Ronnie, Ronnie!” as drummer Ronnie Huxford appears to have now acquired a similar cult status amongst the Crows’ followers as that enjoyed by Harry James amongst fans of Thunder. The bar had now been raised and it was down to Friday night’s headliners to ensure that the festival goers were sent back to their tents, camper vans and hotels, on a high.
As had been the case the previous year, the festival organisers had chosen a band that had gone down particularly well at the weekend of the previous year’s festival to return the following year to headline the Friday night. Last year it was Stone Broken; this year that privilege had been granted to Lancashire’s Massive Wagons.
Spoiler Alert! For whatever reason, Massive Wagons, as much as I’ve tried to like them, simply don’t do it for me, so I won’t be adding to the hype. I do acknowledge though what a hard working band these Lancastrian rockers have been over the past nine years or so and appreciate that in that time they have built up an ever increasing army of fans that do greatly appreciate what they do.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to listen to Massive Wagons, I love “Ratio” and “Back to The Stack” and I also like last year’s highly successful album, “Full Nelson”. Having seen them 12 months earlier though, as a live band they simply don’t excite me. However, as this evening proved, I’m clearly in a very small minority. There’s no doubt that Baz Mills is a great front man and a “larger than life” showman, as dressed in his usual vibrant, red checked suit, he instantly became the focal point of the band the moment he entered the stage, high kicking his way down to the front of the “jetty” protruding into the crowd. Musically, their set tonight delivered exactly what was expected of them with their army of fans hooked on Baz’s every move as he exuded energy. I think however, that even the loyalist of Wagoneers will admit, that tonight’s closing set could have been so much more of a spectacle than it actually was if it hadn’t been for the disappointing front of stage lighting which left most of the band, with the exception of drummer Alex Thistlethwaite positioned towards the back on his riser, appearing as mere silhouettes, other than the odd glimpse of brightness as they passed through one the few well lit areas of the stage. All in all though I think most punters would’ve been reflecting a on a great opening (and rain free!) evening to Steelhouse, as they made their way back to their tents (or in our case, back down the mountain to our hotel) to prepare themselves for the 15 bands still to come over the remaining two days of the weekend.
Review by Tim Marcus
Photography by Sam Conquest