Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
See the rainbow shining brightly
Shooting rockets to the sky
Making music and it rolled on through the night
You could hear on the air rock n’ roll everywhere
We were strangers in the night
And The Bands Played On – Saxon
Waking up the previous day with the words of Zep’s ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ bouncing about the innards of my cranium proved to be a portent of the murkiness Steelhouse arose to on the middle day of the festival.
The cloud had come in overnight and lay heavy with a fog-like presence. Proper moorland weather to remind us of where we actually are!
Matters never run smoothly or without a hiccup here on the mountain. With just a handful of weeks remaining before the festival the Steelhouse organisers were forced into a change in the headline spot. Former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley announced the cancellation of his entire European tour including his visit to the Welsh mountain. With time ebbing away swift action was required and the services of British NWOBHM legends, and two time Steelhouse headliners, Saxon were secured.
Before we reach the Steelhouse Saturday zenith there is an awful wide range of rock on offer. From the off-the-scale fire-breathing Mother Vulture to the classic trip down Graham Bonnet lane via the prog-realms of sublime The Von Hertzen Brothers and the slick-as-you-like homeland blues of Cardinal Black. It’s an action packed ram-jammed Saturday to follow a phenomenal ‘Shit Shirt’ Friday. From Scandinavia to the UK there’s a lot of ground being covered!
From leaden grey skies falls a steady mizzle – it’s a Celtic hill sort of thing when mist and drizzle combine often with armour piercing properties. Charitably, this afternoon, the fine droplets of precipitation merely dampen affairs. The climate leaves the armour piercing stuff to day two openers Mother Vulture instead. With a ferocious live reputation being enhanced with every live performance this Bristol-based quartet are a force to be reckoned with.
With a roar The Vultures land and hit the mountain with tectonic pressures released by ‘Tell Me.’ Hyperactive doesn’t begin to explain the dynamics on offer here; not merely off the scale but away upon high creating a brand new one capable of registering their abundant energies.
Think Hell’s Gazelles on steroids and you’re closing in one flank of Mother Vulture. Contemplate frenetic blues-fringed punk rock and you get the sight of another. The Ramones would have a job keeping alongside these guys! Drizzle sweeps in but not a soul cares as the tubthumping that is ‘Habits Die Hard’.
Guitarist Brodie Maguire jumps into the stunned crowd a couple of times to thrash the living daylights from his stunning green Gretsch. Bassist Chris Simpson prowls, no doubt frustrated that there’s little opportunity for climbing, smiling broadly whilst laying down a powerhouse rhythm with his partner-in-beat drummer Matt West.
Vocalist Georgi Valentine completes the quadrumvirate with an astonishingly strength and range of voice. Simpson roars “Steelhouse give he an Oh Yeah!” as we all disappear down the ‘Rabbit Hole.’ Simpson, most aptly, bunny-hops across the Steelhouse stage during this heavy groove monster.
Valentine splits the crowd in ‘Bleeding Feet Blues’ to enable Maguire to take one almighty heart-stopping leap right off the walkway. How one realises such a talent is to hand I don’t know but the landing sees guitar and guitarist, alike, intact. The mayhem continues. The nearest that one can describe the overall impact is an early-Nirvana fronted by Mike Patton; it’s sheer crazy but bloody good fun! The twisted emotions of 2019 single ‘Objectify’ brings to an end a truly breathless half hour that’s going to live long in the memories of those who bore witness.
Having debuted as a three-piece at Winter’s End back in March Scotland’s Anchor Lane continue to go from strength to strength. Hollering over the border from their Glaswegian base this instantly likeable trio take to the stage to the haunting strains of their intro tape. Frontman Connor Gaffney is right at the Steelhouse ensemble “Steelhouse let’s fucking here you! I wanna see you bounce!” as ‘Stutter’ strikes the opening blow.
It’s going to be a hard task to follow Mother Vulture, but these three Scotsmen seem completely unphased and set about notching matters up through the gears further. The cracker that is ‘Ministry’ is confidently despatched with an undercurrent of fellow Scottish rockers Big Country woven subtly into its obsidian-coloured fabric.
Lead guitarist Lawrence O’Brien’s machine-gun riffing in ‘Blood & Irony’ hits head-on seemingly befuddling Gafney for a moment “You having fun Steelfest?” before wondering what he had said “Steelfest? 12 hours to get here! We’re getting the party started early!”
‘Mischievous Song’ has a touch of the Rolling Stones about it before the title track of the forthcoming album ‘Call This A Reality’ with its modern-day twist on a classic vibe garners a most warm of Steelhouse receptions. After ripping apart the Stooges-esque ‘Fame Shame’ Gaffney announces the triumvirate’s upcoming autumn tour supporting Virgin Marys.
Introducing set-closer ‘Choke’ Gaffney requests “I wanna see you go fucking mental for this one!” The crowd respond and Anchor Lane can return northwards confident of a job well done.
In typically understated manner Welsh homecoming outfit Cardinal Black slip on to the stage with minimal fuss or fanfare. Almost in an ethereal fashion in keeping with the swirling mist it’s so characteristic of this extremely talented quintet. Silky smooth, yet with a gravelly edge, vocalist Tom Hollister looks slightly anxiously towards the crowd “Alright, let’s have it. Summat a bit different!”
These chaps know what it’s all about, over a decade ago and with the world seemingly at their doorstep the trio of Hollister and fellow Welshmen guitarist Chris Buck and drummer Adam Roberts played the first ever Steelhouse – as the Tom Hollister trio. Sadly, matters didn’t work out and after an abortive Stateside switch the three went their separate ways.
The polished veneer of silky set opener ‘Rise Up’ now possesses a degree of self-prophecy as this is very much a band on the rise. A tour supporting Myles Kennedy followed a prestigious support slot with Those Damn Crows at Cardiff Castle and a couple of sell-out shows at local legendary venue The Patriot. Chris Buck – named ‘Best Guitarist in the World’ in 2019 – chisels fiery vibes from his fretboard, celebrating his place in the ‘Steelhouse Hat-trick Club’ following sets with Buck & Evans as well as the previously mentioned Tom Hollister Trio.
The crowd has, noticeably swelled in size as they apply the rubberstamp of approval. The massed ranks loudly cheering ‘Tell Me How It Feels’ – with its hooks of King King and formative Kris Barras – and the highly engineered blues forces of ‘Jump In’ that set about soothing the tearful skies.
The music does the talking as one of the memorable sets of the entire weekend unfolds. This is the eagle at flight upon high above the peaks; sheer unadulterated source at employ herein. There are no thoughts of how to follow what had preceded so Hollister turns his attention to the glass in hand “I’m running out of beer, getting worried.” A Guiness finds its way up to a most appreciative soul.
At the end of the mellow ‘Warm Love’ Hollister affirms “I can die a happy man!” before apologising, in advance, for not being rock n’ roll enough. I puzzle, like many through the crowd no doubt, at his remark. Cardinal Black have brought a touch of class to the mountain, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The sensitivities of ‘Tied Up In Blue’ bring the house crashing down, an articulate blues masterclass that captivates completely. “It’s you I want Steelhouse!” roars Hollister, a soulful, blessed ending. The drizzle has, largely, been kept at bay by a herculean blues-fuelled effort. The hefty gathering roars, job done.
Spider by name and Spider by nature; the eight-legged wrecking ball that is Black Spiders ram-raid Steelhouse in the inimitable style. Vociferating the Chieftain looks across his hall; a fire rages in the hearth the jarl nods as Wyatt ‘Octopus’ Wendalls brings his sticks together heralding 45 minutes of pure mayhem.
‘Death Comes Creeping’ deals out cards marked Motorhead and Metallica to produce a winning hand from the first shuffle. It’s a remapped V12 demon hollering from the depths. Pyromaniacs to the core the Spiders core mission appears to be setting fire to Steelhouse!
We’re requested to ‘Stick It To The Man’; to a person the Welsh mountain ensemble take pleasure in obliging. Low slung Airborne riffage melded with a Chuck Berry rock n’ roller attitude gives a dirty sewer rat glow.
‘Stay Down’ is uncompromising, straight down the throat metal pour in molten form right from the Spiders furnace. Having succumbed to Covid which cost them their Steelhouse slot last year the metalliferous arachnids are in steely, determined mood. With an additional “1,2,3,4,5 knuckle shuffle!” we indulge in a wee time-honoured “Fuck you Black Spiders” as the nebulous powerage of ‘Stabbed In The Back’ is unleashed.
The Easybeats’ 60s smash ‘Good Times’ receives a heavyweight octopedal re-working whilst the demonic hammer blows take us through life in a ‘Teenage Knife Gang.’ Pure mayhem especially with the accusatory, naturally Kiss-drenched ‘Kiss Tried To Kill Me’ to lob in the final stun grenade of the set! The Spiders have come, and the Spiders have snared Steelhouse in their web!
It’s fantastic to bear witness to international touring bands returning to our shores for festivals and next up we have the first of two very contrasting Scandinavian outfits to tantalise our ears. As the drizzle continues to fall steadily from the continuously battleship grey heavens Finnish progsters Von Hertzen Brothers step out from stage right to enliven a slightly damp throng.
A recent tour, promoting their much-praised album ‘Red Alert In The Blue Forest’, with Devonian prog-metallers Ethyrfield in tow reacquainted the Finns with a lot of the corners of the UK. It’s to a large, and expectant, crowd that the five-piece are greeted by as they embark upon their set. Steelhouse is taken to orbital levels with Pink Floyd psychedelia caressing precise harmonies. The ‘Day Of Reckoning’ has prevailed.
“It’s good to be back” notes Mikko, referring to the Brothers earlier Steelhouse appearance back in 2016, as Kie sets afire his fret with the note-precise of ‘Frozen Butterflies.’ At once we are transported to lands of the North awakening from their talvi slumbers; ice melting and glinting in the welcome rays of the sun.
Exiting the evergreen forest so the wild cat hunts; her offspring require her to kill to ensure their continued survival. There’s a presence in the Brother’s music; a transient force that shifts a narrative into the notes. ‘All Of A Sudden You’re Gone’ is a soulful synthesis of prog and subtle folk elements.
We are taken, gently by the hand, and joyously trekked through some of the back catalogue with ‘New Day Rising’ getting the crowd dancing and ‘Flowers & Rust’ eliciting a most warm of receptions. ‘Long Lost Sailor’ brings an unexpected nautical theme to the mountain; though in the murk we could be lost afloat.
With its subtle, classically proportioned movements ‘Peace Patrol’ takes a brooding march in the direction of The Cure or perhaps Joy Division as VHB wind up a triumphant return to Wales’s premier rock festival. Only question left, and one I ask myself each time I have the pleasure of watching these guys, is why isn’t this fine band playing arenas?
As the tide ebbs and flows on a diurnal basis so day two of Steelhouse swings to and forth with a pleasurable variance in the offerings to hand. From outright metal to punkish posturing via sublime blues to artistic conveyances of prog it’s all their thus far. We continue with the Scandinavian theme but with a Swedish twist in the polished geometry of H.E.A.T. Formed back in 2007 H.E.A.T. have developed a fearsome reputation for hi-energy melodic rock out of the top drawer. Founded upon the basis of stability the Swedes were rocked to the core in late 2020 with the departure of vocalist Erik Gronwall; the band turning to original vocalist Kenny Leckremo in what proved to be a most astute move.
Hitting the stage at a rapid rate of knots, being heralded by Glen Frey’s felicitous Billboard hit ‘The Heat Is On’, this most welcome bunch of Scandinavian invaders take apart Steelhouse ‘One By One.’ Percussive beast Don Crash pounds a thumping beat stood upright as Dave Dalone’s guitar roars. It’s every inch an anthem in the 80s mould.
‘Rock Your Body’ is a Skid Row / Europe composite with a singalong chorus that is unavoidably contagious. With a ‘Running Free’ undercurrent ‘Dangerous Ground’ takes me back 48 hours to bringing the motorhome up the track. Spotlights burn white into the gathering early evening gloom with the five-piece smouldering white-hot under these lights.
‘Hollywood’, off the most recent release ‘Force Majeure’, is, pure and simple, a classic in the making. If this was 1987 it would be guaranteed to gate-crash the charting party. However, even with the ever-present mizzle, there’s a party right here! ‘Straight From The Heart’ is transported from their 2008 eponymous debut long-player – one of two Leckremo recorded prior to his departure. Twelve years on and this enigmatic frontman looks right back at home.
“Let’s tear the roof off!” exclaims Leckremo before realising his actual whereabouts “Well a hole in the sky!” before giving ‘Beg, Beg, Beg’ an energetic workout. All hot and sweaty, the mountain loves it.
Chronological bookends ‘1000 miles’ and ‘Nationwide’ bring a storming hour long set to a crescendo to set the stage perfectly for the gathering metallic cumulonimbus heading our way.
A very youthful 74 years young rock legend Graham Bonnet, suited and booted for a Friday night down the boozer, springs onto the Steelhouse boards for a memorable 70 minutes right out of the halcyon days of yore. The keyed intro swirls in time with the mist that hugs the tops of the surrounding moorland as Bonnet and his band step forward. White shirt untucked at the waist and unbuttoned at the collar, black tie loosely knotted, Bonnet reels back the years.
Bonnet’s tenure in Rainbow was short-lived but it spawned their fourth, and marker of a more commercial successful era, long-player ‘Down To Earth.’ Released just over 43 years ago – 28th July to be precise – we’re paying homage to a fine slab of hard rock. All bar ‘Danger Zone’ and ‘No Time To Lose’ are brought to life this evening in an enthralling performance. Bonnet, face clearly straining, hasn’t lost an ounce of character as he belts the classics rolling back the years. Rock is indeed timeless.
Rattling off five numbers from ‘Down To Earth’ suddenly I’m transformed into that nine year old kid slowly packing for school. Stalling so as I could hear a bit more of now legendary classic ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ blasting out across the airwaves from the elderly transistor radio in the corner of the kitchen. We wish this could last ‘All Night Long’ – every last crumb and morsel that is delivered is voraciously devoured by a ravenous gathering. The feast is well and truly under way!
Bonnet explains he’s recently undergone knee surgery “It’s buggering me up” he quips, “If I fall over, please don’t laugh” the Skegness-born rocker adds. Brand new track ‘Imposter’, a self-reflection of a career most only get to dream of, encapsulates it all in a nutshell. “Here I am my grey hair falling out, but it doesn’t matter. I’m here playing rock n’ roll!” Bonnet deliberates.
Utilising a backline kindly provided by his tour support Beth Blade & The Beautiful Disasters Bonnet takes us through his solo career and spell with the Michael Schenker Group. A personal highlight is the deluxe classic ‘Night Games.’ Originally released back in 1981 it featured a who’s who of 80s rock with Micky Moody, Francis Rossi and Cozy Powell, amongst others, assisting Bonnet to a top ten single. MSG’s ‘Assault Attack’ and ‘Lost In Hollywood’ stampede across the mountainside as Bonnet et al take a deserved celebratory bow. Thank you for the memories.
In what a large percentage of Steelhousers, myself included, perceived as an upgrade metallers Saxon accepted, at relatively short notice, the offer to headline Steelhouse for an incredible third time. Replacing founding Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley in what is their only UK festival appearance of the year the Barnsley NWOBHM legends brought their 40th anniversary set to the lofty Steelhouse contours.
With a career spanning an incredible 45 years Saxon have released 23 studio albums of which nine are celebrated under the Steelhouse lights this evening. Quite incredibly the title tracks from each of those albums are offered on a Saxon-esque platter for our delectation. Unfairly underrated, oft in the shadow of more fashionable outfits, this hardy perennial bunch have now taken their deserved place at metal’s top table.
A dozen of the seventeen tracks proffered hail from the ‘glory days’ of the early to mid-80s but Saxon are more than happy to turn the spotlight on their latter chapters with the pugnacious sledgehammer that is ‘Battering Ram’ being a fine example of how their career has been deservedly resurrected.
Frontman Biff Byford has an eye for irony; donning a denim cut, thrown up from the crowd, with a Kiss backpatch sewn upon it before sending ‘Wheels Of Steel’ blazing out into the night.
Saxon have had a more than handy knack of writing quality rockers about things closer to their heart – bikes, playing rock n’ roll, iron horses and close shaves with disaster. ‘Motorcycle Man’ howls at the moon (a thin crescent hidden behind the menacing clouds) as the Marshall ‘Wall of Death’ barks in stentorian tones.
We feel the muscular ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’; the crowd lapping up every moment rapaciously. Fists punch the air in unified time and horns are raised to the night skies. “Come and spend a day in hell” roars Biff as the ‘Solid Ball Of Rock’ arcs across Steelhouse.
Wayward Son’s frontman, and Planet Rock DJ, Toby Jepson is introduced to the crowd as he joins Saxon for the iconic glory of ‘And The Bands Played On.’ Jepson, in the process, sneaking into the Steelhouse Hat-trick Club! As the set nears the end, by process of elimination, we begin to ponder upon the songs that will form the latter stages. And what a coupling it proves to be!
There’s only one word necessary to describe ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’ and that is Anthem! If there was a roof it would have been lifted, if there was walls they would have been reduced to dust. Structural damage guaranteed but, here on the mountain the riffage reverberates about the tops of the moors like a giddy pagan reveller high on hippy vibes.
If 747 wasn’t sufficient then Biff and co. apply one more masterstroke by launching ‘Princess Of The Night’, snorting fire and belching smoke, to sumptuously regale one and all. Saxon have brought the denim and the leather to Steelhouse, and we are unified as one. A memorable middle day without debate.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM