Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Spent the last year
Rocky Mountain way
Couldn’t get much higher
Out to pasture
Think it’s safe to say
Time to open fire
Rocky Mountain Way – Joe Walsh
Let’s face it head on, there’s absolutely no coincidence that this festival, one of the very best of highlights of the hard rock calendar, shares those very same initials of superhero. Right down to the very last drop of oil that lubricates this intricate moorland music machine everything ascends the mountain track that rises and snakes its way up from the A4046 beneath.
Sat on a plateau, sandwiched between the former mining settlements of Abertillery and Cwm, at an altitude of over 400 metres above sea level, setting up a festival site for several thousand punters, 22 bands and an army of hard-working and dedicated volunteers is no mean feat. Remember for the remaining 51 weekends of the year the only visitors up here are Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm’s livestock!
Waking to skies of various shades of grey it’s with more than a degree of trepidation that we venture outside. It would appear the contents of last night’s bottle of rum are to mercifully be the only wetness we are to encounter during the first 24 hours ‘up the mountain’. Sunday’s forecast is another matter, but we’ll deal with that at the appropriate juncture.
For now it’s dry and the twelfth Steelhouse readies itself to hoist and proudly fly the flags of eight nations across its three days. Last year we applauded festival organisers Mikey Evans and Max Rhead for their diverse selection that enticed us up the mountain track. From the undoubted talents of this year’s opener Dan Byrne to the ample Southern charms of Sunday’s headliner Black Stone Cherry there’s yet another mellifluous altar of much breadth upon which we can ravenously feast. Planet Rock DJ Ian Danter gives the welcoming lines and ‘barracks’ his fellow presenter Darren Reddick, who’s backstage on air, by getting the crowd to loudly chant “Hello Darren”. ‘Ruffled’ the aforementioned Reddick emerges “Can you keep it down? Trying to do a show back there!” before scuttling off into the wings.
Up first, as the bell tolls a half past the three, is one of this festival’s favourite sons Dan Byrne, who with this afternoon’s performance joins the Steelhouse hat-trick club. It’s his third consecutive trip up to Hafod-Y-Dafal and following sets with Revival Black and Myke Gray the affable Liverpudlian joins a select number of artists who have taken to the mountain stage with three different bands.
Dan and his band – remarkably in only their third gig together – take the honour of opening 2023’s sold-out soiree in their stride. Rapidly so as it turns out as ‘Take You Out’ screeches in tyres burning and banshees wailing. Craned in from Revival Black’s second, and final, album ‘Under The Light’ the track gets proceedings underway with a force reminiscent of an alloying of primetime Thunder and classic-era Whitesnake.
Having watched, for over a year, with keen interest as the door opened upon Dan’s solo career it’s transparently clear that with every gig there’s a tangible growth in belief in his choices. The path selected is a surefire winner with new tracks like the voracious ‘Like Animals’ and the raging supernova ‘Death Of Me’ bedding in so very well.
Louis Malagodi’s siren-busting conflagrant solo in ‘Control’ would ignite the most sodden of campfires as the faithful prove that they’ve brought their singing voices. We’re in the Valleys, there’s something magical in the air after all. Reaching out for his acoustic Dan offers his everlasting gratitude – this is one of the humblest guys on the circuit – as he introduces the enduring and soaring ballad ‘Hemispheres’. “It means a lot to me, it’s deeply personal and a lot of you have taken personal things from it” furthering “which is more than I can have asked for.”
Emotive and soulful blending in a rocking environ is no simple feat and something which Dan does naturally. When it comes genuine from the heart the battle is as good won. Conflagrant rocker ‘Wide Awake’ closes a quickfire half hour and raises the roof, in the metaphorical sense, to fully accede to Dan’s wishes. With hands raised in salute the Steelhouse crowd let the quintet know they’re there and unaccompanied the ensemble roars.
Following on in those initial fiery footsteps are London alt-metallers Jordan Red, taking to the boards to a classically infused intro. There’s an undoubted touch of class that emanates during their packed half hour long quickfire set. Drawn entirely from last year’s ‘Hands That Built The World’ album we are hooked from the very off; with eight tracks all clocking in at around the three-minute mark there’s plenty to dine upon.
The muscular set-opener ‘Cast A Flame’ is omnipotent casting molten sparks across the mountain. Vocalist Daniel Leigh (New Device), using every inch of the runway, roars in ‘Way Down’ casts his mic stand to the ground. Welcoming one and all to the ‘Freak Show’ Daniel comments triumphantly “We made it up the treacherous hill! We’ve been told but nothing prepares you, clutch control seriously!” ‘Freak Show’ unleashes a raging tempest; “Have we got a show for you!” barrages the vocalist.
It’s impressive matter that isn’t lost in the expansive moorland airs. In fact, the dramatics of the scenery further bolster this relatively new band’s slick despatch. Guitarist Dan Baker’s gentle six-stringing segues from ‘Don’t Let The Heavens Fall’ to the maelstromic hook of ‘Get Up’; there’s furious energy in the drumming of Paul White and a raw kick in the midriff that firmly leaves its mark.
“Shall we try that again?” questions Daniel as it appears the band miss the backing cue of the intro of ‘Spilling My Blood’, a track which stirs the cataclysm. The tempestuous waves of ‘Beautiful Monsters’ – “Back to where it all began for us” notes Daniel – break upon the craggy shoreline. Etching their energies with water-borne erosional forces there is no relenting.
With just one track remaining the penny finally drops; this is Vega dialled up to the veritable eleven. It’s finely polished yet possesses a bleeding heart and a snarl from the darkest of nights. With a slice of Those Damn Crows thrown into the mix the heavied AOR of ‘Awake’ – the recipient of airtime courtesy of both Radio 1 and Planet Rock – goes down an absolute storm. Expansive vocals atop a multi-layered hard-rock cross-section demands further investigation.
Rapidly becoming deserved favourites of the festival circuit capital city rockers The Karma Effect spring onto the Steelhouse stage to the telling strains of ‘Back In The Saddle’. Mustering way more swagger than that track’s exponents Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones combined could ever muster this slick as quintet meld together the modern with the classic with effortless ease.
Having torn apart Friday’s hangover slot back at June’s Love Rocks Festival down in Dorset TKE are prime candidates to do something most similar up in the rarified Welsh air. In an all too quickly over set the mountain horde are treated to a half dozen prime cuts from last year’s self-titled debut long-player. From the southern legends such as The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd right through to the Black Crowes and ZZ Top we have an undoubted high quality and most worthy English rival to Los Angeles’ Dirty Honey.
The twin power of Henry Gottelier’s and Robbie Blake’s low-slung Les Pauls entwine gloriously with the former despatching “I believe every word you say” with a rasping vocal in opening number ‘Wrong Again’. “We’re gonna blow those clouds away!” enthuses the enigmatic frontman adding “What d’ya say?” The hot and sticky-sweet grooves of ‘Doubt She’s Coming Back’ feature the swirling keys of Seb Emmins that mimic the atmospheric dry ice that abounds.
No time for wastrels herein, Gottelier playfully enquires “Whose clutch is fucked in their car?” The stunning Southern furrows of ‘Mercy’ abut neatly with the sashaying blues rock of ‘The River’ replete with its underpinning so reminiscent of The Allman Brothers. With their debut single TKE threaten to ‘Steal Your Heart’ in a blaze of arenaceous boogie.
Closing with their signature track ‘Testify’ Gottelier notes, as the crowd raucously sing the title, “This is a moment I’ll never forget, you look beautiful.” There’s a new album in the offing, looks and sounds very much like there’s going to be a post-festival surge in interest in their forthcoming sophomore release.
Having made a name for themselves as one of the hardest working bands on the blues rock circuit When Rivers Meet have trekked a long way since the days of journeying the highways and byways in their trust VW campervan.
The husband / wife duo of Aaron and Grace Bond, who first met in the former’s local pub in Downham Market, have, in the years following their formation in 2016, gained thoroughly deserved national recognition with countless awards – including a quartet of accolades at 2021’s UK Blues Awards – and the release of two lps. The latter of which, ‘Saving Grace’, made inroads into the national charts.
“I’m the devil on your shoulder” belts out Grace as the quartet kick off their set with ‘Play My Game’, the first single from the forthcoming studio release ‘Aces Are High!’ Its sultry blues embrace longingly with the crowd absorbing every note. A loud resonating cheer dispels any doubts as to whether the continuing desire of Steelhouse to push the defined musical boundaries further outwards would be well received.
Aaron’s raw slide in ‘Never Coming Home’ emotively combines with Grace’s hi-energy vocal despatch. Don’t let her svelte, elfin lines fool you, this lady has blues and rock pulsating through her veins in absolute bucketloads!
From the future to the past via the present WRM flick their attention to 2020’s debut album ‘We Fly Free’ with the stridulously gritty riffing of ‘Did I Break The Law’ ahead of the pounding of ‘Battleground’. The earth quakes and the lights burn into the gloom. Honeypot sweetness of Aaron’s swampland cigar box guitar ushers in ‘Innocence Of Youth’ – the title track off their second EP – we can feel it in our bones too.
‘He’ll Drive You Crazy’ slinks and slithers with rattlesnake precision prior to Grace introducing the haunting ‘Free Man’, “The first song we ever released” the vocalist notes. Aaron’s rip-roaring slide wraps itself about Grace’s precise delivery from her mandolin in the swamp-dwelling ‘Walking On The Wire’.
The moorland darkens under the grasp of the merciless cloud, but, in the arena, we’re bathed in the shining excellence onstage. Latest single ‘Perfect Stranger’ proves to be a velvety blues rocker from the top drawer. The stabbing riffs of the set-ending ‘Lost And Found’ ascend into the moody skies above. An utter masterclass of the finest hard rocking blues is over all too quickly. When Rivers Meet have landed, announcing themselves in audacious manner upon their Steelhouse debut.
Atop the mountain glasses are raised to send a message of positivity to Ginger Wildheart; his mental health struggles are sad to read about but it’s reassuring that this legendary rocking troubadour is seeking professional help. The news that Ginger is writing new material is on a joyous plane personally. I have nothing but respect for a gent who has provided so much pleasure to myself over the years.
Just three months prior I, along with a packed Patriot venue just down the road, bore witness to a cracking set from the man himself. Afterwards he chatted, signed autographs seemingly in a really good place. We had joked about the worst sandwich combinations we’d tasted. His Dr. Who induced (or was it inspired?) fish finger and custard combination outlandishly trumped my fried egg and marmalade pairing. It’s poignant to note that Ginger’s guitar takes pride of place throughout The Sinners’ 12 song Steelhouse romp.
With their ranks bolstered by Sam Wood – he of Black Star Riders, Wayward Sons, Oli Brown & The Dead Collective repute – The Sinners hit the ground at sprint with the infectious badlands vibe of ‘That Smile’ hauled in from last year’s Sinner’s album. A further five selections from this release are sprinkled throughout.
‘The Road’ with its nod to Quo crossed with Georgia Satellites proves a portentous sign with the former’s ‘Dirty Water’ and the latter’s ‘Six Years Gone’ arriving back-to-back early on, in spectacular fashion, in this rollickingly good set. Beforehand the emotional lyrics of ‘The Words Are Gonna Have To Wait’ – off Ginger’s 2018 solo album ‘Ghost In The Tanglewood’ – see The Eagles mooch off into a folky realm. Here’s where the genius lies gently slumbering.
‘Walk of Shame’ is a contagious country shuffle whilst the joyous romp n’ roll of ‘Wasted Times’ sets the fuse wire burning with a touch of Springsteen. Little Feat’s ‘Willin’’ is well received, whilst Lately, Always’ lobs a stone into the lake, watch the ripples move outwards with a slice of Petty and a dash of Dylan thrown in for good measure.
The cards have been stacked against The Sinners but to their complete credit they’ve overcome and the Steelhouse crowd have been warm and welcoming. Frontman Neil Ivision sagely comments “I know it wasn’t what you expected but you were great, [we] hope you enjoyed it!”
The Geordie folk-punk of ‘Not The Staying Kind’ and the mid-West US vibe of ‘Footprints In The Sand’ bracket the Springsteen-fuelled ‘Arms of Love’ as the affable Sinners ratchet up a fine hour on the mountain that will live long in my memory banks. One more time let’s raise a glass for Ginger.
Friday’s headliners the Kris Barras Band are clearly not a superstitious bunch as they launch headline into a delightfully round baker’s dozen of the finest hard-driving and even harder punching blues-tinged rock. Liberally spread across a fine seventy-five minutes, as fine as you’re ever gone find in my opinion, Steelhouse is taken upon a trek through ‘Death Valley Paradise’.
A behemoth eight tracks are craned in from last year’s studio offering whilst Kris’ first three albums are allocated a single track apiece. It’s one of the live staples ‘Hail Mary’ – off 2018’s ‘The Divine and Dirty’ – is given the honour of launching the set. Receiving an elongated work-out it’s a bold manoeuvre to put such a signature track as this on the starting line. However, it’s one that pays dividends and ensures that the set finishes on an equally high altitude too.
For all of us who were here stood in this very same field two years ago nobody can possibly forget the moment when the Steelhouse faithful continued to sing ‘My Parade’ well after the last note had spread out across the surrounding hills. Its chest-beating, tub-thumping resonates. “You guys are fucking beautiful!” emotes Kris as the chorus’ words are sung in perfection. Clearly moved the guitarist is into the crowd; it’s his crowd full of his people.
In between there’s no room for slacking, not the merest fraction. The threatening clouds are lowering but even the weather wouldn’t dare intrude. The anthemic ‘Dead Horses’ keeps the ball rolling with extra punch delivered from hammer of the gods drummer Billy Hammett, an ever-dependable individual who is reputed to be the only person to have taken on Kris in an arm-wrestle and come out on top.
The last remaining vestiges of daylight rapidly dissipate, and as if a switch has been turned off, we’re plunged into the darkness of the night. The highly impassioned bluesy swagger of ‘These Voices’ possesses an element of Cream. Kris is pumped “It’s not secret we gradually got a bit heavier!” to which he elicits a loud cheer from the massed ranks. “Seriously it’s not even raining!” he adds.
‘Heart On Your Sleeve’ dips a toe into Kravitz’s pond with Kris’ masterful control surfacing in the sandpaper rough rocking of ‘Devil You Know’. Loyal lieutenant Josiah J. Manning follows Kris’ intro with a Pink Floyd inspired segment in ‘Wake Me When It’s Over’; his switching from keys to six-strings a pivotal juncture in the evolution of this outfit’s heading. ‘Hostage’ stomps and plunders before Steelhouse is offered the first of two covers from Kris and his sidekicks. The choice of Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi’s number one smash ‘Forget Me’ is a somewhat unlikely one but it works. There’s a lot of folks singing along and all’s fine with the world for a moment or two.
A rampaging ‘Chaos’ leads right into what proves to be a vigorously despatched rendition of Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’ with Kris intro his band by ‘facing off’ each one of them in turn including the effervescent energetic bassist Fraser Kerslake. ‘Ignite (Light It Up)’ is greeted with reverence, like the fiery old friend it is as the set builds up to a crescendo. The pugilistic ‘Who Needs Enemies’ cranks it up further with the machinery straining and threatening to explode.
The set-closing detonative triumph of ‘My Parade’ provides the fireworks. “Steelhouse, I fucking love you!” roars Kris with a sincerity rarely found in the music industry. This is a chap with a clear vision of where he’s navigating towards but one who will never forget as to where he has come from. The perfect Friday headliner, Kris goes from strength to strength.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM