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Gig Review : Steelhouse Festival 2023 Day Three

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Review by Gary Spiller for MPM

I’ve been waiting

For her for so long

Open the sky

And let her come down

Rain – The Cult

The weather, it’s the one topic of thought and conversation that on occasion even overrides the whole consuming one of the music up here at Steelhouse.

Even the most optimistic of souls, scanning across the hills, this morning will be preparing for dampness of a continual and oft-dismal level. The early morning patches of brightness are swiftly chased away and are replaced by skies of a variety of shades of grey; battleship, slate, gunmetal, charcoal, marengo, cinerous the list goes on. Not quite the half century of ‘literary’ infamy but I reckon by close of play I will have come close to that mark for different ways of describing the omni-present precipitation.

The fullest of credit to each and every band plus all the stage crew for their feverish efforts in the face of the inclement shroud Hafod-Y-Dafal is cloaked in throughout the course of the day. There’s a phenomenal final day of the usual finest Steelhouse calibre in the offing and the faithful are not about to relent and permit ‘Sunday Muddy Sunday’ dampen the spirits or enthusiasm. The ‘sunshade’, in the middle of the arena, is repurposed and even after the fullest of days there’s a passionate and oft-frenzied welcome for headliners Black Stone Cherry.

Literally just a week prior, under unbroken sunshine, I’d caught today’s opening act, Troy Redfern – rightfully dubbed Britain’s ‘King of Slide’, searing through a conflagrant riparian performance on the wistful banks of the Severn at the annual Upton Blues Festival. Troy’s powers are strong but even he can’t bring the weather with him, but he does haul in his consummately ferocious brand of arenaceous blues rock that is liberally daubed with tenacious earthy slide.

Troy attacks the Steelhouse stage roaring off the starting grid with the kerosene burning ‘All Night Long’. His slide is fearsome and blistering and with a driving beat laid down by bassist Rich Zbarski and drummer Nicky Waters the triumvirate pack a heavyweight pugilistic force.

With a fine selection of gloriously battle worn guitars alongside Troy opts for one of his National Resonators, they’re in the region of a 100 years old but surge with modern-day energies. The good time rock n’ slide of ‘Sweet Carolina’ is despatched “She’ll always leave you one step behind” purrs Troy shining like that super star.

The rain drives mercilessly across the hills, it’s that ‘mizzly’ stuff; not quite mist, not quite drizzle but possessing an armour piercing quality. It’s a tough task to take on the day’s opening slot but in these conditions the challenges are multiplied manyfold. This doesn’t deter Troy or his colleagues, far from it and they’re rampaging through the Devil’s freight-train ‘Come On’.

Not one to rest upon his musical laurels Troy is constantly forging ahead and drafts in the supernova of ‘Get Away’ a brand new one projected to be included upon next year’s studio release. Returning to his Resonators Troy saddles up for a calescent romp through ‘Sanctify’. With its Rocket From The Crypt underpinning the track, with laser-like precision, cuts through the early afternoon murk. The acceleration is, at a moment’s willing, pressed harder or eased off in collective terms such is the control. It’s been a whistle-stop blast in testing conditions by Troy along with his ‘partners in crime’ have endeared themselves to a healthy-sized ensemble.

Next up is Empyre, a band, in their very own self-deprecating humour, seriously intent upon ‘killing the vibe’. They confess to having packed their own personal black raincloud, but it firmly remains within its own flight-case. The Welsh weather gods have ensured its utilisation isn’t necessary. The shrouding mist adds an extra ethereal layer to proceedings further enhancing the pirouetting atmospherics that this Northampton quartet thoroughly revel within.

With a giant slice of sub-conscious irony frontman Henrik Steenholdt sings “The future is bright” in the set opening ‘Waking Light’; the band’s future certainly is but the prevailing weather is anything but. Pints, in the crowd, are raised in salute accompanied by a loud approving cheer. Think of a realm somewhere between Muse and The Killers.

As upon ‘Relentless’ – Empyre’s recent sophomore long-player – so ‘Parasites’ follows. As with ‘Waking Light’ Henrik remains guitarless pouring every ounce into his distinctive rough-edged opulent vocals. The choice select recondite notes of guitarist Did Coles and bassist Grant Hockley reverberate about the stubbornly enshrouded moorland whist drummer Elliot Bale hammers a pseudo-Norseland beat. At times the track verges towards the symphonic encompassing of Swedish metallers Sabaton, no bad thing in my book.

Henrik greets not the crowd but their personal raincloud, taking a swig of liquid refreshment he observes “This suits us fine, this next track is the most summery we’ve ever fucking written!” With guitar slung on his left flank the enigmatic frontman despatches the opening lines of ‘Hit and Run’. Its soothing tones bringing joyous rays of sun kissed shorelines. Upon receipt of further approbatory salutations Henrik plays it down “We’re not used to this applause” he wryly notes.

The spinetingling Pink Floyd infused ‘Only Way Out’ is coupled sumptuously with the growling undertones of ‘New Republic’ as the rocking accentuate turns to their debut album ‘Self Aware’. Much the same way as the four elements of nature – air, earth, fire, and water – combine so do the quadrumvirate that are ‘at play’ herein the purview of Empyre. A kaleidoscope of much exaltedness; the conjured melancholy is dark and rammed to breaking point with raw emotion.

Henrik plays to the crowd, those that know revel in the self-disparaging comedic and those who don’t are beginning to catch on perhaps a little bit bemused still. “As much as we hate your applause, we kinda like it” states Henrik, the vibe very much ‘killed’.

The announcement of a local show, on September 30th, at the nearby Patriot venue is wholeheartedly received. There’s an affinity with the valleys as it’s just down the road at the Dolls House in Abertillary at which we first encountered this most unserious group of serious musicians.

Just a few days after descending the mountain track Empyre were, deservedly, awarded the runner-up spot in Planet Rock’s Best New Band category, the winner of which we would see later. Safe to make note of the visionary skills of festival organisers Max and Mikey.

A regal intro ushers The Cruel Knives forward as haunted cloisters are transcendently ghosted. Formed in 2017 this quartet have recently begun a reemergence of sorts with a couple of singles and more material in the pipeline. Out of the ashes of Heaven’s Basement former members guitarist Sid Glover and bassist Rob Ellershaw form the nucleus and have joined forces with vocalist Tom Harris (who spent the last two years of Heaven’s Basement touring with the band) and drummer Al Junior.

Leaden skies are unrelentingly discharging their cargo; it hasn’t got far to travel as the cloud base is not much above the moorland. ‘Black Eye Friday’ off 2019’s ‘Side 2’ album accelerates hard before the raw riffage of ‘The Life That We Made’. Vocals initially low down in the mix are rectified by the time last year’s single ‘Overdose’ ebbs and flows. The statuesque Glover sets his fretboard afire with a sparking solo.

Later in the year a support slot upon Those Damn Crows’ UK and European tour awaits, clearly there is a belief in the band. The crowd around me appear to be by and large very accepting of their delivery but in spite of some quality material there’s little in the way of engagement with the Steelhouse crowd and I’m left just a fraction cold. Crucially there’s tracks like the head-nodding ‘Hollow People’ and the gritty ‘If This Is The End (I’ve Been A Fool From The Start)’ both from ‘Side Two’ to ensure an interest is retained.

Latest single ‘All Your Heroes Hate You’ is a marauding force and ‘Shotgun To Your Head’ – scheduled to be the next release – tumbles and cascades as Harris sinks to his knees. ‘Crawl’ blusters at set end. There appears to be much in the way of promise but somehow it hasn’t fully, to me personally, translated itself as it should have. A further watching, minus the dampening distractions of the weather, is definitely required.

There couldn’t be, in my books, more of a contrast between two bands’ approach to the inclement weather with Planet Rock and Steelhouse favourites Kira Mac boldly taunting the climatological department responsible for ‘Soggy Sunday’ by spending the vast majority of their set out on the runway. Raising spirits out in the sizeable arena crowd most definitely atop the agenda.

There’s plenty more than just the edges burning as KM burst into life with opening track ‘Farewell’, one of four new tracks in this afternoon’s set. Watch out for Kira Mac returning to the studio at the tail end of September to begin work on their second album. A valedictory parting as an initial greeting is typically Kira Mac, a sense of fun in the serious business of rock n’ roll. Vocalist Rhiannon is right out on the runway, her distinctive rasping edge to her powerful vocals. In the year since their Steelhouse debut much water has passed under the bridge and the band are even tighter.

Livewire bassist Bret Barnes doesn’t take long to join Rhiannon out on the runway, the dynamics are uplifting. Between ‘Dead Man Walking’ and ‘Chaos Is Calling’ – both rocking delights now firmly established in the live set – Rhiannon greets the crowd. “[We] would like to apologise on behalf of everyone involved. We’re very Northern like the weather!” furthering with genuine respect “If you’re prepared to stand here watching, we’ll play!”

A brace of brand-new tracks in the striking form of ‘Play The Game’ and the Southern moonshine charms of latest single decanted from the still ‘Scorned’. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” rages Rhiannon. A shot of Johnny Walker Black right in the arm from the swamp dwelling ‘Hellfire & Holy Water’ with an added red bra adorning the headstock of Bret’s bass brings colour to proceedings.

Twin guitarists Joe Worrall and Alex Novakovic muscle in on the action as ‘Hit Me Again’ prowls voraciously as the kerosene burns lighting the rampage through the delta lands. The crowd clap along in the never ceasing downpour as Rhiannon and the now braless Bret stake claims for territory at runway end.

“We rarely write ballads” apprises Rhiannon adding “but luckily for us every time we get into the studio someone’s life has fallen apart.” ‘Never Going To Stay’ is, naturally, emotional before the sashaying ‘Mississippi Swinging’ gets feet stomping along in the Steelhouse mud. ‘Climbing’, the last of the new tracks, is a raw number before the set climaxes with the first single ‘One Way Ticket’ which sees the entire band, other that drummer Max Rhead, out on the runway for one last hurrah.

Kira Mac have landed, overcome and conquered in the face of the adverse meteorological interventions taking the lead in demonstrating just how to rock n’ roll in the rain. Spirits have been well and truly raised and reward is received a few days later as Planet Rock announce that the band are the recipients of this year’s New Band of the Year category.

The surrounding hills appear for a brief while, the rain eases and Icelandic psychedelic progsters The Vintage Caravan head on-stage to a shimmering intro. This is one of their first shows of the year before a prestigious slot at Wacken prior to heading off to South America for a string of dates but there’s now sign of any ring rustiness. Doom-laden proto-metallic riffs barrage alongside a phosphorescent psychedelia shine through the gloomy Welsh surrounds.

These three islanders have a keen sense of shirt choice with polka-dots, stars and a paisley design that would have These Wicked Rivers in a veritable froth the choices of the day. They charge headlong into the darkened grooves of ‘Whispers’, the opening track of 2021’s ‘Monuments’ the fifth, and most recent, of their albums. Herein lies a new direction as the spectacular trio manage the very neat illusion of making a sparkling darkness. Imagine Hawkwind running blindly into the likes of Clutch.

The chilled-out pysch of ‘Crystallized’ – “About getting cold, lost and dying in Iceland” informs guitarist, and sole remaining founding member, Óskar Logi Ágústsson – serves warning to those ill-prepared for extreme conditions. With more meandering than a stoned sidewinder there’s contrasting shades that enthral and hypnotise the unwary. There’s a sense of a mastery of an arcane craft at play.

The majesty of ‘Reflections’ begins a trip through the deeper reaches of the Caravan’s back catalogue, a neat head nodding Sabbath-based melded with Nordic vitality. A galloping beast emerges from its underworldly lair; wild, expansive expressions abound. The gentle melodious entwining of ‘Innerverse’ contrasts; the folky prog opus battling bravely against the driving cloud despatches.

‘Can’t Get You Off My Mind’ explodes with a riff that wouldn’t have been out of place on Elastica’s debut but then veers out of a progged up tangent. These three guys know how to blur the genres and mix it right up.

The atmospheric strains of ‘On The Run’ possess a rolling thunder. The Steelhouse crowd might well be a touch sodden, but the enthusiasm generated is to behold. Ágústsson’s Gibson SG howls at the midnight moon. A roaming cosmic byway swaggers in what I believe to be ‘Expand Your Mind’, a track that ratchets up into the set-closing ‘Midnight Meditation’. An unharnessed stable mate from ‘Voyage’ it ensures that the Icelanders exit stage right to rapturous cheers.

Northern Ireland’s seminal hard rockers The Answer are well and truly back, and we better believe it! A seven-year hiatus has been munificently terminated with the release of the stupendously bounteous ‘Sundowners’ album; the seventh of their career thus far. Unleashed upon on the public earlier this year on, most appropriately, St. Patrick’s Day its success has catapulted this most slick of quartets firmly back into the imaginations of the rock n’ roll public.

All courtesy of a “How do you feel about writing again” call from their management during lockdown! Reflecting upon the album just prior to its release affable frontman Cormac Neeson mused on the band’s website, “The end result is the album we’ve been waiting to make our whole lives…full of good time rock n roll and positive energy created by four brothers who quite frankly just really missed each other” concluding “We’re back and we’re ready to go!”

Formed back in 2000 the line-up has remained constant throughout and having seen them return to live action, back in March, at Bristol’s Thekla I have been buzzing since the announcement of their addition to Steelhouse’s line-up. If there’s anything any cooler this side of the refrigerator, then it’s likely to be an imposter; putting it simply there’s little that can keep pace in terms of swagger and sashaying groove. This is a band that’s burning brighter than ever before.

Accelerator pressed hard to the floor The Answer announce their return to the hallowed, if somewhat sodden, Steelhouse turf with the re-imagined beast that is ‘Keep Believin’’ The hip swaying goodness chases away the early evening murk with its exalted edicts of hope and belief.

Looking across the arena, by now the fullest it’s been to this juncture, Cormac enquires in the double “Hey you’re still here? Are you ready for some rock n’ roll?” That’s an affirmative on both accounts. With a pseudo glam rock triple-pronged despatch from guitarist Paul Mahon, bassist Micky Waters and drummer James Heatley we’re right into the thick of the action with ‘Blood Brother’.

The Answer are here for the craic, Cormac pays respect to the crowd for sticking about in the face of the unrelenting mire “It’s the warmest July since records began right?” he quips. A giant inflatable football bounces about the crowd as the howling juggernaut of the soulful ‘Oh Cherry’ warms the spirits. Paul lays down the opening fiery licks of the fist-pumping ‘Under The Sky’ with the preachers leading their flock in Sunday worship. The ‘mizzle’ may well be obscuring the surrounding moorlands but the searing heat emanating from the stage is truly palpable.

Criss-crossing the dusty plains ‘Nowhere Freeway’ conjures up a southern Tom Petty vibrancy as Cormac informs “The Answer are all about the good karma and positive vibes.” This comes through in absolute bucketloads. Paul shoulders a National steel guitar, a gleaming six-string beauty, as Cormac warms up his freight train harmonica for high-percentage proof titular track ‘Sundowners’ which goes down a storm both in the arena and up on stage. “I needed that today!” observes Cormac.

With some foot-stomping goodness The Answer bring us ‘All Together’, these four chaps now how to work an audience to great effect. Paul teasing sweet incantations from the fret of his well-worn pink / white Stratocaster with industrious purpose. A new horizon is in the offing, somewhere a damn sight warmer and dryer if I have my way, with the summery edicts of ‘Spectacular’.

Screeching into life timeless signature track ‘Come Follow Me’ enrichens as does following track ‘Want You To Love Me’ with its quality mined granular blues-rock featuring some harmonica that Lee Brilleaux would have been undoubtedly proud of.

“Gonna get me a religion” proclaims Cormac as the southern-fuelled slide courtesy of Paul rings in ‘Preachin’’. Every inch the rock n’ roll preacher the expressive vocalist captivates the ‘congregation’ into which he drops into mid-track for a touch of communion. Returning upon the shoulders of an obliging punter Cormac takes a sample of the Steelhouse earthiness with him, his jacket a little less white than previously. This is a band of the people who love nothing more than to deliver their rocking sermon.

A festival wouldn’t be 110% complete without a supergroup and the cherry and sprinkles atop the Steelhouse cake comes in the form of metal supergroup Elegant Weapons. At the beginning of the month Crystal Palace’s Dog Day Festival had components of the Sex Pistols and Generation X morphed into Generation Sex and the theme continues here atop the mountain at the month end.

The announcement that this stellar collection of metalliferous musicians was to make its UK debut here at Steelhouse raised eyebrows and impressed in bounteous quantities. The brainchild of Judas Priest’s architect on the axe Richie Faulkner he’s joined in the ranks by vocalist Ronnie Romero (MSG, Rainbow), bassist Dave Rimmer (Uriah Heep) and drummer Christopher Williams (Accept). Bringing, collectively, over half a century of craft between them this quartet most ably represent the generation of musicians that have bolstered the realms of the heritage acts over the last decade or two.

Their debut album ‘Horns For A Halo’ was released at the tail end of May to critical acclaim and it’s drawn upon for much of their nine-track set. It’s testament to the individuals involved that after just a handful of gigs, since early June, this is one heck of a tight outfit.

The two singles that preceded the album’s release kick off proceedings with the purest of heavy metal brought forth in the obsidian form of ‘Do or Die’ doing its darndest to part those charcoal skies. Chilean-born Romero brings a touch of Dio whilst there’s a clear underpinning of the Priest.

Rolling right into ‘Blind Leading The Blind’ with Romero, left foot upon the frontline monitors, imploring “Just keep your head in the game.” A metallic war cry blood curdles in fear of the coming onslaught for miles about. The statement booking is making a crystal-clear statement of their own.

Walking the tightline above the fires of hell ‘Horns For A Halo’ tempestuously roars before I’m caught off guard by the porcine squealing and grunting bursting through the PA. The penny, eventually, drops; the incessant rain has caused the cogs to rust and begin to seize evidently! It’s time for ‘Dirty Pig’ to thunder with horns raised as ethereal principalities are traversed. An inflatable porker bobs about down on the barrier seemingly revelling in the gathering mud.

‘Dead Man Walking’ gallops apace as dusk begins to take an early hold on Steelhouse. No-one cares as Faulkner despatches melodious six-stringing of the highest order in this NWOBHM-infused canticle. Romero enthuses about singing the next track right here this time last year in the company of Micheal Schenker. A scorching rendition of UFO’s classic ‘Lights Out’ sends seismic shudders right down to the capital city.

Veering one way then another Elegant Weapons strike up doom-laden atmospherics with the striking ‘Downfall Rising’ before offering a ‘Bitter Pill’. A modern-day antidote to the blandness of the wastelands otherwise known as ‘Popular Music’. If there were a roof (and how we could have done with one!) it’s blown off its fixtures with one almighty dynamic delivery of Sabbath’s seminal ‘War Pigs’.

Exiting to a cacophonous roar from the Steelhouse gathering this quadrumvirate can safely notch this evening as a job done bloody well. The legacy of power-metal lives on in strength. On their website Faulkner notes “All four of us have got that original DNA in us, as does the new breed of traditional heavy metal fans. And so maybe a band like Elegant Weapons, hopefully we’ve got the credibility to make those original bands proud, because we were accepted by the members of those bands and by their fans. That’s really the idea behind Elegant Weapons—to keep flying the flag for this style of timeless heavy metal.” The perfect words of summary.

Steelhouse organisers Max and Mikey have struck A-list rock n’ roll with their selection of Black Stone Cherry as their Sunday headliners. A truly consummate top billing act and the perfect way to wrap up what has been yet another truly memorable weekend in the rarified airs of the South Welsh hills all in one hollering eight-legged package. Thankfully whilst my notepad is showing signs of disintegration the still enthusiastic crowd isn’t. There’s a steely determination to party atop the mountain for one last time this weekend.

Like Airbourne, last night’s headliner, BSC were formed in 2001; there must have been something in the moonshine that particular year! The ecstatic crowd is loud and proud as the burning glory of ‘Me And Mary Jane’ barrages in a hi-energy Southern-fuelled surge. Accustomed to playing the larger arenas this 6,000 sold-out festival is on a incline towards being somewhat ‘intimate’. Incredibly the band have flown across the Atlantic for this one gig!

The twin lead of ‘Burnin’’ – right off of 2018’s ‘Family Tree’ – bears witness to dramatic smokestack lightning searing from the deep South. Deliciously dirty and smoke stained this the type of rock n’ roll that inevitably leads to down to the delta lands. The rip-roaring ‘Again’ harnesses harmonious riffing as the lighting pierces the hilltop darkness. Frontman Chris Robertson exudes sincerity “[I] want to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to you for standing all day in the rain to see Black Stone Cherry.”

Announcing that the forthcoming album ‘Screamin’ at the Sky’ is to be released on September 29th we’re introduced to the first of three tracks from this studio offering. First off is the hard rocking of ‘Out of Pocket’; guitarist Ben Wells tests out the runway punching first his chest and then the air right-handedly. BSC are clearly pumped up about this new material.

Robertson offers his delight in being back in Wales posturing “Cymru am byth!” A sentiment which endears him even further. Not shy of a cover or three we’re in receipt of a nitrous-injected runaway version of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Give Me One Reason’ courtesy of the Kentucky quartet. Later on, we sample a segment of Marshall Tucker Band’s ‘Can’t You See’ and a highly inflammable raucous romp through ELO’s masterful classic ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’.

With fringes of Georgia Satellites country rocker ‘’Like I Roll’ freewheels along the open roads with the likes of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen blasting along the black-top. BSC’s 2006 eponymous debut lp isn’t eschewed as ‘Hell and High Water’ rolls back the years. No-one is thinking about the rooster crowing in the morn, that’s for sure.

Returning to the present ‘Nervous’ bubbles like a seething pool of molten lava. Whiskey woven and bourbon slinging ‘In My Blood’ leads into the hound-dog liquor drawl of the reflective ‘Cheaper To Drink Alone’. Steve Jewell jr’s drums tumble and cascade as the mountain stream whilst Robertson whittles a fine solo from the very inner soul.

“Muddy waters run between your knees” as BSC capture the moment in a fire-breathing ‘Soulcreek’, the stills up beyond the holler will soon give the moonshiners a plentiful ‘harvest’. The moonlit cabaret of ‘Devil’s Queen’ howls celestially.

Further gratitudes to Wales are paid “We don’t fly 3,500 miles for anybody but when Wales calls!” The title track from ‘Screamin’ At The Sky’ is given its first ever live performance; given we’ve doing just this all day then if there’s a more apt song then I’ve yet to hear it!

With skilful mastery the dial is ratcheted up to the maximum permissible eleven with the anthemic ‘White Trash Millionaire’, all seething muscle car and wrecking ball it whips up a fury in the sodden Steelhouse crowd. At this late stage of proceedings a truly remarkable feat.

So what if there’s more than a more than a nod to a countrified Nickelback in ‘Blame It On The Boom Boom’? Seriously I, for one, don’t care as we joyously squelch along! Rolling down the line ‘Lonely Train’ rumbustiously thunders along to bring the curtain down on a storming 90 minutes. “Goodnight god bless y’all” roars Robertson as the fireworks begin the countdown to 2024. It’s been another herculean effort that has paid off handsomely. Will we be back in a year’s time? Absolutely no doubt of it!

Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM

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