AOR/Prog and Blues Festival Friday 21st March 2014
Manchester rockers Hell 2 Pay started the day to a sparse crowd …. it was lunch time after all and the previous night’s excesses kept quite a few in bed ! This is a serious rock band and opening track ‘The End’, whilst a slow starter explodes into heavy solid riffs embellished with tight vocals and good top end notes. The chord change up made Dan’s vocals unstoppable – he produced an excellent sound. ‘Pain In The Future’ provided some outstanding guitar work. ‘Judgement Day’ closed the set with a bang – by now everyone was well and truly awake !
Over in Prog, The Custodian were first on playing their first ever live gig which is somewhat surprising given that they have been together since 2012 and already have an album ‘Necessary Wasted Time’ in tow. In fact the whole six song set was taken from the album. I particularly liked ‘Stop Talking’, a nicely composed melodic tune with subtle use of electronically altered vocals. I was momentarily taken back to my sixth form free period moments spent listening to Prog instead of studying. With the album having been well received and on this performance, The Custodian have an assured future although still a “work in progress”, a point which vocalist Richard Thompson agreed with when I caught up with him after the set. Nerves aside, a great debut gig and a great start to Friday.
AOR’s Lawless’ opening track was ‘Metal Time’ – a fast paced old school rock track which has an ageless sound. They worked the stage well and the crowd loved them. Their album ‘Rock Savage’ was released last July and was very well received. It is touring well and with tracks such as ‘Rock & Rock City’ and ‘Black Widow Ladies’, this relatively new band will get stronger and stronger and this year moves on.
It’s time for Newman. However the stage wasn’t ready for Newman and a few minor techies ensued. With that behind them, Newman went on to play an absolute blinder, including tracks from ‘Siren’ and ‘The Art of Balance’. True AOR in the sense of the words. Rocking when it needs to be and melodic for the rest of the time. ‘Waiting for the Day’ and ‘Stay With Me’ were awesome tracks.
The Blues arena aka the Bonga Wonga Bar, was just coming to life with Crowsaw who intended on setting the bar high from the first chord. This band of very fine musicians were releasing their debut album to coincide with the festival and gave us an energetic rocking set of self-penned numbers with the odd cover thrown in for good measure. There are certainly enough musical influences going on who here – Bonamassa, Hendrix, Cream and inevitably Rory Gallagher, “my hero” admitted vocalist Rob Lomax. Having said that these guys do things their way and with amazing vocals and explosive guitar work ably assisted by the crisp powerful drumming, Rob claims that Bonamassa bastardised ‘Just Got Paid’ and Crowsaw were about to “fuck it up”. All I can say is carry on fuckin it up guys cos you were awesome. Catch their new album ‘Smoke And Feathers’ – it’s gonna blow you away!
I stayed with the Blues for Pontius Snibb. For fans of the erstwhile Mr Snibb this was to be the first showing of two today, with Bonafide gracing the AOR stage at 12.30am. For now we were to be treated to Pontius, Niklas and Martin giving us the blues treatment.. More laid back than Crowsaw, Pontius and the lads gave the crowd an eleven song set of what I perceive to be typical blues music and lyrics. ‘I’m Walking’ from the album ‘Wreck of Blues’ typified exactly this. With offerings from his ‘Loud Feathers’ album also aired, one was left feeling in a good place.
I took a quick breather in the wind and rain and came back for Grainne Duffy. Being a big fan of Joanne Shaw Taylor, I was eagerly anticipating Grainne’s arrival into the Blues arena. Would it be so boring to say I wasn’t disappointed! Like Mr Snibb previously, Grainne and her band bring a smoother feel to the day with a vocal delivery varying between punchy and moody but always in the right style for the lyrics. Oh and she has a spoken voice to die for too. Just a pity that a few of the crowd had vacated the Bonga Wonga, cos they missed a real show. The girl from Co.Monaghan sang eleven songs taken mainly from ‘Out Of The Dark’ and ‘Test of Time’ albums, both of which are superb albums.
I then took a quick trip over to the Prog arena to hear the Luna Kiss. Since 2009, this Coventry band have been pulling together their own sound and it’s really quite good. Unfortunately due to where I was I could not hear the track titles clearly, but rest assured what I heard was in-depth prog interspersed with melodic rock tuneage and I will certainly be listening to their new Conjure & Sin EP.
Chimp Spanner is the brain child of Paul Antonio Ortiz. An all instrumental set of Prog/Techno music was delivered by a band who were totally immersed in Paul’s meticulously crafted tunes. They took you to the edge and back, each rising to tumultuous crescendos and just as quickly bringing you back down again, only to take you up again with ever increasing intensity. A new offering ‘Aurora’ was greeted enthusiastically by an obviously well informed crowd. I enjoyed the set but have to say that I found the light show with punter blinders and strobes a little too much and there was one occasion where the smoke machine was in overdrive cos it triggered the fire alarms. Did anyone care? Not that I could see…… and the band played on!
Whilst Rob was learning how to smoke again with Chimp Spanner, I left Prog to go and have a chat with Danny Vaughn, or at least that’s what I thought. Turned out to be the whole of Tyketto and you can read all about that HERE!
Meanwhile back in AOR ……. Tigertailz bounded onto the stage in their usual inimitable fashion. These guys are top notch performers with a top notch set to match. Glam metal rock at its best. Their EP ‘Knives’, came out in 2013. ‘One Life’ is an awesome track dedicated to servicemen and women, which has a more melodic feel. ‘I Can Fight Dirty Too’ got total crowd approval as did the rest of set. Such an established band with a crowd singing every song with them. It was amazing to watch all of them from the sidelines.
A quick wizz back to Prog saw me catch up with Shattered Skies. Whilst not being a major Prog player myself, I warmed to Shattered Skies very easily.. Under the progressive metal/melodic groove metal title, their music is prog with melodic touches and but you can also hear hard rock making appearances.. When playing ‘Attrition’, the band was lost in the heavy mists of time – the smoke machine took an age to switch off (again). Just before the end, they introduced a new track with some awesome trumpet work at the start and this will appear on the new album due for release this year. ‘The World We Used To Know’ is eagerly awaited.
I trundled back in the wind and rain (it hadn’t really stopped that much all weekend) to AOR and managed to pick up a few tracks from German rockers Bonfire. They have a serious pedigree built up from various guises since 1992 and the audience loved them. As one of the supports to Tyketto, Claus Lessman knows how to give it his all.
Meanwhile, heading up the Blues stage was Harry Manx who’s from the Isle of Man – yeah I know the name gave it away – but was raised in Canada. Harry brought a twist to the Blues which had the audience captivated. With a stage presence that was warm and amenable (it was bloody cold outside) and a well-timed sense of humour, he has a style which I have never seen before.. Harry’s affection for the music of India is clearly evidence in his expert, dextrous slide guitar work. Quite exquisite. Harry studied for 5 years with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt in India and as a consequence of that is the inclusion of his prized Mohan Veena amongst his instruments. This amazing 20 string modified arch top guitar sits on Harry’s lap and he even took time out to give a little technical history lesson about the Mohan Veena – how very Blues! With a vocal style to my ear reminiscent of Chris Rea, that is soulful and full of feeling, you would hardly think he was usually singing of death, love and misery – you get the picture? Don’t forget his Aussie keys player who almost took a back seat but for his excellent solos. So there you have it, a musician who captivates and mesmerises, and whilst I don’t think the smallish audience fazed him, there were some who would have happily let him play all night had it not been for the tight schedule.
I caught up with my mates, Big Boy Bloater for their set. Purveyors of an outstanding set every time they play, it was a shame it was only to the smallish crowd remaining after Harry Manx (Bonfire were still playing and Focus were ready to start). That said, they danced and sang to Bloat’s awesome mix of swamp soul, dark blues and twang. And people who stopped by for a quick listen then stayed, they enjoyed what they heard. The 45 minute set included ‘Double Whammy’, ‘Messing With The Booze’ and ‘Black Sambuca’, and whilst each member of The Limits is an outstanding musician, there is something about the way that Bloats and his guitar are fixed at the hip. Such an awesome sound.
Back for a little more prog and can I start by saying what a sight! A proper Hammond organ with Leslie cab…..the stalwart of good old Prog. I feel for the Focus road crew though. Yep it’s time for Focus. Thijs Van Leer took to the stage with his latest Focus reincarnation to a welcome as enthusiastic and friendly as I have seen in a while. The large crowd demonstrated the love (is that too strong a word?) and affection there still was for this iconic band. Who will ever forget the falsetto singing and extravagant yodelling which were such a trade mark of Focus. Okay so gone are the extreme vocals but the music stays. Weirdly I feel that the band didn’t really get started until ‘Sylvia’ which was met with rapturous applause.. This seemed to be the spur to move the band up a cog cos up until then I feel they were a bit distant. No stopping them now though. Thijs became the showman and top musician he really is. I cut my Prog teeth on the likes of Focus and Camel thanks to my worldly-wise bro and whilst Thijs Van Leer is the only original member, the current line up continue to take us old’uns back down memory lane and show the youngsters what early Prog was really about. Oh and did I mention we had a big dose of Hocus Pocus along the way? I didn’t? Well no Focus performance would be complete without it, would it?
We have said it so many times, we are sounding like a worn out record, but what is it with Swedish bands …. Flower Kings are Swedish! As master of his domain Roine Stolt has nurtured his baby since c1993 and have achieved deserved acclaim, with the album ‘Banks of Eden’, produced after a five year break, getting great reaction from both fans and media. We had excerpts from their latest album ‘Desolation Rose’, with the Flower Kings proved that they are right where it’s at in the Prog world. The fact that they play more melodic and less heavy than some of their Swedish compatriots should not detract in any way from their musicianship and quality they have to offer, as the well attended arena would confirm!
By this time the rain was relentless, so I powerwalked me and my two cameras back to the AOR arena to watch American rockers, House of Lords. First time seeing this band and I was pleasantly surprised with their awesome tight sound and some very nifty stick work. Jimi Bell is one helluva guitarist whose riffs and solos catch everyone’s eyes. With BJ doing an empty stage epic drum solo for several minutes, the crowd erupted. Notable tracks for me were ‘Love Don’t Lie’ and ‘Permission to Die’. Currently on their Precious Metal tour, House of Lords are not to be missed.
It’s Tyketto time! In the middle of their 25th anniversary five date UK tour, Tyketto played a solid set and featured tracks off several albums including ‘Dig in Deep’ (Faithless, Dig In Deep), ‘The Last Sunset’ (Burning Down Inside) and ‘Strength in Numbers’ (Meet Me in the Night). Danny’s vocals were on top form and never faltered once. Chatting to the crowd he mentioned the current tour with Summer and Bonfire and the fact that Tyketto were listed for Download 2014. Danny pointed out that the strength of their music and fan base kept them going and was quite vehement when talking about the music industry as it stands and the likes of Beiber, Cyrus and Lady “fucking” Gaga, calling them a bunch of piss ants. The track that followed this was ‘Sound Off’ – most apt! ‘Standing Alone’ off the ‘Take Out & Served Up Live’ album was dedicated to all his followers at HRH. Danny Vaughn and Tyketto are total professionals on stage and off and produced a stunning version of ‘Forever Young’ to end the set. It was all the fans ever wanted to hear.
I finished the evening back in the Blues Bonga Wonga bar for the amazing Dr Feelgood. It was packed out! I have only seen these guys live once before and was mightily impresses so it was good to be catching them at HRH. The line up may have changed over the years, but the Feelgood ethos of delivering raw, unrestrained rhythm and blues lives on. Tonight’s performance took no prisoners and they made lots of new friends judging by the crowd’s reaction. In vocalist, Robert Kane, they have a front man who say “you’re gonna hear this song, like it or not”. From the moment they took to the stage, Rob, Kevin, Phil and Steve had got the crowd in their pockets hitting us like a pound hammer, with amongst other, the iconic ‘Milk & Alcohol’, ‘Roxette’ (a personal fave) and ‘Down By The Jetty’. As I struggled to vie with the audience to take my pics, I was left thinking that given all that the band had been through in recent times, the decision to carry on playing and to keep the Dr Feelgood name, was the best thing all genres or rock and blues could have hoped for. We need Dr Feelgood to keep us musically honest.
What a way to end day one, going into day two of HRH Blues. Saturday’s acts have been set a mighty high bar.
Words and Photography by Lisa and Rob Billingham (Billibee Creative)