Music festivals have radically changed since I first visited the Donington Park site in the 1980’s, but in this modern era of 16 stages, split timetables and countless bands meaning posters advertising events usually end up looking like reading that sequence of tiny letters in opticians, one festival unashamedly harks back to a simpler time – and it’s far, far better as a result.
I do have to declare an interest in Steelhouse Festival at this point. My old singing bandmate from Sons Of God, Mikey Evans and another of my best pals from my days in amongst the Welsh rock scene, Max Rhead, were the co-founders of their festival back in 2011, and the swell of pride I had for them back then was enormous enough, let alone what I feel now 7 years on as Black Star Riders and Myles Kennedy grace the mountain-top stage as part of a 2-day+ event. Mikey & Max had a club night called ‘Steelhouse’ in Ebbw Vale as the noughties rolled into the tens, and some terrific acts had already been persuaded to drive deep into the Welsh valleys – unchartered territory for many a band – and perform for an audience that was deeply knowledgable about classic rock and not afraid to show their appreciation for those that dropped by to play for them.
The idea of a festival was born between the two of them and came to fruition once the lads had found their venue – a farmland setting on top of a mile-long dirt track that wound its way uphill from the main road by Aberbeeg to the most gorgeous setting overlooking the Brecon Beacons and other aspects of the rolling Welsh countryside.
I was well aware during the years spent rehearsing and playing in Wales with Sons Of God that there was an infrastructure of sound engineers, lighting guys, stage managers and builders who could put something very professional together even in a festival’s infancy. I was honoured to play at the first Steelhouse jamboree in August 2011, when I played drums for the Whitesnake UK tribute on the Friday evening as part of a night of tribute acts to warm the audience up for bands like The Quireboys and Tigertailz that were booked to play the next day.
There were 3 or 4 temporary portacabins backstage to be used as dressing rooms and a few sandwiches and soft drinks to share about between bands, and it was all a bit spartan, but these were early days where costs were being scrutinised and margins were likely to be minimal (or indeed non-existent!) for Mikey and Max taking the plunge into the UK festival market. The stage setup and sound crew were absolutely magnificent right from day one, and I really enjoyed our set which we played to a fair few hundred people who’d arrived early to camp out and enjoy as much live music as they could. It was all a bit on the hoof and no doubt Mikey and Max will tell you that mistakes were made on that first weekend, but they learned quickly from their initial experience and vowed to make Steelhouse Festival an annual fixture on the Rock calendar.
As the years have progressed, so have attendances, facilities, the ambition of the lads in terms of bands booked to play, and the general professionalism from all who come together to put this thing on – but one thing remained intact…namely the idea of just having one stage. This was very much intentional, as the ‘Monsters Of Rock’ festivals that our generation grew up on was always one stage, one day, 6 or 7 bands hand-picked to complement each other and give everyone a bit of everything. There’s an art to doing that in my view, as opposed to having multiple stages that each cater for different tastes and leave many punters frustrated that 2 bands they had on their ‘must see’ list end up being on different stages at the same time.
Of course, the difference with Steelhouse is that they’ve always looked for 2 days’ worth of live bands across Saturday & Sunday, and now in 2018, the Friday night ‘warm-up’ night has developed an identity and importance all its own – so much so that it’s practically a 3-day festival now…and everyone’s there on a Friday teatime to see the very first note struck on stage.
A whole host of top-quality national and international artists have graced the mountain-top over the years – UFO, Europe, Saxon, The Darkness, Thunder, Michael Schenker and loads more, as Mikey & Max have strived to put bills together that combine real heavyweight bands with up and coming groups that deserve exposure…and the 2018 Steelhouse Festival that I’ve just attended did that quite superbly.
I arrived on site Friday afternoon and the steady stream of vehicles heading up the mountain with me was further indication of how strong ticket sales had been this year. Camping and weekend ticketing options had all sold out and only a very limited number of day tickets were left, so business was rather good already.
The ‘Steelhouse Family’ is not just Mikey & Max as I’ve already mentioned. Along with all the stage crew and sound/light technicians required, there’s also a brilliant backstage team who are on exactly the same page as their pals and move heaven and earth to keep bands, crew VIP’s and other hangers on as comfortable and happy as humanly possible. They’re all mates with one another outside of Steelhouse, and that bond is totally evident in the work that they do on behalf of their bosses.
The Friday line-up on stage included great opening salvos from Fragile Things and Departed, before Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons strode purposefully onto the stage, playing a terrific hard-hitting set of tunes from their 1st album plus (natch) some Motorhead classics chucked in for good measure. Phil joked with me backstage that he’d been meant to guest with headliners Saxon at last year’s event, but forgot all about it sat at home in Pontypridd until Biff rang him 10 minutes before showtime asking where he was! Not sure if Phil asked Biff to show up and do Ace Of Spades, but the Barnsley overlord never showed.
Stone Broken are a young Walsall-based band whose progress I’ve followed with great interest since Planet Rock helped to break their single ‘Wait For You’ a couple of years ago. They’re young, hungry and have an ear for very catchy melodies, as well as being some of the nicest, warmest folk you could wish to meet. They’d played such a great set on the Saturday afternoon at last year’s Steelhouse that they’d been specifically asked back to headline the first night of 2018, an opportunity they grasped at on the eve of their 1st trip to America, a market that could well take them to their hearts if there’s any justice. Rich is a top class songwriter and the whole band has come on in leaps and bounds since I first saw them a couple of years ago. Good luck to them over the pond.
One thing that can cause any festival organiser a huge headache is good old mother nature. The Welsh mountain top setting for Steelhouse does provide a stunning backdrop most of the time, but when those rolling hills are shrouded in low cloud and the rain starts to fall, it’s always a bit character-building, and so whilst the Friday night was as typically dry and warm as the whole summer seems to have been, Saturday heralded a change in the old barometer readings and the rains came. But so did the punters from their tents on site and from the nearby hotels – in huge numbers.
The bands did not disappoint either. Bad Flowers kicked things off in fine style, and even though the heavens really opened for Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics, their set was brimming with confidence and personality, even if the developing thunderstorm overhead forced them to shorten their set slightly. Aaron (who once fronted Heaven’s Basement) is quite the frontman and worked incredibly hard to get a great reaction from the poncho-clad crowd assembled.
Myke Gray had played the 1st Steelhouse back in 2011 with his Red White and Blues outfit, but returned this year to play a set of songs reflecting his whole career, including some Skin classics and recent solo stuff. My old chum Matt Blakout from Dressed To Kill ( and 3463 other bands besides) was on drums for Myke and it was terrific to see him play so well and help bring the best out of Myke’s tunes. He must have been concentrating hard – barely a twirled stick for the first couple of tunes…didn’t smile enough either… ;)
At last year’s Steelhouse, King King were forced to pull out as singer Alan had developed vocal problems that required urgent medical work – this meant that my fellow Planet Rock cohort, Darren Redick, and myself were pressed into service as musicians as Hand of Dimes featuring Bernie Marsden filled in for King King and Darren & I played Wishing Well with them on bass and drums respectively.
Luckily for the audience this year, King King were fighting fit and ready to play, which rendered Darren’s idea of bringing his own bass with him in case of, you know, emergencies, as a bit of a non-starter. It was well worth the year’s wait for King King anyway, who were in magnificent form – it was nice to chat with drummer Wayne afterwards about his unfeasibly large hi-hats! (not a euphemism)
One of my personal highlights of the whole weekend was the performance of Dan Reed Network, a band who had blown me away at Rock City in 1990 on their ‘Slam’ tour and proceeded to do the same to me all over again here. King King stuck around to watch from side stage and one or two of Glenn Hughes’ band also came to have a butchers – we were all captivated by a tight, focused and exquisitely played set of tunes from their 1st 3 albums plus a new tune to boot. They even made Enter Sandman sound funky somehow, as they worked the Metallica classic into a clever medley during ‘Under My Skin’. Brilliant, and Dan was an absolute delight to meet and talk to after he’d played.
“Follow that” you’d say ordinarily, but when you’re Myles Kennedy, you’ve hit a home run just by walking out on stage. So many day tickets flew out when Myles was announced as co-headliner on the Saturday, it was evident that this was possibly the most anticipated set of the day, and Myles played a full 90-minute set packed with songs from his recent Year of the Tiger release, plus Alter Bridge beauties of course. His voice is quite stunning and totally unique – so only ‘The Voice’ could possibly close after him…no, not Martin Tyler! I meant Glenn Hughes!
Glenn was playing his first show in a long run around the globe performing classic Deep Purple, in a way recreating the California Jam ’74 era of Purple whilst slotting in a couple of Mk3 classics too. It was quite superb – what was immediately evident was that the 3-piece band Glenn has with him are way better than the musicians Richie Blackmore picked for his recent Rainbow/Purple revival. Soren Andersen in particular shone on lead guitar – he was joined in the encores by the returning Myles Kennedy, who strapped on a guitar to play the evergreen Highway Star (including harmony guitar parts) and sing a couple of verses along with Glenn. A proper show-stopper to end the night in Burn as well. Catch the UK leg of Glenn’s tour if you can later this year.
The weather was even grimmer come Sunday morning when I arrived back on site. It was quickly apparent that that weather was equally poor in parts of Europe, forcing The Quireboys to stay in Croatia and see their flight that morning to the UK cancelled. One band down was disappointing enough, but the ensuing decision from The Dead Daisies (who were I believe in London 3 hours away) decided to pull their appearance too. That did not go down well with the locals who’d made their way up the mountain, as well as those bands that had happily made their way up with the punters.
‘The Show Must Go On’ is the mantra, and the absence of 2 bands from the roster did give those remaining 6 bands a chance to stretch their legs a little and play slightly longer sets – this was something that the first few bands in particular seized upon with relish, and all of them delivered big time. The Dust Coda got us going in fine style before Those Damn Crows (a band I’d heard great things about) absolutely knocked it out of the park with their elongated set. They’re a Welsh band, of course, which always helps at Steelhouse with the locals, but they didn’t need their national heritage to win the crowd over. Shane Greenhall was a hugely engaging frontman, and it’s clear drummer Ronnie Huxford is a bit of a local hero! Blink Of An Eye was one of the songs of the weekend.
Mason Hill frontman Scott Taylor looked incredibly nervous as I went out to introduce them onstage, but there was no sign of nerves once he grabbed the mic and they got going. James Bird is a very talented guitarist indeed and their set was brimming with great tunes, as well as a blistering cover of Audioslave’s Cochise in memory of Chris Cornell to round things off.
Massive Wagons have been around for about 8 years now, and are finally starting to get the national recognition they deserve. Their Rick Parfitt tribute song ‘Back To The Stack’ was really heartfelt, but also bloody good. That kicked things off very nicely and singer Baz really had the crowd in the palm of his hand throughout. They’ve all got full-time jobs outside of the band – wouldn’t it be nice in this day and age if they were that popular and sold that many albums that they didn’t have to work? Maybe that time will come, but I find their approach to music and life balance admirable. More power to them.
I’d not seen the Wildhearts for a number of years, but Ginger has long been one of my favourite songwriters and he’s one of Britain’s most overlooked composers. Their set was hit after hit after glorious hit; Sick Of Drugs, TV Tan, Caffeine Bomb, Vanilla Radio…I could go on. Delighted that they saved (in my opinion) the best for last in I Wanna Go Where The People Go, the sort of song so catchy and clever I wish I’d written it!
I had the privilege of interviewing Scott Gorham before Black Star Riders closed the festival out with great swagger. Scott was one of the first guitarists I ever heard play on record courtesy of my older brothers’ copy of ‘Live & Dangerous’ and he remains as enthused and as focused as ever in this venture that Thin Lizzy morphed into some 6 years ago. Ricky Warwick is a perfect foil for Scott up there and the Lizzy classics peppered a set which also shows how strong BSR’s back catalogue is already after just 3 albums. Number 4 is on the way folks!
There’s one thing I’ve not mentioned about Steelhouse yet, and I thought I’d leave it til last. The price. At £95 for a weekend ticket across Friday through until Sunday, this is without doubt the best value festival experience for rock fans anywhere in the UK and quite possibly the world! Max and Mikey have always been careful not to price themselves out of the market when it comes to attracting festival lovers whilst also going all out to secure big names for sizeable fees to play in Ebbw Vale each year. It’s a difficult balance to strike for any promoter, but they could not pitch it any better in my view – and I’d tell them different if they weren’t, even if they are old friends!!
And that’s the other thing – the friendships that this festival seems to engender and foster with every year that goes by. Just by walking through the crowd to get a tea from the Motley Brew stand (hi Phil!) or grabbing some merchandise, you can easily detect the camaraderie of folks who’ve come here year in year out, or those who are forging friendships up a mountain that will last a lifetime. I’ve no idea how long a life Steelhouse Festival has, but it only deserves to grow and grow without abandoning its principles on pricing, quality of names and the welcoming atmosphere that is its hallmark. Long may it continue…though a bit of unbroken sunshine would be, you know, nice…