This is the second year I'd made the trip to Wales for the Steelhouse Festival, located at Hafod Y Mor Farm on a Welsh mountainside.
This year promised bigger and better things, with a rumoured 7,000 attendance figure. I hoped this was corrent, as the line-up this year proved to be well worth the investment having gone for Heavy Metal stalwarts Saxon and Micheal Schenker to headline as opposed to the Brit Pop Indie Rockers of Reef and Feeder last year.
The valleys are known for their love of music, with the Patriot in Crumlin, and the Steelhouse and Cardiff's Fuel and Bogiez Metal havens not to far away.
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Those of us lucky enough to arrive early enough on the Friday were treated to the best of the weather, and as an extra treat early risers got the Saxon soundcheck thrown in. As we toasted 'Sacrifice' with Tequila, we knew we would be in for a British Rock treat later that night! But for now it was time to sit in the sun, and watch the bands play on... (wo o oh!).
Fireroad opened up the main bill, having won their place through the Battle Of The Bands route. They entertain the audience well, with a style very much akin to Thunder in places, with a dollop of Pearl Jam as a twist.
Hand Of Dimes sees Ex-Skin man Neville McDonald reunited with ex-Kooga buddy Neil Garland promoting a new EP. There's plenty of life in his voice and plays a set of complete new tracks, with 'Pinstripe Arrogance' living up to its name as the headline number. He seems to be having a whale of a time, hanging out for the whole weekend with the fans. Its lovely to see this great character back on the scene, and its a chance to reminice over Donington's past where Skin seemed the UK's hardest working band. Obviously he's up for rekindling the rock flame, so there must be more to come from the ex-Koogas.
Northern Ireland's Fighting Wolves supply their Planet Rock approved hits that get the crowd moving well, and have been the reasons behind their support slots on bills with The Union and such like from critically acclaimed debut material. Experience is the great proving ground, and one expects them soon to be further up a bill, with their swagger and energy.
The Temperence Movement suffer from the heavy rain that is now suddenly making it all too clear we are stuck on the middle of a hillside in Wales, exposed to the elements. Many retreat for the beer tent, taking the band's name in vein, but a hardened few persevere with the southern rock nostalgic material from Pride. The tunes are heavily riff oriented and explode when required, and are counterpointed by the humanity of the soul of the delicate crooning on Pride and Lovers and Fighters.
Onward, and the mighty Anvil win many a new friend with their loveable presence. Lips has the crowd in histerics talking into the fretboard, and Rob Reiner's skill on drums is putting Thor to shame up in the clounds. They are here on a whistlestop tour including Wacken and London promoting not only their new album, 'Hope In Hell', which makes our ears bleed, but also new member, the unlikley named Sal Italiano is into the line-up on bass.
Mothra rages, Metal is bought down on Metal and young and old adore these loveable nearly made it movie stars, just for their character and obviously having the time of their lives despite all odds - in this case the welsh elements destroying the sound!
FM are next, for the more AOR orientated and those waiting for Saxon make a final excuse to drink the Trooper ale and rather lovely local real ale Skirrid dry. FM are seasoned melodic rock professionals and have been getting a resurgance of engagments with their pop rock. 'Its The Story Of My Life' is the single being promoted right now. Steve Overland's voice has lost none of its power. It's easy to understand how five of the bands singles have made it into the UK singles charts over the years. They are very good at what they do.
So finally, its dripping with rain, absolutley bucketing it down. Saxon have got the bloody Eagle and pyro and full light show. Its their one UK festival show this year, after a gob smackingly awesome UK tour. Biff and the boys hit the stage, firstly regaling us with the soundchecked 'Sacrifice' and 'Wheels Of Terror' before hit after Saxon hit. Crusaders of the Valleys, your time came tonight.
Explosions evapourate the sheeting rain, and did I say they've even got the bloody Eagle...! Even the drumkit rises up at one point like Peter Criss, and one wonders if Sir Biff of Bifford is going to don the Demon costume? - or at least his old Spandex...
On a stage of all day sound problems and appalling weather the band play on... Its 'Strong Arm Of The Law', its 'Solid Ball Of Rock, the Eagle lands, and the band plays on... Fists pump the air. What 7,000 soaking Welsh and two English Crusaders will look like on the forthcoming DVD being filmed here tonight, one will have to wait to find out.
A drum solo from Nigel Glockler, Paul Quinn's intros and the mighty voice of Biff Bifford, that surely is the best kept voice of rock that just shows the other bands this weekend how its all done and sets the standard and bar at the highest level.
All too soon its time for Paul Quinn to take us back to the Middle Ages for 'Crusader', and then the Heavy Metal anthem 'Denim And Leather'. Saxon are the real highlight of the weekend, and for those who seem constantly suprised at Saxon still being good, let me tell you, as someone who has watched them for 30 years... they aren't *back* - THEY NEVER WENT AWAY!
All hail the mighty Saxon!
After a rain soaked night, and a brief period where the ball of fire up their may have been seen, the crowd returns. Trucker Diablo bring some humour and Irish brogue to the afternoon, which is appreciated by their Celtic cousins. One could almost imagine them stepping out of a huge juggernaugt semi and taking you drinking on the long highways of Route 66. It is a charm, and they get the crowd really going with a cover of 'Rolling Down The River'.
Vega I have to say, although I've heard lots of good reports from AOR uber fans, were just a big "vague" to me. Although they were hampered by the elements and an awful sound there was no real hits or memorable tunes to speak of. Having said that, their target audience of single mums from valleys and their offspring seemed to be enjoying themselves, so no doubt they went down well.
That target demographic no doubt really enjoyed Snakecharmer, who have gained a lot of credibility, whereas the missing Mr Trousersnake frontman has lost the ability to hold a tune, Neil Murray and Mickey Moody now step up and come to the fore with Whitesnake classics and their own new material.
Both highly respected in the music industry on side projects like 'We Will Rock You', they don't need to do this... but it's the respect for the legacy of the 'Snake that proves there is still big love and respect. Doubling up with slots with Magnum tonight we have Harry James, ex-Thunder, on drums and Mark Stanway filling in for an absent Adam Wakeman on keys.
Added to the all star line-up, ex-Wishbone Ash man Laurie Wisefield provided awesome dual guitar based rock! Their debut album has had much air play, and they pepper this with 'Snake classics such as 'Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues'. It's great to hear these songs sung properly again without overlong guitar solos and drum solos. You will see these boys all over the place no doubt.
Magnum's audience suffered from the downpour too but Bob Catley struggled on with Magnum classics. It seems that Catley's voice is not given the emphasis it desires, perhaps through more sound problems, but those who saw the last UK tour will additionally remember Bob blaming a cold. I hope this is resolved for future performances, still the crowd are still up for finishing the weekend off in fine style.
Rain problems are nothing for Herr Schenker of MSG. As the German F1 Ace Schumacher of the same first name once did around many a street circuit, Michael excelled in the wet conditions, performing a rain dance to hit every technical note.
Doogie White has found his niche as an excellent front man and foil for Schenker's brilliance. With a set comprising roughly a third of MSG, Scorpions and UFO classics to close the festival, despite the rain we end on a high.
'Lights Out' and 'Doctor Doctor' bring the persevering crowd to an earthshaking climax. Many a fan goes away happy, having been blown away by great songs from one of the best guitar players on the planet. He's put his past demons behind him and upped his game.
Finally, for the lucky VIPs good old Neville McDonald does an acoustic set of Hand Of Dimes numbers for the lucky few, building the vibe for his Kooga mates and winning many a new convert. As we retreat to the safety of our tents, it sounds great!
So whilst better vocalists have sung the classics better today and rain tried to dampen spirits, the welcome in the hillside that this festival brings is unsurpassed. If you get the chance to go next year, support this really friendly traditional heavy rock festival!
Whether you camp, or get a local hotel, the welcome is the same! From lovely food, great local beer, Trooper if you wanted it and awesome bands, it's a fine weekend.
Saxon remain my band of the weekend for sheer spectacle, songs and entertainment, closely followed by MSG. Support this festival, it could be huge.