Now in its 26th year, the ‘biggest biker party in Europe’ is just kicking into gear as the Midlands Rocks team arrives at Long Marston airfield. Thursday night’s headliners are AC/DC tribute Hells Bells, and they provide a memorable opening to the festival for those making a long weekend of it: coming out of the traps strongly with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Train’, they proceed to blast through classics from both Acca Dacca eras with equal aplomb. ‘Riff Raff’ prompts some manic ‘Angus’ sprinting that would make Usain Bolt raise an eyebrow, ‘Back In Black’ and ‘TNT’ get fists aloft across the field whilst ‘Thunderstruck’ is (slightly oddly) dedicated to the memory of Bon Scott, albeit over some mid-song microphone difficulties.
The new-addition big screen at the back of the outdoor main stage lends some extra arena-rock cred and the band play it suitably bombastic; a sadly under-performing cannon effect during main-set closer ‘For Those About To Rock’ unfortunately also gives a slightly Spinal Tap vibe to proceedings. Hells Bells pull it back with encore ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ incorporating a huge V-twin motorcycle onstage, to the obvious appreciation of most present; a very appropriate start to the weekend.
Second-stage shenanigans kick off around lunchtime with CodeJak (12:45, Area 81 stage), a hard-rocking but slightly hackneyed quartet whose material sits between four-chord punk structures and capably metal-infused drums, guitars and vocals, at times uncomfortably. Bringing to mind the likes of Throat and Kerbdog, the band don’t really get going until the third or fourth song into their set: ‘Falling Back From Grace’ displays the potential of the band even with some slightly dubious vocals. Worth catching in a smaller, sweatier venue where they can better showcase their slick, well-drilled style, perhaps.
Somewhat less than slick and well-drilled, Alien Stash Tin (13:30, Area 81 stage) are beleaguered by technical difficulties from the start of their blues/rock set. Carried along largely by impressively-bearded frontman Jon, AST have some occasional flashes of brilliance (the lyrics to ‘Dirty Texan’, in particular) and the advantage of not taking themselves too seriously, but the over-stretched chord progressions and meandering song structures let the side down. A group of older guys doing it just for kicks is great to see, but with so many pubs across the country putting such a thing on every weekend, this feels like a time-slot that could have been better filled.
Following a slightly over-stretched intro, all is forgiven once Skam (14:15, Area 81 stage) kick into opener ‘Soldiers of Rock’. Sporting a phenomenally full sound for a three-piece even when singer/guitarist Steve is wringing solos from his SG, this Leicester outfit put on an energetic show which deservedly pulls and holds a crowd. Current single ‘No Lies’ blends classic Motorhead punch with more modern rock influences, a cover of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ sees the frontman out in the crowd for the lead sections and closer ‘Massacre’ rides out astride a grooving riff worthy of Led Zeppelin. A hugely entertaining and proficient band hopefully bound for bigger things.
Empire of Fools (15:00, Area 81 stage) entered the Midlands Rocks watch list following last year’s Bulldog performance; sadly this year they’re stretched to the limit by horrendous technical problems both onstage and off. The first half of their set is overridden by bass feedback which renders their sound barely recognisable, and neither the mix nor EoF fully recover throughout. A cover of Free’s ‘Wishing Well’ features guest appearances from a crackling microphone and overloading kick drum, and the by now debilitating heat appears to be causing tuning problems to boot. In the rare moments where everything comes together the band’s potential does shine through (fourth song ‘Down’ features a typically RATM guitar line melded to Alter Bridge-esque vocals) but on this occasion, their spirited set is largely sunk under the weight of sound difficulties.
Another veteran of last year’s Bash, Hellbound (15:45, Area 81 stage) draw the biggest second-stage crowd of the weekend so far – it seems their deserved reputation precedes them. An improved-beyond-belief mix allows their powerful melodic metal to punch its full weight, with double-kick-drum flurries and meaty vocals sitting beneath obscene guitar pinched harmonics (in front of some outlandish audience dancing), in the style of Down or a latter-day Pantera. Set closer ‘Always Be Around’ showcases their harmonised guitar work and massive grooves to perfection, the bass and guitar players offstage to further work up the crowd during the solo section, and garners rapturous applause – a job well done.
Stepping up from an appearance in last year’s backstage tent to the public arena, Snorting Dogs (16:30, Area 81 stage) deliver energetic, harmonica-laden blues/punk – if that sounds slightly left-field, that’s because it is, but magnificently so. With only a couple of band members seemingly out of their 20s, SD power through songs with titles like ‘Can’t Forget You’, ‘Cocaine’ (no, not that one) and ‘Snake In My Bed’ with the assuredness of seasoned pros. The set drags slightly in places with a few over-extended guitar solos, but this is a band who generally play to their strengths – as the ‘Snorting Bitches’ backing singers are introduced for a song dedicated to fallen Hells Angel Charger, the heartfelt opening gives way to a Lynard Skynard-style jam-out, and the band leave with an air of respect well earned.
With the sun having been beating unrelentingly on the airfield all day, it appears that the crowd are by now too hot and hungry for Hostile (17:15, Area 81 stage), who play to all of about ten people. The band take the hit in good spirits, crashing through a heavier-than-thou set with definite Slipknot and Machine Head leanings, as though to a packed club. Truly noteworthy fretwork from both guitarists is welded to a piledriving rhythm section beneath decidedly Anselmo-esque vocals; combined with an energetic stage show, this makes Hostile the best band you’ll have missed this weekend. They sign off with a song about ‘being from the Black Country and fucking proud of it’ – on the strength of today, that isn’t all that this outfit have to be proud of.
With Henry’s Funeral Shoe cancelled, the task of kicking off the originals bands on the other side of the field falls to The Union (18:45, main stage). There’s stylistically nothing in the first couple of songs that fans of guitarist Luke Morley’s previous outfit wouldn’t expect (except an alarming initial lack of his guitar in the mix), but relative youngster Pete on lead vocal displays some impressive pipes and a timbre that pulls The Union towards a more modern, Buckcherry-ish kind of hard rock sound.
It’s in the voices that the band find the ability to lift themselves above the sum of their parts – on top of the expected classic rock guitar lines are some occasionally inspired vocal harmonies. The acoustic-led ‘Saviour’ would surely have lighters waving across a darkened stadium given half a chance, and ‘My Obsession’ truly pulls things away from Thunder territory with some eerie harmonies over an almost single-chord chorus. Often re-treading old ground, sometimes veering off into pastures new but usually swiftly returning – The Union show that musical life, if not beginning at fifty, certainly doesn’t end there.
Demanding attention from the start, Urban Voodoo Machine (20:00, main stage) troop on in sombre fashion to a mournful Day Of The Dead-style trumpet line. The ten-piece take their stage positions before exploding into life with ‘High Jeopardy Thing’, Slim brandishing his accordion with as much attitude as Sid Vicious ever held a bass and frontman P.R. Angel growling in a joyfully Tom Waits fashion over it all. This band deal in show tunes from the depths of hell – a double bass props up the backbone of a two-man (well, one-man, one-‘zombie’) percussion section, and horns of all flavours splash colour across everything.
Yet another outfit who impressed the MR team at last year’s event, UVM could never be accused of treading water musically – the intro to their newest offering marks surely the first time that a Bulldog Bash crowd has been held rapt by a tuba player (the delectable Anna, or Mrs Angel), and the set as a whole leaves as many bewildered as it does bewitched; surely the mark of a truly original act.
Stepping out into an atmospheric blue light teasing a few low-tempo minor licks from his Stratocaster, Nico Tamburella (21:30, main stage) has gone from strength to strength after his appearance at last year’s Bash under the moniker Nico’s Alchemy. Taking the Friday headline slot is no mean feat, but as his totally in-the-pocket rhythm section kicks in Nico shows that he’s more than up to the task. Sometime Alchemy frontman Geoff Adrenalin takes to the stage for second number ‘Voices In My Head’ and ably handles lead vocals throughout the set, but it’s Nico who’s the star of this particular show, pouring out one high-octane solo after another under a dazzling lighting spectacle.
Clearly stepping away from the obvious Blackmore/Yngwie influences of his previous work, tunes like the Crüeqsue ‘She’s A Killer’ and more modern-metal-edged ‘Mind Cage’ illustrate a new side to Tamburella, whilst ‘Downie’s Blues’ and ‘Australia’ drop the tempo and showcase a blues influence hitherto seldom seen. A smattering of covers (‘The Thrill Is Gone’, ‘Superstitious’) help to keep the growing crowd onside, but the best is saved for last as an incendiary encore of ‘Hey Joe’ into ‘Black Night’ brings both audience and band crashing to the end of the evening.
With a welcome breeze and touch of cloud cover taking the edge off the still-warm sunshine, Fifteen English Pounds (12:45, Area 81 stage) provide a set to take the edge off last night’s hangovers. Blending classic rock, sleaze and blues influences into a style that never seems to fit the band totally comfortably, they still kick out an easy-on-the-ears sound with some thoroughly predictable covers (‘Black Night’, ‘Roadhouse Blues’ – please people, a little originality!). A vocal sitting somewhere between Faster Pussycat and Rush alongside some more ‘metal’ guitars give ‘Breaking The Law’ enough chutzpah to round out the set – competent, but nothing jaw-dropping.
Emerging to a frankly baffling synthesised horn intro tape, XUFO (13:30, Area 81 stage) suffer from a profoundly bass-heavy mix, to the point of leaving everything else inaudible. Frontman Danny makes a commendable effort to engage with the audience, but the sheer hamminess of it has him coming across like Bruce Dickinson’s slightly tragic younger brother. Hackneyed song structures don’t help the band’s cause in any way, and guitar levels are all over the shop; by the time they ably batter through closing number ‘Doctor Doctor’ the damage is done, and even the highly-dedicated MR crew are leaving in pursuit of lunch.
“Thrash metal is not dead” proclaims Virus (14:15, Area 81 stage) frontman Coke Finlay, and if demonstration were needed the four-piece launch into a Slayer-esque opener replete with growled vocals, drum blastbeats and 16th-note rhythm guitar lines. Nothing you’re likely to go away humming, for sure, but for sheer aural assault they’re hard to match. Second track ‘Lunacy’ doesn’t let up, Megadeth-style ‘spider-guitar’ riffs seeing the first moshing of the day, mirrored by the first real on-stage movement. The introduction of ‘No Return’ as being from 1988 raises a few eyebrows – despite being veterans of the scene Virus still punch above their weight, and with release titles like ‘Multiple Wargasms’ and ‘Raped By Mutants’ they’re helping to keep thrash alive and well.
A five-piece with a combined age probably half that of any of the four-piece lineups so far today, The Lost (15:30, Area 81 stage) have a correspondingly more modern feel, playing solid and catchy rock with some excellent vocals and guitar work over a concrete rhythm section. There’s unfortunately very little here to set them apart from the dozens of bands doing a similar thing, though; stage presence is next to non-existent and the Scottish outfit seem to be going through the motions somewhat. A Black Stone Cherry influence is certainly apparent, with nods towards Aerosmith/Van Halen and their ilk, but on this occasion the band fail to hold attention and the vicinity of the Area 81 stage again empties.
With the timings of the second stage slightly awry, we’re only able to catch the first half of Black Wolf (17:00, Area 81 stage), a strutting, groovy rock band in the vein of Skin or The Black Crowes. Sporting throaty, authoritative vocals over a twin-Les Paul guitar coupling, the band ooze rock star charisma and by the time the MR team grudgingly leave for the main stage are pounding through ‘Wayward One’ to a growing crowd. An outfit we’ll be keeping an eye on.
The reason for our trek across the BB site is Dear Superstar (17:30, main stage), who we find playing ahead of schedule to a depressingly small crowd, the increasing temperature keeping any potential audience in the shade of the beer tents. The Manchester band go full-throttle anyway, frontman Micky strutting the crowd barriers with a swagger that Axl Rose can only dream of these days, whilst the band’s twin-guitar assault provides a bed for his slightly Ian Watkins-ish vocals. New single ‘Turn To Dust’ showcases the band’s more recent direction away from sleaze rock and towards a harder-edged sound, coming across like a hybrid of Alter Bridge and Sevendust with a more chugging rhythm line and suitably soaring vocals.
The out-front mix is still coming together, with cymbals and backing vocals notable by their comparative absence, but it still allows the anthemic quality of DS’s material to shine through. By the time the band power through ‘Last Rites’ and closer ‘You Glitter’ a deserved crowd is beginning to form, but it’s too little, too late – an outfit with sheer superstar potential losing out to the August sun on this occasion.
A wall of guitar feedback and a machine gun snare roll unleashes the dirtiest riffage heard on the main stage this weekend in the form of Viking Skull (18:30, main stage) – the band’s first two tunes blast by with barely breathing space between before an appropriate ‘Born In Hell’ gets heads nodding and larynxes working across the (still sparsely-populated) field. The audience situation doesn’t improve much despite some storming lead guitar work over a colossal rhythm section in tunes like ‘Beer, Drugs and Bitches’ and ‘Skull Army’; some riffs are stretched out slightly beyond their welcome, sure, but any fan of classic metal not front-and-centre at the main stage is missing a trick.
The harmonised guitar work on ‘You Can’t Kill Rock ‘n’ Roll’ brings a Thin Lizzy/Iron Maiden colour to the palette and its “Gimme the show!” line proves apt as the band do exactly that; as set-closer ‘Stone Heavy’ kicks in there are grins all around the stage, a full front two or three rows and finally a few people dancing – Viking Skull are certainly a band better witnessed in a sweat-soaked club, and hopefully today’s performance will inspire some of those present to do just that.
It’d be an understatement to say that there’s some anticipation for Bad Manners (21:30, main stage) – the biggest crowd of the festival has assembled a full half-hour before they’re due onstage, and the band keep them waiting a further half-hour before emerging. King Scatman presides over a brass-heavy introduction to the man everybody’s waiting for, and apparently Buster Bloodvessel is in a “fucking mental mood”. In case anyone doubted his proclamation that “this is ska!”, the masses shouting it back at the stage over the opening number should serve to convince.
As they kick into ‘My Girl Lollipop’ people are already skanking all over the field, and every band member whose mouth is not occupied by a brass instrument is gang-chanting the chorus vocal. BM move with total authority through numbers like ‘Ska In The UK’, ‘Feel Like Jumping’ and ‘Fatty Fatty’ with enough on-stage energy to power the light show themselves – good portions of the stage show resemble a ska keep-fit regime, even through a bewildering but well-received cover of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. As the main set closes with ‘Special Brew’, the crowd are baying for more – which is duly delivered in the form of ‘Lip Up Fatty’, prompting the glorious sight of a field full of bikers performing the can-can.
A fitting finale to the 26th Bulldog Bash, which lends truth to the adage ‘a weekend wasted is never a wasted weekend’ – same time next year?