Review by Paul Quinton, photos by Sean Larkin
Day 1, Saturday, April 6th, 2013,
The annual Hard Rock Hell festivals, usually held at a holiday camp in Wales, are now a well-established feature on the calendar, and now the ambitious HRH team have decided to diversify into Progressive Rock and AOR. The team made two significant decisions when putting the festival together, firstly to run the two events alongside each other as a joint festival and secondly to try a different type of venue to the usual holiday camp, the unique Magna Centre in Rotherham. This is a steelworks converted into a science centre just about half a mile from the M1, and less than a mile from the Meadowhall Shopping Centre, which, in terms of access, has a lot of advantages over the seaside in North Wales. However, this meant different arrangements have to be made about accommodation, with the HRH team making deals with several hotels around the area as well as having to arrange transport to and from the venue.
The Magna Centre is an impressive thing when you first get there, a huge place, with black walls on the outside, looking like a Dr. Who set, and with some of the old furnaces and conveyors preserved in the car park. Considering how cold the weather has been, the first problems arose when trying to get in. Bearing in mind this was an event that looked to be attended by about 2000 people, plus innumerable press and guests, not to mention a total of 57 bands over the two days, it was a surprise to see only one person on each of the desks to register press, artists and fans. As a result a queue of around 50 people took over 35 minutes to deal with and gain admission, listening to Shattered Skies performing on the main Prog stage before we were issued with our wristbands and were able to watch some music.
Although these were two separate events, run parallel in the same venue, if you registered early enough, you were able to get a joint ticket for the price of single entry to one or the other festival. This did mean having to make some hard decisions about who to see, and with The Reasoning playing one of their only two gigs of 2013 on the Prog Stage, this meant passing on Midlands band Daylight Robbery on the AOR stage, although having seen them a few days ago in Lucy’s Bar in Hednesford, this wasn’t as big a wrench as it might have been. Compared to the main AOR stage, the main Prog stage was a cramped affair, with a floor area about the size of The Robin, but with a ceiling around 100 feet high, it was basically a small but very high metal box, and the steel walls and outside temperature meant that it was very cold indeed, so cold it was physically uncomfortable later in the day.
Nevertheless, THE REASONING showed why they are one of the very best live acts on the whole UK progressive rock scene at the moment. It was hard to believe this was only their second full band gig since October, as they absolutely nailed their hour long set, playing songs from all four studio albums, this was great stuff that warmed the crowd up in a very big way. Rachel Cohen was a smiling ball of energy and Keith Hawkins showed that the UK prog scene has a potential new star on guitar, but the whole band were on top form, gaining a great response from the crowd. ‘Aching Hunger’, with the now customary sausage accompaniment, was the first big singalong of the event, and this really was a great start to the weekend.
Next on the main Prog stage was a chance to see one of the new breed, TESSERACT. Pitched somewhere between Anathema and a heavier Dream Theater, this was superb stuff. You can’t play material this complex unless you’re as tight as the proverbial, and even when they reign in the riffing and play some gentler stuff, you can only stand back and admire. Singer Ashe O’Hara didn’t let some early mic problems throw him out of his stride and gave a fine performance. They may be a just a little too heavy and modern for a lot of the fans who’d gathered ready for the likes of Arthur Brown and It Bites, but by anybody’s standards, this was hugely impressive stuff
Careful scrutiny of the festival timetable meant we were able to catch some of the Midlands own DANTE FOX on our first visit to the main stage AOR stage, and the contrast with the Prog arena was acute. A very sizeable stage, excellent light show, and a spacious hall, easily capable of holding about 1500 people, including a roped off VIP area, not to mention very comfortable temperature-wise, this was a different world to the rest of the festival. Sue Willets and the band responded with a performance that was several notches above the set they played at Firefest last October. She still doesn’t look entirely comfortable on stage, and her between song chat was a little awkward, but when you have such strong material in songs like ‘Who Stole The Innocence’ and ‘Remember’, you’re not going to go far wrong. Catch them at Lucy’s in Hednesford on the 17th April and see for yourself.
Faced with a choice between the dated theatrics of ARTHUR BROWN and the reformed and newly energised ROMEO’S DAUGHTER , well, it wasn’t much of a choice. Since reforming for the 2009 Firefest, the band haven’t exactly been prolific, but a solid comeback album in ‘Rapture’ and some excellent recent gigs have given them a lot of impetus. The set opened with Heaven In The Backseat, and if Craig Joiner’s guitar wasn’t quite audible for the first few minutes, it was a minor quibble as the band turned in the one of the best sets of the weekend. Leigh Matty is a superb frontwoman and watching her hold the crowd enthralled made you wonder how she came to be off the scene for 15 years. The final 1-2 punch of ‘I Cry Myself To Night’ and ‘Wild Child’ were as good as anything anyone played all weekend.
There’s an almost certain guarantee of quality with anything DANNY VAUGHN is involved in, whether it be Tyketto, his solo work, guest appearances, but especially his live work, including this fine set on the AOR Main Stage. He’d put together a set more for the more committed Vaughn fan, rather than the casual rock fan who might know him for ‘Forever Young’, ‘Don’t Come Easy’ and little else, but that’s not to say he didn’t throw a little Tyketto in there. There were a couple of songs from the last album ‘Dig In Deep’ as well as some older songs, but best of all he took the chance to revisit his superb 2007 album ‘Traveller’, including an absolutely epic ‘Warrior’s Way’. A couple of songs had to be trimmed from the set, partially due to time, partially due to an acoustic guitar breakdown, but this didn’t detract from a great set. His voice seems to get better with age, and he seems to enjoy playing live more and more. Obviously the sensational news was that there was no ‘Forever Young’, but the set ended with ‘The Voice’, and the band members left the stage one by one, a good tribute to a fine bunch of musicians, including Thunder’s Chris Childs and excellent new guitarist Jon Sudbury. It’s always a joy to see Danny Vaughn live and when he’s on this kind of form, he shouldn’t be missed.
Staying on the AOR Main Stage, it was the turn of the UK’s Greatest Ever Melodic Rock Band©. I am lost in admiration for everything FM have achieved since they got back together, two quality albums, national radio airplay, not to mention some absolutely belting live shows. This was no exception, even if it didn’t quite reach the heights of the show at Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms a few weeks ago. It was largely the same set, with older songs mostly from ‘Indiscreet’ and ‘Tough It Out’, alongside a sprinkling of newer songs, including a terrific ‘Crosstown Train’, the highlight of ‘Rockville’, their latest album. Being able to place one of their most well-known songs, Frozen Heart, in the middle of the set not only shows how many great songs they have, but also warms the crowd’s singing voices up nicely for the singalong to set closers Bad Luck and Burning My Heart Down. If Jim Kirkpatrick was having guitar problems, part of a rash of technical issues on this stage during the evening, he didn’t let it put him off, the ever brilliant Steve Overland gave one of the best vocal performances of the whole weekend (does this man ever play a show that is less than excellent?) and the whole band are really at the very top of their game at the moment. Outstanding stuff.
After FM, there was a chance to make a first venture to the second Prog Stage, otherwise known as the Earth Stage, to see what KARNATAKA were up to. Unfortunately this proved to be something of a negative experience. The ‘arena’ was a fairly small space, barely capable of holding fifty people. And at some stage, the concrete roof has been completely removed leaving things open to the Magna’s roof a long way above, as on the main Prog Stage. There was no stage as such, not even a barrier to separate audience from musicians, meaning only the first couple of rows had any kind of view of the stage and the band were obviously having all kinds of trouble with the on-stage sound, eventually starting around 25 minutes later than scheduled, a rare thing for this event. For the opening number, Hayley Griffiths was not only invisible to most of the crowd, but inaudible for most of the opening song, ‘Talk To Me’. Although the band were understandably not playing well at this point, it would be very unfair to make any kind of judgement under these circumstances, and so it was probably best to return to the main AOR stage, where headliners Tesla were about to burst into song.
Thinking about it, it’s a bit strange to have a band like TESLA headlining what’s called an AOR festival. That implies they should be included with melodic rock bands Journey or Boston or some of the previous bands to have played on this stage like FM or Romeo’s Daughter, whereas anyone familiar with the band would know they’re something of a decidedly heavier proposition, as they proved in this set. This was emphasised by the band having easily the loudest sound of the day in the main hall, at times maybe too loud, as the bass obscured Frank Hanneman’s fine guitar work at times. Nevertheless, it was obvious the band were having a great time playing for a UK audience again after a gap of several years, and they were quite happy to give the crowd exactly what they wanted, a set packed with songs from right across their career. With normal guitarist Dave Rude absent with his wife about to give birth, Tom Armstrong of Brian Wheat’s side project Soulmotor was on hand to fill in. Early highlights included a fiery ‘Edison’s Medicine’ and an equally blistering ‘No Way Out’, before ending the main set with ‘Modern Day Cowboy’, to the huge delight of the crowd. There was a single encore of ‘Little Suzi’, and as the band took their bows, Wheat asked if they would like the band to come back and play some festivals over the next year and the crowd were only too happy to give some fairly loud approval.
By now it was getting on for midnight, and having seen Vega play recently, on their excellent support on the aforementioned FM tour, it was time for some nostalgia as MARTIN TURNER’S WISHBONE ASH were about to play on the Main Prog Stage and the band did not disappoint. In fact the only thing that hindered the enjoyment of a fine set were the ridiculous conditions in the arena. It was seriously cold, with any heat generated by the lights, the performers or the audience rising up to vanish into the far reaches of the Magna roof. It had been like this all day, by all accounts, so much so that some musicians had earlier played in gloves, others had returned to their hotels to collect coats and there were regular issues with guitars going out of tune. Despite all this, the band put in a great performance to round off the evening, with a string of the original band’s classic songs. After opening with a brisk ‘The King Will Come’, there was a brief nod to more recent songs, but these were overshadowed by sparkling versions of numbers like ‘Warrior’, ‘Lorelei’ and ‘Sometime World’. A great way to end the first day.