Thin Lizzy + FM + Alter Bridge + Def Leppard @ Download 2011, Castle Donington – Friday 10th June 2011

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Review by Harry Paterson

I sigh. Life is so predictable. The box office guy is apologetic and genuinely trying to help.

“Dude, I’m really sorry but your pass needs the counterfoil on it, yeah? This doesn’t have it. This pass has already been authorised and used. Who did you say you were writing for again?”

He talks to Some People. I talk to Some People. They talk back. Duff McKagan’s Loaded play on. Great…

An hour later, with the closing strains of Black Stone Cherry’s set wafting frustratingly on the distant breeze, the red tape untangled and the divine intervention of my contact’s missus, I’m in. Welcome to Download 2011. Sigh…

There aint no déjà vu. No sense of having been here before. Considering I have been, maybe that’s odd. Download now, though, is a very different beast to its creaking Monsters of Rock father. The kiddie has outgrown the auld man, all right.

Seven quid for a 100% gristle Madras, four quid for a pint of Tuborg piss and five stages scattered over an acreage that makes the old Donington Festival look like a jam with your mates on the back garden, Download today is a testament to many things; the enduring sturdiness of rock ‘n’ roll? Sure. The power of corporate marketing? No shit. But there’s something else, too. Y’see festivals are trendy now. This is evident from even a cursory glance at the punters, a large percentage of whom are from that recently evolved demographic, the Professional Festival Goer, complete with fancy dress, ridiculous costumes, portable folding chairs and picnic hampers. Even, significantly, the odd copy of The Guardian or Independent peeking from a back pocket or two.

Ruperts and Penelopes up from London and the Home Counties for the weekend. Slumming it and soaking up the edgiest atmosphere their suburban, middle-class selves are likely to experience. Their once-a-year encounter with an electric guitar providing the source material for a year’s worth of dinner party anecdotes in the pampered enclaves of Islington and Notting Hill. We’re on a Highway to hell, dahling…

You gotta tip your outsized Stetson to Andy Copping, though. The dude has the creds, the track record and the genuine love for the music and, surely, a patience and inner calm that’d shame a Shaolin monk. Pulling off this fucker, growing bigger year on year, would see lesser men fall to the coup de grace of multiple stomach ulcers and heart attacks. So here I am once more. In the playground of the broken hearts. Right, Andy?

Main Stage: sometime later, infuriatingly, post-Duff McKagan and Black Stone Cherry. When is a band a tribute band? For the cynics, it would probably be when a group of musos-for-hire, only two of whom spent any time in the original incarnation, link up and call themselves Thin Lizzy. That’d be snotty, though. John Sykes, architect of the post-Lynot Lizzy, had openly presented the band as a tribute to the deceased bassist-vocalist and only the pedantic or mean spirited would object.

The current, Sykes-free, Lizzy won many fans today. Yes, co-founder Downey occupies the drum stool and the perennially craggy Scott Gorham is still here. But these aren’t the secret ingredient. That honour going, inarguably, to the endearingly sincere, and unquestionably talented, Ricky Warwick. A performer clearly proud to be in this band, his performance faultlessly negotiated the tricky line between sentimental mawkishness and heart-felt respect. Add in the presence, ability and talent to make it work and it was apparent they, and us, were onto a winner.

Of course there were quibbles. Cowboy Song sported a tempo so slow as to be virtually pedestrian. The set-list was predictable, stuffed, as it was, with obvious crowd pleasers, The Boys Are Back In Town, Whiskey In The Jar and they picked an odd choice of closer in Black Rose. A performance as big hearted as this, however, is beyond criticism.

They judged the mood perfectly and, aided by a guest slot from Leppard’s Viv Campbell, Warwick lead from the front and earned respect, admiration and kudos in abundance. The delighted crowd response being no less than he, and they, deserved.

Life being the kick in the balls it so often is, there’s only so much of The Fecking Darkness one can stand if sanity is to be preserved. Thank your supreme being, then, for FM.

How a band with so much talent, so many classy songs and one of the greatest, yet underrated, blues-soul voices ever heard on these shores failed to achieve Bon Jovi-heights of fame and fortune, only the afore mentioned supreme being can know.

Last year, as an eleventh hour replacement for Ratt, Overland’s AORsters opened the main stage on the Sunday to a warm reception. This year, they’re third on the bill on the Pepsi Max stage, playing to a respectable sized crowd who lapped up every candy-sweet note.

For the faithful a measure of frustration was inevitable; so many great songs, so little time. That meant no American Girls, Flamingo Road or The Other Side Of Midnight. What we did get, though, That Girl, Tough It Out and Don’t Stop, to name but three, constituted a master class in polished, high-gloss melodic rock.

A point deducted, however, for wasting valuable, limited time, when so many great songs went unsung, with a cover of I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Small beer, though, and a cracking set. A full, UK tour now, please.

There being no clouds in the west, and Alter Bridge about to commence their assault on the Main Stage, the mood was light and the anticipation tangible.

Since Myles Kennedy’s star turn with Slash, last year on this very stage, and Alter Bridge’s subsequent UK tour, theirs is a star very much in the ascendancy and so the vibe of homecoming conquering heroes was apt.

Slipping us a curve ball, Slip To The Void opened proceedings in a surprisingly low-key manner. No matter because as the song kicked into gear, following its eerie intro, the crowd went nuts. A crowd, it’s worth reporting, that was significantly, noticeably and substantially larger than the one that had gathered to watch the ridiculously moustachioed Justin Hawkins and co mince through their paces.

As well as the expected Metalingus, Isolation and Rise Today, all flawlessly executed with real fire and balls, it was a treat, also, to hear the excellent Ghost of Days gone by from AB III.

Kennedy and Tremonti faced off in a blistering guitar duel and even the, by now, persistent drizzle couldn’t dent a band currently right at the top of their game.

There may well be better live bands than Alter Bridge but they sure as hell were nowhere to be seen today. A fact borne out, perhaps, by the record number of comely wenches baring their breasts in Kennedy’s direction. It’s a dirty job, Myles…

And so to Def Leppard who returned to the spiritual home of rock for a third time today, the second as headliners. They had a tough act to follow and the unrelenting rain couldn’t have helped. Even so, while chatting with Classic Rock/Metal Hammer scribe, Dave Ling, just prior to the Lep’s set, I had to share his surprise at the paucity of the crowd.

With hindsight, such surprise was perhaps foolish, given the huge numbers drawn to the Second Stage to witness first Korn and then Pendulum rip it up in, by all accounts, breathtaking style.

Sad to report but Def Leppard did themselves no favours with the setlist. An interminable bass intro, just a handful of songs in, lead to a lengthy and unappreciated cover of David Essex’ Rock On, I kid you not. To make matters worse, an uncomfortable and rain-soaked crowd were forced to endure a mid-set section that sagged helplessly under the weight of ballads and extended acoustic sing-a-longs. “I suppose a rock’s outta the question?” enquired Joe Elliot during Let’s Get Rocked. You said it, Joe…

Ironically, and perhaps unfairly, when the band did rock hard, a la Action, Let It Go and the obligatory Pour Some Sugar On me, the impression was of a band too tight, too polished and too precise. Rock n’ roll works best with dirt under its fingernails and the glitzy, high-tech video screens and dazzling light show bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the X Factor’s studio set. Ouch…

Bottom line? It’s doubtful a band as seasoned as Def Leppard could actually turn in a certifiably bad show but tonight lacked grit, spontaneity and sufficient balls-to-the-wall rockers to offset the depressing weather and restless mood.

By contrast, on the way back up the hill from the Main Stage, the electricity and energy radiating from the Second Stage seemed almost supernatural. Akin to some strange religious rite, Pendulum’s pyrotechnic set had packed the punters in to an astonishing degree.

Eerie lights stabbed the night in the guts and sent invocations from the faithful heavenwards. The high priests of D & B chanted strange incantations as I could only wonder at this increasingly diverse beast we call rock ‘n’ roll…