Review by Paul Quinton and Woody, Photos by Lisa Billingham
Day one, Thursday 20th March
Following the experiment at the Magna Centre in 2013 for the first combined HRH AOR/Prog festival, the HRH organisation reverted to its spiritual home at the Hafan y Mor Holiday camp in Pwllheli, North Wales, and also added a third facet to the event, a Blues festival. While the first event was spread across four stages, two each for AOR and Prog, two of those were very much the opposite of audience friendly, while the main Prog arena was almost unbearably cold for much of the time, due to the nature of the building, 2014’s event was held in three reasonably sized halls, giving the bands a decent chance to show what they could do. Similarly, in using what to them must now be a very familiar venue, the organisers were able to show a significant step up in the management of the event, in everything from registration to stage management.
The events on the first night were given over to what were called ‘pre-parties’, although the AOR arena wasn’t open for these, the Blues and AOR events being combined for the evening. The first band on the Prog Stage were SANKARA, founded and fronted by former Reasoning keyboard player and vocalist Gareth Jones. Clad in his trademark three piece suit and tie, his voice is still as good and distinctive as ever, but the band, now a five-piece appear to have had line-up change, with no sign of his former Reasoning band mate Vinden Wylde, and they seem to have become a lot heavier than on previous occasions, with far more of a modern rock tinge. Presumably it was the association with his former band that placed them on this particular stage, as there was little else to justify their place. It wasn’t bad, but it was also nothing special, a set of competent hard rock songs, but without much, apart from the vocals, to set them apart and make them memorable.(PQ)
The always entertaining JUMP were a welcome addition to the bill on the Prog stage, and they didn’t let anyone down, with 50 minutes of quality music. Someone who wasn’t familiar with the band remarked to me that what he found likeable about them was that both the songs and John Dexter Jones’ between song chat involve storytelling and creating a warm bond between band and audience, which sums the band up exactly, and if visually, they’re a somewhat disparate group, musically they’re right on the mark, doing full justice to the atmosphere and complexity of the songs. They‘re really too good a band to be on this time of the day, but I hope some of those seeing the band for the first time check them out a little further, because they deserve to be much better known than they are. (PQ)
The joint AOR/Blues pre-party was held in what would be the Blues stage for the rest of the weekend, and on this first night it was much filler than the Prog Arena ever was when Midlands Melodic Rock heroes DANTE FOX took the stage. This was by far the most professional show on any stage on the first night, the band clearly came determined to deliver a top quality set and that’s exactly what we got, even if the stage wasn’t as well-appointed as the other two, the lighting in particular can best be described as ‘functional’. Sue Willets was in especially good form on vocals, particularly on a terrific version of ‘Lost Man’s Ground’, but the band’s new material, released as a download-only E.P. to coincide with the festival, was equally impressive, with ‘How Will You Know Where To Find Me?’, with its excellent hook and chorus, being another stand-out in the set. There was one sour note in the set, in the band having to compete with a noticeably restless crowd, including one group of intellectuals near the stage who were more interested in performing a chant of their own devising, seemingly in an effort to distract the band, This didn’t look to be the result of being well-refreshed, more like attention-seeking. I can’t see someone like Fish managing to ignore it as well as Sue and the band did, more likely to tell them exactly who the crowd had paid to hear and to go and mess about somewhere else, but it really didn’t spoil a great set from the band. More gigs, chaps, and soon, please. (PQ)
There was a long gap before UNITED NATIONS hit the stage, and it saw the crowd that had gathered for Dante Fox dissipate quite quickly. The hardcore AORsters soon flocked back to the front again once they started playing their first song, though. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking ‘Who?’ I like to pride myself on having a good knowledge of AOR bands but these guys have never come to my attention until very recently. Originating from the 80s, I’m told they gathered a cult following in their day amongst British AOR fans, but today their line-up features Black Country vocalist Lee Small, which is what has piqued my interest in this relatively unknown band. Their set felt like the story of two bands with some songs which had a strong typical early 80s English AOR feel, akin to bands like Bronz, but mixed in with songs with a more straight ahead modern melodic rock flavour which we are used to nowadays – an evolution of their sound but without leaving the melodic rock path. With no offence meant to the band, but the star on show here was Small who put on an energetic performance and a sterling vocal performance. He was quick to banter and draw the crowd into the band’s songs, which made me quickly warm to these guys. It was the more modern stuff which grabbed my attention as I found some of the older sounding material a little too cheesy (yes, too cheesy eve for me!) but on the whole I was really entertained by United Nations and I’ll definitely keeping an eye out for more music and gigs from them. My favourite song was ‘You Cheated’, a full on melodic rocker, which pushes all the right buttons, a melodic rock hit if ever I heard one. They also ran through ‘Violation Of A Nation’ ‘Too Much Information’ ‘I’ll Be Your Man Tonight’ ’She’s Got The Looks That Kill’ ‘Shock to The System’ ‘Black Hearts’ and ‘When We Live Forever’. (Woody)
There’s been a lot of talk about SYNAESTHESIA in Prog circles since they emerged with a very well-received debut album in 2013, and as they are only just starting out as a live act, this was something to look forward to. The band are alarmingly fresh-faced and youthful, and they were done no favours by a sound that did everything it could to conceal the dynamics and nuances in the band’s music, and rendered a lot of Adam Warnes’ vocals indistinct at best, but it couldn’t prevent what was one of the best performances of the first day. This is clearly a band with a frightening amount of talent and vision, with influences ranging across the whole genre, from the psychedelia of Hawkwind, all the way up to the electronica experiments of the mighty Pure Reason Revolution. This really was terrific stuff, and I was amazed to learn that this was only their second ever gig. The future may well be in safe hands (PQ).
Michael Schenker Group and former Rainbow singer Dougie White is also continuing to work with his original band LA PAZ, who began to work together again recently. Band reunions, with varying numbers of original members, are quite the thing these days, but sometimes you do wonder how much demand there was for the regrouping. La Paz is one of those names that probably don’t mean much outside hardcore melodic rock circles, and to be frank, there wasn’t much on show here to make you wonder why. It was all very workmanlike, solid hard rock, but without a lot to distinguish it from a lot of other bands, apart from the voice of Dougie White. Anyone who’s seen him performing with Schenker recently will know what a good singer he is, but then again with Schenker he has some stellar songs to work with, and this was not the case here. Always good to hear him in full voice, but otherwise this was nothing special. (PQ)