Review by Paul Quinton, photos by Sean Larkin
With IO Earth having pulled out of the event due to the illness of singer Claire Malin, there was a vacancy to open Sunday’s proceedings on the Prog Stage. There’d been no announcements about a replacement, so it was interesting to see a band named BAD FOR LAZARUS in full flow on arrival. Disturbingly youthful looking to the average Prog fan, they’re also a very quirky band, swapping styles, and instruments between the different band members on a song by song basis, but their most memorable feature for me was the gargantuan voice of Richie Correia, a big surprise coming from such a slight figure. They’re far too hard to pin down to any style, much less ‘Classic Prog’, which might make it difficult for them to find a niche, but a highly interesting set, and a fascinating band to watch.
Off to the Main AOR Stage to see the day opened up by Finnish quintet BARBE-Q-BARBIES. Far more Hanoi Rocks than Nightwish, they gave us 50 minutes of straightforward rock and roll, but with tons of attitude, enthusiasm and personality. There was some great work by guitarist Ekkis and Kaisa, and if musically it was nothing awe-inspiring and ground-breaking, it was an entertaining to start things so early in the day
After the Finnish openers, it was time for Welsh band BUFFALO SUMMER. First impressions are that they’re following closely in the footsteps of The Answer, but they don’t quite have the Irish band’s groove. It was all well played, but there little in terms of personality coming off the stage and they couldn’t seem to project to the far end of what is a fair sized hall. Equally, there was very little spark and they couldn’t really grip enough to keep me from what was on offer at the Prog Stage, so, in the interests of seeing as many bands as possible over the weekend, we abandoned Buffalo Summer for the highly technical Progressive Metal of Haken.
Having seen HAKEN support Headspace in 2012, I knew something of what to expect, but no matter how many times you do see the band, you can’t fail to be impressed by the band’s sheer ability. Sometimes they can sound like Porcupine Tree in the ‘Sky Moves Sideways’ era, at others they can be as heavy as a band like Periphery. Sometimes it was almost bewildering how they could change key or time almost instantaneously, proper progressive rock in fact.
From Haken back to the main AOR stage for NUBIAN ROSE. They’ve had a lot of good press over the last few months, and obviously a lot of the attention has been focussed on singer Sofia Lilja who is not only a very striking figure, but almost completely dominates the stage when the band are playing. It’s harsh, but quite near the truth to say the rest of the band are comparatively characterless, but on today’s evidence, they really do need a stronger presence to lift them from just being a backing band. The music itself is just OK on this showing, nothing spectacular, but there was little to suggest that Ms. Lilja can carry the band on her own, whether in terms of voice or personality. You have to wonder how much attention such average music would get were it not for her presence.
There then followed a brief return to the Prog Stage to see something of Uli Jon Roth’s first set of the day, which concentrated on his solo work, and, while I was there, a very lengthy version of Elecrtic Sun. There was much more to be heard from Uli later, on the AOR stage, but in the meantime, the excellent H.E.A.T. were about to grace the AOR arena. This was probably the first chance for a lot of people to see what the buzz about the band in melodic rock circles for the last few years has been about, and even if you’d seen the band before, this may have been the first chance to see them with new singer Eric Gronwall. But from first note to last they more than justified the buzz. Apart from previous appearances at Firefest, this was the first time I’d seen H.E.A.T. on a big stage, and it’s hard to imagine how much more at home they could have looked. This was a terrific set, one of the very best of the whole weekend. Gronwall is an absolute ball of energy on stage, never still, even when singing at the mic and still managing to make himself heard over the full force of the band behind him. Such was the band’s energy 1000 Miles, probably the only Eurovision entry to be played during the entire festival, seemed to be played at twice its normal speed and the entire 60-minute set passed by in a flash. Great band, great set and, it must be said, great response from the crowd and a highlight of the whole festival.
Now came one of those unfortunate clashes which is always going to be possible at an event of this kind. Two bands who don’t really play as often as they should. I genuinely didn’t know whether to opt for Ten or Magenta at first, but with Ten having to cancel their show at Lucy’s in Hednesford a few days previously, and with Magenta offering another chance to see them live later in the year, at The Robin, the choice was to see at least some of the Welsh band’s set in the Prog arena, before transferring back to the main AOR stage for Gary Hughes and co. It’s easy to accuse MAGENTA of wearing their influences a little too plainly at time, but live they are a really enjoyable experience. The rapport and empathy among the musicians is obvious, as well as their ability, and in Christina Booth, they have one of the most genuinely warm and likeable front persons in the genre. The scheduling was kind as I was able to hear them play all of one of their very best songs, I’m Alive, a stunning performance by Ms. Booth in particular, before adjourning back to the main hall. Magenta will be playing a gig at the Robin on September 1st to launch their new album, ‘The 27 Club’, which is a gig that shouldn’t be missed.
There are times when TEN could easily fit onto the Prog stage, as some of their more epic songs make serious inroads into the world of Prog Metal, but they’re more widely regarded as having been pretty solid representatives of the British melodic rock over the past fifteen years, so here we are. Compared to the upheaval the band have experienced for most of the last decade, this looks to be a fairly stable line-up, and although they opened with a new song, Arabian Nights, the band gave us a set of songs from across the band’s career. There weren’t that many surprises in the set, as expected we got Spellbound, The Robe, Ten Fathoms Deep and After The Love Has Gone etc., but the band did give us one genuine surprise in playing Valentine from the ‘Babylon’ album. While this line-up seems to be well-established, and there’s little wrong with it musically, live there does seem to be something lacking. Steve McKenna and John Halliwell move around the stage enthusiastically enough, and Dan Mitchell can trade flash guitar work with the best of them, but often there seems to be little spark, not enough to lift the gig above the ordinary. Maybe the set list needs a bit of a service, there probably wasn’t enough new material, and the choice of older songs wasn’t quite right, Ten Fathoms Deep in particular seemed to drag a little, whereas I would love to see this line up play a song like Wait For You. Nevertheless, it’s great to see them back in action, and more live work can only do them good.
After having played a 90 minute set earlier in the day on the Prog Stage, ULI JON ROTH moved operations to the AOR stage and celebrated the 40th anniversary of his joining the Scorpions by delighting the crowd with a set of classic early Scorpions songs, loosely based on the ‘Tokyo Tapes’ live album. He opened with a terrific run through of All Night Long, before going onto songs like Pictured Life and For Your Life. It was all great stuff, including when he moved on to the more ‘progressive part of the Scorps’ material from that period, songs like Sails Of Charon and Who Burned The Sky. Bassist/vocalist Owen Davidson did a good job on vocals, although you have to acknowledge how great it would have been to hear Klaus Meine singing these songs. The set was cut shorter than the published running order, no doubt to catch up with the timetable, and ended with Dark Lady. An exercise in nostalgia, probably, but a fine set and it really was good to hear these songs played live again.
After an aborted attempt to ‘see’ TOUCHSTONE on the smaller prog stage, it was just as bad and as futile as trying to see Karnataka there on the previous night, there were dreadfully similar problems in trying see SERPENTINE performing on the second AOR stage, aka the ‘Fire’ arena. This was even smaller than the second Prog stage, although it was marginally easier to see the band, albeit it was much more difficult to find. The band sounded great, even in those circumstances, with a set largely the same as at Lucy’s Bar ten days previously, but trying to watch someone perform in these circumstances is a genuinely frustrating experience, and it really doesn’t seem fair to review them.
A lot of people seemed surprised when KIP WINGER turned up to play without a band, just him, his voice and a bright green 12-string acoustic guitar, but play a solo acoustic set he did, and very enjoyable it was too. He may have opened with one of his solo songs, Cross, but he had no qualms about playing Winger material either, much to the delight of a lot of the crowd, even playing songs from their less successful albums, ‘Pull’ and ‘Winger IV’. Easy Come Easy Go sounded just as good acoustically as played by a full band, and Headed For A Heartbreak also came over really well, with the aid of the crowd. Kip sounded really at home with a British crowd, confiding he was married to a Britsh woman, then choosing one of the front row to sing with him on Miles Away. There was another duet, as BJ, from Jeff Scott Soto’s band joined him for Madalaine, and he pleased the crowd even more by announcing that he and Reb Beach were in the process of writing a new Winger album, due early next year. In its own way this was one of the best sets of the day.
It was an oddity of the schedule for the AOR side of this festival that the nominal headliners were not the last band on the main stage on either day. For the Sunday, this was SKID ROW, and they certainly looked like headliners, with a huge backdrop, although it must have been odd for them to be headlining an event like this in the middle of a tour that includes venues like Fibbers in York. After entering to an intro tape of the Ramones, they started with what seems to have been their set opener for decades, Slave To The Grind, and although they were using the same PA and lights as all the other bands, instantly it seemed to be a bigger show. With Seb Bach now having been out of the band for fifteen years, there’s still that contradiction within the band, where they look to be trying to move away from the Bach years, and the music is noticeably heavier these days, yet the set is three quarters made up songs from the first two albums recorded with him, and nothing at all from subsequent albums like ‘Revolutions per Minute’ and ‘Subhuman Race’. Yet they found time for Rachel Bolan to sing a Ramones cover, Psychotherapy, and also a couple of tracks from their forthcoming ‘United World Rebellion EP’, of which Kings Of Demolition in particular sounded really good. Although they were billed to finish at 12.35a.m., they actually ended their main set at almost exactly midnight, coming back for a three-song encore of Monkey Business, Get The Fuck Out and Youth Gone Wild, which pretty much brought the house down. A great set.
Of all the thankless tasks, it was down to JEFF SCOTT SOTO not only to follow Skid Row, but also wind the event up at the somewhat ridiculous hour of a quarter to one in the morning, made worse by the fact that the last shuttles to the various hotels were due to leave at the same time as his set ended. He’s a great singer and a terrific performer live, but with a steadily shrinking audience, this taxed even his powers. Nevertheless he gave it his best shot, aided by the fine, multi-national band he put together for this tour. It was pretty much the same set as he performed at the Asylum the Friday before, the first half being tracks from across his solo career, plus the mighty One Love from the awesome first W.E.T. album, then closing the show with an extended medley of tracks by Talisman. If there was a lull in the show, playing the ballad A Broken Man did tend to slow things down a bit, but the medley sent the festival off an a definite high. He’s played some of those tracks in his solo shows before, particularly Mysterious and I’ll Be Waiting, but the combined effect of hearing them all together was one of the highlights of the whole weekend. Despite being into the early hours of Monday morning, he still managed to get the crowd up enough to join in with Stand Up And Shout and Living The Life, rounding the whole event off on a very high note.
So, that was the first combined HRH/Prog Festival, a lot of highpoints, H.E.A.T., Danny Vaughn, JSS, The Reasoning, Haken, Tesseract, FM, Uli’s Scorpions set, and very few musical low points at all. The down sides were the conditions in the Magna centre, how uncomfortably cold things got on the Prog Stage and the very limited catering, even with the somewhat eyebrow raising prices, trying to see anything on the two second stages, on the whole it was a success, but only a qualified one. The second event as already been announced for April next year, with a change of venue to one of HRH’s more customary holiday camps, which hopefully should cure a lot of the problems.