Reviewed by Paul Quinton
The Just Push Play Festival, based at the Apex Theatre in Bury St Edmunds, is an event organised in aid of the St Nicholas Hospice Care Centre, and was founded and curated by Lee Chapman, in gratitude for the care his father received after being diagnosed with cancer. This was the eighth Just Push Play, the first one being in 2015, a sequence only broken by the Lockdown.
The opening band for the 2023 event were the Suffolk trio BLUEFEED, who earned their place by winning a county wide talent contest. Their sound is what used to be (and may still be) called Power Pop. All their songs are short, sharp, never outstaying their welcome, but in songs like ‘Save Me’, some really good ideas. Another song, apparently so new it didn’t yet have a title, had a clever stop-start structure, not to mention the nearest thing to a conventional solo in the entire set, which helped with the directness of the whole thing, eight songs in just over 20 minutes is not hanging about by anyone’s standards. There’s not much info about the band online, not even the names of the members, but both the bassist and drummer impressed, and the vocalist/guitarist led the whole thing well.
Next up were Birmingham’s own BLUE NATION, who’ve already played several festivals this year, as well as some high-profile support slots. Unusually for this show, Neil Murdoch’s vocals were a little buried in the mix to begin with, although that may have depended on where you were standing in the hall, but despite this, and as we’ve come to expect from the band, they delivered their customary set packed with the usual mix of power and groove. As in previous gigs this year, Nick Sharman stepped in on drums, with Oli Jefferson away on tour with Robert Plant (as Neil confirmed ‘Yes, that Robert Plant’), but there’s no effect on the band’s tightness or the impact of their set. They’ve used their recent gigs to road test new songs before going into studio again, and there was another one, ‘Alone’ to be heard in this set, but, as is often the case, some of the most memorable moments are when they played the powerful ‘Echoes’. Bassist Luke Machin introduced the song, having attended the funeral of someone who took their own life a few days before. The song is always accompanied by a message about men’s mental health and the awful suicide rate amongst men up to into their 50s. Luke was clearly affected by the circumstances, drawing both Neil and Nick to his side of the stage to give him their support. The set finished with ‘Down by the River’, a terrific song which really ought to be a Planet Rock Radio staple by now. Blue Nation are a bit of a special band, and you should see them when you can.
Next up were Londoners VAMBO, who have the same combination of power and groove as Blue Nation, with strong echoes of Zeppelin and Free, helped by the presence of Pete Lance on guitar, throwing some serious guitar hero shapes, although that by no means diminishes his playing, which was excellent throughout. The band’s preparation for the gig and other festival appearances had been hindered by bassist James Scott succumbing to a virus, and it did seem the band as a whole were a little subdued, compared to Blue Nation there was a minimum of between song chat, but the band were as tight and powerful as ever, ‘Fast Car’ absolutely powered along, and a new song, ‘In the Face of Madness’ had just as much energy as the rest of the set. They ended with what has become a tradition for them, a cover of Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’, which fits in well with the rest of their stuff, with Pete Lance covering both Blackmore and Lord’s parts. It was great stuff, Vambo are a band well worth seeing, and roll on their next album.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen DAX AND ROXANNE, they were terrific at the NWOCR Festival at KK’s Steelmill last year, but didn’t quite match up to that standard at the Winter’s End event last February. For this show, however, they were back to their best, giving us yet another fine set, not only musically, but with an energy that was almost startling to watch. Guitarist Cal Wymann in particular was all over the stage, including climbing up the cabinets at the side of the stage, and at times it was funny to see bassist and vocalist Cedric Pfister trying to hold things together while Wymann ran from one side of the stage to the other, hurdling fellow guitarist Simon Golaz in the process. He could also be seen swapping places with drummer Luca Senaldi when the latter came stage front to gee the crowd up. It wasn’t all energy and stage antics, though, the band have some seriously good songs, especially stuff like set opener ‘Sugar Rush’. In a lot of ways, the band are perfect for festivals, their energy creates a great atmosphere, and while it might be a cliché, the phrase ‘good time rock and roll’ suits them down to the ground.
With all the bands so far putting really good sets, at the very least, the onus was now on BASTETTE to keep up the standard, and it’s pleasing to say they didn’t let anyone down. Inevitably the focus is on singer Caroline Kenyon, but the band’s songs and their own brand of modern melodic hard rock should get as much of the attention, Unfortunately, they’ve suffered a lot of line up changes over the last couple of years, and while I’ve no idea how permanent the current line up is, they were definitely solid enough tonight. The set did start a little slowly, again you had to move around a little to get the best sound, but round about the excellent ‘Talk About It’, something clicked and the band hit a real groove. They certainly have the songs, apart from ‘Talk About It’, stuff like ‘Poison’, ‘Rip Me to Shreds’ and set closer and crowd pleaser ‘Rollercoaster’ are high quality. Another issue with having an unstable line up is that, even with being the band leader and frontperson, Caroline is doing all the visual work on stage, and with someone to share that particular load, the band really could move up a level or two.
Just Push Play’s timetable had bands running all the way through from the start time of 12 noon, through to eleven pm, with only the change overs to break things up, so it’s inevitable that decisions have to be made when it comes to keeping yourself fed and watered. After careful consideration, this meant having to pass on Sweet Crisis, but hopefully there’ll be a chance to see them sometime in the future. Instead the next band on the bill was slide guitar wizard TROY REDFERN. He’s not just a slide player, obviously, but it’s such a large part of his sound, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the rest of what he does. He’s also a highly prolific artist as well, releasing six albums in the last couple of years, and, true to form, there was another new song in this set, ‘Get Away’ alongside favourites like ‘Scorpio’, but throughout the set there was that slide playing, on electric as well as his remarkable semi acoustic. If there’s any blues in your soul, or if you just like seeing great guitarists, catch Troy Redfern.
Next was a welcome chance to see SCARLET REBELS, who had impressed every time I’d seen them previously, and tonight was no exception. The band had had a bit of an upheaval in the weeks leading up to this date, the first of a run of festival; shows, when bassist Wayne ‘Pricey’ Esmonde had to step back for personal reasons, with the band bringing in Carl Oag as a replacement, and tonight was to be his first show. But whatever disturbance this had created in the band’s preparations, there was absolutely no sign of it in the band’s performance, because if ever there was a case of a band rising to the occasion, this was it, as the band delivered a set of real quality. They hit the ground running with ‘I’m Alive’ and gave us a set full of passion and fire, drawing a big reaction from the crowd, including although the presence of so many of their t-shirts in the crowd probably gave them a bit of a start. ‘Save Me’ was emotional, the band played superbly, Wayne Noble’s vocals were inspiring, guitarist Chris Jones was all over the stage, and it was probably the best set of the day. The band were pleased to announce that a new album is in the pipeline, which is definitely something to look forward to.
Originally next on the bill was to be GINGER WILDHEART AND THE SINNERS, but, as was announced a few weeks ago, Ginger has had to step back from live performances for the foreseeable future. The band announced that they would be playing all the shows previously announced, with Ginger’s full support, and bringing in the excellent Sam Wood (Black Star Riders & Wayward Sons) to fill in on guitar. In comparison to the fire and passion of some of the previous bands, The Sinners’ set was quite laid back and relaxed, playing country rock and Americana with a fair amount of humour, despite the sadness and concern at Ginger’s absence. There was the odd cover, including a terrific reading of Little Feat’s ‘Willing’, another cover, Quo’s ‘Dirty Water’ induced a singalong and ‘Lately Always’ goes down well, so despite the circumstances, this was a fine set and I think everyone was pleased they felt they could play the show.
MASON HILL have been off the road for a while, writing and preparing for recording a new album, the follow up to the highly successful Against The Wall. In many ways this was almost a home crowd for them, judging by the number of Mason Hill shirts around the Apex, and some of the wearers had been on the barrier to mark their place for most of the day. The band had obviously missed being on stage, as they charged into opening song ‘DNA’ as if they couldn’t wait to get at it. They did take advantage of the occasion to road test some new songs, including the angry sounding ‘Def Con 1’, ‘Oxygen’, which positively bounce along, and ‘Freaking Out’, which is even faster. Of the songs from Against The Wall, ‘Out of Reach’ is starting to take on an epic feel, and of the three songs from the album, they finished with, ‘Where I Belong’ included James Bird playing an epic solo, despite being teased by his bandmates for looking a bit miserable, and the set climaxed with the title track, which, with its melody and power, sums the whole band up. A set worthy of the headliners, and, along with Scarlet Rebels and Blue Nation, the highlights of the whole day.
Just Push Play overall was a great day, there was some terrific music to hear, it’s a great venue, and the organisation was first class. It’s worth pointing out, and this also applies to similar events like the NWOCR Festival, how much the bands benefit from the staging and lighting, seeming to make them feel and sound like headliners, even when it’s still daylight outside,
Fundraising in aid of the St Nicholas Hospice Care Centre continues and the Just Push Play team are holding a charity auction, details of which can be found at https://www.justpushplayfestival.co.uk/product-category/charity-auction/
Next years show is already lined up for Saturday August 3rd, 2024, with a pre show party the night before, bands to be announced soon.