After the success of Planet Rock’s Rockstock events, usually held a few weeks before Christmas, the organisers put together a companion event, to be held a few weeks after Christmas, Winter’s End. This shouldn’t be confused with a similarly titled event, a Prog festival usually held in Chepstow, and was originally held on the South Coast of England, but the Trecco Bay site has been so successful, and popular, this event was moved there for 2023.
The privilege of opening the festival on the Friday evening was awarded to BETH BLADE & THE BEAUTIFUL DISASTERS, and the band were rewarded with a pretty good crowd. I hadn’t seen the full band before, the only times I’d seen Beth herself previously was playing acoustic support sets. She definitely has a great voice, and a real presence on stage, and managed to get the crowd involved almost immediately. They have the songs, especially the bluesy ‘Down and Dirty’, got the crowd going, and got the weekend off to a great start.
Next up were Worcester’s own GYPSY PISTOLEROS, which were quite the contrast to the openers. In the darker parts of the old memory banks I can remember a band of the same name doing a sort of Stones/Quireboys thing around the Midlands in the early 2000s, and I don’t know if there’s anything connection between to two, but this band were totally different, pairing face makeup, although more like the Joker than Kiss-style, with a Hanoi Rocks-like glam punk set, which was a lot of fun, but with songs like ‘Bandido’ and ‘The Ballad of Tommy Shelby’, there’s some real quality there as well. Not sure if it would work in the daylight, but it worked perfectly here.
There have been a lot of good things said about CONNOR SELBY, and his laid-back blues was very listenable, and yet another contrast to what had gone before. It was also nice to see a real keyboard player, with an authentic Hammond sound, rather than the backing tracks we’ve seen too often these days. The songs are fine, with a cover or two, but there was almost no interaction with the crowd, and compared with the previous bands, it was all a bit too laid back. Sometimes you can’t just play, you have to perform, especially when it’s a festival crowd, rather than one that’s just come to see you.
No such issues with KIRA MAC, who can fairly be said to be rising stars on the UK blues rock scene. Kira, along with the four-piece band, really sells it, not just relying on the quality of the music, good as it is. Kira herself has a certain fame (infamy?) from appearing on ITV’s ‘The Voice’ last year, but this isn’t just about her, this is clearly a proper band, who play off each other and are as tight as you could wish. Their own material works really well here, although they do throw in a cover of ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ to help things along. This is a band on the up, without any doubt.
Headliner for the Friday night is another rising star, and now Planet Rock radio presenter, ELLES BAILEY, fresh from her success at the UK Americana Awards, winning Album, Artist and Live Act of the Year. Her music has a blend of rock, blues and, yes, Americana, that really worked, and Elles herself has a warmth about her and a personal touch that really draws the crowd in. Her own songs, especially the likes of ‘The Game’ and ‘Stones’, and what she called the first ‘official’ performance of ‘Hole In My Pocket’ stood out, and she also drew a lot of applause for dedicating ‘Cheats and Liars’ to the way the Arts have been ‘sold down the river’ by the government. There were also a couple of covers, including a deeply soulful version of Creedence’s ‘Long As I Can See The Light’, which almost reduced the audience to awed silence. I did have my doubts as to whether she was the right headliner for something like this, but I stand corrected, this was high quality stuff.
Even on only the second day of a three-day festival, an early afternoon set can be a bit of a challenge, but LAST FLIGHT TO PLUTO’S Alice Freya couldn’t been happier to be there. Coming, as she said, from ‘just down the road’ and admitting that she used to hang around to pass out flyers, it was as good as a home town gig for the band. They were also arguably the proggiest band on the bill, with songs that were thoughtfully and carefully put together, right up the set closer, the impressive ‘Feed the Machine, from their latest album. Alice herself is a fine front person, but it has to be said the rest of the band are a little static, despite all the bands having a full stage to play with. A contrast to most of the bands on the bill, but really enjoyable.
Each time I get the chance to see AUSTIN GOLD, they seem to get better, and this wasxno exception. This was the best set I’d seen at the festival so far, a set where everything seemed to come together, songs, playing, the crowd reaction, and band leader and frontman David James Smith has the air of a man who knows he’s got something a little special happening. They’ve already had airplay on Planet Rock, with the hugely impressive ‘Mountain’ which drew another terrific reaction during this set, and added to songs as good as ‘We Are Lightning’ and ‘Cut and Run’, which just galloped along, they’re undoubtedly ready for the next level.
The quality didn’t let up after Austin Gold as it was time for the Swiss band DAXX AND ROXANE to hit the stage. They’d been impressive at the NWOCR Fest in Wolverhampton last October and it was good to have a chance to see them again, and they didn’t let me down. As well as the quality of their songs, it was good to see a band properly working the stage. The guitarists swapping sides, a spot of headbanging on the drum riser, and the spot near the end where guitarist Cal Wymann takes over on drums, while drummer Luca Senaldi does a bit of idiot dancing at the front of the stage, all done without any interruption to the music, little bits of business that add to the show and help to make it memorable. Good band, fine set.
And now for something completely different, in fact CARDINAL BLACK singer Tom Hollister himself expressed his surprise that the band had been invited to play at a festival like this. However the band’s brand of classic Rhythm and Blues did fit in well with the steady diet of blues on Winter’s End’s bill this year, and it also has to be said, we weren’t going to be seeing many better guitarists than Chris Buck either. It should also be said that all the vocals on the night were exceptional. The set was a little ballad heavy, and may have benefitted from more changes of pace, as in ‘Play It Tough’, but nevertheless, music of this quality is always a pleasure, and this was no exception.
It going to be a tough task for anyone to follow the quality of Saturday’s line up so far, and it now fell to OLI BROWN AND THE DEAD COLLECTIVE. This was Oli Brown’s latest project, following his solo work and in Raveneye, and it’s a very early stage in the band’s journey, after he took time out to develop his jewellery business and rethink hi musical career. Two things struck you as their set began, firstly that the trio comprised two guitarists, Oli Brown and Sam Wood, previously seen with Wayward Sons, and a drummer, there was no bass player, and secondly, that, for some reason, someone seemed to have decided to turn the volume up several notches, which meant that a lot of what was being played on stage just became a curtain of noise, making difficult to work out what was happening. What you could hear properly sounded really good, especially the lengthier ‘Home Sweet Home’, but the sound made it a difficult listen to much of the time. The band deserved better.
And finally on Saturday night, THE VON HERTZEN BROTHERS. Having not played live since October, they’d played two warm ups, in Manchester and London, and had hit their straps straight away, playing two hour sets of epic music that incorporates rock, prog, the occasional swerve into pop-rock and some folk. “Just call it ‘epic rock’” advised singer Miko Von Hertzen, and on this showing, no one can argue. It was a slightly shorter set than the warm ups, but they revelled in the extra stage space, and while they may be a bit unconventional for some, you can just let them sweep you along with songs like the majestic opener ‘Day of Reckoning’, the haunting ‘The Promise, the exuberance of ‘Long Lost Sailor; and the overpowering set closer ‘Peace Patrol’. Epic rock, perhaps, but in simple terms, a great, great rock band.
Onto Sunday, and it looked as if the pace was beginning to tell for some, because the early part of the afternoon saw some noticeably thinner crowds. You had to be a bit sharp to catch WYNT, who gave the event some more southern tinged blues. You couldn’t go so far as to call it laid back, but it was cool, excellently played and an ideal way to start the afternoon.
Next up were the ZAC SCHULZE GANG, another outfit whose hearts belong to the blues. There were some old favourites in their set, including a tribute to the late Jeff Beck, a thoughtful cover of ‘Going Down’, a cracking original song, ‘Ballyshannon Blues’ that just galloped along, and ended with a Rory Gallagher song. Another up and coming band, but one that obviously loves playing live and their enthusiasm spills out into the crowd.
THE KARMA EFFECT are another emerging band, a 5-piece who play a brand of classic rock that is heavily influenced by the likes of the Stones and the Black Crowes, although perhaps a better comparison might be Rival Sons. It’s loose, but there’s a serious groove happening, and songs like ‘Testify’ and ‘Steal Your Heart’ get a terrific response from the crowd. Although their debut album hasn’t been out very long, they’re already looking to the future and crowdfunding their next one. Another and to keep at least half an eye on for the future.
The organisers of Winter’s End cunningly programme a rest or meal break into the timetable, which meant that TROY REDFERN was another that began the set while the hall was still filling up again. Maybe this explained why the general reaction seemed a little subdued, especially at the back of the hall, and why the band seemed to take a little while to warm up. But there was certainly some serious playing going on, Troy is a terrific slide player and his single ‘The Fever’ is fine song that did its job in waking some parts of the crowd up a bit. He’ll have better nights than this, but there was still a lot to enjoy.
We’ll get the obvious out of the way to begin with, the first thing most people notice about Keith Xander, guitarist, singer and leader of XANDER AND THE PEACE PIRATES, is that he’s only got one arm. He wears a prosthetic to which he attaches a plectrum. But close your eyes, and you genuinely wouldn’t know, at least until he introduces ‘Fire’ by urging the crowd to ‘Clap your hands, if you’ve got them’. There are two guitars in the band, plus an acoustic guitar which gives them a slightly fuller sound, and worked well. Their own songs are great, but a cover of Prince’s ‘Sign o’ the Times’ Really stood out for the clever way it was rearranged. Perhaps some of their own songs are a little stretched out, but this was a really enjoyable set.
So far we’d had a lot of Blues and Blues Rock, some classic Rhythm and Blues, and some ‘epic rock’, thanks to re Von Hertzens, but the VIRGINMARYS took us in yet another different direction, a guitar and drums duo that, compared to a lot of what had gone before, were downright confrontational. Despite there only being a drummer and a guitarist/singer onstage, it’s hardly a static show, Ally Dickaty is all over the front of the stage, and drummer Danny Dolan is a blur of motion, often standing up behind his kit in his need to hit things as hard as possible. Like a lot of guitar/drums duos, they make a huge noise, and this one comes with a drive and attitude that really stood out. The crowd loved them, that’s all that needs to be said.
Sometimes the headliner on the last night of these events can face the problem of being having seen a lot of music, and probably having been up and partying for most of the weekend, a certain fatigue element can creep in, but tonight’s closers the KRIS BARRAS BAND are in the middle of a lengthy tour and are road tested, match fit and right at the top of their game. Introduced by a comparatively protracted intro tape, which included some of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’, the swaggered into opener ‘Hail Mary’ as if they wanted to show everyone why they were headlining. There was a bit of a glitch during the set, when one of the guitar links went down, and Barras himself had to improvise a sing and clap along while the repairs were taking place, but this was a mere hiccup to a great set. There was an emotional moment when Kris paid a tribute to his late father, who died relatively young, before he was able to enjoy his son’s success, singing ‘Watching Over Me’ accompanied by an audience full of phone lights, and a final ‘My Parade’ to act as a great finale to a great weekend.
Personally, I really like the Planet Rock events, whether it be Rockstock or Winter’s End. They’re well organised, the staging, lights and sound are usually excellent, now they’re hosted at Trecco Bay, it’s a great venue, there’s always a great vibe and atmosphere around the camp, and unless something really unfortunate happens, you can rely on the line up to be as advertised. A great weekend, and one you wouldn’t mind repeating, anytime.
Reviewed by Paul Quinton