Ian Danter's roundup of this year at Steelhouse recalls great bands, a great atmosphere, and an impromptu jam session...
We’ve all long since taken summer rock festivals for granted.
Organised by the corporate faceless nameless, you generally get a plethora of different stages giving you more choice than a restaurant before Gordon Ramsay arrives to tell them to ‘simplify the menu’.
And simplifying the festival experience lies at the very heart of Steelhouse Festival, which reached its 7th birthday at the weekend as over 5000 rock fans ascended the mountain at the Hafal-Y-Dafal Farm site that’s played the most spectacular host to this get-together since 2011.
I say ‘spectacular’ because even before you hear a note struck or a drum thwacked, you’re truly taken in by the gorgeous surroundings of the Welsh valleys on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. 360-odd days of the year, it’s as remote and quiet as you could imagine – then the Steelhouse Family arrive to transform the site into a rock festival.
The Steelhouse Site, complete with dragon skull © Darren Griffiths
Now, I have to share a declared interest here – organisers Max Rhead and Mikey Evans have been great friends of mine for well over 20 years. Indeed, Mikey & I were in a band together (Sons Of God) during the 90’s and Max was part of a rock community in South Wales that I as a Brummie ‘outsider’ was welcomed into with open arms.
I was at the first Steelhouse shindig in 2011, playing drums on the inaugural Friday with tribute band Whitesnake UK. Max and Mikey had the vision to start a festival after the Steelhouse rock club they’d begun at Ebbw Vale rugby club had attracted great crowds to see acts like Warrior Soul and The Answer. To say that facilities at this first event were ‘spartan’ would be putting it lightly – the ‘bar’ was a large cool box full of beer and there were 2 small portakabins back stage for artists to use alternately before their performance and briefly afterwards before the next band arrived.
A few hundred beautiful people bought their tickets that year to join us up the mountain, and Max/Mikey enlisted the help of many friends who I knew from that tight-knit community to help run the show both in front of and behind the stage. And that’s just the one stage, mind. The whole ethos of Steelhouse is more than a nod to the ‘Monsters Of Rock’ festivals we all went to at Donington in the 80’s with 6 or 7 bands on one stage and no other musical distractions. At Steelhouse, you can time your beer/bog breaks a good deal easier than elsewhere in festival land.
Crowd © Darren Griffiths
6 years on, and those same 50-odd members of Max & Mikey’s ‘Steelhouse Family’ crew are still giving up 2 weeks of their lives to first prepare and then deliver the best festival experience possible for the thousands of attendees that now pitch their tents on the farm. The calibre of bands has been steadily more and more impressive – and this year the quality for me was exceptional.
When I arrived on site late Saturday morning, just before gates opened, I walked through the backstage area and heard the familiar strains of ‘Straight Through The Heart’ pumping out of the generous PA sound system. ‘Aye aye,’, I thought, ‘That’ll be Last In Line soundchecking!’ And so it was – sounding tight, focused and blisteringly good as they ran through the ‘Holy Diver’ album cut. This was going to be a good day.
Even the incessant, sideways rain that plagued the Friday night pre-amble hadn’t dampened spirits, even if the ground was, shall we say, mildly moist. More rain was forecast during the weekend, but that deterred no one. Mikey actually informed me at one point that they’d never had as many ‘walk up’ punters arrive across Saturday and Sunday i.e. those folk who had turned up without advance tickets to pay on the day.
Florence Black, a local band from Merthyr Tydfil, got things officially underway and quickly launched into a Hendrix-esque version of ‘Land Of My Fathers’ to win over the locals – whilst there is a heavy Welsh-based attendance at Steelhouse, the proportion of those crossing the border to join in the fun is going up and up so as to give a roughly 50/50 split at a guestimate. Tequila Mockingbyrd pulled no punches with their lunchtime set – ‘I Smell Rock and Roll’ a particular highlight. I gather they also wowed crowds at the Rock and Blues festival this past weekend too. Good work ladies.
Stone Broken © Darren Griffiths
I was especially looking forward to seeing Stone Broken, a band who Planet Rock has been very supportive of. I was intrigued to see how much the heavy road work they’ve put in over the last year has paid off…well, paid off it has – in spades. They really got the early afternoon crowd going. Singer/guitarist Rich is developing excellent stage rapport to compliment his throaty vocals and the whole band is tight and focused, whilst looking like they are genuinely loving every second up there. Such enthusiasm is infectious and it rubs off I can tell you. I hope their 2nd album (due early 2018) has the songs needed to take them to the next level, because they’re ready.
Bernie Marsden is a man who needs no introduction. As it is, he got 3 introductions this weekend, and his acoustic set heralded his 2nd intro to the stage, having guested with Hand Of Dimes on the Friday night in that heavy unrelenting downpour that threatened to suspend the rock and roll for a time.
One thing that might surprise you about Bernie after all these years as a top-notch guitarist is that he can really sing on top of that – limitations in someone’s vocal ability can be easily exposed in an acoustic setting, but Bernie’s too good for any doubts to be cast, and the punters lapped up his solo versions of Whitesnake classics.
Nathan James of Inglorious has made no secret of his adoration for all things Whitesnake & Coverdale, but he resisted the urge he doubtless felt to bring Bernie back on to guest with his band for the next set. Nathan chose wisely to showcase his bands’ own great talent as they played songs from their first two albums, James delivering his powerhouse vocals almost effortlessly – it was noticeable as I watched from the side of the stage just how many punters knew every word of the Inglorious set. They’re making inroads for sure, and 'Taking The Blame' is an excellent new track – I’d love to see what happened if Nathan got Mr Marsden together for a songwriting session. That would bear fruit for album number 3, I’m certain of it.
Inglorious © Darren Griffiths
Monster Truck have just been announced as one of Planet Rockstock’s headline acts for Trecco Bay in December and all other bands over that weekend will have their work cut out to match the Canadians riff for riff. Jer’s guitar amps are set so loud to create his wonderfully gnarly tone that they have to face the amps’ speaker away from the audience so as not to melt faces in the front row. They love a riff do the Monster boys, and I love a good riff, so what’s not to like right? Awesome set.
Tough act to follow for me. But Last In Line were quite majestic. Ok, so it’s essentially a nostalgia act celebrating Dio’s solo career. But as the night proved, LIL are much more than that – 'The Devil In Me' and 'Starmaker' from their debut album sat beautifully alongside the RJD classics like 'Don’t Talk To Strangers' and 'Holy Diver'. Andrew Freeman was a revelation both as vocalist and frontman – it cannot be easy taking on Dio’s legacy and doing the bidding of 2 of Dio’s original members in Messrs Campbell and Appice, but he is utterly fearless and faultless in his approach. Apparently I was caught grinning inanely from side stage as they launched in to the song that bears their name. No wonder I was grinning – it was bloody brilliant stuff.
Skindred proved to be an inspired choice as Saturday headliners, a band whose back catalogue I wasn’t that familiar with, but the punters, more importantly, were and frontman Benji did not stop until everyone was with them as they pumped out the tunes with their slightly more technological approach to those that had come before them. Darren Redick was, I have to say, particularly impressed with what he saw and fully intends to delve into their recorded history tout de suite.
Skindred © Darren Griffiths
Sunday is no day of rest up the mountain, and there had been little or no rest for the Steelhouse Family overnight as tons of straw were brought into the arena to make life a little less muddy for punters and backstage types alike. By the time the bales of hay had been spread as far as possible, it was time to get things rolling on stage with locals Texas Flood and Planet Rock Roadstars lads Broken Witt Rebels kicking things off in fine style. The weather looked better and largely stayed better all day with just a couple of sharp showers punctuating the sunnier spells.
Jared James Nicholls’ bluesy riffs were a welcome addition to the mix and his stomping version of Mountain’s Mississippi Queen was essential viewing and listening. Toby Jepson had introduced himself to me backstage earlier in the day, and his new band Wayward Sons (named after a lyric in Little Angels’ ‘Kickin’ Up Dust) introduced themselves in some style to the Steelhouse crowd with a crushing set of what I’d call good, honest ‘meat and potatoes’ rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a gutsy step for Toby to try out a new act at this stage of the game, and it’s clear he wants it to be loved for what it is rather than just use his name as leverage for a band project. With songs as strong as Until The End, they stand more than a puncher’s chance.
There was, however, some disappointing news as the afternoon went on in that King King had been forced to cancel their appearance due to a serious bout of laryngitis affecting their singer - to the extent that a number of dates have been shelved through August.
The impromptu Bernie Marsden / Hand of Dimes / Dants & Darren Band! © Darren Griffiths
And so some bright spark (Mikey) decided to put the call out to Bernie Marsden, Hand Of Dimes…and Ian Danter & Darren Redick to take to the stage. Yes, Darren and I ended up performing as part of a short set designed to fill the void left by King King’s absence. And so at the allotted moment, Darren strapped on a bass, I crept behind the drums and we, along with Bernie, Hand Of Dimes singer Neville McDonald and guitarist Colin Edwards to play Free’s ‘Wishing Well’. And the applause we received at the end of that tune told Darren & I that we’d pulled it off successfully! Bernie then stayed on with Hand Of Dimes to play 4 Whitesnake classics that the crowd absolutely adored. The cries of ‘Bernie! Bernie!’ intensified as talk of a name change from Steelhouse Festival to ‘BernFest’ was mooted backstage for a few cheeky seconds. Bernie, you’re a legend. Simple as that.
Steve Harris’ legend has long since been secured with 40 years at the helm of Maiden, but the impressive thing about his side project British Lion is how he treats it as a totally separate thing to his day job and refuses to trade on Maiden’s legacy in order to bolster a set list. Instead, he wants the British Lion material to be accepted on its own merits without comparison to what we know and love ‘Arry for most, and to be fair the Steelhouse crown were more than willing to accept those terms and loved the BL set as afternoon turned to evening.
Rival Sons © Darren Griffiths
Rival Sons can see the light at the end of the touring tunnel after a heavy schedule that has seen them open for Black Sabbath on ‘The End’ tour – Jay and the boys have about 3 weeks left on the road before a well-earned break, but they showed no signs of weariness as they tore through a superbly paced set. Electric Man was – well – electric, and Open My Eyes, whilst obviously a grand homage to Zep, stands up as a brilliant live track. I’m really interested to know where Rival Sons go next when they get into the studio again.
Saxon © Darren Griffiths
As for headiners Saxon? Well, I have to be honest – I didn’t see them. That’s the dedication of a Planet Rock cover presenter who needs to get back to London from South Wales to present a 4-hour show the next morning. And in any case, we have a very special ‘guest’ reviewer who will wax lyrical about Biff and the boys in the next edition of Planet Rock magazine, so you can wait for that. But I personally cannot wait for the 2018 vintage of Steelhouse to play out at the highest festival setting in the UK.
It’s truly a family affair, this festival. That may come across as contrived or hokey to those reading this, but it’s a genuine opinion that I believe can be backed up by all manner of examples. Max & Mikey have built something unique, special and possessing bags and bags of personality with Steelhouse Festival. I met punters across the weekend who were Steelhouse veterans, along with just as many Steelhouse virgins, and the love for what they experienced was unequivocal right across the board. Max and Mikey, as I’ve mentioned, are dear dear friends to me, and I’ve so badly wanted this idea to work for them. They haven’t needed any positive vibes from me or anyone else that’s been in their corner since 2011. Their top class little corner of festival-dom is one that’s set to grow and grow still further as the years go on – and if you have yet to see it for yourself, you should take the plunge one year and take the mountain road from Aberbeeg that leads to the promised land of Steelhouse. The ‘men of Steel’, Max & Mikey, truly are modern day supermen.
Crowd © Darren Griffiths