Classic rock weekender Steelhouse Festival recently returned to its hilltop enclave near Ebbw Vale for a weekend of riffs (yes!) and rain (no!). Jon Stickler was there to soak it all in. Here’s what he learned.
1. The Sky Hates Classic Rock
It rained. A lot. Early arrivals on Friday afternoon were met with similar torrential rainfall to that which plagued Steelhouse in 2015 and, while some moaned at spending a couple of days ankle deep, it was incredible to see the positive Steelhouse spirit prevail again. Crowds risked the onset of Trenchfoot to pack out the arena for standout performances from Skindred, Saxon, Last In Line, Monster Truck and Rival Sons.
2. Not All Heroes Wear Capes
If you weren’t familiar with Bernie Marsden before the weekend, you are now. The former Whitesnake guitarist racked up three appearances, having joined Hand of Dimes for their Friday night warm up set before a solo acoustic show on Saturday. On Sunday he re-teamed with Hand of Dimes for a run through Here I Go Again, stepping in for King King who were forced to cancel their set due to vocalist Alan Nimmo falling ill. With the weekend affectionately dubbed BernieFest, I’m surprised he’s not already been confirmed for Steelhouse 2018.
3. Monster Truck Are Classic Rock’s MVPs
These Canadian big wheelers are going places full throttle and they duly made a massive impression on Steelhouse. Their wet and wild set brought out songs from their two LPs, 2013’s ‘Furiosity’ and last year’s ‘Sittin’ Heavy’, along with some glowing praise from fans. No strangers to the grind – the band have been touring over the last four years – they showed their appreciation for the crowd’s resilient energy by powering through blue-collar anthems such as Why Are You Not Rocking?, Old Train, Don’t Tell Me How to Live and Sweet Mountain River. A bare-chested Jeremy Widerman announced to the soaked crowd that it wouldn’t be fair for him to be out of the rain and subsequently joined them beneath the downpour.
4. Nostalgia Was Strong
Last In Line epitomised the vibe of Steelhouse on Saturday night. Featuring former Dio drummer Vinny Appice and guitarist Viv Campbell, also of Def Leppard, reunited along with keyboardist Erik Norlander, bassist Phil Soussan and vocalist Andrew Freeman, they might’ve seemed a bit strange to the under 40s crowd but, nevertheless, horns were thrown and massive singalongs erupted to anthems such as Rainbow In The Dark, Don’t Talk to Strangers, Holy Diver and The Last In Line.
5. Skindred Are The Ultimate Party Band
While not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s hard to deny Skindred’s passion for putting on a show. Headlining the Saturday night, it was a shower of jams from one of the best live bands in the business, despite the atrocious weather. Doom Riff, Sound The Siren, Kill The Power, Ninja, Warning… the big riffs and bad language culminated with the irrepressible Newport Helicopter. How could you not enjoy it? Despite some griping from the die-hard classic rock fans, who complained that Skindred didn’t suit the Steelhouse line up, I’m betting a lot of people went away realising there’s more out there than Thunder and Joe Bonamassa.
6. Steelhouse Pint Pots Are Fantastic
Having got over the initial shock of not having to remortgage my house for a round of drinks, and despite supping from the same cup all weekend, I think I speak for many when I say that the plastic pint pots were a brilliant idea. With enough people unsteady on their feet from the mud, the arena could do without thousands of paper cups littering the grass. Tidy souvenir too.
7. Classic Rock Is In A Great Place Right Now
We all love to watch the old school anthems belted out on stage but if we just stick to the heritage acts playing the same sets at the expense of backing new, young bands, there will be nothing to listen to in 20 years’ time. Steelhouse’s appeal comes from bringing the two together, with the nostalgic thrill of the timeless classics backed up by supporting new blood. Midlands-based Stonebroken have an army of fans and can knock it out the park with every performance, Inglorious’s star is rising fast and Broken Witt Rebels are without a doubt one of the most exciting new bands in the country, so it’s only right that they had a chance to shine. I was also blown away by Jared James Nicholls, an American guitar slinger who was relatively unknown to me at the start of the weekend.
8. Hurry up ‘Arry!
Steve Harris, we love you and everything you do, but seriously, why did British Lion take so long to hit the stage? Despite the sunny intervals fuelling Sunday afternoon’s positive vibe, the Iron Maiden bassist and band arrived on the Trooper stage over 30 minutes late apparently due to difficulties preparing the stage. It left their performance a bit flat. Good job with the beer, though.
9. There Are Too Many Chairs
I know the conditions underfoot were abysmal, but was it really necessary to bring chairs into the beer tent? It was a struggle to reach the bar given the number of music fans sat down – some wearing merchandise of the bands performing on stage. It appears to be happening more and more often at festivals and it must be crushing for the acts playing to a handful of people. We’re all in it together. We’re all soaked. We’re all muddy. We’re all tired. Get out of the tent, stand with your mates, a beer in your hand, get involved.
10. …and The Bands Played On
Saxon are most definitely one of the great survivors of NWOBHM. Returning to the mountain for their second headline performance, having last played in 2013, this was another masterclass in belting out a marauding set of British metal classics. It rained, obviously, but there weren’t many there who didn’t know a Saxon tune or two and it didn’t stop a monumental finale. Heavy Metal Thunder, Motorcycle Man, Dallas 1PM and 747 (Strangers in the Night) were still incredible to witness, especially with the added wow factor of the band’s Eagle production backdrop.
Steelhouse Festival will return to its mountain top location at Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm in Ebbw Vale between July 28 and 30, 2018.