Steelhouse Festival: 10 Things We Learned At The Classic Rock Gathering

Photo: Monster Truck by Darren Griffiths

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.

Photo: Rival Sons by Darren Griffiths

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.

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Steelhouse of Fun: Why The South Wales Rock Fest is a Hidden Gem

Steelhouse is set to return this weekend for its seventh staging and, while the Welsh classic rock festival has built up a loyal following over the years, along with a fistful of good reviews, to some extent it remains one of the calendar’s best-kept secrets.

Taking place on a remote Ebbw Vale farm (which quite literally sits atop a mountain), the first thing that grabs your attention as you make your way up the ridge is that you’re surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in Wales. The site is built by a 50-strong crew of volunteers – known as the Steelhouse Family – who give up their time to head up weeks in advance to set things up. In a region that is starved of live music events, this level of dedication is vital.

The community spirit echoes throughout the weekend, which counts for a lot if you’re unlucky with the uglier side of Welsh weather. The biblical rainfall of 2015, for example, still sends a cold shiver down my spine. To give you an idea of what it looked like, metal legend Doro Pesch had to be carried to the stage by one of the crew as conditions underfoot were so treacherous backstage. The prices aren’t as horrific as you would expect to see at mainstream UK festivals either. Broadly speaking, the food and booze is locally sourced.

The festival has drawn many cornerstones of rock music to its unique surroundings – including UFO, Thunder, Europe, Dee Snider, Michael Schenker, Doro and Black Star Riders – while also offering a platform for the genre’s newcomers. Steelhouse’s appeal comes from throwing together the nostalgic thrill of the timeless classics while also supporting the fresh blood that will keep rock music alive.

That’s an invaluable commitment, especially during a time when many small music venues are under threat from developers. These stages are pretty big and there are plenty of eyes trained on acts just cutting their teeth or waiting to take the next step. Take, for instance, RavenEye’s performance last year.

The band have since put out their acclaimed debut, ‘Nova’, on the Frontiers Music label and more recently supported KISS at huge arena shows on the European leg of the glam-rock giants’ KissWorld tour. The Temperance Movement, who got tongues wagging after their performance in 2013, went on to become the guest band for the Rolling Stones in Europe the following year, racking up a couple of impressive LPs along the way.

This year appears to have a nice balance to it, too. Ragga-metal party-starters Skindred look set to deliver a triumphant homecoming set and heavy metal titans Saxon, with their full ‘Eagle’ production in tow, will top the weekend’s proceedings, while California’s Rival Sons, Ontario’s Monster Truck and Last In Line, featuring former members of the original lineup of Dio, are all flying in to play. There’s also Mr. Steve Harris taking time out from some other band to hit the stage with British Lion (the festival also carries the clout of Trooper Beer sponsoring the stage this year, no doubt something to do with a certain bassist).

Then there’s the latest missive from the new wave of British classic rock bands. Inglorious, who recently put out their Kevin Shirley-produced second album, Stonebroken and Broken Witt Rebels, who both made their Download festival debuts this summer, Tequila Mockingbyrd and Jared James Nichols will be out to make an impression. The next big thing is out there. Steelhouse could be where the world finds it.

Steelhouse Festival returns to Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm in Ebbw Vale between July 28 and 30. Head to www.steelhousefestival.com for the full line up and stage times.

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Steelhouse Festival: Rock Returns To The Mountain

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Steelhouse Festival has become a home away from home for the UK’s hard rock scene in recent years. Last weekend, Jon Stickler ventured up the mountain to see how the latest chapter in an underdog success story would play out.

Held high above Ebbw Vale and geared towards classic rock’s broad church, Steelhouse is one of the fastest growing festivals in Europe and already boasts previous performances from Europe, Dee Snider, Magnum, Michael Schenker, Saxon and UFO. Now in its sixth year, and despite some haunting flashbacks to 2015’s torrential downpours, this year the fearless beer-riddled faithful returned to the mountain to set a record attendance.

Following Friday night’s warm up show, featuring a south Wales showcase from Buffalo Summer, Those Damn Crows and Everyday Heroes, winners of a live Battle of the Bands competition held prior to the festival, Wigan’s riff warriors Bigfoot smashed open the main event with a monster Saturday lunchtime set comprising cuts from their ‘Stone Soldiers’ EP.

Dirty Thrills and Vega carried on the party, throwing their swaggering AOR solos and soaring vocals across the sun-drenched arena, before assured Bristol rockers Tax The Heat picked up the award for best dressed band of the weekend while roaring through songs from their recent record, ‘Fed To The Lions’, which, if you’ve got any sense, should be queued up in your playlist right now. Don’t miss out when they tour with Ash and Terrorvision this winter.

Having performed at the other end of the country in March, appearing on the bill at Hard Rock Hell Prog in Pwllheli, everyone’s favorite siblings in rock music, Finland’s Von Hertzen Brothers, made the world feel a little better with selections from last year’s ‘New Day Rising’. They can expect a very warm welcome when they return as part of the bill at this year’s Planet Rockstock in Porthcawl in December. Three Welsh shows in the space of 12 months…that’s what we like to see.

As the day progressed, the buzz was all about the evening session ahead of the headliners, Thunder. Psych-rockers Blues Pills exploded onto the stage with High Class Women from their 2015 self-titled debut, with Elin Larsson’s soulful tones just as breathtaking as the views from the mountain. The arena was enchanted by songs old and new, including a mesmerising cover of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, building excitement ahead of the launch of the retro rockers’ second album, ‘Lady In Gold’, next month.

The Answer, performing at the festival for a record third time, celebrated the 10th anniversary of their superb debut album, ‘Rise’, by playing it in full before unleashing Spectacular and newbies Thief of Light and the title track from their upcoming new record, ‘Solas’. The Northern Irish band went down as one of the highlights of the weekend and their co-headline run with the Dead Daisies in November is quickly becoming one of the most talked about tours of the year in these circles.

There aren’t many bands that sit as comfortably as a Steelhouse headliner as Thunder. As soon as AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blasted out of the PA, we knew we were in for another magnificent display of showmanship. Danny Bowes was as energetic as ever, and still has one of the best voices in rock to boot, while lifelong chum and guitarist Luke Morley riffed through all of the classics. Performing with the confidence that comes from decades of touring the world, every minute of Wonder Years, Higher Ground, Backstreet Symphony, The Devil Made Me Do It, Love Walked In, Dirty Love and more was lapped up by a boisterous crowd.

Those up early enough on Sunday were greeted with, yes, you’ve guessed it, rain. A very wet day two kicked off around lunchtime with glam-rockers Last Great Dreamers, whose infectious, crunchy power-pop hooks went down well with a small, hungover and damp crowd. Despite everyone being pissed off with mother nature, the band, who originally operated during the 1990s before reforming in 2014, gave it their best shot at raising spirits.

Next up, Steelhouse regulars Hand of Dimes pulled in the masses with Nev MacDonald and former Kooga bandmate Neil Garland rolling out Moonlight Mile from their upcoming debut album before making way for the ballsy new blood in the shape of Toseland and Milton Keynes’ RavenEye. Look out for the latter’s debut album, ‘NOVA’, out on September 23.

With the collective mood changing for the better, the Dead Daisies just had to come along and disappoint. With so much hype swirling around the supergroup – featuring John Corabi, Doug Aldrich, Marco Mendoza, David Lowy and Brian Tichy – it was underwhelming that their hour long set included six covers, including Free’s All Right Now, Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beatles’ Helter Skelter.

It came across as flat and lazy, especially when performed by such a competent ensemble of musicians. I was hoping to hear more from the band’s self titled debut and last year’s ‘Revolución’, but new tracks from their upcoming third album, ‘Make Some Noise’, at least kept me hanging around. Hopefully they’re firing on all cylinders when they headline Planet Rockstock in December. With the rain finally stopping around tea time, the energetic power-pop of Ginger Wildheart’s Hey! Hello! provided a much-needed adrenaline shot. Terrorvision, meanwhile, screamed confidence throughout their quite superb hit-packed set. They clearly had lots of fans on the mountain.

A monumentally silly performance from the Darkness closed the party, to the airing of mixed opinions. The band copped a lot of shit during the build up to the weekend, but as soon as they hit the stage we were reminded of just how huge an album ‘Permission To Land’ is. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but any doubts about their performance disappeared as they rocked through new songs from ‘Last Of Our Kind’, including Barbarian, Roaring Waters and Mudslide, alongside classics Black Shuck, Get Your Hands Off My Woman, Growing On Me, Friday Night and One Way Ticket. Gimme a D! Gimme an ARKNESS!

Following a savage closing party in the beer tent, it was time to dust off the hangover and endure the bone-shaking mountain trail back down to reality. Thank you, Steelhouse, for another fantastic few days at one of the most welcoming festivals out there.

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