Last year’s inaugural High Voltage Festival was sublime, and enabled me to see many of my favourite bands (Marillion, Magnum, Asia, Uriah Heep – to name a few) live for the first time, as well as introducing me properly to the likes of Pendragon, Wishbone Ash and Gary Moore (not a moment too soon in the latter’s case, sadly). This year’s second outing then was going to struggle to match it, so I quickly determined to try and avoid all comparisons with the previous event and just enjoy what was on offer. Which, as it turns out, was plenty. While I briefly (and it has to be said, not very seriously) considered giving the Saturday a miss this year, as I wasn’t already a fan of more than a couple of scheduled acts, common sense quickly asserted itself and I found myself with another weekend pass.
I therefore had most of Saturday afternoon to check out what the festival site had on offer, as well as to investigate a lot of music that, regardless of how long ago it was first performed, would be new to me – most of which, it has to be said, was on the Prog Stage. I still don’t consider myself to be that much of a proghead, but my progness has definitely been in ascent in recent years…I blame Marillion…
Knowing that the day was going to be filled with prog I elected to start at the main stage, where opener Michael Monroe really got the festival off to a rocking start. Looking like a rock star should (albeit a little on the girly side) and leaping about and beyond the stage like a madman (exemplified by his mid-set scramble up the scaffolding with microphone cord in mouth-set, and not missing a note on his descent) Monroe’s high-energy set was a crowd-pleaser. I wouldn’t say that I’ll be rushing out to explore his catalogue, but the set was great fun, and he was the consummate showman, if ever there was one. (8/10)
So to the prog stage, where Amplifier were far more restrained, but put in a good solid set, and although it didn’t make a huge impression on a first-time listener, there was enough there to suggest further investigation could be well-rewarded. Anathema were more of a mixed bag, with some good songs and a couple of duds. Continued attempts from various band members (but especially the guitarist) to convince us that this was good ‘clap-along’ material grated after a while, as, to be frank, they were wrong. Regardless, both bands seemed to go down pretty well with the crowd (well, apart from the trio of morons who decided talking loudly about nothing in particular was a better use of their time than actually listening to Anathema – thankfully the dirty looks they were getting finally convinced them to sod off!). (7/10 each)
Sandwiched in between these two acts was Caravan, who turned out to be the revelation of the day for me. I had heard of them (although only very recently, especially when you consider that they formed in 1968 – me being just a bit slow, as usual!), but still knew next to nothing about them. The songs were captivating, particularly 20-minute closer Nine Feet Underground, and while the lead vocals could perhaps best be described as passable, the musicianship on display was astounding, and more than made up for any minor shortcomings in the vocal department. Multi-instrumentalist Geoff Richardson impressed most of all, proving equally adept on violin, guitar, flute and, erm, the spoons! A great set whichever way you cut it, and they definitely jumped straight to the top of my ‘must investigate further’ list. (9/10)
If there was one act that made sure I’d be there for the Saturday it was Neal Morse and he did not disappoint in the slightest. Performing most of his recent Testimony 2 album (a few sections had to be dropped due to time constraints), Morse and band demonstrated that their blinder of a gig in London last month was no one-off. Superb playing from one and all, not to mention the highly impressive multi-layered vocal s on Time Changer which deservedly gained much applause. Having been caught out last time, I was mentally and emotionally prepared to get through Jayda without bawling, which I more or less managed. Something I was certainly not expecting was for Morse to leave the stage during The Truth Will Set You Free. Even though he’d done this in London, coming into a smallish club crowd is one thing, but going for a ‘singing wander’ through a festival crowd is quite another! Maybe he just really wanted to go and say hello to his ex-Spock’s Beard bandmates, who he’d spotted from the stage earlier in the set. Morse seems to be a bit ‘marmite’ judging by comments I’ve seen online, but he was definitely the highlight of day one for me. (10/10)
|Neal Morse during Jayda|
Rounding off the Saturday line-up (at least on the prog stage) was John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest, who suffered slightly for following Morse, but still put on an excellent gig. I had seen them as recently as last November, and while I enjoyed that gig more, I was nonetheless pleased that they had completely revamped their setlist – indeed, there may have been as few as three songs that they played on both occasions (Poor Wages, Mockingbird and Hymn were the ones I spotted). This time there was more of an emphasis on the earlier BJH material, especially the Once Again album (honoured due to it celebrating its 40th anniversary this year). It’s very easy for veteran bands to get stuck in a rut with their setlists, so such a shakeup gets a ‘highly commendable’ rating from me. John Lees is another whose vocal range has decreased dramatically over the years, but his guitar playing remains as good as ever. Craig Fletcher, on bass and vocals is a much stronger singer, and also contributes a great deal of the ‘fun’ side of the band both during and between songs. By comparison, Lees isn’t quite Graham Nash’s ‘man with no expressions’ but it’s a close thing at times! While I couldn’t help feeling that Neal Morse should have been the Saturday headliner, this was still a fine way to close the first day, especially with the final number being the crowd singalong that was Hymn. (8/10)
|BJH's Craig Fletcher (and son?)|
|BJH's John Lees|
Outside of the music there wasn’t an enormous amount of extras this year (which is fine, I doubt there’s many people heading through the gates who aren’t mainly there for music and/or beer in the first place) but a great Ferris Wheel was situated close to the mainstage to the annoyance of many, and elsewhere there were plenty of decent food stalls to choose from, as well as a handful of market stalls for something to browse through. Oh, and Morris dancers, who can forget the Morris dancers…anyway, a better overall layout than last year, and a great atmosphere throughout. All in all a great day but (most of) the best was yet to come...