Thursday, 28 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #12: High Voltage Festival - Day 2

fter a highly enjoyable Saturday at the second High Voltage festival, I was looking forward to a Sunday packed full of great bands and (by and large) I was not disappointed…
Heavens’ Basement were a very late (and equally welcome) addition to the Sunday line-up. They had first come onto my radar last May when they opened for the Michael Schenker Group, and been, without question, the best support act I had ever seen. All chances to see them since had been thwarted by clashes of various kinds, so I was delighted to finally catch them again. In the interim they have undergone significant changes in personnel, stripping back from 5 to 4 members, and with a new permanent lead vocalist in the form of Aaron Buchanan. I was a little wary initially, as I’d seen rumblings online and a brief and mostly negative review in Classic Rock AOR, that suggested this had resulted in the band moving away from their melodic hard rock leanings, but was happy to discover that such reports were grossly exaggerated, and they had the crowd – mostly unfamiliar with them, I would say – on side straight away. Buchanan is an exceptional frontman with a superb voice and fits the band like a glove; I have no doubt at all that this line-up is built to last, and HB remain the great hope of British hard rock to me. Copies of their new EP Unbreakable appeared to be being snapped up left, right and centre (If you weren’t there, or missed out on one, you can get it from their website for a fiver; it’s also on itunes, if that’s your bag) and the new songs fitted in perfectly well alongside earlier material such as epic closer, Executioner’s Day (Yes, ‘day’, not ‘song’ as you may have read in a certain aforementioned review…) and personal favourite, Can’t Let Go (that chorus will not get out of your head, I guarantee it!) Expect to see these guys higher up the bill in a year or two’s time…here’s hoping my run of bad luck ends soon and I’ll be able to make their acoustic gig in October (although it’s not currently looking that likely – ah well!) (9/10)

Heaven's Basement's Aaron Buchanan

Perhaps I should have hung around the main stage a bit longer, as St Jude also received very positive notices from those in attendance, while things on the Prog stage were not a patch on the day before, at this point in the day. I only caught the tail-end of The Enid’s set, so can’t really comment on them, but Curved Air then became the first (and, indeed, only) band of the weekend to fail the ‘sun test’ (i.e. ‘Are you worth standing in the hot summer sun to listen to? – bear in mind that standing in the hot summer sun is about my least favourite thing to do in the world…). Their opening instrumental was promising, but then their lead singer emerged and started warbling awfully, so I was forced to run away (okay, running’s also on the list of things I don’t really do, but you get the idea…). Anyway, this worked out quite well in the end, as it meant I happened to pass the Planet Rock tent just as they were blasting out Magnum’s Midnight Kings. Which was nice. (I’m not going to give a rating for this clutch of bands, but will add, for the sake of balance, that loads of people have mentioned Curved Air as a highlight. Nutters).

This had me back at the main stage in plenty of time for Michael Schenker (or Michael ‘Stinker’, as my spell-check insists he should be called…), here performing as a solo artist, albeit with a group (just not the Michael Schenker Group – clear? Thought so…) and partially using his set to promote upcoming 'solo' album, Temple of Rock. Playing recent material at a classic rock festival setting can turn people off you pretty quickly, and airing unreleased material has the potential to be a suicidal ploy, but Schenker limited it to two new tracks (both of which were excellent, by the way, so I’ll certainly be picking the album up on release in September – so target achieved I guess) and filled the rest of the set with the odd MSG track, and favourites from The Scorpions (Rock You Like a Hurricane  - superb!) and UFO (Rock Bottom, Doctor Doctor) complete with various special guests from the ‘old days’, including bassist Pete Way (which led to a shocked comment of, ‘Christ, he’s still alive!!!’ from a chap behind me!). Quite simply the audience lapped up every second of it. (9/10)

Danny Bowes of Thunder

The same can be said (and then some) for Thunder, who disbanded in 2009, and ostensibly reformed for High Voltage as a strict one-off (time will tell, or perhaps it has already?).  I really only know them as ‘Harry’s old band’ (Harry James being Magnum’s current drummer, and in and out of that band a bit in the past due to his co-existing Thunder duties), but on the basis of this performance I dare say I’ll be wanting to acquire their entire back-catalogue as soon as I can. Danny Bowes voice is amazing, so not to have heard it before is a pretty shocking oversight on my part. Obviously I didn’t know any of the songs (with the exception of a cracking cover of Gimme Some Lovin’) but you can certainly add me to the long list of folk who want the band to reform more permanently (with the proviso that ‘we’ can keep Harry in Magnum too though, please…) The only downside was the sound cutting out a few times during the opening track, Backstreet Symphony, the only serious sound problem I noticed during the festival (There have been complaints about sound on the main stage, and indeed, being close to the stage at the start of Heaven’s Basement’s set, I quickly decided to head further back a bit, and the overwhelming bass drum evaporated and was replaced by clear lead vocals – but great sound at the front of a stage is a pretty rare thing, so I was just grateful it was present at the prog stage…)(10/10)

From there it was a quick (by my standards at least…) dash back to progland for Spock’s Beard, who despite being a tad on the sloppy side at times (and being difficult to see due to the sun’s position – sorry, get some sunglasses, you say? But I’d only need them once a year, doesn’t seem worth the bother…) put on a compelling performance. The bulk of their set, while perfectly enjoyable in itself, was completely overshadowed by the final number (and a bit) where they were rejoined by ex-bandleader Neal Morse. Even if most of us had anticipated that something along these lines would happen from the instant the acts were announced, it was still a euphoric and exciting (and possibly historic?) moment to witness and the crowd went suitably spastic as a result. (9/10)

Sunday prog stage headliners Jethro Tull were my #1 must-see act of the festival. Despite internet reports of Ian Anderson’s voice being past its best in recent years he sounded perfectly decent to these ears, but it was his popping-eyed, gasp-spluttered flute excesses that really marked him out as the most entertaining figure to grace the stage.  As with BJH the day before, Tull had a classic album celebrating its 40th anniversary year, so alongside the likes of Living in the Past, Thick as a Brick (NOT the whole thing, sadly) and a wee bit of Bach with Bouree, large chunks of Aqualung were present in the setlist. This included relatively obscure cuts such as Mother Goose and Hymn 43 alongside the essential title track, which proved a fitting climax to the day’s prog, but was then beaten into submission by the encore – Locomotive Breath, which featured Black Country Communion’s Joe Bonamassa on ‘special guest’ duties (quite a running theme on Sunday). Having missed Bonamassa’s solo set last year, and not being able to see him with his own band this time around (having had the need to eat and see all of Tull’s set) this was an unexpected treat and would have marked the perfect conclusion to the weekend, except there was still the main stage headline act to check out… (10/10)

Jethro Tull, with Ian Anderson, centre

Dream Theater (Yes, they’re American, hence they don’t know how to spell their own band name…), like Heaven’s Basement at the other end of the day, had a new lineup with something to prove (with band-founder Mike Portnoy replaced on drums by another drumming Mike, Mangini) and in that respect their set worked. Certainly the air-drumming fan next to me thoroughly approved of the band’s new addition, and his playing was pretty spectacular (Mangini’s that is!). Unfortunately, DT have always seemed far less than the sum of their considerable parts, having superior musicianship by the boatload, but lacking memorable songs or, dare I say it, much in the way of emotional resonance. Technical brilliance alone can only impress for so long before it becomes tedious. With Portnoy gone this is even more evident than it had been in the past. As I was half-expecting something along these lines I was determined to give them a fair hearing, so stayed for 45 minutes (which is longer than many of the other full sets I attended, and infinitely longer than I managed to cope with ELP’s headlining set last year, so not bad, all told) before calling it a night. During that time only Peruvian Skies stood out, but the fact that it was also the only song I was familiar with shouldn’t have been a contributing factor – for large chunks of the weekend I was hearing music for the first time and almost all of it more than held my attention. It really shouldn’t be possible for such a talented band to be horrifically dull, but somehow they manage it. (6/10)

That mild disappointment aside though, the weekend fulfilled the promise of last year’s event, despite being a little less spectacularly brilliant overall, and brought 2011’s ‘summer of gigs’ to a fitting close. See you next year – even if the blimmin’ Olympics look set to upset either the location or the dates (or possibly both) of HV3… (overall festival rating: 9/10)


And finally…the High Voltage 2011 awards…
Best lead vocalist: Danny Bowes (Thunder)
Best guitarist: Michael Schenker
Best drummer: Harry James (Thunder) – Runner-up: Chris Rivers (Heaven’s Basement)
Best multi-instrumentalist: Geoffrey Richardson (Caravan)
Best showman: Michael Monroe
Best expected guest-appearance: Neal Morse (with Spock’s Beard)
Best unexpected guest appearance: Joe Bonamassa (with Jethro Tull)
Best bandleader: Neal Morse – Runner-up: Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull)
Best revised line-up: Heaven’s Basement
Best stage headliner: Jethro Tull
Band I’m most gutted about missing entirely: Black Country Communion
Best 2011 festival: High Voltage!

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