Iron Maiden/Metallica/Alice In Chains/Slayer/Alestorm and many more...
Knebworth Park, Hertfordshire, 4-6 July 2014
Sonisphere returned to Knebworth Park after an absence of two years, following the cancellation of 2012s event and the non-appearance in 2013, and it was a blast.
This event, the fourth here under the Sonisphere banner, celebrated 40 years of concerts in Knebworth, where some of the most legendary events in the rock world have taken place, so there were a lot of expectations, and all were met.
Throughout the weekend the line-up, sound, organisation and facilities gave no cause for serious complaint – nothing will ever be perfect in an event like this, but only the terminally pessimistic could be disappointed; it was a triumph.
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The festival started for me on the Saturday, following the Black Sabbath gig in Hyde Park on the Friday, which had set the standard for the weekend.
No worries here though - it got off to an excellent start when Alestorm took the breakfast slot. Pirate Metal to start the day, with a crowd that were up for a dance and a sing, what's not to love.
The new song 'Drink' was picked up quickly by the crowd and with classics like 'Keelhauled' you could visibly see the levels of exuberance spread. This being an English summer festival, Christopher Bowes chose to forgo the rum and took a swig from a bottle of Pimms before pronouncing it "genuinely unpleasant". The perfect start.
Following this, it was time for Babymetal's festival debut on the Apollo stage. The audience was large, and it looked like a good chunk were there for the curiosity value. The impressive backing band, all robed and painted up, started the cinematic overture and the girls spent the first track with choreography only.
By the time 'Gimme Chocolate' had got going and the vocals had kicked in, there were genuine smiles all around - here was a novelty act that was good, it was funny, it was entertaining. Good call.
Chas And Dave were next and played a blinder. Invited back after their successful support slot to Led Zeppelin in 1976, the English summer vibe was complete as the strains of 'Margate' rang out through the pouring rain – nicely authentic.
Alestorm, Babymetal and Chas And Dave triple whammy – you can't make this shit up; this had turned out to be genius scheduling so far.
I tried and failed to get into the Bohemia tent to see Voodoo Six, who were playing to a capacity crowd – but it sounded good from what I could hear through the muffling of the canvas - then spent the next little while having a wander around the site and the stalls.
Winery Dogs were my surprise of the day. You know that a supergroup comprising of three outstanding musicians as Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen were odds on to deliver the goods, but as they powered through the half dozen songs with confidence and looking relaxed and connected, the overall result was outstanding. Here is a band that looked to have successfully managed to appeal to all of their respective fan bases, playing great rock and having fun.
By the time Frank Turner took to the Apollo stage, the arena had taken on a completely different vibe, with anthems that were upbeat and lively and had a soothing vibe. This again was a scheduling triumph, as it was afternoon nap time for a good portion of the crowd, and you had to watch your step absolutely everywhere so you didn't stand on the draped sleeping bodies getting through their mid-festival slump. Frank's backing band is called The Sleeping Souls. It's as if someone knew.
After trying and failing for the second time of the day to get into the Bohemia tent, this time for Sebastian Bach's set, I had to listen to a couple of Skid Row classics through muffled canvas again.
As well as plenty of Trooper beer on tap, Iron Maiden Day was further cemented when Bruce Dickinson led The Great War Display Team in a reconstruction of an aerial dogfight commemorating the centenary of World War One, flying his very own Fokker Dr1 tri-plane.
It was seriously impressive stuff, although we are so used to Bruce excelling at anything he does that it was almost a disappointment that he didn't end the routine by parachuting out of the aircraft, landing on the Apollo stage and launching straight into the Maiden set. Well, it's a fairly new team so there's time yet.
Once Slayer had closed proceedings on the Saturn stage, including a poignant tribute to late band member Jeff Hanneman, it was time for Iron Maiden to finally call time on the three year Maiden England World Tour. From the opening strains of 'Rising Mercury' leading into 'Moonchild' right through to 'Sanctuary', the slick, polished heaviness was incomparably, outrageously good.
Iron Maiden are such household names and are prolific with their output and touring that it's easy to forget just how good they are. This is a mistake that needs to be rectified, and tonight we all got a clear reminder.
This set was a triumph, the band were vigorous, Bruce was legendary and there's not a lot more to say. Apparently some of the pyrotechnics went off at the wrong time, not that I noticed, nor did the rest of the crowd who were either spellbound or rocking their heads off.
By Sunday, the sunshine had returned to Knebworth and this was a seriously chilled out day. There was some re-building of the Apollo stage happening at the beginning of the day as the screens were replaced to make way for Metallica's special split ones which put the start time back by half an hour.
Gojira were greeted with rapture, the French band having established a loyal and large following, and despite the enforced late start they were able to play a full set and by reducing the break between the first bands of the day, the main stage timings had caught up again by 3.00pm.
By this time the chill zone was well and truly reached, so a spot was found between the two main stages where proceedings could be watched without excessive movement. There was plenty of energy on the stages still as Mastodon were hard and heavy, Devin Townsend was joyful and Airbourne were a cheesy delight.
From this vantage point I made an observation – yesterday almost every other shirt was an Iron Maiden one. Today, there were still way more Maiden shirts than Metallica ones. Not sure if that is purely coincidence or reflects the preferences of the audience, the differences in fan-base or the merchandise range over the years.
Alice In Chains were fantastic, an absolutely standout performance, and it was Dream Theater that put the park into proggy heaven. By this time I am running out of ways to describe how excellent these performances have been; it's a happy problem to have.
The main stage acts ended with the mighty Metallica who came on to a huge reception. This was a "By Request" set and ended up being stuffed full of the classics with only 10 of the 18 songs having also made an appearance at Glastonbury the previous week. '...And Justice For All' was voted for on the day from a choice of three via text message.
By its very definition this was a crowd-pleasing set and it certainly did delight. James Hatfield's voice was in great shape and the band couldn't have sounded better. Once the sun had set and the light show and the lasers had fully got to work, it was a perfect, loud end to the main festivities.
On this Ruby anniversary of concerts at Knebworth Park, Sonisphere had proved it was a jewel among festivals.