||HARD ROCK HELL IS COLOURED GINGER BY A GEORDIE IN WONDERLAND
Hard Rock Hell: Hafan y Môr Holiday Park, Pwllheli
Words: Johnny Main, Pictures: Carlan Braid
The three day music festival that is Hard Rock Hell (HRH) was celebrating its tenth year, and was once again at its base outside the Welsh town of Pwllheli, at the Hafan y Môr Holiday Park. With a range of bands split over the three days the festival really has a 'something for everyone' feel about it, and the fact it's sold out once again is testament to not only the bands who are booked but also to the organisation of the event and the on site facilities.
The Hafan y Môr Park, which has been home to the event since 2011, has a range of different accommodation choices from static caravans, to two and three bedroom apartments, which saves anyone from having to spend the weekend in a tent, a bonus if the weather is inclement. Onsite facilities include two spacious indoor venues housing each of the stages which are surrounded by numerous bars, a restaurant, a couple of small supermarkets, a fish and chip shop, burger joint and pizza shop, so nothing is ever too far away and it suits the needs of the HRH audience well.
The organisers, Fleur Eliott and Jonni Davis from Chic Festivals, not to mention Claire Lloyd from Central Press, really should be applauded after enduring a riotous past few weeks with a number of acts suddenly dropping out due to a number of circumstances, but they rallied round and managed to book some suitable replacements (remarkably quickly it has to be said) all of whom seemed to get the thumbs up from the HRH faithful.
With the event kicking off, the MetalTalk team converged on the site and having settled down in our accommodation after the nine hour drive (which included going via Edinburgh and getting lost, of course!), we stopped off to chat to some of the HRH faithful at the Mash And Barrel pub ahead of the opening ceremony which was taking place on the larger of the two stages, the only stage that was open on the first day.
With the opening ceremony out of the way, we rocked up to the stage just in time to catch previous Highway To Hell competition winners and Welsh wonders, The Texas Flood, whose job it was to get things going were coming to the end of their set. It's been a couple of years since I last saw the band and it must be hard being the first band on at a festival with people still travelling to the site whilst some others may still be checking in, ensuring the predicated audience is never going to be a sell out, however, the band did draw a respectable audience.
Leaning heavily on their debut album, 'Young Dogs, Old Tricks', the trio managed a solid enough job under the circumstances, and the response from the audience was encouraging. The standout of their set was 'Rock And Roll Queen' and 'Let The Wind Blow South', the latter of which included some great guitar work from front man Tom Bradford.
Next up were Scots based trio The Amorettes who have come a long way in the past five years. From self-releasing their debut album to huge UK and European tours with Thunder, Europe, Black Star Riders and not to mention releasing another two albums and stepping out on their own headline tour of the UK, so if you haven't heard of them then you must've been living under a rock!
Always entertaining live, the band pulled an impressive crowd and showcased their new album 'White Hot heat' (given a thoroughly deserving five out of five from MetalTalk here) well with the boisterous 'Let The Neighbours Call The Cops' and the excellent 'White Russian Roulette' along with firm favourites from their back catalogue like 'Too Much Is Never Enough' and 'Hot and Heavy'.
If you missed the band here, or their recent UK tour, then be sure not to miss them around the UK in March with Gun and Black Star Riders. Satisfaction is pretty much guaranteed with every single show they do and this band are going to be absolutely huge - it's just a matter of time.
For those who missed the band on their recent support tour with Y&T around the UK, this was an ideal opportunity to catch NWOBHM legends Praying Mantis in action. Announced on the bill just over a week before the event, after the withdrawl of Fastway, the Y&T tour ensured Praying Mantis were gig ready and tight as the proverbial nut.
The band are absolutely on fire at the moment and seem to have had something of a resurgence in recent years, and they look like they were loving every minute of their sixty minute stage time. Frontman John Cuijpers really got the crowd enthused whilst guitarist Tino Troy seemed unable to wipe the smile off his face throughout their set.
Celebrating the 35th anniversary of their debut album, the band played a number of choice cuts including 'Panic In The Streets' and 'Lovers To The Grave', not to mention the classic 'Children Of The Earth' as well as newer material like 'Fight For Your Honour' and 'Believable' from their most recent album, 2015s 'Legacy'. I like a bit of Praying Mantis live, and when you catch them twice in a week at the top of their game, you have to think, "Life's pretty good, eh?"
Hailing from Belfast, Sweet Savage are probably best known for two things – Metallica covering their track 'Killing Time' and the fact that Vivian Campbell once graced their line-up before he jumped ship to Dio and his career really took off. There was really one question on everyone's minds in the run up to their set though - would Campbell join them onstage? Well the answer to that was no, of course he didn't but then again if you take the Campbell out of the equation, Sweet Savage are still a genuinely entertaining live act that are often overlooked.
Vocalist and bass player Ray Haller may be the only original member but the new blood in the band (who've been together since the start of the decade to be fair) still manage to pull out all the stops. Their set was peppered with familiar numbers like 'Eye Of The Storm' and the ubiqitous 'Killing Time' as well as a couple of Thin Lizzy covers all of which was played with power and passion. Understandably I suppose, it's 'Killing Time' and the Lizzy covers that got the best response but the rest of their set was nothing if not entertaining.
Last In Line
A big draw at this year's event, Last In Line were quite rightly afforded headlining status here and their seventy minute set time was exactly right for them. Formed by guitarist Vivian Campbell and drummer Vinny Appice, the band suffered the loss of original bass player Jimmy Bain earlier this year and this was the first time I've managed to see them with his replacement, Phil Soussan.
Last In Line may have originally been envisaged as a band paying tribute to Ronnie James Dio, but it's morphed into a solid act that have also produced their own original material that became their 'Heavy Crown' album, released in 2015. The set consisted of a solid chunk of new material with the rest made up of tracks from the Dio albums 'The Last in Line' and 'Sacred Heart'.
Campbell is the undoubted star here, flexing his guitar muscles in a fashion far removed from his 'day job' with Def Leppard whilst Appice really lays into his drums producing an earth shattering sound. Outstanding moments for me have to be set opener 'Stand Up And Shout', as well as 'Don't Talk To Strangers' and 'Holy Diver' which had the audience singing along whilst numbers from their 'Heavy Crown' album like 'Devil In Me' and 'Already Dead' showed the band are able to produce solid original material so they're much more than just a tribute band.
We ended up partying with Praying Mantis so drifted off with them to the Mash And Barrel for a late night drinking session - something we'd undoubtedly regret the next day!
It's always the same at festivals, eh? The first day goes really well as you settle into the way of things and then end up pouring alcohol down your throat like it's the last party on Earth and wake up the next day feeling like a huge pile of shit. Well, safe to say that the MetalTalk crew didn't embarrass themselves too much the previous day but partied hard until the wee small hours, surfacing nearer to midday than could be deemed respectable.
Being the professionals that we are however, we had plans to ensure that we didn't miss much of the onstage action, but this was made slightly more difficult than the day before with the addition of the second smaller stage from the previous day. With some stage clashes inevitable, it was always going to take a bit of juggling to see as many bands as possible and get the very best from the festival but we tried!
After a quick shower and some breakfast at the Mash And Barrel, we headed down to see what was happening and as we arrived at the smaller stage two, we were just in time to see Theia finishing their set who, as the first band of the day, seemed to pull a modest audience. Unfortunate but these things happen at festivals, eh?
Throughout the day, the second stage was also busy with a variety of acts. Amongst those we caught up with included South Devon Rockers Departed, formed by ex-Treatment guitar slinger Ben Brookland Bennett and fronted by Mark Pascall (Empire Of Fools), they stormed the stage in fine fashion. A spirited version of Queen's 'Tie Your Mother Down' went down well, as did 'Dreaming' from their self-titled EP (available now) and shows that this band have big promise.
The Last Vegas
Chicago based rockers The Last Vegas were up next and drew a sizeable crowd with their straight ahead rock sound. Front man Chad Cherry did a good job with the vocals whilst the guitar sound was short and on point, with the track 'Here We Go Again' ending up a real highlight of their set.
The band are currently on tour around the UK, so I'd recommend catching up with them if they're playing a show near you.
JoanOvArc was a band very high up on my 'To See' list so I was glad that I managed to catch them here, hot on the heels of the release of their debut album, 'Ride Of Your Life', which was released this very day. It's one of the most exciting albums of the year for me, and I was hoping the band's live performances were just as good and they absolutely didn't disappoint.
It was a short set here but they put everything that had into their performance, cherry picking numbers like 'Seeds Of Summer', 'Live Rock N' Roll' and 'Dragon In The Sky' from their debut release, all of which got a good reaction from the sizeable audience that turned out to see them. Drummer Deborah Wildish laughed her way through the set, showing how much fun she was having whilst Shelley Walker was a demon when it came to the guitar solos whilst vocalist Sam Walker powered her way through a fantastically powerful vocal performance.
As their set closed off, they were gifted a bit of extra time, so covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Freebird' and Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' were squeezed in, and the roar of approval from the audience as they finally left the stage told it's own story. Certainly the band of the day and they may even be the highlight of the whole festival for me.
Next up were Greek heavy rockers 4Bitten who were making their Hard Rock Hell debut, and were recommended to me but I was left disappointed, unfortunately. Fofi Roussos did well vocally but a sizeable chunk of the crowd since JoanOvArc graced the stage had long since filtered away so 4Bitten were left with a small (but dedicated) audience.
Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad performance by any means and Roussos' persistent pounding of the stage to elicit a response from the audience did eventually pay off and whilst her vocal performances were strong it seems that their lower profile than some of the acts playing that day meant a smaller crowd than I think even they expected.
I have seen Dorje before, headlining a small festival in Scotland earlier this year, and I wasn't too impressed with them there but thought I'd give them the benefit of the doubt and another go here, but unfortunately they once again failed to impress. The performance was good enough and the band suited the smaller stage and like 4Bitten before them, they drew a respectable audience, but their music just isn't for everyone, I guess.
Throughout the day, the larger Stage One also had its fair share of top quality acts and somewhat less successful performances. First up were Scots quintet Mason Hill who were the winners of this year's Highway To Hell competition, and part of the prize is to open the main stage, something which gave the band the opportunity to impress the Hard Rock Hell faithful, something that they grabbed with both hands.
I've been watching Mason Hill since their very earliest gigs in March 2014 and I've seen them get better and better with every rung of the ladder they scale and their debut Hard Rock Hell performance was no exception. They might only have had a forty minute set here, but everything was in place from the great sound to the pitch perfect performance.
Frontman Scott Taylor is a consummate professional as he steered the good ship Mason Hill through an untroubled set ensuring the band gain a set of new followers, eager to lap up their outstanding rock sound. Like The Amorettes the previous day, this band are going to be huge!
The next band we caught were Cambridge quintet The Treatment, and if you haven't heard of them, then it's a band you really need to check out. For me, it was nice to see the band making a return visit to Hard Rock Hell for the first time in a couple of years, and their set here, in support of the new album 'Generation Me' was fun, fast and full of energy with frontman Mitchel Emms in commanding mood from the get-go whilst bass player Rick Newman was like a human dynamo as he covered every inch of the stage, head-banging away.
'The Devil', 'Cry Tough' and 'Bloodsucker' were all taken from their 'Generation Me' album whilst old favourites like 'Running With The Dogs' and 'Emergency' filled out the rest of the set. At times it was difficult to work out who was having more fun – the band or the audience and as the band took their final bows, it was clear that a return visit to the event will hopefully be on the cards from next year. In the meantime, they're doing a clutch of special Christmas dates around the UK so catch 'em where you can!
Ricky Warwick & The Fighting Hearts
To me Ricky Warwick will always be guiding light of The Almighty but since the group disbanded he's forged a successful solo career as well as fronting Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders and now he's got his own band, The Fighting Hearts, and a very popular band they were too judging by the crowd who turned out to see them.
This was my first view of the Fighting Hearts and I wasn't sure what to expect, but Warwick has always been a solid musical force and this iteration of his solo band encompasses all facets of his career, and what a career! A selection of Almighty tracks (including set opener 'Do You Understand' - a favourite song of mine) and 'Crank' as well as the ubiquitous 'Free N' Easy' were joined by tracks from his recent double album, 'When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues)' like the title track and 'The Road To Damascus Street' as well as solo material including 'Tattoos And Alibis' and 'The Arms Of Belfast Town'.
He even managed to squeeze in a couple of covers from The Clash and Thin Lizzy giving a "something for everyone" feel about his set. Warwick and the band are currently on tour until the end of the year, and I highly recommend you catch them - it's a great evening with a great band.
Graham Bonnet Band
A Graham Bonnet show is like a box of chocolates - you never know what your going to get, but luckily tonight it was an all flavours, killer set. Guitarist Conrado Pesinato had the hardest job of the whole weekend, having to play solos by Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker and Steve Vai. Most people would cower at the task in front of them, but Conrado embraced it and tackled it with ease.
Graham's voice was on top form also, and got the harder song choices of 'All Night Long' and 'Night Games' out of the way early on in the set. Schenker's 'Dessert Song' and Alcatrazz's 'God Blessed Video' were highlights, but all in all it was a great back catalogue to choose from. The hits were rolled out, and the night was a great success.
Ugly Kid Joe
Over a year has passed since I caught first sight of the reactivated Ugly Kid Joe and since then they've released a new album, 'Uglier Than They Used Ta Be', and have again toured the UK to sell out audiences making them one of the standout live acts on the current rock and Metal scene, so it's only right they're given the opportunity to revisit Hard Rock Hell after an absence of some four years.
With renewed vigour, the band tore through their 90 minute set kicking things off with 'Neighbour' not giving anything less than full force. Highlights were varied from new tracks like 'She's Already Gone' alongside fan favourites like 'Milkman's Son', with Whitfield Crane having the audience in the palm of his hand from the first to the last chord. From the relative calm of 'Cats In The Cradle' (a favourite childhood song of Crane and UK top 40 single for the band) through to a fast and furious spin through AC/DC's 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap' with help from their tour support, Dallas Fresca, not to mention the ubiquitous 'Everything About You', the band could do no wrong.
With a new album hopefully in the works the band have already proved they're more than just a nostalgia act resting on past glories but have something new and exciting to offer so expect to see a lot more of them in 2017 and beyond.
Well, that's Vixen finally ticked off my 'To See' list having been there since pretty much 1988, and was it worth the wait? Well, after a long day (nearly twelve hours of drinking and watching bands), I did have second thoughts but in the end I decided that I wasn't going to miss what could be my only chance to see them live.
At around a quarter to midnight the house lights went down as the band finally took to the stage for what may have been a UK exclusive performance but ended up being a bit disappointing. Sure, it was always going to be hard to follow Ugly Kid Joe, but Vixen weren't even in the same league as them. Having no new material it was a case of the band's career highlights including 'Rev It Up', 'Love Is A Killer' and who could forget the classic 'Edge Of A Broken Heart' which closed off the evening.
A duo of covers of Neil Young's 'Rocking In The Free World' and Van Halen's 'Ain't Talking 'Bout Love' didn't do much to bolster their set and I, like many, went away feeling slightly deflated after the highs of earlier on in the day.
As the final day of the festival dawned, we once again managed to drag ourselves out of bed and headed down to the Mash And Barrel for another quick breakfast that would hopefully set us up for the day. After the drunken shenanigans of the previous evening and the late night, we were all a bit tender once again, but headed down to the stages just before 12:00pm to catch our first bands of the day.` Crowsaw
Heading to stage two, we caught up with Rob Lomax and Crowsaw who were busy doing their thing to another small (and possibly hungover) audience. It may have been small but the audience were certainly receptive to Lomax's happy demeanour and he gelled well with the audience. We were treated to a new number (which caught the name of) with Lomax giving the proviso that he may not remember all the words ("Anything can happen here!" he joked) but he needn't have feared as it went down well.
Red Spektor Red Spektor followed on with a doze off heavy blues from the Stoke On Trent based three piece. Drummer Daz Bowen and bass player Rob Farrell head banged their way through the set whilst front man John Scane put on a good performance, leaving little time for chat in between songs ensuring that the music did the talking.
The Mojo Sinners
Welsh three piece Mojo Sinners were up next with their own unique brand of heavy blues. The fast paced 'The Traveller' showed the band at their best as drummer Dane Campbell laid down the solid beat whilst the guitar riff from front man David Williams was really good. Williams along with bass player Ross McInch were having fun as they smiled away.
'Dead Road', from their EP 'The Carnival', showcased their faster pace and served to highlight Campbell's kills. I went to see this band knowing nothing about them, but will be keeping a keen eye over them in months and years to come.
Australian trio Tequila Mockingbird, who have recently relocated to the UK, were up next and despite having seen and heard good things about them, this was something of an off day for them it seems. Their set was delayed after vocalist Estelle Artois had some technical difficulties, but bass player Jess Reily and drummer Josie O'Toole kept things going before the issues were resolved and the band got stuck straight into their set with 'Money Tree'.
It was a solid enough set from the girls but there was something about their performance that didn't seem right, unfortunately. They drew a sizeable and enthusiastic audience, however, and the band's previous performances have seen them fired up and raring to go so maybe this was just a blip. With their debut album 'Fight and Flight' already available, they played a selection from the release including 'Shut Me Down', 'Never Go Home' and the fantastic 'Somebody Put Something In My Drink', before closing off with 'I Smell Rock'N'Roll'.
From a sticky start, the band certainly got down and got on with the job, ending up with a triumphant performance.
I also managed to catch some of the set from another set of Australian rockers, Black Aces, and another fantastic set they delivered too. I'd seen drummer Pete McMillan loitering around watching other bands and his manner was one of relaxed calm, almost like he'd finished his set for the weekend but once he was on stage with the rest of the boys, he got to work and the whole set was a blinder.
Having said that, they didn't have much competition as Ratt were playing on the main stage and their truly awful set seemed to play to Black Aces' advantage as they gained an audience because of it.
Once again throughout the day, Stage One (the larger of the two stages) saw some ten bands do their thing. The first band we caught there earlier in the day was SOiL who pulled a big crowd for their early afternoon slot, even though it seemed a bit too early for frontman Ryan McCombs who explained: "Man, I went to sleep in Portsmouth last night and woke up here! Dang, man! It's too early for this kinda shit!".
But the band pulled out an incredible display in a heavy set. Highlights included 'Cross My Heart' and the title track from the 'Redefine' album as well as the ubiquitous 'Halo' but a surprise inclusion was a heavy and entertaining cover of 'Black Betty' which closed their set. The band are currently on tour so were more than ready for their set here and pulled off a great performance despite being added to the bill at a late stage.
Cherry Grind "Loud and solid" easily describes Australian four piece Cherry Grind who put in a great set. The relentless drumming from Zach West glued the whole band together whilst front man Sam Patsouris and guitarist Jack Stevenson featured well with some great twin guitar action. Patsouris has a laid back demeanour but comes across as a likeable chap, who also possesses some mean harmonica playing skills.
In fact their version of Led Zeppelin's 'Communication Breakdown' was the cherry on the cake at the end of their set. Another band that's currently on tour and well with catching if they're playing near you.
Another Australian outfit, Massive, were up next and they rocked the house with a high octane set whilst front man Brad Marr (who bears a striking resemblance to actor Bobcat Goldthwait) demonstrated his guitar playing whilst drinking a pint of lager skills - always impressive - before he held a short community sing-along with 'TNT' by AC/DC before closing their set.
This quartet proves worth on the bill with a true rock n' roll performance that was as loud as it was raucous - great stuff, really great stuff!
A side project of Ginger Wildheart, Hey! Hello! were latterly added to the bill when Wildheart was gifted the space vacated by Glenn Hughes and he received a rousing reception for his first set of the day as the rest of the band and most of the audience bopped through their set. Vocalist Catrin Wyn Southall, who hails from Wales, couldn't disguise the smile in her face as the band powered their way through the set and with her powerful singing voice, she fully deserved centre stage as Ginger takes a backseat.
An unexpected highlight and a pure delight to watch from start to finish - thanks Glenn Hughes for deciding not to play otherwise we would've missed this massive chunk of fun.
Phil Campbell And The Bastard Sons
I've been a Motörhead fan for thirty years but this was the first time I'd ever seen Phil Campbell live on stage outside of the band, and was curious to see what kind of noise he and his new band made. Ably assisted by his sons Dane, Todd and Tyla along with vocalist Neil Starr, they drew a huge crowd.
Campbell is a down to earth chap and even when he suffered continued sound issues with the start of the set he played it down, speaking to the onstage soundman who eventually got things on an even keel. Highlights of their set were varied and included rarely played Motörhead tracks like 'Deaf Forever', 'Nothing Up My Sleeve' and towards the end of the set, 'Eat The Rich', a song I love but have never seen Motörhead play live, as well as choice covers including ZZ Top's 'Sharp Dressed Man', 'Sweet Leaf' by Black Sabbath (reputed to be one of Campbell's favourite ever songs) and a somewhat emotional cover of Hawkwind's 'Sliver Machine', as a tribute to Lemmy than hardly left a dry eye in the house.
With the band's new EP not out yet, a clutch of new songs filled out the set which was a noisy but fun run from start to finish.
This spot was originally scheduled to be taken by Glenn Hughes, but after recent events (detailed here) the whole of Hughes' UK and European tour was cancelled leaving a whole in the HRH line-up. Step forward one Mr Ginger Wildheart who promised to "pleasantly pummel" everyone before adding that he "may not have Hughes' voice but I've got a better band!" - true words indeed.
With a sixty minute set, Wildheart and his band which featured Hey! Hello! Members Ai Sugiyama, Toshi and The Rev along with Jase Edwards from those Tamworth Terrors, Wolfsbane, Wildheart was quite happy holding court in front of an adoring and packed audience. Referring to the setlist he joked that they would play "songs you've never heard of" to raucous applause all round. 'The Pendine Incident' and 'Can't Drink You Pretty' were early highlights but predictably I guess, the biggest response was to the Wildhearts classics 'Geordie In Wonderland' and 'Suckerpunch'.
No-one worked harder during the weekend than Ginger Wildheart and both his sets were well received and he really did turn a potentially dull day into a triumph.