Download Festival 2014. Donington Park, 13-15 June 2014.
Missing out on day one was no big issue for our reporter. With Skid Row, Status Quo, Monster Magnet and more, not to mention headliners Aerosmith, there was still plenty left in the weekend.
Arriving onto the Download site more than twenty-four hours after the festival has begun, for this writer, there’s some catching up to be done. Thankfully the beer tokens haven’t run out, the pumps are well stocked, and there’s still plenty of good music to come, even if it is after three o’clock in the afternoon. Itinerary sorted and slightly flat Tuborg in hand, I’m ready to take on what Download 2014 has in store.
First up on the Zippo Encore Stage is Skid Row, playing on the very same stage and in roughly the same time slot that their estranged ex-singer did in 2012. Like him they play a heavily ‘hits’ laden set with a few newer numbers thrown in to assert their relevance. The crowd are in sing along mood, as an early airing of ’18 And Life’ indicates. They’re a mixed bunch, of those that saw them the first time around, and the Steel Panther educated, faux-glam costume wearing youth gone wild. All are equally enthusiastic however, especially on the run of tracks that includes ‘Riot Act’, ‘Monkey Business’ and ‘I Remember You’. However it’s the closing ‘Youth Gone Wild’ that raises the metaphoric roof, at the same time shifting the threatening grey clouds from the sky. It’s a promising start to the day.
Next up on the same stage are space lord mother fuckers Monster Magnet. It may seem like an odd billing to have them above the multi-million selling Skid Row, and the noticeably thinning audience prior to their set would seem to support this. The crusty and the negasonic however saunter forward, for the very brief six song set that follows. The subdued crowd barely elicit more than a polite response. That is until the monolithic tracks from 1998’s ‘Powertrip’ are unleashed. The band have clearly saved the best ‘til last. Within the first two chords of ‘Powertrip’ itself, the crowd finally awakes, surprising even band leader and front man Dave Wydorff himself. "See, I told you they’d react if they knew one" he tells his band mates. React they do, as hands clap in time and the energy levels rise. Wydorff first sang the lyrics ‘I’m never gonna work another day in my life, the Gods told me to relax, they said I’m gonna get fixed up fine’ some fifteen years ago, and you know what, he still believes it, and so do the crowd, who sing every line with him. The band finish with another track from that same album in ‘Space Lord’. It’s a late peak, but the faithful leave happy.
The Wildhearts are up next, and there are no shortage of the band’s shirts in the crowd, as their loyal fanbase show their strength in numbers. Performing a set littered with fan favourites, they bring with them a real air of celebration for the first time today. The Wildhearts are England’s ramshackle bastard sons, and though their home country may be just hours away from their opening game in the World Cup, up front, it’s as if they’ve just won the final. Revival-period opener ‘Vanilla Radio’ perfectly sets the tone, and it’s quickly followed by fan favourites ‘Nita Nitro’ and ‘Sick Of Drugs’ (just who did they think they were kidding back in 1996?). The crowd are loving every second of it, but it’s during the thrash-metal trash of ‘Caffeine Bomb’ that they really explode. It’s not the peak though. That comes with the 1-2 delivery of ‘My Baby Is A Headfuck’ and ‘Suckerpunch’ which lift the atmosphere to a whole other level. An injection of much needed excitement, it’s a performance that England can truly be proud of. Those left wanting for more head for the acoustic stage where main man Ginger will later perform a selection of other Wildhearts classics including ‘Red Light, Green Light’ and a singalong ‘Geordie In Wonderland’. Twisted Sister have a difficult job following, despite Ginger’s assertion that they’re a band not to be missed. What’s apparent immediately though, is just how weedy they sound, with instruments limp and lifeless after the powerhouse sound of The Wildhearts. It’s a problem that shows little improvement throughout the bands set. At this rate, it would take a frontman of great magnitude and showmanship to make any impact. Thankfully, in Dee Snider they have exactly that. Having recorded precisely zero new songs since first reforming thirteen years ago, the crowd happily are treated to a classics-only set. Snider is a ball of energy, working every inch of the stage and the audience like the master of his craft that he is. His peroxide hair and white leathers make him appear seven feet tall, as he belts out the hits including ‘Stay Hungry’, ‘You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll’ and ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’. ‘We’re gonna do a song that we haven’t performed this song since the last time we played it’, Snider comically announces, as the band launch into ‘I Am (I’m Me)’, at the same time recalling the band’s appearance on Top Of The Pops on British TV many years ago. Though the band work hard, it’s hard to take your eyes off Dee. He might look ridiculous, but it’s all part of the show. The real pantomime dame however, is bass player Mark ‘The Animal’ Mendoza who, it seems has gone under the blade himself more than once. Following a monstrous and rousing ‘I Wanna Rock’, the band get an encore (the first of the day), and pay tribute to Lemmy with a cover of Motorhead’s ‘Born To Raise Hell’. ‘Get we’ll soon Lemmy, we need ya’, proclaims a parting Snider as the song climaxes, to cheering support.
There are some who would have you believe after the recent brief reformation of the classic original ‘Frantic Four’ line-up of Status Quo, going to see the ‘other’ version of the band is akin to witnessing Iron Maiden with Blaze Bayley, Judas Priest fronted by Ripper Owens, or Metallica performing St. Anger in its entirety (God forbid!); a pale imitation of the real thing, a lesser version if you will. These people have obviously not seen the current Quo in action, and with a set list bursting with songs that everybody knows played by a band as tight as their fabled denims, there’s a party in full flow. What’s quite unbelievable though is that the crowd isn’t made up of the older, denim-clad army, but a younger generation who can’t be old enough to remember the original band. They’re singing along to every word, from ‘Again and Again’ to ‘Railroad’ to ‘In TheArmy Now’ and ‘Down Down’. To top it all off, there’s a mosh pit going on down front. Yes you read that right; Mosh pit for Status Quo at Download 2014! Surely that’s the headline right there. Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt have been fronting the band for over fifty years, and their synergy is undeniable. The band that accompany them on stage tonight play with passion and energy. Linkin Park may be playing to a larger crowd further down the field, but those who what a little fun are here. It’s the perfect (three) chord(s) on which to end the night.
An early 11am start on Sunday morning means that only the most dedicated are onsite to see Jake E Lee’s return to the Donington stage after a twenty-eight year absence. It’s almost as long since he has graced these shores at all, and this run of dates it seems has been wrought with problems. His performance here today was even in doubt. But it’s not so, and he’s here, with his new band Red Dragon Cartel. Opening with ‘The Ultimate Sin’, those who have made the effort to get there early are treated to a rarely heard Ozzy classic, and they sing along with gusto. The band perform a number of tracks from their self-titled debut, and the fanatics get behind them. Lee’s sound however, is appalling and his expert soloing is barely audible through what sounds like the cheapest amp on the site. None of this matters during the closing ‘Bark at the Moon’ however, and the quality of the song outweighs the sound issues. Let’s hope a return to these shores sees the band iron out their problems.
Phil, sorry 'Philip H. Anselmo' is in the mood to celebrate. It’s been twenty years since Pantera first performed at Donington, and as such the crowd are in for a special set. Kicking off unexpectedly with a razor sharp ‘Hellbound’, it’s clear that the man has lost none of his aggression. His band are sharp too, with Carmen Appice look-alike Marzi Montazeri displaying a charisma worthy of standing alongside Anselmo. Although the set includes a mix of originals, a couple of Superjoint Ritual tracks, and a very brief Agnostic Front cover, it’s the Pantera numbers that rightly elicit the biggest response. The loudest cheer however, arrives when Anselmo’s former Pantera bandmate Rex Brown (here to perform with his own Kill Devil Hill) ambles onto the stage to perform ‘A New Level’ with the band. It’s a brief reunion that sees the crowd enraptured. If you can ignore Anselmo’s inane ramblings about "this asshole festival" or questioning whether "you like Skid Row"? (cue large cheer) "not me", then it might just be the perfect set from the man. Still, he knows how to push the right buttons, and his ‘asshole’ comments are spoken with tongue in cheek.
If any band can lay claim to being Download’s ‘house band’ it’s Steel Panther. Having played the festival three times before, they’ve now reached the status of third from the top on the main stage for the closing day of the festival. The site is literally crammed with 1980’s era fancy-dressers in eye-wateringly tight spandex, ott-shades and huge peroxide wigs. The ladies too it seems are in on the act, scantily clad and poised front of stage. There’s a huge air of anticipation, and getting anywhere near the front is nigh on impossible. Equally hilarious as they are brilliantly talented musicians, the crowd go wild for them when they burst onto the stage with ‘Pussywhipped’. Their set list is filled with sing along, risqué 1980’s L.A cheese, and the crowd eat it up. ‘Party Like It’s The End Of The World’, ‘Asian Hooker’, ‘Glory Hole’, ‘Gold Digging Whore’, they’re all here, inter-spliced with some genuinely side-splitting banter. Michael Starr taunts the crowd, pointing out the numerous topless ‘chicks’ in the audience; "can you guys see these?" he asks knowingly as the camera stays firmly focused on bassist Lexxi Foxx, vainly preening into a hand mirror. ‘Girl From Oaklahoma’ sees everyone on acoustic guitars including drummer Stix Zadina who can be seen mouthing "I can’t play this thing". In fact, despite guitars being hung around all four band member’s shoulders, it is only lead guitarist Satchel who is actually playing. It’s another brilliantly comedic moment. The set finishes in true party mode, with the band inviting 17 girls onto the stage to do their thang (read; dance topless, ‘make out’ etc.) during the equally misogynistic ’17 Girls In A Row’. Of course there’s no shortage of volunteers and those who do make it up on stage get into the spirit. The set finishes of course with ‘Death To All But Metal’, and the band leave the stage to rapturous applause. It’s a lesson in showmanship from the masters.
Alter Bridge meanwhile deliver a dependable set that the devoted fans lap up. It’s great to see the guitar talents of Myles Kennedy on display for a change, following his long mostly axe-less stints with Slash and pals. The band are tight, and offer a set whose highlights include an emotive ‘Blackbird’, before which Kennedy thanks the fans of the band who’ve been supporting them from day one. Europe and in particular the UK ‘has been with us from the start’, he says. An acoustic solo spot from Kennedy on ‘Watch Over You’ is beautiful and tender. Alter Bridger are clearly great at what they do, though to paraphrase legendary straight-talking lens man Ross Halfin, a lot of people like them, I’m just not sure what to make of them.
As the evening sun begins to fade on this final night it will take truly something special to cap what has been an incredible three days. Thankfully, Boston’s favourite sons are in town. With a songbook that is bursting with anthems Aerosmith are the perfect act to bring the curtain down on Download 2014. As the big screen flickers into light, we are welcomed live into the band’s dressing rooms. A camera noses in on each of the members as anticipation rises to fever pitch. The largest cheers of course are saved for Steven Tyler, and the camera follows the singer all the way from the dressing to the stage ramp. It’s here that the screen bursts into life and the show begins. ‘Train Kept A Rollin’, a ‘Smiths favourite kicks things off in spectacular style. And there’s no let up as they launch straight into ‘Eat The Rich’ and a euphoric ‘Love In An Elevator’. Tyler has the energy of a man a third of his age, and on tonight’s evidence, he really is one of the best front men in rock. The band too are rock solid, and bassist Tom Hamilton and Tyler’s Toxic Twin Joe Perry make ample use of the huge ‘ego ramp’ that runs out into the audience. The band’s renaissance period is well covered, with ‘Cryin’, ‘Jaded’ and ‘Livin’ On The Edge’ all following in quick succession. Long-time fans however are treated to ‘Last Child’ and the stompin’ southern groove of ‘Same Old Song And Dance’. ‘Freedom Fighter’ gives Tyler a chance for a quick breather and a costume change as Joe Perry takes to the mic. A dreaded ‘new song’, it’s a move that could give some a much needed excuse to visit the bar. However the sight on screen of Joe Perry wandering up The Mall in London, Union Jacks flapping in the wind while he pulls back his lapel to reveal a timely three lions on his shirt draws rapturous applause. There are no dud moments as the set continues. Highlights? There are many. Yearn for the early days? ‘Toys In The Attic’, mate. A sucker for the big ballad? ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ will have you weeping into your warm beer. From here on in it’s a master class of rock n’ roll, as ‘Dude Looks Like A Lady’ gives way to ‘Walk This Way’. Encoring with a simply spectacular ‘Dream On’ Joe Perry solos atop Tyler’s grand piano, as the song climaxes in a ticker tape explosion.
Tom Hamilton then gets his chance to shine on a rousing ‘Sweet Emotion’. "You guys spot the cameras?" asks Tyler. "We’re filming this show". It’s a statement that would usually lift the atmosphere at any show. But tonight, it isn’t needed. He’s just stating fact. "Fuck the curfew", he proclaims, and with that they launch into a victory lap of ‘Mama Kin’.
Aside from Aerosmith, Download may not have had the big hitters that some would have liked to have seen. It’s a crowded marketplace out there in festival land, and many will be headed further afield to some of Europe’s other festivals this summer. However, there is no denying Donington’s status as the Mecca of Metal. As the wounds heal and the hangovers subside thoughts turn to next year’s festival, and I’m going to throw it out there first. Thirty-one years since they last played in this country with David Lee Roth on this very site, there can be only one headliner for Download 2015; Van Halen. The campaign starts here!