Sonisphere Festival 2014. Knebworth Park, 5 July 2104.
With a line-up that featured everyone from Cockney knees up merchants Chas 'n' Dave, to horror rockers Ghost and headliners Iron Maiden, 2014's Sonisphere Festival offered a real mix of styles.
Photo: Eamon O'Neill
There’s something perversely satisfying about coming to a metal festival to be greeted by a band that are about as metal as a jellied eel. Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock, better known as Chas & Dave are not what you’d expect to find playing the same stage as Slayer at Sonisphere certainly, but no one seems to mind, for as the band take to the Saturn stage they’re greeted like heroes. A local boy now, living in nearby Stevenage, Chas announces in his instantly recognisable East London croak that ‘the last time we played here was in 1979, when this song was in the charts’, as the three-piece, completed by Chas’ son Nicholas on drums, launch into ‘Gertcha’. Although this song and those that follow are all winners and the crowd lap them up, there are early sound problems that take some time to iron out. They’re battling against the rain too. ‘We’ve got the weather for it’, says Chas, as the band take us on a British seaside-holiday to ‘Margate’, buckets and spades and cossys and all. Snooker Loopy continues the cockney knees up, with the crowd in fine sing-along spirit. The highlights come towards the end of the set however, first with a crowd-surfing rabbit during, of course ‘Rabbit’, and then with a mass on-the-spot cockney walk of up to one hundred revellers during the closing ‘Sideboard Song’.
As the crowd depart and the rain abates, there’s a definite change of mood at the other end of the field as Ghost take to the stage. Big on theatrics, the Ghost show is a lesson in style and substance. Led by the instantly recognisable Papa Emeritus II, a replacement for the original Papa Emeritus who departed in 2012, it’s a formula that has in recent years been honed by Kiss. That is, that the package is bigger than any one of the band. Ghost’s show is a visual treat, with grand bishop-like minimal gesturing from Papa. There is also plenty to be said for the rest of the band of ‘nameless ghouls’. Their sound is a mixture of Rammstein, Black Sabbath and Depeche Mode. For a band with such a dark image their music is pleasantly tuneful and singable. Identifying standout moments is difficult, as the show as a whole is compelling. However highlights include set opener ‘Year Zero’, a cover of Psychedelic pioneer Rocky Erikson’s ‘If You Have Ghosts’, and the closing ‘Monstrance Clock’, itself bringing to mind Erikson’s 13th Floor Elevators. Yes there’s a gimmick, but Ghost do it right. Believe the hype.
The wind might be blowing the sound all around Knebworth Park making it difficult to hear which direction the music is coming from, but thanks to Richie Kotzen’s bright red trousers which can be seen from all corners of the park, the crowd are easily alerted to the fact that The Winery Dogs have just arrived on stage. As a band, they’ve been around for well over a year now, and released not only their debut album but a recent live disc too. As such, they’re no longer new blood, but a real musical tour-de-force capable of standing alongside any of the great power trios. Each member, from guitarist and lead vocalist Kotzen to bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy deliver the maximum and are an essential cog in the Winery Dogs machine. Their criminally brief set includes all the highlights from last year’s stunning self-titled debut including the soaring ‘Elevate’ and the Dream Theatre meets Foo Fighters futuristic pounding of ‘Time Machine’. There’s also time for a rousing cover of David Lee Roth’s ‘Shy Boy’, sang by the man who wrote it, Sheehan himself. Job done, it’s left to Portnoy to ape Keith Moon in trashing his drum kit before leaving the stage. Goodnight Springton, there will be no encores.
Meanwhile, back at the other end of the field Anthrax are making their second appearance at the festival this weekend following their show-stopping performance of the ‘Among The Living’ album in full the previous night. This afternoon though, it’s back to the regular set. Opening for the first time ever to the best of this writer’s knowledge with ‘I Am The Law’, the band waste no time in making the most of their short set. With just forty-five minutes they cover all aspects of their career from the early thrash of their debut album on ‘Deathrider’ to the Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell tribute of ‘In The End’ from 2011’s career saving ‘Worship Music’. It’s yet another top of their game performance from a band still basking in the glow of their renaissance. The crowd are also treated to ‘Indians’, ‘Got The Time’ and a closing ‘Antisocial’. Watching Joey Belladonna on stage working the audience like the veteran that he is it is hard to imagine why he was ever ‘asked out’ of the band in the first place.
Fellow big four band and festival favourites Slayer follow. The satanic backwards chanting of "join us" calls all but the most devoted Ion Maiden fans who are already gathering at the main stage barrier to the other end of the field to the second stage where ‘Hell Awaits’. Now down to just two original members following the death of Jeff Hanneman and the ousting of Dave Lombardo, there is much riding on the shoulders of founders Kerry King and Tom Araya. Thankfully though, it’s business as usual. Gary Holt has now been the band’s unofficial guitarist for the last three and a half years, and drummer Paul Bostaph has been in and out of the band at various junctions for the last twenty years. All the ‘hits’ from the band’s celebrated early years are present from ‘Mandatory Suicide’ to ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ to ‘Raining Blood’, alongside more recent material such as ‘Hate Worldwide’. The encores are of course left to a terrifying ‘South Of Heaven’ and the frenzy inducing ‘Angel Of Death’. Always dependable, never boring Slayer reign in Knebworth.
The anticipation for this, the final night of Iron Maiden’s mammoth Maiden England tour really has been something else. A recreation dogfight earlier in the day featuring WWI-era triplanes piloted by among others, Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson, and from what we are being told Eddie himself, is the first indication that this show is going to be something special. Maiden it seems are pulling out all the stops to bring what has been an incredible three year run to an end.
Reprising the same stage show that they first toured back in 1988 in support of the ‘Seventh Son of A Seventh Son’ album, the set is a frozen visual spectacle based on Dante’s vision of the centre of hell. The icy theme doesn't meant that it’s cold though, far from it, as the numerous explosions and fireworks that detonate during the show can be felt on the faces of even those midway back in the crowd. Musically, for long-time fans of the band, the set-list is a dream come true, with all but one of the tracks aired tonight coming from their 1980’s golden period. Kicking off with two tracks from the ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’ album in ‘Moochild’ and ‘Can I play With Madness’, the band are in tight form. As Bruce attests, ‘if we don’t know these songs by now we never will’. ‘The Prisoner’ follows hot on their heels, complete with Patrick Mcgoohan introduction and all. ‘Revelations’ comes next, and for some it’s their second time hearing it today after the band’s sound check this morning. An early highlight, it sounds majestic with its three-part guitar harmonies.
It’s wall-to-wall (or should that be berg-to-berg) hits thereafter, as ‘Run To The Hills’ follows ‘Phantom Of The Opera’, ‘The Number Of The Beast’ and ‘The Trooper’. However the real centrepiece is an airing of ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’ itself. As dramatic as it is epic, it’s a song that has it all; light and shade, spoken word passages, guitar solos from hades and a guest appearance on keyboards by the mysterious and phantom of the opera-esque Count. For many it’s a melancholic moment, as they realise that it may be the last time that the song is ever performed live. A rousing ‘Fear of the Dark’ and set-closing ‘Iron Maiden’ bring the first part of the show to an end, complete with enough pyro to barbecue a mammoth, and a huge disembowelled Eddie that sends the crowd into a frenzy.
It isn’t over yet though, and as Churchill’s speech spitfires into ‘Aces High’ there’s a feeling that this could be the finest Iron Maiden show ever. There’s only the victory lap of ‘The Evil That Men Do’ and ‘Sanctuary’ to go before everyone leaves happy. "It’s our last show in England… for a while" teases Dickinson. Rest well lads, you’ve earned it.