Steelhouse Festival (Day 1). Ebbw Vale, Wales. 23-34 July 2016.
Set on a mountainside in deepest Wales, Steelhouse Festival has been growing in stature since its humble beginnings in 2010. This year headlined by British veterans Thunder and The Darkness, and featuring some of rock's brightest international hopes, we sent Lee Kendrick to soak up the atmosphere of Ebbw Vale.
Photo: Ian Coates.
From humble beginnings back in 2011, Steelhouse - ‘The Welsh International Classic Rock Festival’ - has hosted such international luminaries as, Sebastian Bach, Dee Snider, Europe and Michael Schenker to name but a few. Situated on an actual working farm in Ebbw Vale, this years’ event though – the biggest yet - was a thoroughly British affair, headlined by recent chart-returnees Thunder, and ever popular Lowestoft rockers The Darkness.
With a stunning backdrop of the Welsh mountains and it's friendly family vibe, Steelhouse has a magical feel about it, and with a record breaking attendance of over 11,000 over the two-day weekend, a euphoric atmosphere was complimented by the unusual (mostly) glorious weather.
Saturday’s line up kicked off with a barnstormer of a set from Wigan rockers Bigfoot who genuinely looked like they couldn't believe their luck to have opened the event. Frontman Antony Ellis whipped up the crowd effortlessly as the band showcased tracks from their recent ‘Stone Soldiers’ EP.
They were followed by DirtyThrills, who came bounding on to the stage with energy and swagger in abundance. With their blend of bluesy / greasy rock and roll initially taking a few songs to impress, they soon had the crowd onside and nodding sagely in approval. Possessing a striking image which belies their sound, the band dance and slide around the stage for all their worth. A problematic sound mix with the vocals of Louis James dropping in and out of the mix however stilted the atmosphere, despite the best efforts of the band.
Unfortunately, British melodic AOR outfit Vega too suffered the same sound issues. Plying a brand of 80’s influenced pomp as showcased on latest album ‘Who We Are’, the quartet’s set none the less went down well with the crowd, with many members of the audience singing along with front man Nick Workman’s every word. Vega are superb musicians, and although Workman showed his obvious distaste for some of the punters sitting around on camp chairs with tables by screaming out; “this is a rock concert, not a picnic!” theirs was a winning performance.
TaxTheHeat meanwhile, are Steelhouse veterans, with this their second performance at the festival. Suited and booted they hit the stage hard with their dynamic mix of blues and hard rock, to the delight of the die-hards at the front of the stage. Pulling material from their debut album ‘Fed To The Lions’ which is full of stabbing riffs and sing along hooks, the band endured, despite yet more vocal issues for frontman Alex Veale. Tax The Heat are a ferocious beast when they get into their stride, and leaving the stage, it was clear that they had recruited more followers to their cause.
Also coming out on top, Finnish classic rockers VonHertzenBrothers proved to be a breath of fresh air, with their combination of prog / folk and full on rock. Their keyboard driven sound coupled with plenty of audience participation with ringmaster frontman Mikko Von Hertzen kept the crowd happy. With the persistent sound problems finally sorted out, the band were the first of the day to benefit from a crystal clear mix.
Blues Pills. Photo: Ian Coates.
With a similar aural aesthetic, psychedelic 70’s influenced blues rockers BluesPills proved absolutely perfect for the sunny, chilled out vibe permeating. The floaty, dreamy melodies mixed with some virtuoso playing make the Blues Pills live experience simply a joy to behold. Front woman Ellin Larsson is reminiscent of a young Stevie Nicks with her flowing blonde hair and effortless vocal ability, while guitarist Dorian Sorriaux is a dead ringer for Free’s Paul Kossoff, in both looks and playing style. The band’s stripped back set up gives the impression that it's the music that matters, not how many Marshall stacks you have.
As the evening faded it was the turn of Ireland’s TheAnswer to step up, making their third appearance at Steelhouse. As festival favourites, the ‘swamp rockers’ were met with an amazing response from the crowd as they strolled casually out on to the stage. Their groove laden bluesy rock was just what was needed to keep the audience on their feet and dancing, with front man Cormac Neeson holding the crowd firmly in the palm of his hand. His complimentary comments on the Welsh football team’s Euro 2016 performance meanwhile ensured his status as an honorary Welshman.
The Answer. Photo: Ian Coates.
And so to the final act of the night, and it was with an air of excitement that legendary rockers Thunder took to the stage. As the by now familiar AC/DC intro tape faded and Danny Bowes and company flew into ‘Higher Ground’, suddenly it was 1989 again. Thunder’s emergence back then might be a long time ago no, but pleasingly, they’re still like “a long lost friend that hasn't changed”. Not content to simply rest on former glories, Thunder are as relevant as ever, as proven by their recent resurgence with latest album ‘Wonder Days’ reaching the UK top 10. With newer material mixing with classics from first two albums ‘Backstreet Symphony’ and ‘Laughing On Judgement Day’, the crowd were left thunderstruck!
Thunder. Photo: Ian Coates.
There are worse ways to spend an evening on a hillside in Wales, and Steelhouse 2016, day one was a triumph for both music, and the unpredictable weather.
By Lee Kendrick. Click here for eonmusic’s review from day two of Steelhouse!