The Highest Rock Festival in Europe

“Is it right that this is the highest festival – without meaning anything to do with drugs – in Europe?” So asks Pontus Snibb, mainman with Swedish hard rock band Bonafide.

We are on the top of a Welsh mountain near Ebbw Vale. It’s the third and final day of the Steelhouse Festival, an international classic rock event that’s been lovingly curated by Max Rhead of home-grown band Hangfire. Friday night got the party going with Kiss, Guns n’ Roses and Thin Lizzy tribute acts. Saturday was headlined by Welsh band Feeder, with a supporting cast consisting of Gun, The Union, Revoker, The Dirty Youth, Gentlemans Pistols, Slam Cartel and Prosperina. We roll up on Sunday, lured mainly by the charms of Saint Jude and the blarney of The Answer, but keen too to check out both the venue (Hafod-y-Dafal Farm) and an intriguing undercard that includes Hangfire, Sons of Icarus, Henry’s Funeral Shoe, Bonafide and Million $ Reload. We are curious, too, to see how headliners Reef will fare on this particular bill.

And so, the venue – what a location! We wonder for a moment or two if we’ve taken the right turning as we wind and wind our way up the mountain for what seems like forever. But on the right road we are, and once we reach the top we’re delighted with the views and the setting. Wales, in case you don’t know, is beautiful! The arena itself, flanked neatly by adjacent car park and camp site, runs around the perimeter of one large field, with food and drink outlets, the festival bar, Bob Moon’s merch and rock paraphernalia stall* and even a couple of fairground rides making regular festival goers feel instantly at home.

We are told that Saturday was a good day, and hope that the performances we are about to witness maintain the standard. We need not have worried.

“Southern Welsh Rockers” Hangfire open proceedings with a competent and lively performance that makes it very hard for you not to warm to them. Max Rhead is full of bluesy swagger and is engaging throughout. Messrs Goo (bass) and Blakout (drums) provide a sleazy glam metal spine, and the guitar playing of “little blind maestro” Lizzy Evans is at times a joy to behold. They clearly enjoy themselves. Max’s announcement that they are going to play ‘Fire in the Hole’ because his Mam has requested it captures the feel-good vibe of their performance nicely. They put smiles on faces.

Sons of Icarus whip up quite a storm. They are ballsy and aggressive in both musical style and performance, and yet there are also some wonderfully subtle moments. Vocalist Andy Masson has a strong but soulful voice which counterbalances nicely some of the band’s edgier moments. There are hints of Burton and Grohl in bassist Alex and drummer Quilly’s stage presence, and guitarist Steve Balkwill throws in some suitably heavy, almost doomy riffs. I pay close attention, as a friend has tipped me off that this band are worthy of it. I also buy their recent E.P. (which I’m enjoying as I type) and two of the band sign it for my daughter. We’re up a mountain and the sun is beating down – but Sons of Icarus still have their wings and look set to fly.

Raconteur of the day award goes to the aforementioned Pontus Snibb of Bonafide. You can always rely on the Swedes for a bit of entertaining between-song banter, and Pontus doesn’t disappoint. He introduces his drummer thus: “This is Niklas Matsson; he bangs away.” Bass player Martin Ekelund, who is clad in white, is introduced as “the opposite of Johnny Cash”. “I always dedicate the next song to my favourite singer, Paul Rodgers,” says Snibb at one point, “so I’m going to dedicate this next song to my favourite singer, Paul Rodgers.” Bonafide deliver a great set of raucous heavy rock ‘n’ roll – a really pleasant surprise, and just what the doctor ordered. Or is it? If anything did worry me a bit, it was Snibb’s anthemic insistence that he “don’t need no fucking doctor”. If you’re a hard livin’ rock and roller it’s not a good idea to diss doctors. You never know when you might need one.

Musically speaking Saint Jude are, for me, the highlight of the day, as they rock their way through selections from the excellent Diary of a Soul Fiend album and preview a few new tracks. Lynne Jackaman is positively radiant and on great form. It’s such a shame she has to put up with the occasional idiot making crude and inappropriate suggestive remarks. And to the particular idiot who was somewhere near the front on this occasion, I say this: “Stick to dancing mate. Your dancing was funny; your obscenities were not.”

But back to the music, as not even a heavy and prolonged rain shower or the idiot at the front can dampen the spirits of the band or the audience. Saint Jude go down very well, with both Lynne’s stunning vocal and Matt Gest’s honky tonk keys adding some welcome colour and variety to proceedings. (If I had one criticism of the bill, it’s that 5 bands in it was getting a little bit on the samey side.) I’m looking forward to the new album very much and to catching them live again soon.

As the sky starts to darken a little, The Answer pick up the torch (topical metaphor) and deliver a storming set. I’d already formed the impression from all the t-shirts on display that this was likely to be their crowd. And so it proved … and boy did they rock it. Their long stint supporting AC/DC on the Black Ice tour led to considerable critical acclaim, and they were excellent at the High Voltage Festival a couple of years back, so it’s great to see them still walking and talking it like they mean business. Lynne Jackaman is back too, to share the vocals with Cormac Neeson on a rousing version of ‘Nowhere Freeway’. Great stuff!

To be fair, all bands played their part. Henry’s Funeral Shoe bash out some raw and rugged blues. Million $ Reload are another young and possibly happening band who do what they do (“balls-out, barnstorming, classic rock”) very well indeed. Full marks too to vocalist Phil Conalane’s efforts to get the crowd going. As for Reef, well, they fare pretty well. I was a bit concerned that the crowd would start to thin after The Answer’s set, but as far as I can see they hold the crowd and have plenty of their own fans there. They play crowd pleaser ‘Put Your Hands On’ about half-a-dozen songs in; an excellent decision which seems to energise an increasingly cold audience as the evening well and truly draws in.

Overall then, our impressions of the Steelhouse Festival were very good. You never can tell with these things, but hopefully numbers will keep growing and the festival will establish itself as a staple of the classic rock calender. We wound our way back down the hill, optimistic and in good spirits. Keep an eye out for next year’s bill. I will be – and next year I might even consider camping.

“Keep supporting us and all the other bands,” said Lynne Jackaman, in a typical expression of gratitude, “and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

Iechyd da, boyos, iechyd da!

More on the Steelhouse Festival and Rock Club here: http://www.steelhousefestival.com/index.html

*Bob Moon’s merch stall benefits from an extraordinarily rich Rodney Matthews collection and occasional visits from the artist himself. Check him out at a festival near you!

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7 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this!! I wish I had been there. It looked like fun. St. Jude are just amazing. I knew it since I saw them at The Bull and Gate in Kentish Town in London. Great.

    Reply
  2. sue johns

     /  July 31, 2012

    great review, we had a fantastic weekend, loved St. Jude, what a great sound, I also think they made my weekend. looking forward to the next one.

    Reply
  3. Jo shaw

     /  July 31, 2012

    You summed up the day perfectly ! Saint Jude rocked the Sunday as The Union did on Saturday. Was a fantastic crowd, only let down by the guy harassing Lynne as you mentioned… She clearly heard him too and treated him with the contempt he deserved. Surely only a matter of time before Saint Jude are huge?

    Reply
  4. Stu

     /  August 1, 2012

    What a superb weekend. We came up from Poole expecting a great time and it delivered in spades. Whilst the relatively low attendance might not cheer the organisers it made it all the better for us as we could be up close to the bands we wanted to see and it meant we got to chat to Saint Jude as they stood by the barrier to watch The Answer..

    Saint Jude were the band of the weekend for me, I’ve seen The Answer before and they never disappoint but this was my first chance to get to see Lynne and the boys and they more than lived up to my expectations..

    .. and I can only echo what others have said about the guy shouting at Lynne. It was embarrassing.

    Reply
  1. Lynne Jackaman (Saint Jude) « Words and Music

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