Now in it’s fifth year, the Steelhouse Festival is one of the UK’s more remote festivals. Although only four miles from the nearest town, Ebbw Vale, Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm’s mountain top location means it is not the most accessible – especially in a weekend dominated, in both the build up to the event and particularly on the second day, by incessant rain which turns the site and the fields around it into a quagmire and makes the treacherous climb up the long, winding, largely disused track to the venue even more challenging for even the most adventurous and diehard festival-goers.
With the rain making the Friday evening pre-show event a virtual washout, it is a pleasant surprise to find a cool breeze wafting across the sunbathed hilltop as local lads Florence Black (8) open the first full day’s proceedings with their thick, crunchy blues. Their sound has a dirty undertone to it, and is the perfect opening to a day which features a superbly balanced bill. Massive Wagons (9) deliver hard and groovy classic rock with plenty of grit and enthusiasm which truly wakens up any still sleepy early risers, while Henry’s Funeral Shoe’s (8) huge nod to the Texas blooze tradition is characterized by vocalist Aled Clifford’s spiteful and furiously passionate vocals and a huge sound which belies their two-piece status.
Northern Ireland’s Trucker Diablo (9) really get the late afternoon party started as they roll through the valleys with their collective pedals pressed firmly to the metal and get fists punching, beers held aloft and small children dancing in the nascent mudbath at the front of the stage, as the four lads show a genuine enjoyment of being on the big stage. The Treatment (6) kick off the second half of the day with choreographed energy: former ‘The Voice’ contestant (and Erik Grönwall-lookalike) Mitchel Emms is playing his first official UK gig with the band (as is guitarist Tao Grey), and they certainly entertain the growing crowd, and especially its younger members.
Nazareth (8) show their younger counterparts how it should be done, with a hits-filled 70 minutes of classic rock – with the emphasis on “classic”. Every single song – from a revitalized ‘Razamanz’ to a throaty ‘Love Hurts’ – is delivered with passionate intensity and has the crowd singing along to every word. Carl Sentance may have a slightly higher range than Dan McCafferty, but he succeeds in giving the songs a new identity and relevance, and the band reciprocate with a flawless performance. Y&T (10) follow with another masterclass in classic rock and how it should be delivered. Despite being taken slightly out of their comfort zone by playing the whole of their classic ‘Black Tiger’ album (although, for some reason, the play the second side first), the band is having fun doing what they do best, with Meniketti in fine voice and proving yet again that he is one of the most under-estimated talents of his generation.
However, there is no under estimating headliners UFO (10), majestic and graceful as the veterans they are. Vinnie Moore writhes his way up and down the ramp as well as his fretboard, while the dapper Phil Mogg pours his heart and soul into a set filled with classics and peppered with new tracks from their brilliant ‘A Conspiracy Of Stars’ album, filling the field with huge singalongs and charging the night air with tingling electricity, leaving all present content with the knowledge that they have seen masters of their craft at work.
The rain returns overnight, forcing flooded out campers to seek the warmer surrounds of nearby hotels, and the difficulty of the conditions is highlighted by the fact that Sunday’s scheduled opening act, Wild Lies, have been unable to make it up the mountain. Leicester trio Skam (8) step up to the mark, going on early and playing a longer set, doing their best to get already drenched diehards up and moving (and out of the beer tent, where many are sheltering); despite the atrocious conditions they play with energy and verve.
Having driven through the night from the Ramblin’ Man Fair down in Kent, No Hot Ashes (9) – the second Northern Irish band of the weekend – lighten the mood with their melodic AOR, characterized by twin guitar and four-part vocal harmonies, and frontman Eamon Nancarrow’s huge charisma, with the suitably ironic ‘Summer Rain’ raising smiles all around the arena. Colour Of Noise (7), the new project from Little Angels guitarist Bruce John Dickinson, start off slowly but quickly develop into a chunky, grunting groove which does its best to turn the muddy field into a dancefloor, with Matt Mitchell a towering presence stage front and obviously enjoying the slightly different vibe from the more metallic demands of Furyon.
The sun comes out (but the temperature, by contrast, has plummeted) as FM (9) take to the stage, and the band’s classy, polished and vibrant melodies make the best of the enlightened conditions as they soar and echo around the neighbouring valleys, aided by the best sound mix of the weekend so far. Steve Overland is another great frontman and has an easy interaction with the crowd, doing his best to dry everyone out by getting them moving to a well-balanced collection of classic hits and newer material.
The weather doesn’t hold, however, and the rain returns as anticipation builds for the arrival of the Queen Of Metal. Doro (10) may seem a somewhat incongruous and slightly out of place act for a festival bill of this nature, but within seconds she has the entire arena eating out of her Teutonic hands, punching the air and clapping and singing along as she delivers a succinct set of piledriving metal anthems. She even defies the elements as she first climbs onto the bass bins and then repeatedly takes to the soaked runway, which is covered in a sheen of water, to deliver her message and get as close as possible to the fans, proving once again why she is one of the most entertaining, and professional, entertainers in the metal genre. The charisma level is ratcheted up another level as Danny Vaughn leads the current incarnation of Tyketto (10) in evaporating the rain and turning it to white hot mercury; emulating Doro before him, the singer repeatedly risks the sodden ramp, soaking up the adulation and delivering his lyrics and between-song banter with the genuine ease of a performer equally at home in a sweat-soaked club or on a rainswept mountain top. Musically, the band are tight and proficient, performing their task of supporting their heart throb frontman with panache and precision.
Dee Snider (5) always has been one of rock ‘n’ roll’s favourite rebels, and he proves it again tonight as, as the darkness falls, he delivers a giant “fuck you” to the conditions by striding on stage clad from head to foot in white. Opening with ‘You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll’, he delivers a set which combines Twisted Sister’s biggest hits with solo songs and a selection of covers and proves that he is simultaneously one of the genre’s ultimate showmen and entertainers but also one of its most arrogant. His between song rants are typically acerbic and faux-confrontational, but it is obvious that, having recently turned 60, his best years are behind him and his voice is straining to capture the glory days of yore, and not even his foul-mouthed tirades can stem the stream of fans heading for the exits to dig their cars out of the swamp that is the adjacent field.
And so the latest instalment of Steelhouse came to something of an inglorious and damp ending, after two days of otherwise superb entertainment from a mixture of grizzled veterans and some of the finest young bloods emerging onto the scene. Tribute must be paid to all of those behind the scenes who made the two days run extremely smoothly, despite some truly atrocious conditions back stage, and to all of the security staff who smiled through the adversity. Over the past two years, Steelhouse has become one of this reviewer’s favourite events, and herself and myself are already looking forward to the 2016 edition of what must surely rank as Britain’s best value outdoor festival.
- Photographs by The Dark Queen.
- All content © PlanetMosh 2015.