When it comes to UK festivals that specialise in rock, no one does it bigger than Download and its sheer size offers real choice for a variety of tastes. While not specifically a classic rock festival, there is still enough for those of us of mature years and traditional tastes to carve out a suitable programme of bands.
While others will have raved at bands such as headliners Avenged Sevenfold and Linkin Park, this is a more selective account of my hand picked menu of classic bands. Nevertheless it can be slightly surreal to leave an arena where 49,000 out of 50,000 have witnessed a different band and had a completely different experience you did not share in at all while effectively experiencing a festival within a festival.
In particular, the second stage (the Zippo Encore stage) does seem to have established itself as having a slightly less frenetic ambience than the main stage, and attracts a generally older clientele – it is the one area of the site where you are likely to bump into you good old boys sharing reminiscences of the days when Donington meant Monsters of Rock and only one stage.
DAY 1- 13 JUNE 2014- DAN REED NETWORK, TYKETTO, DANNY VAUGHN, THE ANSWER, THE TEMPERANCE MOVEMENT, MIA KLOSE, TESLA
I arrived on the first afternoon, where crowds were notably down on past Downloads, just in time to see Tesla less than 24 hours after seeing them in London. It was something of an insult to their talent to see them so low down the bill, and on a cloudy day they initially found it hard to get the crowd going, until ‘Signs’ woke people up and a ‘Mechanical Resonance’ trio of ‘Modern Day Cowboy’, ‘Little Suzi’ and ‘Cumin Atcha Live’ prove the enduring old-fashioned values of good hard rock with twin guitar solos.
A quick trip to the Jagermeister acoustic stage was next for Swedish siren Mia Klose. Her set was mainly originals such as the excellent ‘Looking for Love’ and ‘Trip Down Memory Lane’ (though when she introduced the title, I thought that meant she would be covering an oldie!), The acoustic backing did rather bring out that her thin voice is a touch poppy but a lively cover of ‘Paradise City’ rounded things off nicely.
It was back to the second stage for The Answer. At one stage, with major backing and a global tour supporting AC/DC it looked as if the world was theirs, but they remain a mid-ranking act and it was not hard to see why, as for all the enthusiasm and bluesy bluster of singer Cormac Neeson, they come across as having a rather monochrome stage presence.
But musically they still impressed, opening with the impressive urgency of ‘New Horizon’ and the more spacious grooves of ‘Spectacular’, although it was noticeable that their oldest songs ‘Under the Sky’ and ‘Come Follow Me’ stood out from the rest of the set. The usual bluesy jam of ‘Preachin’ took up perhaps too long of their short set allocation, although Cormac testing his usual routine of getting everyone to kneel down was quite a sight at an outdoor festival!
The current darlings of the retro rock scene The Temperance Movement were next and after only gaining fleeting glimpses of them before it was nice to see what the fuss was about. Their laid back soulful grooves sat somewhere between a Faces/Stones swagger, as on ‘Only Friend’, and a rootsy American heartland sound and were topped off by Phil Campbell’s soulful rasp, making up for his rather chaotic dress sense.
The likes of ‘Battle Lines’ offered something a bit different from the Download norm, with instinctive ensemble playing, while the lengthy country rocker ‘Pride’ even took them into the Eagles or Tom Petty territory, ending an impressive set with the raunchy ‘Midnight Black’.
It was back to the acoustic stage for a couple of acts doubling up. Tyketto main man Danny Vaughn, resplendent in cowboy hat, played a set mixing some of their more reflective moments such as ‘Seasons’ and ‘The Last Sunset’ with a couple of solo songs , while batting away requests that belonged in Tyketto’s main set, before the Guns n Roses theme continued with a surprise version of ‘Used to Love Her’.
The Answer did a set rather too similar to their main stage electric set – the supposedly samba version of ‘Spectacular’ sounding barely any different from what went before. However the highlight was a quite superb rendition of ‘Nowhere Freeway’, proving that they do have a few killer songs in their armoury.
After a couple of hours waiting, struggling with hay fever and with few bands tickling my taste buds, I hit the centre of the Red Bull Tent, and the only part of the whole arena caked in mud, for Tyketto. Making full use of a mere 40 minute set, opening with the heavy title track from comeback album ‘Dig in Deep’, they both delighted their fan base and impressed those new to their charms, including my American girlfriend who I had been dying to introduce their music to.
Danny Vaughn was his usual strong voiced and passionate self, leading rousing versions of the classics ‘Burning Down Inside’ and ‘Wings’ alongside a brilliant ‘Faithless’ from the new album while the crowd took over ‘Sail Away’.
As the inevitable national anthem of melodic rock ‘Forever Young’ closed a great set, it was clear that a pair of Brits, keyboardist and backing vocalist Ged Rylands and hotshot guitarist Chris Green have helped give them perhaps the richest sound the band has had yet.
Having missed their headline show in London that week due to work commitments I was equally looking forward to the reunion of the original Dan Reed Network, even if mainman Dan had played Download in 2011.
Frustratingly they were late on with their sound check overrunning but when they did they opened with a marvellously funky ‘Come Together’ and a rockier ‘Under My Skin’. On ‘Forgot to Make Her Mine’ and ‘Baby Now I’ they effortlessly laid down a marvellously taut, funky groove overlaid by Dan’s cool vocals which contrasted with the steam rising from his shaven head, while the delight on their faces, notably guitarist Byron James, only added to the enjoyment.
‘Rainbow Child’, which I momentarily had forgotten, came to life with a great tasteful solo from Byron and they ended with ‘Make it Easy’ and the super funky ‘Get to You’. My delight was only slightly sullied by the absence of late 80’s dance floor filler ‘Ritual’ which I suspect was a casualty of cutting the set short.
DAY 2, 14 JUNE 2014 – STATUS QUO, TWISTED SISTER, TOBY JEPSON, BOWLING FOR SOUP
Saturday had thinner pickings from a classic rock perspective and two of the few bands I wanted to see further down, Skid Row and Bowling for Soup, clashed. I chose the latter as their mixture of Green Day style pop punk and zany humour is always good entertainment. However it was fundamentally the same show I had seen here in 2011, right down to the inflatable sheep being sacrificed on stage, this time by a sword wielding knight last seen in a rock environment killing Dio’s Denzil the Dragon in the eighties.
Moreover some of their clever lyrics were lost in a muddied sound, and for too much of the set tunes seemed to be constantly broken up and taking second place to the self-referential humour, before everyone was singing along to the classics ‘Girls All the Bad Guys Want’ and ’1985′.
While Orange Goblin, Monster Magnet and the WIldhearts kept the older crowd on the Zippo stage happy, I made another trip to the Jagermeister stage where Toby Jepson was playing the same set with which he had supported Tesla.
Bravely, rather than rest on Little Angels glories, most of the set was new numbers, opening with ‘Unwind’, and many freshly written with collaborator Dave Camp who despite his rather questionable taste in trousers added a fresh dimension by playing a variety of instruments from sax to accordion.
One song, ‘Small Talk’, was a total left turn, Toby coming over all Billy Bragg with a rant about Thatcher’s destruction of industry in the eighties. More conventionally, ‘Don’t Prey For Me’ and a medley of ‘Young Gods’ and ‘Backdoor Man’ delighted a substantial contingent of Little Angels’ original followers.
For many traditional metalheads, Twisted Sister’s appearance was one of the most eagerly anticipated of the weekend although it came as a a slight surprise to me as I remember Dee Snider at their last appearance in 2011 berating the Download organisers for their short set lengths.
While they now make no effort to recreate the original eighties stage costumes, for a band semi retired they were still on the money: JJ French and Eddie Ojeda were a solid guitar pairing, sharing out some fine solos, while Dee remains a hyperactive motormouth whose voice nevertheless loses nothing ,and there is no-one better at whipping up a crowd.
Opener ‘Stay Hungry’ took me back to Summer 1984 when this teenager’s cassette copy (remember them? ) was played to death, followed by the snot nosed anthems ‘The Kids are Back’ and ‘You Can’t Stop Rock n Roll’. The crowd was initially a little quiet for my taste but warmed up when Dee reminded them the UK picked up on TS well before their native USA and ‘Under the Blade’ and a rollicking ‘Shoot Em Down’ from their early days led into classic anthem ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’.
After a rant against reality TV talent shows, they also admitted they had played on Top of the Pops (an appearance I remember having a big impact on my 16 year old self) and treated the English audience that to ‘I Am, I’m Me’ which apparently they rarely play.
Dee’s smart humour also separates him from other loudmouthed frontmen and hilariously, at the opening of ‘Burn In Hell’, a plane flying low into nearby East Midlands Airport had him stop the show and joke he thought there was another 9/11 on the way.
I was surprised he already said the band were on to their last song, but during ‘I Wanna Rock’ he showed quite what a master frontman he was by whipping the crowd up into a massive shouting out of the chorus, and spying some people sitting at the back came out with another zinger saying ‘if you’re in a wheelchair, big respect to you. If you’re not, then stand the f— up’.
It left me wishing he could pop up at any of the numerous gigs, even by hard rock bands, where fans now sit on their haunches. Then in a surprise move, they came back for an encore and as a get well soon to Lemmy covered ‘Born To Raise Hell’, and my initial scepticism was overcome as it was a perfect live song to maintain the atmosphere he had stoked up.
The headliners on the Zippo stage also took me back 30 years to when Status Quo were the first rock band I ever saw live on the so- called End of the Road tour. In those different musical times, they had even headlined the old Monsters of Rock in 1982 but these days are as likely to be playing stately homes or arenas in the panto season to a family audience. So hot on the heels of the original ‘Frantic Four’ reunion, headlining here was another step in re-establishing their rock credibility, albeit with the ‘modern’ version of the band.
The scepticism of the Download faithful was probably reflected in a not particularly large crowd but instantly overcome as a denim clad Rick Parfitt cranked out the classic riff to ‘Caroline’, with ‘Paper Plane’ not far behind, before a few words from Francis Rossi, teasing they had been told to cut their set short to make way for the England-Italy game (for which watching a man called Rossi was probably in hindsight a bad omen!)
They tore into a medley beginning with ‘What You’re Proposing’ with Andy Bown briefly switching from keyboard to rhythm guitar, and showcasing several old classics –’Wild Side of Life’, Rick singing on ‘Again and Again’, the knockabout riffing of ‘Railroad’ and a classic ‘Big Fat Mama’ with all its boogieing twists and turns.
As the crowd warmed up, even newer songs ‘The Oriental’, complete with rather un-PC lyrics and the bluesy ‘Creeping Up On You’, and even an ‘In the Army Now’ with a much fuller sound than on record saw the band in fine form, while the chemistry between Rossi and Parfitt and their little winks and nods at each other was a delight.
The closing half of the set saw the Zippo Stage turned into a wonderful rock n roll party, as the 12 bar rhythms and crisp guitar solos of ‘Roll Over Lay Down’, ‘Down Down’, a ‘Whatever You Wan’t thankfully liberated from furniture commercials and ‘Rockin All Over The World’ saw more and more people joyfully pogo with strangers, punch the air and even play air guitar.
Encoring in bluesier fashion (no ‘Burning Bridges’ here thankfully!) with ‘Junior’s Wailing’ and a Chuck Berry medley of ‘Rock n Roll Music’ and ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, Quo were a reminder of a simpler, less angry time and it felt great for us rockers to reclaim one of our boyhood heroes from the cabaret circuit.
DAY 3, 15 JUNE- AEROSMITH, ALTER BRIDGE, BLACK STONE CHERRY, JOE BONAMASSA, RICHIE SAMBORA, WINGER
The main stage line up on Sunday was definitely cherry picked to appeal to Download’s more ‘mature’ clientele, although nothing can ever match 2009’s classic rock Sunday headlined by Def Leppard, Whitesnake and ZZ Top.
I was too late to catch Jake E Lee’s Red Dragon Cartel, regretting the fact I missed the great extended version of Bark At The Moon that closes his set, but even though I was to see them the following week headline in London, I was curious to witness how Winger would be received on the main stage. There was none of the hostility you might expect, but I sensed they found it hard going and neither did they seem to have a great fan base supporting them.
Though naturally focusing on some of their heavier numbers, the likes of opener ‘Pull Me Under’ and ‘Rat Race’ featuring Reb Beach and John Roth duelling on guitar, I was rather surprised they failed to find time in a short set for crowd pleasers such as ‘Can’t Get Enuff’ or ‘Seventeen’, though ‘Headed For A Heartbreak’ saw them showing off their musicianship and Liam Wilson of Dillinger Escape Plan was surprisingly brought on to play Kip Winger’s bass during set closer ‘Madeleine’.
Meantime one of the younger rockers present had the cheek to wish me a Happy Father’s Day while the grumpy old man in me mused that whereas in my day metal fans grew their hair long, nowadays the trend instead is for oh so amusing comedy wigs.
I missed out on Buckcherry but Richie Sambora was a major draw for me, not least as I missed the London show he booked for the Friday night after I had already committed to go to Download. The surprise as he opened with the Hendrix inspired Burn the Candle Down was that female guitarist Orianthi, who was to have toured with the late Michael Jackson and seemed to have inherited his hat and shades, was giving as good as she got, duelling with him regularly.
He seems happy away from the Bon Jovi pressure cooker though rather cheekily borrowed his erstwhile boss’s ‘welcome to the church of rock n roll’ intro to ‘Lay Our Hands On Me’ which went down a storm.
My only complaint, as he ran through the bluesy ‘Stranger In This Town’ and a pair of recent solo songs, ‘Every Road Leads Home To You’, built on a great piano melody, and ‘Nowadays’, that got better as it went along, was that the length of songs meant we only got six in a 40 minute set.
He closed with his signature ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’ and while the Quo may have come back to Donington 30 years on, there is no chance of Bon Jovi returning to the place they headlined in 1987 so the crowd made the most of this opportunity.
Joe Bonamassa was a surprise pick for the festival, well outside his core demographic of middle aged blues obsessives, but like Winger received a respectful reception- the old bottles of flying cider or urine now a thing of the past.
He pays homage to the very roots of metal and, in a rockier set that featured Black Country Communion’s ‘Songs of Yesterday’, with the exception of ‘Slow Train’ his blues-rock repertoire placed the emphasis on the former.
However to me, while a brilliant guitarist and more than capable singer, his unassuming stage presence lacks magnetism. After an over lengthy version of his best known song ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ (despite some fine keyboard work from fellow BCC alumnus Derek Sherinian) he ended an ultimately underwhelming set a few minutes early.
There was then a change of plan as I was in on a secret that current classic rock darlings Black Stone Cherry were playing the Pepsi Max tent. However so were the world and his wife judging by the queues that were forming outside even before the previous act had finished so I had to content myself with hearing them from a distance.
The young Kentuckians stuck to a ‘greatest hits’ mini set rather than promote their current album, with the exception of single ‘Me and Mary Jane’ with the crowd instantly chanting. The reception ‘Rain Wizard’ and ‘Blind Man’ received was fanatical enough, but during ‘White Trash Millionaire’ and ‘Blame it On the Boom Boom’, the singalongs stretched way beyond the confines of the tent. A crazy reception for ‘Lonely Train’ ended an appetiser for the Autumn’s arena tour that left no doubt they are ready to crack the big league.
Another band adding a modern twist to classic influences and Download regulars, Alter Bridge, were second on the bill on the main stage, albeit coming on later than planned to a slightly truncated set.
In the past I have always found their live sound rather bludgeoning and drowning out their subtleties, but on this occasion it was razor sharp and perfectly showcased their earnest, passionate approach topped off by Myles Kennedy’s superb vocals.
Songs like new opener ‘Addicted To The Pain’ and ‘Isolation’, not to mention ‘Ghost of Days Gone By’, showed a lightness of touch and chorus, while newie’ Cry of Achilles’ had an air of Zeppelin while the Blackbird album was heavily featured with the likes of ‘Come to Life’ and ‘Ties That Bind’.
Mark Tremonti’s solos were aggressive while he also took an able turn at the mike for ‘Waters Rising’. Myles himself is no slouch in the guitar stakes and a highlight of the set was the sprawling epic ‘Blackbird’ which saw solos from each of them elide into another.
‘Metalingus’, now the sole remaining cut from their debut was greeted rapturously, then after Myles took the pace down with ‘Watch Over Me’, the typically passionate ‘Rise Today’ ended perhaps the most enjoyable Alter Bridge set I’ve yet witnessed.
For Sunday headliners, Download chose to bring Aerosmith back to the slot they occupied in 1994 and 2010. In the latter year, I witnessed a rather disappointing show at the 02, and they were even more lacklustre when I saw them in Milwaukee two summers ago, so booking up for the weekend to see them was a leap of faith.
However, helped by a superbly choreographed show, and by being close to the walkway jutting out into the crowd they make such liberal use of, this proved to be a memorable performance justifying their status as one of the most seminal American rock bands.
After video screens tracked their movement from the dressing rooms they made a stunning opener, not just with Steven Tyler’s all-white outfit, Pirates of the Caribbean-styled facial hair and native American headdress as he and Joe Perry strutted out onto the catwalk, but the bluesy shuffle of ‘Train Kept a Rollin’ paying homage to their sixties British invasion influences that they then melded into a typically American sound.
‘Eat the Rich’ was less well received but ‘Love in an Elevator’ sparked a run of slick nineties hits including the ballad ‘Cryin’ and a surprisingly affecting ‘Jaded’. While occasionally Steven would say rather than sing the words, he was in remarkably vigorous form, and is a magnetic showman who magically always seemed to know exactly where the video cameras were.
‘Livin on the Edge’ allowed the elegantly wasted Joe to stretch out on guitar somewhat, while fellow guitarist Brad Whitford may look like a grizzled old bluesman bashing out tunes on his back porch these days, but he took a well deserved turn in the spotlight with some tasteful solos on ‘Last Child’ as the band got into a typically loose-limbed groove.
This was a pure greatest hits set, as if Aerosmith were determined to cement the legacy as one of America’s greatest treasures, with the recent disappointment Music From Another Dimension (with the exception of Joe giving Steven a break by singing the chugging rocker ‘Freedom Fighter ‘) and blues covers stripped from the set.
Instead, they mixed the sassy, swaggering seventies favourites like ‘Same Old Song’ and ‘Dance’ and ‘Toys in the Attic’ with the more MTV friendly years – ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ and the lush balladry of ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A thing’. ‘No More No More’, introduced by Steven as his favourite was a rare ‘deep cut’ as the Americans would say, and ‘Come Together’ worked perfectly in a festival environment.
The crowning glory was to hear ‘Dude Looks Like A Lady’ returned to the set after inexplicably being absent for the last few tours, and as night fell that and ‘Walk This Way’, with Steven encouraging the audience, formed the soundtrack to one joyous party that united young and old.
There were no surprises for the encore, Steven taking to a giant white piano to belt out perhaps the world’s original power ballad ‘Dream On’, both Joe and eventually Steven standing on the piano before the ever cool Tom Hamilton strode forward with his trademark bass intro to a funky ‘Sweet Emotion’.
With my eye on the clock I was sure that was the finale, especially after being showered in confetti, but whether rehearsed or otherwise they came back for an encore, jamming on a storming ‘Mama Kin’, a timely reminder how they influenced a whole generation of bands such as Guns n Roses, to tip the show near the two hour mark.
After a few years in the doldrums, this show was a revelation with one of America’s greatest bands seemingly rejuvenated at a late stage in their career . They still know how to put on the big set piece outdoor show, have a larger than life persona, and to a festival crowd played to their strength of a back catalogue of instantly recognisable classics.
Despite my initial scepticism this was a perfect end to a thoroughly enjoyable Download, or Donington as it will always be to those of us of a certain vintage.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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