5am. Not the most rock ‘n’ roll of hours to rise on a Friday morning but when you have a 311 mile journey to the spiritual home of all things metal these sacrifices have to be made. What I do in the name of rock! Also on his travels from the other end of the country was my fellow scribe Andy Nathan and together we hope to bring you a good overview of the Download weekend, let the rocking commence!
With blue skies above we headed out on the highway looking forward to three days of hard rocking. The weather forecast didn’t look great but that didn’t dampen our spirits as the prospect of some excellent music over the course of the three days would more than make up for the odd shower or three. It also helped that we had already shopped online for the ‘must have’ weekend fashion accessory, the plastic rain poncho, so we were ready for anything!
On arrival at Donington the sun was still high in the sky and the temperature was well into the 20’s, a good start. The first task was to pick up the new ‘dog tags’ for the cashless payment system which was in operation across the site. I feared the worst though as the queues for collecting the tags were huge and it took us a couple of hours to finally get into the arena.
However, the tags proved to be a revelation. Very easy and simple to use and I encountered no problems across the weekend when purchasing goods from any of the on site vendors. The extra security the system offered over carrying cash around the site makes it a winner in my book, hopefully things will be a bit slicker with the initial pick up at future festivals. Andy was a step ahead of us though and as we checked out the food stalls to relieve the hunger after the long queues, he was already rocking…
Andy Nathan writes: My Friday began on the second stage (Zippo Encore Stage) with a couple of the new breed of bands in the classic tradition who have been building themselves a reputation recently, beginning with Blues Pills. They started well with ‘High Class Woman’, Elin Larsson belting the words out in a manner at odds with her demure black top and skirt, and with some thumpingly heavy bass work from Zack Anderson, while on the spaced out ‘Bliss’ guitarist Dorrian Sorriaux, looking impassive in his maroon velvet jacket, delivered a solo with feeling.
However their retro sound seemed a bit too laid back to really excite the crowd, notably when they played two slow, bluesy numbers in a row, before ‘Devil Man’ saw the Orange amps turned up and I could see a few people shaking to its more stoner rock feel.
The Cadillac 3 received a rather more rowdy reception in keeping with their raw style, which takes southern rock down to a crossroads where it intersects with garage rock and outlaw country. With his truckers cap and broad Nashville drawl singer Jaren Johnston is a true redneck and they play on their roots on songs like the opener ‘I’m Southern’.
Their gig last year at London’s Garage left me rather cold, being colonised by ironic hipster types, but this time the atmosphere was far more enjoyable. Their music can be a bit samey but ‘Tennessee Mojo’ saw Jaren’s more conventional guitar work and the lap steel playing of Kelby Ray combine in very satisfying fashion and ‘White Lightning’ was a welcome change of pace, Jaren’s vocals coming over like Chris Robinson had he been brought up on a trailer park.
Some momentum was lost when he joined in a solo with drummer Neil Mason but they ended the set in style with ‘I’ts All About the South’, though it was incongruous to hear so many suburban Brits singing ‘this is where I was born, this is where I’ll die’. Next time they play I fully expect to see them higher up the bill.
David Wilson writes: With our hunger sated we found a spot in the sunshine, which was now fierce, to take in our first band of the weekend, Lacuna Coil. They had attracted a healthy crowd to the main stage proving that they still have a decent size fanbase in the UK.
Musically they have never been my cup of tea but they played a strong set with the highlights being ‘Enjoy The Silence’ and ‘Our Truth’. They never really set the place alight though and as the set ended there were a few cheers from the faithful but mostly indifference from the rest of the crowd who were by now melting in the heat.
As the clouds gathered so did the beards and the checked shirts at the main stage for the appearance of Maryland’s finest, Clutch. I first encountered Clutch at Download in 2011 when they were on the second stage and was blown away by the power of their performance and it proved to be more of the same today. As a friend commented, they look like four car mechanics that have wandered on stage, but once they start motoring Clutch are an unstoppable force.
Neil Fallon stalked the stage and controlled the crowd with ease. The band were on maximum attack throughout their allotted time slot and with the likes of ‘DC Sound Attack!’ and ‘Earth Rocker’ they took Download by the scruff of the neck.
The familiar strains of ‘Electric Worry’ and ‘One Eye Dollar’ rounded off an excellent set, complete with chaos in the stage front pit. Clutch are celebrating 25 years in the business this year and with a new album due out soon I could see them even further up the bill for their next Download appearance.
Judging by my ever unreliable T-shirt count Five Finger Death Punch were on to a winner before they even struck a chord. Having witnessed previous explosive Download performances from the band the crowd knew what to expect and the guys were more than happy to deliver. Kicking things off with ‘Under And Over It’ the band lit the touch paper and stood well back as the arena erupted.
Ivan Moody bounced around like a pitbull on speed, whipping the crowd into a frenzy whilst the rest of the guys pounded out the songs like they had personally insulted their collective mothers. ‘Hard To See’ and ‘Lift Me Up’ followed maintaining the relentless pace and the pits grew larger. With FFDP their ace card is the way they can switch from full on metal to quiet and reflective with ease as was the case here with Ivan introducing ‘Bad Company’ which went down a storm.
Half way through the show Moody plucked three children from the crowd and brought them on stage for a moment they will never forget. As the band launched into ‘Burn MF’ all three headbanged along and sang every word, I am sure their parents were very proud!
Things were brought to a climatic finish with ‘The Bleeding’ with Moody shaking every hand he could get to. This was another masterful display from a band who keep getting better. Judging by the size of the crowd they attracted to the main stage I could see them with a Download headline slot in the near future and a well deserved one at that.
After FFDP a major choice had to be made as Thunder, Dragonforce and Judas Priest were all playing at the same time, talk about set clashes! The decision was made to hot foot it over to catch a bit of Dragonforce before Priest took to the stage. The fact that you couldn’t get near the tent far less in it showed that perhaps DF should have been on one of the bigger stages.
I managed to catch the first three songs, ‘The Game’, ‘Three Hammers’ and ‘Symphony Of The Night’ all taken from the band’s latest album ‘Maximum Overload’. I couldn’t see a thing but they sounded great! They were later joined on stage by Baby Metal but I was back at the main stage by that time awaiting the Metal Gods themselves as Andy again takes up the metal gauntlet.
Andy Nathan writes: So far, I had been happy to leave the more brutal sounds on the main stage to others, but one of the big draws for doing the whole weekend at Download was Judas Priest’s first UK appearance in three years.
Between the original holy trinity of Sabbath, Zeppelin and Purple and the explosion of the NWOBHM at the turn of the eighties, no-one did more than the Priest to create both the sound and the imagery of Heavy Metal as we know and love it.
This was a great opportunity to give the younger crowd a history lesson but it was also frustrating that with a mere hour on stage they had to do a potted version of their usual set. With the sun of early afternoon now turning to outbreaks of heavy rain that the forecasters had failed to predict, and sandwiched between the more contemporary attractions of Five Finger Death Punch and Slipknot, I felt the atmosphere was more subdued than it should have been.
Priest gave a masterclass in how to design a shortened festival setlist, combining a smattering of new material, well-loved classics and the odd lesser-known gem for the diehard. The opening trio of ‘Dragonaut’ from last year’s ‘Redeemer of Souls’ album, ‘Metal Gods’ and ‘Devil’s Child’ did exactly that, although it was clear from the latter two that Rob Halford’s voice, perhaps inevitably, is no longer quite what it was.
Indeed my delight at seeing guitarists Richie Faulkner and Glenn Tipton side by side playing the twin lead intro to the epic ‘Victim Of Changes’ was tempered by the premonition that Rob would get nowhere near the blood-curdling high screams of the original.
Nevertheless he is one of rock’s iconic frontmen, not to mention one who gets through more costume changes than Elton John, returning in a silver cloak for ‘Turbo Lover’ which came over surprisingly well live. It was also fun playing Halford bingo as to how many times he could use the phrase ‘heavy metal’, with a reference to ‘are you ready for some Judas Priest British heavy metal’ giving a full house.
There were a couple more new album songs in the title track and ‘Valhalla’, with some classic twin leads from the guitar pairing. As well as taking an equal share of the solos, Richie’s youth and guitar hero poses atone for the fact that a baseball capped Glenn is a rather static presence these days.
With the clock ticking, ‘Jawbreaker’ was a rather average cut to drop in, but ‘Breaking The Law’ was the first classic to really get the majority going and, unlike on recent tours, Rob did actually sing rather than get the crowd to do so, and we were then treated to the usual spectacle of his grand entrance atop a motorbike to sing ‘Hell Bent For Leather’ which surely has to be the Priest anthem.
Drummer Scott Travis then asked the crowd if they wanted to hear one more, and ‘Painkiller’ was surely closer to the preferred musical style of the majority of those gathered at the main stage, but I was delighted that despite the tight timing a joyous ‘Living After Midnight’ was still slipped into the set, even though Rob missed singing the first few bars. It wasn’t ideal circumstances to see the Priest but the good news was they left with a promise to return on a UK tour.
I then had to make a swift dash back to the Zippo stage which for the second time in three years was being headlined by Black Stone Cherry. In fact the foursome from Edmonton, Kentucky are among Download’s favourite sons with – by my reckoning – six appearances in the last eight festivals. Indeed their displays have over the years turned me from being mildly interested into a big fan (as opposed to GRTR!’s live editor Dave Wilson who has tried and failed to embrace them).
Appropriately enough they opened with ‘Rain Wizard’, as the weather took another turn for the worse and I was making my way round the stage and down to the left hand side whose slope gives the best views. The start to their set was stunning with the crowd going crazy to one anthem after another in ‘Blind Man’, ‘Me And Mary Jane’ and the outrageously catchy, Nickelback-esque ‘White Trash Millionaire’, incidentally an opening quartet that dipped into each of their four albums.
Chris Robertson cuts a chunky, no-nonsense figure in his baseball cap and cut-off shirt and yet has a warm stage manner and is an underrated guitarist with some fiery solos on the likes of ‘Maybe Someday’, sometimes likened to Zakk Wylde but to these ears not unlike one of the great southern guitarists in Ricky Medlocke. Meanwhile, his guitar foil and energetic mover Ben Wells looked strikingly different, much of his fair hair chopped off and now resembling a fourth member of The Police.
Inevitably that flying start could not be sustained, though just to reflect their relationship with the UK they debuted a new song in ‘Road Runner’ which had the heavier, sludgier feel of the most recent ‘Mystery Mountain’ album. The crowd took over during the anthemic ‘In My Blood’ and ‘Soulcreek’ while Ben got the crowd to jump up and down during ‘Bad Luck And Hard Love’, and Chris came out with only Ben’s rhythm guitar for accompaniment during ‘Peace Is Free ‘which again saw the crowd take over the singing.
I felt though the pace dropped unnecessarily during a drum solo from the hyperactive John Fred Young and another sing along classic in ‘Blame It On The Boom Boom’ was dragged out far longer than it needed to be.
Closing in their traditional manner with the raw debut album sound of ‘Lonely Train’ their full-hearted performance, energy and generous spirit proved just why the UK have taken these young Southerners to their hearts, and why they have graduated to arena headliners here, while oddly being much lower profile in their native USA.
As I headed off munching a pork bap for a relatively early night the prospect of next February’s tour with Shinedown and Halestorm was already an enticing one.
David Wilson writes: We also called it a day and left the main stage throng to the heavy rain and Slipknot. The hotel and a warm bed were calling more loudly than Corey and co…
Review and Photos by David Wilson and Andy Nathan
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