Photo: Andy Nathan
The phenomenal attendances at Download are a tribute to the enduring if underground popularity of the broad church we call metal and hard rock, even if the site seemed a touch smaller this year.
From the late 2000′s onwards, the organisers seemed to make a push to embrace a more seasoned audience alongside the younger core demographic, with a greater emphasis on more classic rock friendly acts. However on this occasion they seemed to steer clear of a market now crowded with festivals like Stone Free and Ramblin Man.
As a result, the first two days – headlined by System of a Down and Biffy Clyro – held little interest for me personally, but as in previous years the more classic rock friendly action was to be had on the Sunday, headlined by Aerosmith, so on this occasion I made the trip for just the one day.
My original plan was to start the day on the second (Zippo) stage with promising young Brummies the Broken Witt Rebels, but naturally after recent events there were long security queues and having been let in to the side of the main stage, the only option was to stick there and watch the majority of main stage openers Fozzy. Perhaps because of a rather off-putting name, to my shame I was unaware not only that they have released seven albums dating back to the early 2000s, but that lead singer Chris Jericho doubles as a WWE wrestling star.
They were the weekend’s first pleasant surprise, mixing the dynamism of the modern generation of bands with an old school approach that drew comparisons to Skid Row, ‘Black’-era Metallica and Buckcherry.
The aggressive ‘Sandpaper’ concluded with a twin guitar solo while both ‘Lights Go Out’ and ‘Enemy’ were catchy and seemed to get a good audience response, helped by a stage show which saw flame brandishing dancing girls and Chris going out onto the catwalk type stage extension.
Photo: Andy Nathan
Belatedly I did make my way to the second stage for the first of the day’s two Tylers, to see what the fuss was about over Tyler Bryant and The Shakedown. With support slots for the likes of AC/DC , Guns n Roses and Tom Petty the Nashville band obviously have some serious connections, but they justified the hype with a promising performance.
They were an interesting mix – Tyler’s guitar solos had a very bluesy feel to them, but far from being a wannabe guitar hero they were short and within the context of some concise rock n rollers such as ‘Weak And Weeping’, ‘Criminal Investigation’ and ‘House On Fire’, with the second guitar of Graham Whitford, son of Aerosmith’s Brad, thickening out the sound. The dark-fringed frontman is also a more than respectable singer.
The one time the band stretched out, they gave Muddy Waters’ ‘Got My Mojo Working a supercharged makeover, then donned a Gretsch while drummer Noah Denney came out front to bang a bass drum during ‘Lipstick Wonder Woman’ which closed an impressive appetiser of a set that had me curious to check out more.
The Dead Daisies in contrast had nothing to prove, being a seasoned band of travelling pros and on the back of a successful winter tour with The Answer. It almost seemed insulting that they were confined to a 25 minute quintet of songs, but that is the way at Download for bands lower down the order as they try to cram as many as possible into a day.
‘Make Some Noise’ could have been a Download national anthem and had a fair few fists punching while an otherwise ordinary song ‘You and I’ ended up being a showcase for some typically superb guitar work from Doug Aldrich. After singer John Corabi joked ‘here comes the ballad’, ‘Mainline’ was like Van Halen’s Panama on speed, and the infectious riffs of ‘Midnight Moses’ ended the set, showing the Daisies’ expertise at taking a cover (in this case an old Alex Harvey song) and making it their own.
That was the end of my action for the day at the Zippo stage which played host to an ever heavier roster of bands culminating in headliners Slayer, and I headed back into the main arena to watch The Cadillac 3.
As they opened with the title track of recent album ‘Bury Me in My Boots’ and ‘Slide’, two things struck me. One was that the huge stage did no favours to a three piece, one of whose members Kelby Ray is static at a lap steel. The other was that the singing voice of Jaret Johnston was perhaps the most overtly country I have ever heard from a rock singer.
His yellow trucker’s cap and rich Southern drawl all added to the hillbilly feel, and a ten song set in which five song titles referenced the South, Dixie or their native Tennessee wear the band’s roots on their sleeves perhaps too much.
Perhaps under the influence of some unexpected sunshine, the crowd seemed oddly muted for songs like ‘I’m Southern’, though ‘Drunk Like You’ went down well. The set was pleasingly varied as they moved from the laid back, Free-like grooves of ‘Peace Love And Dixie’ to a rapid fire ‘I’m Rockin’, with a touch of ‘Enter Sandman’, and back to the wistful countryish ballad ‘White Lightning’.
By the time set closed with ‘The South’ the crowd were roused, taking over the ‘this is where I was born and this is where I’ll die’ refrain as all three band members moved onto the catwalk. However this very decent set would have been better suited to the mid-sized venues they have graduated to than a big festival stage.
The same could not be said of the next band I caught, perennial Download favourites Airbourne. Even the big stage and extended walkway was not enough to tame the energy of larger than life, wild-eyed singer and lead guitarist Joel O’Keeffe as he cavorted hyperactively and from the outset people were chanting the ‘who-oah-ohs’ to opener ‘Ready To Rock’.
However, while entertaining enough, the Airbourne act has never changed after a decade and wears thin after a while, with their AC/DC-stripped-to-the-bare-essentials songs insufficient to compensate. While people got off on old favourites like ‘Too Much Too Young Too Fast’ there was a surprising number off the new album ‘Breakin Outta Hell’ including the title track, ‘Down On You’ and ‘Rivalry’ preceded by Joel’s traditional cricket reference.
There were also only eight songs in a 50 minute set with many of them vehicles for his antics, running into the crowd on the shoulders of a roadie dressed up as a kangaroo, and bringing out a cool box of tinnies to crack open and throw into the crowd, all showing he is as proud of the Australian stereotype as the Cadillac 3 are of the Deep South.
The set ended with an old favourite in debut album title track ‘Running Wild’ and I stood aside as many around me took up his offer to go crazy by forming a circle pit (his other suggestion of lighting a spliff seemed to be less in evidence!)
I took a brief trip to the fourth stage as I was curious to check out former Heavens Basement singer Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics who have been generating a bit of a stir. In a snazzy jacket, striking poses and standing on a raised platform he certainly had the charisma, the band were decent enough but the 90′s alternative-inspired song structures didn’t do it for me.
That left time for food and drink and to watch Steel Panther from the hillside. Others at GRTR!, including our live editor Dave Wilson, disagree but for me their initially funny parody swiftly became tiresome and has outlived its natural life by a good few albums. The presence of so many comedy hair wigs in the crowd was another unwelcome reminder.
However the chuckles I was hearing at their lewd banter from those at the back, who are typically never particularly engaged with the music, suggested I was in a curmudgeonly minority. All the old favourites were there like ‘Death To All But Metal’ and the semi-ballads ‘Fat Girl’ and ‘Community Property’.
By the time of ‘Seventeen Girls in a Row’ and ‘Glory Hole’, as I made my way back down the hill I encountered the extraordinary sight of a cast of what seemed literally hundreds of girls on stage. The enormous flow of people back to the bars and campgrounds at the end of the set spoke volumes that, whatever my views, Steel Panther are many times bigger than the current crop of bands playing that musical style ‘straight’, and are here to stay for a while yet.
Part of an identical top three from the same Sunday in 2014, Alter Bridge could not have been more different – they made few concessions to showmanship with a relatively plain stage set and the walkway barely used, and their songs come over as equally worthy and serious with the passionate, deep vocals of Myles Kennedy. However there was far greater substance to them than any of their colleagues on the bill and the way their fans hung on every lyric is testament to the effect they have on them.
They’ve been Download regulars for over a decade now and indeed if Myles’ appearances with Slash and guitarist Mark Tremonti’s own band are added in, they virtually have a season ticket here. With so many songs now to choose from, they went for a career spanning set, passing up the opportunity to heavily promote new album ‘The Last Hero’ with only two numbers including the impressive ‘Crows On A Wire’.
Instead after opening with ‘Come To Life’, a series of old favourites like ‘Addicted to Pain’, ‘Ghost of Days Gone By’ and ‘Isolation’ had people singing out the choruses, while ‘The Ties that Bind’ was urgent and almost thrash like.
‘Blackbird’ had an epic feel, both in its optimistic lyrics which obviously struck a big chord with many and a long guitar solo, which passed from Mark to Myles, himself an underrated guitarist and with a cleaner tone to complement Mark’s thick, metallic slabs of sound. The mood was further improved when Myles announced they would play autumn shows at the Royal Albert Hall with an orchestra.
Debut album favourite ‘Metalingus’ got the most frantic crowd reaction while Myles even managed to get the whole crowd to kneel down and rise up again, at which point I felt all of my 50 years. People chanted along to newie ‘Show Me A Leader’ then, after a long guitar intro, came set closer ‘Rise Today’, another epic and perhaps the song that sums up the band’s earnest optimism more than another. Indeed it occurred to me that if Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive’ was the anthem for the nineties grunge generation, this fulfils a similar function for millennials.
And so to the headline band, Myles Kennedy choosing exactly le mot juste when he referred to Aerosmith as ‘icons’. This was a repeat of the Boston quintet’s headline slots here in 2010 and 2014, but their only UK date on a tour dubbed the ‘Aeroverderci ‘ tour, and therefore possibly the last chance to see one of the biggest legends in American rock history.
After a rather low key intro of a montage of old photos and ticket stubs, all to the backing of Carmina Burana, or the ‘Old Spice’ advert theme as the rest of us know it, down the walkway came one of rock’s most instantly recognisable duos, Steven Tyler looking lithe and rather androgynous in his pink shirt and patterned scarf, and Joe Perry who is developing the increasing leathery appearance of his hero Keith Richards. His slide guitar was to the fore as they surprised everyone by opening with ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’, appropriately enough as they felt the need for few stage props other than a bright light show.
The more casual fan may have been puzzled but this had been my introduction to Aerosmith twice over, the original by the Joe Perry Project on one of those long-forgotten early 80′s compilations (was it ‘Killer Wattz’?), then when it was redone as the opening track on their 1985 comeback ‘Done With Mirrors’.
With Steven playing harmonica, not for the first time, the classic opener from ‘Pump’, ‘Young Lust’ was another welcome surprise having been underused as a live track over the years.
Then we were very firmly into their peak hit making period, with the crowd swaying their arms to ‘Cryin’, with Steven almost speaking the vocals, before holding out his mike to let the crowd take over the choruses on ‘Livin On The Edge’, warming up the atmosphere nicely for ‘Love In An Elevator’ before ‘Janie’s Got A Gun’ showed that they can have a deeper, more reflective side both lyrically and musically.
There was then an abrupt change of approach as Joe took the lead vocals for a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Stop Messin Round’. As he and Brad Whitford – now a rather grizzled figure in neat grey goatee and a sports jacket – traded solos, and touring keyboardist Buck Johnson and Steven on harmonica joined in, suddenly were witnessing the biggest bar band in the world – the tightness testament to the fact that the five original members have played together with a short break for over 45 years now. In fact they could almost be forgiven a second bite at the Peter Green-era Mac cherry with a fierce ‘Oh Well’, with Joe and Steven trading vocals.
Photo: Andy Nathan
There was finally a seventies Aerosmith oldie in ‘Mama Kin’, with some rare lead guitar from Brad, though the atmosphere was relatively muted, before another change of pace as Steven and Joe took to stools for the acoustic based blues of ‘Hangman Jury’, which got better as it went on, with ‘Seasons of Wither’ in similar style.
After this mid set lull it was a relief when the ever-stylish Tom Hamilton was ushered onto the walkway which could only mean his trademark bass intro to ‘Sweet Emotion’, where they got into such a great groove I found myself unable to resist air guitaring for the first time in the night, while others and particularly the female fans got off on ‘I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing’, Steven singing superbly.
Another great surprise was to hear the return to the set of ‘Rag Doll’, Steven singing through a megaphone and Joe coaxing some dirty blues sounds out of the lap steel I was so entranced to see him use the first time I saw Aerosmith in 1989.
‘Come Together’ was a perfect communal singalong as night fell, before the set closed with another of the classics that used to fill rock clubs in the late eighties and nineties, ‘Dude Looks Like a lady’ with the whole place singing. By this time Steven had tied his hair up to manage a stiff breeze, and it was almost as if he was acting out the title character.
There were no surprises for the encores, as a grand piano was brought out for Steven, after a rather ‘out there’ intro, to sing ‘Dream On’, perhaps the original power ballad, and his voice was sounding good, and there was a great moment as Joe strode forward to play his solo on top of the piano- who needs Guns n Roses?
While the keyboard was removed the band filled in time by jamming to ‘Mother Popcorn’ before the unmistakable staccato riff heralded ‘Walk This Way’ and there could not have been a person all the way back on the hill who was not singing and grooving, before the band came out onto the catwalk one more time and were showered in confetti.
There had not been enough of their seventies back catalogue for my liking, and other than the surprise opener, this had been a very safe Greatest Hits set with little for the committed fan, but this was exactly the right choice for a festival.
After a slump in the first part of the millennium, there is still plenty of life in the ‘Smith. It may or may not have been their last tour, if other classic acts farewells are anything to go by, but one thing is for sure: Download will find it very hard to attract headliners with this panache when the golden generation of rock acts are no longer touring.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Darren Griffiths, except where stated
Day 1 & 2 (9 & 10 June)
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Power Plays w/c 2 April 2018
TAX THE HEAT Taking The Hit (Nuclear Blast)
BLACKBERRY SMOKE Nobody Gives A Damn (Earache)
THE DEAD DAISIES Resurrected (SPV)
CATTAIL BREW Fool’s Gold (Capital City Music Factory/Cargo Records)
Featured Albums w/c 2 April (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 FRONTLINE State Of Rock + 2 (AOR Heaven)
12:00-13:00 GUS G Fearless (AFM Records)
14:00-16:00 TRACK DOGS Kansas City Out Groove (Mondegreen Records)
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