If eyebrows were raised at Hull’s designation as European City of Culture 2017, the news that a major rock festival in Hair Metal Heaven was taking place there was an even more unexpected story.
The Humberside port city may have some distinguished musical alumni- ranging from the Beautiful South to Spiders from Mars Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder- but has an out of the way feel to it and is hardly known as a concert hotbed, even in Yorkshire. Yet here were an international contingent of fans and bands in town much to the bemusement of the locals.
The line up was a remarkable cavalcade of the bands that dominated the pages of Kerrang! circa 1989 and 1990 – buttressed by a few favourites from the new generation keeping the flag flying for this most maligned form of music.
Incidentally the term ‘hair metal’ didn’t exist at that time, when terms such as glam, sleaze and cock rock were more widely used. It was subsequently used as dismissive shorthand for contrasting the grunge and alternative scene with what had gone before, and obscured the fact that, behind the image, the scene spawned a huge variety of different musical styles.
The line up of 28 bands, mainly from the USA, was breathtaking in its ambition for first time festival organisers and included a number of bands who had rarely if ever toured the UK, giving many people the chance to cross them off the proverbial bucket list.
However, the road to Hull is paved with good intentions and it became apparent over the weekend that all was not well behind the scenes. Not helped by the lack of a compere or stage announcer, each day ran late with long gaps at various stages between bands, amidst rumours of disputes over payment.
Fortunately all but two of the advertised bands performed, but the delays made an exhausting three days even more of an endurance test and headliners in particular were playing to a smaller and more jaded crowd.
DAY 1- HARDLINE, TREAT, ECLIPSE, BABYLON AD, CRAZY LIXX, NITE RAIN, BIGFOOT, MASON HILL, FRAGILE THINGS
Of the three days the Friday was the one that held most personal interest, with the melodic hard rock acts usually catered for by festivals such as Firefest, Hard Rock Hell AOR and latterly Rockingham. It was also at a separate and smaller venue, the Welly Club.
On arriving the unfortunate name was the least of the problems with the venue: it was the worst type of dated nightclub, poorly laid out, and the main room stiflingly hot with drink swiftly sticking to the floor. Moreover the stage was cramped with an annoying, low-tech flashing backdrop and lighting that barely covered the central part of the stage. In short it was a setting unworthy of the quality of the acts booked.
The afternoon opened with three up and coming home grown bands: I arrived too late to catch openers Fragile Things but it was apparent from the last couple of songs of Scots Mason Hill that, to add to the problems, the sound was dreadful. I found I enjoyed both them far less than I had done when they supported Inglorious earlier in the year and the same was true of Bigfoot, compared to their support slot to Soto.
Nevertheless the Jack Black-like mannerisms and Wigan charm of singer Ant Ellis cheered me up. They introduced a new song ‘Fear’ which was more complex and ended the set in fine style with the fun ‘Blame it On the Dog’ and ‘Other Side of Paradise’.
On the other hand Norwegians Nite Rain may have had in singer Sebastian Tvedtnaes the perfect visual embodiment of cock rock decadence, but the music was very basic and after a couple of songs I found myself needing to take a break for some air.
The quality bar was raised with Crazy Lixx, one of the many Scandinavian standard bearers of a new generation of bands taking up the baton. Their new album ‘Ruff Justice’ has been a quantum leap forward in terms of song writing quality so I was disappointed when the impact of opener ‘Wild Child’ was dimmed by the guitar being horribly low in the mix.
Fortunately the sound did improve as they combined new songs like the video game theme ‘XIII’ with more basic, metallic fare like ‘Hell Raising Women’, ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’, and ‘Lock up Your Daughters’. However new song ‘Walk the Wire’ and ‘Blame it On Love’ showed greater maturity with commanding singer Danny Rexon supported by some fine vocal harmonies. Though ‘Sound Of the Loud Minority’ was a sad omission, as they ended with their anthem ‘21 Till I Die’ it was tempting to wonder how big they might have been in the ‘hair metal’ heyday.
Babylon AD were cut from a rather different musical cloth, with a hard working blue collar ethic and a no frills uncompromising approach, topped off by the aggressive vocals of Derek Davis on the likes of ‘When The Hammer Swings Down’ and ‘Bang Go The Bells’. Whatever they may have looked like in their heyday this was far removed from the glitzy hair metal stereotype.
The biggest surprise however was that after announcing they were going to shortly release their first new album in over 25 years and played no less than four new songs. They sounded impressive from the hard driving ‘Crash And Burn’ to the more balladic ‘One Million Miles’ but may have lost all but the diehard fans in a festival crowd. However they ended in fine style with the chorus to ‘The Kid Goes Wild’ generating a phalanx of raised fists nearly all the way to the back.
There are few hotter properties on the melodic rock scene at the movement than Eclipse, but the sense of anticipation was dragged out by an unexplained wait of over an hour before they hit the stage. They opened with the first song on superb current album ‘Monumentum’ in ‘Vertigo’ with Erik Martensson waving his arms in a circle but then a double of ‘Bleed And Scream’ and ‘Wake Me Up’ showed the metallic intensity they and in particular guitarist Magnus Henriksen bring to their work.
‘Jaded’ had a lighter though no less rocky feel while the old heavy stomp of ‘Battlegrounds’ was beautifully reimagined as a stripped back acoustic number showing off the celtic melodies. Fans of the song’s original style though were well catered for by ‘Garden of Eden’ and ‘Blood Enemies’ in between the epic hard rock feel of ‘Black Rain’, and during ‘Stand On Your Feet’ I was in danger of doing the precise opposite, pushed through to join a knot of pogoers.
‘I Don’t Wanna Say I’m Sorry’ ended a furious and intense set and whatever had gone on back stage had if anything drove their hunger on. My only complaint was that new song ‘Never Look Back’ would have been even more of a live favourite.
It was always going to be a tall order to follow those energy levels and there were significantly fewer at the front for Treat, ironic as – alongside the likes of Europe and Skagarack – they pretty much invented the Scandinavian melodic rock scene in the eighties without which there would have been no Eclipse or Crazy Lixx. Drummer Jamie Borger also did his best to curry local support with a Hull City FC amber shirt.
The set mixed old and new, opening with a pair from last year’s ‘Ghost of Graceland’ album in the title track and ‘Better The Devil You Know’ but though fine, mature piece of works it was only ‘Ready For The Taking’ that gave their show the anthemic quality it needed.
‘Paper Tiger’ and the Def Leppard-esque ‘We Rule The Night’ sounded excellent but the controversy of how live Treat’s vocals were reared its ugly head – the backing vocals were suspiciously rich and precise while a telltale sign was when singer and Jon Pertwee-lookalike Robert Ernlund darted to the side of the stage on a couple of occasions and could be seen making some adjustments on a laptop.
When they reverted to the older material – which included a surprise in the rather basic ‘Love Stroke’- the sound felt less polished and the more enjoyable for it, with the great melodies of ballad ‘Get You On the Run’ and ponytailed guitarist Anders Wikstrom pulling some classic shapes as he was let loose on ‘Conspiracy’.
The set abruptly ended at this point but they returned for a couple of encores in ‘Skies of Mongolia’ and perhaps their best loved song, the classic Scandi melodic rock of ‘World of Promises’. In any circumstances it was a decent set but it lacked the fire of Eclipse’s preceding set which was necessary to restore the crowd’s flagging energy levels.
Another of melodic rock’s revered names, Hardline headlined with a set which had been billed as including the whole of their 1992 album ‘Double Eclipse’. Already midnight when they hit the cramped stage they instead opened with a newie in ‘Where Do We Go From Here’. The intense stage persona of singer, and only original member, Johnny Gioeli seemed even angrier than usual as he stamped a towel underneath his feet and flung it into the crowd, though he was a tad more composed describing the travails of the day before introducing ‘Life’s A Bitch’ later on.
Though they soon played a couple from that debut classic in a rather underpowered ‘Taking Me Down’ and ‘Dr Love’, any building momentum was killed dead by a number of songs from latest album ‘Human Nature’ including two ballads in a row in the title track and ‘Take You Home’ with Johnny duetting with keyboardist Alessandro Del Vecchio who has emerged as the band’s driving force. The last straw was a drum solo which was the signal for many to call it a night.
Ironically those who had kept the faith enough to stay were rewarded as the gig picked up significantly in the second half- ‘Fever Dreams’ had some great interplay between Alessandro and guitarist Josh Ramos who delivered a sweet solo. He was also on fine form on the ballad ‘Hands Of Time’, complementing Johnny’s emotive vocals, though generally I felt his playing lacked the fire that a newly Bad English-less Neal Schon brought to the original album.
Nevertheless the tempo rose with ‘Everything’ and fists were punching from the depleted crowd at the front during a storming closer ‘Hot Cherie’ and final encore ‘Rhythm From A Red Car’, in between a hidden gem in ‘I’ll be There’ with its stirring chorus. While the promised album was hardly played in its entirety, ultimately Hardline delivered a quality performance for those who stayed. At 1:30am I felt for the DJ team who had been primed to spin classics after the show, as nearly everyone’s thoughts were to escape this sweatbox after a tiring day.
DAY 2 - TNT, DANGER DANGER, VAIN, JUNKYARD, SPREAD EAGLE, THE POODLES, KILLCODE, SHIRAZ LANE, BLACK CAT BONES
The venue for the rest of the weekend could not have been a bigger contrast, as the festival took over the opulent staircases and balconies of Hull City Hall, which along many of the other public buildings of this city was a reminder of Hull’s mercantile prosperity in Victorian times when Britannia ruled the waves. The stage and viewing facilities were immeasurably improved, as was the sound though it was deafeningly loud at times, even if the beer ran out during the weekend.
However the timetable was no more prompt and proceedings began an hour late with Black Cat Bones. The young Liverpudlians certainly had the image with singer Jonnie Hodson channelling the look of the young Axl Rose – albeit allied to the speaking voice of John Lennon – but in reality songs such as ‘Seen Better Days’, ‘The Devil You Know’, and in particular ‘Down To The River’ with Johnnie on harmonica had a grittier bluesiness to them and I thought their performance showed a lot of promise.
More youngsters followed in Shiraz Lane who have been hyped as the latest young Swedish glam rockers, following in the footsteps of Crazy Lixx and Santa Cruz. On one level they could not be faulted, having the long-haired looks the poses and dynamic stage moves. However the songs which started only moderately promisingly with ‘Wake Up’ and got progressively worse, were just not there for me, with the possible exception of ‘For Crying Out Loud’. In addition the high pitched wheeze of singer Hannes Kett, somewhere between Axl Rose and Justin Hawkins, was an acquired taste.
Even without delays, this was a long day and I reluctantly bailed out for my main meal during Killcode, who were bringing a heavier and more modern take to proceedings, returning to find there were further delays before another of the standard bearers of the new wave of Nordic bands in The Poodles. Led by ever-charismatic singer Jake Samuel they took a while to come to the boil, perhaps due to some of the off stage difficulties they had encountered, although ‘Before I Die’ and the anthemic ‘Metal Will Stand Tall’ with its chanting was well received.
The likes of ‘Shut Up’ were very ordinary but they belatedly did themselves justice with a new song ‘Love Is Gone’ and a trio of simple but hard-hitting anthems in ‘Like No Tomorrow’, ‘Seven Seas’ with a ‘give it up’ chant people picked up on, and ‘One Night of Passion’.
As mentioned earlier, the catch all ‘hair metal’ term hid a number of different genres in the rock world, so it was inevitable that at least some of the bands would not float my boat. One such were East Coast rockers Spread Eagle who had an angrier, almost street image and sound closer to the alternative sounds that eventually drove the ‘cock rock’ bands out in the early nineties reminding me of the direction Skid Row took in the ‘Slave To The Grind’. I didn’t really pick out any of the songs to want me to explore further, but judging from a few heads flailing in the audience, for others their rare appearance was one of those bucket list moments.
The same was true of Junkyard who as if to prove they were one of the less likely bands to be lumped in with the LA scene were all in biker style cut offs. As they opened with ‘Back On The Streets’ singer David Roach gave his all but I did find the rest of the band very static. In addition they were one of the acts where the sound spoiled my enjoyment – the volume and mix – and it was impossible to make out a single lyric in his high pitched cackle, even on more commercial fare like Simple Man. Nevertheless old favourites like ‘Blooze’ and ‘Hollywood’ again went down well.
Next up were Vain on a rare UK appearance with most of the original line up from 1989 when their debut ‘No Respect’ feature prominently in many magazines’ end of year lists. They had aged gracefully, still having a debauched look while avoiding the era’s old excesses and singer Davy Vain was a charismatic presence with his red strides, bare feet and sharp-witted comments.
The quality of the guitar work was also one of the most impressive of the weekend including the twin guitars on ‘A Thousand Degrees’. For the casual fan like me the inevitable highlights were left to last with the title track from that debut, and the big hooks of an extended version of ‘Beat The Bullet’, two of the songs that have stood the test of time as definitive singles from the movement.
After a spell watching proceedings from the balcony, I left the Statlers and Waldorfs and headed back onto the floor for one of my own favourites in Danger Danger, perennial headliners of the much missed Firefest but now very much a part-time touring band, and this time with Trixter’s Steve Brown doing a fine job on guitar, reprising his Tokyo Motor First partnership with singer Ted Poley even if they drew the line at their songs.
Opening with ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ they remain the ultimate party band with the ‘who-oahs’ making the likes of ‘Crazy Nites’, ‘Don’t Blame It On Love’ and ‘Beat The Bullet’ irresistibly catchy, while ‘Under The Gun’ and ‘Hearts On The Highway’ showed their more AOR side.
As usual Ted’s vocals did not always hit the mark but he sounded great on ‘I Still Think About You’ while there was less self indulgent talk than usual. They closed with their trio of catchy, lascivious classics in ‘Monkey Business’ and ‘Bang Bang’ and an encore of ‘Naughty Naughty’, making as usual for a party atmosphere. However they have never been the tightest of bands and the cracks of personnel changes and rust showed even more than normal, though not enough to spoil my enjoyment ultimately.
The challenge of following DD’s larger than life act fell to TNT, and just as with fellow Scandinavians Treat, this was doubly challenging with delays making for an increasingly restless crowd. Indeed they took the stage to a distinctly thinner crowd, not least because VIP ticket holders had made their way to a separate venue to ensure they were on time for a special performance by Michael Monroe, only to wait in vain as the former Hanoi Rocks frontman was another casualty of financial disputes.
As for TNT, they may have lacked the visual garishness of some of the weekend’s bands, but had real musical credibility, both in the bewildering nimble-fingered technique of guitarist Ronni Le Tekro, cutting a hippyish figure in his headband and all-white clothing, and American singer Tony Harnell. The latter never seemed to be overextending and occasionally allowed the crowd or backing vocalists to do his heavy lifting, but his ability to soar into a higher octave vocal range continues to be remarkable and he made it look so effortless.
Against that, some of the songs including opener ‘Invisible Noise’ did not match the quality. It has been 30 years since the Norwegians’ international breakthrough ‘Tell No Tales’ so unsurprisingly the album featured heavily with the likes of ‘As Far as the Eye Can See’, ‘Desperate Night’, and a couple of ballads in ‘Childs Play’ and ‘Northern Lights’, where the combination of Tony and Ronni’s talents were little short of breathtaking. ‘Tonight I’m Falling’ and ‘Forever Shine On’ from follow up Intuition had more of that Scandi melodic rock feel, while ‘Downhill Racer’ and ‘Seven Seas’ with its Nordic chanting were more straight ahead.
They played for only two thirds of their allotted 90 minutes so I imagine the set was culled, but they ensured a three song encore delighted fans with ‘Intuition’, again blissfully melodic with people singing along to the chorus, ‘Everyone’s A Star’ which cantered along at a brisk, uptempo pace and finally people risking their throats by singing along as Tony screamed the chorus to ‘10,000 Lovers in One’. The set was thoughtful rather than rabble rousing, but TNT had been fitting headliners.
DAY 3 – ROCK N HULL ALL-STARS, RECKLESS LOVE, D-A-D, LOUDNESS, LEATHERWOLF, DIEMONDS, PRINCESS PANG, HELL’S ADDICTION
On top of the Michael Monroe controversy, news also came through overnight that Wildside, another eagerly anticipated cult band who I think never played the UK, would not be appearing. There was a mini reshuffle later down the order and a homegrown band Hell’s Addiction drafted in to open.
Now this style of music was always criticised for its macho testosterone excess, so it was a pleasure on both eyes and ears to see two female fronted bands beginning with Princess Pang. In the day I was familiar with their name but little more. Black-clad, blonde haired original singer Jeni Foster was a sassy and engaging frontwoman with a decent voice and the band, who were not in the first flush of youth, had more of a classic rock feel to them than most of the weekend’s bands, exemplified by set closer ‘Sympathy’.
I was reasonably impressed with ‘Anyway You Want It’ and in particular ‘Trouble In Paradise’ which I understand did get some airplay on MTV in the day and was more familiar to many, if not to me.
At the other end of the spectrum a newer band Diemonds featured the raven haired, spindly legged Priya Panda who was a bundle of manic intensity. Many people were looking forward to seeing the Canadians who have had a string of well regarded albums recently- the young band certainly had a lot of energy but it was a little too raw and punky for my taste. It said volumes that the only the song that lodged in my head was a closing cover of Kiss’ ‘Come On And Love Me’.
Leatherwolf were an odd fit on the bill: they may have enjoyed their peak of success at the same time but their traditional, no frills metal approach almost came over like an American Maiden, not least with their twin guitars, often augmented by a third when singer Michael Oliviera, one of the survivors from the original lineup strapped on a guitar. Other than possibly ‘Hideaway’, and not helped by the loud sound, the tunes did not reach out and grab me but again as a band who have not toured for many moons they were a highlight for many and put more grit in an otherwise glitzy weekend.
Next up were another bucket list band for many from the LA scene, Shark Island, albeit with a line up that featured only singer Richard Black from their original line-up. Legend has it that Axl Rose copied his stage moves, but it was hard to square this with the casually dressed figure in a grey goatee and turned round baseball cap.
Nevertheless he was energetic and his raspy voice, plus the tasteful lead playing of guitarist Damir Simic made the likes of ‘Make A Move’, ‘Somebody’s Falling’ and ‘Stranger’ very enjoyable. He also introduced the songs and the albums they came from for the unitiated. ‘Paris Calling’ went down best of all and by the time they encored with a souped up cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ the set was over all too quickly.
At this stage I’d been invited by some American friends who had made the trip for some buffet nosh and resigned myself to possibly missing Loudness, but I returned an hour later to find people aimlessly milling about the hall. There were more band negotiations and soundchecks before the Japanese quartet hit the stage.
Back in the day I had rather dismissed them but there was no doubting that they were a credible act. Minoro Niihara could command the stage and carry his vocals, while Akiria Takasaki was an excellent guitarist. However as each song blended into another, I was reminded why never warmed to them with their songwriting skills falling sadly short of their musicianship.
By now the event was running vastly late and had become something of an endurance test, not least with the bar long since run dry, but D-A-D were still given a full-length set, opening in fine style with Jihad from their debut and most familiar album ‘No Fuel for the Pilgrims’. However in the 28 years since the Danes have released several albums and this was a career spanning set.
While many bands of the weekend stuck to a template, their songs were eclectic and quirky, which hardly began to describe bassist Stig Pedersen in his pith helmet and two- stringed basses made from fibreglass or shaped like a cross. Like their more contemporary fellow countrymen Volbeat, they also incorporate influences from earlier rock’ n’roll and the guitar sound of Jacob Binzer, brother of lead singer Jesper, often had a Hank Marvin-esque twang to it.
As the set neared its close ‘Bad Craziness’ provided some welcome familiarity and inevitably their classic single ‘Sleeping My Day Away’ was going to close the set; while Jesper sounded a bit hoarse, the song was taken into another dimension with a long, winding fluent solo of almost southern rock epic proportions from Jacob which won unofficial title of best guitar solo of the weekend.
Reckless Love were the highest placed band on the weekend bill representing the newer generation of bands. There were several of their T-shirts in a noticeably younger and more female crowd, unsurprising since they are popular enough to sell out mid-sized halls in their own right – though oddly I understood from one of the American visitors they are unknown in the States.
The Finns and singer Olli Herman in particular can be almost cartoonishly colourful, closer in spirit to Poison than Guns n Roses, but for all their cheese it is hard not to warm to them. They opened with ‘Animal Attraction’, which doffed its hat to Def Leppard as did guitarist Pepe’s Hysteria t-shirt, and the likes of ‘So Happy I Could Die’, ‘Born To Break Your Heart’, ‘On The Radio’ and ‘Night On Fire’ had infectious melodies and insanely catchy choruses that would lift anyone’s mood.
However compared to their previous performances, it felt they had a tougher, more musicianly edge to them, Pepe in particular, which saved some of the more recent material – notably a double of ‘We Are The Weekend’ and ‘Monster’ – from veering too much into Europop territory. There was also a pair from their debut album in ‘Beautiful Bomb’, still sounding as fresh as it did when it broke them onto the scene in 2010, and ‘Badass’.
The one downside was that their set was curtailed down to 50 minutes, so the irresistible glam-goes-Ibiza ‘Hot’ which sparked dancing and pogoing brought their fun set to an end all too quickly.
To close the festival a ‘Rock n Hull AllStars’ band had been specially assembled. Given the fact this was seemingly a one-off appearance, and given the egos of some of the stars, the cynical amongst us gave short odds on them not performing, not least as they still had to soundcheck after Reckless Love.
However they did that so swiftly that there was no time for expectation to build before at midnight they were ready to go and opened with ‘The Hunter’. Despite the prompt of lyric sheets, Sebastian Bach was strong and powerful and singing Dokken better than Don Dokken these days, admittedly not a high threshold, and it was a big thrill when George Lynch, sporting a bizarre hairstyle, moved in centre stage, leant back at an angle and played the solo with that incredible technique. The treat was repeated during the ballad ‘Alone Again’.
However the rushed circumstances of their performance showed when technical problems led George to sit out much of Skid Row’s mega hits ‘18 And Life’ and ‘I Remember You’ where second guitarist Brent Woods had to carry the songs and ironically Seb was less effective.
Another telltale sign of uncertainty is when the band members turn away from the crowd and towards the drummer to make sure a steady beat is being locked down. In this case they were turning towards the third of the holy trinity of stars in Vinnie Appice, and the next pair of songs were ones he had played on in ‘Mob Rules’ and ‘Stand Up And Shout’, the latter virtually the only non-Dokken song where George seemed interested in soloing.
Seb’s brattish, loud mouthed persona has been a controversial one over the years, but he was the perfect frontman, graceful to the crowd and musicians and paying tribute to songs he used to sing in front of the mirror. After he pointed to said tattoo on his arm there was a stonking atmosphere during one of the hair years great anthems ‘Youth Gone Wild’. DIemonds singer Priya Panda and Loudness guitarist Akiria Takasaki then came on for the latter’s ‘Rock And Roll Crazy Night’, but after only 45 minute s- just half their allotted time - disappointingly the party had to end with a feeling of what might have been. They finished with an all star jam to ‘Highway To Hell’ (Hull?) featuring various band and even audience members on stage.
Yes it was ragged and rather thrown together but as a friend remarked to me, it was a fun end to a festival and not to be taken too seriously. The delays had made it emotionally and physically draining and, in the event there is a follow up, lessons were learned the hard way. And yet the company of like-minded fans from all over the world in support of a much maligned genre and a remarkable variety of bands whether seasoned, forgotten or new made it a weekend to remember.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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Power Plays w/c 13 May (Mon-Fri)
WARM RAIN Here Comes The Rain Again (Rain Recordings)
DARWIN Cosmic Rays (indie)
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MARQUIS DRIVE Shine On (indie)
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EMERALD SUN What becomes Of You (indie)
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12:00-13:00 WHITESNAKE Flesh & Blood (Frontiers)
14:00-16:00 BUFORD POPE The Waiting Game (Unchained Records)
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NEVER THE BRIDE Surprise (2005)
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