It was 30 years ago that I attended Donington for the first time for a Monsters of Rock festival (as it then was) that was summed up by the contemporary Kerrang! headline ‘The Triumph and the Tragedy’.
A record crowd attended to see Iron Maiden headline, but earlier in the day tragedy struck when two fans were killed in the crush as security were unprepared for the weight of bodies trying to catch a glimpse of Guns’ n’ Roses, whose phenomenal rise was just taking off. Of course in those pre-mobile and 24 hour media days most of us were blissfully unaware of the tragedy until word spread as we returned to the coaches, making the long journey home to worried parents who had seen it on the news.
While I’ve been to many festivals on the site since, it was also the last time up until now I had seen GnR. When 11 year old kids in shopping centres were wearing ‘Appetite for Destruction’ t-shirts they no longer felt like ‘our’ band, the shows were in stadiums and their approach became ever more overblown, topped off by Axl Rose’s tiresome and at times unpleasant antics.
They continued to tour under the name with Axl the only member of the classic line up and even headlined Download in 2006, but it took Slash’s solo gigs with Myles Kennedy to reawaken my interest in the band, and that of many others, judging by the way that when he and bassist Duff McKagan returned for the wryly titled ‘Not in this Lifetime tour’, they were selling two nights at the London Stadium last year.
With those gigs receiving rave reviews, and my antipathy towards Axl cooling as he rescued the AC/DC tour and even seemed to be turning up on stage on time, their Saturday headline appearance at Download was time for me to break that 30 year duck.
Their appearance also boosted an already impressive festival attendance into six figures- thankfully in safer fashion than in 88- a by a large number of day trippers from earlier generations, joining the generally younger weekend punters who were already in place as Avenged Sevenfold headlined on the Friday for the second time in four years, completing their ascendancy to one of the few ‘newer’ bands that can carry off a festival headline.
Saturday 9 June
The whole of the Saturday line up was oriented towards bands – whether old and new – that would fit the classic rock definition, but the gridlock between one end of the site and the other owing to the sheer weight of numbers scuppered my hopes of seeing Whiskey Myers, and giving the southern rockers another chance after being rather bored by a headline show a couple of years ago.
I did arrive just in time for Monster Truck who opened promisingly with ‘Don’t Tell Me How To Live’. At first glance one of the stoner influenced bands, with a full-time keyboard player their sound is actually richer and while sludgy, steeped in classic early seventies rock.
However in a huge gamble they played a series of songs from an as yet unreleased album. The likes of ‘True Rocker’ and ‘Denim Danger’ saw them edging into a more mainstream commercial direction, but it was only in the closing stages with ‘Sweet Mountain River’ that fans were presented with a familiar number to participate in. It started a recurring theme for me of how there is a tried and trusted formula to making a festival show work that bands deviate from at their peril.
Next up were local boys made good The Struts – as he came on stage in a spectacular gold jacket, charismatic singer Luke Spiller looked like the bastard child of Freddie Mercury and Noel Fielding, though on opener ‘Put Your Hands Up’ the Stones were a more obvious musical influence.
Their short set got better as it went along with relatively simple songs ‘Put Your Money On Me’, ‘Could Have Been Me’ and ‘Where Did She Go’ all having the uncanny knack of placing hooks and choruses in a place where the crowd could join in, chanting or singing back.
While to my ears they shared as much with the more anthemic indie bands like Oasis and the Kaiser Chiefs as traditional hard rock, they went down extremely well and are clearly comfortable on a big stage, and therefore what might have seemed a gamble in booking them paid off.
The Temperance Movement provided a real contrast, preferring a more subtle and organic and less rabble-rousing approach. After opening with bluesy old favourite ‘Ain’t No Telling, on ‘Love and Devotion’ Phil Campbell’s raw, gravelly soul-influenced voice, allied to his feather cut, was reminding me of Steve Marriott.
The guitar playing of Paul Sayer and Matt White was subtle and tasteful while the likes of ‘Caught In The Middle’ had a real groove to them, yet their set felt a bit out of place on this huge main stage among bands preferring a more direct approach, and a pair of ballads including the title track from latest album ‘White Bear’ killed the momentum, whatever their quality.
Nevertheless the likes of ‘Ain’t No Telling and ‘Midnight Black’ were more up-tempo- drawing on Stones and Black Crowes-influenced but with a character of their own- and showed this fine band at their bluesy best, with set closer ‘Built-In Forgetter’ also impressing.
Next up were a link to the old Monsters of Rock days in Thunder – indeed their performance opening in 1990 was a major career breakthrough. The South Londoners’ vast experience of festival appearances makes them masters of the craft, and it was almost as if they had ordained that the sun would break suddenly from behind the clouds during their set, causing a sudden passing around of sunscreen lotions.
Though they opened with their modern classic ‘Wonder Days’, most recent album ‘Rip it Up’ was totally ignored as they wisely stuck to old favourites like ‘River Of Pain’ with Danny Bowes imploring the crowd to jump up and down , ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Low Life In High Places’.
The great thing about Thunder is their rare knack of combining showmanship – Danny’s twinkly Dad charm (though a Little Mix t-shirt was perhaps taking irony too far) and Luke Morley’s classic guitar hero poses- with accomplished musicianship, topped off with Danny’s soulful but ever precise vocals. They even withstood a late line up change with Cats In Space guitarist Dean Howard seamlessly slotting in for a recuperating Ben Matthews, even though that meant all but ditching keyboards.
‘Backstreet Symphony’ was the highlight of the festival so far, the front a sea of raised hands and Luke unleashing a great solo. Even the dubious lyrical nature of ‘Devil Made Me Do it’ was accompanied by a catchy riff and ‘I Love You More Than Rock N Roll’ was not drawn out as much a usual.
Danny bantered with the crowd as to whether they remembered 1990 before they closed in customary style with a couple of classics from that era, in the emotional ballad ‘Love Walked In’ and, preceded by a lengthy intro, a joyous ‘Dirty Love’ where the crowd were bouncing as if the last 28 years hadn’t happened. Although there is much more to them than that, Thunder had again proved they are a guaranteed festival winner.
By now the front section was becoming significantly more crowded as Black Stone Cherry sandwiched the two veteran acts. Though they seem to have played nearly every year at Download, and have headlined the second stage a couple of times, for the still young Southerners this was perhaps their biggest opportunity yet.
Their stage craft and movement was as dynamic as ever though they opened with by their standards a relatively light new song in ‘Burnin’, before evergreen crowd favourites ‘Blind Man’ and ‘Rain Wizard’. Though there were surprises – a snatch of Bob Marley and an unnecessary cover of ‘Foxy Lady’, the likes of ‘Me and Mary Jane’ and ‘In My Blood’ had people signing along raucously.
‘Like I Roll‘ did exactly that, but the gig reached new heights with the one-two punch of ‘Blame it on the Boom Boom’ and ‘White Trash Millionaire’ perhaps more commercial and throwaway but two of the great participatory songs . However when they followed it with the frantic usual set closer ‘Lonely Train’ I feared they had climaxed prematurely with a third of their set still remaining
We then saw a more mature side to them beginning with ‘Bad Habit’ which like much of their latest album ‘Family Tree’ sees them moving in a more mainstream southern direction and ditching some of the bludgeoning heaviness.
Then as well as bringing on their drum roadie to play bongos, first album obscurity ‘Tired Of The Rain’ saw some classic harmony lead guitar worthy of the Allman Brothers or Wishbone Ash, with poses to match from singer Chris Robertson and his hyperactive sidekick Ben Wells. As they embrace more classic styles it’s a sound I’d like to see more of, and my jaw truly dropped when mid-song they went into ‘Rock n Roll Fantasy’ though I looked around to see most of the generally younger crowd around me reduced to mystified silence!
After ‘Cheaper To Drink Alone’ they finished again rather counter intuitively with the title track of the new album, a slow burner that only gradually revealed its charms, but with Chris producing one of his finest solos.
It was a slightly strangely paced side but one which confirmed my faith in them as standard bearers for a new breed of classic rockers and even perhaps my favourite set of the weekend. Their winter tour with Monster Truck and Cadillac Three (one of those that is always announced on Download weekend!) will be a must see.
Removing myself from the crush at the front for food and resting my 51 yea r old legs, I nevertheless regained a decent place for the headliners Guns’ N’ Roses. They were billed to do a 3 ½ hour set with a ridiculously early start time of 7.20pm, which the cynic in me wondered was a ruse to build in some slack for Axl Rose’s late arrival.
However he seems a reformed character these days, and after a video intro they hit the stage bang on time to the minute. It was a thrilling start with Duff McKagan’s thudding bass and a drum roll
From Frank Ferrer introducing ‘Its So Easy’, with Duff sharing the vocal load with Axl and the crowd chanted the ‘f— off’ line raucously. This had a great personal symmetry for me as back in 1987 it was the very first G n R song I ever heard on the Friday Rock Show, in those pre-internet days.
It was followed by another of those sleazy and aggressive ‘Appetite For Destruction’ classics in ‘Mr Brownstone’ and the title track from the ‘Chinese Democracy’ album which I totally ignored at the time but may need to revisit, with Slash delivering a fine solo, before the crowd went mad for ‘Welcome To The Jungle’. Often at a festival the noise does not travel and people are relatively less engaged the further back you get but this time it was a great communal experience.
After that first album G n R became almost schizophrenic in their musical tendencies and the live set reflected this as complex, often-piano led epics like ‘Estranged’ and the almost symphonic ‘Better’ which saw Axl duet with female second keyboardist Melissa Reece sitting alongside punkier numbers, Duff singing a Misfits cover while ‘Shadow Of Your Love’ was apparently a tune from their pre-G n R days as Hollywood Rose.
While ‘Live And Let Die’ rather paled against the version complete with pyrotechnics that Paul McCartney plays live, the Velvet Revolver song ‘Slither’ seemed to go down a storm and Slash’s ever spectacular solos enlivened what might otherwise have been ordinary material such as ‘You Could Be Mine’.
As for Axl, well his few interactions with the crowd seemed relatively affable. Some of the time he was singing in a low, almost spoken baritone a la David Bowie or Lou Reed. It was a relief during ‘Rocket Queen’ when, coming back in after a lengthy solo from Slash, the old high-pitched strangulated squawk was still in evidence, but at other times he did seem a bit short of power.
Of the epics, ‘Civil War’ was nonetheless truly excellent while ‘Coma’ was epic with some dark riffs but there were of course plenty of solo slots. However when one of Slash’s led into the opening chords of ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ my curiosity as to whether Axl could hit the notes proved irrelevant as the whole crowd took over from the first bar in a mass communal sing-along to a song that remains a classic, with the guitarist’s solo as breathtaking as ever.
Things got increasingly eclectic though and when Slash and Duff perched in front of the drum riser and Axl crooned the wonderful old classic ‘Wichita Lineman’ made famous by Glen Campbell, I mused that I’d now seen everything in my gigging life.
It led into Slash and Richard Fortus – a very capable lead guitarist in his own right who I sense would have relished more of the spotlight – duetting on the instrumental part of ‘Wish You Were Here’, followed by Axl, seated at a hilarious piano stool resembling a motorcycle and looking like Rob Halford meets Liberace, playing the piano coda to ‘Layla’ before segueing into ‘November Rain’.
That song will always epitomise the overblown nature of the ‘Use Your Illusion’ period and yet there was something thrilling about it, especially when Slash, standing above the piano kicked into his guitar solo.
We weren’t done with covers either, with a fine version of ‘Black Hole Sun’ and Slash even playing the intro to ‘Only Women Bleed’ on his 12 string before a lengthy ‘Knocking On Heavens Door’ was another big sing-along. At this point Axl reduced people to stitches when looking out onto a sky that was only gradually darkening and saying it was around the time they normally came on and could they start over. Instead they closed to a thunderous reception with another ‘Appetite’ classic in ‘Night Train’ and I found myself wishing that more of the set had rocked in such a manner.
The encores began with Axl returning to jauntily whistle the intro to ‘Patience’ before introducing what he called an ‘English folk song’, introducing Richard who could indulge some Pete Townsend fantasies on yet another cover in ‘The Seeker’.
However there was only one more riff that people were waiting for Slash to strike up and he duly obliged with ‘Paradise City’. While the place was going crazy, the sound seemed oddly muffled and for all the spectacular pyro at the end it fell just short of the massive climax I’d expected. They also called it a day early at a ‘mere’ 3 hours.
It was an ambitious and always fascinating set that did not always hit the mark, but was worth the 30 year wait. They may no longer be the most dangerous band in the world, but are surely one of the most interesting.
Sunday 10 June
If Saturday had been spent catching up with legends a rather more laid back Sunday schedule allowed me to catch a variety of rising bands, helped by Download’s multi stage layout. The main stage was somewhat less packed than the previous night but a healthy crowd were in attendance for an 11am start with Inglorious.
The standard bearers of what some have termed the New Wave of Classic Rock have a sound designed to appeal to my generation and it was notable that a name check for Planet Rock drew one of the biggest cheers of their set, second only to singer Nathan James’ dig at Gene Simmons.
On paper Inglorious have it all with a leonine frontman with a voice somewhere between Dio and prime-time Coverdale, good stage presence and a thunderous, not to say hairy, rhythm section in Phil Beaver and Colin Parkinson. However the likes of openers ‘Read All About It’ and ‘Taking The Blame’ as well as ‘I Got A Feeling’ are rather pedestrian in the songwriting department.
On a brighter note the slow brooding ‘High Flying Gypsy’ could have come off one of the early Rainbow albums, not least with a very Blackmore-esque solo from Andreas Eriksson and ‘I Don’t Need Your Lovin’ had a great groove to it with plenty picking up on the chorus.
Somehow squeezing eight songs into one of Download’s notoriously miserly set times, the set ended very much on a high with the rapid fire ‘The Warning’, their slow burning epic ‘Holy Water’ with successive solos from Drew Lowe and Andreas, and the huge riffing of ‘Till I Die’.
If the latter song had a distinct Led Zeppelin influence, that was nothing compared to what Greta Van Fleet were about to cook up on the Zippo Encore stage. An excitable buzz has been growing almost daily about this young Michigan quartet and the crowd was far higher than I’d previously experienced on this second stage so early in the day.
The Zeppelin pastiche was remarkable – as they opened with ‘Highway Tune’ I was struck musically that how Zep ish they were right down to details like the rhythms and space between the grooves, far more than supposed former imitators like Kingdom Come. Combined with the period fashions, I imagined it was like stepping back into a 1969 timewarp.
Guitarist Jake Kiszka even had a similar Les Paul and jacket over bare chest to Jimmy Page, though brother and singer Josh may have sounded like Robert Plant but, slightly built with tight curls framing a slender face, he looked more like a lost altar boy than a priapic rock God.
During ‘Edge Of Darkness’ Jake went on a lengthy instrumental excursion, culminating in his playing behind his back, leading me to turn to my friends and say ‘and they say guitar solos are dead’. ‘Black Smoke Rising’ and ‘Safari Song’ also had an impressive groove, though to only hear four songs in a short set with the latter culminating in a drum solo did show a degree of self indulgence, which could even be described as Zeppelin esque.
After a quick food and drink break – where a rotisserie chicken was proof that festival catering is much improved since 1988 – I headed to the Dogtooth tent to catch a trio of acts all of more mature years, but forging ahead making new music. First up were No Hot Ashes, the Northern Irishmen who as the one AOR band of the weekend were at the far end of Download’s broad church of rock and metal.
With a well-received album finally released, after some band tragedy they are moving forward again and Eamon Nancarrow affably led them through a five song set reminiscent of Shy – notably on opener ‘I’m Back’ – and FM.
‘Come Alive’, ‘Over Again’, in particular, and ‘Glow’ were all great pieces of Brit AOR, melodic and hooky but with some excellent lead guitar work from Davy Irvine and Niall Diver ensuring the music never tipped over into pink and fluffy. The fun ‘Johnny Redhead’ with the band pulling some great poses closed a set that I hope won many new friends.
Next up was Myke Gray with only his second ever solo gig, though having seen the first- a marathon hour and three quarter warm up in London the previous Wednesday- I knew more what to expect. On that occasion the guitarist began with several songs from his near instrumental ‘Shades Of Grey’ album before dipping into his Jagged Edge, Skin and Red White and Blues past.
However for a 25 minute festival set he wisely focused solely on the latter, that people would know. He seemed delighted to be on stage and his playing exemplary, leading me to think he has been unfairly underrated as a guitar hero during his chequered, stop-start musical career. Plus, as someone weaned on the likes of Michael Schenker, Andy Powell and Randy Rhoads, the sight of an axeman burning up the fretboard of a flying V always excites me.
After opening with a real blast from the past in Jagged Edge’s ‘Trouble’, he delighted the tent with old Skin favourites in ‘House of Love’ and ‘Take Me Down To The River’. The choice of songs also played to the bluesy, raspy strengths of excellent frontman Phil Conalane, on loan from Black Water Conspiracy and an inevitable ‘Look But Don’t Touch’ saw most of the tent joining in to rock out as Myke was turning circles of delight.
A bludgeoning but tight sound was also created by drummer Matt Blakout, his former Red White and Blues colleague Adam Wardle on second guitar and bassist Wayne Banks and it was appropriate that the latter- whose bare chest and machine gunning style called to mind Nibbs Carter, for whom he has deputised in Saxon- got his moment in the spotlight with a bass intro to one final Skin song in ‘Shine Your Light’.
Having dipped his toe back into live music after a few years away, I hope the reaction further encouraged Myke to push forward with this excellent band.
Skin’s big break in the early nineties came when they toured with Little Angels so it was appropriate that Wayward Sons followed, the latest band project of their mainman Toby Jepson who must keep an ageing portrait in his attic. They’d been receiving rave reviews though I was giving them another chance having been rather underwhelmed when they supported UFO last autumn.
They are significantly heavier than the ‘Angels’ with both Toby and smiling guitarist Sam Wood creating a thick wall of sound, not to mention pulling some great poses, while the hyperactive constant movement of bassist Nic Wastell was initially distracting, and it was only by the end of second song ‘Ghost Of Yet to Come’ that I really warmed to them.
‘Don’t Wanna Go’ had a real AC/DC groove on its ‘to be a rock n roller’ refrain, and ‘Crush’ was the more commercial and also one of the few where the keyboard player did not feel totally redundant. ‘Small Talk’ was perhaps the closest in writing style to Little Angels and ‘Sticking It Out To The End’ a great closer with a fine chorus and a riff that lodged in your head. The weight of people leaving the tent was testament to the buzz that is growing around them.
Finally for me it was a return to a main stage that, unusually for Download, was baked in sun for Shinedown. The southerners started in uncompromising style with ‘Sound Of Madness’ which more usually closes the set, followed by other heavier songs in ‘Bully’ and ‘Cut The Cord’.
Singer Brent Smith came over as a cross between an army PT instructor and an eager holiday camp host with his usual shtick, marshalling participation and getting us all to introduce ourselves to our neighbours.
Since their first two albums (ignored in this set) Shinedown have become significantly less guitar orientated and new song ‘Kill Your Conscience’ with almost rap like singing and the admittedly catchy ‘State Of My Head’ had few guitars.
Another new song ‘Human Radio’ impressed the longer it went on, but controversially in a genre that has always seen live playing as sacrosanct – taped sounds unashamedly augment the on stage musicians, who included a mulleted deputy for usual guitarist Zach Myers.
What cannot be denied is that they are a great communal live act- ‘Unity’s chorus of ‘put your hands in the air’ had people doing that as far as the eye could see, and Brent went deep into the crowd as far as the control tower before instigating a mass bout of jumping up and down to ‘Enemy’.
‘Second Chance’, which a decade ago was one of the very last rock songs to be a mainstream hit in the USA, remains a huge ballad that can carry the largest arena such as this, but they retained rock credibility with the insanely catchy ‘Diamond Eyes’ and closer ‘Devil’ with its ‘its about to get heavy’ chorus. While not to everyone’s taste, they are a charismatic live act and it is easy to see why they have headline status in the USA.
They were also my last act of the weekend as I rejected the opportunity to see Ozzy Osbourne in a fourth separate decade, deciding it was not worth an extra night’s stay and day off work for his same old shtick of throwing buckets of water and repeating ‘lets go crazy’, added to which Zakk Wylde, never my favourite of his guitarists, was back in the band.
Perhaps I had been too harsh as I heard later from friends that his hit-packed set was universally well received and the perfect end to one of the best Download weekends.
Despite the six figure attendance you will have heard little about Download in the media. The BBC was not broadcasting wall to wall coverage, newspapers failed to send style editors to report on festival fashion and no politician was drawing the adulation of hearing their name chanted to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’.
While many speculated who will headline when the big hitters like G’n’R and Ozzy are no longer touring, the sheer size of the crowd, the camaraderie and the brand loyalty it generates suggests Download is here for the long haul in the face of being ignored by the mainstream, and that is how those present like it.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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