The fact that Download ranks alongside the very largest of all the UK festivals is tribute to the enduring, if underground, popularity of metal and heavy rock in all its forms. However in some quarters it gets a bad rap, in particular the notorious mud leading to ‘Drownload’ banner headlines. However for an astonishing variety of bands in addition to the biggest acts in the genre, it is the only place to be, in the UK at least.
This year the weather jinx struck yet again with torrential rain in the days before the festival and showers during it, leading to highly publicised stories of people evacuating the site before the festival had even started. However it seemed as packed as ever, even though I heard accounts of a myriad of other troubles from long delays to get in to queues for the bar.
I am sure conditions were worse in the campsites, but as a day tripper, I escaped lightly and though there was plenty of mud, the main areas in front of the stages had straw put down and were perfectly safe.
DAY 1 (14 June) – Def Leppard, Slash, Whitesnake, Delain
Friday was the main day for someone of my more classic and commercial tastes, but my own festival did not go to plan with my partner rushed to hospital the night before, meaning that on my planned schedule I missed out on Goodbye June, Tesla and Blackberry Smoke. Together with Vega, one of my favourites but sandwiched in a tight gap in the schedule at the top of the hill from the main stage, my apologies to those bands or any of their fans hoping to read how they performed.
First step when visiting hours ended and I finally arrived was the Zippo Encore stage to see Dutch symphonic metallers Delain, who somehow I have never caught in over a decade of touring, though as is traditional on a Download weekend, their tour for 2020 was also announced and splashed on posters on the site.
Dressed in colour co-ordinated red and black, they came over as fairly traditional symphonic metal until they then took a slightly out of the ordinary twist when both ‘Don’t Let Go’, with singer Charlotte Wessels leading crowd participation, and ‘We Are The Others’ both had an almost danceable Euro pop influence to them.
I left the second stage just as Geezer Butler was pounding out one of the all-time great bass riffs to ‘Symptom Of The Universe’ as new supergroup Deadland Ritual opened. However, for the rest of the day it was as far down the front of the main stage as I could get for three legendary bands, beginning with Whitesnake. In time-honoured fashion, after the ‘My Generation’ intro, David Coverdale thrust his mike stand upwards and shouted both ‘are you ready’ and ‘ere’s a song for you’, as the band cranked out the riff to ‘Bad Boys’ in thrilling fashion, with solos from both guitarists, cowboy-hatted Reb Beach and extrovert latest recruit Joel Hoekstra.
Any review of present day Snake comes with a big health warning which divides opinion. Over exertion turned David’s once bluesy and richly soulful voice into a screechy croak many years ago. On the other hand, the band has been drilled to provide vocal support to minimise the effect. On ‘Slide It In’ among others, I noticed how they, bassist Michael Devin in particular, were providing support on the verses, not only in the more usual places like choruses.
Moreover he can still carry off the archetypal rock star look with charisma and indeed was in great physical shape, prowling the extended stage platform and even going down the dividing line separating the two halves of the front section during ‘Love Ain’t No Stranger’.
New album ‘Flesh And Blood’ was showcased with some pride, with no less than four new songs, of which ‘Hey You (You Make Me Rock)’ was easily the pick – the Bon Jovi-ish chant one that people readily picked up on, before it segued into ‘Slow an Easy’, minus its old intro, which got the best reception of the set yet.
I wasn’t so convinced by ‘Trouble Is Your Middle Name’ and ‘Shut Up And Kiss Me’, though DC seemed to be having great fun. However, we had already had a guitar solo break when the least impressive of the new songs, ‘Get Up’ led into ferocious drum and then percussion solos from the seemingly ageless Tommy Aldridge. I feared the Swiss timing that Download operates was running out and they would lose the race to play all the hits still to come in the set.
Fortunately, with David saying ‘I can feel romance in the air’, even the odd croaky line could not spoil a superb ‘Is This Love’ including a twin guitar solo, and with barely a pause for breath they rattled through a closing trio – ‘Give Me All Your Love Tonight’ had people bouncing at the front, ‘Here I Go Again’ resulted in mass participation and the riffs of ‘Still Of The Night’ were simply mighty as the song thundered to a climax, prior to calling a full house on Coverdale bingo as he signed off with a taped snatch of ‘We Wish You Well’ and his ‘don’t let anyone ever make you afraid’ shtick.
This had been the full on, americanised Whitesnake experience and any trace of the yeoman blues rockers that had headlined the place in 1983 had been completely expunged. Subtlety was not the band’s middle name, and despite – or because of?- that they put on a great show full of movement with Joel in particular pulling some great poses.
Indeed it was a headline-worthy performance for a band only third on the bill. The only question was when is a headline tour to promote the album going to be announced, hopefully with a few of the older and bluesier songs?
This time last year Slash was headlining the festival as part of Guns’n’ Roses but now was second on the bill in his own right, back with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators (or ‘Slash and Friends’ as the spatially challenged line-up posters had it!) This was an ideal opportunity for me to see them touring their latest ‘Living The Dream’ album as the London show at Hammersmith had (over) sold out in no time.
‘The Call Of The Wild’ wasn’t the most exciting opener but the fast-paced ‘Halo’ was an improvement and ‘Standing In The Sun’ featured a clap along during the faster close to the song. With four albums since the start of the decade, older songs like ‘Back From Cali’ and ‘Dr Alibi’, sung by bassist Todd Kerns and dedicated to its original singer Lemmy are now firm favourites. I admit to being not overly familiar with the new material but too much of it was ordinary other than the anthemic ‘Driving Rain’ and to an extent the rapid-fire ‘Mind Your Manners’.
Despite being one of the true guitar legends, with the iconic image of top hat and Les Paul tilted at an angle, Slash prefers to stay somewhat in the shadow, not addressing the crowd. Myles is an almost unrivalled singer but is naturally quite reserved, and the combined effect was that they suffered somewhat between the showmanship of Whitesnake and the slick visual stageshow of Def Leppard, even if they arguably had more musical substance than either.
With the set in danger of tailing off, things looked up with ‘You’re A Lie’ while ‘Nighttrain’, which now need only be a token GnR song in a set that used to be full of them, went down well and Slash was let off the leash with an extended solo.
His crowning glory though was ‘Anastasia’ as he began with some delicate opening arpeggios which he repeated at greater speed and volume as the song wore on, all complementing Myles’ anguished voice. ‘World On Fire’ was extended to include an audience singalong as one of the solo anthems that has stuck, completing a very worthy but unspectacular set.
Despite the huge crowd I was able to stay fairly near the front for Def Leppard, yet in a relatively civilised and comfortable atmosphere, thankfully devoid of the circle pit that some young idiots decided to form nearby when they should have been paying attention to Slash’s set.
This was Sheffield’s finest’s fourth appearance at Donington and their third as a headliner in the past decade. On this occasion it was also a final UK bow for the ‘Hysteria’ show that toured at the end of last year. Having caught both London gigs, not only the setlist, but the show itself, lacked the element of surprise – other than a few graphics which I didn’t recall from the first time but I am sure were the same.
After a timed countdown on the stage, and rock classics culminating in their recent cover of ‘Personal Jesus’, they came on to play that ground breaking album in its entirety, opening with ‘Women’ with solos for both Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell, then ‘Rocket’ with the first of the well chosen graphics on the giant screen.
Joe Elliott, sporting that iconic t-shirt of Her Majesty with a Bowie-esque stripe, seemed on fresh vocal form throughout, though occasionally and inevitably in such a place there was the odd sound problem with the harmonies not sounding as rounded as normal on a couple of occasions.
The unusual thing about playing a classic album in order is that the usual sequencing of saving crowd favourites to last can be inverted. In this case it helped build the atmosphere swiftly to the boil with a trio of the big hits which delighted most fans (me less so) in ‘Animal’, ‘Love Bites’ and most of all ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’.
Chat was kept to a minimum, save for Joe making a few introductory remarks and joking they had stolen Vivian from Last In Line who had opened the day on the main stage, as the Irishman was ushered forward to play the opening riff to ’Armageddon It’. A touching photo of Steve Clark and vintage video excerpt led into the second side, as it were, which I preferred, being the opportunity to hear some of the less obvious songs.
At the end of ‘Gods Of War’ those sound effects were thudding deep into my body, ‘Don’t Shoot Shotgun’ would for me have been en equally good singles choice; then on ‘Run Riot’, a hark back to the earlier and more aggressive Leppard many of us still prefer, saw Phil doing exactly that on guitar.
The more casual fan was back on side for a very poignant ‘Hysteria’ with a montage of the band in younger days and a few bars of ‘Heroes’ at the end, and though ‘Excitable’ failed Download’s environmental promise that nothing was disposable, a rare chance to hear the semi ballad ‘Love And Affection’ closed the book on ‘Hysteria’ one more time.
The second part of the set – or a 40 minute encore, depending how you look at – opened with ‘Lets Go’ which I found a very unconvincing retread of past glories. However it was noticeable that, whereas the ‘Hysteria’ set had been very much a set piece, designed to showcase a lasting legacy, this part of the set was much looser and more relaxed, as Joe got participation going, and the same feeling persisted during ‘Let It Go’ where it was nice to be reminded of Leppard’s harder rocking roots.
Joe invited people to sing along to one they might remember in ‘When Love and Hate Collide’ but a greater response was reserved for ‘Lets Get Rocked’. However the best was saved to last – reminding us with some poignancy that it was at Donington 1986 that Rick Allen first made his comeback from his dreadful accident, Joe introduced the drummer for his customary introduction to ‘Rock Of Ages’.
Phil in particular was rocking out, and during ‘Photograph’ there were big, energised smiles from both band and fans, Viv and Phil going down the walkway together and the latter producing a superb closing solo.
As Joe closed with his usual ‘don’t forget us..we won’t forget you’ shtick, my concluding thoughts were that Def Leppard remain masters of the immaculately choreographed show and unlike contemporaries Bon Jovi, have retained just enough of a rock edge for Download to continue to successfully book them as one of the select group of headline worthy acts.
DAY 2 (15 June) – Halestorm, Stone Temple Pilots, Three Days Grace, Brothers Osborne, Epica
Sunday at Download boasted heavy hitters in a variety of fields, from the alternative sounds of main headliners Tool and Smashing Pumpkins to a pair of thrash’s ‘big four’ in Anthrax and Slayer’s supposedly final UK show. However none of it appealed to my own musical tastes, so Saturday was to be my second and last day at the festival.
I steered well clear of the main stage where Slipknot were headlining, and conserved walking through mud by spending the whole day at the Zippo Encore stage, the second largest and with a capacity of a medium-sized festival by itself. I’d learned from previous visits that the vantage point from the left of that stage is one of the best at Download.
After another hospital trip I arrived in time to catch the last few songs of Epica. While their fellow Dutchmen Delain the day before had offered a little variation on the theme, they were symphonic metallers straight from central casting – a great show with plenty of pyro, and the classic ‘beauty and the beast’ contrast between the operatic vocals of Simone Simons, clad in a spangly gold dress, and the growling delivered by guitarist Mark Jansen. The other entertainment was the keyboard of Coen Janssen, which span from one side of the drum riser to another like a radio controlled hostess trolley.
I said at the start that Download is a broad church and the net was stretched to its limits to encompass Brothers Osborne. I knew this would be different when a banjo was among the instruments being prepared, and was curious to see them as they have built a reputation as the latest in a long line of interesting southern bands.
Like Download regulars Blackberry Smoke and the Cadillac 3, they mix rock with other southern influences, though perhaps with an even stronger emphasis on country, as evidenced by the fact that singer TJ Osborne seemed surprised at a good reception from an admittedly smaller crowd and sheepishly said ‘this is what we do’.
However as well as leaning towards the darker outlaw country style made popular on both sides of the Atlantic by the likes of Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, the lead guitar work on the likes of ‘Shoot Me Straight’ of the other brother, cowboy hatted John, was steeped in rock influences.
TJ’s heavily accented deep baritone lent character to the likes of opener ‘Drank Like Hank’ and ‘Shoot From The Hip’. The one out and out country song ‘Weed, Whiskey and Willie’ was very enjoyable with the second guitarist playing lap steel, while ‘It Ain’t My Fault’ was a rabble rouser that I and others picked up on the chorus.
However it turned into a jam with the keyboard player switching from synthesiser to piano and back again, then a guitar solo, and all in all the song took up the last 15 minutes of a 40 minute set which was frustrating, albeit a trait that many of these southern bands share.
I struggled to regain a good spot having underestimated the appeal to UK fans of Three Days Grace. I saw the Toronto band at a festival in the USA in 2012 and remember them being too brutal for me. I am not sure whether new singer Matt Walst – who I saw here many years ago with My Darkest Days – has since made a difference but, sporting an asymmetric haircut, he was certainly a lively and charismatic frontman, expert at marshalling the crowd.
Openers ‘Mountain’ and ‘Home’, and ‘The Good Life’ in particular, managed to be both heavy and hooky throughout, reminding me of latter day Shinedown and Pop Evil, though guitar solos were all but absent.
‘I Hate Everything About You’ and ‘Never Too Late’ were semi ballads of the type bands of their post-grunge ilk excel at, while during ‘Animal I Have Become’ Matt’s bass playing brother Brad began beating out the riff to ‘Seven Nation Army’ – though unlike at a certain other major festival, the crowd did not burst into an ‘oh Jeremy Corbyn’. A short but sweet set ended with ‘Riot’ with the hyperactive Matt diving into the crowd and acting out the ‘Lets Start A Riot’ lyric, judging from the circle pit action I could see on the video screen.
I wouldn’t have given Three Days Grace a second thought yet they were one of the revelations of the festival. Could the same be true of Stone Temple Pilots? Full disclosure – I detested grunge with every bone of my body, though in hindsight less on purely musical grounds, and more for the symbolic fact it was driving the music I loved underground, rendering my musical tastes irrelevant and leaving me feeling old in my mid-twenties.
However, rather than sulk in the press or beer tent waiting for Halestorm, I thought such a multimillion selling band deserved a fair hearing and I found myself pleasantly surprised. If anything the music was too bland, with brothers Dean and Robert DeLeo locked into an understated groove, though ‘Big Bang Baby’ was an enjoyable tune.
The big difference for me was new singer Jeff Gutt, in his Billy Idol crop, who bizarrely was a former X Factor USA contestant (imagine that happening in the anti-rock culture of the UK’s media industries!) Energetic and with a good voice, he did not come over as edgy or as troubled as the late Scott Weiland but had mainstream appeal, even if he did over use the word ‘badass’!
Their big hit ‘Plush’ was given a fresh treatment as the way it built from a stripped down intro only enhanced the crowd participation, even if it still sounds like Pearl Jam-lite, followed by more big favourites in ‘Interstate Love Song’ and ‘Dead And Bloated’ with its refrain of ‘I am smelling like the rose’. However it was a token new song in ‘Roll Me Under’ (one of the few where the song title could be gleaned from the lyrics!) that made me think I might even quite like STP.
As Jeff introduced the last song, a fan behind me said ‘they’d better play ‘Sex Type Thing’ and memories came back of when it was a staple in Velvet Revolver’s set, ending a set that the fans loved and which came as a pleasant surprise for this non-fan.
That left Halestorm as second stage headliners, my good vantage point compensating for last year’s show where we arrived too late at a Brixton Academy packed to the gills. With their upcoming tour graduating to their largest venues yet, here was a chance to see how a band who had progressed up the stages and bills in nearly a decade of regular Download appearances could shape up as an arena band, just as Black Stone Cherry have.
Lzzy Hale has certainly blossomed into a charismatic figure who owns the stage and is entirely comfortable in her own skin, right down to some very un rock n roll trousers that flared from the knee downwards and platform boots.
Opener ‘Do Not Disturb’ was an interesting choice, being too staccato to be a conventional opener, before another song from last album ‘Vicious’ in ‘Uncomfortable’ with a riff that owed much to Queen’s ‘Stone Cold Crazy’.
Lzzy stated her pride in being one of the (still too few) women on the festival stages, introducing ‘Ms Hyde’, which unlike their later work combined heaviness with big hooks that had people bouncing and punching the air, while the semi-ballad ‘I Am The Fire’ had an anthemic quality.
They even played a brand new song ‘Chemicals’, taking a stage further the darker new sound from the most recent album, also shown to good effect on ‘Skulls’ and ‘Killing Yourself To Live’, though ‘The Silence’ was entirely different, raw stripped down emotion delivered just by Lzzy and Joe Hottinger on acoustic guitar.
The latter was a revelation: I always remember him, and bassist Josh Smith as rather faceless figures in Lzzy’s shadows , but the growth in his hair seems to have had a Samson-like effect as he was far more animated and extrovert and shared the spotlight with Lzzy, to the benefit of their stage show. Indeed a highlight of the show was how ‘Amen’, made for crowd participation, then developed into an epic guitar battle between the pair.
Lzzy’s brother Arejay, sporting a homemade tribute to Keith Flint, was as crazy as ever and while his drum solo with giant sticks the size of a baseball bat has become old hat, it never fails to raise a chuckle and very nicely led into ‘Freak Like Me’ as the set ended with a series of crowd pleasers including ‘I Get Off’ from the very first album, making a welcome return to the set, then Lzzy welcomed on stage for ‘Love Bites (So Do I)’ a young Japanese singer Asami who named her band after the song.
Lzzy then let out a huge scream which led me to fear for her welfare, but it led into perhaps the best of all the classics on their ‘Strange Case…’ album in ‘I Miss The Misery’. The band then extended it into a lengthy jam as she and Joe again traded riffs and solos- though with the clock running out it also meant no time for traditional closer ‘Here’s To Us’.
From their early days as something of a family cottage industry it has been great to see Halestorm’s gradual progression as a band, and this stage show was a quantum leap forward, which is just as well as Download needs newer acts to step up to be tomorrow’s festival marquee names. Rainstorms may have been the talking point for much of the week, but the Saturday night belonged to Halestorm.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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