Another Cold January and another Giants Of Rock. Enough to warm the cockles following a respectable respite after Christmas and New Year.
This was our fourth Giants, although intrepid GRTR! reviewers have reported since the festival’s inception in 2014. After a couple of these events, there is an increasing sense of familiarity, with the venue, the excellent accommodation and fine dining, and – it seems – the roster of artists.
Giants spotters will have noted that this year saw the return of Deborah Bonham – for the fifth time in six years – and as in 2015 was pitched directly against Bernie Marsden (2 previous visits).
Oliver Dawson Saxon returned for their fourth year almost in succession. In fairness they were drafted in fairly late in the day for an absent Procol Harum. This meant that there were no really big hitters on the opening day. Scottish rockers Gun were also conspicuous by their absence.
Inevitably, as time goes on, there will be an element of repetition especially at a festival where the target demographic is as old as most of the bands. But this year’s event was almost a re-run of 2014 with the likes of Big Country, Hawkwind and Stray all present and correct. Oh, and Deborah Bonham!
There’s also some repetition between the two big Butlins events in January with the Skegness event weighted more towards the blues. Whilst we are sure that some Giants punters like a bit of Louisiana with their Lasagne we think the likes of Rob Tognoni (also appeared in 2019), Band Of Friends and even Malone Sibun should have been deported to Skegness and more rock-orientated acts drafted in to Minehead.
But these are the words of hardened, wizened and weathered Giants of Rockers. Nothing’s perfect, and taken as a whole, the event ticks the boxes. As Pete Feenstra wrote about the inaugural event in 2014 “Floods, rain, rock music, more rain, howling wind, storms, seagulls, climactic guitar solos, wigs, trannies, vestal virgins, tarts, vicars, hot dogs, oceans of beer and more rain. It could only be Butlins Giants of Rock!” We have to be honest: we didn’t see any vicars this year and, in spite of best efforts, no tarts.
Day 1 (Friday)
Four o’clock in the afternoon was an early start for most punters many of whom were still checking in. But those who caught Matt Mitchell on the opening stage were rewarded with an excellent set. A spirited version of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Rocker’ was perhaps unnecessary given the strength of the current album.
We’ve reviewed both Verity White albums and have been underwhelmed. There’s no denying her energy but the material is lacklustre. It seems an overly confident vanity project for her self-adulating partner, guitarist Alex White.
Normal service was resumed with some Italian exotica in the shape of Eliana Cargnelutti. She came over more rocky than on album, easy on the eye, with a great groove to her playing and deserving of a return visit.
The inclusion of Chilean hard rocker Miguel Montoblan on the main stage is another of the more bizarre bits of this year’s programming. Giants of Rock? Another “YouTube sensation” he has also been spotted busking in London.
Moving from the introducing stage, Arthur Brown was about to deliver a masterclass in performance and presentation. The God of Hellfire may be the proverbial “one hit wonder” but he’s made a career out of it for more than fifty years.
With gimp masks, assorted weird headgear and excellent back projection this was a lesson in psychedelic individuality, ingenuity, and madness. A Giant indeed even if, in our more PC and health and safety conscious era, it’s no longer optional to risk setting fire to Butlins Big Top with his incendiary old school pyrotechnics.
Oliver Dawson Saxon were beamed in as a late replacement for Procol Harum whose leader had apparently broken several ribs and was told to rest for a month. They were definitely constrained by last year’s smaller venue (Reds), so their transfer back to the main stage was welcome.
The setlist is of course second to none and whilst the band may never dig deep into the early back catalogue it’s a lively and entertaining way to spend an hour. Brian Shaughnessy in particular is a commanding frontman with sometimes hilarious banter between songs whilst Sam Coulson (Asia) did most of the heavy lifting on guitar.
John Verity had one of the most impressive merch stalls reflecting some prodigious solo output in recent years, a real cottage industry, and ideal if you are a fan. With the redoubtable Roger Inniss at his side, he played a mix of originals (a particularly good new song ‘Higher’ from the forthcoming album ‘Passion’) and covers including a convincing version of ‘Cocaine’.
Rounding off Day 1, one time Survivor vocalist Dave Bickler. A cracking version of ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ somewhat overshadowed the rest of the setlist, good as it was. His own recent material – including ‘Hope’ and ‘Always You’ – is particularly impressive and his more melodic brand of rock refreshing after an overload of heavy rock and blues. The pickup band too impressed, including that inveterate moonlighter Jim Kirkpatrick, one of two guitarists.
Day 2 (Saturday)
Hollowstar confidently commanded the main stage, following their success on the Introducing stage last year. Now, with an early EP, several singles and a debut album, the band’s confidence has grown since their formation in 2015 and there is enough good stuff in the mix to be memorable.
Songs such as ‘Lay Down’, ‘All I Gotta Say’ and ‘Feel The Burn’ displayed their southern rock-tinged hard rocking credentials but judging by his banter vocalist/bassist Joe Bonson is still fighting his own demons. He did emerge as a friendly and engaging frontman that can only help the band in their onward progress.
The “worrying” blues rock trend continued with Rob Tognoni followed by Band Of Friends. Anyone schooled by Rory Gallagher is going to be worthy of attention and Gerry McAvoy and Brendan O’Neill keep the flame burning. Still relevant, especially after the release last year of the Blues anthology, although mixing in their own material.
Like Arthur Brown, Del Bromham is a veteran of rock with Stray’s debut album released in 1970. But unlike the God of Hellfire, Bromham has been prolific in recording terms either with Stray or solo. This was another masterclass of both showmanship and guitaring.
Loz Campbell – vying for recognition on the introducing stage – was somewhat unnerving. She looked like a sixth former who had decided to go out for the night with a guitar. Whilst she may have fuelled a few fantasies the music was distinctly average and evidently more suited to a far younger audience.
Voodoo Vegas failed to turn up at their allotted time due to a van breakdown. A more relaxed evening meal appealed to us more than a minimum 20 minute wait. Surely, for such a significant gig from a band worthy of attention (that may have led at least to a bigger stage), they might have considered setting out the night before?
Another scheduling clash pitched Deborah Bonham on centre stage against Bernie Marsden in the smaller Reds. The crowd voted with their feet and headed to Reds.
Deborah Bonham is a fine vocalist and proper nice lady but the set never caught fire, save perhaps for her wonderful rendition of ‘Painbirds’ a song she can call her own. A new album is on the way so here’s hoping this provides the necessary refreshment.
The affable Bernie Marsden, on the other hand, was one of the weekend’s highlights and a rammed and roasting Reds may have agreed. Billed as a heritage show, the set trawled his blues roots but then notched up a gear with a superb reinterpretation of ‘Oh Well’ before the inevitable ‘Here I Go I Again’ but this may have even been exceeded by his take on ‘Is This Love?’.
Bernie was heard to say “I don’t know why I play this, but I do because it’s a great song’ and proceeded to give it a more ‘late night’ bluesy feel with a wonderfully robust playout.
He was aided by two excellent female backing vocalists and Hammond ace Bob Fridzema. It was another effortless masterclass, and – yes – what a wonderful guitar tone.
It took the various stage backdrops (depicting former album sleeves) to remind us that Hawkwind were once a great band!
There were times in the overly long one and half hour set (how was it Hawkwind were the only band to get this special ‘treatment’?), that the somewhat shambolic delivery reminded more of punk’s ambivalence than respecting a legacy. Dave Brock pottered about tending his laptop which seemed to be substituting the unused on-stage keyboard for sonic “textures”. Maybe he was also making a few last minute tweaks to his online tax return.
‘Classic’ pieces like ‘Born To Go’ (a signal for some audience members to do just that, and for one poor woman to insert her fingers in her ears) and ‘Master Of The Universe’ were bastardised imitations of an illustrious past. And this comes from guys who queued several times in the early seventies for eight hours at Liverpool Stadium not least to secure a good spec in front of Stacia.
After the craft and artistry of Bernie Marsden, for the most part this was sadly just ‘noise’ and a rather unwelcome sonic assault. Even ‘Silver Machine’ failed to really hit the mark, and without the heritage badging, it’s questionable whether this band would have been voted back next year if they’d appeared incognito on the ‘Introducing’ stage. The only respite may have been a power cut, like in the early seventies.
Inevitably at a rock festival, and with limited time, you are going to get a “greatest hits”. This is particularly frustrating when a band has a strong current album. Diamond Head chose to go back in time and as far as we are aware nothing was played off ‘The Coffin Train’. Of course they rallied with ‘I Am Evil’.
A similar story might describe the Quireboys set. ‘Amazing Disgrace’ has been a best seller but little was featured and the band fell back on former glories. With ‘Mona Lisa Smiled’ sounding like a rearranged ‘Maggie May’ the band do continue the Stewart/Faces tradition although recent albums have shown they can deviate from the essentially rock and roll template. There is no doubt, though, that in Spike they have a very fine frontman.
Quireboys may have been more suited to closing the main stage but it was Pat McManus who had this honour. McManus will be remembered as one of Mama’s Boys, or perhaps with his brother John in the very fine Celtic fusion band Celtus. The Irish heritage is never far away with McManus bringing both his violin and a violin technique to his guitar. He closed with a tribute to fellow countryman Gary Moore.
Day 3 (Sunday)
Opening on the main stage at midday on Sunday were Scottish hopefuls Anchor Lane evidently buoyed up by the imminent release of their debut album. ‘Casino’ was understandably heavily featured.
What is it with young bands? It seems that every aspiring Soundgarden seem to think you can throw together some songs, hire a top notch PR person and hope social media takes care of the rest. It doesn’t work like that longer term. The problem with Anchor Lane is that – at the moment – there’s no USP. The songs are solid but unoriginal, there is no virtuoso player, only youthful vigour and misplaced aspiration.
Of course if they can stay together Anchor Lane will mature and new music has to come from somewhere to feed the next generation, poor buggers. But compare and contrast to another young band of the weekend – Hollowstar – and the quality gap was obvious.
Malone Sibun‘s debut album has been extensively trailed during 2019 on the Pete Feenstra Rock & Blues Show (Get Ready to ROCK! Radio) and was featured here extensively. Both Innes Sibun and Marcus Malone have a blues background but this new arrangement sees them rock it up a little. Hopefully the duo will expand this format as the album indicates some potential with songs like ‘Come Together’ and radio-friendly ‘I Want You Back’ amongst the standouts.
Penultimate performers on the centre stage Rock Goddess, making a resurgence with their new album ‘This Time’, delivered an upbeat set from across their catalogue. Although grungy at times, there was a celebratory feel to the material, and there was a real sense that here was a band who could, perhaps, transcend the generations. A rare feat indeed, if achieved. But if the reception to their closing classic ‘Heavy Metal Rock and Roll’ is anything to go by, there’s a genuine space in the market for a band who could take up The Runaways baton.
It might be argued that Big Country are more pop rock than rock, although they attracted an enthusiastic gathering in centre stage. We have to admit their brand of “anthemic” Celtic fused pop/rock largely passed us by back in the day but their performance tonight kept tiring punters on their feet and engaged.
In Reds stage, Praying Mantis were, like contemporaries Rock Goddess, grateful for their continued existence after 40-plus years. They rewarded a healthy crowd with a trawl through several key albums unusually finishing with a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover ‘Simple Man’.
It has to be said that this seemed more suited – image wise – to singer John Cuijpers but normal service was quickly resumed with their anthem ‘Children Of The Earth’. Tino Troy then made his way glad-handing the crowd, a fitting end to a weekend of (mostly) rock.
With our obvious gripes about scheduling, stage allocations, and dubious artists masquerading as “Giants”, the other main whinge this year would have to be the strong infiltration of artists with a large measure of blues in the mix at a rock gig. We calculate at least 30 per cent. And bearing in mind the sister January event in Skegness is heavily weighted to the blues.
Add in a disproportionate amount of exposure for the horrendous Hawkwind and the disappointment of cancellations, maybe its time for the promoters to go back to the drawing board.
But with Wishbone Ash and Walter Trout already announced for 2021 and many a punter signing up this weekend for the early discounts it will clearly be business as usual.
Review by David Randall and Pete Whalley
Photos by David Randall
Great British Rock & Blues (17-20 January, Skegness)
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 2 August 2020.
UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 4 August 2020.
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