Oh, how we have missed rock festivals during the pandemic. 2020 proved to be a write-off as Coronavirus proved more stubborn than originally imagined, and with depressing predictability, as spring turned into summer most organisers gave up the unequal struggle and sat out 2021 and rolled forward their events to 2022.
Fortunately the scene has slowly kicked back into action: LoveRocks kicked things off, Steelhouse up the mountain in Wales was many people’s first post-lockdown event and Bloodstock went ahead on this weekend. But my first festival of 2021 was a trip to the South Coast for the second edition of Nozfest.
The festival was originally organised by local promoter and blogger Jodie Bowie (Jodie Harris) as a way of promoting the broad church of bands from the New Wave of Classic Rock (NWOCR) movement. Indeed 2019’s headliners Massive Wagons and Those Damn Crows have continued their rise to significant mainstream success.
In many ways this was an appropriate choice for a festival as international travel restrictions are likely to limit tours for some while, so this is the perfect moment for the next year or two to prioritise supporting the burgeoning scene of new and rising domestic talent.
While hardly beautiful from the outside, the 1865 was an excellent venue, a decent sized floor with good sight lines, and a well-stocked bar at the rear leading up to a balcony down one side where merch stalls and meet and greets were doing brisk business, as befits the mutual support that characterises the NWOCR movement, so spectacularly misunderstood by Geoff Barton in a notorious recent Classic Rock review.
I have seen many well-intentioned independent promoters fail spectacularly at the difficult art of making a festival work, so it reflected huge credit on the Nozfest team that the event was so well organised. A full slate of bands survived the ‘pingdemic’, the sound and lighting were both excellent, compere Si an endearingly quirky host and despite some very tight changeovers to fit in a bumper ten bands, it ran precisely to time.
The festival got off to a good start with the glammy looking Spyder Byte. Hat sporting singer Daniel Lawrence had an impish glint and a rasp in his delivery not unlike Phil Lewis of LA Guns. Songs like ‘Tonight’, single ‘Double Dose’, ‘Moonshine’ and ‘In Your Face’ were simple but enjoyable enough, but what was most impressive was the quality of the solos from a pair of lead guitarists in Robbie Weller and Connor Cape, the latter very clearly influenced by Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray. The hooks of ‘Spark’ were the ones that stood out most while ‘Black Velvet Love’ finished a performance worthy of a band higher up the bill.
Locals Trouble County had a more no nonsense image and as a power trio rather struggled to fill the stage as they opened with ‘Wasted’. They had a dark and sludgy, southern-influenced sound, with singer Joolz having that gruff outlaw-style edge to his voice as well as coaxing some original sounding solos from his guitar.
On the likes of ‘World to Me’ and ‘Awake’ the dry, bluesy feel, without big choruses, took a while to get used to but as the set wore on I was beginning to warm to them. After closing with ‘You Again’ with its untypically catchy refrain ‘f— you and the horse you rode in on’, I suspect that now I know what to expect I would more fully appreciate them next time.
Western Sand are another south coast based band and I sometimes wonder what became of them after they supported Michael Schenker some years ago. Opener ‘Dark Horse’ owed a bit too much to Metallica but both ‘Black Water Resolution’ and ‘Broken Bones’ had an impressive, southern-tinged crunch, Black Stone Cherry springing to mind, with plenty of guitar work from singer Tyler Hains and Jimmy Bradshaw.
They enlivened the crowd with their traditional cover of ‘Mississippi Queen’, though the song is in danger of being overplayed, and their own material is just as strong. Tyler was the first (though not the last) frontman to really make a thing of the delight of returning to live music and as if to prove it led audience participation in the ‘Come On Come On’ lyric during ‘Going Down’. ‘Welcome to the Badlands’ featured aggressive twin guitars and they closed with more dual guitar work on the hard-driving ‘Nothing to Lose’ which reminded me of the Almighty. Theirs was probably the best set of the first half of the day.
The hirsute Wicked Jackals ploughed a similar musical furrow as Spyder Byte, though songs like ‘Moving On’, ‘Ain’t Gonna Change’ and ‘Raise a Glass’ were somewhat more basic in approach. They were lively performers, guitarist Marty Venus venturing into the crowd at one point while after singer Ollie Tindall joked he was going to play Coldplay, they did cover WASP’s ‘Blind in Texas’, appropriately as his sandpaper-edged voice bore some similarities to Blackie Lawless. Another cover that closed the set in ‘Fire Woman’ was also more than respectable.
They were also one of two returning bands from the inaugural Nozfest, the other being Beth Blade and the Beautiful Disasters. Beth’s was a gutsy performance and the way she appeared very much in control of her own band, as well as being a powerful singer and very respectable guitarist, had me drawing comparisons to Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale.
However, for a while I thought their material including ‘Give It All You Got’, ‘Down and Dirty’ and ‘On and On’ was rather average. Fortunately the set picked up with a song she had written about the pandemic, ’Tonight I’m With You’, and ‘You and I’ was a ballad of standout quality. To close, ‘I Ain’t Got Nothing (If I Ain’t Got Rock’n’Roll)’ and ‘Jack and Coke’ were more basic but enjoyable rabble rousers in the mould of Rock Goddess or more recently The Amorettes.
The quality threshold was beginning to increase with some of the rising names of the NWOCR scene, increasingly those with their own following judging from the t-shirts on display. Being of a more melodic bent, next were one of my own favourites in Collateral, led by the ever charismatic Angelo Tristan, sporting a pink snakeskin jacket over his bare torso with matching strides, and with the mannerisms of Steven Tyler and Justin Hawkins.
Since the pandemic, there has been a line up change and as they opened with old favourites ‘Mr Big Shot’ and ‘Promiseland’, the addition of a keyboard player and second gutiarist plus added backing vocals made the sound noticeably fuller, though there are still moments when the songs become oddly disjointed.
‘In It For Love’ was a hook-filled melodic rocker though I spent the first half of it working out what Bon Jovi song it reminded me of (answer-‘ Wild Is The Wind’), then ‘Going With The Wind’ showed the twin forces that make them so effective, the chorus melody carried by Angelo’s acoustic guitar before Todd Winger’s nifty solos took the song into a rockier dimension.
The same formula worked on ‘About This Boy’, where the singer reminded me of Tyketto’s Danny Vaughn, while the rarely played ‘Angels Crying’ from their first EP was nothing less than melodic bliss, before ‘Merry Go Round’ and ‘Lullaby’ showed off their rockier side. It was a triumphant return to live action even if signature song ‘Midnight Queen’ was missing.
Next up were Hollowstar who since I last saw them with Dan Reed Network and Mason Hill in 2018 have released their debut album and become one of the most critically acclaimed NWOCR bands. Singer and bassist Joe Bonson is a refreshingly individual character and, though his voice is gruffer, in some of his stage movements and vocal phrasing he had the air of a young Glenn Hughes.
They made a good start with ‘Take It All’, ‘Down By The Water’ and ‘Let You Down’, though their material, while always melodic, is darker, more complex and not as immediate as some of their contemporaries.
After ‘Money’, the surprise was a very authentic cover of Free’s ‘Wishing Well’- though unless my ears deceived me, it began with a snatch of the Proclaimers ‘500 miles’! ‘Overrated’ then had people shouting to the pay-off line.
On this evidence Phil Haines is an emerging guitar hero of the movement, so it was a poignant moment when ‘Good Man Gone’ was introduced as a tribute to his recently passed father who introduced him to guitar playing, then they ended an always interesting set with easily their most sing-along number in ‘All I Gotta Say’.
There was just time for a burger from the van in the smoking area before rushing back to catch SKAM. Oddly this was the first time I has seen them since they toured with The Answer and the long-forgotten The Union back in 2012, but they have since built a loyal following, many of whom had taken station at the front for some time before.
The Leicester trio eschew the clichéd rock look – indeed ever smiling bassist Matthew Gilmore was sporting a Hawaiian shirt- but made an impressively intense noise with some speedy guitar solos from lead singer Steve Hill.
The set mixed new material from their current EP like ‘Circles’ with old favourites like ‘Take It Or Leave it’, which had their faithful bouncing up and down, ‘Bring The Rain’, and ‘Holy City’. They pulled off a cover of ‘War Pigs’ in some style and ended with ‘No Lies’ with Steve going deep into the crowd. Not quite my scene it has to be said, but an admirably no nonsense, no holds barred performance.
2021 has been the big breakthrough year for Mason Hill with the young Scots long-awaited album reaching the UK top 20 and perhaps if the lineup had been announced later, they would have headlined. A sign of their new status is that alone of the acts they brought their own backdrop of a couple of pop up banners.
While a recurring theme was the delight of the bands to be back on stage, singer Scott Taylor took it further with a little speech, even before they started with a trio of singles from the album in the stirring ‘Hold On’, ‘DNA’ which gave rise to plenty of fist punching on the chorus and ‘Broken Son’, perhaps the most impressive of the lot. Their stage presence seemed more assured than before as if their commercial success has given then greater confidence.
After some faster and dirtier fare in ‘Find My Way’ with some downtuned guitar work from James Byrd, Scott introduced the rationale behind their unexpected decision to cover the Foo Fighters’ ‘The Best Of Me’ which it has to be said worked brilliantly as a live anthem and a vehicle for him to divide the crowd in two and hold a singing contest.
The title track ‘Against The Wall’ was another to have people punching the air before the moment I’d perhaps anticipated most in lockdown, with their epic ‘Where I Belong’- judging from the way the crowd took over the quiet vocal intro, I was not alone, while James’ solo on his Les Paul was of exquisite taste and tone.
It would have been a fitting closer but instead that honour went to their first single, the more straight ahead hard rock of ‘Now You See Me’. The even better news is that they are shortly to head out on an extensive tour, also featuring Hollowstar, which is most certainly a must see with the band going places.
A long day climaxed with The Treatment headlining. It’s now a decade since their swift rise to fame but the days when they supported Motley Crue and Kiss in the USA seem a long time ago. Indeed judging from the relative lack of band T-shirts and quieter cheers than for many of the other bands as the compere announced them, I feared they might fall flat.
Sure, there was the drop off you often get at the end of a long day at a festival but a decent number stayed and were rewarded with a high octane performance that was a personal revelation.
Opening with the autobiographical ‘I Bleed Rock n Roll’ followed by a pair of songs from new album ‘Waiting For Good Luck’ in ‘Eyes On You’ and ‘Vampires’, it was clear that more than ever they have hitched their wagon to sounding as close to AC/DC a possible, a tactic which has served many a band well in the past.
In the five years since I last saw them they have thankfully regrown their hair and among further line-up changes, this was my first time seeing singer Tom Rampton, who was highly impressive with a clear vocal range and command of the stage.
They still have a youthful enthusiasm but the stage presentation seemed sleeker and leaner than earlier incarnations and the two guitarists produced some frill-free but tightly locked lead and rhythm guitar work, Tagore Grey pulling some classic low slung poses and younger brother Tao starting to resemble a tattooed version of Airbourne’s Joel O’Keeffe (sorry those comparisons again) with his Gibson Explorer and bare chest.
After dipping into their five album back catalogue for ‘Lets Get Dirty’ and ‘Let it Begin’, new single ‘Wrong Way’ was my pick of the set, a strong melodic song which made a refreshing change before ‘Take It Or Leave it’ and ‘Rat Race’ reverted to the acca-dacca inspired template.
In a live environment this good time music, epitomised by ‘Hold Fire’ and ‘Devil In The Detail’, was the perfect headline choice to keep energy levels high at the end of a tiring day, and during ‘Get The Party On’ Tom got the crowd to crouch to the floor and leap in the air. Words cannot describe how good it was to once again be participating in such live rituals.
They ended with a storming ‘Shake The Mountain’ , the one survivor from their debut album and still a mighty riff, but despite running slightly over time for the first time all day were given the sole honour of an encore and ‘Running With The Dogs’ is a crowd favourite judging by the mass singing along.
Before the pandemic, I had been enjoying festivals more than ever, so this was always an occasion to look forward to. However the efficient, friendly atmosphere, some top performances from young bands whose livelihood has been constrained for so long, and most of all the sheer delight at being back in a ‘happy place’, made the day even more memorable than expected.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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