Gig review: STONEDEAD FESTIVAL – Showground, Newark – 28th August 2021

“It was quite simply great for everyone – bands and fans alike - to be back in the groove doing what they love, and the set up was as a good festival should be…”

Stonedead Festival was set up by genuine music fans who wanted to recapture some of the spirit of the Donington Monsters Of Rock of their youth, but adjusted for their present day needs. This meant a single day, family friendly festival on a flat site manageable enough to avoid those route marches between multiple stages, campsites and facilities that characterise the current experience at its contemporary equivalent, Download.

Initially billed Stonedeaf before a naming rights issue, in its first two years the experience  received rave reviews, none more so than from our esteemed live editor Dave Wilson. It was on my list of festivals  to do one day and a very strong line up this year, combined with other festivals biting the dust at least for this year, convinced me this time.

However, as it will continue to do for some time, Covid played havoc with the organisers plans, with a series of line up changes culminating in headliners Black Star Riders withdrawing less than a week before the event. In the circumstances to persuade as distinguished a band as Uriah Heep to step in at such short notice was a masterstroke although not without its challenge, as we will find out.

This time the ‘one day one stage’ concept was diluted with a Friday night pre-show party to tickle the taste buds, originally planned under cover elsewhere on the site but moved into the main arena for safety reasons. Unfortunately circumstances conspired to stop me making it so I had to experience vicariously through the feedback on their Facebook group, which is extremely active, not least in starting a craze for bringing inflatable mini-giraffes (don’t ask!)

There were a quartet of bands – the new all girl ‘supergroup’ The Hot Damn, glamsters Stop Stop who by all accounts were very lively including invading the crowd, my own favourites Cats In Space in one of their debut shows with new singer Damian Edwards, and to headline Wayward Sons. I had picked up that after a previous appearance  Toby Jepson’s boys were Stonedead favourites, though hadn’t prepared myself for reports that there was something of a moshpit going on.

The main event on Saturday had a value for money roster of nine bands. The downside of their single stage set up is that not everyone can be pleased with this Hobson’s choice. Yet it was a really well curated mix of current and classic acts, with a balance of musical styles without stepping too far outside the mainstream of the festival’s demographic.

However the organisers had a fraught morning, making the best of a smaller than expected stage after the one originally ordered failed to materialise, and with Uriah Heep requiring the use of their own equipment rather than the festival’s. As a result proceedings  kicked off around half an hour late, time that they never quite managed to make up. It also truncated the first set,  that of Dead Man’s Whiskey who had won a fan vote for an up and coming band to open up proceedings.

It was only my second time seeing them, but my favourable impressions when the Londoners opened for Stone Broken and Those Damn Crows in 2019 were confirmed. Songs like opener ‘Live, Loud and Ready’ and ‘Last Train’ had a real crunch to them, either side of the more AC/DC- ish current single ‘Breakout’ and the lead guitar work from the curly-haired, Gibson wielding Billy Kons was impressive.

Energetic singer Nico Rogers, who looked different to how I remembered him, then introduced a song about his mother’s health challenges in ‘Make You Proud’, a ballad of the type  post-grungers filled the US airwaves with in the 2000’s. Finally singing that in front of a big stage made him tear up, but fortunately he regained his composure to lead audience participation in a hard rocking closer of ‘Racing Bullet’.

Overnight, The Treatment (themselves only a late addition) pulled out after a band member caught Covid, which particularly saddened me as my enthusiasm had been spectacularly revived by their performance a couple of weeks previously at Nozfest.

Remarkably they managed to find a replacement at short notice in Absolva. I confess to never having heard of them before but they were excellent, remding me of Judas Priest or eighties Iron Maiden. Singer Chris Appleton  even added to the comparisons with a Dickinson-like ‘scream for me’ and he and brother and fellow guitarist Luke produced solo after solo in harmony fashion, feet on the monitors.

Apparently they have released a number of albums and songs like ‘Life On The Edge’, ‘Rise Again’, ‘Never A Good Time to Die’, ‘No Tomorrow’ and ‘Never Back Down’ impressed. The only downside was possibly a lack of variation of tempo, though closer ‘Code Red’ was a bit heavier and more frantic.

Next up was someone much more familiar to me in Myke Gray, having first seen him over 30 years ago and most recently just weeks before the pandemic struck. On that occasion Kim Jennett was his singer, and I was expecting former Cats In Space singer Mark Pascall, who had done the honours at a recent festival,  so I was surprised when a different young figure with long dark hair was soundchecking. Eventually I correctly identified him as Dan Byrne,  lead singer of Scousers Revival Black who are one of the leading lights of the current New Wave of Classic Rock (NWOCR) scene.

The guitarist, looking dapper in black and white waistcoat and strides, has just released (and sang on) a well –received solo album but that was left to one side for a set that spanned his previous bands, kicking off with a balls out pair of openers in Red White and Blues’  ‘Stand up for Rock and Roll’ and Jagged Edge’s ‘Trouble’.

Skin numbers were inevitably going to form the lion’s share of the set and ‘House of Love’ got a great reaction but I was even more delighted to hear one of my own favourites ‘Raised On Radio’, which was never a single,  for the first time in ages.  Dan was a really good frontman and though his voice is pitched naturally higher than the original singers Matti Alfonzetti and Nev MacDonald he handled the vocals with aplomb.

As usual Jagged Edge’s ‘You Don’t Love Me’ was majestic, before a home strait of Skin crowd pleasers in ‘Look But Don’t Touch’, the bluesy stomp of ‘Take Me Down to the River’, and ‘Tower of Strength’ which got people’s arms swaying.

When they announced there was still a song to go, I wondered what might be missing, and the answer was ‘Shine Your Light’, beginning with a ‘Sweet Emotion-style bass intro from Colin Parkinson and generating some serious headbanging with its heavy riff and fast closing section.

Myke played with his customary frenetic fluency on his Flying V, his band was extremely well chosen including a rhythm guitarist in Glenn Quinn to thicken the sound, and as you would expect from someone whose other life is as a personal trainer, this was a lean 45 minute set without an ounce of flab and perhaps one of the best sets I have seen him perform.

Blaze looks somewhat different from his Maiden days, shaven headed and with a pair of silver mutton chops that would grace a Dickens character. Indeed as he sang ‘Judgement Of Heaven’ in that sonorous voice of his, he could almost have been a Victorian clergyman preaching  fire and brimstone.

Now for something completely different in Blaze Bayley doing a special Iron Maiden set, a risky venture as the Midlander has spent the last 20 years building a reputation as a solo artist, plus periodic Wolfsbane reunions, after his stint fronting the band in the second half of the nineties is seen as a low point in their history.

After a promising opener in ‘Lord Of The Flies’ I wandered further forward during the marathon  ‘Sign Of The Cross’, impressed by some very authentic twin lead interplay, and a number of things all now made sense when I saw that Absolva were his backing band.

Blaze looks somewhat different from his Maiden days, shaven headed and with a pair of silver mutton chops that would grace a Dickens character. Indeed as he sang ‘Judgement Of Heaven’ in that sonorous voice of his, he could almost have been a Victorian clergyman preaching  fire and brimstone.

The rarely played compilation-filler ‘Virus’ mixed a dark and doomy intro and lyrical message before going into more familiar Maiden territory, but better known is ‘The Clansman’ whose traditional Maiden gallop sparked mass jumping up and down, especially to the ‘freedom’ chant.

‘The Angel And The Gambler’ was more convincing that I ever remembered before the set closed with  a couple of shorter, punchier songs in ‘Man On the Edge’,  trotting along at a fair pace with its catchy ‘falling down’ chorus and ‘Futureal’. Blaze was having a whale of a time with the old tactic of whipping up support from each side of the stage to the extent that he burst into laughter and momentarily lost his place.

That was but a tiny blemish on a superb performance which was my personal revelation of the festival. His gamble paid off in wisely choosing a set of songs from his time in the band rather than attempting to replicate the best-loved Dickinson-era tunes that might have been more familiar festival fodder. I never overcame my initial reservations about him in Maiden and at the time thought he was a fish out of water, but on this evidence wider factors were at work in their decline around that period.

After that trip down memory lane, the focus shifted to a couple of very contemporary acts beginning with the Kris Barras Band. Originally the heavily tattooed former cage fighter was pigeonholed under blues rock, and while that genre opens a lot of doors in terms of industry support, every time I see him that seems less comfortable in that bracket.

This is not to decry his considerable talents as a guitarist. But openers ‘Ignite (Light It Up)’ and  ‘Counterfeit People’  were straightforward commercial rock anthems that owed more to Bon Jovi, with his voice at times reminding me of Mr. Big’s Eric Martin, while ‘Rock And Roll Running Through My Veins’ could be his signature tune. It was also notable that bandmate Josiah J Manning,  who played keyboards when I saw KBB at Ramblin’ Man in 2019, had now switched to second guitar, even indulging in trading solos with Kris on one lengthy jam.

A new song ‘Dead Horses’ was very impressive, but even more striking was another in ‘My Parade’ where he succeeded in getting people to join in on its admittedly simple ‘I don’t give a f— what people say’ chorus.

The set ended with a couple of his trademark songs in ‘Lovers Or Losers’ and ‘Hail Mary’, with the usual tropes of elongating the song with band intros, jamming and audience participation. Even on a turbocharged cover of ‘Going Down’ it was stretching the point to call any of this blues, but perhaps that was why this set was so well received by a traditional heavy rock audience.

A mass of dedicated fans were jumping up and singing along to virtually every song … This was really the first moment  when I realised quite how much we have missed the best experiences only a festival can bring … in a genre criticised for being safe, the Wagons have a unique and at times off-beat  style of their own

From forum chatter and T-shirt choices, it seemed that the band that more punters than anyone were most enthusiastic  about was Massive Wagons, proof of how of all the bands in the sprawling NWOCR they are the ones who have most cut through into mainstream popularity (alongside Those Damn Crows). Though they played the inaugural festival, ironically they were only a relatively late addition to this bill when it became clear, to my own regret, that there were too many obstacles to H.E.A.T.  travelling from Sweden.

Hyperactive frontman Baz Mills is one of a kind and, as a Slade intro played out, there was a sense of expectation greeting his rush onto the stage for opener ‘Pressure’, sporting a bowler hat and a jacket with a bright flame pattern.

‘In It Together’ was dedicated to the Wildhearts and shared a stylistic similarity, while I was surprised, as a casual fan, how many of the songs were familiar to me. A mass of dedicated fans were jumping up and singing along to virtually every song had, but ‘Banging In Your Stereo’,  ‘Ratio’, ‘Tokyo’ and ‘Billy Balloon Head’ in particular. This was really the first moment  when I realised quite how much we have missed the best experiences only a festival can bring.

Interestingly, in a genre criticised for being safe, the Wagons have a unique and at times off-beat  style of their own - exemplified by some hilariously  original call-and-response participation from Baz to open ‘The Curry Song’, showing them as almost a Macc Lads for the millennium. I’m still not sure I quite ‘get’ them, but admire their original and oh-so-British approach.

Among other favourites, they played the unexpectedly heavy ‘Nails’, their Record Store Day single ‘Changes’ and, after some memorable crowd surfing from Baz, the set finished with the riffery of ‘Back To The Stack’. The fact it is a tribute to a rhythm guitarist, Quo’s Rick Parfitt, is fitting, though I think AC/DC are a more appropriate comparison.

The band stay clear of virtuoso musicianship but are a solid unit with bassist Adam Bouskill rooted to his spot alongside the drumkit but giving the sound a weighty bottom end, and dependable, no frills guitar work from the flying V wielding Adam Thistlethwaite and  Stevie Holl.  Loud, fun and original, this was a set that justified the pre-gig anticipation.

Again switching back to a band with a longer pedigree, Gun opened with a lively ‘She Knows’ with a cutting solo from Tommy Gentry. After that sole newer song they  wisely stuck for the rest of a festival set to those songs that made them a crossover commercial success in the late eighties and early nineties.

Since those days Dante Gizzi has long progressed from being the bass player to a very assured and nonchalant frontman, albeit one whose Harrington jacket and boxfresh white trainers stood out from the wardrobe of the more metal inclined bands.

I thought the youthful drummer was different from the line up I had seen on the ‘Big-three-O’ tour at the end of 2019, and it turned out school leaver Nick Georgiou was another late covid-related replacement. He was a sensation in the circumstances, and the subject of one of the stage quotes of the day when Dante asked  ‘are you all right laddie- do you want some milk?’.

‘Don’t Say Its Over’ was followed by a mass crowd rendition of ‘Word Up’, Tommy again relieving the other founder member Giuliano Gizzi  of some of the solos, and ‘Money (Everybody Loves Her)’ was the first of many favourites from their debut ‘Taking On The World’ including the anthemic  title track, with ‘Welcome To The Real World’ the nearest to a surprise in  the set.

Prior to ‘Inside Out’ Dante said we could ‘pogo like its 1989’ and I needed no invitation to do so before we hit the home straight with ‘Steal Your Fire’, with another sparkling solo from Tommy and some quite outstanding drumming from young Nick before ‘Shame On You’ had the front bouncing. It segued straight into a cover of ‘Fight For Your Right to Party’, which normally fills me with dismay at a Gun gig, but it just seemed right on this occasion for a crowd celebrating its release from 18 months of captivity.

Photo: Andy Nathan

With bands being asked to curtail sets I assumed that was it, but after Dante movingly paid tribute to those who had lost lives or otherwise suffered during Covid, they finished with their breakthrough hit, which I thought they were going to omit. Never was the chorus ‘hold your head high, cause you know I’d die for Better Days’ more appropriate, making it the anthem of Stonedead 2021 without doubt.

Terrorvision were contemporaries of Gun in the nineties. Though I have to confess I never liked them at all in the day, they are a party band par excellence and once again the front was bouncing virtually all set long, even when singer Tony Wright had to wave a torch when the lights failed for a short while, rotten timing with darkness not long having fallen.

Their advantage is a catalogue of recognisable hits and indeed they opened with three such numbers  in ‘Discotheque Wreck’, ‘Pretend Best Friend’ and ‘Celebrity Hit List’. Since those halcyon days their set up has changed somewhat with a keyboard player and two horn players/backing vocalists. Neither were particularly prominent in the mix while guitarist Mark Yates seemed to take a very low key role, unlike flamboyant bassist Leigh Marklew, looking like the director of an Italian fashion house in a white checked suit and wrap around shades.

Tony meanwhile is as hyperactive a ringmaster as ever .I never really rated him as a vocalist and this was not the night to change my mind, but as a party starter he has no equals, and ‘Alice What’s The Matter’ and ‘Oblivion’ were particularly good fun, though ‘Tequila’ seemed to be delivered quite differently to how I remembered it.

‘Some People Say’ and ‘Middle Man’ had people swaying but were also a reminder that, along with contemporaries like Reef, in the nineties they straddled rock and the fringes of the then dominant Britpop scene.

The hits kept on coming including ‘My House’,  ‘Josephine’, and ‘D’Ya Wanna Go Faster’ which did what it said on the tin, before ‘Perseverance’ ended a set that had flown by from a band who, whatever my own personal preferences, were an inspired choice for a festival.

For all the herculean efforts of the crew, the day was still running late and there was now a further delay while Uriah Heep’s own personnel sound checked and assembled an elaborate stage. By 10 o’clock they were finally ready – for a while my worry was whether the last shuttle bus would still leave at 11:30 regardless of whether they were still playing, but curfews are fairly rigidly enforced at festivals so this sadly meant a truncated set.

As a result their most recent album ‘Living The Dream’, which would have been heavily featured, was instead only represented by opener ‘Grazed By Heaven’  which would have surprised casual observers with its heaviness. It was followed by the classic galloping hooks of ‘Too Scared To Run’ from 1982’s career revival sparking ‘Abominog’. That was the year they played Monsters of Rock at Donington, so there was a neat symmetry with the mission of the festival.

The first sign this would be a shorter set came when founder member Mick Box introduced ‘Gypsy’ –which compere Krusher would have remembered, having told us he first saw the band back in 1970- followed by the bouncing rhythms of ‘Look At Yourself’, both of which would have been saved for later in a full length set.

This version of Heep has been together for eight years now (and apparently were in the midst of recording a new album nearby), and an instrumental jam at the end of the latter showed quite how vibrant and indeed heavy they are, with the added more youthful energy of bassist Dave Rimmer and drummer Russell Gilbrook, who seemed to be having the time of his life. I was though surprised no tribute was paid to the three former stalwarts- Ken Hensley, Lee Kerslake and John Lawton- who have all passed away in the last year.

Photo: Andy Nathan

Time constraints did not stop them from playing the epic ‘July Morning’, singer Bernie Shaw perched on one of the front monitors as he sang the intro but spending much time off stage as the band in turn showed off their instrumental prowess with the trademark wah-wah solo from Mick Box, who at 74 seems to be playing better than ever. He then donned an acoustic as he and Bernie led the crowd in the wordless singalong that is ‘Lady In Black’, but it hardly seemed fair that the set was over just six songs in.

Fortunately there was time for two encores in ‘Sunrise’, more classic seventies Heep with Phil Lanzon’s organ and the big harmony vocals prominent, and a suitably rollicking ‘Easy Living’.

Photo: Andy Nathan

I’ve been an unashamed fan for some 35 years now: as they took their bow to the strains of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, I hope that the respectable crowd who remained, a surprising number of whom were unfamiliar with Heep’s work judging by social media, were suitably impressed with one of the UK’s  under-appreciated rock treasures.

Despite the difficult circumstances, it was a climactic end to a wonderful festival. It was quite simply great for everyone – bands and fans alike - to be back in the groove doing what they love, and the set up was as a good festival should be, so it was no surprise that early bird tickets were already being snapped up for 2022.

Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Darren Griffiths and Andy Nathan (where stated)

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 20 March 2022 at 21:00 GMT (16:00 EST). Josh’s next session is Sunday 22 May.

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