A cold, wet and windy November day in North Wales probably doesn’t sound ideal for a rock festival, so it’s just as well the weather and season are completely irrelevant to the HRH experience. It’s all about the location – with which we head down to the main arena for day two of Hard Rock Hell 9 – House of Horrors.
First up today is Thirteen Stars from Cumbria. Hats off to these boys (well, hats on to be precise) for making the most of their early showing and getting a good turn-out from the weary and the hungover. As they fire up with ‘Tired of Waiting’ and a mighty fine cover of the Black Crowes ‘Remedy’, it’s clear that fans of Southern Rock will definitely want to check out this band. Lead vocalist and guitarist Matt ‘Hoss’ Thompson has got the whole “thang” going on with a superb rasping, emotive vocal. Along with guitarist Jax Sedgwick, drummer Andrew Bates and bassist Ryan Bell, they lay down Southern groove numbers such as ‘Speed King Sanctuary’, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ and ‘Circus of Dreams’ all showered with Country and Blues. Hoss dedicates ‘Breadline’ to the poor. “At least, if you’re a poor musician a Les Paul makes it alright!” he says. By now there’s dance fever in the audience which contiues with ‘Right For Wrong’ and ‘Only A Soldier’ – dedicated to the Britsh armed forces – taking us to the end. It’s a fantastic, Skynard, Zeppelin, Eagles influenced start to the day, and one which should see Thirteen Stars remain “poor” for not too long.
Prior to this weekend there was an announcement that the legendary Pat Travers Band had cancelled their appearance, and so it’s left to the tender aged Mancunian blues rockers Federal Charm to fill the gap. For those with no idea of what they’re in for, it only takes a few minutes of openers ‘You’ve Gotta Give It Up’ and ‘Pretty’ before the wow factor is evident around the room. The dual guitars of Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe are intricate and polished, with Bowden’s vocal way beyond his youth and Bowe’s showmanship enjoyably captivating. The catchy, fast-paced ‘Hercules’, a single from their recently released second album ‘Across The Divide’, really gets heads nodding. “We’ve filled in last minute, so I hope we’re doing ok for you” says Bowden, to which the simple response is a resounding “Hell yeah!” from somewhere in the crowd. With a distinctly Thin Lizzy lick in ‘The Stray’ and the Zeppelin-esque riff of ‘Tell Your Friends’ Federal Charm span the classic rock curve and in places sound more 70’s than the 70’s. The two guitar prodigies, ably assisted by the rhythm section of bassist L.D. Morawski and Danny Rig on drums, must be heading places.
A set from the heavy groove machine that is Crobot has “highlight of the weekend” written all over it, and from the thundering beginnings of ‘Legend Of The Spaceborne Killer’ I’m not wrong. The incredibly cool Brandon Yeagley comes to front of stage: “Hard Rock Hell! How you doing? We’re Crobot from Pennsylvania and we’re gonna fuck it up!” And I can assure you he doesn’t mean that in a bad way. ‘Skull Of Geronimo’, ‘Cloud Spiller’, ‘Welcome To Fat City’ and ‘Nowhere To Hide’ are just a few of Crobot’s dirty, foot-stomping, groove-laden numbers which grab you by your musical sensibilities and give them a new lease of life. Yeagley’s kick-ass vocal is accompanied by an energetic, mic stand teasing performance whilst bassist Jake Figueroa contorts himself in hypnotic fashion as he hammers home his bass lines. ‘The Necromancer’ calls on Yeagley for harmonica duty and ‘Chupacabra’ is one of many tracks where the superb guitar work of Chris Bishop and drums of Paul Figueroa are given time and space to shine. ‘Fly On The Wall’ completes what is an undeniably magnetising live show from one of the best main stage bands of the weekend.
Sandwiched between the awesome Crobot and classic German power metallers Helloween is a band fronted by a former World Superbike Champion. Having listened to Toseland and seen them previously at Steelhouse Festival in 2014 that is about as much as I want to report this weekend, but it’s my job to give them a go anyway. Opening up with ‘Crash Landing’ and the AC/DC riffed ‘Burning The System’ frontman James Toseland springs into action along with “Katie’s brother” Zurab Melua on lead guitar and their competent rhythm section. I’m trying to get into what is going on but already it’s a hopeless task and midway through the debut single ‘Life Is Beautiful’ there’s no return for me. Yes, James Toseland is a charismatic figure and he can sing and play the piano a bit, and yes his band are all individually talented musos who can put on a show. However, I just find the material drab and uninspiring. I guess you either love them or hate them but make no mistake – there are plenty of folk who do love them. Earlier this year I started to eat Marmite for the first time in my life, so I guess there is a chance for me yet.
In the mid 80’s with the release of ‘Walls Of Jericho’ and the masterpieces ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys Parts I & II’ I was a big Helloween fan, so this is a set I’ve been looking forward to. With only two original members remaining – lead and rhythm guitarist Michael Weikath and bassist Markus Grosskopf – Helloween have an impressive thirty year discography. Tonight we get a smattering of the entire catalogue, starting with ‘Eagles Fly Free’ and ‘Dr. Stein’. Vocalist Andi Deris works the crowd early on, having them sing-along to ‘My God-Given Right’, which like most tunes includes Helloween standard double-kick drum from Daniel Löble and twin guitars from Weikath and Sascha Gerstner. ‘Waiting For The Thunder’, ‘Straight Out Of Hell’ and ‘Lost In America’ are great listens with Grosskopf, Weikath and Gerstner making the most of the stage, occasionally undertaking stance and swing choreography. Highlights come in the form of a medley of ‘Halloween’, ‘Sole Survivor’, ‘ I Can’, ‘Are You Metal?’ and ‘Keeper of the Seven Keys’ and a double-whammy encore of ‘Future World’ and ‘I Want Out’. Quite simply put – Helloween conquer HRH tonight.
By name and heritage alone it goes without saying that UFO are Friday night headliners at Hard Rock Hell, although after Helloween’s fantastic show, numbers have dwindled and I’m wondering how Phil Mogg and company will follow that. Spanning thirty years in quick succession with ‘We Belong To The Night’ and ‘Fight Night’ I’m perfectly aware of being in the presence of rock royalty, but can’t help feel that Mogg may be struggling slightly. Slipping up with the title of the latest album ‘Conspiracy Of Stars’ he goes on to deliver a classic Mogg vocal on ‘Run Boy Run’, before the first big number ‘Lights Out’ is well received but perhaps lacks the “oomph” you would expect. Having 80’s shredding legend Vinnie Moore on lead guitar is a definite plus for UFO as the big man regularly steps forward to show off his virtuosity and is hailed by all those before him. Apart from ‘Only You Can Rock Me’ and ‘Cherry’ a number of relatively recent tracks generally seem to pass the audience by. The UFO classics come out with ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Doctor Doctor’ to complete what is a good set, but perhaps not so much a great festival headlining one.
Review & Photography: Steve Johnston