It’s a Friday afternoon, in the middle of November at a Haven holiday park in Pwllheli. While most folk are thinking about finishing work for the weekend, we’re already part way through Hard Rock Hell’s 10th anniversary bash!
Earlier today the main arena saw a confident performance from Glaswegian rockers Mason Hill – this year’s winners of the annual Highway To Hell competition. In addition, HRH regulars Chase The Ace gave those who were up and about, a taste of their sleaze drippin’ hard rock.
With recent political events in the US fresh in our minds, the Hendrix rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is a perfect introduction for Warrior Soul. Plenty has been said about this band’s failure to achieve mainstream success, not because it was never deserved, but because of Kory Clarke’s uncompromising attitude and his insistence on being honest. And with that it’s clear that nothing has changed. With the first breath of ‘Shock Um Down’ through the lost classic ‘Punk and Belligerent’ from the tragically underrated 1992 album ‘Salutations from the Ghetto Nation’ – the passion and the anger still burns. Warrior Soul sound nothing short of superb and while Kory’s vocal may not be an exact duplication of recordings from a quarter of a century ago – it’s as strong and vitriolic as ever. In the late afternoon, as a precursor for the evening show, you might expect levels of resentment, outrage and indignation to be toned down, but this isn’t the case, because this stuff isn’t manufactured, it’s real. The line “Donald Trump is a fuckin’ (money) whore” is an original lyric from 1991’s ‘The Wasteland’ and as Kory contorts himself around the stage in his shredded jeans and open collar, the stiff middle finger he’s giving us isn’t for show, it’s a statement. There’s a good sized crowd to take in this snarling, confrontational assault from the anarchic master and his renegades, but even by the halfway mark and ‘We Are The Government’ and Joy Division’s ‘Interzone’ I can’t help feel that Warrior Soul should be further up the bill. It’s a fantastic performance and I’d say the reaction from the majority in attendance would agree. Second half set highlights are ‘Generation Graveyard’ and ‘Payback’s A Bitch’ – the title track from Kory’s own 2014 album release. “Thank you for having us here” he says, before ‘Fuck the Pigs’ – with him patting himself down – marches us to the end. No doubt about it, class is permanent.
I’m sure vocalist Alexx Stahl hadn’t envisaged his first words to the Hard Rock Hell audience would be “We fucked up our first song!” But fuck up the start of their first song ‘Ready 4 Reaction’ is exactly what German metallers Bonfire manage to do, albeit a minor glitch in the precision engineered set which follows. Celebrating their own anniversary of thirty years, Bonfire have gone through umpteen line-up changes over the years with guitarist Hans Ziller remaining the only original member. Tonight he sports a pair of sunglasses and a looks a little less rock n roll than perhaps he once did. However, playing well he definitely does, with plenty of guitar harmonies along with Frank Pané through the likes of ‘Don’t Touch The Light’ and ‘Sword and Stone’ from the Shocker movie soundtrack of 1989. Bonfire were always, and for me remain far too “metal by numbers” with the ballad ‘You Make Me Feel’ entering the realms of nausea for my own taste. No matter how great some of the riffage and dual guitar work in songs like ‘Can’t Break Away’ and ‘S.D.I’ might be – great “songs” for me, they are not. Stahl’s Klaus Meine-esque vocal isn’t bad but the similarity does become an annoyance for the Scorpions fan that I have always been. The culmination of my own dislikes lead me to depart the main arena before the last couple of numbers, but not without a word for those who clearly think differently to me, and there are many of them, who remain with their fists pumping the air to the end.
With a slight change in direction and new vocalist Mitchell Emms and guitarist Tao Grey (brother of Tagore) brought on board within the past 18 months, there’s a confident, ballsy, exuberance about The Treatment. It’s almost a cocky confidence, but one to be admired. Opening up with the appropriately titled ‘Let It Begin’ the band leap, bound and strike their poses at every given opportunity. Mohawked bass player Rick Newman covers every inch of the stage whilst the slicker haired Grey brothers bang out some damn fine heavy riffs and dual guitar melodies. Early on, with titles no more metal than possible – ‘The Devil’ and ‘I Bleed Rock + Roll’ give great evidence that former The Voice UK contestant Mitchell Emms is indeed a great replacement for original front man Matt Jones. His hard rock vocal talent is a natural one, as is his performance capability, working well as part of the leather jacketed quartet across the front, geeing up the crowd as they storm through ‘We Are Beautiful’, ‘Bloodsucker’, ‘Cry Tough’ and the title track from recent album release ‘Generation Me’. Big riffs and big choruses with this full (s)team ahead live show should see The Treatment moving onto bigger things than already accomplished. With youth and vitality on their side, they romp home with ‘Emergency’, ‘Shake the Mountain’ and ‘Get the Party On’, setting the energy bar far higher than I can foresee any other main stage performer ever reaching, let alone tonight.
Ricky Warwick & The Fighting Hearts
If you know anything about Ricky Warwick, you’ll know he’s always been up to one thing or another. His career spans The Almighty, (sic), Circus Diablo, Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders and seven solo albums to date. Now the Northern Irishman has put together The Fighting Hearts, along with (sic) drummer Gary Sullivan, fellow Black Star Rider Robbie Crane on bass and guitarist Mark Gemini Thwaite from The Mission, to encapsulate a variety of work and take it out on the road. It’s hard for me and others in tonight’s Hard Rock Hell audience not to be excited about hearing songs from The Almighty catalogue, and we’re not disappointed as the band kick off with ‘Do You Understand’. Early on comes (sic)’s ‘Eyeball Kicks’ sandwiched in-between ‘The Road To Damascus Street’ and ‘Celebrating Sinking’ before the main man confirms: “I’m Ricky Warwick and these are the Fighting Hearts. Here’s a blast from the past.” And a blast from the past and set highlight it is – The Almighty 1994 gem ‘Wrench’. Alternating between his familiar stance and bouncing around, Warwick is forever the showman but primarily the songwriter. Throughout the set there is a string of solid, solo material, The Almighty’s ‘All Sussed Out’ and “one from the day job” – that being Black Star Riders ‘Finest Hour’. There’s a cover of ‘Tommy Gun’ by The Clash before my day is well and truly made with ‘Free ‘N’ Easy’ from The Almighty’s classic ‘Soul Destruction’ album. As the Hard Rock Hell faithful are showering the band with appreciation Ricky says “We’re out of time. Thank you very much, take care and look after each other.” To which there comes the obligatory boo’s, but it’s not quite over as the Fighting Hearts burst back into life with their version of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ and a great finish to a great set.
Graham Bonnet Band
It goes without saying that folk of a certain age (ahem!) myself included, are sure to be in the main arena to check out the legend that is Graham Bonnet. His time with Rainbow, as short lived as it was, spawned two particular songs which are as much part of our musical heritage as they are of the mans legacy. There was of course an equally short amount of time spent with MSG before his own band Alcatrazz, and combined with material from his solo career the Graham Bonnet Band has a set to entice. Unsurprisingly, for a man of 69 years old, the vocal on songs from nearly forty years ago isn’t quite what it was. Opening with Rainbow’s ‘Eyes of the World’ and one of those two classics we’re all dying to hear – ‘All Night Long’ – there’s clearly a struggle to reach the higher notes. That’s not to say the power and committal to the task no longer exists, because it most certainly does. For Italian guitarist Conrado Pesinato, reproducing the historical works of Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker and Yngwie Malmsteen is his day job, so while his voice appears to hinder rather than support Bonnet’s lead, his own guitar work is mouth-watering enough to overlook the wavering backing vocal. ‘Night Games’ and that other Rainbow classic and canonical Russ Ballard cover ‘Since You Been Gone’ are set highlights in amongst a mix of MSG, Alcatrazz and solo material. It’s far from a flawless vocal performance, but who cares? When you remember the guy looking and sounding so cool on Top of the Pops and listening to him on Rock School, let alone those songs, Graham Bonnet will always be a legend.
Ugly Kid Joe
Headliners Ugly Kid Joe hit Hard Rock Hell after two weeks touring the UK at the start of October. Since then they’ve been out across mainland Europe, returning only a few days ago and totalling 37 shows in 44 days before tonight. Frontman Whitfield Crane does appear a little below par during openers ‘Neighbor’ and ‘Jesus Rode a Harley’ but no sooner had I considered the fact – he’s into his stride. “Hard Rock Hell! Are you happy?” is the enquiry from Crane, with a response in the positive appearing to please him. He asks for the main lights to be turned on and refers to the seated VIP area to pay his respect. Apparently he had been stood in there to watch Graham Bonnet, with his back-pack on, and been told to “get out of the fucking way!” (Ha, ha, too right Whit, you don’t get annoying HRH royalty!) It’s a set is full of tracks from their highly successful, debut 1992 album ‘America’s Least Wanted’, 1995’s ‘Menace to Sobriety’ and 2012’s ‘Starway to Hell’. The obvious ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ cover is well received, but so to is every energy filled number with the crowd encouraged to bounce during ‘I’m Alright’ and Crane letting them know: “You fuckin’ rule!” Touring guitarist and Yorkshire lad Chris Catalyst along with founding member Klaus Eichstadt and bassist Cordell Crockett enjoy their view, especially during the latter half of the show which includes a homage to the new U.S. president with exotic dancers on stage in Donald Trump masks. In addition, UKJ’s European tour support Dallas Frasca and her guitarist Jeff Cullan are brought out for a cover of AC/DC’s ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’, and all of this before a cracking version of ‘Everything About You’ to complete the show. It’s a triumph for Ugly Kid Joe and one for Hard Rock Hell, with a top class, entertaining band to headline their 10th anniversary Friday night.
If you were a fan of the big hair and glam bands of the 80’s, Vixen were where it was at, and plenty of people are holding out after Ugly Kid Joe’s set to see what the present day line-up has to offer. Getting us underway with ‘Rev It Up’ there’s a number of technical difficulties, all dealt with accordingly by the tech guy run ragged around the stage. From there the answer to ‘How Much Love’ is shown by a good section of the crowd with their horns up in the air, hands clapping and singing the words as if they were thirty years younger. Janet Gardner starts the show on rhythm guitar before switching to just vocals, with ‘I Want You To Rock Me’ transforming into Deep Purple’s ‘Perfect Strangers’, which in turn gives her opportunity to talk about touring back in the day. Filling the boots of founder member Jan Kuehnemund, who sadly lost her battle with cancer in 2013, could never have been an easy job for Gina Stile, but this lady is without question a fantastic lead guitarist. Driving the band is drummer Roxy Petrucci – also a member of Madam X that I remember well from way back when – along with the thudding bass of Share Pedersen, who takes up vocals for a version of Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’. From the self-titled debut 1988 album come the hits ‘Cryin” and ‘Edge Of A Broken Heart’ and there’s an impressive cover of Van Halen’s ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love’. All in all, for those who were, and those who remain fans of the big haired, glamorous 80’s – having Vixen at Hard Rock Hell is a delicious treat.
Review & Photography: Steve Johnston // Rock Music Photographer