Hard Rock Hell 11
Thursday 9th - Saturday 11th November
Pwllheli, North Wales
On a cold Thursday morning in November, it was time take the annual pilgrimage to the North West coast of Wales for the Rock fest that is Hard Rock Hell. In its eleventh year, the festival has evolved from humble beginnings to become a staple fixture in the Rock calendar. And where there was once one HRH, the franchise now boast half a dozen or so spin off events specific to genres of Rock – AOR, Sleaze etc. And eleven years in, the HRH community has become family, with strong friendships being formed across the events. All good then? Well yes but there are some downsides. First and foremost has always been the location. Pwlheli is only easy to get to if you are a Gwynedd sheep. The rail links are hardly local, so driving is the only practical option. And that took the best part of nine and a half hours. Secondly, the increase in the numbers of HRH events, and the fact that the faithful family members pre-book the next year’s event before the line-up is announced has lead to arguably a reduction in the standard of the line-up. So it was with some trepidation that we (finally) entered the hallowed gates of Hafan Y Mor caravan site.
The format over the years hasn’t changed much. A short, single stage, themed opening Thursday night with a handful of young bands and a smaller costumed crowd out to reacquaint themselves with each other, and the local brews. All very low key. First change to this year’s event was the introduction of an awards ceremony on the Wednesday night. Heaviest drinker may be added to next year’s list of awards if this year’s was anything to go by….
This year’s Thursday night theme was ‘The Knights of the Dark Order’. Very few people donned fancy dress this year so it must be a very exclusive order. One of the reasons may have been that the normally low key line up was probably the best line up of the three nights. Which may also explain why it was considerably busier than normal and on the larger stage 1.
Openers Ryders Creed from the Midlands set the scene for what was to be another eclectic weekend of Rock and Roll from around the world. If I were to have a festival I would choose Ryders Creed as the perfect band to get the heads nodding and the toes tapping as they launched into their 45 minute set of Stoner come Classic Rock. Followed closely by California’s Idlewar with their Doomy Sludge Metal, the festival was setting itself a high bar to maintain. Idlewar’s CD was subsequently purchased. New Yorkers Killcode blasted the masses with their excellent Southern style Rock (from Northerners…?) followed by Aussie stalwarts Black Aces. Fresh from touring with fellow Aussies Tequila Mockingbyrd, the young four-piece will inevitably be likened to AC/DC. Not surprising as they cite them as an influence and is evident in their sound. Nothing wrong with that. So if you want to see a young enthusiastic irreverent AC/DC in a small and intimate venue, go check them out. Penultimate band of the night are Toby Jepson’s new crew called the Wayward Sons. Having been, for me, the notable band of the Ramblin’ Man festival in July (there were a number of bands who played both festivals), I was keen to see them play a larger stage. And they made a fine fist of it. The Wayward Sons have had an amazing year so it was good to see them well received.
The final act of the opening night for me was going to go one of two ways – either really well or really badly. Dee Snider, once frontman for Twisted Sister (who headlined HRH 1 all those years ago) is hardly a shrinking violet. In the States, the New Yorker is known as much as a personality as a singer. What were we going to get? A showman or a show off? We got a showman, and what a showman he is. The 62 year old looks as ripped as a 21 year old gym bunny but with the stage skills of a man who has been entertaining for 40 years. Although struggling with a heavy cold, so sounding huskier than usual, Dee absolutely kicked bottom. The crowd instantly warmed to him and were mesmerised by his singing and amused by his banter. Hugely entertaining, he had everyone in the palm of his hand. When playing new material he playfully requested we don’t all take that opportunity to slope off for a beer - save that for the drum solo he quipped. No one was going anywhere. New tracks were as well received as old favourites from the Sister back catalogue. But it was the openness of his emotions that resonated so much. Having flown in that day from the States when on the Monday his mother was taken seriously ill, and his friend’s son tragically took his own life the previous night, Dee was an emotional man who was so visibly moved by the love and support showed by the fans. Rock and Roll is how he deals with it and he dealt it to us in spades. What an act, what a night.
So how was Friday going to follow that? Back to the regular format of a two stage venue (both indoors thankfully) with a twelve hour day of flitting between stages to see different bands, by way of the various bars. As always, many hours are spent trying to organise the logistics of seeing the must see bands, but this year the list was pretty small. So wandering from one venue to another became the modus operandi of the weekend.
Those Damn Crows opened the smaller stage two and set the scene perfectly for the acts on that stage throughout the day. Young Rock bands with new ideas and new energy. If anyone tells you that Rock is dead, tell them to get off their arses and go and see some of these bands. It’s live and kicking butt. As the day progressed, yours truly would spend more time in stage 2 than stage one as the bands were extremely entertaining. In no specific order, Kingbreaker, Fire Red Empress, Blind River and Chasing Dragons all got added to the list of see again bands. And that’s not to say that the others aren’t worth a second look.
The main stage 1 saw a more eclectic line up with openers Goldray bring their own fragrant brand of flower power to the not so fragrant masses. What is it about large quantities of beer drinking, fast food eating Rock fans that causes such offense to the Nasal Fossa? Beats me but pass another Guinness. Syteria, featuring Girlschools Jackie Chambers, brought some all lady loving to the masses with good old Metal for mothers (and daughters) before the duo that are The Graveltones brought their London based Heavy Blues to play. Jimmy O plays guitar and provides the vocals whilst man mountain Mikey Sorbello provides the ‘Drums and Noises’. A fantastic groove for a two-piece, and with the tightest drumming you will ever see.
Probably the find of the festival for me were German rockers The New Roses. Fronted by Aragorn from Lord of the Rings (aka Timmy Rough) the quartet has been extensively touring Europe including as guest of my current favourite band The Dead Daisies. If only The Dead Daisies would come to HRH…. And The New Roses are definitely of that sound. Great Rock.
It was about this time that the main stage started to get exceedingly crowded. Whilst always well attended, the venue has been able to cater for the numbers. This year, it looks like the usually smooth running HRH machine has had a few hiccups with its organisation and it became clear that numbers were up beyond comfortable levels. Tyketto, took to the stage to keep everyone Forever Young with their brand of New York Melodic Rock and catered amply for a crowd singalong to be followed by Californians Y&T. By this time the sardines were struggling for fin room although the temperature was baking them nicely. With limited ingress/egress to the venue the security struggled to maintain a steady flow of punters so were obliged to close the venue to traffic. A problem if you felt the desire to visit stage 2. Or were an Airbourne fan on the outside. By the time headliners Airbourne hit the stage for their 2 hour blast of high octane mayhem, the situation got silly with the ever raucous crowd in danger of crushing itself. Social media the following morning was awash with comments to that effect. Come on HRH, sort it out. Nevertheless Airbourne put on their usual great show and the fans left with ringing ears and sore throats to head back to their caravans and a well deserved pot noodle.
One of the notable things with HRH is how the bands seem to get better as the weekend progresses. This year that was less so, although still of a high calibre. Saturday’s line up was similar to Fridays with a Stage 2 line up of younger enthusiastic talent showcasing their wares, whilst stage 1 catered for the established acts. Stage two provided some great bands including Western Sand (with cowbell), the hairy Bad Touch, Black Whiskey and Wicked Stone being the stand out acts that I will seek out again. Tax the Heat had the honour of closing out stage 2, and indeed the festival, as their set started as the stage 1 closed. Again, it was a night where stage 2 got my interest.
On stage 1 openers Buffalo Summer brought some Zeppelin style Rock to the (hung over) masses as the lads from South Wales strutted their stuff. And they looked like they felt they were at home too. Next up were Toseland who get better every time I see them. Front man James Toseland is a good looking ex World Superbike champion, who can sing and play keyboards as well as being a thoroughly nice chap. Makes me sick… They played a great Rock set including their hit ‘We’ll stop at nothing’ which was used as the official anthem for this years special Olympics team GB. Toning it down after Toseland were Finnish Proggers The Von Hertzen Brothers. Sandwiching their radio friendly Rock set was an opening and closing number from their new album ‘War is Over’. A dramatic and epic album, it gave the three brothers the chance to air their more spiritual side and was well received. Attendance numbers were starting to soar again as were those temperatures. The crowd were getting basted and wasted in equal measures.
Scottish veterans Gun took to the stage with a set that really got the crowd going. As age does to you, they started slow but soon enough, when the creaking limbs got moving, they showed those young whippersnappers how it’s done. They are just the sort of band this festival needs. More. Following Gun were Lynch Mob, formed by ex Dokken guitarist George Lynch. At least I think they were there as frontman Oni Logan repeatedly stated his pleasure at being at Hellfest. I think the Argentinian could be forgiven for mistaking the windswept November Welsh coast for the French summer Metalfest. So similar after all…
Penultimate band of the night were Glastonbury’s own Reef. Perhaps more Britpop than Rock they nevertheless entertained the crowd and got them jumping with great songs like ‘Place Your Hands’ and ‘Precious Metal’. And amazing to watch too. Go Google barefooted giant bassist Jack Bessant. You should have a Jack Bessant in every band. Headliners, and stage 1 closers were Black Star Riders. Another band that has gone from strength to strength, they are slowly shaking off the Thin Lizzy ties and really shining with their own material. Of course you have to have the odd Lizzy track with the likes of Scott Gorham, Damon Johnson and Robbie Crane in the band - the obligatory Whisky in the Jar (o) - but their own catalogue of material is easily strong enough to stand up by itself. Frontman Ricky Warwick is just tre cool and a perfect frontman. This could be his finest hour, this could be his Shangri La, if only they can keep it together they will find their way. A great band to finish the evening.
Heading home we mused over the weekends entertainment and line up issues. As ever, although not strong on paper, the line up still managed to please with act of the weekend going to Dee Snider and new band for me being The New Roses. Although Thursday night for me was the strongest night, the rest of the weekend was still an enjoyable tour de force of rock music. With HRH 2018 selling out fast, did we want to commit to all this again next year? Would the line up be worth travelling a lifetime to see? With the announcement of Saxon, Girlschool and The Dead Daisies as next year’s headliners, our wallets were thinned accordingly and places booked. It’s a great all round weekend, whatever the names, and if the Dead Daisies will be there, so will I. I wonder who else will be added to the line up? And what other great new bands we will discover? Regardless, we will still be there to see the familiar HRH faces. It is family after all.
Mother (pictures courtesy of John Bull)