Maid Of Stone Festival Day 3
Sunday 23rd July 2023
Mote Park, Maidstone
It was still Sunday morning when Brave Rival hit the Phoenix stage; church bells had long stopped ringing but there should have been an extra late peal to celebrate the fact that, after a soggy Saturday in the park, the sun was shining on the festival faithful. Brave Rival have been touring non-stop over the past year and wowing audiences across the country with their engaging performances. Chloe Josephine and Lindsey Bonnick on joint lead vocals roam the stage interacting with each other in exaggerated, dramatic poses as well as individually sidling up to Ed Clarke on lead guitar and Billy Dedman on bass respectively. They are both visually arresting and, more importantly, have tuneful and powerful voices that soar above the backing, without descending into caterwauling. The set still focuses on last year’s superb debut studio album, ‘Life’s Machine’, with big hitters like ‘Heart Attack’ and ‘Guilty Love’ standing out, as well as some new numbers, ‘Bad Choices’ and ‘Stars On My Stars’ (or something similar!). They are very easy on the ear, as well as the eye and it was a real pleasure to hear some proper guitar playing from Ed, particularly when they took it down to play some slow Blues; the kind of playing where there can exist a moment before the note is heard, a fractional pause when alternative choices are possible and a solo can veer into a different melodic path, as opposed to thrashing out chords with as much thought as a construction worker puts into knocking down a wall, which seemed to be the MO for a number of other outfits at the festival.
That was a good start to the day and Sons of Liberty maintained the good vibe on the Jeff Beck stage. This was the third time I’ve caught the West country rockers this year and they impress each time with their well-constructed songs and the dual guitar attack of Fred Hale and Andy Muse. New front man Russ Grimmett has all the moves and youthful charm, while Hale is the master of onstage gurning and general facial expressiveness, not to mention laying down some stinging solos. Songs like ‘Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ and ‘Up Shit Creek’ from debut album ‘Animism’ and ‘Ruby Starr’ and ‘I Come In Peace’ from follow up ‘Aces & Eights’ stood out. Really enjoyable. Backstage later on, the guitarists were equally amiable in chatting briefly. So, all round good eggs!
I didn’t catch a lot of the set by Nine Miles South and apart from noting that they gave a fully impassioned performance, not a lot stood out as memorable. They have some good songs and material like ‘Bones’ and ‘The Butcher And His Dog’ distinguishes them from a lot of other bands operating in a similar broad catchment area. They would be worth hearing some more, which I couldn’t really say about Florence Black, who gave it large on the main stage, hair being flung left right and centre, guitar necks being tackled as if wrestling to the death with a boa constrictor, but, apart from tickling a few ear bones, made little musical impression, although they went down well with the crowd.
In between these two bands, were a trio that provided a refreshingly original approach. Compromising drums, lead guitar and (mostly) banjo, The Outlaw Orchestra combine an inventively rocking groove, reminiscent of a less bombastic Cadillac Three, with onstage charisma and excellent songs with witty lyrics. They kicked off proceedings with a chugging version of ‘Come Together’ followed by singer Dave asking what food the audience would recommend at the festival; quick as a flash from the audience came ‘Chicken Fried Snake’, which cued the band up nicely for that gem from their ‘Pantomime Villains’ album. ‘Too Much Willie Nelson’ featured in the set and sums up their approach to songwriting. This was one of those sets it was hard to drag yourself away from in order to mooch off to catch the start of the next act up on a different stage.
More US influenced Rock was heard later in the day in the form of Nitroville, an established North London band, who delivered a punchy set. Their publicity describes them as performing high voltage Rock’n’Roll poetry.That didn’t really come across in this performance (mainly because that’s the sort of meaningless nonsense that keeps copy writers amused) but, fronted by the feisty singer Tola Lamont, they were good value. ‘Louisiana Bone’ stood out and was representative of their general vibe. The mid-afternoon spot on the main stage was filled with some real quality in the form of Elles Bailey and her excellent band. She has a fabulous, rich and expressive voice and oozes charm and warmth. Before her set she was effortlessly charming to one and all backstage, unpacking a new pair of spangly stage shoes and asking for an opinion about their likely impact. She has a rare gift of communication with audiences. She doesn’t have any bad songs. Each song is the product of some thoughtful songwriting and very tasteful arranging. Joe Wilkins on lead guitar kept it understated but had more impact than most of the other posturing players that graced the same stage; his sinuous slide playing on ‘Stones’ being a case in point, catching the ear while perfectly complementing the song. There was an eight note repeated run in this song that had more genuine impact than pretty much anything heard over the whole weekend. As well as crowd pleasers like ‘The Game’ and ‘Sunshine City’, the singer added some new covers, John Martyn’s ‘Over The Hill’ and Delaney and Bonnie’s ‘Long Road Ahead’. Classy stuff.
Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons pumped out the sort of music that, while not massively original, was guaranteed to keep the festival crowd in the right mood. Coming back to the main stage towards the end of their set, the classic sound of ‘Silver Machine’ brought a smile to the face, not so much floating as pummelling through the air. This was followed by ‘Killed By Death’, which went down a bomb. Three-piece all female band Haxan made an impression in the tented Maiden stage. Chantel McGregor played a thoughtful set on the Phoenix set. She is a very talented guitarist and vocalist but, personally, I find it hard to engage with her music. She has a lovely personality and really commands the stage but regardless of the technical mastery on display there is something missing for me. It didn’t help that the bass player looked like an older, even moodier version of Harry Enfield’s teenage character ‘Kevin’.
The final acts of the festival were completely different from each other, but all equally impactful in their own way. Robert Jon & The Wreck were the final act on the Phoenix stage and it was definitely a case of saving the best to last. These Californians are riding a crest of wave and can’t put a foot wrong. They have produced a seemingly endless series of classic, Melodic Rock songs and have a back catalogue that most bands would envy, not to mention a very rosy looking future as they attract more fans with every powerful performance. As the sun fell and damp, colder air began to rise across the site, they delivered a stunning set featuring trademark crowd pleasers like the fast paced ‘Waiting For Your Man’, ‘Oh Miss Carolina’ (lusty singing from the crowd on the monster chorus for this), ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’ (one of the best Rock songs of recent years) and the Allman-esque ‘Cold Night’, as well as new material in the form of ‘Bring Me Back Home Again’ from their latest album ‘Ride Into the Night’. Sheer Brilliance.
From what I’d listened to briefly ahead of the festival, I hadn’t expected much from the set on the main stage by Skindred. To be honest, as the festival was heading towards its close there was that sense of thinking enough might be enough, or at least, not feeling ultra-enthusiastic about unfamiliar acts that you suspected might not be totally at one with your personal musical taste. It was a real pleasure, therefore, to be proved wrong about Skindred. There were two elements that set the band apart from the majority of the heavier acts that appeared over the weekend. Firstly, in Benji Webbe, their dreadlocked singer, the band has a front man who is also a real showman. His lengthy dialogues with the crowd, which were built into the structure of several songs, were masterpieces of comic timing and delivery and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his skeleton gloved hands. It was pure theatre.
It goes to show that there’s a lot to be said for enlarging the usual script of other singers that rely on shouting at the crowd to “make some fucking noise” as the mainstay of their audience inter-action, which is not only unimaginative but pretty irritating. It’s worth noting that, without resorting to screaming, his voice was clearly the lead instrument, which not many bands managed. The other distinguishing feature of this mob is their mixing of multiple musical styles, primarily Heavy Rock and Reggae with various beats and electronica thrown in here and there for extra flavour. This sort of thing can be a bit of a mess, but Skindred mashed these elements up brilliantly, managing to introduce quieter moments when the beats and bass carried the momentum before unleashing a wall of sound on the choruses. They are a great live band and a lot of fun. Benji got the crowd doing their trademark, the “Newport (their hometown) Helicopter”, which involved mass swirling of clothing above heads. As usual with this sort of thing it was the people you’d rather didn’t take their tops off that got stuck in.
Last up on the main stage were the festival headliners, Ozzy rockers Airbourne. I didn’t know much about them beforehand and had no real expectations. The anticipation was high before they came on with a large crowd pressed in tight against the barriers. In the pit, the low rumble of the introductory music in the bass speakers had already started rib cages rattling in a way that the medical fraternity would not have approved of. The massed stack of Marshall amps stretching up and across the wide stage were an ominous sight, and threatened to melt the sturdiest ear plugs. All of a sudden the stage was flooded with what can only be described as dramatically overblown lighting (a photographer’s nightmare) and the four-piece burst on stage and were up and rocking with an intensity that was electrifying.
Vocalist and lead guitarist Joel O’Keeffe was the main visual focus. Topless and dripping with moisture (topped up as he tipped a water bottle over himself every so often), he was a manic presence exuding a sense of frenetic energy that had a genuine authenticity. He not only looked the part, he was the part. Ignoring the festival organisers’ request for bands to refrain from swearing, the front man unleashed a series of F bombs (not the first of the day) in one shout out to the crowd alone, encouraging them to do whatever they wanted. They were mightily impressive. I don’t know what they played for sure but, from subsequent repeat listens to their albums, ‘Runnin’ Wild’ and ‘Too Much, Too Young, Too Fast’ sounded familiar from the start of their set. Apart from coming from the same place, there is a definite similarity between Airbourne and venerable Oz rockers AC/DC, mainly in the agonisingly high-pitched vocal style as well as their penchant for full frontal fast riffing and rousing choruses. Somewhere else in Maidstone fireworks lit the sky during their set and provided a fitting backcloth and a nice full stop to what had been an excellently organised festival and a weekend to remember. Hopefully, this inaugural Maid Of Stone Festival will be the first of many more to come.