By now you’re probably familiar with the High Voltage slogan: ‘Custom-made by rock fans, for rock fans.’ Well, upon arrival at the festival this morning – glorious sunny skies, truly perfect weather – a curious addition to that phrase immediately sprang to mind. To wit: ‘Custom-made by rock fans, for rock fans – and Merlin.’
That’s because as soon as you negotiated the main entrance, your eyes couldn’t help but settle upon the Prog Stage – which, lo and behold, was shaped like a wizard’s hat!
It was on that same Prog Stage that the first band of the day, Touchstone, appeared. Opening song Wintercoast (introduced by the disembodied voice of Jeremy Irons, no less) started off poundingly heavy and then grew in complexity and stature. Frontgal Kim Seviour impressed immediately with her wafty, Kate Bush-style presence and pure singing voice. Curiously, Kim was dressed like a fairy; what’s more, the voluminous sleeves of her chintzy outfit brought to mind the apparel Ronnie James Dio used to wear in Rainbow. Fitting, given the events of later in the day.
Joker In The Pack proved that Touchstone have the ability to write a nifty, commercial prog ditty and Strange Days provided the first crowd singalong of the day. In all, an excellent start to High Voltage, and a performance that’s worth preserving in your memory banks. Cos a popular rock trivia question is: ‘Who was the first woman to appear on stage at the Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock festival?’ (A special no-prize to the first person who gives the correct answer in the Comments section below. Clue: it isn’t David Coverdale.) Anyhow, that’s a long-winded way of saying we have no doubt that a similar query will be posed in the coming years about HV: i.e. ‘Who was the first woman, etc etc?’ Ms Seviour being the answer, of course.
Over at the Metal Hammer stage were New Device. They worked hard but we couldn’t really see the appeal. Even though the singer sported a Mohican, they were a trifle too clean-cut and well-scrubbed for our liking. They even had (whisper it) something of a boy-band vibe about them. That said, Heaven Knows was an excellent, emo-tinged power ballad and Takin’ Over – the title track of the band’s debut album, out now on Classic Rock’s own Powerage label – provided a spirited end to their set.
Back at the Prog Stage, Pendragon put on a show of surprising majesty and considerable grandeur. There was a hugely improved sound compared to Touchstone’s; the swollen sonics of the keyboards being particularly pomptastic and impressive. Pendragon also ushered forth the first spurt of dry ice of the day: at precisely 1:25pm. An impressive touch. Goatee-bearded frontman Nick Barrett had a pleasingly gnome-like presence; indeed he seemed almost embarrassingly pleased to be on the High Voltage stage. “I’ve been looking forward to this since last Christmas,” he gasped, adding: “Only prog can save us now!” He had a point.
Back on the Metal Hammer stage, Black Spiders had the gritty realism that New Device lacked. There was a great moment when the crowd were urged to stick their middle fingers in the air and chant: “Fuck you, Black Spiders!” We were impressed by Just Like A Woman, which had the feel of a mutant Aerosmith song, and the grimy groove of St Peter tickled our fancy as well.
The Union – Thunder guitarist Luke Morley’s new venture – were the first band to appear on the main Classic Rock Stage. We started off being impressed – floppy-blond-haired singer Pete Shoulder had a fine voice and looked good, reminding us of Jon Bon Jovi with Paul Rodgers’ tonsils. However, as the set progressed it became evident that, because of the laconic nature of Shoulder’s singing style, he struggles on an uptempo song. Easy Street was, therefore, low-key and mournful, not to say dull, and Black Monday sounded similarly downbeat. Their version of Creedence’s Proud Mary was also remarkably sluggish. However, matters improved a great deal on the gentle acoustic CSN&Y-style ballad Come Rain Or Shine.
The Prog Stage was a major success for High Voltage. Focus attracted a heaving crowd, the Dutch maestros duly launching into a set full of studious, noodling, forehead-furrowing, jazz-tinged prog. There were resounding cheers when Thijs Van Leer (looking somewhat like the late comedian Charlie Drake these days) leapt up from behind his keyboard/old sideboard (it was difficult to tell which) and let loose with his first volley of flute-playing of the day. Indeed, the more the set went on, the more bonkers Van Leer became – to the point when you started to fear for his sanity. He might not be able to yodel like he used to, emitting a sound that was a cross between a hum and a whistle, but it didn’t half warm the cockles of your heart when he proclaimed: “You really are a Hocus Pocus audience.” Whatever that meant.
Ben Ward, Orange Goblin’s stalking goliath of a frontman, of course, resembles the equally giant Big Show from WWE. So much so, in fact, that the massive Metal Hammer stage looked small by comparison. This was a typically entertaining display of plodding pandemonium from the Goblin, the steamroller thud of Round Up The Horses being notably fine. It was slightly odd to watch the band while a Ferris Wheel twirled merrily around on the other side of the stage (one of many fairground attractions at High Voltage) but what the hell. There was a nice touch when Ward declared that HV was “all about Ronnie James Dio” before launching into the brutal and uncompromising Cities Of Frost – probably the closest to a Sabbath song the Goblin have in their repertoire.
Back on the main stage, The Answer’s set seemed to be going nowhere until they played Why Did You Change Your Mind – a simply superb song, slow and broody with great, gritty vocals from frontman, the impressively hirsute Cormac Neeson. Indeed, there was much to admire about Cormac’s performance: he was so plainly into it you couldn’t help but be carried along by his enthuasiasm. Where would The Answer be without him? Nowhere, we suspect. Cormac tantalised the audience by introducing “a song by a very famous Australian rock’n’roll band” – although it wasn’t AC/DC, it was Rose Tattoo, Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw somehow managing to sound both jaunty and raucous at the same time.
Returning to the Metal Hammer stage, Hammerfall were simply brilliant. Good old-fashioned synchronised headbanging and Judas Priest-style guitar choreography. Slick, professional and impressive. Why, one song even began with the sound of a motorcycle’s revving engine; it could almost have been Hell Bent For Leather. There were also tinges of The Scorpions and Accept. Our advice: bin the operatic power metal shtick and go completely gumby!
So to the freshly rockified Gary Moore on the main stage. Rumour has it that Gal has only stopped playing the blues because he’s in big financial trouble and needs to earn some serious readies. Whatever the reason, this was impressive. The last time we saw GM playing a decent rock show was when he was standing on a Kiss-style elevated platform at London’s old Hammersmith Odeon in the mid 1980s; the burly axeman has quadrupled in size (a conservative estimate) since then. Oh, and he’s got Neil Carter on keyboards. Shorn of his curly perm and wearing a stylish grey suit, he looked like Dr Evil after an extended session on the Atkins diet.
Still, Thunder Rising sounded mighty and there were even some new songs, proving that this likely ain’t no one-minute wonder. Of the newies, Where Are You Now was particularly good, very Lizzy-esque, in fact. Nevertheless, halfway through Moore’s stint our attention couldn’t help but be drawn to the T-shirt of the guy standing in front of us. It was emblazoned with the legend: ‘Legs Diamond, Sunken Gardens, September 4, 2004, San Antonio, Texas.’ Now that, my friends, is the very height of cool.
As the sun rises ever higher in the sky, and glasses of water (ahem!) get ever emptier, it’s time to catch a glimpse of Bigelf on the Prog stage, a band with a growing profile. Guess what? They live up to that reputation. Led by the enigmatic, yet charismatic Damon Fix, these fellas deliver a set that brings to mind Atomic Rooster – only with a little more humour. Definitely a band who win over a lot more fans.
Now, it’s time to do the 360 degree head turn, in the time honoured Exorcist style, because there are great bands everywhere you turn. On the Metal Hammer stage, Cathedral are giants as they slam their way through a performance that might owe something to doom and stoner rock, but is actually now a lot closer to early 70s heavy rock. They are a band who just get better and better.
At the same time (phew!), on the Prog stage Dweezil Zappa leads Zappa Plays Zappa through a set that reimagines (ah, that phrase) the catalogue of his father, Frank. Now, you could call this a tribute set, or even a cash in, but Dweezil is such a talented musician – and his band are so inventive – that it ends up being the right sort of celebration. Because the songs are turned inside out and completely retold. Frank himself might smile at the irony of the iconoclastic way his son has approached this heritage
Foreigner have the ability to be one of the bands of the day, if they stick to a classic set. And that’s what they do. Opening with Double Vision, the band don’t lose sight of the fact that the festival audience wanna dance. So, apart from the title track of new album, Can’t Slow Down, it’s hit after hit after hit. Even those born long after these were recorded are getting into the groove. And when they climax with I Wanna Know What Love Is, with a massive backing choir, we get perhaps the greatest moment in UK festival history. Because while this is being performed on the main stage, the impressive Saxon are leaning into 747 (Strangers In The Night) on the Metal Hammer stage, and Asia are starting their rather excellent mix of new and traditional songs on the Prog stage with Only Time Will Tell. Come on, has ever been a moment in the lengthy narrative of British outdoor shows when three such great songs were being performed at the same time? Remarkable. Only to bettered by…
A week ago, Geezer Butler told Classic Rock that he was dreading playing the Ronnie James Dio tribute set with Heaven & Hell. One can understand why. But chocking back the emotions, Butler, together with Tony Iommi and Vinny Appice, send shivers down the spine as they deliver the ultimate tribute to the man who’s not there. It has to be said that singers Jorn Lande and Glenn Hughes do a stunning job, not only reminding us all of the tragic loss – and there are some truly lum in the throat moments – but also underlining the way Dio’s legacy has united us all. And when Wendy Dio comes on to read out a message for the cancer charity Stand Up And Shout, there are tears in almost every eye,. Mind you, Heaven & Hell also offer the day’s most surreal moment, when Phil Anselmo dashes on during the encore of Neon Knights and snatches the microphone from an aghast Hughes. Hat stand time.
Meanwhile on the Metal Hammer stage, Black Label Society are in hell-raising form, as Zakk Wylde proves his worth as singer and guitarist. While supergroup Transatlantic are inevitably impressive finishing off the day in style on the Prog stage, being joined by Steve Hackett for a landmark cover of the Genesis masterstroke The Return Of The Giant Hogweed.
Finally, as dusk takes orders from the bar, ZZ Top come on the main stage, reminding us once again that they are a titanic mix of great songs, brilliant musicianship and a cunning sense of humour. Is there any better way to end the first day of this tremendous festival? Oh yes… the promise of a second one to come! See ya down the front for that. Roll on the morrow.
(Thanks to Classic Rock)