High Voltage Day 2

The first band of Day Two were The Reasoning on the Prog Stage. The big surprise was seeing frontwoman Rachel Cohen dressed in a decidedly non-prog outfit of a plain-looking white vest and matching shorts; close your eyes and it could almost have been (utter heresy, we know) Lily Allen. Otherwise it was business as usual – moments of delightful waftiness set against periods of extreme heaviness, with unexpected Yes-style veers in direction to keep you on your toes. There was an amusing nudge-nudge moment when Cohen proclaimed: “It’s our job to get your vocal cords lubricated for the day – oo-er!” Closing song Aching Hunger was ace, the crowd chanting along with the mantra: ‘I’ve got that aching hunger, won’t you help me feed it.’ A singalong challenge for an ordinary rock crowd, but the prog hordes, naturally, took it in their stride.

Somehow in recent years The Quireboys – who at one point seemed destined for the dumpster – have become A National Treasure. Frontman Spike has a real swagger about him these days, and he’s got that perilous mic-stand-twirling thing completely off pat as well – something that never used to happen back in the old days. Spike’s voice has matured as well, somehow becoming gruffer but also richer. Mona Lisa Smiled exuded class and There She Goes Again was celebratory and spectacular.

“To your prog collection point please.” Yep, it was time to venture toward the Prog Stage again, this time to hear Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash play their classic Argos* album in its entirety. If you’ve been following the epic debate on the Classic Rock website, you’ll know that many doubt the legitimacy of Turner’s version of the Ash. Well, everything sounded mighty fine to us; songs such as Time Was and The King Will Come (a near-perfect rendition) were gentle, measured and stylish – the perfect accompaniment to a glorious English (note: English) sunny summer’s day. This was an epic, 70-minute set but to the Ash’s credit it never flagged. There was a fine moment when, after a particularly tasty guitar solo from Ray Hatfield, Turner bellowed: “Ray Hatfield – rubbish!” Which, of course, he wasn’t. Turner also reminisced about the time when the Ash played outdoors in London at the Oval (we believe it was a Melody Maker Poll Awards concert) “in 1927… sorry, it was 1972.” A nice bit of self-deprecation. *Alright, we know it’s really called Argus.

Over at the Metal Hammer stage, Wales’ finest young rock band, Lethargy, proved their worth with a storming set full of angsty complexity. This was a monstrous performance peppered with true class; surely there are great things in prospect for this fresh-faced and enthusiastic four-piece. Show closer Purification – also the title of their current album, out now on Classic Rock’s Powerage label – sounded suitably mayhemic and maniacal. Breathtaking stuff.

UFO’s first song on the Main Stage, Save Me, was a curious choice of set-opener with its slow pace, acoustic slide-guitar intro and all. Then things went horribly wrong when Vinnie Moore’s guitar (the electric variety this time) refused to work on Only You Can Rock Me. Singer Phil Mogg remained remarkably unphased, however, remarking: “This is why we never got on the X Factor, give us a slow handclap.” Moore’s guitar was eventually restored and from there UFO never looked back, bombarding the crowd with classic after classic: Lights Out, Love To Love et al.

A quick dash back to the Metal Hammer stage, where we found Audrey Horne kicking up a storm. We’ll admit to being totally unfamiliar with this Norwegian combo’s music, although we do know that they took their name from Sherilynn Fenn’s character in Twin Peaks. So there! But we were severely impressed by their hard rock/post grunge shtick. Even though singer Toschie was dressed like a hospital porter in his all-white outfit, he had something of the Geoff Tate about him. Audrey Roberts (sorry, Horne) might overwrought at times, but they’re never less than interesting.

We wish we could say the same of High On Fire, who followed the Horne on the MH Stage, but this alleged power trio did nothing for us, and frontman Matt Pike’s guttural vocals were, to be honest, rubbish. There were few clues to the band’s stoner metal background… still, if you like the thought of Slayer being played at 33-and-a-third rpm on a hi-fi made of soggy cardboard, they could be right up your street. For those missing a Pete Way arse-crack moment during UFO’s set (Way being replaced in UFO by Barry Sparks these days) Pike provided that very experience, his beer gut pushing the waistband of his jeans down repeatedly to reveal you-know-what.

Back on the Prog Stage – a spectacular success for High Voltage; who would’ve thought it?! – Steve Hackett’s supremely musicianly set had the crowd in raptures. Interestingly, the ex-Genesis guitarist had two gals in his band: rhythm guitarist Amanda Lehmann and bassist… oh, hang on a minute… it’s actually Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo! Wearing a skirt! Now we’ve seen everything. A special mention, too, for saxophonist Rob Townsend who supplied some memorable interjections in the manner of the parp-meister himself, David Jackson of Van der Graaf Generator fame.

We saw Bachman Turner at Sweden Rock a few weeks back, and the best phrase we could come up with to describe them was ‘entertainingly decrepit’. That still held true for High Voltage, but you can’t knock it. BT had a great groove and songs such as Roll On Down The Highway, Rolling Along and Hey You were simplistic but highly effective. Still, that didn’t stop the couple in front of us from sitting cross-legged on their straw mats, reading the Sunday papers in seemingly bored fashion, but more fool them. There was a memorable moment when Randy Bachman proclaimed: “We’re back!”  And did they play You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet? Well, to answer that question, the words ‘bears’, ’shit’ and ‘woods’ spring to mind.

For heritage bands, festivals are all about being given the chance to reinforce your appeal to older audiences, and to pick up young fans. How do you that? By playing the classic songs. As almost every band of that ilk over these two days appreciates. And then there’s Magnum.

Quite why this superb British band choose to open their set with three comparatively new songs defies belief. Maybe, they want to prove they’re not a nostalgia act? OK, but do that on your own tour. Not here. The Prog stage is packed, and if the band had delivered the right set, the benefits would have been enormous. Get the old-school Magnum devotees going, and the young ones will pick up on the atmosphere. As it is, Magnum blow it – big time. Introducing some classics later on doesn’t help. The damage has been done.

Out on the Metal Hammer stage, things are so much more positive as Clutch deliver a compulsive psychedelic blues set. This is one of the best bands in the world – and they hold the audience spellbound.

Meantime – it’s a whirl at the moment – Joe Bonamassa proves on the main stage that he’s not just a gifted guitarist, but has the voice and the performance potential to be more than just another fretboard fretter.

But wait, what is this on the Prog stage? Ah, it’s Uriah Heep, playing the whole of their 1972 album Demons And Wizards, and doing it with such panache and style, it’s almost as if it’s only just been written. The introduction of Micky Moody on slide guitar is an inspiration, and the crowd is so vast, it’s overspilling into the Helter Skelter area.

Not to be outdone, Opeth have the crowd backed up on the Metal Hammer stage, as they prove they’re among the prog metal giants. This is a powerful, progressively-inclined set from a band at the top of their game.

But you can’t actually stand still for even a moment, because next on the Prog stage are Argent. The original line-up together for the first time in 37 years. It’s slightly amusing to hear that Rod Argent is just a little louder than everyone else. But the band do bear his name, and while due respect is paid to Russ Ballard, you know Rod is at the epicentre. But the set is spectacular – starting with It’s Only Money Parts I And 2, taking in Hold Your Head Up and God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You… even The Zombies’ She’s Not There and Rainbow’s hit Since You’ve Been Gone, written by Ballard. Watch out for a full tour – it’s worth the effort.

Joe Elliott is leading his troops – well,  the Quireboys – through a Down ‘N’ Outz set of Mott The Hoople related covers on the main stage. It’s entertaining, but the real star is a three-year-old girl in the crowd who shows the sort of moves that could make her a star in 15 years. Everyone, it seems, is trying to video and photograph her. It sums up this festival that 40-somethings on stage are playing songs almost older than themselves and getting a three-year-old into the music. Priceless. The generation barrier is hereby abolished. But it’s when Ian Hunter walks on that everything takes off. The man’s a rock star. And the way he leads with an acoustic guitar on Once Bitten, Twice Shy is a lesson.

Headlining the Metal Hammer stage, Down are energetic and dynamic, to the point of being close to stealing the whole festival. It’s just stunning. Almost matched, albeit in a rather more low key fashion, by Marillion on the Prog stage. With Fish oddly watching in the crowd, they are mesmerising by accentuating the music not the personalities.

And so to ELP. The headliners on the main stage. Back together for the first time in nearly a decade-and-a-half. This is the band, more than any other, who made most of the world hate prog – and made all of us who love the music so dedicated to them. Bombastic? Yes. Self-indulgent? Absolutely. Losing the musical plot? Totally. But would we have them any other way? No. Tonight, they show once again why prog is despised by the ignorant majority and loved by the cognoscenti. Whether we seem them again is irrelevant. We’ve got to see them one last time.

For no other reason – and there are plenty of others – High Voltage is a triumph. But you know what? Overall, it’s been the best festival this year, because it was bold and brave enough to bring back ELP,  to back prog and to give us a bill that was all killer, no filler. Roll on 2011.

(Thanks to Classic Rock)

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