Venue: Wales, Ebbw Vale
Date: 28-30th July 2023
The lineup this year is quite biased towards Blues-based bands, and that’s a shame as previous years have mixed it up a bit more. That said, there’s not a duffer amongst them,
I’ve been going to the wonderful Steelhouse Festival in Wales for over a decade now, on and off, and the lineup never fails to impress, although the weather often does. As ever, the hardest part is getting in, with the slow queue testing the strongest of bladders and the potholes making the rocky mountain way a highway to hell if you lack decent suspension. As it is, my headbanging started early as I was hurled from side to side, but it’s all part of the fun, innit.
Steelhouse always reminds me of a village fete with loud, stonking music, and that hasn’t changed. The sides of the arena house food and goods stalls (including a bloody good chilli), with a covered area stretching across the middle. There’s a good-sized stage with a small ramp out into the audience, plus screens either side and one on the blind side of the middle divide. It’s a decent, practical setup.
The lineup this year is quite biased towards Blues-based bands, and that’s a shame as previous years have mixed it up a bit more. That said, there’s not a duffer amongst them, from Friday opener Dan Byrne to Sunday headliners Black Stone Cherry. Byrne himself plays to a decent crowd just after lunch, and impresses with his excellent wail and crunchy set, whilst Jordan Red follow him and up the ante with songs like the amazing ‘Freakshow’, all aided by frontman Daniel Leigh absolutely owning the stage. It all gets a little Suvvern next, and it’s a nice switch sideways as The Karma Effect are a pretty cool band. There’s a little of The Black Crowes in their single ‘Testify’, and elsewhere, but they give a decent amount of welly live, with vocalist and Toby Jepson lookalike (well, to me anyway) Henry Gottelier commanding the stage well.
Next up, we finally get a female on stage, and she’s well worth the wait, as it’s When Rivers Meet’s gorgeous vocalist Grace Aaron. Luckily she sings as good as she looks, and the band plough through a set that has a real feel of a seventies supergroup, with big hooks, soulful vocals and nice, bass heavy riffage. Though Blues based, they give of a different energy to anyone else, and really stick in the mind long after they’ve lost the stage. Next we have Ginger Wildheart & The Sinners, except we don’t. Poor old Ginger is unavailable (and that’s all I’m saying, except we wish him the best), and his spot has been filled by Black Star Riders man Sam Wood. Against the odds Sam does a great job, and I thoroughly enjoy the laid-back Americana that was demonstrated so well on the album. ‘Nice To Meet You’ and ‘Wasted Time’ lose none of their substance, and although much of Sam’s banter doesn’t land like it should, I enjoy it. The reaction is less than enthusiastic for the most part, I assume due to both the lack of the promised band leader and the fact the music is way less heavy than what has gone before. Were they good, though? Hell yeah!
Finally, the Kris Barras Band take the stage and the crowd goes wild. Seriously, this lot are more popular than I realised, but then again they’re also bloody good. Barras himself makes sure that everyone knows who’s in charge, delivering meaty riffs, decent growly vocals and even some shredding, notably in a great extended cover of Led Zep’s ‘Rock & Roll’, which nicely breaks up a set of good songs that nonetheless can flow into each other a bit. Talented and energetic, Barras had an uphill climb (as have we all) given what’s gone before, but he nailed it.
After a damp night and the usual physical reminders of why I really shouldn’t go camping (“Oooh me back!” etc), it’s good to get back to the music as the afternoon rolls around with a suspicious lack of rain. Dead Man’s Whiskey start us off and, although they’re good at what they do, they just aren’t as exciting as yesterday’s openers. The set is solid, Heavy Rock played well, but itchy feet take me to the beer area when they should have been rooted to the main arena. I was looking forward to Austin Gold’s set, a band I only discovered because they were playing here. A great band who are a blend of heavy melodies and smooth vocals they absolutely nail it from beginning to end. Definitely the band to beat today, frontman David James Smith and his lads can be very proud. Returnees from 2022 Black Spiders have a lot of support here, and deliver a set in which they can do no wrong. Replacing Blues Pills on the line up could have been tricky, but their energetic and catchy Heavy Rock really goes down well, the sort of music that fists in the air were invented for. They come in, kill it completely, then piss off to play the Rock & Blues festival. Austin Gold are more subtle, but by God Black Spiders know how to leave you with a stupid grin on your face.
Hailing from Belgium, Black Mirrors are nothing to do with a certain Netflix show, and all to do with some pretty groovy sounds. Marcella Di Troia has a powerful, passionate voice, and when they fire on all cylinders it’s all very entertaining indeed. For some reason they sound quieter than the other bands so far, and it’s a shame as it certainly robs them of some of the power I know they have. In the end they display a similar groove to When Rivers Meet, but fail to light up the stage like yesterday afternoon’s heroes. We’re treated to a second female fronted band in a row, but there’s a noticeable step up as The Damn Truth take the stage. Singer Lee-La Baum brings yet another seventies feel to the stage, throwing slinky shapes and impressing with her Joplin-esque vocals and maraca work, matched by the sometimes ferocious power of her Canadian bandmates. Power and Soul combine well, and The Damn Truth leave behind a stupefied audience who want more.
It all gets busy and Bluesy next, as Florence Black come on to a fantastic roar. It’s my second time seeing them so I’m not surprised, and their set is a heavy, harmonic delight. There may only be three of them but they manage to erect a wall of sound that threatens to fall over and flatten the audience, who at least would die happy. There’s not much flair on display, and Florence Black simply bludgeon the crowd into submission with music that is REALLY hard not to simply enjoy for what it is – Heavy Blues Rock, played well. The night is trying to draw in as Those Damn Crows take the warm up spot for headliners Airbourne, and as with Florence Black there’s a lot of love for them here. Whilst they still have that Bluesy sound, Those Damn Crows have more variety in what they do with it, and have two extra members over Florence Black probably helps. ‘Man On Fire’, for example, has a wonderful fluidity to it, and vocalist Shane Greenhall handles it, and every other song, with aplomb. Regulars at Steelhouse, it’s worth checking out a few older videos to see just how much the band have grown both in songwriting and stage presence, a very natural and impressive upward spiral that’s resulted in a band that fully deserve their lofty spot this year.
After a day featuring only a few showers, it’s a bright and breezy (and drunk, natch) crowd that try to deafen Airbourne as they come out and go straight into ‘Ready To Rock’ like the Metal maniacs they are. Joel O’Keefe seems to have hurt his foot, but it really doesn’t seem to slow him down as he runs all over the place when not singing as usual. They crank out some favourites, or course, and it’s nice to hear ‘Steel Town’ in honour of the anniversary of the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s construction, the steel for which came from round these parts. Nice touch. It’s all much of a muchness, of course, but Airbourne do it so bloody well they’re irresistible, and by the time ‘Running Wild’ rolls round I’m hoarse, happy and completely shagged out. Cheers, Aussie lads, that was bonza!
Well, after that there’s nowhere to go but home, as we are unable to make the Sunday. By all accounts it was full of great music (of course) and torrential rain, but because it’s the friendliest festival around everyone just got on with drinking, dancing and drowning with big smiles on wet faces. Tickets are already on sale for next year, and it’s not in doubt that the line-up will be stellar, so take a punt, buy a reinforced tent or a camper van, and get ready to Rock the mountain at least one more time.
Review: Alan Holloway