Stonedead Festival 2021: Review
Words: Dan Barnes
Photos: Sean Larkin
With Chateaux de Razor’s Edge on ‘rona-induced isolation – a Poe-esque Masque filling its opulent halls, no doubt – it falls to me, your humble scribe, to sharpen his quill, unroll a fresh parchment and kiss Mrs B a fare-thee-well before firing up the horses and heading back down to a field in the East Midlands.
It was only two weeks before that myself and a similarly aged friend were lamenting the disappearance one-day-one-stage festivals of old. Those original Monsters of Rock shows at Donington Park when the line-up consisted of six bands, and it was an honour and a privilege to be invited to play.
Stonedead might not yet be at the 107,000 ticket point yet, but the sell-out 4,000 crowd, sitting slowly roasting in the Bank Holiday weekend sun, lap up the deliberate nostalgia of the Monsters of Rock vibe; the tag-line of the festival itself being: “One Day, One Stage, One Monster Rock Show.”
2021 is the third Stonedead show and the first to bear the name Stonedead – 2018 and 2019’s shows having been Stonedeaf before the change of name was announced – and having heard nothing be good things from anyone and everyone who had attended in those years, I was eager to experience the show myself.
Like Bloodstock a couple of weeks before, Stonedead had endeavoured to retain the bulk of the previously announced 2020 line-up and, for the most part, managed to do so. But, like Bloodstock, the ‘rona was keen on having the last word and billing changes became inevitable; even going into the final week before the show Black Star Riders had been forced to cancel and I arrived on site to be told The Treatment were not able to play.
However, pressure creates diamonds and suitable replacement acts were sourced. Probably a more immediate problem was the lack of a stage up to Thursday and the tireless efforts of the crew to build the emergency replacement they got. Still, this is a Rock & Roll show and what’s a little adversity among friends? (says the guy sitting in the camping chair, getting a tan and keeping his blood pressure at a (reasonable) level!)
Stonedead is unashamedly a Classic Rock festival and, as such, revels in serving up a plethora of Guitar Gods and Rock Star swagger, of monstrous riffs and even bigger hooks. If you listen to some voices in the media, they’ll have you believe this music died of old age many moons ago; I’d say the sea of 8,000 hands raised in the air by the end of the day would blow that theory out of the water. Just as Rebellion Punk festival mixes the established with the up and coming, so Stonedead combines the legacy artists with the new torch bearers to remind us that the music we grew up listening to is in safe hands.
First up is Dead Man’s Whiskey, a young hard-rockin’ five-piece from London who open their set with the highly appropriate Live, Loud and Ready from their Under the Gun debut album. This is followed by the forthcoming Breakout, featuring a powerhouse vocal by frontman, Nico Rogers and some serious shredding from lead guitarist Billy Kons. It’s good to note that Dead Man’s Whiskey stick to the more traditional subject matter for their songs: Rock & Roll and having a good time. With the year-and-a-half we’ve all just had we need something to raise our spirits and what better than some screaming classic rock? Last Train is introduced as a song about Walthamstow (never been, can’t comment) and Nico dedicates the ballad Make You Proud to his mum. It’s the sort of lighter-in-the-air track that would have been begging for a 1980’s video – all black and white, grainy and slow motion. Racing Bullet ends the set in a faster, more urgent manner, a shredding solo and the first of the day’s many singalongs marks the end of their triumphant set and the start of a great day.
Compare Krusher appears as the stage is being reset to announce Testament will not be playing – he meant The Treatment, but by his own admission he had been pissing blood since Bloodstock so can be excused for such a faux-pax.
Very late replacements for The Treatment are Manchester’s Absolva. Fortunately on site in their other capacity as Blaze Bayley’s band, the melodic, yet powerful, Mancunians encapsulate that NWOBHM ethos through their racing guitars and pounding drums. 2017’s Defiance album dominates the setlist this afternoon, with opener Life on the Edge revelling in a Maiden-esque twin guitar assault. There’s a certain crunch to Absolva’s sound as they blend the epic with the sonically aggressive. Chris Appleton even goes for the first: “Scream for me, Stonedead” of the day. Never a Good Day to Die has something of the Iced Earth about it which is hardly surprising as brother Luke spent almost a decade playing bass for the American band. Never Back Down is preceded with a call to “Raise your giraffes in the air” (you really had to be there for that) while Code Red is formed around a big hook and a grinding chorus. Considering the extremely short-notice, Absolva pull off a minor miracle with today’s performance.
When you use Queen’s We Will Rock You as an intro tape, you are really going to have to deliver. Luckily Myke Gray has been delivering high quality Rock & Roll shows for many decades as a member of Jagged Edge and later Skin. Trip down Memory Lane, but I first saw Jagged Edge supporting Ozzy Osbourne at the Ritz in Manchester, waaaaaay back in July 1988 and then again at the 1991 Cumbria Rock Festival on a bill with Wolfsbane, The Almighty and Marillion. A few years later Skin seemed to be everywhere from 1993 onwards, including tours with Little Angels and Thunder and on Donington 1994’s second stage with The Wildhearts, Terrorvision and after Biohazard’s infamous set.
Streamers, sparklers and air-blasts fire from the front of the stage as Stand Up For Rock & Roll gets the crowd in a party mood. House of Love is the first of five Skin numbers played this afternoon and I could not believe I remembered most of the words to Look But Don’t Touch. With my punk credibility lying in tatters at my feet all I can do is embrace the music, accept Gloria Estefan’s apocalyptic warning that the rhythm is, indeed, going to get me, and boogie along to Tower of Strength and Shine Your Light like it’s 1993 all over again.
Live Fast, Die Fast – along with Blood, Fire and Love – are still records that send shivers of remembrance down my back whenever I hear them. That long hot summer of 1990 is soundtracked in my mind by these two albums and, therefore, Wolfsbane hold a very special place in my heart. It’s fair to say that Blaze’s tenure fronting Iron Maiden was not the seamless torch-passing all involved hoped it would be and for every Dio replacing Ozzy, there is countless Ripper replacing Halford or, in this case, Bayley replacing Dickinson. In retrospect The X Factor is not at all a bad record, it is just a record that was displaced in time. And the fact that Maiden still include songs from the Blaze-era in their sets to this day speaks of the strength of some of those songs.
Kicking off his set with Lords of the Flies, Blaze Bayley – along with backing band Absolva – make a fair fist of recreating the sound of 1995. The brothers Appleton dual each other like Murray and Gers and they manage to get the tone exactly right; close your eyes and you could be sitting in a field listening to mid-nineties Maiden. My personal favourite from the Blaze-era is Sign of the Cross, with its complex time-changes and epic scope, and this song is played with only a few minutes at the beginning of the track being missed for the sake of brevity. Judgement of Heaven’s harder-hitting parts are brought to life in the most visceral manner and the little, if ever, played Virus from the Best
of the Beast compilation sees the Maiden sound being diversified for the mid-nineties. The consummate singalong track from the Blaze-era is undoubtably The Clansman and there were a few Saltires hoisted aloft – and cries of “Freedom” bellowed – along with the man on the stage. We did not get the whole nine-minutes of The Angel and the Gambler, rather a truncated version and Mr Bayley ended this nostalgia trip with Man on the Edge and Futureal. It was, he said, his first day back at work after a sixteen month lay off but any ring-rustiness was well hidden. A new record and an upcoming UK tour scheduled for the autumn and the announcement of a new Wolfsbane record for 2022 suggests Blaze is going to have been glad of that rest.
Confession time: I loves me a bit of Country music. I didn’t take much arm-twisting when Mrs B wanted to go and see Dolly Parton, and I watched every season of Nashville – though did take umbridge at the besmirching of the family name by Hayden Panettiere’s character – so when I’m confronted with a solid slice of Southern Rock I’m loving it. One time MMA brawler turned guitar god, Kris Barras seemingly has his work cut out for him following Blaze Bayley’s successful set. However, instead of trying to fight fire with fire, Kris and co go for the killing with kindness option. Ignite (Light It Up) from the last record is an easy, laidback boogie, perfect for an afternoon in the sun. Forthcoming single Dead Horses sees some impressive vocal harmonies, while My Parade sparks an impromptu singalong from the crowd after Kris believed the song was over. The band play through jams, exploring musically without breaking the captivating spell of the performance. A cover of The Alabama State Trooper’s Going Down is filled with Southern swagger and the finale of Hail Mary gives the crowd another chance to flex those vocal chords.
By this point in the afternoon it would be understandable for the gathered mass to begin to lose some of their energy. Sun, beer and five great performances really take it out of you. So, what’s required is a booster and there’s none better than Lancaster’s very own Massive Wagons. Having been touring and recording for a decade or more, it’s easy to see how the band seem so at ease on stage. Citing influences such as Status Quo, UFO and Slade among others, and having played arena shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd and at Download Festival, has given Massive Wagons a rock-solid foundation upon which to build.
It’s wall to wall party anthems for today’s set and they very much remind me of the afore-mentioned Wolfsbane who, back in the early 1990s could reinvigorate a crowd at a moments notice. The Curry Song sees Barry Mills and co leading the throng through one of the most admittedly inane chants heard all day. Momentum builds even higher as the set progresses until Tokyo, Bill Balloon Head and China Plates reach a crescendo. The Quo-like boogie of Back to the Stack ends the show with a sea of hands raised to the sky; Massive Wagons could have played all day and it still would not have been enough to slake the thirst of the gathered.
It had been a long time since I’d listened to Gun’s Taking on the World debut so, other than Better Days, it had been an awfully long time since last I’d heard Shame on You, Inside Out and the title track, all of which featured in the set today. Using Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s iconic version of Fanfare for the Common Man as an intro tape, Gun begin with She Knows from the 2017 album, Favourite Pleasures, going straight into Don’t Say It’s Over from Swagger. I had completely forgotten Gun covered Cameo’s Word Up and when it reared its head I was transported back to the Rock Clubs of the early nineties when it was a guaranteed floor-filler. The whole field seemed enraptured by its spell and grooved along with it. Money (Everybody Loves Her) was greeted like an old friend, as were Welcome to the Real World and Steal Your Fire.
The same lurgy that’s been wreaking havoc these past few months caught up with drummer Paul McManus during the week but Giulliano Gizzi was adamant such trifling matter were not about the prevent the band from fulfilling this, two-and-a-half-year, commitment to play Stonedead. So they brought in a replacement – a young follow who had been given about seventy-two hours to learn the set. Despite Jools’ constant ribbing about his age, the young lad produced an exceptional performance and admitted himself admirably. As the sun began to drop and the day’s heat quickly turned chilly, Gun dished up the obligatory Better Days, but not before a rousing rendition of Beastie Boys’ Fight for Your Right to Party.
Massive Wagons had demonstrated themselves to be the ultimate festival band a couple of hours earlier. Well, this was Terrorvision’s “hold my beer” moment as the Bradford mob took to the stage, the last remaining light of the day swiftly vanishing, and torn Stonedead a new one. The crowd packed at the front of the stage were putty in Tony Wright’s hands. You would not believe this band hadn’t played for so long as they were pitch perfect. Discotheque Wreck, Pretend Best Friend, Celebrity Hit List sees the crowd jumping like maniacs. The stage light fail during D’Ya Wanna Go Faster but it’s difficult to tell as Tony leaps around with a spotlight, urging the crowd to match him with their phones. A shout out is given to a couple of real old-schoolers who spark up actual lighters. My House, Oblivion, Middleman. All are performed and received with the same level of energy between band and audience. Ending all too soon with Perseverance and proving they do have a song with the singalong lines of “Whales and Dophins”, Terrorvision show once again how they are the ultimate party band and could probably get a funeral up and dancing.
When Black Star Riders cancelled Stonedead pulled off a coup by getting living legends Uriah Heep to take their place. Fifty-plus years since the release of their debut and still going strong, Uriah Heep are constantly lauded as a life-changing band but one that rarely gets the wider credit piled on their peers. In one of Ken Hensley’s last interviews for Fistful of Metal magazine, Gerry Ranson describes the band as “one of the Big Four of British rock bands” (page 58) and it’s hard to argue when you look at their two-dozen studio releases since 1970 and that the like of W.A.S.P. made a point of covering Easy Living on their third album, Inside the Electric Circus.
Time is a ticking on but the sound of that Hammond organ – thick and juicy with just a hint of the ominous – makes you salivate for what is to come. Grazed by Heaven from 2018 Living the Dream begins and, other than Between Two World from 1998 there’s nothing on show tonight younger than Too Scared to Run from Abominog. Look at Yourself, Bird of Prey, Gypsy. All classics and strong enough to stand toe to toe with almost anything in the Zeppelin, Sabbath or Purple catalogues.
It is amazing that after all this time those riffs still sound relevant, that organ sound cannot fail but move you in many ways only certain music can and Bernie Shaw’s voice is as clear and fresh sounding as it ever was. An encore of Sunrise and the obligatory Easy Living brings the set and Stonedead 2021 to a magnificent close.
As we tread back to our cars or tents, the final notes of the Heep ringing in our ears, thoughts turn to next year and whether I should book my 2022 Early Bird ticket before heading for home or wait until the morning. I waited. And did it first thing on Sunday.
Stonedead was everything I hoped it would be. Great set up, great bands, great atmosphere. In an age when bigger is considered better, Stonedead pride themselves on the quality and of bringing back the vibe of the Monsters of Rock days and giving us of a certain age a real nostalgia trip.
Thank you Stonedead – see you next year!