O2 Academy, Sheffield, England
December 2-3, 2016
HRH (an acronym for Hard Rock Hell) is a well-financed, successful promoter that’s been putting on rock and metal shows in England for the last 10 years. This is no underground, mom-and-pop operation; to the contrary, HRH appears to be an arm of a Spanish entity that promotes literally hundreds of shows per year. When HRH announced the lineup of its inaugural XMAS ROCKA festival, the news sent shock waves through the old-school metal community. Indeed, the roster consisted of two dozen NWOBHM bands. Not newcomers playing in that time-honored, much-beloved style. The original bands from that era. It was a lineup to die for if you’re a fan of classic British steel. That said, not all of the reaction was favorable. A certain faction of the die-hards in England vowed to boycott the event because (i) HRH is a corporate shill, and (ii) the XMAS ROCKA is infringing on the territory covered by the revered Brofest held in Newcastle every year, a true underground festival if ever there was one. From my point of view, the decision to cross the pond to attend was simple. I dearly love most of these bands. I had never seen most of them before, and some of the ones I had seen were many years ago. And I may never get to see many of them again. Time waits for no man. There’s only so much longer these pioneers of the music we all love will be able to get up on stage and pull it off credibly. So I sucked it up, booked a massively overpriced airline ticket to Manchester, and prepared myself for NWOBHM heaven, boycott be damned.
The event was held in Sheffield, perhaps best known (for better or worse) in metalhead circles as the birthplace of Def Leppard. Sheffield is about an hour south of Manchester, easily accessible from the Manchester Airport via rail. It’s not a huge city, by any stretch, but the city center is quite picturesque, including an impressive cathedral, a majestic city hall, and a pedestrian thoroughfare that has been converted into a bustling Christmas village in honor of the season. Weather was grey and chilly, but not bitterly cold, and there wasn’t a drop of rain during my three-day stay. Honestly, the biggest problem I had in Sheffield (aside from the somewhat confusing city layout that resulted in my getting turned around and lost on any number of occasions, even when I was sober) was the accent. That Midlands accent can be really tough for a stupid American like me to understand. There were several times when a local would say something to me and I wouldn’t comprehend a single word. I’d ask them to repeat it and I still wouldn’t understand. I wished my vacation came with subtitles. Again, it’s totally not their fault, but wow I felt like an ignorant American because so much of what was being said around me was utterly impenetrable.
A word about the venue. The festival was not held at a pub or a nightclub or the kind of smoky dive where most of us are accustomed to experiencing this music (and frankly where most of the bands are probably accustomed to playing). Instead, it was held at the gleaming, shiny two-story O2 Academy, just a stone’s throw from the train station. With a capacity of 2,000+, the venue is set up with a huge main room on the lower level, featuring a large theater-sized stage and enough floor space to accommodate two bars, vendor booths, food purveyors, and even dozens of folding chairs set up on the floor to either side of the stage. The sprawling main stage boasted terrific lights, bucketloads of stage fog, and surprisingly good, clear sound (most bands using the same backline, at least until near the end on Saturday night – more about that later). Upstairs, there was a much smaller, more intimate room housing the second stage, which in size, appearance and amenities (lights, sound) was basically akin to a medium-sized club setup. Sound was iffier there and sightlines were crap (because of the low stage) unless you were right upfront. Biggest problem with the second stage was that for some of the more popular bands, it was nearly impossible to squeeze into the room and even then you really could see only the musicians’ heads. Lighting was also super-tough for taking photos on the second stage, and my crummy little point-and-shoot struggled to focus with the white lights and lack of contrast. Upstairs also housed a VIP-only balcony area, including a private bar, private bathroom, and a terrific vantage point for looking down on bands playing the mainstage. Now, your intrepid scribe is surely no VIP (except in my own mind), but for an extra 30 pounds (around $40 US) on top of the 59 pound ticket price, I was able to secure a “ROYALTY” pass and lanyard that allowed me to have unlimited access to that area. Worth it.
Make no mistake: Sheffield’s O2 Academy, while nice and shiny, is a soulless corporate venue and this was a corporate gig. This was reflected nowhere more than in merch and beer prices. T-shirts sold at the official merch booth were almost always 20 quid, which translates into around 26 bucks if you’re keeping score at home. Ouch. Friends in England have told me that underground bands typically charge 10 pounds for a t-shirt, so the markup for promoter and venue cuts was just vicious. As for the beer, a pint of mediocre brew (Carlsberg and Tetley’s were my go-to beverages all weekend long because they were the cheapest) ran 4.35 pounds, or around $6. (There was a “happy hour” special early in the day where those beers were knocked down to 2.95 pounds.) Not horrible maybe, but not so reasonable either. Despite these corporate tendencies – and the threatened boycott from the Brit loyalists – metalheads from all over the world turned out in droves for the XMAS ROCKA. I don’t think it was sold out, but the venue was quite full, especially later in the day for the more popular acts. I hung out with Americans, Portuguese, Greeks, Spanish, and yes Brits all weekend long, and had many opportunities to answer questions about Donald Trump’s impending presidency. (In these conversations, I was once again reminded that Europeans seem to know more about U.S. presidential politics, the election, and the electoral college than many Americans do, which is both fascinating and a bit scary.)
Before we get to the band-by-band rundown, I must address the matter of scheduling. From 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Friday, and from 2:00 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, the main stage and second stage were running simultaneously. That sucks. Conflicting stages makes sense where a festival has wide stylistic variation (i.e., put a black metal band on one stage and a power metal band on the other, such that fans of one are unlikely to be fans of the other) or where younger bands who haven’t paid their dues are invited to play the second stage to pad out a roster. Not here. All of these bands were original NWOBHM bands, playing a broadly similar style of music and with a 30+ year resume to their credit. As a matter of respect, these bands should not have had to compete with each other for audience by going up against each other head-to-head. Yet that’s how the HRH folks set things up. Painful decisions had to be made, and as a result I missed seeing several bands (Trespass, Black Rose, Quartz, and most of Chariot and Tytan, for example) that I really wanted to see. Clashes, I curse thee. Armed with these predictably longwinded prefatory remarks, let’s get into the day-by-day narrative, shall we?
Friday, December 2, 2016
Shortly after 12:00 p.m., I walked the half-mile from my hotel to the O2 Academy, just to see what was going on and if they were letting people inside already. About halfway there, I encountered a familiar figure, clad in sunglasses and black leather jacket, walking towards me on Arundel Gate Street. It was my good buddy Jarvis Leatherby (singer/bassist of Night Demon and bassist of Cirith Ungol), who had flown in from California to play his first show with the band Jaguar. He was walking with a short-haired guy of slight build whom I later learned was none other than legendary Jaguar guitarist Garry Pepperd. Cool. Jarvis and Garry were walking back to their hotel to pick up the band’s gear, and asked if I’d lend them a hand. Of course. Back at the hotel, I met Jaguar bassist Simon Patel and drummer Nafe Cox. I went up to Jarvis and Garry’s room and watched Garry don his good-luck cross for the show. And I had the distinct privilege of carrying Garry’s guitars over to the O2 Academy. No, I truly am not worthy. Once we arrived at the venue, I was allowed to stick around while the Jaguar guys set up their gear on the second stage and ran through soundcheck. (They got to soundcheck because the band that had been scheduled to play first on that stage, Wytch Hazel, was a last-minute scratch.) This was no ordinary soundcheck either. It marked the first time that this incarnation of Jaguar had *ever* played together. Hell, Jarvis met Nafe at the same time I did today. Future trivia answer: The first song Garry, Simon, Nafe and Jarvis ever jammed together was “Master Game” off the ‘Power Games’ record. An odd choice, perhaps, given the partially subdued nature of the tune, but they followed it up with the ripping “Dutch Connection” where Jaguar was taken off the leash once and for all. The room sounded good and the band sounded better. During the soundcheck, I also had an opportunity to meet the Mythra guys, who had just arrived from Newcastle and were due to play the second stage immediately after Jaguar. I had been Facebook friends with singer Vince High for some time, so it was a pleasure to meet him in person finally.
It seemed like a long wait until the music officially started at 3:10 p.m., but the delay worked in everyone’s favor. You see, the HRH organizers had long publicized that the fest would begin at 5 p.m. on Friday, so many attendees made their travel plans in reliance on that announcement. When it was disclosed a couple weeks before the fest that the show would actually begin at 2:00 that day, many were understandably upset because they couldn’t get her in time. So the delay allowed more time for the second-stage room to fill up, which it did quite nicely by the time JAGUAR took the stage to incessant chants of “Jag – YOU – are, Jag – YOU – are.” (I suppose that’s the British pronunciation of the name, or perhaps it was driven by the non-native English speakers.) They didn’t just take the stage, they exploded on the stage with an exhilarating rendition of “Dutch Connection.” The crowd went nuts, the band sounded like they’d been playing together forever, and frontman Jarvis Leatherby looked and sounded like he had been born to do this. (That’s not an exaggeration either, as I know Jaguar has always been one of his favorite bands. His day-job outfit, Night Demon, does a bang-up cover of “Axe Crazy” and Jarvis’s vocal technique is modeled at least in part on former Jaguar vocalist Paul Merrell.) Tracks like “Prisoner” and “Back Street Woman” were tailor-made for audience participation, and the crowd sang along, loud and proud. There were a couple of minor bobbles here and there (to be expected for a quartet playing together for the first time), but Jaguar always recovered quickly. I especially loved the dynamics of the band, the prolonged instrumental sections and frenetic bursts of speed interwoven through so many of the tracks. Guitarist Garry Pepperd was in his element, Gibson Les Paul slung low as he jammed alongside lefty Rickenbacker-thumping bassist Simon Patel. By the way, Patel and drummer Nafe Cox get the award for best stage attire of the weekend. Cox opted for a classic sleeveless Union Jack tee, while Patel went with a red shirt and red and black striped trousers. If a younger band dressed like that, it might be ridiculous, but these guys are vets and they pulled it off marvelously. Late in the set, “Axe Crazy” brought the raucous audience to a fever pitch, before the band wrapped up their set with “Stormchild,” which Jarvis very kindly introduced by saying, “This goes out to my buddy Kit Ekman, my right-hand man.” It meant a lot, but not as much as seeing Jaguar emerge from this performance utterly triumphant. They were quite possibly the band of the weekend, and they played first, on the small stage. (Only twinge of disappointment on my end: No “Coldheart.” That song rules, and I’d really been hoping they’d play it.) Jaguar are back. They’re revitalized, and they’re on the prowl. Look for them to make a whole lot more noise in 2017. Setlist: Dutch Connection, Battlecry, War Machine, Prisoner, Ain’t No Fantasy, Rawdeal, Master Game, Back Street Woman, Axe Crazy, Stormchild.
Anyone expecting the energy levels to abate for MYTHRA (also on the second stage) was sadly mistaken. The lads from Newcastle (a fairly late addition to the bill after More and Geddes Axe canceled) were performing as a four-piece today, because guitarist Alex Perry is temporarily out of commission with some significant health issues (from which he is thankfully expected to make a full recovery). From the quality of Mythra’s performance today, you’d never have guessed they were a man down. Guitarist John Roach handled all those sweet leads and rockin’ riffs with seeming effortlessness, and was perfectly in sync with bassist Maurice Bates all afternoon. The focal point was singer Vince High, one of the more intense frontmen I’ve witnessed. He stood in front of his microphone stand, often with both fists clenched by his side as he delivered his vocal lines, obviously giving it 100% throughout. The 15-song setlist was a delightful mix of stone-cold classic old tunes like “U.F.O.,” “New Life,” and of course “Overlord” and “Death and Destiny,” alongside a trio of new songs they recorded last year for their anthology album released on Skol Records (opener “The Best is Yet to Come,” “You,” and “Face in the Mirror”). For an extra-special treat, Mythra served up a pair of tracks from their forthcoming new album, to be entitled ‘Still Burning’ and due next spring on Skol Records, including the awesome title track (after which High remarked that if we liked that despite Mythra being a man down, just imagine it with twin leads) and “Call to All.” After “Death and Destiny,” I assumed the set was over, but no they came back for a superb encore of “At Least I Tried,” which might be my favorite Mythra song ever. All in all, Mythra turned in a simply magical performance, encapsulating everything I love about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and proving themselves more than adequate to follow in Jaguar’s mighty footsteps. If Mythra are this incredible as a four-piece (and they are), I shudder to think how much ass they must kick when they’re playing at full strength with two guitars. I do hope to get the chance to find out soon. As a postscript, when I ran into Vince High later that night to thank him for the gig, he handed me a signed setlist with my name on it that he and the other guys had done. What a kind, thoughtful gesture. I’ve got that setlist posted on the wall in my home study right now, and am looking at it with a smile on my face as I type this. Thank you, Vince. Thank you, Mythra. Setlist: The Best is Yet to Come, U.F.O., New Life, Warrior of Time, Vicious Bastard, Face in the Mirror, Still Burning, Killer, England, Machine, You, Call to All, Overlord, Death and Destiny. Encore: At Least I Tried.
To conclude the magnificent opening trio of bands, CLOVEN HOOF took their turn on the second stage. Cloven Hoof were a bit of an outlier for the XMAS ROCKA because much of their catalog doesn’t sound terribly much like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. By the time they released ‘Sultan’s Ransom’ and ‘Dominator’ (my favorite Hoof albums), Cloven Hoof had moved much more into the power/speed realm, with faster Dickinson-era Maiden tendencies. Stylistically, then, the band were set apart from many of their bluesy hard rockin’ counterparts this weekend. Nonetheless, Cloven Hoof’s roots go back to 1979 and their early material certainly aligns with the NWOBHM movement, so it was not much of a stretch for them to be here. Much as was the case for Jaguar, today marked the beginning of a new era for Cloven Hoof, the debut of a brand-new lineup featuring Americans George Call (ASKA/ex-Omen/ex-Banshee) on vocals and Danny White (ASKA/ex-Omen) on drums, alongside stalwart Lee Payne (bass) and Chris Coss (guitar), joined by a very young-looking axeslinger named Luke Hatton. Call and White had flown to England more than a week beforehand to rehearse with their mates, as a result of which Cloven Hoof were primed and ready to bang some heads tonight in their debut gig together. And so they did. From the opening strains of “Inquisitor,” the band came out and positively laid waste to the second stage. Call and Payne (wielding a bass with a distinctive rainbow-hued finish) were blurs of energy, just constant motion possessing the stage from the first note to the last. Guitarists Coss and Hatton were always on-point, with the youthful Hatton particularly turning heads with his excellent playing. And White was just rock-solid behind the drums, like he is every single time I ever see him, no matter with which band. No doubt, Cloven Hoof’s most potent weapon is the voice of George Call. Wearing a studded leather jacket over a shiny black vinyl shirt bearing a red star, Call is one of the most gifted vocalists in heavy metal today. He takes good songs and makes them better by the power of his lungs and the character of his voice. And he had some very good songs to work with tonight. Payne is a hell of a writer, and the band tried to touch on as many different eras of Cloven Hoof’s history as they could within the confines of their 60-minute set. The crowd went particularly ballistic during “Highlander” and “Nova Battlestar,” as well as the Priest-ish closer “Reach for the Sky,” but everything went over well with massive crowd participation on nearly every song. Call also offered his typically entertaining stage raps, including one in which he described being a teenager living in the Panama Canal Zone when he heard Cloven Hoof for the first time, how amazing he thought they were then, and how honored he is to be fronting the band today. He even went into a full-on British accent as he reenacted the phone call he received from Payne to join the band. The crowd got a good laugh out of it, with one dude complimenting him on his fine impression of a British accent, haha. The only gripes I heard from fest attendees afterwards were that Cloven Hoof should have played “Gates of Gehenna,” and yes, they should have, especially for this old-school crowd. If I could have chosen their set, I would have had them dump the out-of-place AC/DCish sex romp “Crack the Whip” in favor of “Gates of Gehenna.” Then it would have been perfect. As it was, Cloven Hoof’s set was pretty damn great and an undeniable highlight of the festival. I understand that this lineup of the band has nearly completed a new album, so watch for it to hit the shelves sometime in the first half of 2017. George was telling me afterwards that this new Cloven Hoof record is some of the best material he’s been involved with in his entire career. With the combination of Payne’s writing and Call’s voice, the sky is the limit. Setlist: Inquisitor, Cloven Hoof, Kiss of Evil, Highlander, Crack the Whip, Golgotha, Nova Battlestar, Laying Down the Law, Reach for the Sky.
I had a few minutes before Fist were going to start playing, so I headed over to the VIP balcony to catch a couple of tunes by PERSIAN RISK on the main stage. I was there long enough to hear them play “Rise Up” and “Calling For You” (their very first single dating back to 1981). The quartet sounded good, with really strong vocals from Carl Sentance, and were garnering a favorable reaction from the large crowd assembled on the main floor. Unfortunately, I had already missed most of their set to watch Cloven Hoof, and had to skip the end to go back into the second stage room to obtain a decent spot for Fist.
We all have gaps in our musical knowledge, and FIST just happens to be one of mine. I know they are highly regarded by many, but I was unfamiliar with them, so I got a good spot near the second stage to check them out. I was glad I did. Some of their material came across as a bit too basic hard rock for my tastes, but the good stuff (including “Turn the Hell On,” “You’ll Never Get Me Up in One of Those” and especially the awesome crowd singalong “Name Rank and Serial Number”) was really really good. What’s more, the band came across as genuine, funny blokes thrilled to death to be onstage in front of an appreciative crowd who (notwithstanding my ignorance) knew their material well. At one point, singer/guitarist Glenn Howes asked if anyone owned their ‘Back with a Vengeance’ album. When the audience roared enthusiastically, he laughed and said, “Usually when I ask that question, only one person says anything.” Later in the set, Howes was experiencing mike stand issues. The microphone kept dropping lower and lower, so Howes hunched down more and more to finish the song, later joking that it was a Ronnie James Dio moment. The band ended their set in the best possible way, with a heartfelt tribute to Lemmy and rousing rip ride through “Ace of Spades.” Predictable? Sure. Awesome? Absolutely. I may not have loved every minute of their set, but I was quite pleased indeed to make Fist’s acquaintance onstage at the XMAS ROCKA. Setlist: The Vamp, Too Hot, Collision Course, Forever Amber, Dog Soldier, Turn the Hell On, Lost and Found, Brain Damage, SS Giro, You’ll Never Get Me Up in One of Those, Name Rank and Serial Number, Ace of Spades.
When the last notes of “Ace of Spades” rang out, the second stage was through for the night, so I headed downstairs to the main hall for the remainder of the evening. By the time I got there, WITCHFYNDE were in full swing on the mainstage. I was never a huge fan, so I divided my attention for the remainder of their set between chatting with friends, drinking beer (that Tetley’s Extra Cold seemed to taste better and better with each pour, even though objectively I know it’s not very good beer) and checking out Witchfynde’s set. Songs like “Leaving Nadir,” “Cloak and Dagger” and “Stagefright” are certainly well known to me, and it was good to hear them tonight. The band, once again fronted by the rather mysterious-looking Luther Beltz (theatrical black eye makeup and all), sounded excellent and they had the full support of the Sheffield audience. One song after another of molten doomy Sabbathy NWOBHM rolled off the stage, with massive riffs galore. Many attendees were raving about their performance later as one of the best of the weekend, so shame on me for not concentrating more on them while they were onstage.
Without question, my most eagerly anticipated main-stage band of the day was BLITZKRIEG. The last time I saw Brian Ross and his lads was in April 2002 in New Jersey, and Ross is now backed by an entirely different band than he was then (with the possible exception of guitarist Ken Johnson, I’m not sure), including Brian’s son Alan on guitar. To my way of thinking, Blitzkrieg are responsible for many classics of the NWOBHM genre, including most of the ‘Ten’ and ‘A Time of Changes’ albums. The band lived up to my lofty expectations tonight, playing a set that touched on most eras of the band, with five tracks culled from ‘A Time of Changes’ and three from 2013’s ‘Back from Hell.’ A welcome surprise was hearing “After Dark” off the unheralded ‘Unholy Trinity’ record, a killer tune that I never expected the band to dust off. Ross’s voice is timeless and ageless, and he was in fine form tonight. I love the way he takes his time introducing each song, usually telling a little story in his courtly, dignified English way. Whether it was explaining the bittersweet history of “Hell to Pay,” telling us how “Nocturnal Vision” was his tribute to Alice Cooper, or recommending that we go watch the movie ‘V for Vendetta’ on which the song “V” was based, Ross was both informative and entertaining at every turn. In terms of the material, you can’t do much better than brilliant renditions of “Armageddon” or “A Time of Changes” or “Pull the Trigger” (a rarity because Blitzkrieg hardly ever does Satan tunes, although Brian made an exception tonight in part because Satan guitarist Russ Tippins was in the house) or of course “Blitzkrieg” itself. These songs are timeless. The band played absolutely ace versions of them tonight. And I felt really fortunate and happy to hear them. My only mild disappointment was that the band omitted my all-time favorite Blitzkrieg song, “Buried Alive” (which I always think of as “Take Me to your Hearts” because that’s how the chorus goes), but I’m not gonna bitch about that. I can’t, really. Blitzkrieg ruled tonight and every song was a winner. At some point, Brian Ross explained that the band are going to be working on a new album in 2017. I eagerly await it. Blitzkrieg are always reliable, and always pure, classic British heavy metal to the core. They were unquestionably one of my favorite bands of the weekend. Setlist: Armageddon, Dark City, After Dark, V, Hell to Pay, Pull the Trigger, Time of Changes, Call for the Priest, Nocturnal Vision, Back to Hell, Blitzkrieg.
The penultimate act on the main stage tonight was JESS COX, who is best known as the former vocalist of Tygers of Pan Tang but whose contributions to heavy metal (and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, more specifically) run much deeper, given his pivotal role in both Neat Records and his current Metal Nation Records imprint. Cox spent much of the weekend manning the Metal Nation vendor booth. The idea for his set tonight was to get Cox up onstage with a backing band (the youngsters from a band called The Filth Hounds, from what I understand) to play 30 minutes of old Tygers material lifted from the ‘Wild Cat’ album. I’ve gotta say, rumors were swirling around the venue beforehand that the Jess Cox set could be a trainwreck; unfortunately, that prediction was reflected in the sparse audience on the floor of the main hall when Cox took the stage. Thankfully, the gig was not a trainwreck. The Filth Hounds played admirably, and it’s hard to argue with the enduring quality of foundational songs like “Euthanasia,” “Slave to Freedom,” and “Suzie Smiled.” Cox’s voice has not held up particularly well over the years, but hey, he was up on the big stage playing old Tygers songs that he made famous when he sang them 36 years ago. He deserved to be up there as a sort of lifetime achievement award, if nothing else. And Cox certainly looked to be giving his all to the performance throughout. You can’t reasonably ask for anything more than that at this stage of the game. Setlist: Euthanasia, Straight as a Die, Rock’n’Roll Man, Slave to Freedom, Money, Fireclown, Suzie Smiled.
Tonight’s headliner was ROCK GODDESS. I’d never had the pleasure of witnessing the Turner sisters and Tracey Lamb on stage before, and I won’t pretend to be well-versed in their discography. What I will say is that from the moment the all-blonde trio stepped on the XMAS ROCKA stage, they owned it. Over on stage left, guitarist/vocalist Jody Turner, decked out in a Motorhead t-shirt and killer trousers with one black leg and one red-and-black checkerboard leg, turned in a hell of a performance. She sang great and played some smokin’ guitar. In front of me on stage right, bassist Lamb rocked out with reckless abandon throughout the gig. And drummer Julie Turner was a beast on the kit, kicking in excellent backing vocals as well. From what I could gather, they were playing a mixture of old songs (that many in the audience were singing along with word-for-word) and new cuts from what I guess will be a new album. Among the older songs that stuck out to me were the opening one-two punch of “Satisfied Then Crucified” and “God Be With You,” as well as the likes of “To Be Betrayed” and crowd favorite “Heavy Metal Rock’n’Roll.” The new songs sounded well on par with the classics, and especially the venomous “Back Off” (whose chorus sounded suspiciously like “Fuck Off” at times), won over the audience bigtime. After “Back Off,” Jody indicated that “the next one’s a bit sweeter,” in the form of “Take Your Love Away.” “My Angel” was dedicated to the fans because as Jody put it, “you’re all our angels.” My overall impressions were that it was cool as hell to see women in their 50s who are up onstage rocking harder than most men half their ages. Take that, you heavy metal boys club! Oh, Rock Goddess didn’t seem to have a chip on their shoulder or anything, but they definitely came to Sheffield to kick ass and turn heads. Mission accomplished, ladies.
When Rock Goddess’s set concluded at 12:30 a.m., the party shifted into “NWOBHM Disco” mode until 2:00 a.m., with a DJ cranking tunes at high volume, the bar serving plentiful beverages and the people-watching becoming more entertaining by the minute. Curiously, the DJ didn’t seem to be playing much NWOBHM, instead offering stuff like “Enter Sandman,” “Symphony of Destruction,” Zeppelin and so on. Weird, huh? Still, I toughed it out until 2:00 a.m. with the help of multiple pints of Tetley’s. At closing time, the security staff politely but firmly cleared the building. Emboldened by those pints, I tried to use my ROYALTY badge to stick around later, but security were having none of it. Oh well, it was worth a try. Not ready to call it a night, me and my crew of Yanks, Brits and Portuguese headed out onto the town in Sheffield, finding a lousy rock pub that was still open. We asked for local beers, and they served us Trooper Ales, haha. I vividly recall bursting into song when they started playing “Detroit Rock City.” Sorry, guys. Somewhere close to 4:30 a.m. we all got hungry and went to McDonald’s to get some grub. It was closed. Boooo. And at 5:20 a.m., I walked back into my hotel room. Exhausted? Yes. Buzzed? Sure enough. But awfully happy to have enjoyed such a fantastic day in Sheffield.
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t feel particularly chipper when I awakened a few hours later on Saturday morning. While my immediate inclination was to lie still in my hotel until the live music resumed at the O2 Academy at 2:00 p.m., I fought off that notion through sheer force of will. You see, I had this idea that I wanted to see the Sheffield Christmas market in full swing, with it being Saturday morning and families out and about to enjoy the holiday season. Jen would have wanted to see it had she been there, and I wanted to check it out so I could tell her all about it when I went back home. So I ignored the pounding in my head and wooziness in my belly, forced myself out of bed and wandered through the Christmas market for some time. It was swarming with people. There were food vendors, spiced mulled wine vendors, Christmas trinket vendors, large groups of Christmas carolers and even a damn Christmas choo-choo train ferrying little kids around the area. I was so glad I saw the entire spectacle before I got my NWOBHM back on.
The most difficult clash of the whole weekend for me was Savage versus Chariot. Both bands began playing at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, with Savage upstairs and Chariot downstairs. I love both bands, have never seen either, and have only dim prospects of ever seeing either again. After much forethought and deliberation, I hatched a plan whereby I’d watch the first 30 minutes of Savage’s set upstairs, then go downstairs to see the last 30 minutes of Chariot’s set. With that course of action in mind, I settled in near the second stage to catch SAVAGE. The quartet (boasting original members Chris Bradley on bass and vocals, and Andy Dawson on guitar) came blasting out of the gate with two old classics, “We Got the Edge” and “The China Run.” Then Savage abruptly switched gears by offering up four consecutive tracks from their 2015 album, ‘7.’ It was an unusual strategic decision because most of the XMAS ROCKA bands were sticking with their classic early 80s material, but in this case the move was warranted. Yeah, the ‘7’ songs are a bit more modern in approach than, say, ‘Loose N Lethal,’ but they’re really good and they have enough NWOBHM spirit embedded in them that it was not a stretch for this audience to appreciate them. And appreciate them they did. Songs like “Lock’N’Load” and especially “I Am the Law” went over great. Dawson is a fine guitar player, and it was a pleasure to watch the man play. And Bradley’s voice has held up well over the years. Early on, he introduced his son Kristian who now plays second guitar in Savage. What a thrill it must have been for father and son alike, to be playing Savage songs – old and new – in front of a full house at the XMAS ROCKA. By about halfway through the set, I realized it was time to leave and go downstairs in accordance with my plan to split the Savage and Chariot sets. But I was having such a great time and enjoying Savage’s performance so much that I chucked that plan out the window and remained upstairs for the duration of Savage’s set. And a wise call that was. After “I Am the Law,” Bradley barked out, “Okay, fuck that new shit. Let’s get Loose N Lethal.” Sure enough, the set closed out with four stone-cold classics off the legendary ‘Loose N Lethal’ LP: “Cry Wolf” (recently covered splendidly by Pittsburgh’s Midnight Chaser), “On the Rocks,” “Ain’t No Fit Place” (“you know this one,” Bradley said, “so you’d better sing along. Don’t leave me hanging.” The crowd didn’t.) and of course the magnificent “Let It Loose.” I gotta say, Savage was one of my favorite bands of the weekend because of the killer mix of old and new songs, the father-son connection, and the way they came across as totally blue-collar, like the world’s greatest bar band or something. What a thrill to see the mighty Savage. Setlist: We Got the Edge, The China Run, Lock’N’Load, Crazy Horse, Super Spy, I Am the Law, Cry Wolf, On the Rocks, Ain’t No Fit Place, Let It Loose.
As happy as I was to have seen Savage, I was bummed to have missed most of CHARIOT’s set. Fortunately, Chariot were scheduled to play 10 minutes longer than Savage (a 60 minute set versus a 50 minute set) so I raced out of the second stage room and over to the VIP balcony, where I watched Chariot’s last two songs. And what glorious songs they were: “Warriors” and “Vigilante,” the former also including a lengthy audience singalong. Just two killer tunes, both taken from the band’s 1984 debut album on Shades Records. It was particularly entertaining to see singer/guitarist Pete Franklin sprinting from one end of the big stage to the other to exhort the audience to get louder and louder. While I curse the HRH folks for depriving me of most of Chariot’s performance, I will be thankful for the 10 minutes I did get to see, and pray that the heavy metal gods see fit to grace me with another opportunity to catch a Chariot gig in full in the coming years. There’s actually a decent chance of that, given that Chariot remains an active entity today from what I understand, with their most recent album having been released in 2014.
Although the next clash posed another round of painful decisions for some (with Quartz, about whom I heard positive reports later that day, playing the second stage), I knew without a doubt that I had to see TOKYO BLADE in their entirety downstairs. To me, that early Tokyo Blade material (I mean especially during the 1983-1985 period) is just untouchable. Their combination of NWOBHM, Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, U.S. power metal and American hair metal resulted in a fistful of immortal songs that I’ve loved for more than three decades. Remarkably, however, I’d never had the chance to see Tokyo Blade live before. Until now. And what a time to catch them. In addition to the classic guitar duo of Andy Boulton and John Wiggins, the band includes the rhythm section of Andy Wright (bass) and Steve Pierce (drums), both of whom have roots going back to the band’s earliest days. The icing on the cake is vocalist Alan Marsh, who rejoined the band this summer after many years’ absence to perform at their European shows (they use an American singer, Chris Gillen, for their stage commitments in other parts of the world). For all intents and purposes, this was like seeing the original Tokyo Blade lineup. And they were absolutely fantastic today. Tokyo Blade played a dream setlist focused exclusively on early material, balanced perfectly between fast bangers, epic tracks and some of the more radio-friendly cuts. Performance-wise, the band were on target as well. Marsh still has a brilliant voice and the Boulton/Wiggins guitar team can still conjure the magic. Equally importantly, the guys looked to be having a ball onstage. Bassist Wright couldn’t stop grinning as he bounced across the stage and rocked out for all he was worth. Perhaps the most entertaining moment of Tokyo Blade’s set came during the instrumental section of “Sunrise in Tokyo.” The song fell apart, I mean, it turned into a complete disaster. All four guys were playing different stuff and it seemed to take forever for them to get back in sync and complete the song, with Wiggins standing back by Pierce and trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Total trainwreck. Did they get angry or seem ashamed? Hell no, when the song stopped they were all laughing and smiling, Wiggins grinning ear to ear and clapping his hands in jubilation. For his part, Marsh went to the microphone and deadpanned, “Well, that was an interesting version.” Live music ought to be fun. Shit’s going to go wrong and how a band reacts when it does speaks volumes about them. Tokyo Blade passed the test with flying colors. They were having a blast. The audience was having a blast. When the set ended with the titanic salvo of “Night of the Blade” and “If Heaven is Hell,” I felt like I had a perma-grin etched on my face. If this is the only time I ever get to see Tokyo Blade, I’ll have no regrets. They flat-out rocked my world today, and just might have been pound-for-pound the best band of the weekend. Setlist: Death on Main Street, Someone to Love, Dead of the Night, Warrior of the Rising Sun, Lightning Strikes (Straight Through the Heart), Mean Streak, Love Struck, Fever, Sunrise in Tokyo, Midnight Rendezvous, Night of the Blade, If Heaven Is Hell.
I knew I had to see Demon, but I dashed upstairs to catch at least a few minutes of TYTAN’s set on the second stage. The room was quite full, but I managed to squeeze in at the back for long enough to hear “Money for Love” off the ‘Rough Justice’ album. Bassist Kevin Riddles is the only original member, and he has surrounded himself with a much younger batch of musicians, including (the first one of these I saw all weekend) a keyboard player. Of course, the presence of a keyboardist for Tytan was not unexpected given the not-insubstantial role of that instrument on the ‘Rough Justice’ material, but still it was a rarity during the XMAS ROCKA. After “Money for Love” (which sounded more than fine, by the way), Riddles went to the microphone to introduce the next song, a new tune called “Fight the Fight” from the forthcoming new Tytan album. Riddles joked how it’d taken them more than 30 years to record a follow-up album to ‘Rough Justice.’ I would have loved to stay (especially because I later learned that Crystal Viper’s Marta Viper turned in a guest appearance during Tytan’s set), but I heard the call of the Demon. And I knew I must respond. So back downstairs to the main room I went, with just enough time to grab another Tetley’s (hair of the dog and all) before Demon kicked in.
I think all of us who love the New Wave of British Heavy Metal recognize that DEMON is a very special band. The only time I ever got to see them before was at the Bang Your Head Festival in 2005. This was the infamous “Hurricane Balingen” year in which a severe overnight storm imperiled campers, damaged equipment and threatened to scuttle the entire second day of acts. As it turned out, all bands were able to play, but the early bands (including Demon, Vicious Rumors and Jag Panzer, I recall) had their sets drastically cut to just 3 or 4 songs. Obviously, that was not a proper Demon gig. So I was pleased as punch to have the opportunity today to atone for that misfortune long past. Demon have a festival-ready arsenal of audience favorites, and they brought them out in force today. I stood a good distance back from the stage with my friends, drinking beer and singing along to the likes of “Night of the Demon,” “Into the Nightmare,” “Sign of a Madman,” “The Spell” and of course “Don’t Break the Circle.” Not every song ruled, and the band (led by vocalist Dave Hill, wearing his trademark baseball cap with sunglasses perched on top) was kind of static on stage, but it didn’t matter. This was a moment. I stood there with my buddy and sang and drank and was just happy as hell to be alive. That, my friends, is the power of live music. As a side note, I could be mistaken, but I don’t believe the band played a single song off their brand new (and generally well-received) ‘Cemetery Junction’ album. Strange. Approximate Setlist: Night of the Demon, Into the Nightmare, The Plague, Sign of a Madman, Standing on the Edge, Liar, Life on the Wire, The Spell, Don’t Break the Circle.
When Demon finished, I could have run back upstairs to see the beginning of Trespass’s set, but I elected to stay put instead. I definitely wanted to see Trespass (and I heard great things about them afterwards) but the lure of socializing and beer-drinking proved too powerful to overcome. Before I knew it, it was time to navigate into position near the front of the main stage to witness GRIM REAPER. Sure, I’d seen the band recently (in October to be exact) on their U.S. tour, but I wasn’t familiar with any of the ‘Walking in the Shadows’ material then (I am now, and that album is awesome, will certainly crack my Top 10 of 2016 list). Besides, I reasoned (correctly, as it turns out) that it would be an altogether different experience to see Grim Reaper on a huge stage in Sheffield in front of 1,000+ punters than to catch them on a tiny stage in a back room in California. I made the right decision for me. Grim Reaper were probably the most fun band of the weekend from my point of view. No, they didn’t do anything surprising. They played basically the same set they did on their U.S. tour (stripping out a few of the ‘Walking in the Shadows’ tunes to tilt the set more heavily in favor of the vintage stuff). But it was glorious to see them on the big stage, with the massive light show, the stage fog, and plenty of room for guitarist Ian Nash and bassist Martin Trail to run around, which they did. Plus, I know all the songs by heart, so I had a blast just rocking out, drinking beer and screaming along with Steve Grimmett at the top of my lungs until I made myself completely hoarse. Speaking of Grimmett, not only does the man still have a killer set of pipes, but some of his stage raps are hilarious. Before “Lust for Freedom,” he introduced the song as having been done for a terrible movie, but that the movie featured “lots of naked lesbians” so it moved right up Steve’s favorites list. Then before “Call Me in the Morning,” he said that he had been married four times and that his third wife had been crazy so he took her to the doctor, who told her to “take two of these and call me in the morning,” haha. Oh, I know he used similar banter on the U.S. tour, but it’s still awesome. Besides, any gig that ends with “See You in Hell” is an unqualified triumph for the boundless power and timeless might of heavy metal. What a fantastic gig! Setlist: Rock You to Hell, Night of the Vampire, Lust for Freedom, Walking in the Shadows, Call Me in the Morning, Fear No Evil, Wrath of the Ripper, Temptation, Rock Me ‘Till I Die, Don’t Talk to Strangers (Dio cover), Waysted Love, See You in Hell.
The next couple of hours were a bit of a dry spell for me. From a stamina standpoint, several nights of no sleep, no food and too much beer finally started to catch up with me. I could feel my eyelids growing heavy, so I grabbed a pulled pork sandwich for 4 pounds and headed upstairs to the VIP balcony to hang out for awhile and watch the next two bands. First was CHROME MOLLY, a late addition to the XMAS ROCKA in the wake of the Geddes Axe / More cancellations. They were kind of the odd man out on this bill, being in decidedly more of the AOR/hard rock vein than British metal. I mean, the guitars have some bite, the Leicester-based band does date back to 1982 and one of their guitarists used to be in Geddes Axe, so they certainly have a nexus to the NWOBHM movement. But they were definitely slicker and lighter than the other bands on the roster. That doesn’t mean they were bad; to the contrary, they had some catchy songs (“Thanks for the Angst” sticks out in my mind) and a good singer, and the band were working hard up there. Unfortunately, many in the XMAS ROCKA crowd were not willing to give them a chance, as Chrome Molly played to a more sparsely populated floor than any other main stage band (with the possible exception of Jess Cox). They deserved better, but it probably wasn’t the right bill for them.
I remained in my VIP balcony perch to watch VARDIS, a band with which I was completely unfamiliar beforehand. As I’ve commented previously, we all have our musical gaps even in styles we love, and Vardis is another one of mine. Vardis are a three-piece, featuring a bald singer/guitarist with a snowy white beard (quite appropriate for an XMAS ROCKA, right?) and a bassist with sunglasses and slicked-back black hair. Vardis’s approach to the NWOBHM was unique for the weekend because they seemed very jam-oriented, like they came to boogie more than to rock. From my standpoint, catching the band for the first time and having no preconceived notions about them, it seemed like most of the songs were an excuse for lengthy jam sessions for the guitarist (founder Steve Zodiac) to rock out with a bunch of bluesy licks and solos. Maybe not quite “metal” enough for my tastes, but the Sheffield crowd loved them. From my vantage point on the balcony, I could see that the floor was packed throughout Vardis’s performance. The audience definitely knew their stuff and definitely loved it.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the NWOBHM movement is the sheer range of music that it encompassed. As this festival amply demonstrated, everything from AOR-tinged hard rock to bluesy boogie rock to classic metal to prototypical speed metal fell under the NWOBHM umbrella. Well, the next band demonstrated the darker, heavier, and altogether grimier wing of the movement. VENOM INC. (or, as I like to think of them, “the one true Venom”) are much more sinister and malevolent than any other band that performed at the XMAS ROCKA. Given that they were playing side-by-side with some many of their contemporaries (both temporally and geographically), the differences were quite stark. It gave me a renewed appreciation for what a bolt from the blue (or, more accurately, from the bowels of Hades) Venom must have been when they burst out on the scene with the ‘Welcome to Hell’ LP on Neat Records back in 1981. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. The set changeover on the main stage took longer before Venom Inc.’s gig than any other band because Venom were the only band (to my knowledge) who brought their own drumkit and heads. This means that, for the first time all weekend, the backline setup was being altered. The unfortunate result was that the sound, which had been dialed in and quite clear throughout the weekend despite the cavernous qualities of the main room, really suffered. Venom Inc. were the first band all weekend for whom vocals were partially inaudible and bass/guitar mix was totally out of whack, with bass far outstripping guitar. The technical problems were exacerbated when the band came out to begin their set, the intro tape ended, and Tony “Demolition Man” Dolan struck his bass, without it making a sound. The resulting four-minute delay while Dolan and a bevy of techs huddled around the bass rig definitely put a damper on Venom’s set and probably cost them their encore. Three songs later, a damper was quite literally put on the proceedings when some jackass lobbed a full cup of beer onto the stage, where it hit guitarist Mantas squarely in the face in the middle of “Live Like an Angel (Die Like a Devil),” drenching his glasses, his face, his chest and his guitar. The band finished the hyperspeed song without incident, then Mantas calmly got a towel, wiped down his face and the neck and body of his guitar, and went to the mike to say, “All right, who threw the beer?” There was a dramatic pause for a minute or so, with Mantas glaring into the audience. I don’t think the culprit ever came forward. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. It seemed the gig might come completely unraveled. Then Dolan strode to the mike and said, in his typical menacing manner, “There are things in this world that you must do. There are things in this world that you must not do.” Long pause. Oh shit, I thought, here it comes. He’s gonna ream out the crowd. Wrong. Instead, he said, “One thing you must not do is … don’t burn the witch.” Then the band ripped into “Don’t Burn the Witch” and the show rolled on. Disaster averted.
As you might gather from the above, the Venom Inc. gig got off to a rough start: technical problems, serious sound issues, and the guitarist getting clocked in the face with a beer. Be that as it may, Venom Inc. were incredible tonight. Everything about the gig was over the top. They had the best lighting effects of the entire weekend, with killer shadows and reds and whites and blankets of stage fog so thick that it was impossible to see Abaddon behind the drum kit most of the time. The band was noisier than everyone else, with Dolan’s bass clanging and clattering above the din, while Abaddon pounded the drums at warp speed, playing almost every song significantly faster than the recorded version. Then there was Tony Dolan, a powerful figure with his bald head and leather vest, his left combat boot perched on the monitor as he looked straight up to howl into the microphone (Lemmy style). And Mantas is just a badass on guitar, working the whole stage, keeping up with the frenetic pace of the tunes, nailing those solos, and keeping eye contact with the front rows. The sonic issues just added to the over-the-top feeling of the entire set. Venom Inc.’s setlist was similar to that from their summer U.S. tour, although they’ve since added “Rip Ride” as an opener and “Red Light Fever,” neither of which they performed when I caught them in New Orleans in June. Dolan told us we were “lucky motherfuckers” for getting to attend a festival like this. He’s right, you know. And before “Sons of Satan,” he expounded that music brings us together. It doesn’t matter what we call it, how we categorize it, you could even call it “biscuit tin” for all he cares. What matters is that music brings us together, and we’re all sons of Satan. It was a powerful sentiment delivered in a powerful manner. I loved every minute of the Venom gig, in all of its jagged, ragged, raucous, dirty and greasy glory. What made me sad, though, was at the end of “Witching Hour,” when Dolan pushed his microphone stand over into the photo pit and the band strode off the stage. Yes, their time was up. But they hadn’t played “Countess Bathory.” They hadn’t played “Black Metal,” for Satan’s sake! You can’t have a Venom gig without “Black Metal” can you? Can you? CAN YOU??? I guess you can. We did. And it was killer anyway. Venom were the devil-may-care scalawags, the mischievous scofflaws, the misbehaving black sheep of the NWOBHM family this weekend. And the XMAS ROCKA was better for it. Setlist: Rip Ride, Leave Me In Hell, Live Like an Angel (Die Like a Devil), Don’t Burn the Witch, Welcome to Hell, Angel Dust, Red Light Fever, Blackened Are the Priests, Carnivorous, Seven Gates of Hell, Bloodlust, In Nomine Satanas, Poison, Buried Alive, Raise the Dead, Sons of Satan, Warhead, Witching Hour.
Somehow, I don’t know how, I’d gone my whole life without ever attending a GIRLSCHOOL gig. How is that even possible? Girlschool are one of those seminal, foundational heavy metal bands that everyone should have seen live at some time or another. They have toured heavily, they have a legacy of well-respected albums, and of course they have the compelling Motorhead connection as long-time friends and tour mates of Lemmy and the boys. Tonight, I finally got my chance from a front-row position in the main hall of the O2 Academy. Many of my comments about Rock Goddess’s headlining set last night hold equally true with respect to Girlschool’s headlining set tonight. Once again, it was great to see a band comprised of women in their 50s who kick ass, rock hard, sound great, have fun and look good doing it. The main difference is that Girlschool came across as a well-oiled machine, given that they had just come off the road on a tour opening for Saxon, so they were firing on all cylinders. I enjoyed watching the blonde Jackie Chambers rip it up on guitar, and brunette Kim McAuliffe and redheaded bassist Enid Williams did a fine job trading off lead vocals. Girlschool also have the advantage of a deep catalogue of great songs, and they hit us with not only the classics from ‘Hit& Run’ but also newer songs (including a pair of tunes from their 2015 album, ‘Guilty as Sin’). They were in fine spirits tonight, with McAuliffe joking about needing glasses to read the setlist unless it were printed in a bigger font, introducing Chambers as the band’s “northern lass” (she’s from nearby Leeds), and saying how good it feels to come home after being on tour. “Take It Like a Band” was dedicated to the late Phil Taylor and Lemmy of Motorhead, rightfully so given the overtly Motorhead feel of the song. And the band roared through one hit after another: “C’Mon Let’s Go,” “The Hunter,” “Yeah Right,” “Watch Your Step” and of course the immortal “Emergency” closer. They were all there. The only thing casting a pall on the set was that the sound was still all screwed up, presumably from Venom Inc.’s changing around the backline. Vocals were quite hard to hear, prompting the extraordinarily drunk guy next to me to yell out in a thickly slurred British accent, “Hey Kim, we can’t hear you!” “Hey Jackie, tell Kim we can’t hear her.” And so on. It was a bit disappointing that the mix was so off (after being spot-on for every single band until Venom Inc. played), but you could hear enough vocals to make it work, so I let myself be carried away by the magic of Girlschool. Just a fantastic live band and a perfect ending to a truly magnificent XMAS ROCKA festival. Approximate Setlist (may be missing a couple): Demolition Boys, C’Mon Let’s Go, The Hunter, Hit and Run, I Spy, Come the Revolution, Take It Like a Band, Never Say Never, Screaming Blue Murder, Kick It Down, Watch Your Step, Yeah Right, Race with the Devil, Emergency.
With that, the inaugural HRH NWOBHM XMAS ROCKA came to an end. (Oh, there was another 90 minutes of NWOBHM DISCO with DJ still to come, but I was worn out, I had stopped drinking hours ago, and I had to get back to the hotel to pack for an early-morning train ride back to the Manchester Airport.) My final thoughts on the festival are that it was just an amazing experience. Was it perfect? No. But it was a fitting tribute to the originators of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It felt magical to be in the same hall with 2,000 metalheads from around the world watching the men and women who invented this style of music we all love so much getting up on stage more than three decades later and pouring their heart and soul into performing these classic songs. Not every band was excellent, but they all put 100% in it. They all played from the heart. And they all kept the living, breathing spirit of the NWOBHM movement alive. It was really special, I tell you. If you missed it, well, you may be in luck. The second HRH NWOBHM XMAS ROCKA has already been announced for December 2-3, 2017, back at the O2 Academy in Sheffield. Highlights from the bands announced thus far include RAVEN, DIAMOND HEAD, PRAYING MANTIS, AVENGER, HOLOCAUST, GASKIN, TYSONDOG, BLACKMAYNE and TRAITORS GATE, as well as a few well-chosen newcomers like TOLEDO STEEL. It promises to be another crackin’ good time. Perhaps I’ll see you there, mate. Make sure there’s Tetley’s Extra Cold on draft, and we’ll make a go of it.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~