High Voltage Festival – A Prog Rocking Good Time

Written by Dave Cairns
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The inaugural High Voltage Festival in Victoria Park turned out to be a cracking  celebration of unfashionable rock acts, new metal and a fantastic resurrection of progressive rock music.

Ever since punk rock came along declaring the end of boring hippie concept bands, we have kept this dirty shameful little secret tucked away in our record collections until now, YES ‘Prog Rock’ is back and we can all shout from the hilltops “I love Emerson Lake and Palmer and I don’t care who knows”.

The festival, put together with the guys from Classic Rock Magazine (the best music magazine on the market in my opinion) was an old heavy rockers dream ticket and with a classic car display, real ale tent and a  Farmers market so you know you ain’t at V festival wallowing in cheap lager, hysterical teenagers and burger vans and you can hang out your beer gut with pride stretching that old ‘80’s AC/DC t-shirt to the limit.

Heading straight to the Prog Stage, I stumbled straight into Dutch band ‘Focus’ mid-flow performing their two UK 70’s hits, “Hocus Pocus” (which Nike used for their World Cup campaign) and “Sylvia” – an odd mix of heavy guitar riffing, Hammond organ and yodelling (probably one of the few prog rock bands ever to appear on TOTPs funnily enough). Guitarist Jan Akkerman is long gone but Thijs Van Leer on Hammond and vocals is still out there yodelling like a good’en.

Next up, Bigelf, an LA/Scandinavian ‘new prog rock’ act, fronted by Damon Fox who with his Stove top hat, mad hair and beard looking like a younger version of Roy Wood, Russell Brand and a demented undertaker rolled into one. With arms outstretched he played banks of keyboards either side of him (I haven’t seen that since Keith Emerson in ’71 but more of that later) and they sounded to me a touch like Deep Purple with a sprinkling of YES, top stuff actually.

On the main stage Gary Moore was playing his socks off, one of the finest Gibson Les Paul players around and fantastic when he is performing a ‘Cream’ set or playing the blues but he was knocking out what sounded like a lot of post Thin Lizzy solo material that really wasn’t that good to be honest.   

Foreigner are a classic unhip rock act if ever there was but delivered the goods and have some great songs, ‘Cold As Ice’, ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ and founder member Mick Jones is a good no nonsense guitarist.

And then we have Heaven & Hell, ‘A Tribute to Ronnie James Dio.’   This was a sad affair because Ronnie died of cancer recently. But they decided to go on with the show-which I’m sure he would have wanted- with heavy metal royalty Tony Iommi on guitar (the renowned Gibson SG player), Geezer Butler on bass and Vinny Appice on drums. The old Black Sabbath boys were joined by guest vocalists Jorn Lande and Glen Hughes (who looked more like Joe 90 than an old rock ‘n’ roll crooner) but it just fell a bit flat without Ronnie of course and I just couldn’t get off on the ‘Dio’ material.

And to end the first night, ZZ Top. I’ve never seen them live and I have to say they were a little disappointing. They looked like they were just going through the motions and drummer Frank Beard (the one without the beard) looked totally bored with the whole thing and managed to chain smoke ciggies throughout the set using an ash tray bolted onto his drum kit. This is a great example of an above average US blues/rock act that have been together endlessly touring the States for 30 odd years until they have picked up a loyal enough following to fill arenas and a few hits later (with some clever videos) the wacky beard thing and here they are. They do two things, slow blues and fast blues.

Guitarist Billy Gibbons is bloody good though and I loved his Gretsch ‘Jupiter Thunderbird’ custom guitar (you have to applaud their custom shop designs over the years, although I believe Gibbons’s favourite is his ’59 Les Paul nicknamed ‘Pearly Gates’ and bassist Dusty Hill is really a Fender man).  

We were treated to the old hits, ‘Legs’, ‘Gimme All Your Loving’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and ‘Cheap Sunglasses’ but when the highlight of the night was a couple of dodgy looking birds in French maid’s outfits coming onstage to present Billy with a daft hat (to put over another daft hat) and when Billy keeps showing off in between songs teasing us with his snappy blues licks, you wonder if he’s watching the clock.  

Day 2.

While Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash and Marillion (you couldn’t sound more like early Genesis if you tried) are appearing on the Prog rock stage, I’m listening to the excellent ‘Clutch’ on the Metal Hammer stage before heading for the main stage to catch US blues/rock virtuoso Joe Bonamassa.

I can’t say I knew too much about this bloke but he’s a great guitarist, a big name in the US with several solo albums and anyone who has the front to muck about with a Theremin in front of 20,000 people whist playing guitar gets my vote (that’s the weird instrument that converts electrical fields into sound by waving your hand around it and famous for the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’ sound effects)

I’m been waiting for Joe Elliott’s ‘Down & Outz’ – he of Def Leppard fame, presenting a personal tribute to Mott The Hoople with special guest Ian Hunter and The Quireboys as the backing band, just to hear Hunter sing ‘All The Young Dudes’ but instead of listening to MTH material we appeared to be listening to Ian Hunter’s solo material which was a bit obscure to say the least and when Ian Hunter finally takes the stage he’s playing an acoustic guitar and not the Les Paul he’s famous for which was a bit of a let-down but just as they are about to launch into ‘All The Young Dudes’ the plugs are pulled as they had probably run over time and the stage is plunged into darkness.

If only Joe Elliott had been watching the clock like Billy Gibbons.  

I’m all vibed up now and ‘ready for the show that never ends’, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.  I can now reveal to the world that I first saw ELP at the London Pavilion (now the Trocodero Centre) in 1971 when I just 12 years old (my older brother took me along) and it blew my mind. ELP were at their excessive worst, each player performing on individual Persian rugs (they were rumoured to have a rug roadie) bags of cocaine and endless synth solos weaved around quasi classical movements, much stabbing and abuse of Hammond organs utterly self-indulgent bloody minded pomp and described by John Peel at the time as ‘a waste of electricity’ – bloody marvellous (I bought all their records too).
ELP kicked off with ‘Karn Evil 9’ followed by ‘The Barbarian’ a seriously pompous organ workout with Keith Emerson looking great and on staggeringly good form dwarfed by an impossibly large bank of analogue synthesisers and surrounded by his keyboards.

‘Bitches Crystal’ and ‘Knife Edge’ suitably grand and complex, and then the pure simplicity of ‘From The Beginning’ demonstrating their ability to cut the pomp and deliver a bitter sweet acoustic love song ending with Emerson playing a simple but sublime moog melody; lovely.

Both this song and ‘Take A Pebble’ which followed, show what a great voice Gregg Lake has and a superb bass player too-but what was he wearing?

Unbelievably he was standing on his Persian rug- probably out of sheer defiance-(after all the stick they took over the years). He’s wearing a nice 70s waistcoat but appeared to be wearing shapeless Primark Jeans and those nasty chavvy slipperette shoes that were big in the 90s. The Persian rug deserved better than that and so did we frankly; what was he thinking of when he was poking around in his wardrobe that morning?

"Tarkus Medley" for the hard core fan thundered on with the immense Carl Palmer playing on fire and getting stuck into his gong,  followed by favourites ‘Farewell To Arms’ & ‘Lucky Man’ and the finale, ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’.

This was an abridged 16 minute version of their first concept album ( which set the tone and signature of the band back in 1970) and performed superbly.   

The encore simply had to be the magnificent Aaron Copeland’s ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ the anthemic and majestic rumbling shuffle that they are best known for.

Good old Keith Emerson ended the night fighting with his Hammond, twirling it around on the stage and stabbing the bastard with a kitchen knife (Emerson went to a very dark place after the band broke up I heard so this is probably good therapy for the genius) while Carl Palmer’s kit spun 360 on a revolving drum riser and the cannons and pyrotechnics blasted off to end the night. So I couldn’t have been happier and just pleased to see them alive and well and truly ‘pomped’ and I guess I was happy to be alive too, nearly 40 years after I last saw them.

This was a great festival, long awaited for a niche market that’s been screaming out for something like this to come along and can only go from strength to strength (despite the line-up being a bit lacking), and if I was a betting man, my money would be on Robert Plant and YES or King Crimson for next year. I can’t wait.

Read 4683 times Last modified on Wednesday, 07 April 2021 13:32
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Dave Cairns

Dave Cairns

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