Review: Firestorm Festival – Friday

As winter slowly turned to spring, details of a new festival in Stockport, Greater Manchester started to emerge. The first lineup announcements were stellar and just kept getting better. In fact, so good, that conversations with friends in the scene tended to be met with responses varying from a straight “It’s a con!” to “They will never sell enough tickets for that to happen”. The price for tickets was more than reasonable, so I decided to go all out and book a “long weekend” ticket and see what happened.

What those nay-sayers didn’t think about was that the lineup was actually really clever. There were no arena-level headliners to blow the budget. Simply a lineup of most of the best bands the NWoCR scene currently offers, with headliners that are in the ascendancy and command a following that makes them worthy of the top of a bill. If it had just been the lineup, it would have been a great little festival. What I hadn’t counted on was everything else!

Arriving at the location I found myself in a stunningly beautiful country park. The drive in along sun-dappled lanes rich in bird life ended at a cascading waterfall and then the ticket office. The welcome was genuine and friendly. A quick exchange of tickets for wristbands and a couple of beer tokens, then shown to a lush green field to park up. As soon as I stopped, my new neighbour invited me to join them for a drink and the weekend continued in that vein.

I walked around the site and was blown away. A combination wedding venue and festival site, most of the infrastructure that makes a festival so expensive and complex was pre-installed. Main stage was a huge barn, with a central area open to the rich blue sky, but the stage and bar, along with seating and the barrier area all under cover. A good thing as the festival took place over a weekend of unbroken sunshine and 30degree temperatures! The stage was HUGE. Outside was a double-decker bus as a bar, with a roof terrace (scene of action man Shane Greenhall’s daredevil antics later), a real ale bar (drinks £5 a pint in all bars by token), food stalls from Greek to BBQ, pizza to tacos, all freshly cooked as you waited, unlike the usual warm and stale festival grub, again all well priced, and a very small retail offering. The toilets were porcelain, flushed, and immaculately clean. Proper showers adjoined. A dirt road led to stage two, a Big Top tent with another huge stage and several more bars arranged like hobbit houses around the field. Campers literally camped within sight of the stage!

The first night was the most laid-back little affair. I kept waiting for a bride and groom to appear as we were entertained with a quiz (teams thrown together by the organisers completely randomly but making sure everyone mingled), then a hot meal of “hot pot” and then apple pie, and finally a covers band that kept the energy levels high. A quiet night followed in an extremely warm van, followed by a leisurely cooked breakfast and a walk through the country park admiring the beauty and peace. Vans and cars soon started arriving in force as the festival proper opened and the air was full of the sounds of camps being set and the buzz of anticipation.

The lineup each day was kicked off by a band that had won a poll to appear and on Friday that band was the ridiculously young and talented Unknown Refuge from Bolton. Celebrating the 21st birthday of drummer Morgan they delivered a set of technically virtuoso guitar-driven rock that really impressed. Scarily talented and utterly enjoyable.

If you want to raise the energy, have a great time, and bring a little (understatement of the year) colour to the stage who better than The Hot Damn! The girls taking the stage in a whirlwind of primary shades and their infectious sense of fun. Guitarist Lawrie Buchanan was also celebrating a birthday and there was soon cake and balloons. Beneath the fun are some incredibly catchy tunes and musicianship, not to mention high kicks! Between songs, the girls get in plugs for their merch without stopping the music, give out t-shirts, and generally have a great time.

Due to a last-minute cancellation by Hell’s Addiction, the first band to grace the Big Top stage were Scruffy Bear from Yorkshire. Led by the prowling Georgy, delivering vocals with a delicious “Lzzyesque” growl, they describe their music as “Earthy Fuzz Rock”. They certainly quickly won over an ever-growing crowd drawn to the tent by their music drifting over to the barn and by the end of their set the number watching had risen considerably.

Back to the barn stage for a big step up in class in the sheer power of Florence Black. Currently playing to huge arenas in Europe, Tristan and the boys are on a fast track to the top. Opening with the crushing ‘Zulu’ they keep raising the intensity every time I see them. The best way to describe how good they are right now? – when a band can perform an incendiary cover of Budgie’s ‘Breadfan’ yet totally overshadow that classic with their own composition ‘Sun and Moon’. That song alone defines the huge potential now being realised and fully deserves the title of “modern classic” as the reception it gets shows.

Another quick scoot down the dusty lane to join Bad Touch. Somehow the guys from Norfolk (5 hours away in a non-air-conditioned van leaving them “fragrant” according to Stevie) have been off my radar for a while but this was without a doubt the best set I have seen from them. Stevie’s voice seems to have grown in power and range. The format of the weekend gives them a longer set than most bands would get at this point on the bill and they make the most of every second, putting themselves very much back in my eye for the future.

It’s a sign of the strength of the lineup that there are still three bands to go today and next up is The Treatment. At any other festival, these would be headlining a Friday or at least special guests. Waiting at the side of the stage their intro music has a glitch and instead of waiting to allow it to be sorted the band simply runs onstage and rips into the first song. The energy whenever these guys play is simply sensational with the front three not still for a moment. The music is straightforward rock and roll in an AC/DC vein but it always hits the spot and the crowd reacts enthusiastically. From the photo pit, it is a whirl of activity and energy and I am exhausted after our three songs but the band keeps the impetus up until the last note.

Headlining the Big Top were Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons. Having seen all three versions of the band in recent times this is, for me, by far the strongest lineup; Joel Peters having both stage presence and a powerful vocal style that works with the band’s heavy rock sound. The Campbells themselves are as tight as always and with a full headline set Phil takes plenty of opportunities to let rip. Oddly, the band delivered a four-song encore, but as most bands didn’t bother to leave the stage and return in the time-honoured fashion many of the crowd started to drift away thinking that the set was over. The mix of older Motörhead material and newer songs kept the fans more than happy and of course, the place went utterly apeshit for ‘Ace of Spades’.

Finally back to the barn for the second headliners of the night Wayward Sons. The licence for the venue meant that they took to the stage when most headline bands are preparing to play their last few songs, and played until midnight, further testing the energy levels of the heat-affected crowd. Toby Jepson is a master of the art though and, with bassist Nic Wastell hurtling around the stage in his usual hyperactive manner, and guitarist Sam Wood ripping out riff after riff they gave the crowd no option but to dig deep into their reserves. Definitely, a case of saving the best till last both in terms of quality of songwriting with a political edge and sheer class especially set closer ‘Until the End’ which is an absolute classic.

If anyone still had anything to give there then followed a rock disco but I headed back to my oven-like motorhome to recharge ready for a day with no less than thirteen bands on Saturday! 

Review and photos – Rob Wilkins

Saturday review, here.

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