Review: Firevolt Festival – Sunday

Firevolt Festival,

Stockport, Greater Manchester

Last year a new festival called Firestorm started to appear on social media. The lineup was a “who’s who” of the current rock scene, and the immediate reaction was that “it will never happen”.

It did! And it was utterly superb!

So, with this year’s lineup looking just as spectacular and knowing how much I enjoyed the first event, there was no way I was not going to be there for the second (now renamed Firevolt).

Firevolt is a two-stage festival, with minimal waiting between bands as one stage is set up as the other is “live”. Stage 1 – The Trooper Stage – is in the barn. A large wooden structure with an open central area. At one end is the large stage and at the other a massive bar. Outside this stage is the main gathering area with food stalls, bars, stalls, toilets (proper porcelain loos and immaculately clean at all times), and even large shower blocks. Beer is £5 to £6 a pint (including some great craft beers), the range of food covers every taste and the stalls sell a great range of products.

A very short walk away is stage 2. A “Big Top” tent with another huge stage and another bar or two, surrounded by a field and seating areas. It’s a fantastic setup, intimate but also extremely professional.

Friday review, here.

Saturday review, here.

Waking to the sound of rain on the van roof, and a forecast that was not particularly optimistic, I took the chance to have a lie-in before heading over to the opening band on the Trooper Stage, The Golden Leaves. Coming all the way from Norway, the band are introduced with a story that sums up Firevolt Festival. Stret came across them whilst following Deep Purple across Europe, when they played “Smoke” as he returned to a bar having told them why he was there, he said he would invite them to a festival he was thinking about, and here they were! Starting with a very small crowd they worked the stage hard with a mix of their own, very classic blues rock and some storming covers (“Blitzkrieg Bop” and “ Johnny B Goode”) that bought people from their tents and vans in droves. Great fun to watch and definitively a great choice to energise the crowd.

Over in the Big Top tent to catch one of my favourite bands around at the moment Ashen Reach. I was blown away when they opened a day at Steelhouse Festival last year and saw them rip apart a smaller stage in Cornwall since, so I was looking forward to seeing how things have evolved now there is no bass player and a layer of sequences to replace. I love their mix of vocal styles and sheer power and they set the bar by managing to get several decent pits opening before lunch! New song “Neophobia” raises the bar even further as it continues their thought-provoking and crushingly heavy yet accessible songwriting. I cannot stress how much these are “ones to watch” over the next few years as they develop and explore together potentially leading to something really special.

From a young band near the beginning of their journey to one at the other end with a genuine “supergroup” ridiculously early in the day. Formed by legendary session musician Keith Atack (check out his resumé, it is insane!), Atack features members of Thunder, AC/DC, and Sweet – along with Nick Foley on keys, although today we are blessed with “voice of the moment” Dan Byrne stepping in for Lee Small who is away with his usual gig. It is a set of sheer class. Atack is the kind of guitarist who languidly and effortlessly let’s rip on solos that others can only envy, whilst the tightness of the assembled musicians is exemplary. Songs such as “Stone Cold” and “Dead Man’s Boots” allow Byrne to release his vocal cords to fly free and everyone who watches is a little awe-struck. Add in a bass solo from Thunder’s Chris Childs and layer upon layer of syrupy Hammond Organ from Foley and the sheer class is mind-blowing. How many festivals can put a band on like this before lunch? Utterly superb.

Back in the tent for something rawer with the blues of Jack J Hutchinson, rocking some cool shades and a gorgeous tone as he rips into “Call of the Wild”. It is my first experience of Mr. H and I stand mesmerised as he cajoles some Deep South sass from his Tele. A series of covers starting with “Oh Well” (Peter Green) goes off on delicious tangents as fleeting elements of Led Zep and Hendrix barge in during the energetic shredding that it becomes. Four bands, each with something utterly unique to bring to the table, great planning Stret and Bev!

Back at The Trooper Stage and Bev is asking every person she sees to “save me a spot on the barrier” as she introduces Gin Annie with “every time Stret says he has booked a band I ask, “Is it Gin Annie?””. Well, clearly it was as they blitz on stage with one of the sets of the weekend. The last time I saw them play was at the now-defunct Ramblin’ Man Fair and this was on a different level. It is a perfect mix. A likeable and very visual frontman with a great voice, David Foster, trades off for stage space with a colourful guitarist, Byron Garbett, as they play accessible and catchy songs. I can see why Bev wanted them there and they grabbed the opportunity with both hands and gathered a whole new fan base from those that hadn’t seen them before.

What do I say about Black Spiders? I haven’t been hugely complimentary about them having seen them play Steelhouse twice now. Somehow their music just doesn’t hit the spot for me. There is nothing wrong whatsoever. The crowd clearly loves them and songs such as “Hot Wheels” and “Stick it to the Man” go down a treat. They are energetic and fun to watch, with all the poses and musicianship you would expect, but, once again, a few songs into their set I find myself popping for a pint and watching from the back rather than feeling part of the show. Once again, my problem not theirs as they clearly went down well with everyone else watching!

Next, my first opportunity in a while to see Collateral, over on The Trooper Stage. The first time I have caught them without ex-guitarist Todd Winger. I have to be honest and say I didn’t find it their best show (and I have seen a few and love the band!). Angelo Tristan, normally so in command of the stage, and such an effervescent frontman seemed muted and the crowd reaction seemed to catch that malady. Among the much loved and classy catalogue such as “Midnight Queen” and “Mr. Big Shot”, some new material was showcased that I found incredibly intriguing as it brought a different vibe to anything I have heard from them before with “Glass Sky” and I can’t wait to hear more. So, for me, a little bit of an off day, but with material of such class they still strike me as a band that really has the potential to be massive.

Headlining the Big Top stage are a totally new band to me, Darren Wharton’s Dare. Possibly the happiest-looking frontman of the weekend, Wharton’s grin lights up the tent better than the house lighting rig and he and his musical compatriots rip through a sumptuous set. I hadn’t expected such a Celtic feel to the somewhat AOR sound and it certainly added to my enjoyment of the set. The material is sheer class. “I’ll Hear You Pray” is simply stunning, “Abandon” encapsulates the 80s, and “Thy Kingdom Come” showcases where Wharton made his name with Thin Lizzy before he introduces a tribute to the man himself, Phil Lynott, with “King of Spades”. A real surprise for me this set as I had few expectations but loved every note and lyric.

Closing the weekend back on The Trooper Stage were a band that I have seen possibly as many times as all the other bands combined. I have followed Kris Barras from the earlier blues days to this now, very much heavier incarnation, and have no doubt it is the best yet. The decision to open with “Hail Mary”, for so long the song that defined Barras and ended the set, is inspired. The sound is thickened immensely by swapping Josiah to guitar from keys and he and Kris even have a guitar battle at one point where he more than holds his own. Bass player Kelpie is a blur of activity, technically extraordinary, and carries the most spectacular bass of the weekend, and drummer Billy Hammett plays a drum solo so long and boring that the rest of the band lie down for a nap on stage (actually it was superb but it was lovely to see Kris and the boys so relaxed that this moment of fun happened).

“Wake Me When It’s Over” brings back clear memories of that period of lockdown that influenced so much music before an incendiary cover of “Rock and Roll” showcases each individual’s talent brilliantly as they get a turn in the spotlight each. Closing with “My Parade”, which now defines the band the way “Hail Mary” used to, Barras goes walkabout into the crowd, parting them down the middle as he gets them singing that infectious chorus whilst looking for a drink. Those last few moments, where band and crowd were together so closely, oddly encapsulated what I love about this festival. It is unique. Band and crowd DO exist together and you are as likely to find a headliner at a merch stall or food vendor as you are hiding in their dressing room.

Pre-sale for 2024 has already surpassed all expectations, with live-in vehicle passes selling out in just hours and before a single announcement. Don’t let that put you off though. Get yourself a ticket and make sure you experience the most friendly, accessible, and well-located festival I know!

Review and all images – Rob Wilkins


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