Review: Steelhouse Festival 2023 – Sunday

Hafod y Dalal Farm

Ebbw Vale

Sunday July 30th

Review and photos – Rob Wilkins/Celtography

Friday review, here

Saturday review, here

More information on Steelhouse Festival can be found here

It is said that the Eskimo have a multitude of words for snow. I’m pretty sure that Welsh hill farmers have an equally extensive vocabulary to refer to rain, as Sunday demonstrated many. From a fine mist that seeped quietly through waterproofs, to downpours that did the job in seconds and even a couple of weird little squalls that came from nowhere, rampaged across the arena toppling fences, and disappeared just as quickly.

Troy Redfern, Steelhouse Festival

Taking to the stage first, on the final day, is never easy. Hangovers and sleepless nights take their toll, and rousing a crowd to queue early to get into the arena on time isn’t easy even when the sun is shining, let alone when it is grey and damp. So it is to Troy Redfern’s eternal credit that he manages to pull a sizeable crowd out of the “sun shade” to bear witness to his superb bluesy slide guitar. That guitar itself is a thing of beauty, with I am sure many a story to tell judging by its marks and faded paintwork. I would want to hear him play again, ideally as I lay back in a warm, sunny field where I can let the deliciousness of his playing pour over me as I sup on a cool beer, but a superb start to the day nonetheless.

Another band whose music deserves to float out across cloudless skies is Empyre but oddly, the mist and drizzle somehow synergises with their self-confessed “vibe-killing” sound and I find myself drawn in even more than in the past. A major contribution to that is Henrik Steenholdt’s low-pitched vocals. In a genre where so many seem intent on hitting the highs, his beautifully sonorous delivery seems to focus your attention on the lyrics more than their delivery. The sound is thick and opulent, layered beautifully and challenging without being inaccessible. The set is sewn together with self-deprecating humour, even introducing one song as the most “summery” they have ever written, even as the rain teemed down. Most enjoyable and a band that can clearly keep impressing and delivering.

The Cruel Knives

The short-lived Heaven’s Basement provided one album that still regularly plays in the car and had the potential to be absolutely massive. So it is great to see Sid Glover’s The Cruel Knives back on stage after a long hiatus followed by the support slot on The Pretty Reckless tour. They certainly lift “the vibe” musically with a set of energetic, guitar-led songs such as “Overdose” and “Hollow People”. The sound is punky and definitely contains echoes of that earlier project whilst vocalist Tom Harris banished memories of his predecessor. If I had one criticism/piece of advice it is that the stage presence of the band somehow failed to match the quality of the material, leading to a disconnect with the crowd (several of the togs in the photo pit feeling the same). Bringing a bit of theatre and an “in your face” attitude would, in my opinion, add to the audience involvement.

KIra Mac

A year ago a late addition to the bill, Kira Mac, had just a scintilla of nepotism. This year however I am happy to eat those words and declare the set as one of the highlights of the weekend. Simply using the torrential rain (some of the worst of the weekend) as a stage effect a la Prince at the Super Bowl, Rhiannon Hill, and her compatriots spend more time on the ego ramp than under the shelter of the stage roof. The quality of her vocal delivery has never been in doubt, but add to that great humour, an engaging and self-deprecating attitude, and a tight and musically gifted band and the set grabs my attention more than anything else so far. The material varies from blues to rock to ballad with no filler and the promise of the album due shortly is clear. This genre needs bands that can appeal to a much wider audience and Kira Mac for me can be that band. Humble pie was well and truly eaten by this reviewer and I ended the set, along with my partner, as wet as the band as I lived every moment in the rain with them.

It may have been the need to dry out a little, my view being obscured by the cloud of steam as I did so in a rare break in the rain or just middle of the day drop but I didn’t connect with Icelanders The Vintage Caravan to anything like the same degree. The trio pulled all the right poses and sent a VERY full and complex sound out over the hills, allied with some amusing chatter (“a song about someone getting lost and dying in the hills in the snow. It happens quite often” was one of my favourite intros of the whole festival) but I simply couldn’t identify with their music and the need for food and drink dragged me away from the stage to listen to their set more as background music. A great many people loved the set, so as always, more an issue with my musical taste and energy levels than any issue with the band themselves.

Time now to find the last reserves of energy as we surge into three bands that I have been waiting for since the line-up was announced.

First, returning to the stage for the first time in a number of years, The Answer bring their gloriously laid-back and swinging style to Steelhouse. The smile never leaves Cormac Nelson’s face as he toasts the crowd and the band roars into their unique brand of rock and roll. From the first note, the genial Irishman has the crowd in the palm of his hands as he grooves and sways at the mic. There is no messing around, no filler, no time wasting. The songs follow on swiftly until Neeson has them under his control before he starts to play with them. If ever a day needed good karma it was this one and so the response to his hilarious chant is full and loud. It’s the music that is the star though. Songs such as “Sundowner” and “Preachin’” reminding me just how much I have missed seeing these guys play.

Steelhouse prides itself on pulling rabbits from hats and tonight’s special guests could not be a bigger magic act as Elegant Weapons blitz onto the stage. Composed of Richie Faulkner, guitar (Judas Priest), Ronnie Romero, vocals (Rainbow, MSG), Dave Rimmer, bass (Uriah Heep), and Christopher Williams, drums (Accept) they steer clear of the excessive solo spots and showing off that such projects often feature and instead deliver a tight and visual riot of rock and metal. Along with the band’s own material from the album “Horns For a Halo”, they showcase two stunning covers. Firstly a raw and glorious “Lights Out” that highlights the twinning of Faulkner and Romero perfectly, and to close the set an extended “War Pigs” that sees the biggest sing-along of the day before Faulkner demonstrates his virtuosity and dexterity.

The growth of Steelhouse as a festival could not be better illustrated than the booking of the final act of the weekend. Flying over specifically to play this one date, Black Stone Cherry (one of my favourite bands) raise the status of this crazy, romantic, beautiful, and unique weekend to a new level.

There can be few more stunning intros to a set than the first few lines of “Me and Mary Jane” which quite literally pushes you back with sonic pressure before Ben Wells kicks high and we are off. The components of Black Stone Cherry simply work perfectly together. Chris Robertson looks lean. His vocals are raw and emotional and leave nothing unsung. Ben is the ADHD kid who forgot his Ritalin, running, kicking, and encouraging without the slightest pause for breath. Bassist Steve Jewell swaps back and forth with Wells, his hair flying and bass rumbling the very earth, and behind them, John Fred Young, possibly one of the most powerful drummers around, batters the living daylights out of this kit.

Tonight’s set dispenses with the slow, the romantic, the sad, the solos (other than a cataclysmic drum solo as the band takes a quick breather) and instead rips through the heaviest set I have seen from the guys in a long time. I have seen BSC many times now and to my mind this was the best I have seen. The set simply flew by before the traditional closing song of “Lonely Train” thundered out and fireworks lit up the night sky.

The trudge back to the campsite is muddy and wet, but adrenaline gets us home to dry out, and immediately start to look forward to the next time we make that drive up a steep track to the top of a Welsh mountain and rejoin a family that we miss from the very next morning.

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