Sending former Hanoi Rocks' singer Michael Monroe
(****) out first at High Voltage, the second annual classic rock festival, means Saturday’s main stage kicks off in style. The blonde bombshell brings the glam, playing some Hanoi Rocks and Demolition 23 tracks, as well as some numbers from his 2010 solo album, and brings the sun. And Skin
(****) frontman Neville MacDonald declares what a “beautiful day for rock n' roll” it is as the five-piece keep the spirits up on this glorious afternoon delivering crowd-pleasers including the fitting Born to Rock n’ Roll.
Relative unknowns Rival Sons
(*****) are up next and proving what they lack in experience they make up for in talent. The soulful, powerhouse vocals of Robert Plantalike Jay Buchanan belie his modest stage presence, while the classic sound of this new, LA four-piece outshines their young years. Brilliant closing number Get What’s Coming leaves a lasting impression, which doesn’t bode well for progressive heavy metallers Queensryche
(***) who, despite their many years of doing this, seem very much in the shadow of their stage predecessors.
The big boys are definitely back in town by the time Thin Lizzy
(****) appear, armed with singalongs, such as Whiskey in the Jar and Rosalie. And there's an additional treat when Michael Monroe returns as a guest saxophonist for Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught me in its Spotlight). Late former members Phil Lynott and Gary Moore are very much in spirit here – and are openly acknowledged by band and crowd – but the stage doesn’t seem empty. This, perhaps, can't be said for birthday boy Slash
, (***) who's billed as just himself. The dilemma here is, are you watching a regular band who have gained a Slash? Or is it one that's lost an Axl Rose/Scott Weiland? Although the 'stand-in' vocalist skilfully belts out Night Train, Paradise City and Slither, it’s not the same. This festival may favour amazing guitarists and their indulgent solos, but every great band needs a great frontman. Even with Slash’s solo track Doctor Alibi, sung by Todd Kearns, you feel robbed of original vocalist Lemmy.
Regardless of these charisma holes, which not even Slash can completely plug, he whets the appetite of a crowd who have been baying for bill-toppers Judas Priest
(*****) from the off. It’s all a bit special anyway, this being Judas Priest's final ever UK festival performance – and what a way to go. “Hello everybody, the Priest is back,” declares Rob Halford, who promises to try to get through 40 years of material – surely every fan’s dream. Myriad costume changes – comprising leather, PVC, studs, denim, shimmer and tassels – ensue while the band pull out classics such as Brainkiller, for which Halford arrives on a motorbike, Heading Out to the Highway, Judas Rising, Nightcrawler and Joan Baez cover Diamonds and Rust. And all credit to the audience for singing Breaking the Law without a note from Halford. Today has been very much building up to this swansong performance, which ends with a euphoric Living After Midnight. These heavy metal legends probably couldn't disappoint even if they tried, and after four decades, the fans are still in love with Judas Priest, baby.
The good weather remains for day two, and surprise act Love Fungus
,(***) back after 20 years thanks to TV’s James May, nip in for an exclusive performance before Heaven’s Basement
(****) summon a bit of spunk to proceedings. Having honed their line-up, bringing cute, young vocalist Aaron Buchanan to the fore, this quartet are hard, heavy and wickedly unpredictable. Their closing number goes off on a tangent, with Buchanan almost in the crowd teasing them. Heaven’s Basement
have clearly moved on from their original classic rock agenda and sexed things up - it’s all for the better. Fellow rising stars Saint Jude
, (****) fronted by the only female performer on this year’s main stage, Lynne Jackaman, deliver some bluesy rock ideal for a Sunday afternoon, and confirm their nomination for Classic Rock’s best new band award is well-deserved.
Back to the land of experience, and former UFO and Scorpions guitarist Michael Schenker
(***) arrives with ex-band back catalogue and solo material to boot. He cranks up the volume, and summons various guests to the stage including brother Rupert for Rock You Like A Hurricane. Making his set more of a soundtrack and less of a performance, Schenker retains the crowd, who seem to revel in the musicianship of this guitar hero. Unfortunately, Thunder
(***) have to work a bit harder at first. Fantastic opener Back Street Symphony walks into technical issues, riling lots of people up. But the band recover, and several crowd-pleasers later, they close with Dirty Love.
Now it's down to Black Country Communion
(*****) to keep up the momentum and they absolutely own it. Without a doubt, this show-stealers acquire fans tonight, winning them over with stage presence as much as memorable rock songs, such as One Last Soul and Save Me. A climactic cover of Deep Purple’s Burn results in the audience chanting for more, but there are no encores this early on. Maybe everyone needs to wind down anyway for ultimate band of the weekend Dream Theater
(****). With considerably fewer people out front for the second night's headliner, perhaps attributed to this being a Sunday night, the US band’s UK return is definitely one for the hardcore fans. While fellow bill-toppers Judas Priest’s appeal is more obvious, these progressive metallers go that bit deeper. Perhaps convincing ‘the masses’ takes the form of an astonishing drum solo from the new Mike on drums, Mr Mangini, who was recruited when Mr Portnoy quit to tour with Avenged Sevenfold. The percussive interval makes for a thrilling moment in the set. Stunning vocals – new track On the Backs of Angels being a particular highlight – and epic guitars fill the set and bring the festival to a dramatic, if not electrifying, close. At the very least, Dream Theater confirm their long and tedious drummer audition process was well worth the bother, and that fans are right to be excited about forthcoming album A Dramatic Turn of Events.