Sunday 11 March 2018

HRH AOR VI - Hafan Y Mor, Pwllheli, 8-10th March 2018

HRH AOR VI – Hafan Y Mor, Pwllheli (Thurs/Fri 8/9th March 2018)

Hi, dear reader, you know I do all this for you, you smart and clever individual. Anyway here we are for my 5th outing to the HRH AOR festival in, Hafan Y Môr translating to ‘The Haven’, at Pwllheli. That’s Pwll = pool, and ‘heli’, short for helicopter.

We are at AOR VI (No 6 for you Millennial’s not knowing how to count in Roman Numerals). HRH now have many brands, and the AOR one being a particular favourite of most of my gigging friends, and acquaintances. They have got to the point, where, even before HRH AORVI has played its last note of the festival, AOR VII is almost sold out. Now, I could cut my balls of to spite my face and have a little bit of a mini rant. You could theorise that the good people of HRH could take the piss – they have your money (or a lot of it anyway) for 2019s event. Knowing that it’s sold out, they could (hopefully won’t) put out an average line-up. I only say this as, considering VI is purely AOR this time, there are bands on show over this weekends that are either.
a.     On the wrong stage, or
b.     Not an AOR band

 I understand that changes had been made by the organisers due to late cancellations, Great White aside. We appreciate all their efforts to give a mixed and excellent line up despite any obstacles they are presented with. Which is what makes HRH a sold out even 12 months in advance (almost)

Anywho, we arrived a tad late on the Thurs evening, thanks to the shite traffic getting out of both Wrexham and then Chester. One of my fave melodic rock bands, Dante Fox was missed completely unfortunately. We entered the main stage to the very busy and very loud set of UK melodic rock stalwarts Newman. Steve was in fine fettle and introduced the young whippersnapper of the band (Harry) as a 19 yr. old. Newman started this, 20 years ago and probably has gig t-shirts and undercrackers older than this fella. What we heard was a strong selection from his latest album ‘Aerial’. Musically Newman are excellent, but on a couple of the songs, particularly ‘If Its Love’ Steve Newman’s voice wasn’t the best I have heard him do. My comment aside, the set was going down a storm with the Pwllheli massive. Of particular quality for me were ‘Stay With Me’, ‘Primitive Soul’, and the early Newman classic (and set closer) ‘One Step Closer’.
If I were measuring in paint colours it would be a ‘magnolia’

Eclipse were up next, and are a different proposition altogether. Right from the off, you can tell that the Swedes are rehearsed to within an inch of their lives. I like the ‘running on to the mic’ and shapes being thrown, but it looks as if it may be a bit too clinical. That said, Eclipse performed one hell of a set. ‘Vertigo’ from ‘Monumentum’ is up first and goes down a storm. I suspect that Eric Mårtensson would love to have been born 20 years earlier, and been a contender for a slot in 87-89 era Whitesnake. Even becoming ‘ol ‘snake-hips’ himself when Erik proclaims ‘Are you ready to rock?’ Eclipse fall into the ‘every song an anthem / killer’ category. This is no way an issue, and I love their music, but I want them to have their ‘Stargazer’, ‘Heaven and Hell’, or ‘Blackbird’ moment. Something that takes them from near contenders, to Heavyweight Champions of the world. Mårtensson is a very likeable and excellent front man, and you can see why he is very much in demand as a co-performer (W.E.T.), writer and producer. The man has an ear for an anthem. Stand out songs for me were The Storm’, the Celtic influenced ‘Battlegrounds’, ‘I Don’t Wanna Say I’m Sorry’. They just need to make the next (big) step, and victory is theirs for the taking.
Arctic White

Headliner for the Thursday night was Joe Lynn Turner. I make no bones that Rainbow are my all-time favourite band, and JLT is a big part of my musical life. Considering Joe is no spring chicken, he is 66 (a bloke of his age shouldn’t be in a sleeveless jacket indoors); he is still in great shape, both physically and vocally. Its two years since his last appearance at HRH AOR, and his set hasn’t altered much in this period. Hey, if its not broke, then don’t fix it. Alongside Joe is his axe slinger of choice, one Jorge Salán, who does an excellent job of stepping into Ritchie Blackmore’s shoes, and that aint an easy fill. For me, as a Rainbow lover its off to a flying start – Death Alley Driver, and I surrender just trip off the tongue, with the B side classic ‘Jealous Lover’ third in. How this song never made the cur for ‘Difficult To Cure’ is an absolute travesty. We get ‘Dark Days’ from his ‘Slam’ album, followed by ‘Spotlight Kid’ and ‘Street Of Dreams’. At his point, JTT could have farted the next song and I’d still be happy as a pig in shit. Salán is a very good foil for Turner and some of his solos were close to Blackmore’s. 

A couple of rarely played Rainbow tracks for Bent Out Of Shape followed, the raucous ‘Drinking With The Devil’, and guaranteed sing-a-long-a ‘Stranded’. The filling between the two BOOS sandwich was a treat from his very first solo album, ‘Endlessly’. I swear to God that had he followed this up with ‘Rescue You’, I would have needed to be carted out in an ambulance. Sadly this was not the case, but second best was a song from the classic album he did with Malmsteen, ‘Rising Force’. Just 45 mins in, that was the set. Done. An encore dedicated to the great Ronnie James Dio in ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’ completed it. As a 51 year old bloke, if you have asked me 3 years ago if I’d get to see a Rainbow heavy, electric set, I’d have crawled though broken glass to witness it. Even this time, if I were any closer to him, I’d be receiving a restraining order. But, this is now my third JTL gig in the last 3 years and on each one I have been left feeling a little bit wanting more.

JLT was marked for a 90 min set, and like his 2016 appearance, it was all over after an hour. I felt a little bit short changed, even if I didn’t pay for my ticket. Considering his extensive and excellent back catalogue, JLT could go from performing a very good concert, to being absolute classics. Even if he dropped ‘LLRNR’ which isn’t his to begin with, and replaced it with 3 or 4 others – ‘Déjà vu’, ‘Heaven Tonight’, ‘Tearin’ Out My Heart’, and ‘Rescue You’. That would be SOME gig. Do it Joe, you know you can.

Moving on to the Friday. A long day was planned out, mainly sticking with the main stage.  Up first are fellow Celts, The King Lot. I really liked their first album and saw them supporting Dan Reed Network a short while back. I always like to see bands like The King Lot, get a shot in front of a ready and willing audience. Thankfully they did not fail me. As a three piece TKL will give anyone a run for their money, even Earth, Wind & Fire! I must say that with their new guitarist in tow, Jay Moir, The King Lot are a different prospect to what I saw in 2016. They were tight as a nut, and the vocals from Jason Sweeney were a joy to hear. Very few bands have that ‘sit up and take notice’ vibe about them, but TKL are one of those bands. ‘As They Burn’ was a strong song to get a crowd on your side, and the new songs prove they are making big leaps and bounds on from the debut, with ‘Save Me’ and ‘All I Want’ making more than a mark. Going on first can be a killer as a lot of people could still be tucked up in their vans after heavy night, but the guys managed to pull in a very decent crowd. Props go to Jason for his humorous banter in-between songs. I’m sad I missed them at the bar afterwards for a ‘drinkypoo of Irn Bru!’

Cruzh as in ‘Crush’ and not ‘Cruise’ as I thought it was. This is proper AOR that the Swedes in particular seem to be flying the AOR flag for. Even before they start, bass player Dennis, resplendent in his fur wrap, and arm in the air salute showed off their stagecraft. This is some serious shit I think to myself. I have to say, vocalist Tony Andersson has one hell of a range to his vocals, and a various points was hitting notes that only Labradors can hear. I was not aware of these guys, but what was presented to me was very good, and in ‘In and out of love’ Cruzh have their Bon Jovi moment, I half expect Andersson to belt out ‘Tommy used to work on the docks….’ They were out Bon Jovi-ing, Bon Jovi! If that makes sense. 

What does every good AOR vocalist need to have? Did I hear anyone say, abs? With his bandana, and desire for showing off his torso, Tony is every inch a 1989s MTV star. To qualify how good they (Cruzh) are, I stepped over to see Fugitive for one song on the second stage, and the gap, my friends, in difference is as wide as the smile on a Cheshire Cat! Although Hippie Jesus (if you caught him – hair matted and with a John Motson sheepskin) seemed to like Fugitive.

Some five years after making their debut at the inaugural HRH AOR, Daylight Robbery was a bit further up the bill this time. They have been quiet on the album front, with their most recent being 2013s ‘Falling Back To Earth’. Most of their set is weighted towards this second album. In Tony Nicholl, they have a very good vocalist and all round front man, (a bit like pointy Bob from Magnum) and an excellent guitarist in Mark Carelton. My only criticism is that Mark should watch Brad Gillis and see how a guitarist performs. Carelton is a cracking guitarist but it was like watching a mannequin! Most of the set comes from FBTE, and any band having a decent intro tape is worth a punt. The songs on offer warrant a bigger crowd than they got. ‘Digital Dreamer being one of the best songs with they guys great harmonies, I’m a sucker for four of five part harmonies and DR deliver on all counts. ‘Fallen Star’ is probably the best song in their armoury, whilst it isn’t a ‘Stargazer’, it is a very good song. I heard a lot of mixed opinions regarding DR, but for me it was a good performance. I’d like to be seeing a new album coming out form them soon to keep some momentum going.

Jac Dalton,  ‘who?’ I hear you say was up next.  Well he is the first Antipodean rocker on the main stage on Friday. First impressions count for me, and if that isn’t a syrup, I want to know what the hell he is doing, as I want whatever he is putting on it. It was like a mane! Anyway hair, and dodgy ill fitting kecks aside, Jac started up very promising. He was one of the few acts I have never heard material from over this weekend and I suspect I wasn’t the only one in this position. ‘Powder keg’ has the hallmarks of a great opener, decent riff, and a good and catchy chorus. I have no idea where this blokes been for the last 20 years, but with it being Australia, I’m guessing its witness protection. Jac has surrounded himself with some pretty good musicians. JD firmly has his feet planted in the 1980s and makes no apologies for it, with ‘Roll in The Punches’ being a prime example. His diction is clear, which is great for a reviewer, and JD comes with a decent set of pipes. He did however declare that they were there to party on this Saturday Night. I’ll forgive him, as it probably was Saturday in Australia! Some of the set is clichéd, but there were some pretty decent songs to be heard here with ‘Armed and Dangerous’ being a particular favourite for me.  Jac is an amiable front man, who operates at 30 DHACF (that’s 30 Devil Horns and clenched fists per song. He was handing them out like sweets). ‘Blow me Away’ was another good song where a Hammond organ plays its part. ‘Let It Go’ comes from the same stable as Ratt’s ‘Invasion Of You Privacy’, both riff wise, and chorus.

My favourite moment was not a song but an introduction to his band. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Ayatollah of rock and rolla….Graham Greene’ . Well done Sir!

JD finished with a song that Ratt, Poison, and all the Hair Metal Bands of the 80s would love to have in their repertoire the unashamed, ‘Locked, Cocked and Ready To Rock’. It was a bit trapped in the past, but that necessarily isn’t a bad sign. There were more hits than misses, but had they had 45 mins like some of the others; they could have left more of a mark on the audience

Onto my favourite Skippy/The Sullivans/Sons and Daughters, Australian band,  (second only to the legendary Jimmy Barnes), The Radio Sun, bringing their own brand of ‘thunder from down under’. Steve Janevski, Jason Old and the guys certainly get their money’s worth out of the HRH AOR fest, as this was their second performance (out of three for the weekend). They had travelled both far and wide, and bloody long to get here – non-stop for 30 hrs. and still managed to put in a great show on the Thursday night after the main JLT event. It’s the main stage set that the one they have been building up to. There is good reason that TRS are here for the third year in a row, their crowd is building with every performance here, they deserve the hour slot that they have built up to as they have certainly put in the hours and performances. This slot gives TRS a chance to hit the audience where it hurts, and they deliver on all fronts. With the big stage and more time, Janevski bounds around like it is their last performance, and in Jason Old, we have a guy who likes to talk about hair care. Thankfully, he can sing also! TRS epitomize what this festival is about, melodic rock. The audience gets hit with a barrage of their ‘pop/rock’ brand and manage to cram in a hefty fourteen songs. It could have been seventeen had they stopped Mr Old from singing  ‘Working Class Man’ and chatting away!! I’ve said this many times before, but they do this ‘power pop/rock’ so well, in a way that a band like Coheed & Cambria does. Jeez, there were too many songs to pick from, but highlight for me were ‘One In A Million’, the raucous ‘Tonight’s The Night’, and a song they have made their own, the excellent Andy Taylor cover, ‘I Might Lie’.

We are now getting to the sharp end of Friday night. I had no idea who Aaron Buchanan and The Cult Classics were. Coming onto the stage, they all looked as if they were there to make a huge statement of intent. Sharply turned out, a whirlwind of movement from them all, and right in your face. It was like being kicked in the balls (in a good way).  Opener ‘Left Me For Dead’ reminded me of early Alter Bridge crossed with Alice In Chains. Buchannan is a live wire of a performer, hardly keeping still, and his delivery is great considering he put more energy into one hour than all the previous bands could muster up!

I had a thought, what is he doing playing ‘Fire, Fire’, then it hit me. He was the bloke in Heavens Basement. Now without the long locks. He is backed up by his sister Laurie on guitar, and Lead guitarist Tom McCarthy, they were here to leave a mark on the audience. I think he very nearly did – in trying to stage dive he went arse over tit, and looked like it could have smarted a bit. It could have been the end of it there and then. To quote him afterwards, ‘a show without risks, isn’t a show’. I honestly think he lives and dies by this mantra. ‘Fire in the Fields of Mayhem’ is a song inspired by Coheed, and hits the spot, short and punchy like a Claudio classic, complete with ‘whooa, oh ohs!’ After the near death experience, Aaron thought ‘I’ve survived this, so I'll give it another shot’. During the powerful ‘I Am Electric’ he beckoned the audience in, walked across them, and pulled off a headstand on top of the audience for one of the memorable points of the whole weekend. The whole band at this point were on fire, all bar Paul White (drums), the guys up front were in the audiences face for the whole hour. ‘Man With Stars On His Knees’ was the stand out song for me, you get to hear Aaron just singing, it built up into a crescendo without the need for screaming and was simply wonderful. Hearing four Heavens Basement songs made me think why the hell this band didn’t make it, as the interpretations here were excellent.

AB&TCC are as near to AOR as I am to being politically correct. That doesn’t matter, because as far as I am concerned they gave one of the performances of the weekend. Bloody fantastic.

Marc Torien’s Bulletboys were up next. The audience was stoked for these guys. I feel that I might be in the minority, but I saw and felt differently to the crowds reaction. As far as I’m concerned,  they should have been sponsored by ‘The Dairy Council of Great Britain’ as these buggers know how to milk out a song. It was all smoke and mirrors. I thought Torien, looked great, sounded great and played guitar even better, but I just don’t understand what all the pissing about was for. The few songs they played (8 in total. Really?) there were extended intros, extended outros, and the bits in the middle were too bastard long also. If I hear him shout ‘Are you glad to see us Wales?’ I heard it 20 bleedin’ times. If I’m honest, it started well with ‘Hard as A Rock, finished well, with ‘Smooth Up In Ya’ but the middle was the shit, in a shit sandwich. I just did not get it.  They were booked for an hour, played 5 or 6 songs in 50 minutes, and I wouldn’t have put it past him to count his money on stage for the last 10. There was too much faff and fannying around for my liking. You can tell he is taking the piss by throwing in a drum solo. I would have swapped these around with AB&TCC. Where’s the mind bleach as I want my mind erasing.

Night Ranger nave been doing this for 35 years and were not going to let anyone before steal the thunder. By the time they took the stage a little late the venue was rammed, to the point of almost being uncomfortable. Based on this, Night Ranger is THE band that people were here to see on any of the three days. They play with the vibe of a band that is playing gigs every weekend for the last 10 years. Jack Blades in particular looks as if he is having the time of his like. Very few bands from the 80s could pull in a crowd like this today. It’s all because they are fucking great. End of.

This is the third time in four years that I’ve seen them. Do you know what is great? They have mixed up the set list for all three gigs. It helps considerably that they have such and excellent and extensive catalogue of great songs to pull from. There’s no light weighting or fillers here folks, its full on Night Ranger power for almost two hours.

The new (ish) songs, opener ‘Somehow Someway’, ‘High Road’ and ‘Truth’ fit in seamlessly with the older classics. In fact if you didn’t know any better you would think they are all from their golden period. It’s an artillery of voices, with five part harmonies, an AOR fans wet dream. With Brad Gillis and Keri Kelli the interplay between both is something else, and Gillis in particular is one of rocks finest guitarists, and vastly underrated. The playing on ‘A Touch Of Madness’ is just to die for. Jack Blades is taking something that I want. I don’t know what it is, but if I can bound around like him for a couple of hours at his age, I’d be a happy man indeed.  Night Ranger are a well oiled machine, its hit after hit, from ‘Rumours In The Air’ to ‘The Secret Of My Success’ and the not very heard ‘7 Wishes’ and ‘Night Ranger’. For me, the crowd responds better to the Damn Yankees songs than the Night Ranger ones. They have enough great songs to draw in that don’t need to be Damn Yankees. One of my favourite albums is ‘Man In Motion,’ there are some cracking songs on here that never get an outing.  With the last five songs, Night Rangers phasers are set to ‘stun’. ‘Goodbye’, When You Close Your Eyes’, the superb ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me’, segueing into Highway Star, then onto the one-two sucker punch with ‘Sister Christian’ and ‘(You Can Still) Rock In America.

Night Ranger delivered on all levels, song choice, and performance level, and musically. There’s not that many bands out there form the 80s that could match this level at this stage in their careers. Here’s to 2021 or sooner hopefully.

I could not be there for the full day, so managed to cram in 4 bands. First up were The Idol Dead. These are another band that I’d never come across before, but full marks to the organisers for getting them on the bill. Again there were as far away to AOR, than Bulletboys are to enjoyment. They reminded of Teenage Casket Company from 2016 that came on and blew the place up. The Idol Dead were no different. To say they had the audience in the palm of their hands was a massive understatement. No solos as such, but they had some of the best songs and riffs this side of the Pennines, all played out with an attitude and swagger bigger than Snowdon. They are on tour in May, I strongly advise you to get your arses over to see them. The highlights of their set were ‘Blackout Girl’ which reminds me of early Coheed & Cambria, and the wonderfully titled C.H.I.M.S.A. (Christopher Hitchens Is My Spiritual Animal). If they had dropped the mic at the end, it would have rounded off a near perfect performance.

Blood Red Saints were on first on the main stage. My worries that they might not be playing to a decent crowd were thankfully the opposite. The room was pretty much filled out and BRS deserve to play in front of numbers like this. They had 45 minutes to make statement, call it 35 if you can shut Pete Godfrey up. That’s a big part of the show. ‘Another Freak’ from their latest album was a stormer, a lot of bands try to write anthems, and very few can do it better than BRS, especially on ‘Mercy’ with the harmonies from Chemney, Naylor and Revill making it a killer. The band were trying to move on quickly and pack the songs in, but stopping Pete Godfrey  from joking, as like trying  to stop Mr Creosote from having a ‘weffer thin mint!’

Pete royally took the piss out of Rob Naylor’s voice (who, when asked to say something, stated he had a sore throat), with Pete commenting ‘you sound gay, where did you lose your voice? In the men’s toilets? ‘

The large venue suits these bands to a tee, as this is probably the best I have seen BRS perform. Amongst the golden nuggets was a brief rendition of Take That’s ‘Back For Good’. Follow this up with ‘Live and Die’ and ‘Kicking Up Dust’ and the set was glorious. God help who had to follow this

So, from the Blood Red Saints to one of France’s patron saints, the all female Joan ov Arc. I would stake (see what I did there) a good amount of money that a lot of the punters were like me, and were a new experience. Despite having to follow Ted Bovis and the BRS, Joan ov Arc were out to prove a point, that it’s not just the blokes who can kick ass. The crowd had faded by the time they entered the stage. From what little I’d seen of them on YouTube, it was nothing when compared to their live performance. The vocals courtesy of Sam Walker were both powerful and ear-bleedingly high. Her sister Shelley (lead guitar), looked as if she wanted to prove a point. There was a bit of overplaying, but I can easily forgive that especially when they want to showcase their talents in a setting like this. Four songs in and the crowd had returned, and they were very well received. They proved that they could mix it up, with the more soulful vocals of bassist Laura Ozholl taking lead on a couple of songs. An anthem for the girls was proclaimed, and it kame with a killer riff, and clearly one of the best songs of the set. They chose to finish their set with an all-time classic, Freebird. It takes some balls to play a track like this, so it was a good job than none were present, and they knocked it out of the park, with Shelly Walker showing how good a guitarist she is.

My final band of the festival was up next, and what a band, and performance it was from Wales’ own Nev MacDonald of Hand of Dimes. I felt a bit like Dorothy Boyd in Jerry Maguire, as he had me at ‘Hello’. Very few singers have this talent; and Nev is one talented bloke. He sings effortlessly, and for me, it was THE vocal performance of the weekend. Joining him from eons back was Andy Robbins (ex-Skin and Jagged Edge). The area was as full as it was for a headliner and it was only 4pm. The set was only seven songs, but fook me, what a seven songs it proved to be! I was lucky to catch him a few years back at Steelhouse in 2013, so it was great to them higher up the bill. ‘Looking at You’ is a classic, and had the whole crowd in raptures. To be honest, Nev could have sung ‘Shaddup Ya Face’ and I’d like it at this point. Hand of Dimes was on fire (damn I should have used that for Joan ov Arc), and in ‘Jacobs Ladder’, a soulful blues number that borders on perfect. It is without doubt their finest work. It was their final track that almost took the roof off the place, Skin’s ‘House Of Love’. It was commented that Nev MacDonald should be a household name. Well, he is in the Buckley household.

Hand of Dimes came a close second to Night Ranger, and join Blood Red Saints, The Idol Dead, and Aaron Buchanan and The Cult Classics as the stand out acts of AOR VI.

I’m hopeful that the guys at HRH will come up trumps next year and deliver the goods as an AOR festival. To many bands were either not AOR or were on the wrong stage (especially Midnite City and Degreed). On the way home, we talked about this in detail, and Styx would be the choice. One of the few bands that can still cut it and matches the high standard of Night Ranger.

The festival goes from strength to strength, they have a brand that doesn’t necessarily cater to the AOR crowd, in a good way.

There was a spare slot for Sat night after Jack Russell's Great White pulled out a couple of weeks back. It was to be filled by The Quireboys. Is this the third year running for them? I've heard on the grapevine that Spike hires a caravan for him and the band, over in Criccieth the same weekend as HRH AOR, and he is on permanent 'on-call' should the need arise. Its true I tell ya!

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