Sonisphere Festival Journal - Knebworth, England

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Wednesday, August 18, 2010 @ 4:51 PM

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It’s taken more years than I want to count, but I’m finally on my way to a genuine heavy metal/hard rock festival done Anglo-European style - meaning extended days, massive camping, multiple stages, general admission, and mammoth audiences and energy.

It’s the soldout Sonisphere Festival at Knebworth, England, 2010 - the second year of this event in this place.

No doubt, I’ve romanticized this kind of experience since back in the day when I first began reviewing and interviewing rock bands - but particularly the late 70s/early 80s English ones.

Those bands - and later their American counterparts - always spoke of their gigs at those giant outdoor English fests, such as Castle Donnington , Reading, Download, etc., with relish and great enthusiasm. It was clear that they had considered gigs at these festivals the coup de grace of their careers, and the crowning feather in the cap of any successful tour. Moreover, they still do.

But, exactly what is it that makes these Anglo/Euro fests so much different - so much better and more prestigious - from American music fests? - I always wondered - and wanted to find out first hand.

Of course, there’s the camping aspect of these big British/Euro fests, which most multiple-day American fests don’t feature, especially if there’s a “heavy metal” focus.

While there are some big outdoor camping-style, multi-day fests for Country music here and there in the States, or even similar mainstream rock fests in some parts of the country with camping (like Kansas), a mixture of both old and new cutting-edge bands is rarely in balance, and the focus is never primarily on “metal” to my knowledge, at least not on any of the large scale ones other than Ozzfest . But then, there again, that is not a camping or multiple-day-in-one-place affair, and neither is the Warped tour.

Yes, we have some other great extended festivals, like the excellent two-week long Summerfest in Milwaukee, but there’s no camping - it’s on the lakefront in the downtown area - and the focus is on multiple genres and the headlining stage itself is reserved seating and separately ticketed.

We even have things like the 3-day Lollapalooza fest going on, as I write, in Grant Park on the lakefront in Chicago (though a friend of mine working security there right now calls it “Hellapaloser,” and says they‘ve had mob scenes and several arrests so far). It is GA for that whole event, yes, but there is no camping, which makes the tone of the whole event somehow different in numerous ways.

But now, finally, I’m happily diverting a day and night from a planned London/Paris vacation, not only to finally see Iron Maiden in their element at home, as the headliners Sunday night, but also to see the likes of The Cult, and to check out the new crop of upcoming bands, many of them English or European, in a way that is only possible closer to their home turf.

In particular, I’m also making sure I rendezvous to visit Voodoo Six, the rising, impressive, London-based band that comes as close to a revitalized embodiment of a genuine riffing, wailing, and tough-rocking English band as I’ve gotten a whiff of in recent years.

But, for the benefit of anyone else reading this who might consider such a trek across the pond to an Anglo-European rock fest of this kind in the future, I will say this: You can easily swing the adventure, logistically and financially, as long as you can swing the airfare. The rest of it is smooth sailing, at least in England, and can be done relatively inexpensively once you’re on the ground there. So, I’ll be weaving some of the logistic details into this journal too.

My experience, though, began with an 8-hour red eye flight into London’s Heathrow airport from Chicago. From there London and England itself is amazingly easy and inexpensive to get around in without driving - the easiest place in the world for that I’ve ever been to. Currently, the USD to GBP conversion rate is very favorable to Americans too, so that doesn’t hurt either.

After touching down at 6:00 AM London time on Saturday morning, July 31, I purchase an unlimited day pass for London tube/bus transport (less than $10 USD) and then hop on the Piccadilly “tube” line, which departs directly from inside the airport. The tube goes direct to all major places, stations, and hotels within the city, and an easy transfer could be required if your stop is not directly near the Piccadilly stops.

But, I knew in advance that the Piccadilly tube goes in directly to the Kings Cross station, which is also the departure point for the British Rail train to Old Stevenage, the town nearest Knebworth where the Sonisphere- UK festival 2010 is being held. (Side Note: Other Brit Rail stations and trains - that go out to the country where other fests and events are held - are all very easily accessible from other tube stops in London too.)

In that part of London and others, you can get smaller bed & breakfast type hotels, or little boutique hotels in London at rates equal to or less than those in big American cities, but be prepared for rooms that are usually much smaller, and which have strange plumbing fixtures. (Sometimes they don’t have air conditioning, either, but then England in August is much like San Francisco in August: generally low 70s midday and even cooler at night.)

So, for Saturday night only, I got one of these B&Bs a block west of the Kings Cross/St. Pancras station. It has a private bathroom (they call it “en suite”) and includes “English Breakfast” to boot, for about 100 USD. But, for the even more budget conscious, or those who want a different kind of experience, there are also clean and safe hostels nearby, like the Generator, that go for about 30 - 40 USD per night.

A few minutes after arriving at the hotel -which let me check my suitcase in early - I noted two guys in the common area wearing Motley Crue T-shirts, and I knew they were probably there for Sonsiphere too. (Motley Crue were headlining Sat. night, along with Rammstein.) They were from Greece, they said, and had been in for Sonisphere since Thursday night.

Turns out that they, like quite a few others who know their way around the festival scene, had opted not to do the camping thing, or get a hotel near the fest (hotels in the closest fest towns sell out very early and tend to price gouge), but instead stayed in London all three nights. They were taking the Brit Rail from King Cross in and out of the fest each day and night, they said.

But what about leaving the fest late at night? - I wondered - knowing the last train back to London from Stevenage leaves at 11:15 PM, meaning part of the headlining band’s set would have to be missed to make that train on time, or else be stranded until 4:30 AM the next morning.

They said you did still get to see most of the main stage final headlining set anyway, and, if you really want to see the entire set, you can easily get a cab back to London, as they were going to do for Iron Maiden’s headlining set the next night. (They claimed it only costs about 50 GBP for such a trip, which is about 80 USD, but the fare can be shared with other riders back to London, and their London hotel was cheaper than one in Stevenage anyway.)

I wanted to dart off to the fest that day, too, when I saw them leave out, especially since Skunk Anansie was on the bill later that evening too, but had other commitments. (There’s no such thing as a “quick trip” to the fest.)

But, the following morning, I did head out for the one block walk to Kings Cross, luggage in tow, early enough for the 10:15 AM train to Stevenage. (Trains leave from there to Stevenage about every 20 minutes, and the trip is just over half an hour, and costs 30 USD or less round trip.)

My two Greeks acquaintances were standing outside the hotel when I left, wearing Iron Maiden shirts this time, having a smoke. They warned me that I was leaving “too early,” but the music gets underway about 12 noon each day, and besides, I did not want to be late for a very important date!

Other festival-goers had the same idea - many had their Iron Maiden shirts on, and their back packs and tents in tow on the train - and we arrived in Stevenage station at 10:47 PM.

Outside the platform there was a line of people waiting to board free shuttle buses that will take you to the entrance of the festival. I wanted to drop my suitcase off at my hotel in town beforehand, however, so I hoped their would be a cab que at the station, and yes indeed there was. I had somehow booked a room at the Oliver Cromwell-Ramada (a really cool historical little hotel) for that night before the trip, but it was only through sheer persistence, because all the hotels within 8 miles of the venue were showing up as ‘sold out“ on the online booking sites, and most others were price-gouging too.

I found out that some others going to the festival from the train or hotels just take the cab in to the gates, too, if they don’t want to wait for the free shuttles (which come about every half hour), and the cab fare is about 8 USD or less with tip.

After arriving at the festival parameter entrance, I could see all the many general camping tents - peeping up like a rainbow military camp - since that is the area where most will settle in before they go further into the fest grounds.

On the map I had, I could also see other “Guest” and “Rock Royalty“ camping areas in separate parts of the festival site; which apparently had better amenities (like hot showers), and were located closer to the action, but even the general camp had a “general store” and separate outdoor loos.

From there, it is a good 10 - 15 minute walk from the festival gates to the actual grounds where the stages are, but I was fortunate in being able to take another shuttle/mini bus from there to a credential booth closer inside the grounds.

With thanks to The Noise Cartel, the U.K. PR firm handling the fest, my little green credentials were right there - no hassles! - retrieved from a guy inside a white wooden booth no larger than a T-Ball concession stand. This area, I later figured out, was just behind the main Apollo stage and adjacent to the “guest’ camping too.

From there, I set off on a long rocky path outside the fenced-up parameters, in search of the most likely place I’d find Voodoo Six founder and bassist Tony Newton, who had gamely agreed to escort me around the festival and to do an interview later in the day. (See the text of the full interview with Tony Newton in a separate posting here on www.knac.com.)

Security was all around the many entrances to the festival already, garbed in the usual florescent vests. Like a sheep, I followed blindly where they pointed when they asked to see my wrist bracelet . Along the way, I saw large carnival rides peeping up from a distance inside, which I hadn’t expected, and you could also see several big top tents and the awnings over at least two gigantic stages.

(There were three “main stages” at the fest, starting with the Bohemia, which was a huge tented venue, the Saturn, a huge outdoor stage, and the Apollo, the headliner’s stage, that was obviously the most monolithic of all.)

It had rained slightly the night before - and was threatening to again this day - but the mud was kept at bay along the 10 minute hike-path by large pebbles and metal planks. I stopped at a place that appeared to be a truck/bus load-in entrance on the left, but there was also a large Tudor-style house on the right. (Turned out to be the official press headquarters.) There also was a “real” white castle there, too, not far outside the main grounds, but it was obscured during the day with all the large semi-trucks.

Band buses were everywhere - but, which way to go? Not a soul in sight. Just as I was leaning over my phone trying to focus on texting Tony Newton with this question, not knowing if he’d even get it, my name is called, I look up, and, by Jove, it’s him standing right there a few yards away!

Now, this is not my first meeting with Tony, a native of London’s East End, nor the first time meeting V6’s drummer, Dave “Grav” Cavill, for that matter. (The latter, one of many true characters in the band, tends to remind of a longer-haired and much more youthful and jovial version of Ming the Merciless, what with his devilish eyes and pointy beard!)

The first time, which had been the last time, was when both were in previous band Dirty Deeds, which opened for Iron Maiden /Dio on a U.S. tour some years ago (preceded and succeeded by a European tour opening slots as well). I remember clearly that Steve Harris had wanted me to be sure and watch Deeds’ entire set preceding Dio‘s; he was into the band that much.

Dirty Deeds, as some may recall, released three albums, the first two of which were actually produced at Steve Harris’s Barnyard Studios and released on his own label, Beast Records. (That band’s music/performances was oft-deemed “aggressive, hard-hitting, melodic-power-metal” by critics and fans.) Since then, I’d later interviewed that band and kept up with its progress.

More recently though, Dirty Deeds were dissolved by Tony Newton, in favor of new project Voodoo Six, which released a debut album, Feed My Soul, in 2006, a second, First Hit for Free, in 2008, and which is set to release its third (UK), tentatively called Fluke, this September 27th. Ahead of this Sonisphere gig, V6 had also recently opened for UFO on an English tour, after singer Phil Mogg had invited them along upon hearing one of their new singles on British radio.

So, here I am now with Tony, who, in addition to trying to supervise the set up for the band’s big gig on the Bohemia stage in a few hours, is shepherding me off to a place where I can meet with a few of the guys in the band, as well as other friends and family who I can hang with to investigate all the circuses and excitement going on in this fest.

We arrive at a fenced in “credentials only” area, but it’s huge and there are already about 50 people milling about it early on. There’s picnic tables, a Nicko’s Rock n Roll Ribs stand on the outside, and a big tent with more “Nicko’s” food, beverage, and alcohol bars - and tables - on the inside.

(That’s Nicko as in Iron Maiden’s drummer McBrain, and his new Coral Springs, Florida-based restaurant appears to have the plumb vendor spot at Sonisphere - and good on him!)

The food and drinks were not gratis there, however, just so you know. As in the other fest booths, a beer or wine would run you about 5 -6 USD. (I may be mistaken, but it is likely that the campers were allowed to B.Y.O.)

I later found out that there were at least two other sections of the fest area that required separate wrist-bands to enter. Iron Maiden had it’s own large hospitality area and tent, for a start, and that was probably a necessity as it was their only home gig on the current tour so far, and jammed full with family and friends (and friends of friends) at all times.

Another one was the Rock Royalty area, which apparently requires paying extra in advance when you book your tickets and select your accommodations, so, if you can afford to pay, then you can “play.” That basically meant having a separate picnic area to hang out in during the fest, a special shuttle inside the grounds, and a choice of staying at certain Rock Royalty hotels or camping in the “exclusive” Rock Royalty area. It’s the festival equivalent of opting for a 3, 4, or 5 star hotel instead of a hostel.

On one hand, it might seem elitist, on the other hand, it’s shrewd and no doubt brought in many more people to the fest well past the age where they’re willing to rough it as much as they might have been when they were 18.

Speaking of which, there were a vast array of nationalities and ages at this fest, from toddler-age to grandparents, and all kinds of attire, too, from chains ‘n tats to bonnets ‘n skirts, but, not surprisingly the biggest majority seemed to be in the 15 - 50 age group.

Anyway, after perusing the general “Guest” area and meeting some new people (all as friendly and polite as the English are reputed to be), I went off to scout out a couple of tents and places where some of the early music was going on.

Amongst several “market and food areas,” there were at least two other tent/bar/band areas sponsored by Bowtime and Jagermeister. Of course there were at least a couple of huge merchandise booths, and several scattered areas of porta -pottie clusters. And, the rock gods started smiling with the weather, too, because by 1:00 PM, the sun was shining bright and the temp was a comfy 75 degrees.

Now, another thing important to know, is that for the most part, all these bands are playing on all three stages and side stages concurrently - and there is also a comedy stage going on simultaneously as well!

There’s no way you can see them all, and it could take up to 10 minutes to cross from one stage or tent to the next area where you want to see someone. Thus, you have to target the ones you most want to see, and hope they don’t overlap with each other, though they often will.

One band I wanted to see that day was Medina Lake, on the Apollo stage early. They are the band from Chicago who had to play without their bassist who had two recent brain surgeries caused by being sucker-punched when he interceded after happening upon a man beating up his wife on an Ohio Street sidewalk. His status is unknown, but the band toughed it out to make the festival and some other English gigs. The little bit I saw of the set, they were carrying on well as could be expected anyway.

Mostly, though, I concentrated on the Bohemia stage, which featured up-and-coming acts I was interested in seeing, and most of them were part of the hot new British metal and hard rock scene. Names like The Union, B-Line Disaster, Fightstar, Converge, and Voodoo Six of course.

Unfortunately, I missed the slot when Rise to Remain came on; it‘s a young band featuring Austin Dickinson (Bruce Dickinson’s son) as lead singer, so, yes, I wanted to see how close the apple fell from the tree. Also missed the Defiled and Rollins Spoken Word (Henry Rollins); was at other stages or places at the time.

All of the bands had their own following, and the tent dynamics would sometimes change as each band changed. People moving in, people moving out, but many staying around to check out something different.

And something unusual was around every corner; a giant mechanical horse that neighed was one band‘s prop; another had a guy with demon horns on, on some kind of gigantic metallic stilts. Most would be considered Nu Metal, the audiences and bands on the young side, pumped and enthusiastic, and, to my guesstimation - and unlike most metal-fests in the U.S. - as many females of all ages seem present on this day as males.

When Voodoo Six came on, they delivered somewhat of a curve ball from the preceding fare, but still it didn’t take them long to grab the audience attention from outside and bring it within. More and more oozed in the giant tent as the bluesy, punchy, riff-laden sound of the band permeated outward. V6 have no gimmicks and there is nothing poseur about them, but, what they do have is a confident, cocky semi -retro hard rock sound that pretty much sticks out like a red rooster in sepia hued barn.

The songs - mostly from the recent 5-song EP “This One’s For You” - were underscored by melody, ruff and gruff riffs - and power, and howled soulfully by the band‘s new singer, Luke Purdie. Purdie, who has the swagger and pipes of someone who’s been delivering up the grit on the world stage for years, elevates the V6 sonic impact to a new level particularly on the tune like “Take the Blame.” (It probably should also be noted that Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris stealthily slipped in on the back of stage right to catch V6’s entire set, and no wonder.)

Yes, it’s real and rugged rock n roll, and just my cuppa, clearly served up by craftsmen, just as I had expected, but none of that’s mentioned when I first meet singer Luke Purdie outside the tent after the set. Luke is from Kent, on the far southern coast, and the only non-Londoner in the bunch. He’s the real deal in every respect, both onstage and off, as soon becomes clear. We talk about how he came into the V6 fold, but it turns out he’s even more interested in talking about Americana; the frontiersman thing and How the West Was Won! We’re talking Arkansas, Alamo, Bowie knives, Davy Crockett, and more …

Then we’re whisked away to meet up in the Iron Maiden hospitality area as a depot for gathering up to see The Cult, the one band, other than Maiden, everyone seems especially keen on seeing. In the meantime, though, Tony Newton and I go over to a picnic table in the press area to finally have a talk about the new album; Gav finds us over there later and chimes with good humor at the tail end.

After that, we’re soon back out in front of the Saturn stage for Cult-time, to stand and pay homage to mercurial Ian Astbury and Co. from afar. The Cult still has it going on, and Astbury is still intense, enigmatic, and charismatic as ever as he delivers a set from the current Love Live tour (though this is the first U.K. date), but there’s also the bonus just released new song, “Everyman and Woman is a Star.“

The Cult is followed onstage by the legendary Iggy and the Stooges, but we can’t stay to see it all because it’s time to make pit stops before scurrying to witness home-heroes Iron Maiden, as they put the final exclamation point on the end of the fest.

When we arrive on the scene at the Apollo stage, 50,000 plus have already lined up in front of us, and - without a natural graduated amphitheater terrain - there’s no point in trying to see the guys on the stage itself - at least not for me, though Tony and Luke, on my left, are taller and appear to have no problem.

But we can hear, that’s for sure, and we can still see the screens on each side of the stage. More importantly, we are there to feel the communal vibe of witnessing Iron Maiden honing in and grabbing the crowd by the jugular, metal masters and consummate pros that they are.

Granted, there were a few side-shows going on around us that far back - a guy in front of us so drunk that he pulled it out and whizzed right in the place where he stood, followed by a flopsy- daisy dancing couple who fell down and got drug through the residue - but it was still all in good fun, and hardly distracted from the piece de resistance of the entire 3-day festival.

Repeating the setlist that was used on the American leg of the current Final Frontier World Tour (this was the first English appearance on the tour), which primarily features songs from Brave New World and onward, Iron Maiden kept the entire (and undoubtedly exhausted) festival crowd on the tips of their toes to the very end, authoritatively reaffirming their crown and leaving no doubt that there’s still plenty more fuel left in that masterful metal machine.

When the dust settled after the final festival bookend, “Running Free,“ there was no pushing at the gates afterwards in a rush to get out, as there always seems to be at regular commuter festivals, even though it suddenly started to rain within 15 minutes of the conclusion of Maiden’s set.. (The rest of the fest was not completely over for those camping or hanging around, though; all the food and beverage booths were still open, even the alcohol-serving ones.)

There were no mobs racing and pushing the next day, either, even though the Stevenage rail station had a very long and winding line of campers waiting their turn to board the first available train back home even at noon on Monday. Everyone, even those with huge camping gear on their backs (and these were definitely mostly in the age 15 -30 age group), waited in line calmly and peacefully, and with apparent satisfaction.

Now maybe that’s part of what makes the Anglo/European metal festival scene so unique: the calmness and orderliness of the crowds, despite their enormity.

If so, that happens due to several important factors, including the expertise of the promoters planning the events, who make sure the infrastructure at the venues - both camping and in the stage areas - is sufficient to support the numbers allowed in.

But, it also has to do with the location - isolated countryside settings that are nevertheless accessible by efficient and convenient public transportation, no driving required, allowing all the attendees to commute into and out of the venues without major headaches or stress.

It seems that‘s just flat out hard to replicate in America so far, because potential countryside settings that would be necessary for huge outdoor camping festivals rarely have adequate public transportation available nearby, if any at all.

So, for now, for heavy metal festival pilgrims, I think all roads still lead to Britain. But, now that I’ve finally been there and done that, and found how easy it is to do, even coming in from America, I wondered, What took me so dang long1? As they say, though, once is never enough!

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