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Giants Of Rock 5 - Butlins, Minehead (UK) - 26-28 January 2018

Fri 26 January

About a decade ago I was lucky enough to visit Butlin's in Minehead for the inaugural Hard Rock Hell festival, and at the time it was a bit of a novelty to see the likes of Saxon and Twisted Sister playing at a holiday camp. Fast forward to 2018 and it's a regular occurrence, even if said festival migrated away from Minehead a while back. Not to be left behind, Minehead Butlins started their own festival, the Giants Of Rock, which is now in its fifth year.

There's not a lot of options when it comes to getting to Minehead, and as a result, there's plenty of time to observe quaint villages and woods as the line of traffic snakes its way to the blustery seaside town. I've been here a few times to watch the darts tournaments, and it's got to the point that seeing the towering tent-like roof of the main arena feels a little like coming home. Check-in is as painless as ever, aided by staff forced to listen to what seems like one of those perennial "Driving Rock" compilations for the duration.

After what can only be described a delicious meal and a chat with Steve Overland and Jim Kirkpatrick of FM, I'm finally ready to check out some live music. There are three stages involved in the weekend, with the smallest being Jaks. This is situated in a small nightclub on site and hosts new and upcoming bands. The main problem is that it mainly operates from 4pm when the two bigger stages are shut, and as such is rammed, hot and uncomfortable. Plenty of people take advantage of it throughout the weekend and a lot of praise is thrown at the bands involved, but I make a decision to concentrate on the two main stages, starting with the largest – the Centre Stage.

The Centre Stage is situated in a large room with two bars, raised seating areas and a decent sized stage that's far enough off the ground to make sure everyone can see the bands. Kicking off my weekend are FM, here to warm up for their upcoming tour and new album. Afforded an hour to impress and entertain, they don't hold back. From the start, the sound quality is hugely impressive with each instrument loud and clear as they bang through 'Digging Up The Dirt', 'I Belong To The Night', 'Life Is A Highway' and 'Let Love Be The Leader'. It's always great to see them on form and they make it look effortless. Overland sounds gorgeous and as ever his guitar interactions with Kirkpatrick are smooth as hell. Either side of the stage are two large screens (there's also some smaller TVs suspended further back) and the action is on display clearly so there's nowhere you can't see the show from. Interestingly, the boys shake up their set-list, and it's a delight to hear the likes of 'Someday', 'Bad Luck' and 'Love Lies Dying' (the latter with a nifty outro from Kirkpatrick) with 'Burning My Heart Down' closing out the set, most notable for Jem Davis' keytar. They leave a room full of smiling faces and as usual keep up their reputation of being a hard act to follow.


Giants Of Rock 5 FM Live

After the obligatory change over onstage, there's a palpable air of expectation as British legends Magnum take the stage. Their modern incarnation has produced some memorable songs and 'When We Were Younger' kicks off the set appropriately. Although the sound is still clear, what's also clear is that vocalist Bob Catley (now seventy) is having a bit of a croaky day. It doesn't ruin his vocals by any means, but I'm crossing my fingers it's only temporary. 'Sacred Blood, Divine Lies' follows, after which the crowd get treated to 'Peaches & Cream' from the excellent new album. In all honesty, I'm enjoying the set and have no complaints, but there's obviously a problem with Tony Clarkin's guitar as the band stop and leave the stage to try and get it sorted. I can only assume it's a problem with his own feedback because we can hear him just fine. Whatever it is, the band return after five minutes and carry on with 'Crazy Old Mothers', of which there are plenty in the crowd. The highlight for me is the next track, the title song from the new 'Lost On The Road To Eternity' album, which allows new keyboard player Rick Benton to shine.


Giants Of Rock 5 Magnum Live 2

The problem with Catley's voice is extremely apparent during 'Les Morts Dansant' and Clarkin is clearly not having a ball either, and after three more tracks they finish on 'Vigilante' and leave the stage after a brief apology for the technical problems. Nine tracks in total mean that there's plenty of grumbling from the "crazy old mothers and fathers" in the audience, and no one can grumble quite like the over fifties. Whilst on one hand I understand that it must be hard to carry on if you're having technical problems, on the other, the band could have definitely handled it better, especially with regards to communication with the audience. Either way, I still enjoy what they did and most of all hope Catley's froggy throat is only temporary.


Giants Of Rock 5 Magnum Live

Closing down the stage for the evening are The Brew, a band I have had dealings with on CD but not live. As they impressed with their hard, heavy Blues-based albums, I'm expecting a treat. They don't disappoint and deliver a set that hurls relentless bass heavy melodies and massive riffs at a very happy audience. It's easy to appreciate why people enjoy them so much, and there's much showing off by guitarist/vocalist Jason Barwick, including playing the guitar behind his head. Overall, they Rock hard and heavy with style and talent, even if Kurttis Smith's drum solo echoes Aynsley Dunbar's a little too much.


Giants Of Rock 5 The Brew Live

There's just time to catch a few tracks by Those Damn Crows on the Reds Stage (the middle level one). Reds Stage is a little more like a traditional, slightly grubby Rock club (Centre Stage is more like a classy bingo hall), and the sound is a little rougher, but from the tracks I hear, Those Damn Crows are pretty damn good. Aggressive and tuneful, they straddle the line between Blues and Metal with panache, and that small taste makes me want to see more, so job done.

Sat 27 January

The second day starts on the Reds Stage with a nice little tribute act to kick out the cobwebs. I say "little" but the place is rammed so tightly door staff have been forced to implement a "one in, one out" policy, and if I have to explain which band Clearwater Creedence Revival are a tribute to, then you really shouldn't be reading this. Amiable Country Rock isn't a bad way to get your mojo working on a windy Saturday afternoon, and Clearwater Creedence Revival do themselves "Proud" ('...Mary'). The vocalist is a big, bearded fella with a lovely, gravelly voice and he guides us through some classic Country stylings and soothes many a hungover head. 'Bad Moon Rising', 'Have You Ever Seen The Rain' and 'I Put A Spell On You', amongst others, make not being able to get to the bar more bearable, and in a world seemingly overrun with Creedence tribute acts, this lot can hold their heads high


Giants Of Rock 5 Clearwater Creedence Revival Live

Next, it's back to the Centre Stage to check out John Verity, a man who was the guitarist in Argent for the last few years of their original incarnation. Not being a fan of Argent, I'm not sure what to expect, but it doesn't take long to realise this isn't a problem. The sixty-eight year old guitarist isn't interested in playing on the Argent connection and is all about playing us some of his favourite Blues songs, such as 'Cocaine' and 'Rocky Mountain Way', with the other nice surprise being his excellent singing voice. He's still recording and throws in a new track that he says describes his attitude to life, hence it being called 'This Old Dog Ain't Done Yet'. It's a cracking set that constantly entertains, and it is clear Verity knows the power of a monster power chord, aided and abetted by a brilliant sound mix. Neither is more apparent than when he launches into a whammy bar fuelled version of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' before absolutely killing (in a good way) 'Purple Haze'. Overall, Verity is a definite weekend highlight, displaying talent, passion and good humour throughout an excellent set.


Giants Of Rock 5 John Verity Live

The last gig of the afternoon for me is Fran Cosmo, best known for his time with Boston where he sang lead vocals on the 'Walk On' album as well as half of 'Corporate America'. In addition, he toured with the band, backing original vocalist Brad Delp, so let's just say expectations are high. Those expectations are slowly being worn down as sound problems delay the start by half an hour, but when he finally gives it a go, it's great to hear 'Rock 'N' Roll Band' blasting out, as well as 'Take A Look Around' and my personal favourite Boston track 'Cool The Engines'. The vocal volume is decidedly light, but even so, it's plain that Cosmo hasn't lost any of his power and control. The layout of the venue and stage set-up means that the sound is better away from the stage, and when I move back a bit after taking photos, there is an improvement although it's still out of balance.

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Full credit must go to the band backing him, as this is the first time they have played together, having been given a week to learn the songs. Seriously, they sound amazing and barely put a foot wrong throughout. Most notable is the keyboard player, an older gentleman who looks like the world's grumpiest music teacher. The thing is, as soon as he gets going (using sheet music!) he turns into a Rock 'n' Roll animal! When he bangs out 'Foreplay' from Boston's debut, it's a joyous experience indeed! The forty-five minute set closes with 'Smokin'' and there's a definite feeling (more than a feeling, really) that we've just witnessed Stadium Rock on a wet Saturday afternoon in Butlins – cosmic!


Giants Of Rock 5 Fran Cosmo Live

As those more hardy than me enjoy more bands on the introducing stage, I have a nap on what is a very comfortable bed and another great meal in readiness for the second evening session. I decide to head to the Reds Stages for the intriguing sounding Rews, a newish band consisting of a drummer and a guitarist, and a whole lot of noise. There's a few bands like this about, but Rews are attracting a whole lot of love and praise, and it's immediately clear why as drummer Colette Williams and guitarist/vocalist Sahuna Tohill certainly don't hold back. Despite being a bit out of place (young, female, attractive) in the line-up, they work hard and win over many doubters. Songs such as 'Miss You In The Dark' and the excellent 'Shine' have a definite crunch that is hard to ignore, and the amount of power they wring out of the instruments is impressive. Between tracks, they genuinely seem a bit bemused at the type of crowd they're playing to, but definitely end up with a tick in the "win" column and more than a few people who will be Googling them later.


Giants Of Rock 5 Rews Live

As I've never been a fan of Hawkwind, I stay at the Reds Stage in anticipation of a good dose of entertainment from Uriah Heep. They are one of those bands whose music I don't really know but have really enjoyed the couple of times I have seen them live. Even though Hawkwind are the official headliners of the evening, there's a massive crowd in here and Heep give them a massive treat from start to finish. Mick Box, in his fiftieth year with the band, is still an absolute joy to watch and he still seems to be having a great time playing. One of several septuagenarians on the bill, he looks and plays like a man thirty years younger, his obvious passion and joy very catching. Singer Bernie Shaw is in fine voice and I hear one audience member remark that Davey Rimmer is the fastest drummer he's ever seen! They only have time for ten tracks, but they say time flies when you're having fun and it's certainly the case here. 'Gypsy', 'Stealin'', 'One Minute', 'Lady In Black' and more pave the way for the encore of 'Easy Livin'' and a rapturous reaction from the crowd. 'Eavy and 'Umble', Uriah Heep are also extremely entertaining and yet another highlight in a weekend already stuffed with them.


Giants Of Rock 5 Uriah Heep Live

As I've never heard anything from Brit Rock legends Stray, I decide to check out Bobby Kimball on the Centre Stage because he was the main man in Toto for the first four albums (and a few later ones) and as such certainly qualifies as a giant of Rock. I thought this should be brilliant, sort of like Fran Cosmo but lighter, and a great way to end the night. Then the set starts and everything turns rapidly to shit. I don't know the song, but as soon as Kimball opens his mouth, a tuneless mess comes out, with notes all over the place like a drunk karaoke singer. I think that maybe there's a problem with the sound because there's no way anyone should be on a stage singing this badly. He then gives us a talk about Toto and the fact his new album is called 'We're Not In Kansas Anymore' then decides to do 'Africa'. Seriously, 'Africa' is a bona fide classic and notoriously hard to sing, and after that first track, there's an air of giggling disbelief as the backing singer does the lower parts (and very well, too). When Kimball joins in for the big emotional parts, it is without doubt one of the worst performances by a so called professional I have ever heard. In a word, he is awful. Afterwards, some people say they stayed because it was so entertaining to watch, like a musical car crash, but after seeing him affect the song 'Africa' (much like the slave trade affected the real thing) I just can't stay. It's the first disappointment of the weekend, and a little Googling shows that if the organizers had checked YouTube they would never have even entertained booking him. The most likely explanation is he has problems with his hearing (he's another septuagenarian), but whatever it, is he needs to just give up because he was Toto-lly abysmal (by the way, whilst Kimball was sending more and more customers their way, by all accounts Stray totally nailed it on the smaller stage. Shows you what I know, eh?)

Sun 28 January

Midday Sunday brings with it my first taste of UK rockers KilliT. You see, each day the Introducing Stage has a vote for the best band and that band gets invited back the next year. It's a nice idea, mainly because without it I wouldn't have seen this excellent band. A five-piece from London, KilliT play meaty Melodic Hard Rock with real balls and some serious energy. They seem to be socially conscious from their lyrics, managing to stick some serious issues into some seriously kick-ass tunes. 'Shut It Down', 'See The End' and "new track" 'Love Is The Element' showcase why this young band have such a buzz about them, and even "new girl" Clare tripping and snapping her guitar neck can't stop the fun (it's okay, she's fine). A great way to start the day, I will certainly be looking out for KilliT in the future as should you.

Another new one for me is Chantel McGregor, a seriously good Blues guitarist to add to the list of seriously good Blues guitarists that seem to be all over the bill this weekend. I genuinely haven't a clue what she's playing, but it doesn't really matter as she belts out massive riffs before running her fingers up the fret-board faster than certain celebrities escaping the taxman. Much like Verity the day before, she sticks to mostly upbeat tracks and it really works. She's got a pretty solid voice to go with the playing, but if we're honest, it's the playing we're there for and she doesn't disappoint. Between songs, she comes across as a quirky, friendly Northern girl and is a nice breath of fresh air in a mostly older male dominated weekend.


Giants Of Rock 5 Chantel McGregor Live

Afterwards, I decide to check out my second tribute act of the weekend, as Limehouse Lizzy are on the Reds Stage, but it's so busy that the old "one in, one out" policy has had to come back and I look at the queue and retire quietly. Never mind, having seen them before I can still recommend them, and later on I am told they were brilliant if a bit wobbly sound wise. I can't face more Blues in the shape of Larry Carlton on the Centre Stage, so a tactical withdrawal is made to prepare for the final night.

I have to admit I'm excited at the prospect of the double whammy that is Big Country followed by Slade, as I've never seen either band despite being a fan of their recorded music. Some people will moan that both only contain two original members, but that's life for most bands that have been going over several decades. If you don't like it, don't watch them. Whatever anyone else thinks, it's not long before I am very glad that Big Country are still going. With the backbone of guitarist Bruce Watson and drummer Mark Brzezicki from the old days holding things together, the first thing that stands out is their inspired choice of vocalist in Simon Hough.


Giants Of Rock 5 Big Country Live 1

Seriously, the man has the perfect voice for the band, almost channelling Stuart Adamson whilst also playing guitar and harmonica when required. The man most people will walk away remembering is guitarist Bruce Watson, who takes the job of chatting with the audience (at which he is hilariously good) and leaping around the stage with a mad grin on his face. To his right is new (well, seven years) guitarist Jamie Watson, who also happens to be his son, and it's nice to see them having so much fun onstage. With perennial favourites such as 'Steeltown', 'Look Away' and 'River Of Hope' to bring out, and backed by a perfect sound mix (once again), Big Country fill the room with energy and good feelings. Finishing off with 'King Of Emotion', 'Fields Of Fire' and (of course) 'In A Big Country', it's clear from the reaction that Big Country have made a lot of fans old and new very happy tonight. Restless natives? Not a bit of it.


Giants Of Rock 5 Big Country Live 2

So here it is... Merry Sunday! There's plenty in to see Slade... not surprisingly. Personally, I'm gutted they're against Snakecharmer on the Reds Stage, but I'm determined to see them at least once in my life and so stay put. They roll on to the theme from 'Thunderbirds' and as the rest of the band launch into 'Gudbuy T' Jane', Dave Hill makes his appearance with a big smile and lots of bouncing about. Vocalist Mal McNulty (once in Sweet) does a fine job vocally, boasting a voice similar to but not a copy of Noddy Holder. The other non-original member is ex-Mud man John Berry, who not only plays bass but also carries a mean tune on the fiddle and takes lead vocal duties on 'Look What U Dun', 'Everyday', 'My Baby Left Me' and 'Mama Weer All Crazee Now' – a lucky find to be sure.


Giants Of Rock 5 Slade Live 1

At the back is the ever-reliable Don Powell, his white mouth guard making him look like a Wallace and Gromit type character. As for Hill, despite his portly frame these days, he's as energetic as ever, bouncing round the stage at every opportunity, grinning at the crowd and kicking his feet out like it's 1975 all over again. When the band play 'Get Down & Get With It', he's changed his guitar for one with the legend 'Super Yob' on it, whilst McNulty says that instead of stamping boots we should stamp 'ridiculously expensive trainers' whilst pointing at Hill's gleaming white pumps. A born exhibitionist, even though his clothes are more muted these days, you would never think Hill had his 71st birthday last year, and watching them now, I hope he gets to do this for many more years to come. The band are on fire and well drilled, and as they close with 'Come On Feel The Noize' they leave a load of oldies with massive grins and the urge to write "SLADE" on their knuckles and go out to buy a pair of good stomping boots. Still worth your time after all these years, Slade are definitely a band to see if they come near you – you'd be crazee not to.


Giants Of Rock 5 Slade Live 2

Although Slade are followed by NWOBHM legends Nazareth, I instead opt to finish off my weekend with the Reds Stage and Bon, and AC/DC tribute who play the entirety of the 'Powerage' album as well as several other classics. Although there's no school uniforms or gimmicks involved, the band are tight, loud, clear and fun. A perfect way to wind down before bed (well, more drinking in the apartment, anyway), Bon are – as the French might say – tres bon.

As festivals go, Giants Of Rock 5 was a damned good one. The staff at Butlins were all helpful and friendly, the accommodation was clean and cosy, the food was delicious, and the sound was mostly perfect. With deals to suit most budgets and no need for a sodding tent, you could certainly do worse then book up for next year, when Skid Row will be riding the dodgems and rocking the house – 'Hi De Hi' indeed!

Review and photos by Alan Holloway

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