I spent the majority of last weekend up to my ankles — or, not too infrequently, practically up to my knees — in mud, in a field just outside a small village in Leicestershire, occasionally braving the vastly overpriced food, tentatively sipping hot beverages that almost, but not quite, tasted entirely unlike tea, and being drenched periodically by sheet rain.
And I loved it.
This was Donington 2016. Although its formal title for quite a number of years now has been the Download Festival, many of us who are long enough in the tooth to have attended Donington for the Monsters of Rock concerts in the eighties have a profound aversion to referring to the event as “Download”. It’s Donington, dammit.
I first attended Donington in 1987, largely because Dio, Metallica and Anthrax were playing. (Anthrax had supported Metallica at the SFX Concert Hall gig in Dublin the preceding September, on their Damage, Inc. tour; both bands made a big impression on me. This was despite James Hetfield having broken his arm in a bizarre
gardening skateboarding accident and being solely on vocal duties. Roadie John Marshall, also a member of Metal Church at the time, did an admirable job of mimicking Hetfield’s signature rhythm guitar patterns).
I was back at Donington a year later when Iron Maiden headlined for the first time. Offsetting the triumph of the Maiden performance was the tragedy of the death of two fans during Guns N’ Roses’ set earlier that day. We were quite far from the stage –something like eighty yards back — when Guns N’ Roses walked on, but, despite this, the resulting crowd-swell and downhill surge were frightening. The band paused their set a couple of times so that fans at the front could be fished out of the melee, and Axl Rose asked the crowd to take a few steps back to relieve the pressure, but none of us in the crowd were aware until Maiden left the stage that two people (Alan Dick, 18 and Landon Siggers, 20) had died.
The festival, for obvious reasons, didn’t take place in 1989.
It was 1994 before I returned to Donington, the year I started working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham. (Castle Donington is very close to Nottingham). I’ve sporadically attended every few years since then. This year, however, was the first time I’ve gone to two days of the festival: Sabbath headlined on Saturday night, Maiden on Sunday (their sixth headlining appearance at Donington). Although I’ve seen Maiden many times before — indeed, the very first major rock gig I attended was their show at the Hammersmith Odeon on the Somewhere In Time tour in November ’86 — to my great embarrassment (particularly given the name of this blog), I’d never seen the Ozzy-fronted Sabbath live.
As compared to the festival in the 80s, Donington these days is a multi-day, multi-stage affair with a multitude of rock and metal bands of every conceivable, and, at times, inconceivable, sub-genre. Sorting out a schedule for the day was a major exercise in organisational logistics of a type that is far beyond my capabilities. Luckily, my friend (and alumnus of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group), James, had the foresight to bring along a copy of the festival schedule which was not at all dissimilar to the type of planner produced by the organisers of major international scientific conferences (where there are many parallel sessions). This made making our way between the various stages much easier, rivers of mud notwithstanding.
Here’s my tuppence worth on the bands we saw.
Saturday June 11
Sixx: AM. We arrived in time for Nikki Sixx’s post-Crüe, and disappointingly umlaut-free, new venture. Although I was never the greatest Mötley Crüe fan, at least they had a degree of edginess. Sixx:AM, in contrast, were bland in the extreme. James put it best: underwhelming.
TesseracT. Sublime. I was expecting the complex and multi-faceted dynamics of TesseracT’s music to be compromised by the festival setting but needn’t have worried — this was a stunning performance in front of a huge and receptive crowd. It’s difficult to single out individual contributions, as a core element of TesseracT is their intensely syncopated arrangements, but I was blown away by the other-worldly drumming of Jay Postones. He is surely the natural successor to Tool’s (similarly innovative and immensely talented) Danny Carey. Incredible.
Lawnmower Deth. Any band whose vocalist goes by the name of Qualcast Mutilator is worth seeing. I was quite a fan of the late eighties UK thrash metal scene (of which the ‘Deth were a part), which, it must be said, was never quite as focussed, state-of-the-art, or ‘incisive’ as its US counterpart. (The jump-the-shark moment for UK thrash came when Xentrix did a cover of, um, the Ghostbusters theme tune). None of this mattered to Lawnmower Deth, who care not a jot for carefully crated fourteen minute epics, 13/29 time signatures, or neo-classical guitar solos. The title of their first (half) album says it all: Mower Liberation Front. A highlight of the ‘Deth’s set at Donington, and, indeed, a highlight of the entire festival was Kim Wilde joining them to perform their frantic version of The Kids In America.
Megadeth. I’ll be honest, my hopes were not high. Although I was a massive Megadeth fan in the eighties/early nineties for their first four albums — aficionados of the world’s state-of-the-art thrash metal band will be disappointed to hear that I prefer Peace Sells… to Rust In Peace, however — they’ve fallen a very long way indeed in terms of the quality of their output and their performances. While this is of course similarly true of Mustaine’s arch-rivals Metallica (it’s painful to listen to modern-day Metallica and compare them to what they were in their prime), Mustaine’s vocal performances have been abysmally weak and strained for many years.
…and that’s why it was an extremely good idea for Megadeth to start down-tuning (by not just a semitone but a full tone). That Mustaine didn’t constantly over-reach with his vocals and send the whine levels into the red made a big difference to the quality of Megadeth’s set on Saturday. Even their traditionally wishy-washy cover of Anarchy In The UK , this time ‘complemented’ by the appearance of Nikki Sixx on bass, sounded a lot more full-bodied than usual. (Mustaine sneeringly (how else?) noted that “hell must have frozen over” to have an ex-member of Mötley Crüe appear on stage with Megadeth).
Mustaine even kept his pontificating at bay. Mostly.
Skindred. A stunning performance from an innovative band. I’ve seen Skindred a couple of times before at Rock City but this performance made those earlier gigs, which were chaotic (in the very best way), look positively tame in comparison. Benji Webbe is the consummate front-man — he has that rare ability to connect with an audience and make each member of the crowd feel as if he’s talking directly to them. (Bruce Dickinson similarly has this skill). His love of the music and of performing was absolutely clear — at no time did it feel like he was just going through the motions (and that certainly wasn’t true of some of the bands who played over the weekend). And, of course, he’s ever the comedian.
Highlights? Nobody, Pressure, a truly beautiful and affecting acoustic version of Saying It Now, and, of course, the famed Newport Helicopter…
Black Sabbath. Oh my. They open with that riff, the ominous flattened fifth paving the way for Ozzy’s unnerving “What is this that stands before me?“. (And was there ever a more apt example of the pathetic fallacy in action, as the heavens opened yet again?) Then it’s classic riff after classic riff, each one burned into the synapses from years of exposure, Iommi and Butler still both on top of their game after all this time.
Well, his singing wasn’t flat all of the time…
No, to be fair to the self-styled crazy man of rock, his vocals were mostly in tune and he was, it has to be said, bloody entertaining. His plaintive mid-set “Why does it always have to fucking piss it down?” certainly got the soaking wet audience laughing in appreciation.
It’s a great shame that we didn’t have the complete classic line-up, but Bill Ward’s replacement, Tommy Clufetos, not only looked rather like the 70s version of the drummer, he played with the same type of bombast and wild abandon.
All the fan favourites were there: War Pigs, NIB, Children Of The Grave, Snowblind… And the set closed, of course, with the obligatory Paranoid.
Was this really Sabbath’s last festival appearance? We’ll see. With Sabbath, it’s always best to, ahem, Never Say Die…
Sunday June 12
Periphery. We missed half of Periphery’s set while queuing to get lunch, but I must admit that they’ve always been a bit of a poor man’s TesseracT to me. (Sorry, Periphery fans). It was an accomplished performance but TesseracT set an exceptionally high bar for other djent/nu-prog metal bands to clear…
Halestorm. Yes, Lzzy Hale has got an incredible voice. And, yes, she gets bucketloads of kudos from this particular Rush fan for playing a double-necked guitar. And, yes, their songs are catchy.
But for some reason, they leave me cold. And I don’t think it’s entirely because I’m a cynical middle-aged git who’s seen and heard countless incarnations of the big rawk dynamic. It just felt like the band were going through the motions.
And we certainly could have done without that fecking drum solo…
Disturbed. Continuing on the grumpy old bastard theme, I’ve never been a big Disturbed fan. This performance did little to change that. It was an hour or so of largely one-dimensional metal which didn’t deviate too far from the tried-and-tested blueprint. Yes, they’ve got that song. And, admittedly, it’s a good song. But one good song does not a set make.
Disturbed did at least attempt to diversify a little with a (somewhat overblown) cover of The Sound Of Silence, but then bizarrely followed this up by lurching into karaoke mode with a series of guest singers. First up was a bombastic metallized cover of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For featuring Lzzy Hale, during which she traded vocals with David Draiman, the Disturbed frontman (who looks more and more like Omid Djalili these days, and whose messianic shtick gets very tiresome, very quickly).
The vocal trading between Hale and Draiman reminded me of the type of bellow-fests that happen during the “play-off” episodes of The Voice. (My daughters are big fans of The Voice. (I always knew that sacrifices would have to be made when I became a parent…)). While Hale and Draiman are both great singers — although the former is rather greater than the latter — the entire performance just felt choreographed and ‘by the numbers’.
Then Blaze Bayley wandered on stage and launched into The Who’s Baba O’Riley with Draiman. Roger Daltrey’s full-throated roar is a tough act to emulate. Blaze did his best, but it did get just a little too “club singer“-esque at times…
Shinedown. Not for me, I’m afraid. More big, bland, cliched stadium rawk. Good cover of Skynyrd’s Simple Man at the end, though.
Nightwish. I hadn’t expected to enjoy Nightwish quite as much as I did. Prior to seeing them at Donington, I always felt that they strayed a little bit too close to Stonehenge territory (the seminal Spinal Tap song, that is) but their set was very entertaining indeed. Great riffs, great vocals, great drumming… and, errm, great mandolin. I’m a convert to their brand of symphonic metal.
Saxon. I’m a child — well, teenager, at least — of NWOBHM and will always therefore have a soft spot for Saxon. I remember being delighted when I could play Strong Arm Of The Law (or a rough approximation thereof) on guitar; it was among the very first riffs I worked out when I was learning to play. (There was no internet in those days, and while guitar tablature certainly existed, getting hold of the tab for Strong Arm… in the heart of rural Ireland in the early eighties was simply not a credible option).
So I thoroughly enjoyed Saxon’s set. Biff Byford’s voice is holding up remarkably well and the band gave it their all, including liberal doses of double bass drumming (that wasn’t on the originally recorded tracks). The crowd roared along with the classics — 747 (Strangers In The Night), And The Bands Played On (“the Donington song”), Heavy Metal Thunder (dedicated to Lemmy), and, of course, the ever-green Wheels Of Steel. (No Strong Arm… though. Grrr.).
As the final chords of Wheels… faded out, I turned on my heels and joined the crowd trudging its way back to the main stage for the main event…
Iron Maiden. “Absolutely amazing!“. That was the verdict of James’ eight year old son Jonathan following Maiden’s set. I have got to say that I concur completely. Quite how Maiden manage to retain the same levels of energy and commitment almost three decades on from that first Donington appearance in 1988 is simply beyond my ken.
It’s not as if they were resting on their laurels by churning out a set which was entirely a greatest hits package. They included no fewer than six –yes, six — songs from The Book Of Souls. I can take or leave Death Or Glory — it’s the type of song Maiden can write on autopilot — but the remainder of the new songs slotted seamlessly into the set alongside the classics (The Trooper, Hallowed…, Powerslave, Children Of The Damned, Number Of The Beast, and Wasted Years all got an airing).
Until it was mentioned from the stage towards the end of Maiden’s set, it’s clear that quite a number of people in the crowd were, like me, oblivious to the sickening and appalling news from Florida. There was a collective gasp from much of the 80,000-strong crowd when Dickinson informed us about the deaths of so many in Orlando. His words and sentiments, as he introduced Blood Brothers, mirrored what Owen Jones says in the clip below.
I’ll close this post with that message of hope.