Festival Review: Steelhouse 2023 – Saturday

Day two of Steelhouse 2023 and the music naturally starts a few hours earlier than yesterday. There’s a relaxed atmosphere throughout the campsite as people are in various stages of their morning from just up to making breakfast to chilling outside with a drink or, like me, making their way to the arena. Having been woken up by a mixture of heat in the tent and Airbourne running through their soundcheck, today promises to be a great day.

Dead Mans Whisky (c) Paul Hutchings

There’s a queue to get in among the action as Dead Man’s Whiskey (don’t hold it against them that they don’t know how to spell whisky) run through their own soundcheck but they still get on stage for their set at the allotted time. And for blowing the cobwebs away, a better booking you’d be hard pushed to find. Playing heavy, gritty hard rock, they’re a tight enough band and understand the assignment – get people warmed up. There’s a couple of highlights where one of the later songs sounds very much like “N.I.B”, and “Make You Proud”. It’s deep into the set and brings the tempo down as vocalist Nico Rogers explains it’s for his mother who recovered from brain cancer at the cost of her short-term memory. But it’s the perfect song for Rogers to be right down on the walkout, among the people to let them feel the emotion in his delivery. It’s a set which goes down a storm and everyone who saw them mentioned them later with a knowing nod.

Austin Gold are another band bringing the bombastic 70s rock up the mountain. Taking nods from Free and ZZ Top, they’re a band that doesn’t mess about. Wearing their influences on their sleeves but managing to make it original, there’s a swagger and attitude to them that you’d hear from The Quireboys. And with the inclusion of keys in their sound, you can even hear hints of that in their music, ensuring the good times continue. Out to impress, the four-piece aren’t doing anything but their best to do so and the crowd quickly jump on board for the ride. Naturally, when you’ve got a song called “Mountain” and you’re playing in this location, you have to play it and becomes one of the highlights in a set full of bluesy classic rock gems.

Black Spiders (c) Paul Hutchings

As a last-minute replacement, Black Spiders roll onto the stage in their thunderous fashion. If you’ve seen Black Spiders before, you know what you’re going to get – pure, unadulterated hard rock fuelled by enough riffs to shake a mountain. For a shorter festival set, they manage to squeeze in all the touchstones alongside a couple from their new album, Can’t Die, Won’t Die. We get to say “Fuck you, Black Spiders” whilst giving them the middle finger, there’s dry humour, and a healthy dose of reverence to the power and glory of rock. Naturally, it’s the old favourites from their first time around which get the heartiest response but the newer numbers slot in perfectly and they manage to provide (with ease) a mid-afternoon stormer with aplomb.

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From spiders to something more shiny, Black Mirrors are another of the acts that are a bit left-field but fit in well. Starting out with a more alternative slant to their set, it veers off into other streets. The Belgians bring modernism and eclecticism in equal measure as they explore hard rock, blues, soul, grunge and more across their set. Ordinarily, it’d be disconcerting, but it’s all pinned together by the impressive pipes which are belting across the field by dynamic frontwoman Marcella Di Troia.

The Damn Truth (c) Paul Hutchings

Now, for the discovery of the weekend – The Damn Truth. Right from the off, the quartet make quite the impression. There’s a great stage presence to them all with frontwoman Lee-La Baum giving the best of them a run for their money. Essentially, they’re a heavier version of Free with a delightful helping of psychedelic tones added in for good measure and has female vocals rather than Paul Rodgers. As a band, it’s muscular yet soulful and delicate where needed; it’s the perfect band to watch in the sun.

Fifty shades of beige take to the stage next in the form of Florence Black. Very much the same as their recent set supporting Airbourne, it’s a lifeless performance from a band you’d think would be ecstatic to be further up the bill on what is essentially their local festival. Instead, they ply their wares of bland, unimaginative beige rock and even their tried and tested cover of Budgie’s “Breadfan” doesn’t enthral many other than their established fans. Even with the inclusion of their new single, there’s no real growth and progression shown and is every bit as boring as the older songs. It’s dull and unengaging, hamstrung further by a lack of chemistry and proficiency. Whilst it never quite hits the painful stage, it does leave people baffled at their popularity whilst others are bored. Dealing in music which has all the edge of a balloon, it’s the sort of rock music you’d expect a politician to cite on Desert Island Discs in a desperate attempt to sound modern.

Those Damn Crows (c) Paul Hutchings

The sound of crows appropriately ushers in the appearance of Those Damn Crows. Returning to Steelhouse as conquering heroes, by the time opening song of “Who Did It” is finished, they’ve simultaneously washed the taste of their predecessors out of our mouth and established something – we’re about to witness a moment. Cherry-picking the best of their three albums, they fire through a baker’s dozen of up-tempo modern rock songs, bringing the heat in the material as well as a healthy dose of pyro. The quintet have the crowd in the palm of their hand, delivering a dominant performance. Expelling every bit of energy in the tank, frontman Shane Greenhall never stops moving across the stage and when he does stop to talk, the weight of the evening isn’t lost on him and the rest of the band.

Giving everything they’ve got, the constant touring of this year has obviously paid off. The crowd are bouncing along to every song, lapping it up as if they were at the top of the poster and the band return in kind. Elsewhere, “Blink of an Eye” gets us the emotional moment of the set, having transformed it into a keys-driven power ballad that Aerosmith would envy. It was a foregone conclusion when Those Damn Crows were added to the bill so high up that this would be a special one for the band and the fans watching and frankly, it can’t be overstated just how seminal this was for them. Playing better than they ever have on the basis of the amount of touring they’ve done these past couple of years as well as the excitement of playing one of their favourite places, it’s a lesson on stagecraft and hard work.

Airbourne (c) Paul Hutchings

The Terminator theme blares through the PA, accompanied by blood red lights and as you’d expect, Airbourne explode onto the Steelhouse stage with “Ready to Rock”, even if we’re now closer to the end of the festival than the start. But that doesn’t matter because the Aussies run through an adrenaline-fuelled ninety minutes of no-frills rock. Having recently caught them at KK’s Steel Mill, there’s not much difference in the set itself other than the inclusion of “Steel Town” since the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge started 100 years ago this weekend and the steel came from right here. It’s a nice touch and whilst it did seem a bit of a missed opportunity to not play it in a steel mill, it keeps it fresh for a festival.

“Bottom of the Well” includes an interlude into the Ghostbusters theme (complete with creepy/appropriate green lighting), pints of Jack Daniel’s and Coke are made and given to the crowd, beers are thrown rather unsuccessfully into the crowd on account of the wind and Joel O’Keeffe cracks a beer can open via his skull. Despite wearing a walking boot from a recent injury, it doesn’t stop O’Keeffe from using his boundless energy to traverse the stage when he doesn’t have to hit his vocals. With more energy than the Tasmanian Devil mainlining Red Bull, they’re a band that keeps the heat at the top of the mountain. If there was any band that could follow that set from Those Damn Crows, it was going to be Airbourne. What isn’t lost on the band is that their unapologetic love for the genre and describing themselves as “lifers” is seen on the faces in the crowd. They know exactly the type of person they’re playing to, and they respect it. It’s another fun and thrilling set from the band and while you know what you’re going to get, you wouldn’t want them to change. Airbourne are great at being Airbourne.

With another day behind us, several red faces (yes, some of us managed to get sunburnt!) and thoroughly entertained all day, it’s one that’s going to be hard to top.

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Photos by Paul Hutchings

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