Butlin's Minehead 24-27th January 2020
Good morning campers! This weekend we have the Glamorous Grannies Competition, Knobbly Knees contests, and Holiday Princess Contest. For the uninitiated, the idea of a weekend at Butlin's is pretty kitsch and still has a post war hangover. Thankfully a lot has changed, the only hangovers this weekend were booze induced and it's not light's out at 11.15 – that's when the fun really starts! There may be some knobby knees, but you won't see them in January and there's not a Red Coat in sight – apart from the costume changes of Arthur Brown. Big Country's Bruce Watson had the weekend taped when he said 'Hi-di hi... F**k that, lets rock!' Welcome to Butlin's Giants of Rock 2020.
As a member of Phoenix and Argent, John Verity is part of British rock history. He fills his Friday set with Argent classics God Gave Rock N' Roll To You and Hold Your Head Up and standards like I Put A Spell On You and Cocaine. The JVB even treats us to some material from their forthcoming album Passion. The album is aptly named; despite 50 years making music, new track Higher, demonstrates that Verity still has plenty of zeal.
Oliver/Dawson Saxon saved the day after it was announced that Procol Harum wouldn't be appearing. But who wants Whiter Shade of Pale when you can have an hour of no-nonsense NWOBHM. Vocalist Brian Shaughnessy making jokes about missing Emmerdale and probably being drafted back into the festival next year. OD Saxon have become GOR favourites and can always be relied upon for putting on a fun show. Let's hope they do return for more rock frolics in 2021.
The hugely influential Arthur Brown swapped his legendary headdress of fire long ago, but the theatrics are still there. With back projection, UV make up, dancers, and several elaborate costume changes the God of Hell Fire can still command an audience, and his operatic vocal is still intact. His on stage antics could possibly have benefited from a bigger stage to ensure maximum impact.
After an evening of superb showmanship, Survivor vocalist Dave Bickler was definitely overshadowed on the late slot. Bickler didn't really appear to engage in the same way, appearing a little uncomfortable on stage at times. The band, however, were top-notch and listening to classic Survivor in the iconic Eye of the Tiger was a strong way to round off Friday.
Band of Friends put on an electric celebration of Rory Gallagher's music on Saturday, which continued the standard of musicianship and vivacity across the weekend.
Over in Reds, Stray were celebrating 50 years since their debut album in style. The band have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years by performing on the festival scene. Del Bromham and the rest of the band can always be relied upon for an energetic set. One of their most famous tracks, All In Your Mind, popularised by Iron Maiden – was an explosive end to their show.
Bernie Marsden's slot in Reds was so crammed there was hardly room to change a guitar
string, let alone swing a cat. After appearing on stage with Joe Bonamassa a few night's earlier (Bernie is on Joe's new album), Marsden proves why he is revered as a guitarist. Hot In The City, Is This Love, Oh Well and of course classic tracks from Whitesnake all sated the hunger of the crowd. Considering the popularity of Marsden, it was curious why they had put him on a smaller stage, although over in Center Stage it gave Deborah Bonham (who last time played Reds) the opportunity to command a larger arena. Apparently, she was struggling with a throat infection, which was hardly noticeable – a real trooper.
Space rock pioneers, Hawkwind, also celebrating 50+ years, but despite their far-reaching legacy, their performance was largely dull and lifeless. If you just closed your eyes and
listened, then you might just have enjoyed overly stripped back renditions of their space-rock anthems, but they were a shadow of their former glory. They were also the only band to get an hour and a half set which was a bit self indulgent considering other acts had to be cut off in their prime.
Thankfully Diamond Head put on one of the best performances of the weekend. With no new material on offer, the band flew into a greatest hits set pleasing fans and no doubt picking up plenty of new 'heads' along the way.
The Quireboys inimitable brand of soused rock n roll can always be relied on to liven up any occasion. Lead singer Spike has a cheeky appeal, and he has all the right moves and the vocals to back it up. Their set was an upbeat mix of old and new and a raucous way to finish up Saturday night in Reds.
If Spike and co's party wasn't your bag, Mama's Boy guitarist Pat McManus showcased a more sophisticated level of blues rock. McManus is a very fluid player. Whether playing All Along the Watchtower or Belfast City Blues he marked himself out as the criminally underrated master of the solo. As the campers shook off the excesses of Saturday, it's up to Welsh band Scarlet Rebels (formally VoiD) managed to get the crowd rocking. They also had plenty of fans in the audience who were singing-along and had clearly paid close attention to the band since last year's appearance on the introducing stage.
The other winners of the 2019 Introducing Stage have all developed in the last 12 months.
Hollowstar brought with them some good melodic rock. They have been featured on Johnny Walker's Rock Show and were in the top five for the Planet Rock Awards Best New Band category. They certainly lived up to the hype and seemed totally at home on a large stage. Sons of Liberty were another popular choice for their brand of hard southern rock.
This year's Introducing Stage winners are also worth keeping an eye on. White Raven Down's monster biker rocker sound more like they come from Bay City than Essex. The ornithological theme continues with Crow Black Chicken whose rich blusey sound was clearly a popular sound. Guitarist Félix Rabin has been on the scene for a few years honing his craft at the Montreux Jazz festival jam sessions, the 100 Club and now supporting Samantha Fish. As a young artist, he will certainly be an interesting choice to watch next year.
Anchor Lane impressed on Center Stage performing tracks from their debut album Casino. Introducing new material is hard at the best of times, but when a band is also unknown, the job gets tougher. Thankfully these Glaswegian rockers are not the sort to run to the hills and their performance and music should help to put them on the map.
Rock Goddess made a welcome comeback for diehard fans, but others found that they just seemed to try too hard and swapped their punky set for blues rock outfit The Malone Sibun Band.
Big Country were a popular choice with their unmistakable brand or Celtic rock. They galloped through their hits, powered up by the Burns weekend and with a renewed energy for their first show of the year. Bruce Watson provided some funny banter between songs and his guitar interplay with son, Jamie, was worth stepping out for.
The response to Praying Mantis who closed Reds, was undoubtedly the highlight of the weekend and had the full package in terms of musicianship and showmanship. Lynard Skynyrd's Simple Man is well received and finishing their set with a rousing version of Children of the Earth was simply incendiary. It was a shame for the band and the baying crowd that they were denied an encore.
Moans about stage clashes were occasionally justified. One of the worst being the two headlining acts (Big Country and Praying Mantis) having the same start and finishing time, followed by a ludicrous 45 minute gap before Justice played on Center Stage to end the weekend. After such a high earlier in the evening, it was a bit of an anti-climax.
While the headlining giants may not have been the behemoths that we are used to seeing at GOR, there were certainly several bands who put on some gigantic performances over the weekend, many that you may not have come across before. This chance to discover new music is really what festivals are all about.
There may be the odd grumble, but you can get that with big festivals too. But let's face it, you really can't beat Butlin's Giants of Rock for value both in terms of entertainment and hospitality.
It's not only the entertainment that makes a festival, but it's also the people too. The intimacy of the festival, make it a safe and friendly place, where fans can get together and celebrate the music they love. It's one of the reasons pilgrims keep returning every year to Butlin's to worship their Rock Gods and Goddesses. See you all next year!
Review by Cathy Clark, Andy Kilvo, and Gerry Driver
Photos by Gerry Driver