Steelhouse Festival 2023 Day one

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review by Tim Marcus with photos from Sam Conquest Photography

As we enter the closing days of summer (albeit we’re now experiencing some of the warmest temperatures of the year), I look back on what for us has been a second consecutive hectic summer of madness with back-to-back three and four-day festivals virtually every other weekend throughout June and July. The last of those, for us at least, was Steelhouse, the international classic rock festival held on a mountaintop farm on the edge of Wales’s famous Brecon Beacons.

Steelhouse is a festival that for the past five occurrences we’ve blindly bought tickets for within days of the previous year’s event being over, having no idea who will be appearing, but doing so with confidence, in the safe knowledge that whoever organisers Max Rhead and Mickey Evans book for the following year, it’s going to be a great weekend. Five years in for us and they’ve yet to let us down, and 2023 is no exception.

This year’s event kicks off just after lunchtime on Friday and first up is someone who’s becoming a bit of a regular at Steelhouse, making his third appearance in as many years, former Revival Black singer Dan Byrne, who took on vocal duties for Myke Gray last year and is here to open proceedings playing a short set with his own four-piece band: the high point of this set for me, being his new song “Death of Me”.

Following Dan onto the stage is London-based alternative heavy metal band Jordan Red. Not a band that I’d come across before however, fronted by vocalist Dan Leigh, in the company of lead guitarist Dan Baker, Jordan Red is definitely a band I’d be happy to watch on any festival stage again. My favourite tracks for me were “Freak Show” and “Don’t let the Heavens Fall”, both taken from their 2022, self-released album, “Hands that Built the World”

So far it’s been all about the Dans however that’s about to change as next to perform is a band that I saw for the second time just a few weeks ago and am looking forward immensely to seeing again, another London-based band, The Karma Effect. We first saw The Karma Effect last year when they played the small side stage at Dorset’s Love Rocks festival and this year they were back there again, deservedly promoted to a spot on the main stage. Today is yet another step up from that (literally) as they take to the much larger Steelhouse stage. The Karma Effect is a five-piece, blues-influenced classic rock band formed by a group of friends at the start of the Covid pandemic and so haven’t been around for that long However they just seem to grow in confidence each time I see them as their star continues to rise. Their style and sound have me very much in mind of bands like Bad Company and as on previous occasions, I’m thoroughly enjoying everything I hear from them; great vocals and a stage-owning performance from frontman and guitarist Henry Gottelier, accompanied by great music also from Robbie Blake (guitar), Seb Emmins (keyboards), Liam Quinn (bass) and Ash Powell (drums). They only have thirty minutes today with most of what we hear coming from last year’s self-titled debut album, my favourite being their set closer “Testify”

Next up is a band that I’ve seen on numerous occasions over the past three years however have to confess that I never expected to see them perform at an international classic rock festival. That band, fronted by likeable husband and wife pairing Aaron and Grace Bond, is When Rivers Meet, who’ve taken the UK Blues scene by storm over recent years. It’s not just about Aaron and Grace though as they play as a four-piece with an excellent rhythm section usually made up of a rotation of top-quality drummers and bass players. Given the type of music we’re used to hearing at Steelhouse I’m pleasantly surprised at how well When Rivers Meet is going down as Grace appears to visibly grow in confidence and into her performance as the set progresses. As is always the case with When Rivers Meet they deliver a great set of raunchy, sleazy blues, showcasing the multiple talents of this songwriting duo, with Aaron playing guitars (including slide and a three-string cigar box!), whilst Grace demonstrates that not only can she sing, but that she’s also very talented as an instrumentalist, playing both mandolin and electric violin. The music we hear is wonderful, as the blues and rock are melded together as one, with the occasional sprinkling of influences from the old-time blues of the Mississippi Delta. We get to hear their new single “Perfect Strangers” however my favourite track from their set this evening is “Innocence of Youth” from their EP collection. This has been a big bonus for me. Not that I ever had any doubts about Aaron and Grace however I did have a few question marks in my mind about their inclusion in this lineup. In retrospect what do I know? In Max and Mikey, we trust!

Sadly, as a result of some well-publicized mental health issues, Ginger Wildheart is not able to take his place on the stage tonight which he was due to do with his band The Sinners. Whilst disappointing, his late withdrawal is both understandable and the right thing for him to do personally as health and wellbeing must take priority over anything else. The good news though is that the Sinners will still be appearing in their designated slot having secured the services of Wayward Sons guitarist, Sam Wood, who’ll be deputising for Ginger. As much as I’ve enjoyed Ginger and the Wildhearts over the years I have to confess to not being too familiar with much of the work he’s done with The Sinners. Nevertheless, what we hear from them tonight is very enjoyable, and knowing how much Ginger appreciates the support he receives from his fan base, I’m sure that he will have been delighted that they weren’t let down and that the band were still able to fulfil their special guest slot tonight rather than having to pull out of the festival altogether. For the record, my favourite track from this set tonight has been “That Smile” However we also get a great cover of Status Quo’s “Dirty Water” included as well.

And so to tonight’s headline act, The Kris Barras Band. I first saw Kris back in early 2018 touring off the back of two successful albums and ahead of a number of festival appearances. He’d just “broken through” and was starting to give the blues rock scene a bit of a shakeup as he rose rapidly through the ranks of singer/songwriter, and blues rock guitarist and had even been brought in by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons to tour with his Supersonic Blues Machine. His star continued to rise as he brought out a third album in 2019 and was now headlining his own shows at venues with capacities closer to four figures rather than the smaller club circuit venues on which he’d cut his teeth. As a powerful, yet soulful singer and a great blues rock guitarist, he rapidly became one of my favourite artists and I’d look to go on see him whenever he played somewhere that I could get to. During this growth, there had been a couple of changes in the band’s rhythm section but fundamentally it was still the same band with Kris producing the same great sounds. Then Covid happened.

As with many artists, in this period Kris put on a few live streams to keep fans satisfied and to let them know that he was still around and as well as the familiar songs it also gave him the opportunity to try out some new stuff and acoustic covers of songs that we hadn’t heard him sing before. This extended period of enforced lockdown obviously gave Kris a lot more time than he might otherwise have had to consider what direction he wanted to take musically. Whether it would have happened anyway I guess is something we’ll never know However The Kris Barras Band that emerged post-lockdown, and that has continued to evolve over the past 18 months or so, is, to my ear anyway, a very different band to the one that went into lockdown. Yes, there has recently been a further change in the rhythm section however the biggest change visibly, certainly in the live performances has been that the man that Kris has always described as his musical director, fellow band member Josiah J Manning, has dispensed with his keyboards and picked up a guitar which has instantly given the band a far heavier sound. To what extent this move was Kris’s idea or to what extent Josiah (who works with a number of bands with a far heavier sound than Kris) has influenced the change, or why he felt it was the right direction to go, again, I guess we’ll never know.

As to today’s set, it’s, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mix of the old and the new (albeit much heavier versions of the older songs than perhaps we might’ve heard previously). He kicks things off with “Hail Mary”, possibly his most well known song and follows up with “Dead Horses”, a single taken from last year’s “Death Valley Paradise” album, and “These Voices”, also from the same album. We go back to 2016’s debut album (“Lucky 13”) next for “Heart on your Sleeve” before returning to last year’s release for the next three, “Devil You Know”, “Wake Me When it’s Over” and “Hostage”. Another track from the album, “Chaos”, is then sandwiched between the two covers we get this evening, a cracking version of Lewis Capaldi’s “Forget Me”, which I’ve not heard Kris sing before, and Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll”. We’re into the home straight now as we get “Ignite (Light it up)” from the 2019 “Light it up” album before he closes things out with two more tracks from the most recent release, “Who Needs Enemies” and “My Parade”.

What we do know is that this change of direction from Kris has been a conscious one, as he himself acknowledges during the set. However for me personally, one of the country’s standout blues rock guitarists and soulful blues singers, whilst still enjoyable to watch and listen to, is now just one of a large number of people all producing a similar sound and product, which in my own humble opinion, his voice is not best suited to and is far from the best vehicle for showcasing the wonderful talent he undoubtedly has as a blues rock guitarist.

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