Some say that January is the longest month of the year. It’s mostly gloomy, thanks to the bad weather and sad. Just look of your post-Christmas bank account. But, believe me, there is a remedy: Giants Of Rock, a three-day music festival in the heart of West Somerset, Minehead.
As part of the Butlin’s Live Music Weekends, it offers three indoor stages, over 40 bands, and cozy accommodation (from budget-friendly caravans to luxury apartments) all at a seaside resort. Leave the camping gear and waterproofs at home.
As for the music, the main Centre Stage and Reds Stage focus mostly on the biggest names on the bill, while the Jaks Introducing Stage gives lesser-known bands the chance to be heard by a wider audience. As with every festival featuring multiple stages, it’s impossible to watch every single performer or even catch all the bands you’re really interested in. So, instead of running around, the best approach is to relax and enjoy the music.
Friday kicked off with a twist of Thin Lizzy in two different performances on The Reds Stage. Original guitarist Eric Bell and founding drummer Brian Downey’s Alive And Dangerous are possibly the closest thing you can get to the real deal. Bell’s performance focused mostly on the years he spent in the legendary band, featuring hits like Whiskey In The Jar and The Rocker, while Downey emphasised Lizzy’s Alive And Dangerous album, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Singalong anthems like The Boys Are Back In Town, Rosalie, and Still In Love With You put the audience in a swinging mood.
Over on the Centre Stage, Roger Chapman Family & Friends saw the Family singer joined by the likes of Geoff Whitehorn (Procol Harum, Bad Company) and Poli Palmer (Family, Streetwalkers). The seven-piece band delivered a stellar performance featuring some tasty Whitehorn solos and shared laughs on stage.
Even better was U.D.O., a German heavy metal band founded by lead vocalist Udo Dirkschneider. They opened their fiery set with Tongue Reaper from their latest album, 2018’s Steelfactory, before playing powerful songs like 1997’s Independence Day and closing with They Want War (from 1987’s Animal House).
Saturday saw Departed opening the Reds Stage, a slot the Devon rockers earned by being voted the audience’s favourite act on the Introducing Stage last year. Departed may be not known by a wider audience yet, but their set of catchy rock songs won over those who’d turned up early. They’re definitely a band to keep an eye on.
Over in the main building, Clearwater Creedence Revival attracted a slightly older crowd, longing for the sweet sound of country-rock. The tribute veterans – currently consisting of vocalist Peter Barton (The Animals), Geoff Hammond (Paul McCartney’s Wings and Moody Blues), Graham Pollock (The Hollies), and Alan Sagar (Slack Alic) – played a set of the greatest hits, celebrating their 20th anniversary on the road.
Meanwhile at Reds, Martin Barre’s Jethro Tull almost filled the venue to capacity, pulling in the punters with a mix of Tull classics and his solo work. The gathered masses cheered and clapped along to hits like Steel Monkey and Teacher, as well as newer songs including Road Less Travelled.
Next up on Reds were Dare, a rock band from Oldham fronted by Thin Lizzy’s keyboard player Darren Wharton. It’s only 3 pm, and the room was absolutely packed to hear Wharton (on vocals), Nigel Clutterbuck (bass), Vinnie Burns (guitar), Kev Whitehead (drums), and Marc Roberts (keyboards) play songs from their extensive back catalogue of 10 albums. What a show to catch in the early afternoon!
Also still going strong are Geordie, the Newcastle band that originally featured AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson. They’re now fronted by Mark Wright, whose bubbly personality really shone between the songs. Their classic rock set was interspersed with jokes and laughs shared on stage and with the audience.
Before a break, the Centre Stage hosted another rock legend: Chris Slade. The drummer who’s played with AC/DC, Paul Rogers and Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, and Gary Moore, and his Timeline band kept the audience happy with various hits and stories from his past.
The day’s proceedings relaunched with the heavy riffs of Zal Cleminson’s SIN DOGS. He’s a master in his craft, a charismatic leader, insanely good guitarist, and unpredictable showman who owned the Centre Stage and the crowd. His set consisted mostly of songs from SIN DOGS’ debut album and was met with loud roars from the audience.
Simultaneously, the Reds reopened with Rhino’s Revenge, the London-based rock band featuring John ‘Rhino’ Edwards of Status Quo on bass and lead vocals, Jim Kirkpatrick on lead guitar, and Richard Newman on drums. They played mostly Status Quo tunes, including Lucinda and Gravy Train.
Back at Centre Stage, the venue was now packed and looked like it was under siege with Sweet fans eagerly awaiting the arrival of the glam rock legends from London. The eager punters, who began singing long before the band stepped into the light, weren’t left disappointed as their heroes performed classics like Ballroom Blitz.
Saturday night closed with Oliver Dawson /Saxon at Reds and Willie & The Bandits on the Centre Stage. The latter band, featuring Wille Edwards (guitars/vocals), Matt Brooks (on a six-string bass), and Andy Naumann (drums), served up polished licks and sweet tunes that lit up the night. A breathtaking cover of Santana’s Black Magic Woman and very emotional take on Angel were undoubted highlights.
Sunday kicked off with Black Whiskey (another 2018 Introducing Stage winner) on the Centre Stage and, over at Reds, South Wales’ Man served up their psychedelic blues rock hits like C’mon, Many Are Called and Spunk Box.
On the other side of the musical spectrum are VEGA, who’ve just wrapped their tour with Skid Row. Fronted by the hypnotic Nick Workman, the melodic rockers’ unstoppable energy transformed the Centre Stage into a dance hall.
Continuing the musical diversity, Dutch prog rockers Focus were up next with their biggest songs (Hocus Pocus, Sylvia) and frontman Thijs van Leer’s flute in tow, while Reds hosted another legend: Elliott Randall, the guitarist best known for playing the solo on Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years.
FM at Centre Stage and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy at Reds closed the first part of the day. Both acts are pretty popular, and the venues were rammed with punters enjoying the afternoon’s headliners.
Later in the day, the main stages rebooted with Cats In Space and Rob Tognoni.
The former are one of those bands you need to see rather than just hear. Singer Paul Manzi reigned the stage in a flamboyant black and gold coat, looking like Prince Charming leading his troops to victory. As he performed the likes of Hologram Man, Day Trip To Narnia, and Scars, he had the public wrapped around his finger.
While H.E.A.T. set up to headline Reds, the Centre Stage crowd ecstatically welcomed Skid Row. The Americans came armed with lights, smoke, and a carefully planned theatre-like performance. Frontman ZP Theart, formerly of Dragon Force, has smoothly stepped into the role Sebastian Bach once played. The band sound tight and, with Theart’s impressive vocal range, new songs and all-time favourites sounded fresh and crisp. The well-oiled machine of American heavy metal stormed through the night with hits like Slave To The Grind, Sweet Little Sister, Piece Of Me, and Makin’ A Mess.
There was much head banging, jumping, and impressive guitar soloing in a stellar performance from a band that connected with the audience from the second they stepped onto the stage until running off to catch a flight. The travel situation caused the group that should have closed the festival to be moved down the bill, leaving Bad Touch the unenviable task of wrapping up Sunday night.
But the Norfolk-based group, fronted by the dynamic Stevie Westwood, rose to the challenge with a set showcasing their Southern rock-style anthems like 99%. Apart from highlights of their three studio albums, the explosive five-piece set the place alight with an exceptional cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love that sent the weekenders back home happy.
Giants Of Rock will roll on again in 2020, and early birds can already secure tickets to break next year’s January blues. This year’s event was an intense weekend of music, and I’m sure I’ll be back.
Review and photography of Giants Of Rock @ Butlins Live Music Weekends, Minehead on 25th to 27th January 2019, by Edyta K.