High Voltage is yet another addition to the burgeoning series of summer festivals currently plaguing London. Setting itself as a potential competitor to the global Sonisphere Festival which sits alongside the established Download and Reading Festivals, High Voltage boasts a simple three stages: Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog Rock. Located in Victoria Park, East London, this festival of elders could potentially attract up to three generations of rockers.
A short walk from Mile End tube station leads to Victoria Park. En route, there is a pub carving up a whole, roasted pig for wandering rockers. The dress code for today generally includes men sporting black t-shirts with amusing slogans like ‘More rock than a crack house’ printed on the chest. ‘WALK WITH ME IN HELL!’ demands an average sullenly clothed posterior. If there’s an IT crisis somewhere in London this weekend, the experts are likely to be contained within these temporary, green walls.
On arrival, Orange Goblin are set about their closing numbers on the Metal stage. With a quick verbal tribute to recently departed rock legend, Ronnie James Dio, the band fire into ‘Cities of Frost’. Orange Goblin straddle the gap between metal and rock, coming on like a fuzzy hybrid of Pantera and Alice in Chains; but the riffs feel somehow staid and overly orchestrated. The band progress with the groovy ‘Cosmo Bozo’ before stealing out onto the stoner rock of ‘Some you win, some you lose’. On that suggestion, we depart for the Classic Rock stage, passing a busy Prog stage.
The sounds of Focus noodling away on Hammond organs and prancing over extended guitar solos echoes across the field, but the music lacks the necessary Siren-like charm to pull an excited writer to their set. There is a distinct lack of occasion this mid-afternoon. The Classic Rock stage is disappointingly peppered with fans of The Union who are swaying gently in the breeze of melodic rock. There’s not a mosh pit in sight – it’s more like looking at a posh pit. And, to be fair, it’s not everyone that can afford a steep £75 one-day entry fee.
Still, the PA systems are all functioning efficiently (probably turned up to 11) and there are a few funfair activities dotted around the site for those adventurous enough to partake in activities as thrilling as, er…dodgems. Not thrilling enough? Then there’s the waltzer. This is rock and roll living where a classic car show sits next to an osteopath: an osteopath that offers massages for £20. Oh and there’s an HMV where children play Guitar Hero and look at a selection of 22 CDs dreaming wistfully of the day when they can save enough pocket money to buy Foreigner classic ‘Agent Provocateur’.
But for those of us with no interest in childish things, there is always music. The atmosphere lacks the sense of grandeur implied by the presence of Rock Gods such as Toni Iommi, Phil Anselmo, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons and Tom Cruise wandering around backstage. But it is still early and the audience is restless – moving quickly from one stage to the next, inhaling dust, alcohol and ice cream along the way. It’s a bit like being at Guilfest. Not that I’ve been.
Irish rockers (no, not those ones) The Answer are on playing ‘Rock n roll’ outlaw’ and Cormac Neeson is playing the part of rock n’ roll frontman as he twirls around holding the mic stand at 90 degrees as if it had been plunged into his chest. Mercifully, it hadn’t, and the band pull together a convincing impression of The Black Crowes‘ brand of blues-rock twinned with the sounds of AC / DC (who they toured with in 2008). The band finish their bright set with “a little Irish swamp music”, ‘Under the sky’. As they leave, Neeson says the band will be signing in the HMV tent later on…
The roadies in the wings at the Prog stage are having a grand time. Bigelf are churning out electricfying ’60s inspired rock with twin guitar harmony licks. It’s like listening to King Crimson for Deadheads. Amusingly enough, the smell of patchouli mixes thick with the burning marijuana in the air to give a fair indication of audience make up and intention. Probably the most interesting band to have played so far, their hyper pantomime production is enjoyable to watch, though the lyrics fall limp in the afternoon heat. As the band play ‘Disappear’ – a track from the Hex album – people begin to leave.
It is clearly time for a bit of guitar wankery – sorry – mastery, as the paunch of Gary Moore dominates the Classic Rock stage and he launches his Les Paul immediately into ‘Over the hills and far away’. Today Gary is wearing a purple and black paisley shirt with requisite blue jeans. His hair is still the same as it was three decades ago. Speaking of three decades ago, ‘Thunder Rising’ is next, but its chorus provides something of a challenge for Gary’s aging larynx. Somewhat ironically Gary’s new song is called ‘Days of heroes’ – a time where “only the strong survived”. It seems a somehow apt notion for this stage where rock dinosaurs – I mean, legends, roam. As the guitarist plods through more new numbers that no one really has an interest in, we mystically transport ourselves back to the Metal stage for the cathartic doom of Cathedral. Though playing to a sparse crowd, the music is inordinately heavy and sodden with groove. SingerLee Dorian dances a little like Ian Brown and frequently moves menacingly towards the crowd, stretching the mic cord taut high above his head as though he were ready to skip the audience to the death. ‘Utopia Blaster’ and ‘Cosmic Funeral’ positively shake the ground and ‘Funeral Dream’ causes fluid from the inner ear to shift.
Dizzy from the crunch of Cathedral, it’s on to Dweezil Zappa whose band is outplaying everyone else with numbers from Frank Zappa’s back catalogue. The mix of time signatures and styles assures Dweezil a good audience, and tracks like ‘Beat Swifty’ give the band a chance to show off. A lounge glockenspiel solo brings an air of calm to proceedings and we could almost be in Charlton Park at the WOMAD Festival. Dedicating ‘Easy Meat’ to the groupies in the audience soon puts paid to that fleeting feeling. ‘Latex Solar Beef’ and ‘Keep it greasy’ all come wrapped up in jazz, funk and samba flair and Dweezil closes with the demanded ‘Peaches En Regalia’. After such a tremendously vibrant show that positively lifted the spirits, calling in to see Foreigner and Saxon results in an immediate and painful grounding.
A number of Black Label Society patches stitched to denim have been visible throughout the day, so we make the concerted effort to see the band that have persuaded their handicraft obsessed crowd to don this skull-based logo. A huge banner obscuring the stage is tugged off by the roadies to reveal a row of identical amplifiers. Zakk Wylde’s mic stand has a series of skulls attached to the base of it. He’s like Predator, but in the Homo Sapiens form of a bearded Brett Michaels wearing a bowler hat. Wylde shreds up and across the neck of his custom guitars and is forced to change guitar after just one song – he must have worn it out already. With pyrotechnics shooting out of the amps, it’s all very clichéd, and sort of fun. The songs, however, mostly remain the same.
And so, it comes to headliners ZZ Top to bring the day’s festivities to a close. With a shining, green drumkit on stage – built to resemble a deconstructed truck – team ZZ saunter on and get straight into ‘Got Me Under Pressure’. Both Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill look and sound way beyond cool. “We’ve been coming over here for 40 years,” sighs Gibbons. “Same 3 guys, same three chords”, and the band start ‘Waiting for the bus’ which segues into ‘Jesus left Chicago’ just as it does on debut record, Tres Hombres. The speed hasn’t totally gone from the aging Gibbons’ fingers (he was once Jimi Hendrix’s most favoured guitarist), and he’s still a complete original. The group plough through their discography, smashing out hits that include: ‘I can’t tell my future’, ‘Cheap sunglasses’, ‘Gimme all your lovin’’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and, of course, ‘Legs’. The trio pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix with their cover of ‘Hey Joe’ and High Voltage’s aspiration to book Rock Royalty is finally tangible. ZZ Top’s encore is ‘La Grange’ and it’s completely evident why Jimmy Page is watching, grinning from the wings.