Gig review: SWEDEN ROCK at Solvesborg, June 3 to 6, 2015
By STEVE MASCORD
IN February 2003, this writer attended a show by Def Leppard and a young band called The Darkness at a venue known as the Newport Centre, in Wales.
There was a deceptively long queue on a bitingly chilly night. But once we got inside, it became apparent one of the greatest ever British rock bands, and their heirs apparent, were playing a glorified school gymnasium.
As someone based on the other side of the planet, it seemed inconceivable a band I had seen headline arenas in Australia a bit more than a decade before were playing before 2000 people.
Of course, The Darkness – with whom I was not immediately enamoured due to the singer’s ridiculously high voice – would soon be at the forefront of the so-called ‘rock revival’.
I say “so called” because it never happened.
When the Newport show occurred, post-grunge and Nu Metal were at death’s door and despite the best intentions of many, platform boots, catsuits and pyro never swept back into power. It was a phoney war. Nothing but vacuous auto-tuned candyfloss has troubled the mainstream since, right?
Then why have I just seen the Def Leppard perform to 33,000 people on a vast paddock on the Swedish coast two hours from Copenhagen? Why have The Darkness, their time in the sun and The Sun long since passed, closed a four day festival with a set roughly the same length as actual darkness at this time of year in Scandinavia?
Perhaps it’s because the rock revival did actually happen – it’s just that we didn’t notice, as – to borrow from Dr McCoy – it was a revival “not as we know it”.
Sweden Rock, now a massive four day jamboree, began in 1992. The five-stage festival site is surrounded by camp grounds. Some fans have converted military trucks with “Sweden Rock” plastered on the side and brandishing pirate flags.
They sit on the roof in inflatable couches, drinking beer by the case and blasting AC/DC and The Scorpions from ghetto-blasters-on-steroids. In the actual camping grounds, the lines for showers and toilets can keep you there for an hour, but no-one grumbles.
The pedestrian thoroughfares to the festival itself are festooned with stalls selling rock clothing, vinyl, CDs and local favourites such as ;angos (Hungarian fried bread topped with anything you like – but including caviar and berries) and moose kebabs. You could easily fill four days with booze and music without even walking through the gates of the actual festival.
Instead of scalpers and touts, there’s an exchange for those seeking or selling surplus tickets. Strangers strike up conversations everywhere, the police presence is minimal and the only offensive behaviour you’ll see is rampant public urination.
I’m serious about this: a four day festival with 33,000 visitors on each of these, and your emissary saw not one fight. The one fellow with a split head who presented himself to medical staff had, according to a witness, simply fallen over head first of drunkenness. Fans could walk anywhere with their drinks, unlike most festivals in the world today.
Why do Scandinavians love rock so much? “It’s in our blood,” a local with a job in the industry tells me. “Do you see hip hop as being big here? It has it’s followers, but it’s not really.”
Australian crooner Jon English put it another way. “They look scary but they are the friendliest, most hospitable people you’ll meet.
“I think someone said that the more violence you see in sport, the less you’ll see in the stands. It’s like that.
“But they’re Vikings. Don’t fuck with them, or you’ll regret it.”
Wednesday started pleasantly the Quireboys, Spike and co cruising through an entertaining set in the sunshine. Later that night, Jon English earns rave local reviews with his diverse show – which in homeland would no doubt be dismissed by many as old hat.
His Swedish backing band race through standards such as “Hollywood Seven” and I’m not sure if I’ve heard “Six Ribbons” more than twice since it was on Countdown more than three decades ago.
The half-day ends with Danish kingpins Disneyland After Dark, a longtime favourite of mine. Perhaps it is the sound from the Sweden Stage or maybe it is the reviewer getting used to the festival environment in comparison to the other venues in which I’ve seen them, but D-A-D reach my ears without going much further – at least until they set fire to a drum kit and encore with “Laugh & A ½”. Great band, quiet PA or not.
Thursday is when things get serious – 11.30am to 2am.
While Slash’s last two records have been too reminiscent of his singer’s other band, Alter Bridge, for my liking his set demands respect with the best bits off those records coalescing well with the likes of “Night Train” and “You Could Be Mine”. The top-hatted one leaves no doubt where he wants fans to go when he finishes – he’s wearing an Airbourne t-shirt.
And the Warrnambool quartet justifies the implied praise: frontman Joel O’Keeffe finally looks like he’s finally had a decent feed and he uses the carbohydrates to their full potential by throwing himself around in customary fashion and climbing the rigging as usual.
Sadly, when he gets to the top, no-one can see him. If you’re going to risk death, best have an audience. My bias towards Airbourne fully declared, I hereby declare them the best act of the weekend by a baby wallaby’s appendage.
Next up, believe it or not, is Toto. And alongside the cosy familiarity of “Hold The Line” and “Africa” is the stunning fretboard wizardry of guitarist Steve Luthaker, which elevates this show above the obvious nostalgia quotient. If you get the chance, don’t go see Toto for the same reasons you would attend a Cyndi Lauper concert.
Def Leppard are, as always, meticulously accomplished. It’s great to see Vivian Campbell looking healthy again and their elaborate stage show is not immediately appreciable from up close. There are no new songs despite their next album being, apparently, “finished” but “Paper Sun” and “Promises” make welcome appearances.
Michael Monroe is late stop and his stellar line-up include Sami Yaffa and Stece Conte drag 2am into the present far too quickly with their celebratory punk rock.
I only catch a couple of songs from Dare’s set the next day due to an interview appointment but Darren Wharton’s melodic rock contrasts nicely with some of the more extreme bands on display at SR, such as Meshuggah.
The only real annoying schedule conflict of the whole festival is Dokken playing the same time as Blackberry Smoke. One band was a big part of my childhood that I have only seen live a couple of times, the other hot young things that you just can’t come all this way and miss.
Thrown your preconceptions away when it comes to how rockin’ Dokken currently are. Don’s voice is good this afternoon, Jon Levin is as entertaining as always and it’s not easy to leave mid-set.
Blackberry Smoke actually have more in common with the Allman Brothers than with contemporaries and similarly-named Black Stone Cherry. There is no attempt to entertain college kids by jumping around, just laid back delivery and songs with stories.
Backyard Babies pick up where Michael Monroe left off, with the ineffably cool Dregen starring in front of an adoring home crowd. Then, on the massive festival stage, we have the enigma that is Motley Crue.
Vince Neil is actually singing as well as I’ve heard for several years – that’s still not at virtuoso level, right? – and Nikki Sixx has lost a lot of weight. I choose to watch from the back and let these songs wash over me for the final time. as this is the only show on the Farewell Tour I’ll see.
How much of it is backing tapes? I don’t know. “I was down the front,” a fan says at Solvesborg train station two days later. “You know what you’re getting. They haven’t been really good live since ’89.”
Dog watch duties tonight are performed by hotly-tipped Swedes H.E.A.T and it’s as fun a time as can be had all week, even if the songs are unfamiliar to a heathen foreignerwho has heard them on Spotify a couple of times. They’re young, energetic and full of bonhomme. I can’t remember any of their hooks as I write this – but that may have been the beer and intoxicating Swedish tobacco, Snus – which one tucks under one’s upper lip in order to feel dizzy and disoriented.
And so to day four. By now it is hard to tell whether the things you are doing at night are part of the same day as some of the bands you saw during the daylight hours.
Ace Frehley does not have quite the same impact with the sun up as the current incarnation of his solo band can command in a packed, sweaty club. But Richie Scarlet works his middle-aged posterior off and the setlist is full of delightful surprises, such as “2 Young 2 Die”.
When Hot Metal first reported that The Angels were playing Sweden Rock – that’s the precise moment we decided we’d be attending the Festival. At the beginning of their show on the 4Sound Stage, it is easy to walk up to the front, lead against the fence and not be in contact with another human.
Before long, a shirtless Swede has pushed his way in and is repeated requesting “Underground” off Two Minute Warning and lady who is, conservatively, 60 is pinching my backside and whispering something in my ear.
This is the definition of “triumphant” even if it’s the opposite of a homecoming. The Angels’ peerless 41-year repertoire is unfurled before a curious crowd that can scarcely believe what they are seeing and hearing.
“No way, get fucked, fuck up!” a gentleman behind me screams, having slightly misheard what David Gleeson describes as a “cultural exchange” during “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again”. English gets on stage for “Fashion & Fame” A boy who can scarcely be 25 refuses repeated security requests to dismount a friend’s shoulders and at one stage and a VB stubbie is thrown on stage.
“Compared to the beer you have here,” Gleeson tells the growing multitude, “this stuff is shit.”
“We want more, we want more, we want more!” they scream at the end of an assigned set in which newy “Talk The Talk” is greeted more enthusiastically than many of the classics.
So they give more. The band is staying at the festival owner’s place after all.
Afterwards in the “camp” behind the stage, there is palpable emotion. After 30 years which could have seen them treading the boards in this part of the world on an annual basis, The Angels have been given a second chance.
“But if we’d done that, my life would have been different,” says John Brewster. “I may not have had my son, who was up there with me today.”
Judas Priest attracts the biggest crowd of the Festival. Rob Halford and co play as many new songs as any of the classic acts who are here, giving fans every chance like – or not – Redeemer Of Souls. Richie Faulkner looks like he stepped out of time machine, resplendent in head-to-toe leather and studs.
Halford rides his motor cycle down the ramp that leads into the stage, like he’s Evil Kneivel without the necessary velocity, and thanks the Swedes and dozens of other nationalities for one of the great nights in the behemoths’ storied career.
And so, with the sun almost gone for a brief time, we have The Darkness.
Aesthetically, things start wonderfully. Justin Hawkinss seems to be DRESSED as Evel Kneivel, complete with white leather suit at cape. His facial hair is gone and he has braces, making him appear earily (learily?) pubescent.
Acoustically, not so much.
“Barbarians” is abortive, Hawkins so distracted by sound issues that he seems to have lost the ability to hit THOSE notes. He discards multiple guitars in disgust through the course of a fraught but earnest set which at one stage sees him lashing himself on the back with his mic, Divinci Code-style.
“I’m not doing my job if I am not getting the appropriate response,” he says, pleadingly. “It’s all MY fault.”
As I leave Sweden Rock for the last time, I am struck dumb by 90 minutes of trying to sing along with Hawkins. Twelve years after being nonplussed by his high tenor voice in front of 1000 people, I have injured myself attempting to replicate it as part of a crowd 10 times bigger.
Have rock and heavy metal really enjoyed a surreptitious revival?
The popular narrative of why these festivals and events like Monsters Of Rock Cruise (Cathouse Live is coming to California in August) are suddenly profitable is that their hair metal generation now has a disposable income. The money they don’t spend on new music, they are happy to plough into t-shirts and concert tickets.
But that is only half of the equation – the pragmatic, commercial half.
You know the friend who you used to greet casually but now hug? That’s what hard rock and heavy metal have become to those of us who have entered the second half of our lives.
The music, values and community that we used to associate with immortality is to be cherished far more now that we know there’s no such thing.