Butlins, and other holiday camps that host festivals during the ‘off’ season have it sussed. I’m surprised they’ve not instant sell outs. They’ve found a way of keeping festival goers happy out of season with no risk of blown away tents and accommodation that’s warm and cosy. A chance to seea varied line-up of acts and enjoy a beer or three out of the elements of winter.
There’s the option to do your own catering, or plenty of other food options from chain fast food joints, burgers and pizzas to restaurants, a few reasonably stocked bars (though what the hell is Amigo supposed to be it tastes like flat lager and lime or ullage), arcades, pub games, and some daytime activities, splash pool or a beach to offer an escape from the music should you need it. You can even bring your own booze and keep it cool in the fridge for that rock n roll breakfast.
Like it’s outdoor relatives everything’s in easy walking distance, and it’s full of like minded festival folk wearing shirts advertising Beautiful Days, and Bearded Theory amongst others.
At this year’s Giants Of Rock in Minehead the two main stages are on different floors of the same building, so flitting from one to the other is easy. Unless you want a table at the back of either in which case festivalgoers seem obsessed with queuing for hours before the doors open.
On Friday the music starts at 5.30pm in the resort’s third venue, Jaks, which is a small bar decked out as a sleazy rock joint. It’s the home to the Introducing Stage and offers four acts each day and the audience then vote for their favourite, using tokens. Happening between the main stage’s main programme, the acts don’t clash with the big names, and it’s a great chance to check out rising stars each day – our overall winner Hell’s Gazelles, plus JoanOvArc, and Tear It Down get our votes.
I’m surprised the place isn’t a little busier, I’d say the audience numbers only a couple of thousand. It’s for over 18s only so there’s no families, and it’s mainly groups of fans or older couples who we chat to, plus the occasional hen party or stag do. Many of the regulars hail from the Midlands, and have attended the sister event in Skegness, the Great British Rock & Blues Weekender, and recommend to us a few of the acts that play both festivals.
The queues at door opening are crazy, considering you don’t have to stand in them! The reason many of them take up residence at the tables at the back of the two main stages for the whole night. Their elevated position affording great views of the stage. In Centre Stage there’s a plethora of big screens for those in the tiered seating to watch the acts.
We’re happy to watch the introducing acts and stand inside the venue or find the occasional discarded chair, some people have even brought their own fold up ones. We’ve opted for the premier dining experience, which offers breakfast and dinner in Butlins proper restaurant, but it does mean eating early at both sittings. The restaurant is clean, their hand cleaner dispensers everywhere, and artistically designed – like sitting in a giant Swiss cheese with it’s large circular cutouts through the wall.
The crowd may still be in leather or denim and covered in fading patches, or wearing shirts from anther decade (or four) but they’re polite and friendly. There’s a few baldheads but mainly it’s long hair (some of which I’m sure are wigs) and the tables outside the venue’s other bar ‘Inn on the Green’ are well attended with smokers, as rock music spills from the packed venue.
Timings are mainly staggered so we get to pretty much see everyone on the bill. The first night’s entertainment includes FM, the mighty Magnum (looking much older), and The Brew on the main ‘Centre’ stage. Magnum’s Bob Catley still exudes rock legend, his voice may have mellowed and his moves slowed but he still delivers a crowd pleasing set. He’ also happy to wander about the festival at other times and gets fully immersed in GoR. Downstairs in ‘Reds’ I prefer the noodlings from Curved Air, Martin Turner Ex Wishbone Ash, and 2017 Introducing Stage winners Those Damn Crows. The music’s a little more on the psychedelic side.
Whilst we’re between venues we’re approached by a man carrying what looks like all his possessions in an old carrier bag. He tells us he’s looking for the band he’s playing with tomorrow. He’s not met them yet, and he’s a bit concerned. I must admit I didn’t recognise him until the next night when he appears on stage with the band. He’s Bobby Kimball, original lead singer of Toto, and that meeting on the first night explains much of what happened with the headlining act the next night. More of that later.
Saturday is by far the strongest day of music, and it’s garnered a few more people in the crowd. Reds is our first port of call and Clearwater Creedence Revival – who include the original drummer from CCR. They’re absolutely wonderful, doing an appealing set of Creedence classics, with amenable banter in between. However’ it’s John Verity Ex Argent who really blows me away, his guitar work is exceptional, the band are tight. Local DJ Andy Howard (a blast from my own past as he has plied his trade in South Devon for decades) who spins tunes between sets, reveals it could be Verity’s final gig. The retiring star treats us to Cocaine, Rocky Mountain Way, Say Why, Going Down, Hold Your Head Up, Purple Haze, and Johnny B. Goode amongst other classics. I really wanted to see Marc O'Reilly downstairs, but they'll be other times to see that rising trio, this was a rocker going out whilst still at his zenith. I really hope this dog ain't done yet, but fear it's the end of some old time rock & roll.
Mannfred Mann’s Earthband prove a professional next instalment, whilst downstair Fran Cosmo formerly of Boston comes a cropper - firstly with the badly set up sound and secondly with what appears to be the house band for the day – they may grin and bounce around but they don’t know the tunes man! More of that later. Here they just adequately cover the Boston classics, just, but upstairs The Mighty Quinn definitely wins out, and that’s more than a feeling.
Fran starts late, very late, and the soundcheck runs badly, from here on over the weekend it happens repeatedly no more on Sunday when Snakecharmer appear without singer Micky Moody (was there an offstage bust up?) The band look ill at ease, and I think it’s a roadie on vocal duties - the whole thing is a shambles. Not quite as much of a shambles as Bobby Kimball, and the ‘house band’ who set out to murder Toto songs with gusto. It would appear Bobby never found them on Friday and so they rehearsed on Saturday on the Centre stage behind a curtain, probably for the first time. Bobby wasn’t the relaxed figure we’d met the night before, his keyboard playing was atrocious and the whole set descended into farce as the venue emptied, eventually having to be cut short.
Also cut short, to make room for that very rehearsal were an on form Hawkwind, who delivered a fantastically rocking set of classics. Born to Go, The Awakening, You'd Better Believe It, Have You Seen Them, Brainbox Pollution, a rare outting of Steppenwolf, crowd pleasers Assault and Battery and Golden Void, before firing all their guns at once and exploding into space with Damnation Alley. Top form, top skills, too short a set, which they apologised to fans for. Saying they were only booked for an hour. With an hour and half before Kimball's 'Not In Kansas anymore' moment it gave fans a chance to enjoy Uriah Heap downstairs, before Stray closed the evening.
It's worth mentioning the evening's openers Rews. The girl duo of Irish singer/guitarist Shauna Tohill and drummer Collette Williams proved the PA could actually sound decent in Reds as they blasted through an upbeat set. They were just one of a number of female acts who proved it's not just a male dominated genre.
This was borne out on Sunday by singer Deborah Bonham, Mohawk Radio’s Mia Page, and the fantastic guitar of Chantel McGregor. My find of the weekend was Roscoe Levee & Walrus (Mike Ross Band) whose Americana infused guitar rock was right up my street. So much so I wanted some merch, but they wanted fish and chips!
Also on Sunday Larry Carlton showcased his jazz rock (nice!) Stan Webb's Chicken Shack were on form, but struggled a little with the sound, and Limehouse Lizzy do what they do best get the crowd pumping the air with Phil Lynott classics. I wasn’t anticipating much on Sunday but the trio of Nazareth, a Noddyless Slade (they had a lot of hits!), and Big Country proved a terrific conclusion to the weekend, with AC/DC Powerage closing the show downstairs in Reds. For me it was Big Country who proved the biggest surprise. I saw them recently at Watchet Festival but they were here to show their heavy rock credentials and did it with distinction.
Certainly it was a festival which had a line-up which looked great on the official shirt (a steal at £10) and by and large delivered all those songs that filled random kitchens at parties when I was a teenager. Rock certainly isn’t dead, they may well not be the giants – we see a youthful Paul Di’Anno fronted Maiden, Sabbath, AC/DC, and Metallica on repeat on the big screens between acts in Centre Stage to remind us who they are.
But, the weekend’s acts provided a great opportunity to see some of the legends of my youth. Reminiscent of those compilations you’d get on cassette in garages in the mid-Eighties with rock anthems and a picture of a road and a guitar on the cover. The bands we all had patches of somewhere on denim jackets but rarely the big patch in the middle (some people were still wearing theirs to prove it) plus a few overseas legends with an anthem or too to sing along to. How is it I can remember every word of a song I’ve not heard for decades but I can’t remember my current pin number?
Most of the weekend however reminded me of the much lamented GuilFest which also provided the chance to see many of the ‘big in the day’ rock acts. To those who ask what this weekend was like I say like GuilFest’s Rock Cave for over 18s but in three indoor venues. We can even check out by noon on Monday, and lease at our leisure – bonus.
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Great British Rock & Blues Weekender 2020 review