Doncaster Rocks

Live Review | The Dome, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson

When you’re pretty much used to hopping in the car and driving at least twenty miles, more often fifty or so these days, to see anything remotely interesting, it comes as a pleasant surprise to have something both exciting and familiar, to those of us of a certain generation that is, right here on our doorstep. On Saturday the bands came in force, and not unlike the buses, you know, you wait for one for ages and then they all come together, to take part in an eight-hour mini festival of timeless folk rock, staged at The Dome in Doncaster. Some of the bands who appeared today, at an event tagged ‘Doncaster Rocks’, were precisely the bands I was following around in my youth, right at the time when I was being unceremoniously kicked out of school at the age of fifteen with no prospects, no future and no chance. I’ve often thought that if it wasn’t for the music, the prospect would’ve been pretty bleak, what with the three day week, high unemployment and worse of all, Donny and Marie Osmond dominating the airwaves. Ironically, it did get worse, much worse; Little Jimmy Osmond followed shortly afterwards. Whilst Alice Cooper’s teen anthem “School’s Out” resonated around the playground, I finally found myself free to abandon regular visits to the barber’s shop, bought a shabby second hand overcoat and frequented the Silver Link pub on Bradford Row every Friday night, which featured a jukebox containing singles by the likes of Jethro Tull and The Strawbs. Even though these outfits were essentially album bands, they did manage to release the odd single and save jukeboxes countrywide from the indignity of being infiltrated by teeny bop mush. The like-minded freaks I associated myself with, all of whom were united in their disdain for current chart music, congregated at one or two of the local venues to see the likes of Pink Floyd, Curved Air, Edgar Broughton Band and Budgie, all of whom made regular visits to the area, often experimenting with the famous revolving stage at the late lamented Doncaster Top Rank. For your Led Zeppelins and Deep Purples, you had to risk a long walk home from the Sheffield City Hall, should you miss the last bus. But it has to be said, Doncaster did once boast quite a healthy Prog Rock and Folk Rock music scene. Who for instance can remember the occasion when three strange bands appeared together at the Rank, their collective names using up a total of eight letters? If you remember Yes, If and Egg, then you were probably one of my mates. Today I tried not to wallow in nostalgia as Doncaster reunited itself with the heyday of Folk Rock, but I found it difficult as I sat in the Dome earlier this afternoon, listening to Ian Anderson sound check, lipping his flute during an impromptu acoustic rehearsal of “Mother Goose”. The concert hall was alive with various sound and stage crew members, milling about the place, each with his or her specific duty to perform, with just as much activity going on backstage. I chatted to both Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span and Dave Cousins of The Strawbs respectively, and shared a few jokes with The Strawbs’ Dave Lambert and Steeleye’s formidable drummer Liam Genockey, as an amazing 71 year old Julie Felix, wandered around in a vivid red cowboy shirt and hat. Midway through the afternoon, the Dome filled with hundreds of enthusiastic fans, some who may well harbour similar memories of early Seventies folk rock as I. Our opening act however, goes even further back. Although Julie Felix has matured from the young Sixties folk protest poster girl, she appears not to have abandoned the causes that she and so many of her contemporaries embraced during a period of global change in terms of the Civil Rights Movement and political activism; when just about everybody who owned a guitar and harmonica rack had a dedicated and unswerving devotion to delivering the message of peace. Opening the Doncaster Rocks concert, presumably standing in at short notice for Curved Air who had to pull out due to the ill health of violin maestro Darryl Way, the singer trod a familiar path through the peace movement’s formative years with renditions of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowing in the Wind”, to which she craftily adds a poignant verse to remind us of some of the many wrongs of the Bush and Blair years. The singer also included one or two of her own compositions, such as “Children of Abraham”, with its nod to “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”. The highlight of the set however was her tip of the hat to Leonard Cohen, as she reminded us of songs like “Bird on a Wire” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, a song that she was famously seen singing on a Sixties TV show, accompanied by a very young Cohen himself. The Popes, formerly fronted by Shane MacGowan, proved that they can hold their own as a formidable live act with or without the former Pogues frontman’s help. Paul (Mad Dog) McGuinness is an energetic showman, in whose hands the legacy of The Pogues resides, both as a live performer and also at the helm of an experienced recording outfit such as The Popes, with albums like Holloway Boulevard and Outlaw Heaven, both of which were showcased today, with performances of such songs as “Angels” and “Let the Bells Ring Out”. The novelty act known as The Lancashire Hotpots bravely took to the stage right at the end of the eight-hour musical treat, after some re-shuffling of the schedule, due to Jethro Tull’s desire to be off and away by ten. It takes a brave outfit to go on after the main act, but this appeared not to faze our intrepid Hotpots, who were in a mood for fun. With songs like “Bitter, Lager, Cider, Ale and Stout” and “I Met A Girl On Myspace”, their infectious knees-up type finale rounded off the day nicely, and those who chose not to hit the road directly after Tull’s performance, were thoroughly entertained with a good helping of humour from t’other side of the Pennines. The Strawbs were blessed with one of the most recognisable sounds of the early Seventies Prog Rock era, mainly due to Dave Cousins’ distinctive voice. Opening their set with “Benedictus” from their classic Grave New World album, which segued seamlessly into “Simple Visions”, the trio consisting of Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk, managed to create a full blown orchestral sound with just the three instruments and some pretty powerful vocal dexterity. With a variety of songs from various stages of their long career, The Strawbs held court during their outstanding set, which took some of us back to those early days sitting around the Silver Link jukebox, particularly during their finale of their popular single “Lay Down”. Speaking to Dave Cousins backstage just after their set, I asked him how three members of what is essentially an acoustic outfit, can make such a full and engaging sound. “People get very surprised, they see us walk on with three acoustic guitars and they’re always astonished at the level of noise that comes out of them. I think it’s because we make sure that we never ever play the same chord in the same positions, so I’m quite often in a tuning on my guitar, a D modal tuning or an open C, Dave (Lambert) will play up the top and Chas (Cronk) will play down the bottom or we’ll swap it all around, so the guitars will ring out and jangle”. Dave’s memories of regular appearances on Top of the Pops are particularly vivid as he recalls the period with great fondness. Speaking of old band mates such as Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman, Dave continued; “We did the first ever album spot on Top of the Pops and performed “The Hangman and the Papist” and I’m not sure what on Earth they made of it”. “One of the memories I have of it was the fact that in the middle of probably my most serious song at the time, Rick Wakeman started to play his organ with a paint roller, and I nearly strangled him”. Half of the acts on today’s bill were celebrating around forty-odd years on the scene. Steeleye Span have in those four decades gone through many changes, but probably not as many as their contemporaries Fairport Convention. The current line-up of Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, Liam Genockey and Ken Nicol is in fact the longest serving of any of the combinations throughout their forty year existence. I spoke to Maddy Prior just before the band took to the stage. “It’s our fortieth anniversary this year and we’re having a year-long celebration, we had a tour earlier this year and we’re going out to America and Australia and we’re touring again at the back end in November/December”. With Doncaster Rocks, the emphasis is very much on the rock side of folk music and I asked Steeleye’s singer how she felt the band fitted in with this. “That’s what Steeleye does, that’s what we set out to do, to make folk music electric and we hoped to make it more accessible, and in some ways it is for some people, it’s become a genre of its own”. The band played a set of mainly traditional songs, each infused with a distinctly rock arrangement such as “Tam Lin”, the bawdy “Bonny Black Hare” and their big hit “All Around My Hat”. There was only one original member of Jethro Tull playing at The Dome tonight, but in all fairness, that’s all it takes. Ian Anderson has been there since the start as main song writer, flute maestro and essentially the voice of Jethro Tull. Guitarist Martin Barre was unfortunately tied up in Germany, performing at a one-night world premiere showing of Excalibur staged as a rock opera in Kaltenberg. No matter, if Germany can borrow Barre, we can borrow the astonishingly talented 26 year-old Bavarian guitarist Florian Ophale, who made up more than adequately tonight, with an impressive performance that I dare say could rival that of his mentor. My memories of the early Seventies was of the confusion labelled as Progressive Rock, when any band of musicians with hair longer than Jimmy Saville’s was considered ‘Prog’, even if they were just a common or garden folk band. Jethro Tull had already appeared in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus film and the infamous chaos that was the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, captured on film much to the embarrassment of those who allowed it to fall apart. Ian Anderson at the time was always top of the Sounds, New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Disc and Music Echo rags’ annual polls in the category of ‘other instrumentalist’, a category that was free from Clapton, Bruce or Baker, who won in just about every other category year upon year. Tonight, Jethro Tull played a two-hour set of classics from the early days of their recording career with albums such as This Was “Beggar’s Farm”, “Dharma for One” and Stand Up “Bouree”, through the popular Aqualung period, with the memorable title track, “Cross Eyed Mary”, “Mother Goose” and “My God”. There was also the slightly embarrassed introduction by Anderson of Tull’s foray into Prog Rock, with their now classic album “Thick as a Brick”, from which a handful of highlights were culled tonight. The set also featured a handful of tracks from subsequent albums with performances of songs such as “Heavy Horses” and “Farm on the Freeway”, just to even out the balance so to speak. With an encore of the timeless “Locomotive Breath”, Jethro Tull left their mark on an excited Doncaster audience, mainly those who proudly wore t shirts from Tull’s previous tours and who would no doubt go off with infamous opening riff of “Aqualung” resounding around their heads for hours, if not days, afterwards.