Sonisphere Festival 2010 – Knebworth

By Spud

As other revenue streams in the music industry have experienced an extended drought, festivals are one of the few areas of continuous and consistent expansion. You only have to look at the new names that arrived on the scene in the noughties to see for yourself – Download arrived in 2003 and later expanded, Wireless was born in 2005 and countless other big names such as T In The Park and, of course, Reading and Leeds have either increased the number of performance days or their capacity. One of the newest of the new is Knebworth’s Sonisphere.

The name of Knebworth alone has been synonymous with music for more than 30 years, whether it’s been hosting 70s rock or Robbie Williams. Sonisphere is the brainchild of Stuart Galbraith who left the team that organised Download and joined Kilimanjaro Live. Now in its second year, the festival has a couple of identifying characteristics. First up has to be the atmosphere – despite the bias towards heavy, aggressive music, the crowd and the campsites are relatively calm. It was best put by one of the organisers of the Strongbow Stage who said, whilst moving furniture, that at certain big-named festivals punters would be deliberately obstructive towards her when she was organising a stage, whereas at Sonisphere they were far more likely to just give her a hand. The organisation and layout are also well-thought out and consider the size of the crowd well, creating an almost circular flow around the site, easing crowding problems. Finally, as we’ve all come to appreciate, a festival’s worth can also be calculated as being inversely proportional to the number of wacky bastards wearing shirts/signs/mankinis emblazoned with the words ‘FREE HUGS’. I counted three – not bad at all. In keeping with the fun theme which permeates Sonisphere like a streak of red through John Bull’s finest rock, a world record attempt at the Time Warp kicked off the Friday, and the festival as a whole, on the second stage, Apollo. Lying opposite the Saturn main stage and playing alternately, it filled the field with around 6,000 festival goers joining in with varying levels of enthusiasm. A bit before my time, thankfully!

Throats Nine
Throats were started shortly thereafter on the Jagermeister stage. The stage’s very open design was both its most redeeming feature and its biggest undoing. A large number of people could see it, despite it being tucked into a corner, but the sound was poor with the PA system underpowered for such an open expanse, particularly at the lower end. The band themselves appeared to struggle a little and had to fight for every fan they slowly got going. A tough slot and a less than convincing performance. [2.5/5]

The next band up I can only describe as the bastard offspring of a one-night stand between Mogwai and Battles after a quick shag in a pile of sludge. And So I Watch You From Afar are both a beacon for technical instrumentality and left-field, innovative musicianship. Did this come through on this live showing? Not completely, but their gloomy-brand twiddly riffs set over varying tempos and signatures requires nothing less than your full concentration to appreciate. One for a hazy underground venue. [3.5/5]

Crashing onto the Strongbow stage later on the Friday, came Deaf Havana, who appear to be creating a little mainstream rock chatter after their consistent underground burblings over the last year or so. To put it bluntly, they look like they’re beginning to justify their wider recognition – their performance was extremely tight, perfectly lively for a festival atmosphere, especially on an indoor stage, and the crowd seemed to double in size during the set. One or two vocal wobbles were evident as things became a little strained, but that to me just emphasised the weight behind their post-hardcore stylings. The security on the ‘gate’ had actually stopped letting people in by the penultimate song and the crowd response was suitable matched. A strong showing. [4/5]

Deaf Havana Five

Saturday rolled along and so did perennial rock festival favourites Papa Roach. Notably, their set appeared to be split into two halves. The first half consisted of their first two tracks, during which Jacoby Shaddix appeared to believe that he was an Olympic athlete and unrelentingly bounded across the stage for ten minutes straight. You’ve got to admire the guy’s determination and energy, but the net result was him only singing one word out of every two or three. Once he realised he couldn’t maintain it, the set settled into a more natural pace and, as such, the sound and crowd response improved substantially. The enthusiastic and fairly large early afternoon gathering lapped up ‘To Be Loved’ and roared their approval at Shaddix’s rant about ‘Hollywood Whores’, namechecking Justin Beiber and Britney Spears as having no artistic worth or depth. He then, without a hint of irony, led 10,000 people in a choreographed dance to the track’s chorus. Whether a believer or a cynic, it was brilliantly entertaining either way (almost as entertaining as the large number of girls who bared their chests for the camera in time-honoured festival tradition). 7 norks out of 10.

In keeping with taking a different approach to things at Sonisphere, a wander across the expansive arena found me entering Bohemia (somewhere between the size of the Lock-Up and Radio One tents at Leeds Festival) just in time for the comedy to begin. Andrew O’Neill rocked up onto the stage and led the crowd in a variety of singalongs, including splitting the room in half to perform ‘We Will Rock You’, and making irreverent comments about the peculiarities of the English language and our collective state of mind. His own experiences of the metal genre and canny observations surrounding band names went down a storm, as did his anecdotes involving chavs and transvestites, though I’m not quite sure about the over-egging of your material by explaining it a few seconds later. [3/5]

To be quite honest, though, the large crowd that assembled before Andrew O’Neill started was there for one reason and for one reason only – an exciting, pirate-like, g*nger reason –Tim Minchin. Deaf Havana managed to fill a stage and later on Gallows managed to have the whole Bohemia tent circle pitting, but Tim
Minchin was the only act of the weekend who can claim to have shoulder-to-shoulder filled the tent to the sides and then had people watching 20 bodies deep outside of the venue. A huge weight of expectation was therefore weighing down on him and, to be frank, he didn’t quite manage to rise to the occasion. He’s a man of immense talent and popularity (I urge a visit to youtube for the uninitiated), but a combination of his throat infection-laden set, a late start, an early finish, and a lack of favourite singalongs left me feeling slightly underwhelmed. Still enjoyable, still worthwhile, and still impressive, but just not to the heights it could have been. Another day, perhaps. [3.5/5]

On the main stage, headliners Rammstein put on their first ever outdoor show in the UK and more than rose to the occasion. Rumours of 7 trucks of pyrotechnics appeared to be well substantiated as the Knebworth sky was lit up with a variety of flames, fireworks and assorted explosions. K*****g TV classics like ?Sonne? and ?Du Hast? – whilst not always universally appealing – are strangely entrancing when part of such a biblically produced stage show. That is essentially what you get with Rammstein – it’s a show as much as a gig, and that allows a wide variety of people to appreciate it, myself included. [4/5]

Onto Sunday, and I’m not sure I’ve ever articulated my thoughts on Madina Lake before, but here’s my chance. I guess the most succinct way I can put it is that they’re musically bad, but considerably worse live. The set had zero sense of direction, songs were nigh-on indistinguishable from one another and to top it all off the lack of conviction from their singer suggests even he doesn’t believe the nonsense he’s spouting. Tepid, derivative and just plain old poor. [1.5/5]

The glamorous ladies of Hearts Under Fire opened up the Red Bull stage on the final day and despite beginning playing to about 40 or 50 people, this quickly grew. Also impressive were their put downs of the lecherous comments emanating from beneath them – something which they’ve unfortunately probably become used to by now. In recent times, HUF have mellowed a bit and seem to be concentrating more on melodies and harmonies than they used to. It’s musically impressive, but it just doesn’t grab me the way that this band could. Vocalist Mary O’Regan has an impressive range and can power out volume from a fairly diminutive figure, but the vast majority of her performance is dedicating to soaring, smooth vowel sounds, layering up and almost basting the instrumentals of the band. The lack of enunciation eventually became a little irritating and it left me reflecting on an impressive musical display, but not an overly entertaining half hour. [3/5]

Straight Lines Two A short walk past the waltzers to the Strongbow stage saw Straight Lines take to the stage in a half empty room; a lowly showing consideration the rising of this band’s stock this year. Whilst probably not quite as impressive as they were a couple of months ago at Slam Dunk, the band knocked out a competent performance, with considerable crowd participation amongst the faithful, especially for single ‘Loose Change’. [3.5/5]

A short distorted intro followed by a chuggachuggachuggachugga (repeat ad infinitum) rolled in from over the hill towards the main stage clearly meant that Slayer had started, so a quick sojourn to see one of the originators of thrash metal was required. The band are really starting to look their respective ages now, with one of my quick-witted friends commenting that “Kerry King’s head looks like it’s about to fall off”, and it wasn’t far from the truth. They haven’t really got the energy anymore, and each song blends into the next, but it’s still another one ticked off the ‘must see’ list. The energy of the pit as shown by the big screen suggested that others got rather more from it, though. 3/5

It’s been eight years since Layne Staley’s death, but my gig buddy for Alice in Chains proclaimed that he wasn’t sure if vocalist William DuVall (aka Lenny Kravitz II) would cut the mustard. He very quickly became convinced that he could. DuVall has a truly astonishing voice which he commands and manipualtes with a masterfully magnetic presence. ‘Rooster’, which narrates from the Vietnam War, provided a great counteraction to the more traditional AIC sounds of recent single ‘Your Decision’ which was raucously received. As my gig buddy semi-reluctantly put it, they’re simply a better band nowadays, even if they’re not 100% Alice in Chains. [4/5]

By trade I’m a teacher, and all I could think about as Pendulum began to play was just how much the kids in some of my classes had been wetting themselves with excitement before Pendulum’s recent gig in Doncaster. Judging by the utterly incredible reaction to the band from tens of thousands of people today, that popularity not only spans the generations but also the genres. The reaction to their own singles was more than enthusiastic, but also potentially eclipsed by their covering of The Prodigy, to whom they clearly owe so much. Looking around, you see young children, traditional metalheads, mums and the just plain weird all bopping along to the bleeps, blops and bloops of Pendulum’s distinctive sound of enormity. I’m not sure I’d sit and listen to the band whilst chilling out around the house, but bloody hell they know how to get people moving. MC Ben Mount spends more time conducting the crowd and bouncing around like a Saturday morning kids TV host than he does doing any vocal duties, but it just ruddy works. It’s infectious. And if you don’t believe in the power of this band, just ask this bloke (read: legend). Barnstorming. [4.5/5]

Closing my time on Sonisphere 2010 was a band closing time on their own era, as vocalist Matthew Davies-Kreye put it. This was guitarist Darran Smith’s last show with Funeral For A Friend after eight years and they were determined to make an occasion of it, despite them clearly wishing for a slightly longer stage time to fully send him off. A greatest hits set from all four albums followed, punctuated by the appearance of a rather excited-looking Charlie Simpson to do back-up vocals, and the poorly-received arrival of Ollie Sykes to relive the time he filled in for Gareth seven years after he was taken to hospital during a gig in Leeds. All in all, a fitting if brief send off for an enduring figure of the UK scene, and an occasion that, for once, meant more to the band playing than to the fans watching. [4/5]Funeral for a Friend Three

So, let’s address some of those burning questions. Is Sonisphere punk? Hell no. Is Sonisphere just for metalheads? Definitely not. What it most certainly can be classified as is a dose of fresh air in the summer festival calendar. It does things its own way and at its own pace and, honestly, it suits the occasion down to the ground. I’ve no doubt that things will improve and expand year on year as they do with all festivals, but for now Sonisphere is just the right size and has just the right atmosphere. After reaching capacity very late in the day this time around, maintaining the latter will be just as important as attracting the biggest names in rock in the years to come if they are to continue their success.

spud @ punktastic