Monday, March 31, 2014

Is the UK Rock Music scene on the wane?

There’s little doubt that the genre of classic rock music has enjoyed something of a revival over the last ten or fifteen years, but there seems to be more and more evidence that the glory days are over and that a decline may have set in.

The 1990s were a fallow time for fans of old school, classic heavy rock music. With the late 80s as distant a memory as the permed hair and spandex of that time, the chart success of Whitesnake, Kiss and Def Leppard, to name but three, had been replaced by the introspective, navel gazing of a host of Kurt Cobain wannabees, clad in checked lumberjack shirts and staring downwards.

But in the late 90s something started to stir. Disgruntled by the down trodden lyrics of grunge and with Britpop having run its course, the appetite for stylish riffs, flashing solos and the feel good factor of 70s and 80s sounds was whetted once more, and so the rock loving public welcomed the emergence of Classic Rock magazine (1998) and Planet Rock radio (1999).

Together with an Iron Maiden line up reunited with Bruce Dickinson (2000), Judas Priest back with Rob Halford (2003) and the on off reunion of Ozzy with Black Sabbath (pick a year), the first decade of the twenty first century represented a much happier time for the likes of Y&T, UFO and Saxon who were energised both live and on record by the apparent return to real rock.

So what’s the problem?

Well, has the revival runs its course and, moreover, is it just a temporary blip or is rock music destined to return to its niche market, never to return to the mainstream?

During March 2014, I went to three gigs in three different rock music venues in South Wales, all of which were far from full to capacity. The Steelhouse club in Ebbw Vale hosted Bonafide (above) to an audience of little more than 75, The Answer (four albums in, and having supported AC/DC on a huge tour just a few years back) played to 200 at most in Swansea’s Sin City, whilst a three band bill headlined by Triaxis at Newport’s Meze Lounge probably had no more than 20 paying punters, after netting out those connected to the acts themselves (a far cry from the halcyon days of the famous TJs, once the centre of what was laughably labelled the new Seattle, but now another boarded up building).

And this is in a part of the country where there has long been a passion for music at the heavier end, possibly second only to its Midlands heartlands.

It’s not helped quite frankly by announced tour schedules which have no Welsh dates amongst them. Time after time a UK tour is announced which comprises English venues plus maybe Glasgow. Too many touring bands see Bristol, part the O2 Academy circuit, as sufficient to tick the Wales and the West (including Devon and Cornwall) box. Long gone are times when certainties amongst the dates were St David’s Hall or Newport Centre (today's long haired undergraduates in black t shirts stare at me open mouthed when I tell them I saw Metallica there in 1988).

Perhaps of greater concern than the numbers attending the gigs is the age profile of the crowd, the demographics as the marketing people would say. Acts made up of fresh faced twenty somethings look out and view thinning or greying hair, a parade of forty and fifty year olds still loyal to the music of their youth. It used to be the case that young fans worshipped their older heroes, not the current scenario.

So where are the kids?

In my forty fifth year, I shouldn’t be getting anywhere near the front of the stage. That should be jammed full of testosterone filled young ‘uns, headbanging and spreading their dandruff in amidst the body odour. Not an appealing thought I know, but that, together with the smoke and the booze, were the defining smells of a night at a show.

It might just be that times have moved on. Whereas rock was once the default sound for teenagers, perhaps the influence of music television and the internet had made the American drum and bass feel of R’n’B (that’s rhythm and bass by the way, not the rhythm and blues which so influenced The Stones and The Who) more accessible.

Furthermore, the instant fame of TV shows like X Factor and The Voice means that copycat stardom is a faster route to success than slogging your guts out in the garage / community hall / studio (delete as appropriate) or up and down motorways on the club scene. It’s not difficult to see why someone would do this. You only have to see the appeal that pub rock tribute acts have, plying their trade playing the ‘comfort’ sounds of The Stereophonics, Kings Of Leon or The Killers and hence bringing a feelgood factor to the Saturday night crowd who rarely pay to go into venues.

It’s so difficult for young bands. Every year there seems to be one or two talking horses who are the next bright things tipped for stardom, often backed by the aforementioned Classic or Planet Rock. Take Heaven’s Basement for example. Initially called Hurricane Party, as Roadstar (Classic Rock Best New Band) they secured prestigious festival spots including opening up the 2006 Monsters Of Rock (pictured above) with Deep Purple and Journey topping the bill. A festival opening spot was the golden ticket once e.g. Motley Crue at Donington 1984. Roadstar split in 2007 to emerge as Heaven’s Basement but are still scratching a living well down the festival line ups with occasional low key tours of ‘downstairs’ clubs – you know what I mean.

Changes in the way in which music is consumed have hindered also. It pains me to agree with money making machine and uber capitalist Gene Simmons, but the day bands started giving away their music for (next to) nothing (Spotify, You Tube etc) was the initial injection of a deadly potion which ends with an all powerful consumer so spoilt for choice and access that actually paying for sounds is anathematic. I do feel for young bands. Does anyone under 40 buy CDs?

What’s the future?

Hard rock and heavy metal remains popular, Download festival is massive and in 2014 Sonisphere at Knebworth makes a welcome return, saved by the big hitters, Iron Maiden and Metallica.

Also, festival weekends indoors, spread throughout the calendar, have been the biggest growth area in recent years. The Hard Rock Hell brand has expanded from its initial 2 day bash at Butlins Minehead in 2007 into a sub culture of its own with regular holiday camp bills of Blues, Metal, AOR and Prog, as well as the original product this year reaching its eighth version, now based in Pwllelli in North Wales. You can add in Legends Of Rock shindigs as well.

Great fun though they are, is it the case that such events are part of the solution or part of the problem? An odd statement you may think, but there’s only so much money, and time, to come out of any one fan’s pocket. The weekends are great value at around £100 for 40 odd groups, headlined by the favourites of our youth, all in a party atmosphere shared with likeminded individuals.

Of course, if you’re seeing a band there, you may decide to skip the tour and that the £25 ticket plus 60 mile round trip on a school night to see the same act play the same tracks is a little unnecessary. And, if so, then you can’t blame the bands for not going out on their own tours with all of the associated fixed costs.

The rock royalty will go on selling tickets naturally, at least as long as they still can. The surviving members of the Holy Trinity of Beatles, Stones and Who are still performing into their 70s, with the heavier classic rock of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath (above) and Rush all continuing to delight. But they won’t go on forever, and their live shows are now largely exercises in nostalgia with minimal input of new material.

So who is taking this type of music forward?

Well to paraphrase Winston Smith, George Orwell’s fictional hero of the seminal 1984; “if there is hope, it lies in the proles”. That may sound as pretentious as a 1975 Yes lyric, but the truth is that it is at the grassroots, on the internet and in the democratic environment of social media that the future lies for rock music in 2014 and beyond.

There are many great new acts out there. Only last Friday did Planet Rock radio host a superb evening at Gloucester’s Guildhall presenting a bill of three of the best current UK bands, all of whom have the influence of yesterday but with the energy and freshness to inspire hope. The three acts are Buffalo Summer (Swansea based), Black Wolf (pictured above) and Tax The Heat (both Bristol). 

Festivals such as the Steelhouse - a case of having your cake and eating it?

All three are securing more and more festival bookings and will be appearing at this summer’s Steelhouse Festival (run by the same great guys who run the Ebbw Vale’s Steelhouse club), a well organised and old school style event attended by around 5,000 battle- and weather-hardened fans, which is well worth supporting.

I honestly don’t know where the future takes us. It could be a temporary drop off in the desire for hard rock or it’s part of a general fragmentation of the whole industry brought about by technological advances and changes to its very infrastructure.

What is for certain is that there is still much talent out there and lots of entertainment to be had. I guess all we can do is to continue to bang the drum (groan), spread the word and, yes, support the venues we have before even more close. I have faith that real music will survive and that the temporary fads for quick fix stardom will dissipate, it’s just that we have to make it happen.

The message is pretty clear - support live (and real) music.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Club Rugby - Use It or Lose It

Club rugby is the backbone of the game in Wales. It nurtures the next generation of players, its clubs are the bedrock of many communities and it is the clubs which are the Welsh Rugby Union.

And yet it is club rugby which is dying, not that the cowboy hatted, fancy dressed hoards at the Millennium Stadium, who wave to the TV cameras, would know. They, no doubt, would dismiss the club rugby types who stand out in the wind and rain, both up and down valley, as saddos – rugby’s equivalent of train spotters. Our season goes from September to April at least, theirs from Feb 1st to March 15th.

Take the typical weekend of TV rugby coverage. 99% will be about the superstar level, the internationals and the so called regions, with barely a passing mention for the great established names of Welsh rugby, the Neaths, the Pontypools, and yes the Maestegs (below) and the Abertillerys, the latter for whose results you really have to search hard. This makes it even more disgraceful then that the WRU have put a block on the excellent Inside Welsh Rugby TV (@IWRTV) from filming club matches and showing them on you tube.

Maesteg RFC, in brighter times

Now don’t start me on the regions, a misnamed entity if ever there was one. Three of the four are little more than renamed and souped up versions of the old Llanelli, Cardiff and Newport clubs. As one Cardiff supporter put it recently, the Blues are Cardiff 1sts, Cardiff RFC the Rags (or the Athletic as we used to call them).

Quite frankly I’m beyond caring about them. I don’t care how many times Ospreys beat Dragons in the LV Anglo-English Pro 12 Celtic money spinner or whatever tournament has been organised for Friday nights during the Six Nations (at a time when clubs are not given scheduled fixtures). It has no soul. You need a history and a tradition for that.

History, tradition and loyalty are what the clubs have, and that is what we supporters cling to. But sadly we are a falling and ageing number. The club game has its moments. A Saturday Pontypool v Ebbw Vale game this season had around 1,000 in attendance, a number remarkable only perhaps because at one time that would have been a poor crowd. A midweek Gwent Derby in the 1970s or 1980s could have easily pulled in 6,000 plus.

By contrast, in the so called Premiership, where a WRU approved A licence is de rigueur, a match between Bedwas and Llandovery may attract less than 100 paying punters. There are better numbers about than that of course. Pontypridd continue to attract a fervent following, as do Neath, but relegation threatened Swansea play in front of just dozens at a rundown St Helens, whilst the face painters ply their trade at the swanky Liberty Stadium.

Not only are numbers down, but the faces lack youth. The sexy day out at an all seated stadium is unsurprisingly preferred by a 21st century generation cosseted with push of a button entertainment on the I Pad. Furthermore, having two Premiership football teams in South Wales makes an away trip to Aberavon even less attractive.

Eugene Cross Park, Ebbw Vale

As for me, December of this year marks 40 years since I first saw Ebbw Vale (above) play and I’ve been back every season since, despite them nearly always letting down their loyal supporters in the big games. But I wouldn’t watch any other side, despite the wintery chill winds that often blow up from the Cwm. Unfortunately though, me and the few hundred other diehards appear to be a dwindling band, as age takes its toll on older members.

So what can we do?

Well, keeping the faith is one thing. Not easy when you hear of clubs folding. I heard recently that Deri RFC and Newbridge United RFC had gone under; Tredegar Ironsides have regrouped in the bottom WRU division (as did Oakdale) whilst their town counterparts at the RFC have struggled to field a XV of anybody quite regularly in Division 2 East, and this is a club who once recorded quite frequent wins over better resourced sides like Bridgend and Ebbw Vale. Money is a big issue of course. The side which plays in my local park, Abergavenny, are losing players to nearby Crickhowell despite being three divisions higher in the league structure.

But does it matter? There are those who say all that counts is the top level. I don’t agree. To build a house you need solid foundations, and that’s what the clubs provide.

It’s probably too much to ask to turn the clocks back to the halcyon days of Welsh club rugby (my personal preference would be to abolish the regions and go back to a 12-14 team top division with promotion and relegation – it works in England). But the club game in Wales cannot go on like it is and the WRU seem to care far too little.

But that’s where we all come in.

Doing just a bit for your local club can go a long way, and, you know what, watching a game at the touchline in a crowd of 500 can be quite exhilarating if only for the crunching bones and colourful language, and all for the price of two pints in Wetherspoons. Nearly all players actually like a crowd being there, and, you never know, you may be seeing the next Welsh Internationals on display. They all started somewhere, Leigh Halfpenny, Adam Jones and Dan Lydiate all firstly played in the leagues. I know. I saw them.

So get the message out there. Your local club is part of what shapes your town. Without support it will die, without clubs there is no local outlet for the talent in existence and without that there isn’t a ‘top level’ product for the TV channels to want to cover. The clubs are the platform upon which the whole game is built.

It’s simple. Club rugby – use it or lose it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Glamorgan 2014 Season Preview

2013 in a nutshell:

Final placings:

Championship Division Two – 8th;

Late season home victories, over Leicestershire at St Helens and Gloucestershire in September’s fourth week, merely glossed over a disappointing campaign characterised by insufficient top order runs, a failure to drive home advantageous positions and haunted by a calamitous run chase on the third afternoon at Colwyn Bay versus Lancashire.

YB40 – Losing finalists;

The season’s highlight no doubt was the first Lord’s appearance since 2000 as Glamorgan’s retro blue and yellow strip brought back memories of the glory year of 1993. Sadly, Nottinghamshire’s big guns prevailed in the end aided by guest appearances by Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann.

Friends Life Twenty20 Cup – 3rd Midlands Wales West group

Despite winning the opening four games, the campaign fizzled out by winning only one further match, and ended with a dreadful home display in the final must win fixture where overseas batting flop Marcus North couldn’t get the ball off the square, and international bowlers Simon Jones and Nathan McCullum got carted to several Cardiff postcodes.

A big crowd for T20 in Cardiff

2014 prospects:


Out go Jones (at last), Nick James, Alex Jones and North together with coach Matthew Mott, who’s paid the price for three years of underachievement.

In comes Toby Radford to head up the coaching plus the welcome return of Hugh Morris as Chief Executive. On the playing side experienced South African international batsman Jacques Rudolph enters as the overseas player but it seems unlikely at this stage that a T20 specialist will be recruited due to the elongated fixture schedule in that tournament.


Veteran Murray Goodwin (above) and all-rounder Jim Allenby were excellent in 2013 with over 1,200 first class runs each. If Rudolph can bring stability to the top order then there are grounds for optimism.

However, too many players are under achieving. Battle hardened county batsmen should have career averages well in excess of their ages, but this is barely the case with Ben Wright (aged 26, average 28), Will Bragg (27 years, 28 average), Mark Wallace (32 years, 29 average) all against Division Two bowling. Gareth Rees came back well on recall in the second half of the season with two centuries and three fifties whilst Chris Cooke nailed down a number four spot.

There’s probably a lack of explosiveness for a successful T20 side but there’s enough experience to build a platform in the 50 over game.


New South Walian Michael Hogan (above) was the star man here with more than 100 wickets in all formats but England performance squad member Mike Reed is out injured for two months.

It’ll be good to see Huw Waters and Will Owen back following a variety of problems. Graeme Wagg remains feisty and competitive but takes too few wickets and at an average of over 50 in 2013.

Ruaidhri Smith and John Glover show promise in a well staffed seam department, but the go to man is often Allenby with his underrated (by England’s one day selectors) first change line and length.

In the spin department, Dean Cosker is a reliable performer in one day cricket but has a poor strike rate in the Championship. Off spinner Andrew Salter is the club’s hope to fill Robert Croft’s boots.

Probable side:



Key Man – Jim Allenby

Allenby signing an extended contract at Glamorgan was met with much relief at the club as Warwickshire were amongst his many suitors.

Thankfully restored as T20 captain after being shamefully sidelined by Mott, Allenby leads by example with bat, ball and in the field.

Often the man to rescue Glamorgan from a 48/4 type position he is much valued on the county circuit, and it is borderline unbelievable that England continue to ignore this domestically qualified Australian for international T20 cricket, as he is clearly superior to many of those who continue to get selected.

A Glamorgan captain in waiting, he has first class averages of 44 (batting) and 25 (bowling), a sure sign of a fine all rounder coming in at 6. He is equally at home in white ball cricket opening the batting with much intent.

He is, in my opinion, Glamorgan’s best ever signing from another county.

Rising Star – Andrew Salter

One of the highlights of last season’s visit to Lord’s was the mature display of Haverfordwest off spinner Salter. Robert Croft’s slot is big one to fill, but in one day cricket and on favourable pitches during 2013’s hot spell, he showed plenty of promise with control, flight and guile supplemented with a reasonable rip of the cherry. Post University term, the club should give every opportunity to this part of Glamorgan’s future.

Coach and Captain

Welshman Radford comes with a big reputation as a coach and quickly became the talking horse last autumn after it was clear that Morris was returning at the administrative helm.

He’ll have his work cut out with some underperforming staff members. My guess is that he’ll need this season to get his desired squad, having inherited the majority of the current players.

Mark Wallace (above, passing 100 versus Gloucestershire in May 2013) continues as club captain and is popular on the county circuit, but it still remains a lot of work on top of keeping. He should score more runs with his ability and experience, and his place may not be as secure as it first seems.

Predictions and aspiration

Championship - 6th Div 2
With Surrey nailed on to go straight back up, everyone else is playing for one promotion spot. I just cannot see Glamorgan scoring enough runs to set up the bowlers. We’ll take wickets with seam but the spin department may not be potent enough in a dry summer.

Twenty 20 - 4th in group
It’s back to an expanded South Group pool for the Friday night bashes, so there’s plenty to play for as the top four qualify for a quarter final spot which is feasible, but a top two place for a home tie seems less likely.

Royal London 50 Over Cup - semi finals
Possibly Glamorgan’s best chance of a challenge as longer form one day cricket, with less explosive batting styles, seems to suit the resources available. Nottinghamshire (home) and Somerset at Taunton will be tough, but 2nd place in the group gets you a home quarter final, which should be the minimum goal for a club with a host of experienced one day performers.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Triaxis + Counterhold + Hunters Grace, Meze Lounge, Newport, 22/03/14

A new venue for me as a modest but enthusiastic crowd at the Meze Lounge in Newport hosted a triple bill of metal headlined by regular featurees on this blog, Triaxis.

First up were Peter Criss lookalikes Hunters Grace fronted by the enthusiastic vocalist Jasmine Griffiths. Their image suggests that the spirit of Alice Cooper is alive and well, but on quieter reflection on Sunday, their complimentary EP displayed a sound more in line with Within Temptation.


Despite being the headline act, Triaxis came on a little after 9pm due to a hand injury to drummer Giles Wilson which resulted in a shorter than usual set.

Nonetheless, the 5 piece delivered their distinctive brand of no nonsense metal edged with dark lyrics.

The band are working on their third album, a follow up to the critically acclaimed Rage and Retribution.

CJ, Krissie and Owen

Set list

Under Blood Red Skies
Sand And Silver
New track
Sker Point

Triaxis now embark on some European dates before continuing work on the new recordings.

The evening concluded with a set from Cwmbran based metal-heads Counterhold, who have had some prestigious support slots in recent years.

Support live music!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ebbw Vale 13 Llandovery 16, SWALEC Cup Quarter Final, 22/03/14

As it always seems to be with Ebbw Vale in the Cup, it was another case of so near yet so far, as the Drovers of Llandovery became the first side to beat the Steelmen since a Cup defeat at the same stage of the competition last season.

The Vale forwards were great and their superiority gave the platform and territory to enable a half time 6-0 to be established, but crucially the backs failed to take advantage of several line breaks by converting them into tries and this was to prove telling as the match went on.

Full credit to Llandovery in many ways. They lived off scraps of ball, but were resolute in defence and what would have been certain tries in the Championship became repelled advances at premiership level.

First half pics

Second half

After the interval the visitors upped their game and started switching and moving faster. Despite this, barring a penalty and a drop goal, the Ebbw defence held firm until a moment when Carl Meyer got stripped of possession in the Drovers 22 and then they ran the field to score their only try, thereby taking a 13-6 lead. This was when they were down to 14 men also.

Ebbw's chance had gone, and despite a late try by Lewis Young, were out of the Cup at Quarter Final stage by a single score once again.

One eyed Ebbw Vale fan I may be, but even in the cold light of day some 24 hours later, I cannot help but have the impression that on the day just about all of the marginal calls went against us.

Diplomatically, I could say that Llandovery were street wise, talked to and played the referee to their advantage, and yes were strong in defence especially behind.

More bluntly, referee Whitehouse let them get away with murder in the scrum, by not regularly penalizing standing up and collapsing, and only using one yellow card on them. There were also 2 instances of flagged foul play against Llandovery which amazingly yield no sin bins, plus numerous instances of 'in from the side' and playing in front of the back foot. I thought he had a dreadful game and under another official Ebbw may well have won. 

As with the cup match against Cardiff last year, you almost get the feeling that a Premiership club cannot possible lose to a side from the division below under the opponents are behaving illegally.

It's water under the bridge now of course. What Ebbw will have learned is that from 9 to 15 we are lacking in Premier Division quality, and it is in this area that much recruitment work needs to be done for next season.

There are fantastic photographs of yesterdays game over at Flick, courtesy of NCR Photography.

Yesterday's match ball sponsor was Abergavenny based Financial Management Consultants and Accountants Eye For Finance ;) 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Answer + Black Wolf + Fireroad, Sin City, Swansea 16/03/14

An excellent night of heavy rocking music at Swansea's Sin City headlined by Ireland's The Answer was enhanced by their fellow countrymen closing out rugby's 6 Nations title just an hour or two before the gig kicked off.

In fact, I missed opening act Fireroad due to this, but got there in time to see Bristol based Black Wolf who impressed me much with their self defined "soulful hard edged sound...channeling a contemporary voice with a vintage focus". They are loud and powerful and are well worth checking out at the Steelhouse Festival this summer.

Black Wolf

Come 9.20 pm and it was time for the main men. It's difficult for me to take in that I first saw The Answer supporting Whitesnake back in 2006, and I've been back many times since.  Now complete with a brilliant new album 'New Horizon' the band are trying to re-establish a reputation forged on the festival circuit and during their huge support slot for AC/DC a few years back.

They are a superb live outfit and the 200 or so punters in Swansea totally enjoyed their 90 minutes of hard and heavy riffage. They energise their audience and leave nothing in the dressing room, and through this have established a loyal fan base. To be honest they deserve to be playing bigger venues, but maybe that's where rock music is right now.

The set list was based quite a bit on the new record with a few of the favourites from the earlier albums thrown in - something like:

New Horizon
Road Less Travelled
Under The Sky
Cradle Rock
Nowhere Freeway
Memphis Water
Come Follow Me
Comfort Zone

The Answer in Sin City

Paul Mahon on guitar

Micky Waters bass

Cormac Neeson on lead vocals

James Heatley on drums

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bonafide + Bad Touch, Steelhouse, Ebbw Vale, 14/03/14

Good to see club nights back up and running at the Steelhouse, based at Ebbw Vale Rugby Club. Following their successful appearance back in November 2012, Swedish hard rockers were asked back as part of their 15 date UK tour and didn't disappoint.

First up were Bad Touch with a sound based upon the current rock fashion of Led Zep baselines and heavy blues riffs.

Just after 10pm, on came the main act, fronted the talented guitarist vocalist Pontus Snibb, and delivered another set of heavy riffing numbers with a style rooted in AC/DC, Quo and Krokus.

The set list included crowd favourites Nice Boys Don't Play Rock'n'Roll and Fill Your Head With Rock.

The band travel the UK this month and play at the HRH AOR festival at Pwllelli next weekend followed by a return to Hard Rock Hell 8 at the same venue in November, which I am much looking forward to attending.

Pontus Snibb

Martin Ekelund on bass

Pontus has a look at the Welsh jerseys in the clubhouse

Encore with members of Bad Touch

Until next time