Having intentionally avoided returning to Download since my rain-soaked camping experience of 2016, I decided to adopt a different approach this year. Not for me – the swimming through rivers of mud on the campsite or circumnavigating hundreds of similar looking tents to my own in darkness at the end of each night. I decided to opt for the relatively more civil environment of staying at a local bed and breakfast with the luxury of a warm bed, shower, and roof over my head. Thus, when we checked into our accommodation the day before the festival started, we had the time to sort out our accreditation in advance of gates opening on Friday. Good planning, and despite the widely circulating media reports of floods of biblical proportions driving many festival goers running for the hills, we approached the weekend with a keen sense of excitement.
Download or Donnington Park had been my first summer festival experience in 1986 and despite the venue no longer having the legendary Dunlop tyre (Chris Evans DJ strangely procured that), I still feel a sense of history each time that I return to the venue. The night before I had perused the weekend lineup and made my selection of the bands that I would see over the festival’s duration. Checked in, a few “getting to know you drinks” with my US editor who had arrived over from the States, and it was time to grab a decent and comfortable night’s sleep before the festival started.
One hot cooked breakfast and we were suitably fortified ahead of the short drive to the festival. Anticipating heavy traffic, we departed earlier than originally intended. Despite this, we found ourselves 40 mins later wandering around the venue seeking the press area before the gates had even opened to the general public. Thus, we were able to witness the Last in Line band going through their soundcheck before opening the festivals main stage.
Last In Line on their formation had a unique concept. They were essentially the Dio band that recorded the first three albums, i.e., Dio without the legendary vocalist. On their first few tours, they focused a set around that classic back catalogue fronted by Andrew Freeman who did a very good job in delivering the Dio standards. Fast forward a few years to Download 2019 and the band now have several albums of their own released. Bassist Jimmy Bain has died, his place taken by Juan Crouzier, keyboardist Claude has also departed the ranks. Where the first tours were playing Dio songs they now have a strong setlist of the band’s own identity-only dipping into “cover songs” at the start and end of their set. Finishing up with “Rainbow in the Dark” the band showed that their new songs have found a new and strong identity which has allowed the band to stand solidly on their own merits. I think that on their next visit they will have completely dropped all of the Dio songs completely.
Day one I felt that the main stage lineup attractions would maintain my interest throughout the day. Maintaining my good vantage point close to the main stage barrier, I set myself up for enjoying the next band Tesla. I have loved the band since I first caught the band back in the eighties with Def Leppard while they were promoting their fantastic debut release, “Mechanical Resonance”. One thing that’s true about this band over the years is that they always and consistently deliver high quality, both live and on record. Despite having recently released a new album, the band instead decided to focus on delivering a set of their most memorable songs. Thus while “Modern Day Cowboy”, “Cumin Atcha Live”, and “Little Suzie” all were served up to a familiar audience, only the new “Sticky Sweet” featured from latest CD Shock. I love Tesla and can never find fault with anything they do (well except that new track ;), delivering entertainment and high-quality engaging rock music is their signature.
Country rock in recent years appears to be a musical genre that is rapidly increasing in popularity especially with rock fans. While some of it leaves me cold I have always had a particular affinity to the particular southern fried style served up by Blackberry Smoke. The band have some stand out songs and always deliver a party atmosphere within their feel-good anthems. I was actually quite surprised that they had secured a booking on the main stage at what still was the UK’s premier rock festival. Despite this mild reservation, I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer numbers of rock fans that appeared to be clearly enjoying the band’s Download set-despite its early morning slot. They smoked would be too cliched but what they did do was win over a substantial sized rock audience and even some guys in Motorhead t-shirts were noticed to be getting down and dirty with the Blackberries.
Earth rockers Clutch quickly followed-a much heavier musical proposition – grittier and more in tune, in my opinion, with what the festival represented. Neil Fallon was a charismatic whirlwind devilish frontman doing all he could to wake up the crowd from their post night hangovers. The sound quality was also impressive from my position now in the middle of the main arena field. There was certainly no sign of any slumbering individuals as early morning hangovers were promptly blasted away.
Whitesnake are widely known to be my favourite rock band from way back in 1984 when I first saw them in my homeland play on their ‘Slide It In’ UK tour. Many personnel have subsequently come and gone but they still remain up amongst my favourites. They delivered a largely greatest hits set finely balanced with just a couple of newer tunes from their latest release. Unlike many of their musical peers, Whitesnake show no sign of hitting that farewell tour-not just yet.
Slash/Myles are another act that I have seen often over the years, playing a wide-ranging set that covers all of his solo releases, dipping into his musical background with the ever-present and sometimes overlong guitar solos – Myles, I have a lot of time for and as a frontman with Slash/Alter Bridge or solo I always come away from seeing his live shows feeling that I have had a great night out. Download wasn’t the exception to this. Fantastic, yet again.
Def Leppard are currently touring and performing the entire ‘Hysteria’ album which I witnessed indoors at the Manchester Arena at the end of last year. I, therefore, decided to watch the first part of their set before heading to the second stage to catch Rob Zombie’s set. Only real criticism that I have of the Download Festival is that there are regular overlapping of stage performances on the two main stages. Hellfest, for example, has the two main stages side by side and the bands rotate – thus just a short changeover between acts. Just a thought that perhaps they could consider moving forward in future years. I have seen Def Leppard many times over the years and those iconic tracks are ingrained in my subconscious. You know exactly what you are going to get with the band. Recognisable hits finely executed. Surprisingly, as I headed towards the second stage halfway through their set many of the Download audience follow me in the same direction.
Where Def Leppard have the songs, Rob Zombie has all the bells and whistles of a theatrical performance. Song wise there are some recognisable tunes but to me, it seemed to be more about what was going on around him and the band rather than what was actually played by the musicians on the stage. Thus amidst demons, fire and huge back screen projections Day one of Download 2019 came to a noisy conclusion.
After the excitement of day one, we arose well rested, tackled a hearty breakfast and the short drive, and were ready to go again. Early to the venue, after a quick entry, we were ready to watch the opening band on the main stage.
Alien Weaponry a young New Zealand band with a unique angle on the thrash genre. The band actively promote their native origins by singing some of their material in their own language. Despite their youth and the scheduled early morning slot, I was very impressed that they had attracted a massive audience to watch their set. Musically, I enjoyed the brief set. I guess it’s a measure of how much I enjoyed it, in that it seemed to just quickly fly by. Definitely, a band that I would be keen to hear more of and very impressive on a debut live viewing.
Next up I switched my attention to the second stage where Bad Wolves were about to start their set. Outside of the bands “Zombie” cover of the Cranberries, I am a huge supporter of the band being lucky enough to have seen them live a few months back in the UK when they played in Manchester as support to Three Days Grace. High energy live performance and their set showed a diversity of musical styles before finishing with that previously mentioned cover, which is always delivered very emotively. From angst to tenderness everything was delivered in their early morning Download set.
Back to the main stage for old school thrashers Power Trip who had been highly recommended to me. Not breaking down any new musical barriers nonetheless the band delivered a highly charged and energetic set which saw old school pits and walls of death ensue pretty much throughout the band’s set.
Black/Death metal music is generally a musical genre that I have pretty much let pass me by. My major gripe is the growling “vocal style”. Setting personal prejudice aside I decided to give it a try with the band Behemoth, generally recognised as musical heavyweights in that particular style. While I still had an issue with the vocals I did fully appreciate the ability and technical abilities of the other band members-and hey fire is always good visually at a rock festival.
With the change in weather as the skies opened, it was quite a challenge for the Welsh rockers Skindred to win over an increasingly wet audience. It was to lead singer Benji’s credit and stagecraft that was accomplished relatively easily. A fantastic band with a musical hybrid which is very difficult to pinpoint. They conquered the huge audience with a mix of musical variety ring master showmanship (with a sense of humour) and even a Prodigy cover to conclude a quite brilliant set.
Trivium are a band that I have had a bit of a love-hate relationship in recent years. Dipping into their now quite extensive musical catalogue however with added visuals as befitting their position on the main stage they appeared to generate a hugely positive response from the many thousands who had come out to view their performance.
I decided to pass on the quite different Die Antwoord in favour of recharging the energy levels-the general consensus was however that they had against all the odds managed to conquer and win over a largely partisan Download rock audience with their infectious dance melodies.
Finishing up with Slipknot who seem to be regular headliners of the Download festival. They seem to ramp up the theatrics with every tour that they play. Both sonically and visually entertaining, it was a perfect way to end day two in an uncompromising and brutal fashion.
Unfortunately, for personal reasons, I was unable to attend Day 3 of this year’s festival, but in conclusion, I will state that Download 2019 presented a different insight and indeed a more positive slant on the whole event. Taking care of the basic home comforts in terms of a warm bed/hot shower and a daily cooked breakfast made a significant difference to my own mental state. It certainly helped me tackle the mud and rain, which in reality wasn’t anything like as bad as the media had portrayed -another example of fake news. Roll on next year’s festival – yes, I am actually seriously considering a quick return to the home of British rock festivals next summer – whatever the weather, come hail, rain, or shine.
Review by Mark Dean | All photos by Thomas Woroniak Photography