HERE I GO AGAIN The Spirit Of Festivals
Whatever the weather, you can’t beat the feeling of an outdoor festival, says Whitesnake legend Bernie Marsden
Iwrite this column after returning from a very memorable weekend at the Steelhouse Festival in Ebbw Vale, South Wales. Friday night saw biblical weather conditions that almost resulted in health and safety closing the stage down. Luckily, this didn’t happen, and my acoustic set on Saturday afternoon offered up some fleeting sunshine, although it didn’t stick around for long – the heavens opened again after I finished my set. The deluge on the Welsh mountain continued.
I was planning to drive home after the gig, but the promoter approached me backstage. Unfortunately, Alan Nimmo, a mate of mine, had lost his voice and so his band King King had to cancel. The promoter asked me to stay and play another set on the Sunday afternoon with my pals Hand Of Dimes as we had on Friday. By Sunday afternoon the stage crew (who were magnificent all weekend) had labelled the weekend ‘BernieFest’ and the hashtag #BernieFest soon appeared in my Twitter notifications!
The crowd were astonishing. On all three days I witnessed the British rock audience totally ignore the appalling rain and simply enjoy the music, but most of all, embrace the spirit of the festival with welcoming arms. Mud, more mud, along with rain and then more rain sleeted against their faces continually. The cold afternoon turned into a very cold night, and back to their tents they all went. Said tents were most definitely all erected in hammering rain after a two-hour wait on the hill to the festival site. My hat goes off to each and every one of them.
Being in a band, whether opening the bill or headlining it, means nothing without the crowd. The people are the festival, yet I was treated like a King on that mountain. Outdoor festivals are enjoyable for me for different reasons. Sharing a cabin with the other artists is unusual but fun. We might be opposite each other across a muddy pathway, but we are all basically together and the backstage vibe is always very good. Watching Biff Byford from Saxon wandering around with a pair of mud-crusted wellies on is a sight you simply don’t see backstage at the O2 Arena!
Festivals give me the chance to see a few bands I would probably usually miss out on. Monster Truck from Canada were very good, as were Toby Jepson’s new band Wayward Sons. My point is that, despite the weather, festivals work. The combination of the artists and the audience make the work of the organisers totally worthwhile.
“A White Snake Of Limos”
I was reminded of the Donington Park Monsters Of Rock festival I played with Whitesnake in 1981. AC/DC, Whitesnake, Blackfoot, Slade and Blue Oyster Cult on the bill. I do have some strange memories from the gig, though. Although AC/DC were the headliners, we always felt that at least half of the crowd that day, estimated at 80,000 punters, were purely there to see Whitesnake. I had one of the most memorable gigs of my career that night. Rumours abounded that the actual number in attendance exceeded six figures that day. I remember the playing and I remember the anticipation as the Back In Black bell started the AC/DC set. The excitement was electric. One great memory I have, which still makes me laugh to this day, is Whitesnake’s entrance into the festival grounds. Each of the us entered the site in our own white limousine, and so the spectacle was a literal white snake of limousines slowly entering Donington Park for everyone to see. Over the top much? Of course, but great fun.
What I still remember most to this day, though, is Blue Oyster Cult’s antics backstage. The promoters of the gig had presented each individual member of each band on the bill an engraved metal poster of the gig; it was a nice gesture. I reckon Blue Oyster Cult had expected to be higher up the bill, or had a bad gig. I don’t actually know or care, but I remember them making a complete spectacle of themselves by smashing their mementos to pieces outside of their caravan. The thing is, only the rest of us musicians and crew saw them do it. We simply shrugged shoulders and walked away mouthing comments. I remember Medlocke apologising on behalf of the USA! Always loved Rick from that day, folks.
As far as internal festivals go, I was privileged to be at the Stamford Arts Centre in 1999. I was there to film and record the late Larry Johnson, a fine blues singer from Alabama and then New York. I had arranged to meet Larry there with my good friend Michael Roach to make a live recording; we both took our video cameras. What I didn’t know was I was going to be at the equivalent acoustic session of Clapton, Beck, Hendrix and Page! Also booked on the middle day of the festival were Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham – a real gem of a line-up if ever such a thing existed.
I saw Martin Carthy’s soundcheck and I asked him if I could record and film a little of it as a test for later. Martin was great and said yes. He then informed me that the other guys were going to be arriving during the afternoon. I later saw and chatted to John Renbourn and he introduced me to Bert Jansch. It was only then that I learned the legendary (and I do mean legendary) Davey Graham was going to be there as well. I witnessed the first meeting of Jansch and Graham for a long time and even now I can feel quite emotional about it. Out of those people, only the great Martin Carthy is still with us. I made a good film and recording with Larry Johnson, but I still shudder to think what I could have recorded that day in Stamford. But I have the memory and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
I’m playing some town festivals later this year. I’ll be in Whitby, Clitheroe, Workington, Troon, Darlington, Carlisle and Newbury. The location doesn’t matter. If the audiences are half as committed as the people I played to last weekend the shows will be great.
When I show up for festivals from now on in Portugal, Spain, the south of France, places where you know you can wear your shorts and a t-shirt, I’ll think of the mud and rain and the sheer spirit of those folks on the mountain at the Steelhouse Fest at the end of July 2017. See you next month.
“I witnessed the British rock audience totally ignore the appalling rain and embrace the spirit of the festival with welcoming arms” bernIe mArsden
Bernie at Donington’s Monsters Of Rock in August 1981 where Whitesnake played to a crowd of 80,000 festival goers
Bernie used a Watkins Dominator amp in his formative years Bernie was at “the equivalent acoustic session of Clapton, Beck, Hendrix and Page” in the company of Martin Carthy at Stamford Arts Centre in 1999