This was such a special weekend for me. When I was a kid I was born and bred on country and rock music. I've always had that love for the southern rock tone. The twang of the guitar and drawl of the vocals, it just always sounded so nice to me. For me this is one style of music you can't fake. There has to be sincerity and soul to the music, otherwise you come off as a poser and it just doesn't work. So, when I heard that Hard Rock Hell were putting on a weekend dedicated to outlaw country and southern rock, I immediately knew I was going to be there. I will say, this has to be one of the strongest HRH weekends I've ever been to in terms of performances, there wasn't a weak or boring band all weekend. Every band and artist had their own style and brought their A-game to the show. The crowd was lively and up for a great weekend of music. Unfortunately I couldn't get around to seeing every band, so I apologise if I miss the odd band here and there but I am only one man and I tried to sample a little bit of everything the weekend had to offer.
Opening the weekend up with a bang were the hometown southern rockers, Cellar Door Moon Crow. An interesting two piece rock act that were very bluesy with a southern twist. I enjoyed the two part harmonies and duel vocal responsibilities. Drummer, Tom Goodwin impressed me by tripling his band responsibility. In addition to drum and vocals, he also played the electric organ which added certain atmosphere to their set. They had a really big sound with the guitar roaring away and the drums thumping. I liked the songs with their mix of playing styles and the duelling vocals of the brothers. It was a lively set and really got the weekend going with some energy and charisma. I quickly moved upstairs to second stage to catch the end of Case Hardin's set. A super smooth and soulful country sound and, even though I only caught the end of the set, I still enjoyed what I heard. There was a definite outlaw country feel to them with the twang in the guitars and smooth bass, it was a really pleasant sound. The harshness of the electric guitars offset with the nice tone atmosphere of the acoustic, it all fit together so well. The crowd were really into it as well which added to the laid back vibe. Even though I only heard three songs, I was sold straight away.
Next up on the second stage was a band that I'm all too familiar with, The Outlaw Orchestra. I've talked about them at length with my feature article that I did on them earlier this year. So, I was ready to finally get a chance to see them live. They were instantly a hit with the Sheffield crowd, their unique blend of hard rock and bluegrass was a compelling way to drive the set forward. The bass and drums were in perfect unison, thumping away and kept that infectious beat until the very end. The banjo twanged away and was a really nice counterbalance to the rough and raw guitar. All throughout the set, they had giant smiles on their faces and kept the crowd entertained between songs with personal anecdotes and banter. The set was a great mix of their album and EP tracks, with their latest single "Back To Georgia" getting a big pop from the crowd. In one hour, the band had got the whole crowd behind them, the crowd roared with delight with the prospect of getting one more song from them. They became one of the most talked about band all weekend as everyone I spoke to said "did you see Outlaw Orchestra, weren't they great?" Yes, yes they were and they're coming back to HRH C.R.O.W.S. next year, this time on main stage!
Over on main stage The Fargo Railroad Co were really impressing. Their music was more of the traditional country sound and, I won't lie, it was really good. Their set chugged along at a pretty decent pace and they kept a calm demeanour throughout the set. They came up with some beautiful and fun melodies that just kept me hooked from start to finish. Front-man, Jody Davies had a fantastic voice that fit the tone of the band perfectly and the live production was excellent, with every instrument coming through clear as a bell. The soft touch of the lap-steel guitar was really nice, adding an extra bit of flavour to the tone. They certainly got my attention and I would love to hear more from them. Next up were Buffalo Summer. Now, I've not had a chance to see them live in a long time, so this would be a decent chance to experience them again. Straight away they delivered an energetic set, filled to the brim with riffs. They were definitely one of the more lively band of the weekend, as they head-banged and jumped around the stage. Their songs are just as great as the last time I saw them, songs like "Down To The River" got a decent reaction from the audience, and myself. They were certainly on the heavier scale for the weekend, with the louder guitars and more rock 'n' roll approach. They were still a fun band to watch live, they put on a show no matter where they are.
Moving back upstairs I managed to catch the majority of the set from Dawson Smith and The Dissenters. Mr Smith proclaimed "Finally... Dirty, filthy Americana has a home". Straight from the get-go the grinding and dirty sounding southern rock was a great way to continue the day. Dawson, is a pretty great front-man and you'd expect it, with so many years experience under his belt. He sold the performance really well and I was completely hooked on the tone of the band. Although at the start of the set, there was just a little too much guitar in the live mix at the beginning of the set but it soon balanced out. The band had constant forward momentum throughout the set, with solid riffs and a classic sounding tone, it made for an all around excellent set. Dawson had some awesome banter with the crowd and seemed genuinely humbled by the adoration of the fans. Hitting up singles like "Grandpa George", which I really enjoyed, they managed to keep up the energy from start to finish. The performance was so good it sent me to the merchandise table, right away.
Speaking of energetic sets, let's talk about Federal Charm. My god, it's been so long since I've seen them live and they still kick a whole tonne of arse. From their hard rock tunes to their more soulful ballads, they have the presence and charisma that just says "We're playing now, so you pay attention to us". Their music has such a rich and full sound and they utilise every second of their time on stage. Their guitar sound is big and bold with the bass and drums forming a great platform for the rest of the band. They looked like they were having so much fun on that stage as well, hopping around and smiling at each other as the crowd just got louder and louder for them. Their set breezed by as they were so damn entertaining, songs like "Silhouette" and "Parting Words" were particular crowd-pleasers. It's really nice to see that they have kept up such a good reputation and from what I saw here, that reputation is well earned.
I have to say, what came next truly took my breath away. Wille and The Bandits put on probably the most mesmerising performance of the weekend. Bringing their own blend of southern-style outlaw rock to the table. Electric and acoustic guitars, steel-lap guitars, six string bass'... This show had all the strings and the talent to make it all sound incredible. Good solid riffs backed up with a supreme bass line and compelling drum work, keeping that tight groove on every tune. There were solos-a-plenty across the entire set and not a single second felt like wasted time. They were engaging on, and off, of their instruments as well. Bantering with the audience and joking about how they thought they were supposed to be playing on Sunday. There was certainly a lot of laughs to be had. They had a fantastic mix of genres and styles to make their music something that's theirs and theirs alone. I couldn't keep my eyes off of them for a second, they were so dynamic in their musicianship and interesting in their performance that I didn't want to miss a second of the set. The centrepiece of the set was a massive instrumental tune called "Angel" which I think collectively blew everyone's mind. I had to double take when I saw that Wille was playing the guitar solo on an electro-acoustic, and how incredible it sounded. This is the kind of band I'm looking for in this day and age, not an artist that copies their influences style whole-heatedly but a band that takes their inspiration and makes it their own sound.
After all of the hard rock of the day it was time to slow thing down and bring a little bit of class and style with talented and elegant, Jo Harman. She brought her full band and some soul to the proceedings of the weekend. It was an excellent set, filled soul and R&B ballads with some blues rock for good measure. Jo was well composed and her vocals were beautiful. Songs like "(This is My) Amnesty", which will never fail to bring me to tears, and "When We Were Young" were met with applause and cheers from the audience. Her backing band kept things tight and each member managed to have their moment to shine. The set did have it's looser moments, especially when the more bluesy tunes started coming out. The slick bass lines and smooth guitar were a great pairing with the keyboard adding a lot of atmosphere to every song. Of course Jo was ever the show-woman and held herself in a dignified way, yet at the same time she had her moments of just jamming out with the band. Sadly, I she did feel like she was the wrong fit for this particular festival. I mean this was a weekend for country and southern rock and Jo doesn't really fit that particular style of music and I think she might have been lost of a large part of the crowd. I had conversations with many people who said the same thing, "She was good, she just didn't fit with the theme of the weekend". Yet, she made the best of it and still delivered an excellent set.
So, day one was closing out but we still had one more band to finish off the day, the southern rock stars that are Dan Baird and Homemade Sin. Dan is the pioneer of cow-punk and alt-country music and I knew he was going to bring the house down. I mean I've been listening to Dan Baird records since I was a kid and I was smiling from ear to ear for the entire set. I wasn't the only one either, I have never seen a band smile as much on stage. Clearly they were having a the time of their lives and nothing was going to stop them enjoying themselves. Dan Baird is such a good front man, the man was just rocking out the whole time and made short work of their hour and a half set time. In all honesty, I think they would have played all night, if not for the midnight curfew. The riffs were tight and the solo's were plentiful, guitar man Warner E. Hodges wouldn't keep still for one second and brought the fire on every solo he performed. The crowd were really into it as well, coming to life and giving back every bit of energy that was given to them from the band. Genuinely, you can't fake or rehearse enthusiasm like that it's just something that's just ingrained into them. There's energy and passion in every note and it's clear that their music is still exciting to them.
Day one of Hard Rock Hell C.R.O.W.S. was an absolutely phenomenal day. Filled with engaging and interesting bands. There were some that I was already familiar with but I walked away from day one having discovered some awesome new music to check out. The venue was excellent both up and downstairs, with the live mixes sound great. Everyone I spoke to was lovely as well it, there was such an open and welcoming atmosphere with everyone there to have fun and check out some amazing music.
Full Gallery of Photos now up on Facebook