Clisson – Our top story tonight: Phil Lynott is still dead. Yes, I just referenced a 36 year old Chevy Chase joke. Not exactly the most topical, but then neither are Thin Lizzy.
The Irish rockers recently reunited sans their departed frontman and were playing at Hellfest, a metal festival situated just outside of the small French town of Clisson. Billing themselves as a tribute to Lynott and featuring a mix of original members and new additions, this new version of Thin Lizzy seems pretty clearly to be an exercise in nostalgia, both for the fans and the band themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I saw lots of “nostalgia” acts at Hellfest that put on great shows – Iggy and the Stooges, The Scorpions, Judas Priest – but something about these guys performing without Lynott, who to many people essentially was Thin Lizzy, seemed a little dubious. That said, they did put on a fun show full of classics like “The Boys Are Back In Town,” “Jailbreak,” and “Emerald.” New singer Ricky Warwick has a decent (albeit often too growly) voice, knows how to work the crowd, and has a lot of swagger onstage. But not quite the right kind of swagger – ie. he’s not Phil. Warwick did pay tribute to Lynott during “Cowboy Song,” changing the lyrics for the occasion: “It’s alright, Hellfest, you can let yourself go/’Cause Phil’s still riding with us in this rodeo.” A bit cheesy, yes, but cheesy often works at massive outdoor festivals. Ultimately, these guys sounded good, people were singing along, and I enjoyed myself, but I still couldn’t help but detect a whiff of Blueshammer in their performance.
Another surprising act appearing on the bill was Mr. Big, best known for their massive hit ballad, “To Be With You.” In fact, they’re so well known for it that it’s easy for anyone but the most diehard of their fans to forget that back in the day, these guys displayed a great deal of instrumental virtuosity. That is to say these guys rock pretty hard, something they basically had to do in order to maintain any cred while playing at a festival that also featured bands like Severe Torture and Septic Flesh. In fact, they didn’t even play the aforementioned ballad, sticking instead to numbers like “Addicted To That Rush” that offered up a chance for Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan to show off their chops. Singer Eric Martin even jokingly attempted a half-hearted death metal growl at one point as if to acknowledge the fact that they stuck out a bit on a bill that was generally full of much heavier bands.
Hellfest is nothing if not eclectic though, featuring acts as diverse as hard rock survivors UFO and The Cult (whose Ian Astbury seemed a bit standoffish) along with space rock masters Hawkwind, reunited desert rockers Kyuss Lives! and punk legends Bad Brains, whose website had them listed as playing “Heavenfest,” a nod to their Rastafarian beliefs. On the heavier end of the spectrum, Vader, DRI, Bolt Thrower, Grave and Destruction all offered solid sets while black metal OGs Mayhem delivered an ultimately disappointing set despite the fact that they had a hell of a lot of stage props and even pyro onstage.
New York hardcore crew Shai Hulud impressed with a tight set and their message of channelling negative emotions like fear, hatred and anger into positive actions. Less impressive was L.A’s Terror, who left me cold with their hardcore tough guy posturing and “we aren’t rockstars, we’re just regular guys like you” pandering. It seemed a bit contrived and frankly just annoying. Also, encouraging the crowd to climb onto the beams in front of the stage when there are signs posted near them stating that you can get kicked out of the festival for doing so is a dick move.
The bands that left the strongest impression on me were both acts that value the visual presentation aspect of live performance as much as the music – Ghost and Hawkwind. Hawkwind were amazing musically (not surprising considering they’ve been going since 1969) and made good use of projections screened behind the band to add to the atmosphere. They also periodically featured two dancers who made various costume changes throughout, the most memorable of which resembled Predators on stilts. Speaking of costumes, Sweden’s Ghost made very good use of them, with all of the members appearing in black hooded robes that totally obscured their identities, save for the singer, who dresses like Skeletor if he was a cardinal. These guys are all about the theatricality, their whole shtick being that they are part of some kind of Satanic church awaiting the birth of the Antichrist. They’re also a lot of fun to watch live, even throwing in a somewhat sinister cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Son.”
I leave the final words on Hellfest to Mike Williams, singer for New Orleans sludge metallers Eyehategod: “Y’all are going to Hell. We’re all going to Hell … Actually, there is no Hell. You just rot in the ground. But let’s get drunk first.” That right there could be the slogan for Hellfest. It has a certain ring to it.