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Steelhouse: the underdog tale of a monthly rock club that built a festival

In July around 5000 people will make the trip up a mountain in south Wales for the sixth Steelhouse Festival, a grassroots classic rock event that's grown and thrived against all the odds

On Saturday July 23rd, Thunder will headline the sixth Steelhouse Festival, deep in the heart of Ebbw valley, south Wales. “I have an emotional stake in this festival,” says singer Danny Bowes. “I had a lot of discussions with the organisers in the early stages about what it takes to get something like this together. There’s a love of classic rock in that area, and to put something on to satisfy that demand is a big ask, but they’re pulling it off.”

The Darkness will headline on the Sunday, and also on the bill are Terrorvision, The Von Hertzen Brothers, Blues Pills and Tax The Heat. The Answer will be putting in their third appearance at the event, playing their Rise album in its entirety. “We’ve played many festivals of all shapes and sizes,” says the band’s singer Cormac Neeson, “but there’s something special about this one. It’s grassroots, and it keeps building and growing organically every year.”

From the festival site, a remote farm that quite literally sits atop a mountain, you’re overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery in Wales. Not far is Marine Colliery, the deep mine that employed thousands in the area and finally closed in 1989. The nearby Ebbw Vale steelworks, which inspired the festival’s name, cast its last steel in 1978 and was finally wound down in 2002. It’s a common tale in these parts – heavy industry has been replaced by light, but the region still bears the scars of the UK’s slow industrial decline.

All of which makes the Steelhouse Festival one of the more unlikely and inspiring underdog stories of recent times. Saxon, Magnum, Europe, Black Star Riders and UFO have all graced the mountain top over the years. The valleys have always been heartland country for rock, yet of the 5000-capacity crowd, just 40 per cent come from the local area. This self-styled ‘Welsh International Classic Rock Festival’ attracts people from across the UK and further afield – Finland, Japan, last year one huge Dee Snider fan flew in from Australia to watch him headline.

“We’ve always come at it as rock fans ourselves,” says principal organiser Max Rhead. “We asked ourselves early on, what do we like in a festival? We’re simple men, so we like a simple setup – a single-stage, single-genre event with a cohesive bill that’s good value for money. And you don’t need a law degree to work out how to buy a ticket on our website.”

Rhead and co-organiser Mikey Evans grew up just a mile from the site, in the town of Ebbw Vale. Rhead has a background in events management while Evans was Tigertailz’s tour manager for five years. But when it came to organising the first festival back in 2011, they both knew zip.

It sprang from their monthly club night at Ebbw Vale Rugby Club, which started in 2010, with the aim of offering the significant local rock audience an authentic rock club experience without driving the 30 miles to Cardiff. Rhead procured a proper stage, PA and lighting rig and hired 4th Street Traffic and The Tom Hollister Trio early on. Word spread about the night and it began selling out, and over the next few years Evans, in the role of booker, secured the services of Warrior Soul, Black Spiders, Bernie Marsden, and The Answer.

“That night will live long in our memory,” says Cormac Neeson. “It was kind of weird – a rugby club full of rockers excited about having a known band in town. I remember pulling up on the side of the pitch thinking, what is this? But they brought in a nice big PA, a stage and it was full of people who wanted to be there.”

When Rhead conceived of turning the night into a full-on festival he wanted to simply move it to the rugby pitch, but Blaenau Gwent Council refused to consider it, point blank. Another nearby field was, it turned out, reserved as a nesting ground for a pair of rare lapwing birds, so those plans were refused too. Ultimately Rhead was pointed in the direction of private land owner Hywel Dukes. He met him on his Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm, and within half an hour Dukes gave Rhead the go-ahead to use his farm, and the bureaucracy truly began.

Among the hundreds of pieces of paperwork required was a Cattle Management Plan, wherein Rhead had to assure the council that cattle were at least half a mile away from loud noise, for fear of the cows stampeding into the crowd. “We said, surely they’d stampede away from the loud noise?!” he says, incredulously. “But the council would have none of it. They were so obstructive, out of sheer fear. If you had a pound for every time one of the officers said, ‘We’ve never had anything like this’, it would’ve paid for the festival many times over.”

Organised in just three months, the inaugural Steelhouse Festival took place on July 2011, with the bill drawing on Evans’s own contacts – Quireboys, Red White & Blues, Black Spiders and Tigertailz all taking the stage before a few hundred people. “This region is starved of good events,” says Rhead, whose company funds the festival independently. “The locals would’ve expected a flatbed trailer and a burger van, but it was a much bigger production. We wanted to set a precedent, to set us in good stead for future years.”

Rhead took a hit financially, but as Evans recalls, the organisation – from the stage to the PA to the lighting rig to the marshalling – generated confidence among festival goers, artists and their all-important managers and agents alike. “I was with [Red White & Blues’] Myke Graye standing by the side of the stage watching Black Spiders,” he recalls. “It was hammering down with rain and the fog had rolled in, and I was moaning that more people hadn’t come. He said, ‘Don’t worry. Keep putting this on like this, and they’ll come.’ Then Danny [Bowes] And Ben [Matthews] played the club, so by the second festival we had a good reputation and small but good reviews, and we could really start building relationships with the people who could get you the talent. We got into the mindset of getting stuff that was just little out of our reach, but the way we communicated with the bands showed we could guarantee a level of professionalism.”

“I remember Mikey and Max being incredibly enthusiastic and slightly naïve,” say Danny Bowes of the night Danny & Ben played the club. “But enthusiasm counts for everything in my book, and anything that can bring a good story to that part of the world has to be a positive thing. I was an agent for a while so I gave Mikey a few tips on how to get bands on board, and braced him for how difficult this was going to be.”

Evans secured Feeder and Reef as headliners for the second festival, with Luke Morley’s band The Union, The Answer and St Jude on the bill too. In 2013, Saxon, Michael Schenker, Magnum, FM, The Temperance Movement and even Anvil made the trek up the mountain. The crowds were noticeably towards the 3000 mark with national press, radio and the Welsh tourist board also picking up on it. By the following year, Europe, Black Star Riders and Sebastian Bach were on board, and last year UFO, Dee Snider, Y&T, Nazareth and Tyketto appeared. BSR’s powerful manager Adam Parsons has been a vocal proponent, and it was he who fed back to Danny Bowes that it had flowered into the real deal. Apart from Ramblin’ Man, Steelhouse will be Thunder’s only UK date this year. It is, says Bowes, “the right time for us to play it.”

“Danny’s been really supportive,” says Rhead, “a great sounding board. And Thunder are arguably bigger than ever since Wonder Days. We’re at the size that justifies a band of their stature, and their target audience is ours too. They’re the perfect band for us at this point in our journey.”

While ticket sales are shaping up well this year, the financial risk of holding such an event is, says Evans, still considerable. “It’s a long way to drop, and there’s no secret corporate juggernaut behind any of it. It’s just a couple of fellas driving it at a real level.”

“At the start,” adds Rhead, “we’d come off that mountain, do the sums and say, Well, no money again this year mate, but a wallet full of smiles. But look at what happened here - money’s not the only measure of success. All the punters have been happy, the bands, the crew – let’s do it again!”

That crew – dubbed the ‘Steelhouse Family’ – are an extraordinary and crucial part of this story. Coming mainly from the local community, this 50-strong army of volunteers head up to the farm weeks in advance to get the dirty work done – digging trenches for powers cables, erecting fencing, placing toilets and showers. Throughout the weekend they’ll wrangle the artists from airport to hotel to site. They’ll marshal, man the box office and the car park, then return the field to its previous condition after the crowds have headed back down the mountain side. One year, one of them was sent on an urgent mission to source a power adaptor for a band’s German tour bus so it could plug into the site generator. They finally finding returned, hours later, having sourced this arcane bit of kit on the other side of the Severn Bridge, in Bristol.

“The crew slog their guts out,” marvels Max Rhead. “I can’t get my head around the fact that dozens of people will take two weeks off work, come up with mountain with us, work 15-hour days for no money, and then at the end of it thank us in floods of tears, begging us to do it again. It’s that community spirit, they feel part of something that’s unique. The overwhelming public feedback we get is that the atmosphere’s unlike any other festival, and a lot of that’s down to our volunteer workforce.”

It seems the artists sense that too. “Backstage it’s like one big family,” says The Answer’s Cormac Neeson, “doing their damnedest to make sure the bands and the audience are having a good time. And on stage you get so much love from that audience. You just drive back down the side of that mountain with a really nice feeling inside.”

Evans found himself driving Scott Gorham through Ebbw Vale, giving him the history of the area, of Marine Colliery and the steel works. “Dee [Snider] and his manager absolutely got what we’re about,” says Evans, “a grassroots thing driven by bedrock passion. It lit a fuse with them, I suppose because Twisted Sister had to fight tooth and nail to get listened to at the start. I saw the area with a new set of eyes – when you travel up mountain road and the landscape opens up, it’s beautiful. Sebastian Bach thought so, he actually had us stop the car to take pictures!”

Back in 1989 Bach played the Moscow Peace Festival along with Bon Jovi, Ozzy and Motley Crue. Rhead and Evans were teenagers, watching it avidly on an early Sky box, and telling each other what another world this was. “Then, lo and behold, we’re doing this,” Evans says. “If you told the 18 year-old me he’d be bringing Sebastian Bach to play a show less than a mile from where we’re watching him on TV, he would’ve said you’re bonkers!”

With The Darkness and Thunder heading for the mountain this year (insert your own Welsh weather joke here), ticket sales are looking healthy.

“If we knew early on what we know now we wouldn’t have started this,” admits Rhead. “It would have seemed insurmountable, even to deluded people like us. But we’ve had the pain, the losses and the learning curve. Then you’re looking out and thousands of people enjoying themselves – the curtain drops and Saxon’s eagle lights up behind them, or the opening chords to The Final Countdown start up. There’ve been so many surreal moments on that mountain. I wonder what we’ll get this year.”

The Steelhouse Festival runs from July 22 to July 24. For tickets and more info go to steelhousefestival.com.

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