As I mentioned in my last post, I stopped going to gigs regularly for about nine years from 1994, so I hadn’t been to a music festival since Reading in ’94 or possibly ’95. Last year I noticed a lot of noise on the web about the launch of a new touring ‘heavy rock’ festival called Sonisphere. I’ve never been to a metal festival before – I’d always felt a bit intimidated by the prospect and suspected I’d be a fish out of water – but the line up, which included Linkin Park (a favourite band of mine from the last few years), NIN and Metallica (who I hadn’t seen since ’93), tempted me. One of my NMA friends – a huge Metallica fan – and I decided to take a risk and bought weekend camping tickets for the festival’s debut. It proved to be a good decision. We had a whale of a time (the family camping tickets were an early morning mistake on my part last year but proved to be a welcome reprieve from the madness and bedlam in the general camping), and the music was awesome. I danced and sang my heart out during the Linkin Park set on the Saturday night, although I felt a bit let down by the bizarre debut of the lead singer’s new band Dead by Sunrise during the encore, which didn’t go down well with the crowd and killed the building intensity of the performance. (Mind you, the ploy worked: I bought the album and went to see them in February this year.) Metallica surprised me, as they were nowhere near as good as the previous times I’d seen them…in my humble opinion. The NIN set was a massive disappointment; it was nothing like the amazing performances at the MEN and O2 arenas earlier in the year – the signature tracks were missing and the whole set felt like a funeral – such a shame given it was their last ever performance in the UK. On the positive side, I thoroughly enjoyed Anthrax, Avenged Sevenfold and Limp Bizkit, and I loved the novelty performance by Bjorn Again – what fun to see hardened metal fans bopping along to Dancing Queen!
We enjoyed Sonisphere 2009 so much that we’d agreed to return before we’d even left the site…and when the legendary Rammstein were announced, we persuaded another NMA friend of mine to come along too. After months of anticipation, we met at Tesco in Baldock to buy supplies for the weekend. We dropped down the A1(M) and followed the signs for Sonisphere, which took us a somewhat circuitous 20-minute route through Hitchin to the site at Knebworth. We’d only had to drive about five minutes off the motorway the previous year and had to walk about 10 minutes to the family camping. Unfortunately, this year we were parked on the other side of the arena from the family camping – a 25-minute walk of approximately one mile up and down and over rough ground, which is not ideal for someone with a heart condition and another with a chronic illness that causes fatigue and arthritis. We had to make two trips from car to campsite overall. With a break in between to put up tents and recharge batteries, it was four hours from arriving on site to the camp being set up, by which time I’d missed the Time Warp Record Attempt about which I’d been so excited. At this point, exhausted, sunburned and feeling very unwell, I burst into tears and just wanted to go home.
Some food and cold drinks lifted my spirits, and we made our way into the arena to see Gary Numan and Alice Cooper on the Saturn stage. I’ve only seen Gary Numan once before – when he joined NIN on stage at the O2 arena last year – and I enjoyed his set, which included Cars and Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, immensely. Alice Cooper was next on our list for the Friday night. He opened with School’s Out and then blasted out some tracks seemingly familiar to everyone but me. Halfway through, we tore ourselves away from the guillotines, straitjacket and other props to slip over to the Jagermeister stage for 30 minutes of Karma to Burn. They were my biggest surprise of the weekend. Virtually everyone in the modest crowd was tapping their feet and nodding their heads vigorously, including me, although I’d never heard them before. The atmosphere was electric. When the band finished their last song, we clamoured for more. “If we get in trouble for this…”, said the singer, as they launched into a Black Sabbath song. We cheered, he started singing, but nothing came out. The vocals had been cut and the band had to leave the stage. “Karma, Karma, Karma”, shouted the crowd, but to no avail, the spoilsports at the Jagermeister stage won. Disappointed, we returned back to Alice. The only Alice Cooper album I have is Trash, which I love, but sadly for me he either didn’t play anything off it or, if he did, it was while we were captivated by Karma to Burn. He ended, strangely, with School’s Out again. He was good, but, for me, he didn’t set any fires alight.
Rammstein, on the other hand, set plenty of fires alight, quite literally. I cannot begin to do justice in describing their show. There were fireworks on stage, above the stage and sent down cables from sound desk to stage. The singer, adorned in theatrical make up, sang with a glowing mouth, took complete possession of the stage and was raised high above the stage on a thin column from where he threw flames across the crowd. The keyboard player jumped in a boat that was propelled around by the raised arms of the crowd, collected a German flag and a Union Jack, and then returned to the stage to play keyboard as he walked on a treadmill. By the time Rammstein left the Apollo stage on the Saturday night, my eyes were dry because I don’t think I blinked for the hour and a half of their performance for fear of missing something. (Although, as a shortie, I should point out that I could only see the back of the tall people in front of me and occasionally the big screens and top of the stage…when they weren’t obscured by bloody flags on bloody flagpoles.) The only disappointment was that they left the stage 30 minutes before they were due to – we could have stayed there watching them for hours more. Therapy? had the daunting task of following Rammstein. They were scheduled to play Troublegum from beginning to end in the sauna-like Bohemia tent, which couldn’t possibly hold the hoardes of people trying to get in – still buzzing from Rammstein. With people rows deep outside, the power failed twice during the first track, but third time lucky the set began in earnest. We listened and danced outside the tent, before returning, via a toastie stall, to our campsite, where I reflected on the rest of the day’s highlights: Lacuna Coil, Placebo, Anthrax (although missing something from 2009), Apocalyptica and Skunk Anansie.
I was dreading Sunday, as it meant packing up and returning all our stuff to the car so we could make a quick getaway after Iron Maiden closed on the main Apollo stage. Before we faced the trek back to the car, we got up (relatively) early to see Henry Rollins Spoken Word. People were queuing to get in the Bohemia tent and we joined the surge when the ‘doors’ opened. Inside, the tent was already hot and humid despite the mid-morning start, but the discomfort was forgotten when he came on stage. He chatted for an hour – passionate, inspiring, funny, honest and intelligent. He described his travels and experiences in South Africa, his admiration for Nelson Mandela, his disdain for George W Bush and his respect for Barack Hussein Obama. He eloquently described much of what is wrong in our world and how just one person can make a difference. He’d make a good country leader.
We returned to the camping area and made the two journeys and spent four hours moving to and from the car with our stuff. The second journey was excruciating for my arthritic hands and back, and I ended up sat at the side of the pathway exhausted. My two friends, who helped me with some of my stuff, had soldiered on ahead of me, but a couple of lovely ladies took pity on me and helped me the rest of the way. Another four hours wasted moving stuff to the car and we’d missed Alice in Chains – another firm favourite of my Metallica-loving friend. By the time we’d walked back around the arena to get inside (frustratingly, the general admission gates were all along one side of the arena on the opposite side to our car park), we’d also missed the beginning of The Cult, who were on my must-see list. Too tired to go down to the front, we watched from the top of the hill. They were, as always, wonderful – a good set with a variety of tracks and the ever-favourite She Sells Sanctuary. By the time they’d finished, I’d got my energy back and Pendulum came onto the Apollo stage. The Iron Maiden fans already waiting for their idols looked a bit puzzled by the impromptu rave that sprang up around them but some entered into the spirit of things and a circle pit appeared nearby. Pendulum were undoubtedly my highlight of the weekend – after Rammstein, who were simply poles apart from everyone else.
Pendulum were followed by Iggy and the Stooges on the Saturn stage. I was underwhelmed – I don’t know why but they don’t push any of my buttons – back in 1991 at Reading Festival, I went back to my tent for a snooze while Iggy played. Then came the climax of the weekend – Iron Maiden. I’d never seen them before and, to be honest, I won’t rush to see them again. Bruce Dickinson was a great front man but the set just seemed to be similar song after similar song. They played only one song that I recognised and the venue seemed half as empty as it was when Metallica had closed the Sunday night the year before. I could quite happily have left halfway through but we stayed to the encore and then made our escape back home – to a hot shower and a comfortable mattress.
All three of us have agreed we’ll be back again next year – although we may resort to a hotel each night to avoid that walk from car park to camping.