Billy Idol and Slash: Download Festival Day 3 Part I

There’s a good reason I never finished writing about Download Festival. Sunday was the day when I realized that I did not actually know my best friend of 9 years. That’s been one of the hardest things to deal with in the past year. You can get through most things with a good friend by your side. Without one, everything is an uphill battle.

Because the first half of the day pretty much revolved around her (as had the previous day) I was uncertain how to write this post. I had gone to the festival to see bands play. I’m still not really sure why she had gone, but I’d realized on Friday and Saturday that she had virtually no interest in rock bands. Following a narcissist around a festival does has its advantages – the lack of empathy makes them force their way through other people to their “rightful place” at the front of the crowd. What could I do but follow, or risk being separated again?

Billy Idol at Download 2015. I didn't know my camera did this stupid date stamp until I got it home and uploaded everything. How irritating!!
Billy Idol at Download 2015. I didn’t know my camera did this stupid date stamp until I got it home and uploaded everything. How irritating!!

Let’s start with Billy Idol. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a huge crowd amassed yet, and we stopped much further back than we could have done. I got the best view I’d had all weekend. He sang many of my favourites including (of course) White Wedding and Rebel Yell, as well as some of the stuff from his most recent album Kings and Queens of the underground, which I am also rather partial to. Unlike many acts from the ’80s, Billy Idol has never overhauled his fundamental identity, so hearing him today is like hearing him in the ’80s, but better, because now he can do his newer stuff as well (which didn’t exist back then) which is still true to form. White Wedding will always be my favourite, and hearing, seeing, feeling him sing it was worth the cost of the three-day ticket in and of itself. The view, as I said, was excellent, and I wasn’t prepared to leave it (despite protestations from my friend to go and get drinks from the bar. I decided to stand up for my right to get a decent vantage point, and declined to leave the crowd), so when the set change between Billy Idol and Slash was going on, we moved forwards and got almost to the very front. We were nearly 5 rows from the front and the view was fabulous.

Slash came out with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. If that sounds like “Burt Bacharach and His Band,” it’s definitely ironic. There’s nothing stuffy or staid about Slash’s latest act, and I was privileged to witness his incredible guitar playing. When the crowd surged forward, I got propelled to three rows from the front. At some point, my friend told me her feet hurt, and would I walk back to the car park with her to get a change of shoes (about 2 hours round trip given the mud and her walking speed). I told her I’d wait right here for her (!) and turned my attention to the band again. I worried that I might have hurt her feelings, but my less caring side told me I shouldn’t give a crap after the way she’d treated me for the last 3 days. Nothing could drag me away from this.

Slash playing his guitar at Download 2015.
Slash playing his guitar at Download 2015.

Slash did a few things from his Guns N’ Roses days including Sweet Child of Mine, Welcome to the Jungle and Paradise City, as well as some stuff I didn’t know, but the real piece de resistance, the thing that blew me away and which defined Slash as the real genius behind Guns-N-Roses was Anastasia. If you haven’t heard it, there’s a fantastic live version here:

I was surprised to hear him playing the Guns N’ Roses stuff but I can only think that he and Axl came to an “agree to disagree-ment” that meant they didn’t sue each other for playing stuff they co-wrote.

The crowd surged me forwards and I found myself at the very front, clinging to the front rail for dear life.
The crowd surged me forwards and I found myself at the very front, clinging to the front rail for dear life.

Watching Slash play was a real treat. He seemed to zone out from the crowd, from the rest of the band, and just seemed to merge with his guitar, all his focus was on what he was doing. From the outside, he looked like he wasn’t even paying any attention to what he was doing, and the guitar was being handled as carelessly as a child’s toy or a toothpick. Under his hat and sunglasses, and his incredible mop of black curls, however, I could almost feel the energy he was pouring into the guitar. And in return, its strings danced a song under his fingers. I was mesmerized. I’ve seen some pretty incredible acts, but I’ve never seen anything as hypnotic as watching Slash manipulate those metal strings as a man might make love to a woman. Oh God, what I would have given to be that guitar, even just for a minute…

Then he pulled out the 12-string guitar. Mind… blown! Looking far less like a toothpick and more like he’d just swapped his pea-shooter for a chainsaw, his fingers continued to twinkle over the strings.

The crowd kept surging forwards and I could hardly breathe, one row from the front, until I could grip the safety bar and I was finally at the very front. I wasn’t aware that this was the venue (called “monsters of rock” but since renamed, presumably due to notoriety) where Guns N Roses played and there was a crush as the crowd surged forwards that killed two fans in 1988. I could certainly see a dangerous situation was forming, but the site security were managing it excellently without harassing anyone. Several times I helped people climb over the barrier because you couldn’t get out any other way, and security led them round to safety once they were over the barrier. Nobody going over the barrier was trying to get to the stage. Mostly it was mums with kids.

The 12 stringed guitar.
The 12 stringed guitar.

Having now seen a LOT of bands, many of which have been styled “the greatest band of all time” at one time or another, I can definitely say that of all the living guitarists, Slash is the greatest guitarist alive and if you love guitar music he’s definitely one to see playing live. He does NOT do that thing that I’ve noticed at a few other concerts, where the accoladed “lead guitarist” actually barely plays anything and some replacement gets on with the actual music making. I saw that at The Who AND Megadeth, and I was unimpressed. Slash didn’t do that.

Another real treat was watching Myles Kennedy. Because Slash is a great guitarist, NOT a great frontman, he needs a Circus Master to lead the audience, to sing the words, to add that characteristic fizz of energy that Axl Rose used to be able to portray so eloquently (even in his pyjamas).

Myles Kennedy at Download 2015.
Myles Kennedy at Download 2015.

Myles Kennedy is like a stable, more music-focussed Axl Rose, but he’s clearly no imitator – he’s an accomplished artist in his own right, Myles’s voice is more versatile than Axl’s and he can do a lot more with it; I can see exactly why Slash has collaborated with him so much recently – they pair together better than beans and toast, and when you listen to Axl Rose’s “Chinese Democracy” then follow it up with Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators’ “World On Fire” there is just no comparison. I’m sorry Axl, but falling out with Slash was the dumbest thing anyone ever did in history. He’s a Stoke-On-Trent escapee (as am I; I’ve always got time for anyone who gets away from that shithole of shattered dreams) and in my vast experience of attending gigs, he’s the greatest guitarist you can actually see play music. I know I just said it but it bore reiterating. I felt like I was in the presence of a true Maestro. This must have been how people felt when they saw Mozart at concerts back in the day.

Then, like a sparkler or a particularly enjoyable cigarette, the spark that the music gave life to was extinguished as it was time for the next act.

What could Motley Crue hope to offer that even remotely compared to Slash’s mind blowing performance?

I was about to find out.

See what’s on the rest of my Bands Bucket list
Other concerts I’ve reviewed.

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My Official Bands Bucket List

So I keep referring to my bands bucket list when I write about things I’ve been up to.  Today I wanted to go back and explain what it is.

You are probably aware that a bucket list is usually something written by people of all ages to ensure that they get to do all the things they’ve dreamed of doing in life – all the things they want to do before they “kick the bucket,” to coin a term.

In my case, that would be my ever-dwindling 30-list and my currently being written 40-list, which are the things I want to do before I reach age 30 and age 40, respectively.  It would probably not surprise you, then, to know that, when I was eighteen, I started this whole thing by writing a 20-list, a set of things I wanted to do before I turned 20.

The Bands Bucket List is very separate.  My age-lists are really more a set of things I feel would be achievements, accomplishments, or that I have some control over.  Things you can get with work and dedication.  They are lists of things that are within my power to make happen, however unique the circumstances would need to be for the achievement to be made.

The reason I don’t include bands on my 30-list and 40-list is because anyone can buy a ticket and travel to a gig.  Yes, some bands only tour in their homeland of Japan or The Faroe Islands, but by and large, live music is a capitalist, class dependent commodity (ooh er) that anyone with time and money can engage in.  For that reason I don’t think it’s an achievement to see The Who or Lynyrd Skynyrd, in the same sense that it would be an achievement to climb a mountain or get a master’s degree.  It would certainly be an achievement to play in a band, an honour that I have never been privy to (flutes tend to get stuck with orchestras rather than popular music bands, and ukuleles are the sonorous pariah unwanted in most ensembles), but seeing a band?  I am responsible for quality control of my lists and I decided it would cheapen the accomplishment of a PhD or climbing Everest to liken them with going to Download Festival (sorry, Download, it’s not that I don’t think your wonderful, but you are very easy).

I did need to keep track of a large set of data though, to make it possible to organize, and as I was spending more and more time on the internet typing different band names into Google, I thought I needed a spreadsheet.  I do love a good spreadsheet.

So I wrote them all down in alphabetical order, every band I could think of who, if their members died in a plane crash and they ceased to exist, I would feel like I’d missed out if I had neglected to attend them.  I know I won’t see all of them, but I wanted to make a concerted effort to see as many as I could while I could.

The list doesn’t distinguish between bands who have been apart for 30 years and those who are still coherent, it does separate out individual artists who are known to currently have a solo career and also link them to the band they used to be in (so, for example, the entry for David Gilmour states “Dave Gilmour/Pink Floyd” and Roger Waters’ entry is “Roger Waters/Pink Floyd”) ensuring that the musical genius that spawned the bands are placed to be seen even when they can’t be in the same room as one another.  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are another example, where their entries are “Jimmy Page/Led Zeppelin” and “Robert Plant/Led Zeppelin” respectively.  Either entry can be ticked off once the required people have been seen, so if I’d seen Jimmy Page, it would then be at my discretion whether I decided the performance was sufficient to tick off Led Zeppelin, or whether I also wanted to see Robert Plant first.  I have ticked Guns n Roses off because I’ve seen Slash, and his performance with Myles Kennedy would be sufficient to tick off Guns n Roses (although GnR weren’t on my list) even though I haven’t seen Axl Rose and the band he’s put together when he kept the name Guns N Roses.

This list, and the ticking off part especially, has raised two very interesting dilemmas facing the modern music fan of older bands:  To what extent does the name of the band matter if none of the original members survive, and what actually counts as having seen a band?

The naming question is difficult.  So for example, there’s only one founder member of Lynyrd Skynyrd left in the band, but when I went to see them you could tell straight away that it didn’t matter.  Trying to define a band as who they were when they first signed on the dotted line of that fateful first record deal in the 1960s is a constrained and counterproductive way of going about things.  Take Pink Floyd again – guitarist Dave Gilmour wasn’t even in the original line-up, but for many people, he IS Pink Floyd, moreso than any other member.  Likewise, I need to be cautious about letting too many things be defined as the correct band.  It gets to a point where the only member of a band worth seeing is the drummer, and unless it’s Ringo Starr or Keith Moon, you might as well go and see a tribute band and tick off the real thing.  It’s false.  So somewhere between these two polarized opinions lies the way forward.

With The Who it was easy – the lead singer/guitarist and the lead guitarist are both still knocking around, the drummer is Ringo Starr’s son, and the bassist is an excellent session musician.  Hearing them play, you can tell they’re the real deal not some tribute band which have learned their songs meticulously to the letter and never deviate from the script.  They had the spark of Who-ness that made them Who-lesome.  I make no apologies for the wordplay.  Not all wordplay is a pun.

With Guns N Roses it would have been harder, since Axl kept the band name but is the only remaining member.  Seeing Slash play was such a jaw-droppingly stirring experience that I decided there was no way any replacement guitarist could ever possibly outdo him, unless Axl had hired Hendrix or Jimmy Page (which he hasn’t, which is a good job because Hendrix is dead and in either case, they’d want to play like themselves so you’d not get the same result).  It’s all a matter of style and substance.  Tribute bands and lesser replacement musicians can copy the style but have no substance.  Replacement musicians who are greater than the original will have substance but a differing style.  It takes a rare genius to walk the line between these two and still come out on top.  So I ticked off Guns N Roses.

The second dilemma is also one that I could spend years obsessing over if I wanted to:  How much of a band counts as “having seen” a band.  Here are my criteria:

1. It has to be live.

2. I had to be close enough to see and hear the band, not just watch the video screen, because that defeats the point.

3. I have to have heard the actual band play at least one full song.

4. Televised appearances are lovely, but there is so much loss of quality and atmosphere that they can’t possibly count, and the same goes for Youtube and other ways of seeing them.  For example, I watched the Pink Floyd Live 8 performance live on the BBC as it happened less than 20 miles from where I was sat (2 days after my mother had tried to kill me resulting in my being removed and never returning home, and 5 days before the 7/7 bombings), but it doesn’t count as having seen them, even though it had a profound and evelasting impact on the course of my life after that moment and probably stopped me killing myself.  That bit where they played “Wish You Were Here” and dedicated it to Syd had me in tears.

5. It doesn’t matter what they play:  If I wanted to hear a specific song I could buy and listen to the proper recording studio version.  That’s not what I’m looking for in my quest to see these bands.

Then there’s the single criterion for removal from the list:  If there are no living members of a band or if a solo artist dies, they are taken off the list.  Here is the list so far, there are currently 60 entries, and things are always being added:

Click to enlarge, again to zoom.
Click to enlarge, again to zoom.

For planning purposes, only the bands in white/orange matter:  The ones in pale grey are supposed to be ones who are just not touring at all, so they’re discounted from planning purposes (but breakups/reunions etc are so fickle that I don’t exclude reunion tours until the last member has kicked the bucket).  The ones in dark grey are ones I’ve now seen.  The ones in lime green are currently not attainable due to either dates, cost, or some other factor of sheer preposterous awkwardness that makes them unachievable such as announcing on the day of sale, selling out in 10 minutes and placing ridiculous resale criteria on the tickets, that only means that WHEN the tickets are resold, they’re triple the price they would have been so the resellers make even more money.  The ones in lime green are generally ones I’ve written off for this year.

So that’s my bands bucket list.  What do you think?  Who would be on yours?