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?
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 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.
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.
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 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.