Tax The Heat (7/10) must have made a fortune on Download’s warmest opening day for many a year. Throwing down the gauntlet in the style stakes with some seriously retro fashion, the Bristolians’ urgent brand of blues-based classic rock proved the perfect means of ushering in a day of pedigree performances from the genre’s vibrant new breed. Caroline was the pick from a band with a future as bright as the Castle Donington sky.
Veterans Tesla (10/10) could still teach Day One’s young pretenders a thing or two on the evidence of a typically stellar set. From the off frontman Jeff Keith hit every raspy note – if it’s always wise to be suspicious of any individual with two Christian names then it’s easy to trust one of the most endearing characters in rock. The smiling assassin killed sparkling versions of Hang Tough, Signs and Modern Day Cowboy but it was set closer Cumin Atcha Live that offered compelling evidence that Tesla still command a prominent position at classic rock’s top table after three decades honing their craft.
Getting up Klose and personal with Swedish rock’s latest rising star appealed to those ready to relax in front of the Jagermeister Acoustic Stage but a mixed set rarely hit the mark. Maybe Mia Klose (5/10) was on too early, maybe she was suffering from those infamous Download nerves or maybe she’s just suited to a full electric show. Oozing potential, with a tight and focused backing band, the blonde bombshell simply failed to capture the mood – or the attention of the masses. The Robin Beck-esque Living For Love and the anthemic Trip Down Memory Lane screamed passion but even that wasn’t enough to save a meandering cover of GnR’s Paradise City.
Back on the Zippo stage and perennial contenders The Answer (8/10) deserved a bigger crowd and a better reception as they blazed through a bright and breezy set of brilliant homegrown rock n roll. Skindred’s main stage antics might have dented the Ulster band’s appeal but Corman Neeson remains a captivating character with his flowing locks and heartfelt banter. Opening up with New Horizon, nailing Spectacular, delivering a scorching version of Under The Sky and wrapping up with Come Follow Me, this was a masterclass in Neesonism.
Maintaining the classic rock vibe but with a unique twist, The Temperance Movement (8/10) took their Download bow in the late afternoon sun and proved the perfect warm-up for label mates Rival Sons. Watching in the wings, Jay Buchanan and co. were blown away by the Anglo-Scottish flag bearers for the best of new British rock and those arguing against independence north of the border should seize upon this compelling quartet as the perfect example of why unity works. Battle Lines blew a stunning set wide open while old favourite Pride said it all about this brilliant band. Metrosexual Glaswegian Phil Campbell challenged Tax The Heat for the title of ‘best dressed man’ as he pranced across the stage in his girlfriend’s dressing gown but guitar hero Paul Sayer proved style doesn’t always trump substance with a mesmerising display of musicianship.
The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down to Rival Sons (9/10) in the week new album Great Western Valkyrie looked set to drop inside the UK top 10. And the pressure was on after the previous year’s bizarre performance on the same stage. Yet 12 months on Buchanan appeared more focused, friendlier and full of the joys of rock and roll – the rest of the Sons taking their lead from the accomplished frontman. Name checking The Temperance Movement, thanking those present for pushing the band into the mainstream and suggesting a new golden era for classic rock lay ahead. This show reaffirmed that belief. Pressure And Time and Keep On Swinging jostled for position as the best of the back catalogue cuts but the blazing psychedelic intro and deep, grooving riff underpinning Open My Eyes offered compelling evidence that Rival Sons are still writing the best material of their career.
Like Rival Sons, Huntress (6/10) made a second successive trip to Castle Donington’s hallowed turf and, unexpectedly, played it safe with a set almost identical to that which brought the Red Bull Stage to a standstill in 2013. Jill Janus brought the fury, passion and visceral vocal power but one question remained: what more can these retro metal monsters bring to the table? If I Want To Fuck You To Death impressed the Huntress virgins, long-time fans of the band were left wanting that little bit extra. Even after a suitably scary version of Eight Of Swords wrapped up a brief set on a foreboding note, a sense of frustration lingered.
Main stage headliners Avenged Sevenfold (8/10) made the most of a stunning backdrop, meticulously orchestrated show and astute setlist – seizing the biggest opportunity of their career with glee. The band’s journey from metalcore wannabes struggling for an identity to one of the foremost hard rock bands on the planet is a remarkable one with their twin guitar sound never more reminiscent of the early 80s NWOBHM scene. A7X didn’t need wild pyrotechnics on a night when M Shadows owned the stage but the Californians brought them anyway: a stunning finale of soaring fireworks signifying the band’s explosion into metal’s Premier League. Second Heartbeat, from Waking The Fallen, hit the mark four songs out from the conclusion of the main set and it’s testimony to the quality of latest long player Hail To The King that the album’s title track and This Means War went down a storm. There’s no longer a weak song in an A7X set and that’s been the case for some time.
It’s been a while since the Dan Reed Network (9/10) graced British shores with their heady brand of funk rock but an uber-cool Red Bull Stage set proved to be the perfect antithesis to A7X’s huge production and punishing sound. Unsurprisingly Rainbow Child stole the show but Reed can rarely have sounded better as he belted out a faultless live version of Under My Skin. Flanked by some of the finest musicians to have graced Download’s various stages, Reed clearly enjoyed every minute of this special 30th anniversary show.