Hard Rock Calling 2009: Rated!

United Kingdom United Kingdom | by Phil Petty | 30 June 2009

Overall - 8/10

Shuffling out into Hyde Park with the Saturday-night crowd, one 30-something bloke neatly sums up Hard Rock Calling: “It’s like Glastonbury, only you can get the bus home...” (slight pause) “...God, we’re getting old.”

It’s tempting to dub this event Dad Rock Calling, given the vintage of many acts and audience members. However, headliners Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen are rock icons with cross-generational appeal, while many of the newer names on the bill breathe fresh life into hoary old folk/blues/rock formats. With plenty of parents enjoying the chance to introduce grown-up kids to old musical heroes, this weekend proves that great, timeless music knows no age barrier.

Getting there and back/atmosphere - 7/10
The heart-of-London setting and Neil’s ‘n’ Bruce’s presence (on alternative nights to their Glasto main-stage slots) offer us aging suburbanites a hint of that festy magic, without having to schlep down to Shepton Mallet and rough it in the mud. Perhaps in keeping with Springsteen’s fanfares for the common man, this weekend’s audience largely consists of everyday family folk who rarely make it to gigs these days, never mind Glastonbury.

Yes, Hard Rock Calling has all the youthful edge and unpredictability of going home to a nice bath and comfy slippers. But the upside is a warm, unpretentious family vibe and a sense that everyone’s happy to be here to enjoy some proven greats, not tick the latest fashionable must-sees off the list.

The site - 5/10

This Hard Rock Cafe corporate-branded site is efficiently organised, but as aesthetically pleasing as a neat row of portaloos. None of yer cabaret, quirky market stalls, arty chill-out areas or exotic nosh here - just lines of identikit lager ‘n’ cider bars, burger/curry/noodle vans and stalls touting official merchandise.

Music - 8/10

Friday’s indie flavour and (relatively) youthful line up make this day the odd one out, with the up-and-coming Howling Bells, chirpy-but-unremarkable crowd-pleasers The Kooks, and 1980s raincoat-rockers Echo & The Bunnymen warming up the post-work crowd before main event The Killers.

Saturday afternoon sees aging blues-rockers (Chrissie Hynde, Seasick Steve) prove they’ve still got it, while nu-folk young pretenders such as Mumford And Sons and Fleet Foxes stake their claims to future greatness. But Saturday’s big story is Paul McCartney’s appearance, rounding off a triumphant two-hour set from everyone’s favourite Canadian rock legend.

Sunday offers little excitement early on, although Pretty Things - early 60s scenesters who knocked around with pre-Stones Mick and Keef - produce some surprisingly sprightly, driving slices of R&B on the second stage. The main stage’s afternoon highlight is The Boss’s brief appearance to help out The Gaslight Anthem with guitar and vocal duties on ‘The 59 Sound’, giving his seal of approval to these fellow New Jerseyites who faithfully reinterpret his formula.

The rest of Sunday sees a string of workmanlike singer songwriters/plodding rockers with names as bland as their music (Joshua Radin, James Morrison, Dave Matthews Band) fill in time before the arrival of the man 99% of today’s crowd are here for: Brucie himself (and we’re not talking Forsyth, despite the “Nice to see you…” heckles from one wag.)  The Boss rounds off a weekend where a good few sixty-somethings show they’re still vibrant young (or Young) rockers at heart, delivering a rousing three-hour set that leaves the crowd ‘Dancing in The Dark’ and still wanting more.


Seasick Steve - 8/10

This grey-bearded, genial old coot wrings more low-down rhythm and dirty blues spirit from one three-stringed guitar than many of this weekend’s accomplished-but-dull musos achieve with their entire band. Steve is the real deal, a genuine bluesman who walks it like he talks it (in a Southern Fried drawl) on songs like Doghouse Boogie and Chiggers.      

Neil Young - 8/10

The distorted riffing of opener ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ offer raw power; the ‘Needle and The Damage Done’ poignant acoustic beauty; and ‘Old Man’ and ‘Are You Ready For The Country’ folk-rock warmth. But (dare to whisper the heresy), ‘Down by the River’’s endless guitar noodling makes it feel like punk never happened. A triumphant ‘Rockin’ in The Free World’ banishes any doubts, however, and when Sir Paul appears to add his voice to encore ‘Day in the Life’, we have a bona fide Unforgettable Festival Moment. Even Macca bows in an ‘I’m not worthy’ gesture as Young thrashes his guitar to death in the thunderous crescendo, broken strings flailing. Ragged Glory indeed.

Bruce Springsteen - 9/10

Opener ‘London Calling’ sees The Boss tip his hat to London’s finest sons, before whisking us off on a rockin’ jukebox tour through Springsteenland, from ‘Badlands’ to ‘Glory Days’. At times he picks his route by garnering home-made signs bearing song titles from the crowd, his ability to busk it like this reflecting the fact that the E-Street Band play like musicians at the peak of their game, not old guys reliving Glory Days.

The absence of ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born in The USA’ are a minor quibble, and there’s much those just here for the greatest hits don’t recognise. But even if you can’t mouth every word like a true believer, you’re swept along by the sheer verve and enthusiasm of Springsteen’s performance. When he runs down the front to shake hands with the faithful, the sheer joy on his face suggest an exuberant young buck who still can’t believe he’s hit the big time. This naive faith in the redemptive power of rock n roll may seem corny and uncool, but it continues to drive Springsteen with a passion and energy lacking in most rockers half his age.


The Killers (their underpowered sound, anyway) - 6/10
The synth-rock masters deliver a polished greatest-hits set, studded with gems like ‘Human’, ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’, but lack of volume robs them of that (ahem) Killer punch.’ All These Things That I’ve Done’ may be irresistible for a sing-along, but in the heart of the crowd, their drunken fans drown Brandon’s boys out. Killers karaoke, anyone?

Echo And The Bunnymen - 6/10

With characteristic modesty, Ian McCulloch introduces ‘The Killing Moon’ as "The best fucking song ever written" - only to bore even himself with it halfway through and knock it on the head for an (admittedly better) stab at ‘The Cutter’. This, an unconvincing medley including ‘Walk On The Wildside’ (“Take a walk on Merseyside” indeed) and a semi-sarky rant about Michael Jackson being greater than we’ll ever know, leave the impression of a confused and rambling old git, not an eighties alt-rock hero.

By Phil Petty

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