Having learnt our lesson last year we pitched up at just after 9am to ensure we got in on time for the first act. We weren’t alone. Sensible souls even brought some booze with them to help pass the time, one group even had a seemingly never ending supply of sparkling wine and fresh orange but we made do with a plastic bottle full of red and a lukewarm sausage roll. Who says the age of elegance has passed eh?
As the gates opened at 10am and we got in without the 75 minute delay suffered back in 2016 we had a couple of hours to kill before the first band. Pint of cider? Don’t mind if we do (I’ll get to the music in a minute...the day wasn’t just an orgy of alcohol...honestly). First up From The Jam (see, told you) and one of two bands today who are still doing their thang despite the original lead singer being AWOL. Actually in the case of From The Jam the drummer’s not involved either so it’s just Bruce Foxton (from the Jam...see what they did there?) but vocalist Russell Hastings does a damn good Weller (sound and looks wise) and first track That’s Entertainment pretty much summed up the entire set.
Next up Big Country who sadly lost their lead singer, Stuart Adamson, not to another band or solo career but suicide back in 2001. Having reformed briefly in 2007 and then again in 2010 they’ve been through a few line up changes but now seem pretty settled. Some chap called Simon Hough’s on lead vocals and after one or two minor sound issues (far too quiet Mr/Mrs Soundman) he more than held his own against the band’s signature (Hadrian’s) wall of guitars sound.
He may be wearing a lot more these days but Imagination’s Leee John’s still a nifty mover and that vocal’s almost as high as it was back then, especially on a goosebump raising acappela intro to the band’s biggest hit Just An Illusion. Not quite sure what the Storm Troopers were doing in the pit during Body Talk, who knows maybe Darth Vader was a closet disco and soul fan? Good to hear some new material too, apparently Do It Right Now is currently number one in the UK soul chart!? Speaking of ‘Bugger me backwards I never knew that’ moments who knew that Katrina (of ‘and the Waves’ fame) wrote Going Down to Liverpool famously covered by The Bangles? Not me. She informed us that it helped get her and the band signed though and not long afterwards came Walking On Sunshine which managed to get a fair number of the elderly audience (I can say that, I’m almost elderly myself) up and dancing.
I’d forgotten how fast the changeovers were at Let’s Rock once the house band Retrobates were safely installed so I was in the loo when Toyah took to the stage with a rousing Good Morning Universe (it was afternoon but we’ll let her off). Her slightly operatic brand of 80s punk was massive for a few years and despite nudging 60 big hit I Want To Be Free (released on my 11th birthday fact fans) was delivered with just as much snarling screw you attitude as she had as a 23 year old.
Right, how do you deliver a hits packed set when you...er...only really had one hit? Okay that’s slightly unfair but do many of us remember I’m A Man Not A Boy? Anyway, Chesney Hawkes didn’t let that get in the way of things, knocking out a crowd pleasing mix of covers kicking off with Summer of ‘69 and including Mr Brightside and I Predict A Riot before climaxing (steady ladies) with a triumphant The One and Only which unsurprisingly went down the proverbial storm.
From pop gold to a bit of a neglected soul diamond in my humble opinion in the form of Jaki Graham who...wait for it...stepped right up...and delivered one of the sets of the day. Boy that lady has soul and more great songs than perhaps you remember including the aforementioned Step Right Up, Could It Be I’m Falling In Love and Set Me Free. It was her Ain’t Nobody cover (which reached the US Dance Charts number one slot in 1994) that stole the show though. Now that the late great Sharon Jones has joined that glorious soul club in the sky if the Dap Kings are looking for someone else to team up with Jaki Graham should be the first person they call. How about it chaps?
Fellow Midlander (Graham was born in Brum...as was Toyah of course...and me...and seemingly most of the inhabitants of Devon) Hazel O’Connor might not seem to share much in common with Chesney Hawkes but both he and she starred in film pretty much at the start of their careers. In O’Connor’s case it was Breaking Glass, which I can’t recall seeing, but I do remember loving the songs including today’s set highlights D Days and the sultry noir pop of Will You replete with a truly stunning sax solo.
With barely time to pause for breath Jason Donovan set several thousand middle aged womens’ hearts (and quite possibly other organs) a-fluttering again, although rubbing his nipples and repeating the words ‘Grndr’ over and over again may well have got some of the men going too, but we’d best not go into that eh? Ahem. From one pop pin up to another. I had a bit of a thing for Belinda Carlisle back in the day, I think it was that Heaven Is A Place On Earth video that did it but more importantly she put out some truly great pop records, Live Your Life Be Free, We Want The Same Thing (I don’t think you do m’luv but a man can dream), Circle In The Sand and of course Heaven Is A Place On Earth which today started off acoustically before well and truly putting the ‘rock’ into Let’s Rock.
Still with me? Good ‘cos Howard Jones would Like To Get To Know You Well. I have a lot of respect for Howard, he seems a good (vegetarian) egg and continued to write and record new stuff when a lot of his peers traded purely on past glories but at the same time he knows what the crowd at a show like this wants and he duly dished up the hits, albeit with a few tweaks notably New Song’s Powderham Castle / South West specific lyrics and the banging Euro house climax to set closer Things Can Only Get Better.
As a number of the crowd gently stewed in a combination of booze and sun (the weather was most un-festival-like all day) Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley joined ‘em sipping from a generous glass of Jack Daniel’s in between playing his own hits and one or two impressive cover version too, opening up with Bowie’s Life on Mars and “For Fred, my friend and inspiration” a suitably bombastic Somebody To Love. I could’ve done without Kings Of Leon’s The One but that’s more down to my lack of enthusiasm for anything they’ve ever recorded or done rather than Hadley’s rendition of it...but still...there are much better songs to showcase Tone’s voice than this one and he saved the best till last. A solid Gold performance all round from one of 80’s pop’s most instantly likeable and down to earth stars.
Finally – and after a bit of a wait – Level 42. Not sure if there were some technical difficulties but the set didn’t get going until almost 9.45pm leaving the band with just 45 minutes to jazz-funk the place to bits. Good grief, I reckon Mark King could knock out a 45 minute slap bass solo on his own. On the plus side it meant the set was all killer and no filler Level 42 classics a go go with Livin’ It Up (The Sun Goes Down) soundtracking the sunset (neat eh?), neglected classic Starchild (sung as ever by the falsetto-ly fabulous Mike Lindup) and a Something About You/Lessons In Love medley.
Okay so Let’s Rock Exeter won’t win the award for the coolest festival around, some of the sets are a bit blink and you’ll miss ‘em and maybe Level 42’s set closer Sons and Daughters should perhaps be renamed Grandsons and Granddaughters given the average age of the audience and artists but it’s all bloody good fun, the crowd are generally well behaved (one or two drunken dickheads but that’s life) and for a touch under £50 you’d frankly be hard pressed to have more fun with your clothes on.