Photo: Darran Scott
Arriving early afternoon on Saturday, and focusing on the main stage, I was blown away by the confidence and vitality of my first band, Walkway. Somehow the young Suffolk band had slipped under my radar as their eighties inspired rock married to youthful vigour called to mind bands like The Treatment.
Their set was around half originals and half covers and the diversity of the latter – ‘Love In An Elevator’, ‘Caroline’ and ‘Spirit of Radio’ to name three – only proved the band have the talent to match their attitude. Of their own songs ‘Streetwise’ and in particular the ballad ‘Take Me To The Top’ impressed.
Singer Chris Ready has a good voice and stage presence but was eclipsed by his brother, curly haired guitarist James, who pulled some classic poses and during a great closing cover of ‘Go Your Own Way’ played a great solo while running around the crowd in the manner of Justin Hawkins or Airborne’s Joel O’Keefe, to whom he bore a passing resemblance. Definitely a band to keep your eye on.
Welshmen Fireroad I gathered during the weekend have secured a shot on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cruise, which for an unsigned band is quite a coup. As befitted a band nearly all clad in check shirts, they peddled an honest brand of rootsy, blue collar rock which was extremely solid, but after a while I found myself looking for more memorable tunes to break up a rather samey set.
One of the pleasing aspects of this festival is the mix and match of a varierty of styles under the banner of classic rock and Pearl Handled Revolver provided a complete contrast- lacking a bass player but with the sound placing a great emphasis on organist Simon Rinaldo, their psychedelic approach called to mind The Doors and there was some lengthy freeform jamming with guitarist Andy Paris going off in unpredictable directions.
There was then a mixture of anticipation and uncertainty for the festival’s wild card, Leon Hendrix, brother of Jimi, and not a man with a known musical history, but then again blood is thicker than water. The omens were not good as a cast of supporting musicians took the stage a good couple of minutes before he gingerly stepped on stage with a nervous ‘Jimi says hi’.
He strummed a rhythm guitar as if it had been handed to him for the first time and as the band opened with soul and blues standards such as ‘Stormy Monday’ it was two or three songs in before he took the microphone, by which time it was apparent his voice, weak and cracked and failing to carry, was no great shakes either.
He might have saved face had he presented the show as a tribute to his brother, and told anecdotes and stories around the songs but as it was he cut an uneasy figure on stage. His band, notably the lead guitarist and girl backing singers, valiantly tried to keep the show on the road during a series of Jimi covers, with an emphasis on the slower and longer numbers like ‘Angel’ , ‘Red House’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’.
However a sub-standard tribute only really came to life when guest players joined the stage from the current generation of hot young blues guitarists in Chantel McGregor and Ben Poole who had been tearing up the main stage on Friday. I would have forgiven the CRF organisers if, witnessing this car crash, they were reminded of Johnny Rotten’s famous ‘ever get the feeling you been cheated’ quote.
At least the Saturday night headliners could be relied upon in FM. Perhaps the UK’s best ever home grown melodic rock band are celebrating their 30th anniversary, albeit with a long hiatus in the middle.
As a long time fan for all but the first of these years it was great to see them winning over a crowd, perhaps only a minority of whom were established fans, although they did very much let the music speak for itself rather than force their history on people.
They were slick and well drilled as usual and appeared to be enjoying themselves on stage, with a well balanced set not too far removed from last year’s tour. They opened with ‘Tough Love’ before revisiting the heady days of the late eighties when I thought they were set for world domination with the classic AOR keyboard intro and fist in the air chorus of ‘I Belong to the Night’.
Old favourites such as ‘Don’t Stop’ and the evergreen ‘That Girl’ nestled comfortably alongside new song ‘Cold Hearted’, built on a beefy, funky riff, and ‘Wildside’.
‘Closer to Heaven’ showed off the wonderful soulful voice of Steve Overland whilst the obscure non-album single ‘Let Love Be The Leader’, which featured some great twin leads between Steve and Jim Kirkpatrick, whose guitar playing seems to have given the band an added spark.
A double from ‘Tough It Out’ of the rarely played title track and should-have-been hit ‘Bad Luck would normally be the cue for the set to reach a climax, but the most significant thing about FM in 2014 is just how well they balance the desire for nostalgia from 40 somethings with creating fresh new music.
As a result ‘Over You’, with a shuffling beat and twin lead guitars that offered a taste of the Sunday headliners, and ‘Cross Town Train’ were as convincing as anything in the set, before they finished with traditional closer ‘Burning My Heart Down’, complete with audience participation and Jem Davis coming up front with his Eddie Van Halen styled ‘keytar’.
For an encore Bernie Marsden was brought on stage for ‘Here I Go Again’ – while not decrying the right of one of rock’s most popular elder statesmen to play an iconic song he co-wrote, this was something of a wasted opportunity – as well as playing lead guitar, he sang rather than rather than Steve Overland, with the band taking rather a backseat. Moreover the set seemed to end well short of the 11 o’clock curfew.
Those minor gripes aside, FM’s show was almost faultless and at 30 they have probably never sounded better and won several new friends.
Photo: Darran Scott
The second day was dominated by the storm and torrential rain which had fortunately passed by the time my taxi arrived in early afternoon, sadly too late to catch symphonic female fronted progressive metallers Winter In Eden who I received rave texts about.
Again sticking to the main tent, not least for easy access to a selection of the real ales on show, the first band was Cloud Atlas, the new project of Heidi Widdop who was an early singer in Mostly Autumn, cutting a rather rustic presence in farmer’s hat and floral dress.
An interesting set of songs had an ethereal bent to them, but frequently gathered momentum with long solos from guitarist Martin Ledger, while Heidi’s voice could move from being delicate to a powerful roar.
They had put a lot of effort into the light show and stage presentation for a band so far down the bill, and with songs such as ‘Let The Blood Flow’, and closer ‘Stars’ are a name to watch for lovers of the ever growing female fronted prog scene.
Mr So and So produced equally varied progressive fare, with co-vocalist Charlotte Evans beginning in almost operatic style, but the band rocked out on occasion too. It was also something of an occasion for their fans, with long time drummer Stuart Browne making his final appearance.
The third in a trio of bands cut from the same cloth were Mostly Autumn, who from my vantage point seemed to spawn a whole host of both offshoots and imitators. Their profile seems to have dipped in recent years, and as Cambridge Rock regulars it was surprising to see them relatively low down the bill.
They opened with a surprisingly direct number in ‘Deep In Borrowdale’, with a catchy ‘Falling Over’ chorus and Bryan Josh taking most of the vocals. However the likes of ‘Evergreen’ were in a more typically adventurous mould, sung by the willowy, now Mrs Josh, Olivia Sparnnen, while they played a suite of songs from their latest concept album Dressed In Voices.
The set closed with ‘Questioning Eyes’, ‘Heroes Never Die’ and ‘Box of Tears’ all with the trademark Mostly Autumn sound and what a friend of mine referred to as Bryan’s ‘epic’ guitar solos which reminded me of David Gilmour. All in all a thoroughly professional and quality set.
With prog and blues very much the dominant musical genres on show this weekend, there were relatively few out and out hard rock acts on view so while rather a left field choice in the second form top spot, Jorn Lande was a welcome change.
Of all current singers, his vocal tones are perhaps the closest to Ronnie James Dio (he even did vocal duties for Heaven and Hell’s tribute to him at High Voltage , lest we forget) and he was well supported by a three piece band- in which former WigWam guitarist Trond Holter carried off all guitar duties by himself and was quite a charismatic, smiling character. Indeed Jorn himself, despite his sunken eyed, wild haired Viking persona, showed his own dry humour introducing the band.
The set mixed his solo material such as ‘Below’ and ‘Brought The Angels Down’ with ‘Time To Begin’ from his Masterplan days, but in front of a festival audience I thought he missed a trick by not covering any of the Dio or Whitesnake material he had done so effectively in the past.
Nevertheless ‘Lonely Are The Brave’ was quite accessible, while the lengthy closer ‘War of The Worlds’ led into some warrior type chanting, which the crowd continued for some time, in the way Maiden fans do during Fear Of The Dark.
With some overlap between the stages, I hot-footed it to the blues tent to see Roadhouse in full swing. Though only introduced to me relatively recently, they are a long running hidden gem of the British rock scene, mixing blues-rock with mainman Gary Boner’s fascination with the dark side of the American heartland, and the crowd were already stoked as I came in for the epic ‘Dark Angel’ – both girl singers giving their leather lunged all, and the more straight ahead raunchy rock of ‘Telling Lies’, and ‘Preacher Man’ with Gary and Danny Gwilim swapping guitar solos.
For the second day running one of my all time favourite bands were headlining and Wishbone Ash were perfect material for the Cambridge demographic, a classic rock band that have stood the test of time, place the emphasis on quality and are impervious to passing fashions.
They have also been through myriad line up changes, but the current foursome have been stable for six or seven years and this showed in some incredibly tight playing with songs brought immaculately to their conclusion.
They wisely began with a duo from the classic Argus, ‘The King Will Come’, with ever smiling Bob Skeat producing some nifty bass work and harmony vocals and guitarist Muddy Manninen as fiery as I have seen him, and ‘Sometime World’, showcasing both the band’s trademark harmonies, but more significantly the sole survivor from the classic line up Andy Powell’s enduring ability to produce lilting, lyrical guitar solos at pace.
However Wishbone have the confidence to play newer material and ‘Can’t Go it Alone’ went into twin guitar overload with a memorable lengthy jam between Andy and Muddy even though I found ‘Heavy Weather’ did what it said on the tin, and it seemed to lack the trademark Wishbone sound. The title track from new album Blue Horizon also began in a slow, dreamlike style but grew on me as it gradually shifted through different twists and turns in beguiling fashion.
‘Persephone’ was another lengthy classic, and the way on two occasions Andy and Muddy’s sweet solos segued into one another was quite memorable. By that time however a change of tempo was required and the hard rock of ‘Engine Overheat’ (thankfully restored to its original length) with some great slide work from Muddy, and the evergreen ‘Blowin Free’, with greater guitar interplay, did exactly that.
Even in a truncated set there was still time however for the epic ‘Phoenix’. Where for most of the set they are very well drilled, with each passing year the band seem to use this song as the basis for improvised jamming and this was no exception as mid-song the pace was slowed to a virtual standstill then picked up again with a reggae beat, before kicking back into life into the fast section and finally clocking in at a mere 17 minutes.
With the curfew rigorously enforced, there was only time for one encore and I was expecting live favourite ‘Jailbait’, but instead the choice of new song ‘Deep Blues’ was a surprising one, even if it did have the same jaunty bluesy boogie feel with plenty of swapping of solos.
To take such a chance epitomised Andy Powell’s belief in the new music and to ensure this incarnation of one of classic rock’s underappreciated treasures are more than a heritage act.
It was a great end to my first Cambridge Rock Festival in five years. The festival is a refreshing break from the larger, more commercial events, but everyone remarked on the friendly feel, set times are as generous as the choice of beers, a wide variety of classic rock bases are covered, and it helps our ageing legs that the three stages and all the stalls and amenities are so close together.
I hope that various difficulties with the City Council that were alluded to over the weekend can be resolved and that this friendliest of festivals continues to punch above its weight and attract top names.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan, except where stated.
Photo gallery by Andy Nathan and Darran Scott
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