This annual gathering, wedged tightly into the crammed streets of central north London, has been on the go since 2009. It started with 25 bands and 5 venues. This year over 400 acts will be appearing across 20 stages.
Saturday 1 June
I was up and about for the early shift on a sweltering Saturday afternoon and dropped in to a sweaty Kolis Lounge just up from the tube station. As Sirens Fall were mid-way through a compelling, energetic set. The bar was surprisingly packed for 1.30pm. I half expected thinly populated venues with such an extensive band list and choice of venues available. But not a bit of it. This theme of busy, engaged audiences was repeated everywhere I went.
As Sirens Fall are a five piece from West Yorkshire, but they have absorbed some useful lessons from West New Jersey. There’s a healthy respect for My Chemical Romance and Gerard Way in the look and feel of this alt rock gang. Grungy, fuzzed up guitar, sweet harmonies, catchy tunes and an energetic vocalist with an impressive range.
The band worked hard at crowd participation (almost a bit too much in a half hour slot) and pushed hard their new EP ‘Where The Lost Things Go’. The audience knew a lot of the material and set closer, the stuttering, brooding ‘Where did we go wrong’ went down very well.
This is my manor in the day job and I thought I would be able to zip between venues through quiet back streets and burn off the tourists. Wrong. Connecting roads were cluttered up with tour buses and rental vans packed with PA. A reminder that this Festival is a massive logistical undertaking in the centre of town.
I was almost late for King Nun at Dingwalls. This band had been recommended to me by a mate. In a chaotic, frenetic and sometimes troubled show, they did not disappoint. King Nun smashed out a punky, alt rock racket, sometimes calling up edgy memories of Dinosaur Jnr and Mudhoney from back in the day; sometimes built on lithe bass lines snaking through the white noise.
Theo Polyzoides on vocals and rhythm guitar has a frenetic stage presence and threw everything into the performance. The delivery was marred by patchy sound and his instrument gave out too many times. Finally, Theo chucked the thing away in disgust and a roadie has to scuttle onto the crowded stage to retrieve it.
Despite the carnage, a few cracking tunes managed to assert themselves like ‘Tulip’, ‘Hung Around’, with its anxious climbing riff and melodic moments in ‘Sponge’ which shunted along on a conventional rock rhythm, spiked with frantic lead guitar. A debut album is in the pipeline for this young, endearingly naive, Wandsworth four-piece and if it is as fiery as the live show, it will be worth waiting for.
Next door at Dingwalls Canalside, Cavalcade had already begun a lively set of tight, sharp Buzzcock’s infused punk ‘n’ roll. The rhythm unit was goose-pimply taught and tracks like ‘Silver Boat’ and ‘Shake Myself Awake’ thumped along on a gorgeous bass rumble. Jack Campbell on vocals/guitar had an easy frontman’s banter and armed with an urgent, smash-and-grab live show, this was half-an-hour well spent.
Next I headed over the Dublin Castle, a pub in which I spent far too many nights in my youth, and found Brand New Friend ready to play for a packed house. And great to see that here, like everywhere else, the crowd was mixed in age, gender and ethnicity. Indeed a microcosm of Camden itself.
I was initially underwhelmed with this five-piece from Castlerock, Northern Ireland because all I could pick up was the frothy bontempi keyboard plinks that made the tracks sound like retro advertising jingles. But soon the lightweight overtones subsided and waves of distorted guitar came through to balance the pop. ‘Mediocre At Best’ and ‘Hate It When You Have To Go’ were thrillingly infectious three-minute epics, wound tight with quirky and humorous lyrics.
The band’s real strength is the gorgeous vocal harmonies between siblings Taylor Johnson (vocals/guitar) and Lauren Johnson (keyboard/vocals), seen to great effect on the vibrant, busy ‘I Was an Astronaut’.
Another asset is their searing sincerity. Taylor was almost overwhelmed with the reception in Camden and was at pains to thank everyone for coming out. There was also a thoughtful dedication to Arsenal footballer Jose Antonio Reyes who had died in a car crash the previous day.
A promising young band of indie pop-rock rascals. Good stuff.
Phoxjaw at The Black Heart were a bastion of proper grown-up metal in amongst the punky, noisy upstart stuff seen elsewhere this day. They are a death-doom band from Bristol packing garguantuan riffs and lumbering melodies.
Formed during the summer of 2016, the band might appeal to fans of System Of A Down. The live show was hallmarked with energy and grunting angst, but nothing really caught fire. The material was probably too ponderous and fractured for my tastes this baking hot afternoon. Maybe on a different day.
I strolled to the other end of the High Street to find a berth in Music & Beans and caught the end of Offend my Ego. Almost literally. This is a tiny basement venue and as I came down the stairs I was startled to find the frontman right in my face, followed soon after by the guitarist, bashing out a Smashing Pumpkins/Alice In Chains crawl and taking up more space than the audience. Soon they were gone, but a band for the notebook on this brief evidence.
Dig Lazarus were to be my last band of the day. A power trio from Nuneaton, the band were packing swagger and groove from the off. Low slung guitar, dirty riffs, rumbling bass-lines and driving drums. This band were always going to tick my boxes.
They had created something of a stir, too. The venue was ridiculously packed. Punters were perched on stairs and peeking through the wire mesh to get glimpses.
The new EP, ‘Figured It Out’ was plundered heavily with tracks like ‘Joker’ building from a descending lyric with a strong chorus and breeze-block riffing. ‘Tell Me Why’ followed up in confident style, hinting at harmonies and melody to supplement the muscle.
For the second half of the set, vocalist/guitarist Ash Tustain strapped on a Gibson Explorer and suddenly everything felt a notch thicker and fatter. ‘Feel’ was a new song with a heavy riff, simply done but so effective with smart change ups and sharp lyrics.
A short but well-received, fresh and punchy set from an accessible, upbeat band.
Sunday 2 June
I do like The Virginmarys. There’s an honesty and transparency about their brand of no frills powerhouse indie-rock-punk. Now touring their third album ‘Northern Sun Sessions’ the band are well established. A busy Sunday afternoon crowd at Dingwalls was testament to that.
They benefitted from a great sound that layered up the guitars in slabs and provided the platform for Ally Dickaty’s compelling vocals, which were by turns melodic and rasping.
There was a contrast in the material. Enough changes of pace, pauses and transitions to keep things fresh, certainly, but it’s more than that. Tracks like ‘Running For My Life’ paired classic rock-like structure with screamo vocals; or the power-packed ‘Get Me Back Home’, undercut with shimmering dobro guitar that gave a country feel.
The pace was relentless. ‘Eye For An Eye’ was driven by Danny Dolan’s maniacal drumming. ‘For You My Love’ was all about the guitars and had the crowd jumping at the front.
‘S.O.S.F.U.N.I.’ followed in similar style. Dickaty’s vocals seemed to be given added thrust by the way he leant into the mic, veins standing out on his neck, pummelling his guitar.
The audience was in top form by now and they filled in all the lyrical gaps when invited to do so on ‘Lost Weekend’, chorusing ‘will someone save me from myself tonight’.
On the crest of a wave, Ally told us about his early influences from The Wildhearts to Terrorvision to Three Colours Red and Frank Turner, and he was cheered to the rafters.
Then a finale that peaked with the brilliant ‘Just a Ride’ and ended with ‘Bang Bang Bang’ again featuring the crowd on the extended intro.
Great set. Intense, breathless and rocket-fuelled.
Next, over to the Fest venue at the Stables market for The last Internationale. I’d seen them at Ramblin’ Man last year and had been impressed. This time around, less so. The oblong venue didn’t help and maybe their campaigning and rebel-politicking style is better enjoyed in the broad acres of a festival.
The band’s intro was Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ played in its entirety and given that the opener ‘Killing Fields’ was delivered acapella in a style reminiscent of Janis Joplin, the groove and vibe took a while to kick in.
‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood’ was a step in the right direction, drawing on a raw blues riff that might have been Humble Pie in their pomp. Edgey Pires put in a decent shift on guitar, but overall the sound lacked a little zip and was sometimes drowned out by the bass of the otherwise excellent frontwoman Delila Paz.
In a similar set list to last year’s Ramblin’ Man outing, ‘Mind Ain’t Free’ may have been the best, dominated by a luxurious guitar synth sound that also served to reinforce the view that today’s show was very retro.
Hard to believe this trio was one of my take-away acts from 2018. However, I remember remarking at the time that the sound would benefit from an additional guitar or keys. That view was reaffirmed tonight. I quit whilst I was (just about) ahead and looked for something else amongst the 20-odd venues in town.
It found me. I was aiming to catch Ash at the Electric ballroom. On the way, I passed Gabeto’s and was powerless to resist the fat old Gibson Les Paul guitar licks and thunderous snare coming from within. I stumbled upon Daxx and Roxane belting out their trademark old school sleaze ‘n’ roll. Festivals are about counterpoints and after the laboured delivery of The Last Internationale, an exuberant, unashamed battering by this lot was just what I needed.
The crowd was small (a rarity across the weekend) but enthusiastic. I spotted a guy in a trilby hat at the front turning out some serious air guitar moves, whom I has seen at Dig Lazarus the previous day. Clearly we have similar tastes. And when the obvious influences at play were at AC/DC, Led Zep, Thin Lizzy, Motley Crue, et al. then why not? Especially when allied to the work-rate and energy of guitarists Cal Wymann and Simon Golaz. Singer and bassist Cedric Pfister also gave his all.
A cover of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and then ‘Good Vibes’ ended a high octane set for them and a restorative fix for me.
I had missed Ash by then, so instead headed over to the Underworld for The Wonder Stuff. At first blush, The Wonder Stuff may appear more obviously pop-focused than many bands at this Festival. In reality, the band remain stubbornly difficult to pigeon-hole. Guitar pop is obviously the bedrock, but on tonight’s evidence, folk, rock, punk and even dance were all healthy ingredients in the wholesome recipe.
In fact, dance was widely in evidence. The band’s committed fans did not stop jigging and grooving all night. There was something very uplifting about tracks like ‘Caught In My Shadow’ and ‘Here Comes Everyone’.
Mainman Miles Hunt – still looking as dapper as he did in 1993 – declared early on that he would not be uttering the words ‘and here is something new’. Everything was resolutely late 20thCentury. Indeed six tracks came from each of the band’s first three albums. The best of these, for my money, was ‘Never Loved Elvis’ and I was up there with the hard-core fans belting out the words to ‘Size of a Cow’ and ‘Welcome To The Cheap Seats’.
The sound was very tight and well drilled, but lost nothing in terms of energy and vitality. Erica Nockalls on electric violin contributed a lot to that feel. The three other band members were all new for this tour (although guitarist Malcom Treece was returning after his last gigs in 2012).
The hits kept coming. ‘Don’t Let Me Down, Gently’ and ‘On The Ropes’. Though no ‘Dizzy’ (a Number 1 for them with Vic Reeves), which rarely gets an outing.
I left with a sense of wellbeing after a passionate gig, recognising the band’s deserved place amongst classic British guitar pop that includes timeless bands like Squeeze, The Waterboys, XTC and many others.
The last band of the Festival for me was Bad Touch back at the Black Heart. A bit of classic rock to end the weekend. Bad Touch put in a game performance in front of a decent crowd, vocalist Stevie Westwood working hard. Stand outs were ‘Hammer Falls’ with a great solo from Rob Glendinning, and the ballad ‘Believe in Me’ topped out with another bluesy solo.
The overall impact of the band was undermined by the volume of George Drewry’s drums with which nothing could compete; and far too much treble on the vocals. The set, through no fault of their own, was something of a hard listen and I’d like to see them again under more favourable conditions.
This was the first time I’d been to a music festival set in a city rather than on a self-contained site. In Camden, the concept absolutely works. The scale, breadth and ambition was mightily impressive, equalled only by the quality of the music and the level of participation: surely this is the Edinburgh Festival of rock music.
To see so much new music played to diverse audiences in busy venues full of atmosphere was genuinely positive. On this evidence the future of live rock ‘n’ roll is assured. Bring on Camden Rocks 2020.
Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Dave Atkinson except where stated
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