Festival Review: Camden Rocks 2019

It was an inauspicious start to my now annual trip to Camden Rocks Festival.  Liverpool Lime Street Station looked like a refugee staging post for badly dressed, stumbling Liverpool supporters.  Apparently, they won a football match the previous evening.

The journey to London was uneventful and my train pulled into Euston only 15 minutes late.  A triumph for Virgin West Coast on a Sunday.  Two short stops on the Northern Line and there you are at Camden Town. 

Camden Rocks is the Daddy of the indoor festival scene.  Started in 2009, under the directorship of Chris McCormack, it is now a two-day festival, with over 400 bands playing in twenty venues.  And what venues, historic names that you’ve seen on countless tour posters, The Dublin Castle, Dingwalls, the Electric Ballroom (unfortunately the beautifully ornate Koko is out of action this year). 

One other difference this year is that it is my first opportunity to sling a few H’s about, using the patented Halfway 2 Nowhere live gig rating system.

HHHHHUnreal, HHHHExcellent, HHHGreat, HHMet expectations, HPoor.

Quickly nipping into The Worlds End pub to collect my wristband it was time for the first band of the day.  Here’s where I make a confession.  I haven’t planned what bands I’m going to see today.  It’s in the lap of the gods, or more accurately in the laps of my four friends, who all have their own opinions about who to see, where and when.

They are already in the cool, dark, lunchtime expanse of the Electric Ballroom.  I hurry to join them and catch the last couple of songs from north London band Faers (HHH).  They describe their sound as a ‘Dancy Afrobeat indie rock’ and I can’t argue with that, specially the ‘Dancy’ bit.  Their final song certainly had the reasonably sized crowd frugging away.  No mean feat for a band playing a big space like the Electric Ballroom at 12 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. 

Back out into the bright, warm, June sunshine and the decision was made to hop over the road to that favourite pub of the Brit pop generation, The Good Mixer.  The venue was already packed to the gills to watch Yorkshire’s answer to The White Stripes, No Fit State (HHH). So packed indeed that I had to watch the duo perform their new single ‘On Your Own’ from the doorway, giving me an excellent view of Mike Neilson (booming drums), but only a profile view, of the ear of Danny Yates (loud fuzzy guitar riffs and vocals).  An enthusiastic crowd enjoyed a raucous set of blues inspired rock.

I said earlier that I had no plans for the day.  Well that was not entirely true.  I had heard a rumour that one band was planning a secret, guerrilla gig, somewhere on Camden High Street.  So it was, after a little digging, I found myself on the first floor of a women’s clothing store, leaning on a display carousel of cut price skirts watching Winsford’s finest The Luka State.  They were promoting their proper gig later in the day by playing a mini-set of their high intensity rock and roll to an intimate audience of 20 people inside the shop: and to the whole of London outside the shop.  At one point they managed to bring the whole of the High Street to a standstill as a London bus stopped to see what all the commotion was.  I watched as the band’s manger tapped gently on the driver’s window and then handed him a free CD!

Time to move on.  And to another renowned venue.  The Hawley Arms.  Playing upstairs were another Yorkshire outfit, the five-piece, Apollo Junction (HHH).  They appeared to have had a bit of an unfortunate time of it recently.  Lead singer, Jamie Williamson (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Everton full-back Leighton Baines) was wearing a surgical boot, although this did not impede his ability to wander engagingly through the crowd at will.  It also transpired that the band had had to train up a new bass player within the last 48 hours.  You couldn’t tell.  They played a wonderful set of jangly, guitar based, synth imbued pop songs.  Uplifting positive songs like ‘Always Remember’ and their new single ‘In your Arms’ sounded great.  Like New Order on Prozac.  Everyone was enjoying themselves, band and punters alike, but particularly guitarist Matt Wilson who, shades on indoors, danced on every bit of furniture he could.  It’s always better when you can see a band having a good time. It gives an affirmation that you can have a good time too.  Look out for their album ‘Mystery’ due to be released in September.

Four bands in and time for breather.  A beer on the terrace of Dingwall’s, and a quick freshly made Tandoori Chicken Naan wrap and it was time to go again.

After our earlier taster of The Luka State (HHHH) it was time to see what they could do with a longer set in a bigger venue, so we headed to Gabeto.  Lead singer, Conrad Ellis, has mastered the art of the ‘Thousand Yard Stare’.  Just as well as Gabeto is long venue.  He also has a voice so gravelly that you could lay it in front of your house and park your car on it.  The Luka State’s live performances have a raw energy about them.  Guitarist, Lewis Pursey also likes a low-slung guitar, ala classic Paul Simonon.  You can see why some people have made kindly comparison to The Clash live.  The Luka State played a tight set of raucous, ‘balls out’, sweaty rock and roll.  Picks from their set were the stirring ‘Kick in The Teeth’ (once heard, you’ll wake with the ‘Dinky, dink, dink; K’Dinky, dink, dink’ guitar riff in your head), and new song ‘Girl’ a slightly more complex song that typifies this bands development.  By the end of the show, and it was a show, Gabeto was full.  People outside had been drawn in by the sheer energy.  The lead singer finished the set wrung out, prostrate on the floor to a rousing chorus of approval.  There was a palpable buzz in the air.

It was time for a brisk walk back to the Electric Ballroom, (a few years ago I may have jogged) to see RAT BOY (HHHH).  From my vantage point, at the back of a now packed space, it looked like someone had released four instrument hurling, pyjama clad Gremlins on to the stage and said to them, ‘Unleash mayhem’.  This was my first live experience of RAT BOY, and Wow.  That rattled through a monster set of 18 songs.  Lyrically they covered all the universal themes concerning the youth of today, or any day: relationships; lack of opportunities and rebellion.

 Sonically, if you are lazy, you might class RAT BOY as, Melodic Skate Punk.  Certainly, there are hip-hop beats, rapped lyrics, fast thrashing guitars and heavy bass lines.  But there is more musically to RAT BOY than that.   ‘Get Over It’ has a Latin feel coursing through it, ‘My Name is Rat Boy’ has a heavy reggae vibe.  You feel they could play anything and make it sound good. The set finished with the spanking ‘I Wanna Skate’ that had the moshers moshing, and the slammers slamming.  I was exhausted just watching.  As an aside, you don’t normally associate bands with preparedness, but I manged to get a peek at RAT BOY’s set list and at the bottom it read ‘IF ALL GOES WRONG WITH EQUIPMENT – Sweet Home Alabama, Wonderwall, Babylon’s Burning’.  I’d have paid to see that.

By common consent, gig of the day was from New York rockers, The Last Internationale (HHHHH) at FEST.  They are brilliant.  Imagine Led Zeppelin with Janis Joplin on lead vocals, singing about poverty, hopelessness, female empowerment, and the plight of the native American’s and you’re getting close.  Guitarist, Edgey Pires sets the tone by walking on the stage wearing a ‘Nazi Lives Don’t Matter’ tee-shirt. He wields his guitar like a machine that kills fascists.  But not immediately.

We have to wait for the second song ‘Killing Fields’ to hear Pires’s thundering power chords and blistering solos.  First the audience are treated to the a cappella ‘Berta, Berta’.  Singer/bassist Delila Paz has the soulful, bluesy voice of a tortured angel.  Having a beautiful voice is not enough though.  You need the desire and conviction to go with it.  Paz has these traits by the bucket load.  The passion is most obviously displayed during the performance of the mesmerising title track of their new album ‘Soul on Fire’.  Paz had the transfixed crowd in the palm of her hand.  There were many high points in a truly stunning set, but ‘Battleground’ with its cast of thousands as the crowd were encouraged to invade the stage and join in the ‘wo-oh-oh,’ chorus, was a special moment for all involved.

There was just time for me to nip back to the now rammed Electric Ballroom to catch a couple of songs from Ash before it was time to head for my train back north.  Ash were Ash. That’s not a criticism.  I happen to like Ash.  I think they are very good.  They were just what I expected them to be.  It’s the unexpected that makes festival’s like Camden Rocks such a joy.  I’d got that in abundance today.  I’ll be back next year for more joy.  Camden Rocks isn’t a title, it’s a statement of fact. 

Ian D.   

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