Day One: The hottest weekend of the year began under a blazing sun and the brightest sky. After we’d collected our wrist-candy from The Underworld, we hotfooted to the primary performance venue, the 1500 capacity Electric Ballroom, to catch festival openers: the Kent arena-rockers-in-waiting Collateral. And, indeed, they were every bit as “Big Shot” as we expected and a perfect launch pad to start the fun. They opened the festival like a steamroller on fire.
There are twenty venues to choose from, and over 400 bands to see, so detailed prep is crucial, even though, as strategists will tell you: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In Camden, the enemy is traveling time between stages. This year, however, the multi-venue event spans 2 days, so there is a bit more time to see headliners such as Frank Turner, Deaf Havana, Wheatus and Ash. These household names foster an excited gathering of pleasure seekers, along with thousands more rock aficionados who are there to support their own favorite rising-stars play 30-minute showcases. Like the previous Camden Crawl, this festival is important for emerging musicians. “It’s like speed-dating for bands…” one party animal told us.
To get an idea of the geometry of the place, Camden Town resembles a giant chicken foot (an inverted CND symbol) with three branching toes pointing to Camden High Street, Kentish Town Road and Camden Road. The toes run north from the focal point, the town’s oldest pub, “The World’s End.” It’s an energetic zone intersected by canals and back alleyways. The walk from the Station to Stables Market takes about five minutes when there’s no one about. But realistically, and in the heat of the day, it takes twenty minutes to push through the crowd. Along the way are some of Britain’s most iconic music sites: Dingwalls, where the Stranglers had a stir with The Clash and Sex Pistols in 1975, The Dublin Castle where Amy Winehouse pulled-pints and Madness played early gigs, the Good Mixer where Oasis and Blur began their hostility. Pink Floyd played one of their earliest gigs here (1966), Nirvana, and Madonna (1983) played their first UK shows. Even Prince opened a paraphernalia shop on Chalk Farm Road in 1994. Yes, Camden is a home to misfits, crafters, musical punks and colorful bohemians.
The solid alt-metal stalwarts Derange, with Cat Pereira on vocals were next for us, up at The Dev. Their “Divide” is furious and blistering and they stimulate the first mosh of the day, just gone noon. Then we trudged to The Fest in Stables Market to catch the Peterborough based dreamwave band Le Brock who, even though they’re a duo, manage to sound like 1995-era Journey. Their “Bright Lights” was like Steve Perry singing along to a 1986 Eurythmics ballad. Yeah, they’re stellar… but they might need drums. Southend’s Asylums, fronted by a paler Ayoade-lookalike Luke Branch also played the Fireball Stage at The Fest. Their deeply immersive, melodic art-works such as “Alien Human Emotions” were punctuated with charismatic stardust and unlimited guitars that stretched with the generous emotion of the voice.
Topless showgirls have been exploited by cabaret owners since the 19th century. And folly-girls have titillated the Las Vegas strip since 1941. But any underlying symbolism about body autonomy, androgyny, or sexual objectification was probably lost on the tumult of older men who pushed forward to see the The SoapGirls — the French-born sisters Millie and Mie — who played upbeat silvery surf-punk in the raw (but for headpieces and thongs) at The Fest. “Society’s Rejects” was a slice of fizzy pop. “Life’s free… but you’re gonna pay somehow,” they mewed to a row of leering males who’d thrust themselves forwards.
Down at The Dev, the Nottingham bone-crushers The Five Hundred presented a technically brilliant show, deeply enveloping and totally saturated. “Smoke & Mirrors” was a twisting whirlwind of sacred fire. And then we yomped to Gabeto, Stables Market, to witness The Bottom Line, mature and melodic early 2000’s sounding pop-punk delivered with thumping spirit. And although they are English, you would swear they were Floridians, think: New Found Glory.
The highlight of the day was Bang Bang Romeo in Dingwalls with the incredible soul-blues vocalist Anastasia Walker. “Bag of Bones” is like a soundtrack from the comedy-drama Fleabag and Anastasia’s voice is like a glug of Frangelico’s liqueur served in a velvet cape. “The next time you’ll see this lot they’ll be playing a stadium...” a fan in the front told us. And it’s true, the band will be supporting P!nk on the European leg of her Beautiful Trauma Tour.
The Music & Beans health food cafe had a cramped cellar-bar venue. So the London based grunge/hard-punk band Offend My Ego made best use of tables and chairs to extend the stage reach. They were superbly animated. Dig Lazarus used the same cupboard-sized space, and created a similarly exciting, albeit somewhat less risk-filled show than the previous band… with crushing rhythms and lots-and-lots of pop-punk booty.
The rebellious Watford mods The Spitfires played a monster concert on the main stage at the Electric Ballroom to an audience who enjoyed the horn-sounds and pulsating rhythms that brought to mind The Dead 60s soothed by the temperate sophistication of Style Council.
The only bummer of the weekend was the absurdly long wait for Wheatus. Considering that most of us had exhausted our festival feet by 7pm — a 40 minute wait in line to be told that it’s “one in one out” — is rifuckulous. Why didn’t they organize two shows for big names? Or use the Roundhouse? And, anyway, nobody was gonna leave once they were inside the venue because Frank Turner was on the same stage right after the Yankee raiders. Still, tired and irritated revelers had lots of other choices: Quireboys at Gabeto or Glen Matlock at the Fest. In addition, they had the inventive Darwen rock ‘n’ rollers Sky Valley Mistress to enjoy at the Dub.
Day Two: Sunday started cloudier but was still humid, so we hung around in the shade of the Underworld only to discover that Federal Charm had called-off their show. So we dashed to Stables Market to see The OffDays.These young people created indie-rock driven by harmony and admitted that it was their first time in Camden and their first-ever festival. They generated a lot of bright and happy fun and were well received by the generous crowd. Sweet Crisis, right after, were almost the antithesis. Dog-eared, weathered, ratty-tatty, and undoubtedly more hairy, these stalwart blues-rockers from Cambridge brought us songs like “Treading In Deep Water” that had swampy tones and southern rock vibes.
Rews have evolved from being a pop-rock duo with singer songwriter Shauna Tohill and percussionist Collette Williams into a tight and dynamic trio. They created bright songs filled with lyrical attitude at Doc Marten’s Boot Room.
Joanovarc, centered around remaining founding member Shelley Walker (leadguitar, vox) and now with Laura Ozholl (guitar, vox) and new girls Ellie Daymond (drums) and Keira Kenworthy (bass) delivered truncated riffs and snatchy rhythms in a rattling-good show that was filled with resistance and defiance at the Gabeto. The Angels of Rock played burning songs from their new self-titled album that emphasized the range of Sam and Laura’s vocals and their supercharged pedigree.
Ryuketsu Blizzard was one of the strangest acts we have ever witnessed: The Osaka showband play a bizarre sort-of theatrical glam cum techno-punk weirdness while dressed in bondage gear and dom/sub accoutrements. The result is part cabaret-style visual art and part masochistic shock-punk. To be frank, we felt defiled and slightly contaminated afterwards.
We were on safer ground with the Macclesfield punk pairing The Virginmarys at Dingwalls. Their masterpieces of disappointment and repentance never cease to amaze. Numbers from the new album, such as “S.O.S.4.U.N.I” have sweeping guitars, ingenious lyrics and the sort of angry pain you thought had perished with the demise of Kurt Cobain.
Whilst A completed a post-grunge, melodic charm-offensive at the Electric Ballroom, and after an ear-melting metal-core show from Southampton’s Our Hollow, Our Home, the Underworld capitulated to the crushing intensity of Raging Speedhorn. “Well, London, we’ve learned today that you can’t mosh...” they admonished, “But maybe you can jump? Why don’t you prove it...” Their aggressive ear-assaults on the subjects of depression & antipathy turned out to be too much for some punters but, for lots more, the Speedhornists were a festival highlight.
The Towers of London played two tacky shows over the weekend, and we caught up at the Fest. Staunch fans will be pleased to know they still regurgitate “I’m A Rat” and they still don’t (really) play punk. Instead, they deliver a juicy, mock-filled glitter bag of glammy rock that incorporates a nod to New York Dolls here, a smile to Malcolm McLaren there, and maybe a tip of the hat to bands like Hanoi Rocks. Apparently, they are now documenting their return to the fray with a new series of TV programs that’s supposed to be a counterbalance to the ridicule they experienced after the 2006 Bravo TV series. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out… will it be the full Anvil?
Speaking of rats, there was certainly a verminous buzz in the North London air about Rat Boy. The “Internationally Unknown” performer Jordan Cardy from Chelmsford, Essex creates a perceptive hodgepodge of rock ‘n’ rap in an effort to lift the stone from under our feet and show us the hidden scummunity that live beneath our indifference. If you can picture Shaun Ryder pitching up to sing at a Sleaford Mods concert you’re halfway to understanding this act.
Stoke’s best known noisy onslaughters Discharge were never away for long and they showed lesser bands how hardcore-punk should be done. Yes, they’re brutally stylistic… but my God, they’re so thrilling. Skarlett Riot suffered sound problems at the Monarch. But songs from the “Regenerate” album were expressive and anthemic, and Chloe was both tender and antagonistic.
Sunday headliners, the Brit-poppers Ash have been pushing their singles collection in recent weeks and made the most of their recent “Islands” songs on the Sailor Jerry stage at the Ballroom. Their show ran concurrently with the vintage reggae-punk outfit Ruts DC at The Schott NYC stage, so presented revelers with a distinct choice between seeing original punksterismos or more sophisticated Q-magazine style gloss-poppers.
While the Libertine frontman Carl Barât performed at Dingwalls, we went down to Fest to photograph Manchester’s dub-ska-punk hooligans Sonic Boom Six, with frontwoman Laila K, who played their energetic, hyperactive bounce-beats to a waning audience who would never, for a second, give up on their favorite band. This performance came right before a powerful show from their Keighley ska-punk-fusion chums Random Hand who have been disseminating their socio political dance-hall sounds since 2002. Hands Off Gretal are always good value (Camden Assembly) and their pop-grunge theater show was a tumult of color and shamelessness. Certainly, for lovers of Courtney’s Hole.
Five-piece Sasha & The Shades (with Sasha Adamczewski on lead vocals and guitar with Tom Julian Jones on vocals and guitar/harmonica) brought folk-sounding psych rock ‘n’ roll with clever touches and songs that brushed on political and social issues and eeled as they rolled out. And the Norwich five-piece classic rockers Bad Touch entertained with contagious singsongs at the Black Heart. While blues act Big Boy Bloater wallowed out of the swamp with huge guttural vocals and finger-licking guitars.
The after parties continued late into the night, but we went home a little messy, disheveled by an unexpected storm, yet filled with joy and festitude. We agreed with a local when she expressed these words: “We are lucky to have a festival where musicians are free to express themselves with distinction….” Hallelujah to that.
Words & video by Neil Mach 2019