The Cambridge Rock Festival is one of the many small rock festivals held up and down the country. The CRF specialises in classic rock, blues and prog, and as I’ve said before it’s like visiting an alternate universe where punk never happened. You won’t find much NME-friendly corporate landfill indie on the bill here.
This was my third CRF, and my second spending the full weekend under canvas.
I travelled up with my mate Andy, a fellow Mostly Autumn and Breathing Space fan, and we soon met up with fellow-fans Colin, Helen and Chris (a.k.a. The Cider Monster) on the campsite. Of course, we were to meet many, many more old friends over the course of the weekend,
For the early part of Thursday evening we decided to avoid the tribute bands on the main stage and check out some of the young bands on the second stage, such as Rowse, JoanovArc, The Treatment and The Virginmarys, before heading for the main stage for the headliners, Danny Vaughn’s The 80s Rocked. They were billed as “an all-star band playing classic 80s rock hits”, and more or less did what they said on the tin, as cheesy as a very cheesy thing, but thoughoughly entertaining nevertheless. Name an 80s rock hit, and they probably played it. Eye of the Tiger? You Give Love a Bad Name? The Final Countdown? Of course!
The Classic Rock Society sponsored the second stage on Friday, with a bill made up of prog and metal. So we decided to stay in the smaller tent for most of the day then move to the main stage for the last 2-3 acts. The CRS stage opened with the acoustic four-piece Flaming June, whose red-headed singer reminded me more than a bit of a female version of Chris Johnson both in style and lyrics. Best bands on the CRS stage were Winter In Eden, a British take on the European female-fronted symphonic metal genre, and Crimson Sky, who play female-fronted prog but with a quite punky/new wave style singer that sets them apart from other bands in the genre. Final Conflict and The Dreaming Tree also played some entertaining progressive rock. I didn’t see much of the main stage in the early part of the day, although I did catch some of UXL and Newman during intervals on the CRS stage, the latter of whom I heard described worryingly accurately as sounding “like filler tracks on Journey albums”. At the end of The Dreaming Tree’s set I headed over to the main stage and caught the bulk of Danny Bryant’s Redeye Band, the excellent blues power trio who’d played the exact same slot the previous year.
Deborah Bonham, the late John Bonham’s younger sister, took Friday’s special guest spot, and even though I knew none of the songs, she was probably the best artist of the day. She played a set of raw and rootsy blues-rock with more than a hint of Led Zeppelin about it. Certainly she can reach the high notes that Robert Plant can’t get to any more. After her set came The Tygers of Pan Tang, who I thought were a bit out of their depth as headliners, and suffered from an appalling sound mix that rendered the vocals all but inaudible in the early part of the set. Still I enjoyed their set quite a bit, and I seemed to get shown on the big screen rather a lot. This is what happens when you’re with mates who drag you to the front row!
I spent most of Saturday in the main tent, kicking off with some no-nonsense rock’n'roll from Wolf Law, which was just the sort of thing we needed to wake us up first thing in the morning. The real sensation of the day was second on the bill, the young blues guitarist Chantal McGregor, who simply blew us all away. How on earth does someone that young get to play guitar like that?
After that it was over to the smaller tent to catch Emerald Sky’s set. Perhaps because I’d mentally confused them with Crimson Sky. I was expecting a prog band, but they turned out to be an all-female metal power trio. After that I spent the rest of the day back in the main stage tent. Stray were as entertaining as they were last year, but another high spot was blues guitarist Larry Miller. If you remember, he (along with Karnataka) got bounced from the main stage due to the PA snafu last year – and on the strength of his performance on Saturday I think I’d have preferred those two to Focus and Asia! His solo on the slow number (don’t remember the title) was utterly brain-melting.
Saturday’s special guests were the Oliver Dawson Saxon, who turned out to be the only real disappointment of the whole festival. They’re basically trading as a Saxon tribute band in competition with Biff Byford’s official Saxon, yet they played a whole load of mediocre new songs instead of many of the hits. And their singer was awful. Every festival must have it’s dud (it’s a rule, it seems), and they were that dud.
Saturday’s headliners were the Monsters of British Rock, originally billed as The Moody Murray Whitesnake until the intervention of David Coverdale’s lawyers forced a change of name. As well as Micky Moody and Neil Murray from the original British incarnation of Whitesnake the band also included Laurie Wisefield of Wishbone Ash fame as the second guitarist, and Harry James of Thunder and Magnum fame on drums. While they weren’t perfect, they could have done with a better singer, and a bit more keys in the mix, I still enjoyed their set a lot. Part of that was down to the company I was with (what’s better than listening to whole load of Whitesnake songs in the company of three extremely beautiful women?), and part of it was because the pre-hair metal Whitesnake songbook is absolutely full of classic tunes. My one quibble is that it’s “Hobo”, not “Drifter”. Band and audience sang the wrong version!
On to Sunday, the day I was looking forward to the most, with Mostly Autumn, Panic Room and Breathing Space on the bill.
Opener IO Earth divided opinions; some loved genre-bending mix of female-fronted prog, jazz, dance and Joe Satriani-style guitar pyrotechnics, while they left others scratching their heads. While their guitarist was very good indeed, they came over to me as something of work in progress, just too many differing styles to sit comfortably in one band. We’ll have to see how they develop.
Next up, Panic Room, who played an absolute blinder of a set. As readers of this blog will know, I’ve seen them a lot of times over the past couple of years, and that was at least as good a performance I’ve ever seen them do. Apart from the surprise cover of ELP’s “Bitches Crystal” the whole set came from the most recent album “Satellite”, ending with a soaring rendition of the title track. Just a pity they were on so early that many people missed them; on the strength of that set, if they come back they’ll be much higher up the bill.
I’d seen Kyrbgrinder last year on the smaller Radio Caroline stage, this year they returned on the main stage. Certainly the most in-your-face metal band of the whole festival. Like last year, frontman drummer Joannes James is still very much the visual focus of the band, but this we also had some amazing guitar shredding from their new guitarist Tom Caris.
In April in Gloucester I witnessed the rebirth of Mostly Autumn with Breathing Space’s former singer Olivia Sparnenn taking over lead vocals. At Cambridge we witnessed a similar rebirth as the new-look Breathing Space took the stage with new members Heidi Widdop on lead vocals and Adam Dawson on guitar. It’s never easy for a new singer to sing often quite personal material written by the previous singer, but Heidi took songs like “Searching For My Shadow” and made them hers. She has a rawer, bluesier vocal style compared with Livvy, which completely transforms the sound of the band. You’d never have known that she’s suffered from throat problems that forced the cancellation of a warm-up gig a couple of days earlier. Adam Dawson also impressed, completely nailing the solos. This is a band who have landed on their feet after some enforced changes, and the two news songs premiered promise some exciting times ahead.
Aireya 51 were by far the weakest band on Sunday’s bill; we’d seen a lot of people doing the singer-guitarist thing over the weekend and doing it far better. That was up to the point where Don Airey joined them on stage on Hammond organ and showed us the difference between an anonymous session muso and a Rock Star. That last 20 minutes was great, and more than made up for the rest of the set.
Praying Mantis were another of the revelations of the festival. I’d seen them at one of the early 80s Reading Festivals, and they’d seemed one of the also-rans of the NWOBHM scene. Fast-forward 30 years and what we have now is an absolutely superb melodic rock band, awesomely tight, great vocals and some wonderful twin-guitar harmonies.
Hazel O’Connor and the Subterraneans seemed a bit out of place on the bill; an 80s new-wave pop act in a sea of classic rock and prog. But the enthusiasm of her performance soon won over the crowd, aided by a tight band featuring some superb sax playing from Claire Hurst. After a weekend of axe heroes seeing a band where the lead instrument isn’t a guitar made a welcome change. Apart from the big hit “Eighth Day” and a cover of The Stranglers’ “Hanging Around” I didn’t know any of the songs, but it didn’t matter. And I wasn’t the only person to note the Irish-themed song played as an encore bore more than a passing resemblance to Mostly Autumn’s “Out of the Inn”.
Prog veterans The Enid took the special guest spot. I know a few people I spoke to afterwards just didn’t get what they do, but down the front it was a different matter and their unique brand of largely-instrumental symphonic rock had the audience absolutely mesmerised, the festival crowd stunned into silence. While I didn’t recognise everything they played, the set included faves like “In the Region of the Summer Stars”, a big chunk of the new album, finished with a spellbinding “Dark Hydraulic”.
After that, only my favourite band could possibly end things, and they didn’t disappoint. Their 80-minute set might not quite have been up to the standard of their very best performances on the spring tour, but given the constraints of a festival it was still a very good performance, far, far better than the gremlin-plagued set from last year’s festival. No surprises in the setlist, but given the fact they band have been busy in studio writing and recording the new album we didn’t really expect any. Highlights were a great version of “The Last Bright Light”, one that hasn’t always worked for me live, the former Breathing Space song “Questioning Eyes”, and a very powerful “Heroes Never Die”.
While this year’s festival may have lacked any of the sort of bigger name headliners who’s played in previous years, it nevertheless gave us four days of excellent music, some spellbinding performances, some great company, and last but not least, some great beer. (If you find a pub selling Leo Zodiac, buy a pint or two, it’s excellent!). The whole thing had such a wonderful vibe that I was still on a high more than a week later. Great credit to the organisers, and to the stage and PA crews who made the whole thing run as smoothly as it didn’t last year. Overall I found I enjoyed it far more than the far bigger High Voltage festival in London too weeks earlier.