Cambridge Rock Festival 2011 – Part One

This is the fourth Cambridge Rock Festival and the third for which I’ve camped for the whole weekend. Held just outside Cambridge, it’s a small family-friendly festival with a strong emphasis on classic rock, progressive rock and blues. Sometimes it feels like stepping into a parallel universe where punk never happened and real musicianship is still respected.

Thursday night is really the warm-up, with a bill made up largely from tribute acts before the real business of the festival starts on Friday. I only caught the last three bands on Thursday night. The Pure Floyd Show were somewhat underwhelming, but The Ultimate Eagles, fronted by Danny Vaughan were a different deal. I’ve never been a huge Eagles fan, nor a fan of tribute bands in general, but I have to admit this lot were good – really tight and professional, and gave the impression they actually loved the music they were playing. The day ended with veterans The Hamsters with a great mix of originals and blues-rock standards; their entertaining set showed just why this hard-working band are so popular.

I spent much of Friday watching bands on the smaller second stage, run that day by the Classic Rock Society. I did catch the opening band on the main stage, metal five-piece Neuronspoiler. They were entertaining to watch; high energy level with all the right moves and shapes. Just what’s needed to wake everybody up first thing in the morning.

Then it was over to stage two to see two bands I was looking forward to seeing. First of them were Also Eden, playing old-school neo-prog. With frontman Rich Harding previously having sung with a Marillion tribute band, comparisons with Fish-era Marillion are I suppose inevitable, though I could also hear echoes of Pendragon in there, albeit with a far better singer. And hats off to Rich, on stage on crutches, for being able to give such an impassioned performance. He was very badly injured in a terrible motorbike accident a while back, and is lucky to be alive, let along on stage fronting a band.

Following them were self-styled NWOBHM revivalists Morpheus Rising. Their great twin-guitar harmonies owe a lot to Iron Maiden, given something of gothic twist. Again, a tight band with a lot of energy.

Then it was back to the main stage for The Heather Findlay Band. There was a lot riding on this gig for her. The first solo EP since leaving Mostly Autumn last year, “The Phoenix Suite” revealed a stripped-down sound far removed from the multi-layered richness of Mostly Autumn, and gathered decidedly mixed reactions from many fans. Over the last couple of months she’s played a handful of low-profile gigs in very small venues, most of them as an acoustic duo with Chris Johnson. This set marked her return to a bigger stage with a full band after far too long an absence.

With a very talented band including Dave Kilminster on guitar and Steve Vantsis on bass, they began with two songs from the EP, “Phoenix” itself, followed by the spikiest number, “Cellophane”. Although the arrangements were still very close to the recordings, these new songs benefited from a meatier guitar sound, and the energy and dynamics of the live performance really brought the songs to life. Then Chris Johnson switched from guitar to keys for the Mostly Autumn oldie “Half a World”, and Dave Kilminster really let rip with some shredding lead guitar, which banished any lingering fears that Heather might be abandoning rock in favour of indie.

The rest of the eleven-song set was a mix of the remaining songs from The Phoenix Suite with some of her older numbers. Her choice of Mostly Autumn songs was very interesting. With the odd exception, rather than play her much-loved signature songs she chose songs which the band hadn’t been playing live for many years; overlooked classics drawing heavily from “Storms Over Still Water” and “Heart Full Of Sky”. There were some imaginative re-arrangements, like Dave Kilminster playing all the flute and clarinet lines on guitar. High spots for me were the really hard-rocking “Red Dust”, a powerfully brooding “Seven”, and a fantastic re-imagining of “Black Rain” with a very different vibe to the original. They ended with an electric version of “Yellow Time”, still recognisable as the same song, but the groove provided by Steve Vantsis and Alex Cromarty transformed it into something completely different from the acoustic original.

While Heather appeared nervous at the start, by the end of the set the whole thing had turned into a triumph. Her vocal performance proves she’s still one of the best female rock vocalists out there, backed by a seriously talented band. And the setlist, both old and new, shows she’s got more than enough songwriting talent to succeed as a solo artist. A real class act that upstaged almost everyone else on the bill that day. Heather Findlay is back, and means business.

After that it was back to the CRS stage. Godsticks were something of a disappointment. I’d seen this three-piece play a short support set for Chris Johnson’s Parade a year ago and found them quite entertaining. The intricate interlocking Zappa-influenced guitar and bass is great for a short while, but for a longer set the lack of variety becomes more obvious. The high spot was their excellent cover of Zappa’s “RDUNZL”, which highlighted their biggest weakness. Despite being supremely talented musicians, the compositional side of things really needs more work. Still, I’m sure there’s potential for the future.

Paul Menel was a lot better. He’d been described, perhaps unfairly, as “The Blaze Bailey of IQ”, fronting the classic neo-prog band for two albums in the second half of the 1980s before the return of original singer Peter Nicholls. Returning to the music scene after a long absence, He opened with IQ’s “Falling Apart at the Seams”, complete with a bizarre insertion of the Cadbury’s Flake jingle. Excellent set, mixing IQ songs from his time in the band with songs from his forthcoming solo album “Three Sides to Every Story”.

Power-trio Kyrbgrinder played the main stage last year, quite low down the bill on the Sunday. This year they headlined the CRS stage, and simply tore up the stage with one of the most high-energy sets I’ve ever seen at a festival. Whether you class them as prog-metal, or just metal, they’re an amazing band to watch. I’m not quite sure Johannes James manages full-on metal drums and singing lead at the same time, and I can’t think of anyone else who fronts the band from behind a drumkit. He’s got such a magnetic stage presence it’s easy to overlook the other two guys, bassist Alberto Flaibani and guitarist Tommy Caris. Despite some tremendous virtuoso shredding from Caris, Johannes drums still come over as the band’s priciple lead instrument. Great audience too; the tent was packed, with several nine-year olds moshing down the front, and it was lovely to see Johannes invite them on stage to sing backing vocals.

The Cambridge Rock Festival has cultivated something of a retro 70s/80s vibe, which is part of the festival’s appeal. But it’s also great to hear a band who actually sound modern, and produce music which sounds like it comes from the 21st century. Kyrbgrinder are that sort of band.

And so ended the first full day of the festival. I missed the main stage headliners; the pub-rock of Eddie and the Hot Rods or the glam-punk of Bubblegum Screw really weren’t my thing. For me, the day really belonged to Heather Findlay and to Kyrbgrinder.

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