Sunday began with wall of guitar rock and roll from Empire of Fools, who played some highly melodic hard rock, with plenty of light and shade, with a couple of Deep Purple and Free covers thrown in for good measure. Next up was Final Conflict, the first of many prog-rock acts on the bill. Nothing ground-breaking, but they displayed some tight musicianship with a good groove to many of their songs, and rocked out pretty hard by the end of the set.
Jebo weren’t quite as good; another melodic hard(ish) rock band they started well but soon got a bit predictable. Although good musicians with a great guitar sound, they suffered from weak vocals and a shortage of memorable songs. Crimes of Passion were a little better, but having seen Kyrbgrinder on Friday, their brand of 70s metal came over as very dated by comparison.
Credo, on the other hand, were a lot better. Again, there was nothing stunningly original about their brand of neo-prog, but they did it well. Their combination of very strong melodies, tight playing with a lot of fluid symphonic guitar went down well.
I enjoyed the John Young Band set too. I’ve seen him before as a support act, using just keys and backing tapes and was quite impressed. His full band including former Fish sidesman Robin Boult on guitar opens out the sound a lot more. He played another very prog-flavoured set, although this time more focussed on impassioned songwriting rather than showcasing instrumental virtuosity.
I was starting to suffer from neo-prog overload by the time Mr So-and-So came on stage. Yes, they too were good, but for me they suffered from sounding too similar to the preceding bands on the bill. One significant difference was the presence of Charlotte Evans on vocals, even though she largely sang harmonies and only sang lead on a couple of songs.
Good as many of the previous bands of the day had been, Mostly Autumn were in a completely different league, and it showed. This was the fourth consecutive year they’ve played this festival. Last year they’d headlined, though good, they didn’t really reach the heights that they’re capable of and special guests The Enid rather stole the show. Not so this time around. Now the band have finally manage some lineup stability they’ve been on consistently great form all year. Over the past year and a half Olivia Sparnenn has had time to grow into the role of frontwoman. Two weeks ago they owned the Classic Rock Presents Prog stage at the High Voltage festival in London and won over a lot of new fans; this performance had the same level of intensity, and finally showed the Cambridge Rock Festival just what this band are really capable of.
On form like this their mix of melodic hard rock with celtic-tinged progressive rock makes for a great festival band. The set was a mix of old and new, standards like “Evergreen” and “Heroes Never Die” alongside newer songs like “Deep in Borrowdale” and “Ice”. High spots for me were Anne-Marie’s flute solo in “The Last Climb”, and a very powerful performance of the former Breathing Space epic “Questioning Eyes”. Yes, I know I’m a big fan, and therefore biased, but I’ve seen them enough times to tell a great performance from a merely workmanlike one. That was truly memorable set, for all the right reasons.
Caravan, veterans of the 1970s “Canterbury Scene”, had also played an excellent set at High Voltage. Like Mostly Autumn before them, they were every bit as good as they had been two weeks ago, a superb set of jazz-flavoured progressive rock, keyboard-led with added violin, flute and spoons(!). They pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of sounding mellow yet full of energy at the same time, and lengthy instrumental jazz-rock workouts seldom sounded as good as this. Not that they don’t do pop as well, as the bouncy rendition of “Golf Girl” proved. High point had to be the lengthy “Nine Feet Undergound” played in it’s entirety.
And finally, headliners The Enid. Last year they played a mesmerising set focussing on their rockier material, and while not everyone really got what they were doing, some of those that did felt they were the band of the weekend. This year, accompanied by a male choir and a twelve-piece brass section they went for something a lot more challenging. For the first part of the set, Robert John Godfrey was behind the choir, visible on the large screens but hidden from view when you tried to find him on the stage, which was a little disconcerting. The sound was huge and symphonic, but came over as perhaps just too ambitious for it’s own good. I did get the impression it was the sort of performance, which while good, seemed to me geared more towards the dedicated fan rather than a festival audience. I can imagine a lot of people not familiar with their rather unique blend of rock and classical music struggling to make sense of it all. It certainly didn’t have the energy level than made the closing stages of last year’s set so exhilarating. Perhaps to compensate they closed with their famous “Dambusters March/Land of Hope and Glory” medley they used to play back in the 1980s, to end the set on a high.
And so ended another great festival, probably the best Cambridge Rock Festival I’ve attended to date. Although Saturday turned out to be by far the best of the three days bill-wise, there were more than enough good acts on Friday and Sunday to make the whole weekend worthwhile.
Although it’s never easy to estimate numbers, I thought attendance was well up on last year; certainly the main tent was very full on both Saturday and Sunday nights, and even Thursday night drew a big crowd. It shows a festival doesn’t need big-name headliners to be a success, and provided a far more enjoyable experience than a big corporate festival, a great example of the little niche festivals up and down the country that take place below the radar of the media. And while some may criticise the lineup for being dated and retro, that’s surely part of the appeal; a good festival is one that knows it’s audience. It’s got a great vibe; no rock star egos or VIP areas; you find many of the artists wandering around the site or watching other bands all weekend; I even spotted the lead guitarist of one band enthusiastically playing air-guitar in the front row at one point.