The Cambridge Rock Festival is a great little festival specialising in blues, classic rock and progressive rock. It’s always had a reputation as a friendly intimate event, and with all three stages under cover the music takes place in the dry even if the great British summer does its worst. Though it missed a year in 2015, it was back in 2016 for its twelfth event, held again at its usual site at Haggis Farm Polo Club just outside Cambridge. And it promised a strong bill, with a good balance of regular favourites and intriguing-sounding new names.
This year the festival had an extra day. Wednesday night saw a charity event in aid of Addenbrokes Hospital. This included a Cream tribute act, who disappointingly didn’t play “Pressed Rat and Warthog”, and saw Deep Purple’s Don Airey headline the main stage. Airey is one of the few hard rock keyboard players who truly deserves the term “Rock Star”, and his band included Lawrence Cottle, the Swansea jazzman who also played on one Black Sabbath album, and renowned blues shredder Simon McBride. They took us through a crowd-pleasing set of rock standards drawn from the bands Airey has played with over the years, taking in songs from Rainbow, Deep Purple, Gary Moore, Ozzy Osborne and more, and got the long weekend off to a great start.
With the extra day, Thursday’s proceedings expanded to a full day, with the music starting at eleven in the morning. As is customary for this festival, it was still tribute band day, with some of the early performances demonstrating the gulf between weekend musicians and the seasoned pros of Don Airey’s band the previous night. There was a Hendrix tribute, while more than musically competent, who had a Hendrix-alike with a bad wig that made him look like Phil Lynott cross with Harry Enfield’s Three Scousers. No, just No.
A couple of acts did stand out. Miss Led were a female-fronted Led Zeppelin act, who rather than play note-perfect reproductions managed to take the songs and make them theirs while keeping to the spirit of the originals. Zeppelin songs always work well with female vocals, and their take on “Stairway of Heaven” bought a lump to the throat. Straight after them the seven-piece Oye Santana were very tight and professional, with the between-songs banter including the immortal line “He’s not from Madrid, he’s from High Wycombe”.
Atomic Rooster were technically not a tribute band, since they included Pete French and Steve Bolton who had been in some of the ever-changing lineups of the early 70s, and performed with the blessing of Vincent Crane’s widow. Their set of doom-laden organ-heavy psychedelic rock including “Death Walks Behind You” and the hit “Devils Answer” went down well, even though Pete French admitted this was only the second gig of this lineup. After them, headliners Pure Floyd were something of an anticlimax, the music peerless, but the performance bloodless, with weak vocals and a disappointingly thin guitar sound.
Thursday’s tribute band day was always the warm-up to the festival proper, and Friday saw strong bills across all three stages, with few inevitable bad clashes. Opening proceedings on the main stage was Doris Brendel and her steampunk-attired band, playing a very early slot because they were playing again at the New Day festival in Kent later the same day. It was an impressive performance; a raw, bluesy vocal with a strong stage presence and music with elements of hard rock, prog, blues and folk, ending with a celtic-flavoured song that was all percussion and low whistle. There was something of Heidi Widdop in Doris’ vocals, and the band as a whole hinted at the sort of band Stolen Earth or Cloud Atlas might have become had they made a string of albums. So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to learn that her early band Violet Hour had been an early influence on Mostly Autumn.
Throughout Thursday and early Friday people were saying “You have to see The Mentulls”. They weren’t wrong. A very young band, with an average age of 20, they were a kind of rock version of a jazz Hammond organ trio, the keyboard player playing basslines with one hand and chords with the other, and a stunning virtuoso guitarist. With one foot in blues-rock and one in prog, some of the lengthy instrumental passages evoked the likes of Camel, and they ended with a splendid cover of Mountain’s classic “Theme for an Imaginary Western”.
Then it was over to the Blues stage to catch the end The Laura Holland Band’s set. A complete change of pace from the guitar-dominated bill of much of the weekend, they were 50s-style big band with a touch of soul and gospel, the horn section given prominence, and played with a lot of energy and gusto.
It would be remarked later in the weekend that this festival has become a kind of unofficial Mostly Autumn convention, with many of their side projects and spinoffs on the bill alongside the band themselves. Halo Blind, led by Chris Johnson were the first of these, playing the Classic Rock Society stage. But aside from the presence of Chris Johnson and drummer Alex Cromarty, they have little in common musically with Mostly Autumn. They’re a band with feet in both the indie/alternative and prog camps, with songwriting informed by indie and hip-hop married to progressive rock atmospherics. The set combined highlights from their excellent second album “Occupying Forces” with several brand new songs, and “The Dogs” from their first album with Andy Knights taking the female vocal part. For their last song Chris took a vote from the audience; a song they already knew or a new one the band hadn’t fully rehearsed. It was a close vote, but the crowd went for the latter.
Then it was back to the Blues stage for an electrifying set by Rebecca Downes, playing blues-rock in the style of the classic rock era of the sixties and seventies, a powerful and emotive voice backed by an incredibly tight band. It was a barnstorming performance; highlights included the guitar-shredding ballad “Sailing on a Pool of Tears” and the hard-rock workout “Believe”. This is an act that deserves to be back in future years, and on the main stage.
There was more rock’n'roll on the CRS stage with the old-school hard rock of Voodoo Vegas. There may perhaps have been a little too much harmonica for some tastes, but with the twin guitars of Meryl Hamilton and Jon Dawson they delivered what might have been the hardest rocking set of the entire weekend. This is another act who deserve to be tearing up the main stage.
Headlining the CRS stage were 1980s neo-prog legends Haze, and band who proceeded to tick every box for Prog with a capital P. There were twin-necked guitars. There was flute. There were widdly keyboard solos. There were songs that evoked Dungeons and Dragons imagery. And it was all performed with an infectious enthusiasm, the idea thing to bring Friday’s music to a close.