Cambridge Rock Festival 2014 – Part One

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival

The Cambridge Rock Festival is a four-day event on the first weekend of August, with a focus on blues, classic rock and progressive rock. 2014 is the festival’s eleventh year, and the sixth to be held at the current location just outside the city.

Johanne James of KyrbgrinderThursday night is traditionally the warm-up for the festival proper, with tribute acts on the main stage, and local bands on stage two. While I don’t normally go in for tribute bands I did watch Fleetwood Bac, featuring former Karnataka lead singer Lisa Fury. They put on a great show, not only great musicians but staying in character for the whole set, acting out the tension between Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham.

On on stage two, bonkers prog-metal trio Kyrbgrinder headlined and kicked up a storm, Johanne James performing the near-impossible feat of playing full-on metal drums and singing lead at the same time. To add to the fun he had a sizeable proportion of the audience dancing behind the band.

Friday had a blues theme on the main stage, and stage two hosted by the Classic Rock Society. The CRS stage opened with Airbridge, a trio with an interesting instrumental sound. They had an intricate Canterbury-scene feel, but were let down by very weak vocals. They gave the impression that if only they got themselves a proper lead singer there was a lot of potential there. Over on the main stage, The Detours were playing some excellent old school twin-guitar hard rock, throwing in a killer cover of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”, which was great, but didn’t completely overshadow their own songs.

Then it was back to the CRS stage, for three-piece The Tirith making neo-prog sounds with some impressively fluid lead guitar. After them, Dead at Eleven’s hard rock/electronica crossover featured some strong songwriting and an energetic performance, and made quite an impact. 25 Yard Screamer were less impressive. Their prog-metal ticked all the right boxes but there was something missing, let down by ordinary vocals and a weak rhythm section.

Tracie Laws and Pam Chowdam of Symphony of Pain

An intro tape featuring a hammed-up reading of “Jekell and Hyde” set the tone for the theatrical goth-metal of Symphony of Pain, who turned out to be the best band on the CRS stage up to that point. On record they’re a duo of vocalist Tracie Law and multi-instrumentalist Pam Chowdam, live they’re a five piece including Kyrbgrinder’s Johanne James on drums and a guitarist dressed as a monk. They indulged in some theatrics with a guest appearance from Nurse Whiplash, but it was Pam Chowdam’s virtuoso electric violin playing that really set them apart and grabbed the attention.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugAfter a few songs from The Room’s highly melodic neo-prog it was over to the main stage for one of the festival regulars, blues-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter Chantel McGregor making her fourth appearance on the main stage. As expected her set was a mix of short punchy original numbers from her début album “Like No Other” and reworked standards used as vehicles for extended guitar workouts, with some spectacular playing on Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile” and Robin Trower’s “Daydream”. We were also treated to an interesting cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and a brand new original that gave a tantalising glimpse of the long-awaited new album she’s currently working on. There was an electrifying intensity to the set that made this a headline-standard performance and then some.

The Jeff Green project were special guests on the CRS stage. Despite being up against blues-rock guitar-shredder Larry Miller on the main stage they still drew a sizeable crowd and didn’t disappoint. Formed by a one time member of an Eagles tribute band and featuring Big Big Train’s Sean Filkins on lead vocals for several songs, the seven-piece band had a multi-layered west coast rock meets prog sound, and despite the late start and shortened set they made a strong impression.

After that, main stage headliners Snakecharmer were a little disappointing. The supergroup with former UK Whitesnake members Micky Moody and Neil Murray have outgrown being a glorified Whitesnake tribute act by recording an album of brand new material which featured heavily in the set alongside late 70s Whitesnake standards, and though the new songs are good, the set didn’t quite have the buzz they’d had headlining on previous years.

The main stage took a rock theme for Saturday, with the second stage becoming the blues stage. First up on the main stage were Roolz, a band so young none of them had shaved, and very good for their age. They played 80s-style hard rock with an occasional touch of U2 and 70s Elton John. It will be interesting to watch how they develop. Hopefully they will avoid getting chewed up and dumbed-down by the corporate music biz. Following them came Northsyde, who made a very strong impression with their blend of hard rock, blues and funk. The gutsy vocals of Lorna Fothergill sounding more than a little like a youthful Robert Plant.

Spilit Whiskers

The rather generic blues of Split Whiskers wasn’t quite as strong, though they were still entertaining enough aside from having far too much harmonica. By comparison, Walkway’s hard rock by numbers didn’t really impress. Their set contained rather too many covers, which showed up their own writing, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” just doesn’t work with male vocals. Fireroad were a little better with their heads down no nonsense four chord boogie, shades of Status Quo with added psychedelic solos and the occasional touch of ZZ Top.

Things improved a lot with Pearl Handled Revolver. Their organ-driven psychedelic blues was the first real break from the guitar-dominated sounds of the earlier acts of the day. Without a bassist keyboardist Simon Rinaldo filled in basslines on pedals, which wasn’t the only comparison with The Doors. At times the swirling Hammond recalled Uriah Heep. This is a band who have received quite a bit of hype, and they were certainly interestingly different.

Nobody was quite sure what to expect from Leon Hendrix, brother of the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Sadly his set turned out to be the nadir of the day. Leon is no guitar player, just about capable of strumming a couple of chords, and not much of a singer either, and he was carried by a competent if unexceptional band featuring a guitarist from a Hendrix tribute act and two backing vocalists to carry the tune when he couldn’t. The set was a mix of Hendrix standards and formless jams, and the only good moments were when Chantel McGregor and Ben Poole joined him briefly on stage and ran rings around his own guitarist. The whole thing left the impression that this was a complete non-musician cynically trying to cash in the family name.

1980s AOR veterans FM headlined the main stage and were everything the preceding act were not, with a tight, professional and energetic set. With Steve Overland on fine form vocally and “new” guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick shredding with the best of them, and vastly better sound than Snakecharmer the previous night. Bernie Marsden guested with the band for the encore, a cover of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”. They were easily the best band of the day, despite me not knowing any of their songs bar that final encore.

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19 Responses to Cambridge Rock Festival 2014 – Part One

  1. Sam Lewis says:

    We share many of the same views, FM were certainly my band of the weekend :) Btw, ‘Go Your Own Way’ was sung by Lindsey Buckingham so does have male vocals ;)

  2. Tim Hall says:

    FM definitely band of the day, but Chantel and MA were bands of the weekend for me.

  3. Sam Lewis says:

    FM, Jorn and MA for me :)

  4. Steve says:

    Tim, it was good to catch up with you again at the festival. After long delays at Dartford Tunnel, I finally got there midway through a good lively set from the excellent Roy Mette. I was really impressed with Ben Poole, first time I’ve seen him, although he’s been on my radar for some time. Ben’s come a long way in a short time since stepping out as second guitarist to Dani Wilde (she’s an amazing player) to go forward with his own band. I’ll be looking out for tour dates.

    Chantel’s performance was right up there with her very best. With her personality and charisma, along with her guitar virtuosity and powerful vocals, she will always be a banker at festivals. The bigger the stage, the better she gets. Chantel introduced Purple Rain into her revolving set list a few months ago, and with its anthemic sound, its one that will always go down well at festivals. I think, even the purple one himself would have had to nod his head in approval at Chantel’s take on his song. Ideally, I would have liked to see Chantel one place further up the bill so that she had the benefit of playing under cover of the gathering darkness for some added atmospherics. Same as two years ago, it was Larry Miller who followed Chantel on to the stage. As always, it was another high energy classic Larry performance. Snakecharmer were OK, I like Laurie Wisefield and Micky Moody as guitar players. But it was the sets from Ben Poole, Chantel and Larry Miller that really made the day on Stage One.

    Due to the quality of live music on Stage One, and hours and hours of torrential rain, I got marooned in the big marquee for most of time and didn’t explore the other stages as much as I would like to have done. But I was so impressed by the Jeff Green Project. Not heard of them before, and some of the melodic twin guitars reminded me of Wishbone Ash. A real high quality performance from them and I liked the songs a lot. The vocals were decent enough, but I would like to see the girl who did such a great job on the bv’s and harmonies given an opportunity to take on a lead vocal, or two. This would add yet another element to their sound. Don’t know what their future plans are, but I’ll be looking out for them on the road.

    Leon Hendrix…oh dear, oh dear. I weren’t there on Saturday, but I’ve seen the videos of Purple Haze, Watchtower and Voodoo Chile. His performance looked shambolic and he really badly needed Chantel and Ben Poole to bail him out and rescue his set. No one would expect him to sound like Jimi, but the least you would expect is for him to be a competent guitar player, even if the vocals were dreadful. I hope I’m not being too harsh on him.

  5. Tim Hall says:

    Jeff Green’s backing singer was Zanda King, who played the main stage a couple of years back fronting Ebony Tower. They’re on hiatus at the moment, but did release an EP last year that’s well worth getting.

    Would have likes to have seen Larry Miller, as he’s always good live, but wanted to see the start if Jeff Green’s set.

  6. Steve says:

    I didn’t know her name, but do I remember seeing Ebony Tower and quite enjoyed their set. I need to do some research beforehand in future for some of the bands who are playing in case I miss something that I’ll regret later. I’d really liked to have Roadhouse who played Stage Two on Saturday, but I only realised how good they were when I watched some vids a few days ago.

  7. Grae says:

    While we disagree a little over ‘best of the bands’ for the weekend your highs and lows more or less match mine… As my first CRF I was really pleased with the diversity of the bands/artists on display, and really enjoyed some of the acoustic acts on Stage 3, especially Steve Rodgers (Paul’s son).

    As for the female singer backing up the Jeff Green Project, it was Rosanna, not Zandra as mentioned above…

  8. Tim Hall says:

    Jeff Green’s backing singer and Ebony Tower’s frontwoman are most definitely the same person!

  9. Grae says:

    Yes, she is, and her name is Rosanna, we spent Saturday night with her and her husband.

  10. Tim Hall says:

    I’ve always known her by the name she used in Ebony Tower, because we’d been corresponding on Twitter, and she’s been using that name there. Hence the confusion.

  11. Rob Crossland says:

    It’s a shame you didn’t make it to the acoustic stage for Geronimo. Along with Chantel and the great prog bands on Sunday they were the act of the weekend for me. Just check out the youtube vid of their ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ closer. One of the the best audience reactions I saw in any tent the whole weekend. Really enjoyed your rundown of the bands I couldn’t get to see! Thanks!

  12. Steve says:

    I always regret not spending more time at the acoustic stage. I’d like to have seen Steve Rodgers. He looks like his father, and sings like him as well.

  13. Graham Meigh says:

    Friday belonged to Chantel McGregor. I know you liked Symphony of Pain, but they made my toes curl! They could have pulled it off if the guy could sing.
    Saturday was made worthwhile by Northsyde and Pearl Handled Revolver.
    Best experience of the weekend was Gallows Ghost on the acoustic stage. Brilliant.
    I can understand the need for the tired old ‘big’ names to headline; hence drawing in the crowds, but for me the best bands were the earlier slots and the acoustic tent.
    BIG DOWNER was the endless number of bands playing 12 bar blues… zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  14. Tim Hall says:

    I stayed away from the blues tent on Saturday and Sunday. Blues artists need to be virtuoso guitarists to hold my attention.

    As for Symphony of Pain, I found the theatrical side of their act entertaining (Too many bands just shuffle on stage, play the songs, and shuffle off again), and the violin player was great. The weak link was the guitarist, whose solos were tuneless; he should have stuck to rhythm and let the violinist handle all the lead breaks.

  15. Tracie Law says:

    Hi Tim,
    I just wanted to say thank you for a very favourable review of our band Symphony of Pain it is very kind of you :-) Graham I have to say its a little bit harsh of you to simply say I cannot sing although I appreciate I’m not the best have a listen to the album please before you make a sweeping statement like that. I hadn’t sung live for 4 years I had to play drums in our rehearsals and bass while we taught our new line up when people weren’t available hence I didn’t get enough practice time. I dont get chance to practice any other time I have a full time job and I’m asthmatic! couple that with having all the monitors feeding back for the first three songs and as Tim said I don’t exactly stand still onstage I like to be a showman (remember the Madonna miming incident?) and give people something different:-) Symphony was invented by me all the ideas, songs, concept, theatrics, artwork comes from my brain including the violin solo idea. The lovely Pamela Chowhan had a full classical education where as I started out on bass playing in rock bands and only started singing (badly;-) because I wrote the lyrics and they are personal to me. I’m not having a pop but I feel justified in giving a bit of background on how tough it was to get back out there after so long away. peace and best wishes Trace

  16. Tim Hall says:

    I’m going to get flack from Leon Hendrix next….

  17. Graham Meigh says:

    Please accept my sincere apology. Late night drinking and in a dark place emotionally – but that’s not an excuse. Totally unacceptable comments.

  18. Tracie Law says:

    tee hee! no complaints from me Tim extremely grateful for the article and pleased you liked the band. Its been a lot of hard work and its great to have your support :-)

  19. Tracie Law says:

    Absolutely not a problem Graham and apology accepted in good faith sir :-) . In fact I wasn’t happy with the vocal delivery that day in all honesty and I’m now looking into getting some help on that mainly breathing exercises because when you leap about onstage its hard to catch your breath and as I mentioned I missed out on a lot of my practice due to covering on other instruments because having played drums, bass, some guitar as well as vocals on the album I can and do have to fill in for the others a lot when thay cant make rehearsals. The other problem is nerves I was as nervous as hell that day worried I could still perform after 4 years and thats also bad for keeping your voice in pitch and strong especially when we had all the feedback at the start which made me even more stressed and meant I couldn’t hear myself properly lol! Ironically I put a lot of opera singers onstage in my day job and I’m very envious of their voices but they’re professional and they sing all day every day more or less. Thats what I wish I could do :-/ Best wishes buddy:-) Trace