The Cambridge Rock Festival (formerly the Rock and Beer Festival) took place in the unlikely venue of the Wood Green Animal Shelter in Godmanchester, just outside Huntingdon. Given the vagaries of the British excuse for a summer, this one took place in an indoor arena. That turned out to be a large cow-shed like building, whose acoustics were actually a lot better than you’d expect.
With both Mostly Autumn and Breathing Space on Sunday’s bill, along with The Reasoning, whose fan base has a big overlap, the festival saw the biggest gathering of Mostly Autumn fans since the convention last March; an awful lot of familiar faces there, far too many to name, and apologies to anyone I didn’t get the chance to say hello to. Add to that a bar with an extremely large selection of real ales, most of which I’d never heard of, so ordering a beer was a matter of choosing something at random.
Local blues band Taildragger opened the proceedings; competent and tight but rather generic; as a friend of mine remarked, blues bands all tend to sound the same. Bijoumiyo were rather better; a mix of funk and reggae basslines with psychedelic guitar, quite unlike anything else on the bill.
The first two acts played to a largely empty hall; clearly the prog fans had time their arrival to get there in time for Touchstone’s set. I’d seen them a year and a bit ago supporting The Reasoning; frontwoman Kim Seviour’s first ever gig, and that was a somewhat nervous performance. Today they played a confident and energetic set, mostly drawn from their album Discordant Dreams. Probably the proggiest band of the day, but with a hard-rock edge. You could tell they were clearly enjoying their time on stage, and went down well with the growing crowd. I think this performance probably earned them quite a few new fans.
Breathing Space played an absolute blinder. For the biggest gig of their career so far, they rose to the occasion with a superbly tight set, the best band of the first half of the day, helped by having just about the best sound of any band at the festival. There’s little I can say about Breathing Space I haven’t said before; a bit poppy for some tastes, perhaps, showcasing Livvy Sparnenn’s fantastic lead vocals, but there’s still enough instrumental depth to keep prog fans interested. Aside from Livvy, the rest of the band shone too, especially guitarist Mark Rowan. Livvy’s striking mermaid costume was definitely the stage outfit of the day.
John Otway’s pub-rock meets standup comedy shtick isn’t really my cup of tea, I’m afraid, and I missed part of his set in search of food. But I have to say his set closer of The Osmond’s “Crazy Horses” with the theramin solo was entertaining.
The Reasoning’s set was one of the most eagerly awaited of the day’s lineup, their first gig with their new guitarist Owain Roberts. They played strong hard rocking set, mixing favourites from “Awakening”, a great version of the Karnataka oldie “Talk to Me” with several songs from the forthcoming “Dark Angel”, including the prog-metal masterpiece of the title track, and the live debut of one called ‘Call Me God?’. Marillion’s Steve Rothery guested with them for “Within Cold Glass”. They did suffer from more than a few technical glitches and sound mix problems, which took the edge off things slightly, which meant they didn’t quite top Breathing Space’s earlier set.
I felt sorry for Jim and Geoffrey. As an acoustic duo (guitar and violin) they struggled to hold the attention of an audience that had been rocked out by the previous band, and despite being quite good, they died horribly. I’d love to see them in a small club venue, where might make more of an impression.
If the number of t-shirts was anything to go by, Mostly Autumn had the greatest fan support of any band on the bill. So many people were seriously annoyed when they got half-an-hour lopped off their set because the following band apparently insisted on having a whole hour to set up rather than the half-hour everyone else had. To make matters worse, problems with Bryan’s guitar setup delayed the start, so the band ended up playing for just 40 minutes or so, to the intense disappointment of both the band and their legion of fans. But for that short set the band were absolutely on fire; a storming ‘Fading Colours’, a really intense ‘Unoriginal Sin’ and a fantastic ‘Heroes’. Heather’s stage outfit certainly caused one or two jaws to drop; wearing a catsuit when seven month’s pregnant took some courage. Had they had the opportunity to play their originally planned setlist they would have been the band of the day without question.
In contrast, Andy Fairweather Low was the nadir of the day. As someone who’s had a few hits aeons ago, and had since been an anonymous sidesman of other people, he had neither the charisma nor the material to play such a long set this high on the bill. His interminably long set seemed to consist mainly of 50s and 60s covers, with perfunctory takes on his few hits. As someone it’s probably better not to name said “Who wants to listen to this wank? Just because he’s been on Later with Jools Holland”. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Music for chin-stroking Mojo readers perhaps, not not music for the sort of Rock fans who made up this audience.
And so, headliners Marillion. A band I’ve been a fan of for longer than members of some bands lower down the bill have been alive, playing a 90-minute festival set. To be truthful this wasn’t in the same league as the two awe-inspiring shows I saw in 2007; still good, but lacking the sort of intensity I’ve seen in past gigs. H was on fine form despite evident lack of sleep due to being the father of a five week old baby. “Sleepless nights, very rock and roll”, as he said. I’d love to have seen Heather’s and Ian’s reaction to that line! They played what amounted to a greatest hits set of the post-Fish era, favourites like ‘Easter’, their recent hit ‘She’s Gone’, ‘Afraid of Sunlight’, ‘King’ and the encore ‘Neverland’. Still very good, but for me at least failed to top the Mostlies, despite their truncated set.
While what happened to the Mostlies put a bit of a damper on an otherwise great day, in the end the event was bigger than any individual band. The whole festival had a relaxed air, members of many of the bands mingling with fans throughout the day, helped by the fact that there was no backstage bar. And there seemed to be no egos involved, with one possible exception. That laid-back approach probably would not have worked at a bigger festival, but here it added to atmosphere; the whole thing felt like a fan convention of sorts. It made me wish I’d camped and made a weekend of it.