I’m back from four days of superb music, amidst a bit of mud, at the Cambridge Rock Festival.
This is one of the many smaller festivals up and down the country, which contrasts with the big corporate festivals like Glastonbury and Reading. It started out as a beer festival with a few bands, but gradually the music side of things grew more important, eventually resulting in a name change from the old name of “Rockinbeerfest”.
The music is very much aimed at an older classic rock audience, with a bill made up of a mix of 70s veterans and younger progressive rock or blues artists. It’s like travelling to an alternative universe where punk never happened, and musical ability never went out of fashion. This year they’ve moved to a new location. Rather than having the main stage in the converted cowshed in Godmanchester, we’d moved to the Haggis Farm Polo club just outside Cambridge.
Last year I just went on the Sunday, but this year I decided to make a full weekend of it. This was the first time I’ve camped at a festival (or indeed camped anywhere) since the Reading Festival back in 1983. I camped with group of fellow Mostly Autumn and Breathing Space fans that included Colin and Helen, Chriz (the cider monster), Andy Goodall, Roger Ashworth and Doogie Walsh.
Let’s get the one negative out of the way first. There was nothing anyone could have done about the torrential downpours on the Thursday night, which caused one of the stages to be shut down because the backstage area was flooded, and as the contractor supplying the power have stated, water and electricity don’t mix. But I have to say the bands, audiences and festival as a whole were badly let down by the contractor providing the PA. We had long delays over the weekend, band after band complaining about lack of monitors, and things finally came to a head on Sunday.
The good points apart from the music were excellent food, some great real ales, and a fantastic vibe. With just a couple of thousand in attendance it felt more like a weekend-long private party than a festival. It was lovely to see Mostly Autumn stick around for the whole weekend; plenty of opportunities to chat with them, and even watch some of the other acts with members of the band.
Johannes James of Kyrbgrinder
I missed the first act on Friday, so my day kicked off with a great set from Northsydes. They sounded a bit like Led Zeppelin fronted by Janis Joplin, and what impressed me was the way all four members made an equal contribution; powerful vocals, tight drumming, some great guitar work and wonderful bass grooves. I was also very impressed with Kyrbgrinder playing on the smaller Radio Caroline stage. They’re fronted by Threshold’s drummer Johannes James. There are not many people who can sing while playing prog-metal lead drums at the same time. And he’s such a charismatic frontman you barely notice the other two guys on stage. They were possibly the find of the festival for me.
Heather Findlay of Mostly Autumn
I know I’m biased, but Mostly Autumn were the band of the day for me. After a considerable delay due to technical problems they delivered a very powerful 90-minute set in adverse circumstances, despite being forced to stop playing in the middle of “Simple Ways” when something broke. The setlist was pretty close to the one they would have played last year had they had they been able to play a full set, with a very powerful “Unoriginal Sin” and a magnificent “Carpe Diem”, and a lump-in-the throat “Heroes” to finish. With regular drummer Gavin Griffiths have another commitment this weekend, it was hats off to Robbie Baxter, normally part of the road crew, for filling in on drums for such a high-profile gig, and doing an admirable job.
The following headline set from the John Lees Barclay James Harvest was good too – vastly superior to the disappointing Les Holroyd version of the band I saw a couple of years ago. It may have meandered at the beginning, but as it went on, and the sound mix improved, it built in intensity, and I left the main arena with “Hymn” still playing in my head. While I don’t know that much of their back catalogue, they played a lot of the standards I recognised, like “Poor Man’s Moody Blues” and “Child of the Universe”, and it was great to hear plenty of real live Mellotron. And who was that girl dancing next to me, and singing along to “Mockingbird”? Sure I’ve seen her before somewhere…
I spent much of Saturday moving from stage to stage. Since most of the bands were unknown to me, I probably managed to miss some great bands while watching someone else on another stage. I spent quite a bit of time in the smaller CRS tent, rocking out to the very metal Crimes of Passion, and also saw most of Manning’s set, very very prog, with no fewer than three keyboard players. On the main stage there were some great sets by Deborah Bonham and Never the Bride. The latter gave us one of the quotes of the weekend, when Nikki Lamborn told the sound crew “Stop playing with their knobs”. 70s Veterans Stray also delivered an entertaining set, featuring some serious Stratocaster abuse. That’s no way to treat an expensive musical instrument!
The delays and technical problems which had affected Mostly Autumn the previous night were worse, when we waited, and waited for the mighty Uriah Heep. Finally they rolled the intro tape, the band came out, and… nothing happened. They stood around looking embarrassed, before shuffling off stage again. It would be another half an hour before their set finally started, and like Mostly Autumn the night before rewarded the crowd’s patience with a blistering set, mixing 70s classics with selections from their recent album “Wake the Sleeper”. Their classic Hammond-drenched hard rock sound and remarkable energy levels for a band of their age made them the band of the day without question. Saying that, the following set by headliners The Quireboys went down well, a great party band to finish off the night. Or rather, morning, because it was gone 3am by the time the music finished.
Bryan, Paul and Olivia of Breathing Space
After some excellent glam-metal from Morph to rock away the hangovers, the first ‘big’ band on Sunday’s bill was Breathing Space. They’d gone down well last year with a ballad-heavy set, but this year’s CRF witnessed a transformed band. They played a far rockier set, drawing heavily from the new album “Below the Radar”, Now with Bryan Josh standing in on guitar they delivered the best live performance I’ve seen them do all year, tight, energetic and highly emotional. Set closer “Questioning Eyes” really brought a lump to the throat. The huge crowd round the merch stand as soon as they’d finished said it all.
Touchstone too have come on in leaps and bounds since their appearance a year ago, playing another a really tight and high energy set drawn largely from their recent album “Wintercoast”. The transformation of this band since I first saw them support The Reasoning in Crewe a couple of years ago is nothing short of phenomenal, especially singer Kim Servoir’s growing confidence as a frontwoman. This band are going places.
I’d been very much looking forward to seeing Karnataka. But as soon as I saw Ian Jones near the bar, the expression on his face told me something was wrong. He told me that the band would not be playing due to problems with the PA. It eventually transpired that Asia and Focus had demanded that they use their own PA and crew (and given the problems Mostly Autumn and Uriah Heep had suffered, I can hardly blame them). The changeover meant that the main stage needed to be shut down for two hours, and two bands had to be dropped, one of them being Karnataka. Bluesman Simon McBride moved to the blues tent, but unfortunately Karnataka’s stage gear was more than the smaller stage PA and mixing desk could have coped with. So I got to meet the band, who were all very disappointed not to be playing, but didn’t get to see them perform.
Asia’s Geoff Downes
The weekend ended with Focus and Asia. Focus took a long time to get going, with a couple of false starts while Thijs van Leer vainly tried to get his monitor to work, but ended with rousing versions of their hits, “Sylvia” and a manic “Hocus Pocus”, with Thijs conducting the audience for the falsetto parts. The prog behemoth of Asia closed proceedings, with OTT amounts of drums and keyboards, and a rocking set drawn from “Asia” and “Alpha” plus a version of ELP’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Steve Howe doesn’t half look old now, but he can still cut in on the guitar.
A great festival which survived the best attempts of the weather and the PA company to ruin things. There were many great bands, some very familiar to me, others completely new. But ultimately any festival is about more than just the bands; those people who came just to see one band are really missing the point of what festivals are about. Assuming they fix the problems with the PA, I’ll be back next year for more.