Saturday: Camden Rocks is London’s premier rock festival in London’s premier rock location.
On Friday I photographed Blossoms, a band so vanilla that prolonged exposure carries risk of poisoning.
Quite why yesterday’s All Points East Festival audience of young people were going crazy over a band whose most exciting crowd interaction was: “Hello, we’re Blossoms from Stockport” was, and is, beyond me.
Today however, I’m at Camden Rocks – over 200 bands across 20 venues spread along a mile-long strip of NW1. If London is a grumbling live music volcano, Camden is the crater spewing out the magma. Unlike Blossoms from Stockport, many of the bands on offer today will push boundaries; the artists will leave their guts on the floor. Yet, outside of a small number of headline acts reserved for the end of the day in the biggest venues, the majority will be unknown to the general populace and are likely to remain that way. The music business is not fair.
Ironically, I start with an act that most certainly are known to a lot of people, albeit a lot of people of a certain age – and I count myself in that number. The Men They Couldn’t Hang were selling out Camden in the 1980’s and by the time they start, the venue (Gabeto) is very full indeed. I stay for a couple of numbers of Celtic infused folk-rock (imagine The Pogues with good teeth) and I fight my way out. By the time today is over it will be easier to just hold up a little sign that says: “Excuse me, excuse me please. Thank you”.
For an event like Camden Rocks you really need to pick a central geographical location and bounce between venues close to it. It means you miss a lot of bands in other areas but if you try to take in The Fiddlers Elbow to the north and Koko to the south you’ll spend most of your time walking round tourists on pavements in between and miss a whole lot more. So, apologies to Asylums, Blackwaters and Mallory Knox (among many, many others); you’re excellent bands, but this year, for me; you’re in the wrong part of town.
Instead, I get to see young talent that is completely unknown to me, and that is after all a significant part of what Camden Rocks is about. First up, Dame Jean, a young indie guitar four-piece play to an appreciative crowd at Dingwalls Canalside. I love this venue. It’s right next to the lock, a honey trap for the tourists. The windows are open and people stick their heads through them wondering what the hell is going on. They see frontman Sammy Crocker whacking out jangly tunes on a Telecaster that looks like it’s just been hit by a train.
Next up, Jawless, another band unknown to me play the Devonshire arms, a proper rock pub. Posters and set lists are stuck all over the ceiling. It’s a bit grimy. The music from Jawless fits right in.
I don’t hang around because I’ve an appointment to keep with Press to MECO at the main Dingwalls venue. Press to MECO are a band that have been on the radar for a long time and they don’t disappoint for the brief period I’m there. It’s probably a disservice to declare them ‘pop punk’ but I guess that’s in the genre ball park. It’s pleasing to see however that they’re not wearing flappy shorts. Dingwalls soon becomes a swirling mass and I’m having to mouth my excuse me’s and thank you’s again to get out.
It’s all been a bit testosterone fuelled thus far so time for a brace of all female bands. First, at Camden institution, The Monarch, are The Amorettes – a Scottish hard rock three piece that look as good as they sound. This is the biggest crowd yet – the place is rammed and there is a strict one in, one out policy. It’s also hot. Very, very hot. There’s a very clear demographic in here and I’m squarely in it. That makes me feel a little uncomfortable, so after a couple of songs I fight my way out. There’s a big queue on the pavement all hopeful for my one space.
It’s a quick whizz across the street to Fest, a venue that used to be called ‘Proud Camden’. Unfortunately, nobody was very proud of it and it went out of business. There’s another big audience here for Rews – ‘the female Royal Blood’ as Mark Radcliffe named them at last year’s Glasto. Singer/guitarist Shauna Tohill jumped into the first bar and her guitar strap jumped off in the second. The band carried on commendably with the support of a couple of techs to re-secure everything in place. Rews were my find at Camden Rocks 2017 and I’ve seen them/photographed them a few times since. They are great fun and truth be told they’re the primary reason I’m at this end of town.
I head back south through the market and am drawn to the sound of some first-class rock ‘n’ roll being emitted back at Gabeto, which under normal circumstances doles out cocktails but without a head banging sideshow. The sound is owned by hard rock band The Fallen State and they are making ear drums bleed. They are everything Camden Rocks is and everything yesterday’s one performance was not.
Back to Fest and an appointment with Hands off Gretel, another really excellent band that turned my head last year. There are a lot of people waiting for them, for this alt-grunge four-piece generates a lot of buzz on all levels. Singer Lauren Tate flails her dreads and is an arresting sight through the gloom, though a complete absence of any discernible lighting means it’s anyone’s guess whether any of my pictures will be in focus.
I do the squeeze out routine and head back to Dingwalls. Raveneye are sound checking and there’s another big crowd. I’m having to squeeze into gaps now. I could use a ‘Won’t be here long, promise’ sign for the entrances as well as the ‘excuse me, thank you’ one for the exits. It’s another swaggering hard rock performance that I feel obligated to leave too soon. The pictures won’t take themselves.
Next stop is The Hawley Arms, where I saw some brilliant stuff last year. The upstairs performance space has wooden panelled walls and were it not for the abundance of mosh heads you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the Cigar Room of an upmarket West End club. It’s another very full house, this time for Tim Muddiman and the Strange. Having played guitar for years with Pop Will Eat Itself and Gary Newman, Muddiman’s own band are an aptly named musical amalgam that I sadly don’t have time to fully get my head around. They do have a great vibe though and Muddiman looks mean down my lens. I depart happy.
I retrace my steps back into Fest Camden for Missing Andy. For a change the venue is quite empty whilst the band are in the very early throws of sound check, though once again it fills out by the time they actually start. Missing Andy play the sort of music you could take a first date to, and stage left I spy a musician twinkling some keys. This is notable since there’s not a lot of call for keyboards at Camden Rocks and I don’t mind admitting as we hit early evening, it’s a little light relief from the afternoon’s bombardment of six-string power chords.
I’ve got one more trip to The Cigar Room at the Hawley Arms, this time to catch Lucie Barât, the somewhat less famous sibling of Carl of The Libertines. Notwithstanding this, I did expect it to be heaving – which it wasn’t. I suspect Lucie was a victim of the top venues already filling up in advance of the big hitting finalés. Shame really because she delivered a great performance, full of theatre and staccato hand gestures. It’s no surprise that she was a trained actor first; singer/songwriter second.
The daylight is giving up its last tenuous grasp on the streets as I make my way back towards the tube and the Electric Ballroom for a headline appointment with PIL. Unfortunately, the onset of darkness results in no fewer people on the pavements and as most of them aren’t able to navigate in straight lines any more, it takes longer to get there than I’d hoped. So long in fact, that by the time I arrive, the luxury of the only photo pit I’ve seen all day is declared out of bounds as it’s already jammed with other photographers. I resort to snapping some shots from the balcony instead. Luckily, one of my compatriots also banished to the back lends me a bazooka with which to shoot, else the band would have been very small indeed. John Lydon, 62 years old, carrying an extra chin and wearing glasses you look over rather than through was peering at the lyrics positioned on a lectern in front of him. He might not gob on the audience any more but he still carries an impressive element of menace as he snarls out the words. The crowd hang on every one.
I’m on the home stretch now and have appointments left with three bands in three venues, none of which clearly believe in the work of Thomas Edison. Berries, a young all-female three piece from London played at The Good Mixer in near complete darkness, save for one light on drummer Lucie Hartman. Berries were a recommendation and were a good one, a tight indie-rock sound delivered with a light touch and catchy hooks smart enough to ping around my head on the tube ride home. I liked them a lot and they were certainly my favourite new takeaway from Camden Rocks 2018. I plan to see then again.
My final stop would be back at Dingwalls Canalside, but there was just time to drop into The Devonshire Arms once more to see Yorkshire aggressive pop-rock/punk collective As Sirens Fall host a party for a large collection of devotees. Eyeliner was in abundance and most of it was on the band, whose performance often spilled off the stage and onto the floor.
And so, back to the lock one final time for an artist I’ve seen before and certainly wanted to see again: Saint Agnes, fronted by the always entertaining and ever so slightly disconcerting Kitty Arabella Austin. Austin occasionally took time out from singing to caress the PA and when she wasn’t doing that, she was jumping off the windowsills. She certainly gives Saint Agnes an edge and it was no surprise that even the headline acts playing the big venues couldn’t prevent the place from being stuffed. Saint Agnes, whose brand of psychedelic grunge racket is quite intoxicating, are a band that are definitely worth checking if you’ve not done so before.
At the close of Saint Agnes’ performance, I plod to the tube – my Camden Rocks 2018 in the can: Sixteen artists in ten venues in eight hours – 13,000 steps and nearly as many photographs, a small number of which are presented here.
And blissfully, no Blossoms. Camden really does rock.