Saturday, 20 August 2016

Cambridge Rock Festival 2016

After a break last year one of the UK's best small rock festivals, the Cambridge Rock Festival, was back this year for it's twelfth edition. I have been going since 2008, and camped since 2009, and the weekend is always a good opportunity to relax with some good music and discover new bands. The festival is much smaller than others of it's ilk, which is part of the attraction for the festival regulars, and it means the food and drink prices are cheaper than at some of the more corporate affairs. The drive up to the festival site, which is polo club just outside Cambridge, from Cornwall is always a bit of a drag, but stopping off for an all-you-can-eat fry up at Taunton helps and we made good time and got to the site around 1:30pm. Unlike other years however, the festival was already in full swing by the time we got there. The Thursday night is usually a truncated day filled with tribute bands, but this year the festival had extended itself by a day into the Wednesday to stage a charity gig for Addenbrooke's Charitable Trust. This was announced fairly late, so we could not make this day too, which unfortunately meant missing Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey and his band who no doubt were fantastic. The Thursday was still seen as the start of the festival however, but this time featuring a full day of music, despite still being dominated by tribute bands. The weather was fantastic throughout the weekend, which made a pleasant change from two years ago, which helped to create an excellent atmosphere throughout. The site was somewhat different this year, with the Main Stage and the Second Stage swapped around. The selection of food was also greater than the last couple of years at least, with a good mix of different things to eat which meant that you did not have to repeat yourself if you did not want to. One gripe I do have this year however is the sheer amount of blues acts booked. While the Second Stage has always been a Blues Stage for at least two days of previous years, this year the Second Stage was a Blues Stage for the whole festival. While I am aware that blues music is popular, most of the bands on that stage are no better than what you can find playing at your average pub on a Saturday night. This, coupled with some blues acts being booked on the Main Stage too, meant there was rather an over-saturation of blues which left some rather large gaps between decent bands a lot of the time. I hope this balance gets re-addressed next year with a greater diversity in genres represented. Another observation I made throughout the weekend was that the attendance seemed to be less than previous years. Things picked up on Sunday with the obvious addition of day-ticket holders, but overall crowds seemed smaller than in previous years which is a real shame. If festivals like this are to survive, they need people to support them and I hope this will not have affected finances too much!

Enough of the general observations however, and down to specifics. After getting the tent up, I wandered down to the main festival site and a female-fronted Led Zeppelin tribute band called Miss-Led were just finishing. I saw the majority of the Santana tribute band Oye Santana. I am not a big fan of Santana's music, but the set was quite good and had a good chilled out vibe to get things off to a good start. The roots rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival does nothing for me so I skipped their tribute band in favour of some dinner. I also saw a few songs by The Clan on the Blues Stage who seemed to be ok but nothing really stood out about their performance. The set on Thursday night however that I was looking forward to catching was...

Atomic Rooster:
Of all the 1970s classic rock bands out there, Atomic Rooster are the ones I know the least about. When I saw that classic-era members Pete French (vocals) and Steve Bolton (guitar) had put the band back together and were going to play the CRF, I thought this was a good chance to check them out. and their hour long set was an enjoyable and rocking affair. I had always thought of the band as more of a prog band, but this set showed them to be a high-energy rock band with some memorable songs. While the first portion of the set contained the better songs, they held my attention throughout and I have already decided to invest in some of their albums. The single Tomorrow Night was an early highlight, and the instrumental that came about half of the way through the set which I do not know the name of was fantastic too. It featured Bolton and Christian Madden (keyboards) trading solos and just generally rocking out throughout. This was a strong set from a newly-reformed band, and it really got the festival going for me. It is just a shame that they were sandwiched between all the tribute bands, they would have been better off playing on one of the other days.

The CRF regulars The Pure Floyd Show, who I find to be one of the weaker Pink Floyd tribute bands out there, headlined the Thursday night so I took the opportunity to try and get a good night's sleep. Sleep came easier than at many of the previous festivals which was a blessing, and I felt quite refreshed by the morning ready for a full day of music. Breakfast was cooked on our little gas stove, before I headed down to the arena ready for music. Friday always sees one of the stages become the Classic Rock Society Stage (this year it was Stage 3) and they usually put on some good acts throughout the day. This year was no different, and first up on the Friday there were...

4th Labyrinth:
Opening one of the smaller stages at the CRF can often be a bit of a thankless task, but there was a quite a decent-sized crowd gathered to see Cambridge's own rockers 4th Labyrinth as they rocked through 45 minutes or so of diverse material. Led by songwriter Marcel Kunkel (vocals/keyboards), who's voice often sounded eerily like Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, the band played a set compromised largely of their own material with a couple of choice covers thrown in. The band have released one album so far, Quattro Stagioni which was duly purchased after their set, and lots of the songs played came from this release. One song from the album in particular, the dense ballad Shining Star, stood out the most with solos from both of the band's guitarists. A rocking cover of Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath went down a storm, with Kunkel's organ solo mid-way through being one of the best parts of the set. The best moment though was their heavier prog number Darkness Rising, which I assume will be featured on a future release, which really stole the show. 4th Labyrinth were one of the finds of the weekend for me, and I shall be keeping an eye on them in the future.

With nothing else tempting me for a little while, I headed back to the tent for a bit of sit down before heading back to the festival site an hour or so later to catch the end of Stone Wire's set on the CRS Stage. They were a spirited and gritty rock band with a female singer who were enjoyable but nothing more. I also took in some of Malcolm Bruce's set on the Main Stage not long after this, but found his material to be dreary and totally unmemorable. It was not long now until my most anticipated set of the day however, so I headed back to the CRS Stage while Halo Blind were setting up their gear...

Halo Blind:
Halo Blind are a band formed by Chris Johnson (vocals/guitar/keyboards), a veteran of the UK rock and prog scenes, to showcase his unique songwriting skills. Originally formed as Parade back in 2009, only Johnson remains from those early line-ups. The band is now more than a project however, as Andy Knights (vocals/guitar/keyboards/percussion) joined the band for their second album and now writes all of the band's material along with Johnson. The band's hour-long set was mostly drawn from their second album Occupying Forces, but a few new songs were debuted along with The Dogs from the band's first album. Halo Blind can best be described as alternative/progressive rock, and they have their own unique sound that sounded like nothing else on display at the festival. The Mostly Autumn connection ensured that the tent was pretty full for their set, and the band put on a fantastic display to the delight of those gathered. The aforementioned The Dogs was one of the best songs of the set, which Johnson sung beautifully from behind the keyboards. The real highlight of the set however was the final number, a new song that might be called Avalanche but I might have that wrong, that showcased yet more new sounds for the band. It had quite a funky feel, with Stuart Fletcher's bassline dominating and some electronica elements were thrown in for good measure. I look forward to the band's third album when it comes to be.

A quick trip over to the Main Stage after Halo Blind's set was in order to see Remus Down Boulevard. I was interested to see them as Dennis Stratton, formerly of Iron Maiden and Praying Mantis, is a member. You would never have thought this however, as the band's extremely generic and uninteresting blues rock just did nothing for me whatsoever, so I headed back to the CRS Stage to see the end of Jump's set. While there was a lot of Fish-era Marillion worship going on here, the songs were quite good, and I shall endeavour to check them out in future as I did not see much of their set here. The last full set that saw on the Friday was...

Voodoo Vegas:
One of the few proper hard rock acts of the weekend, Voodoo Vegas' hour-long set was easily the heaviest of the weekend, and featured lots of good old-fashioned choruses and guitar solos. Despite having only released one album so far, the band are masters of playing live and owned the stage while they were up there. Despite a decent-sized crowd being present throughout their set, I would have thought a few more people would have checked them out. I cannot say I am surprised, anything remotely heavy never seems to go down that well at the CRF (not bluesy or proggy enough obviously!). Despite this, those that were present had a great time and rocked out with the band as they played songs from their debut album and from their upcoming album that will see the light of day later this year. The highlight of the set was the hard rocking Bullet, which had one of the best choruses of the weekend, and plenty of great riffing from Meryl Hamilton (guitar) and Jon Dawson (guitar/vocals). The two make a formidable guitar attack, sharing riffs and solos throughout, and were easily the best twin-lead guitar partnership of the weekend. Frontman Lawrence Case was very engaging too, and managed to get a good response from the crowd in the end. He also played plenty of harmonica throughout, adding little touches of the blues to certain songs. I purchased their debut album The Rise of Jimmy Silver after the set, and will definitely look into getting their second one when it comes out.

Cregan & Co.'s headlining set on the Main Stage did very little for me, I am not a great lover of Rod Stewart, so I decided to head back to the tent for an early(ish) night after a couple of numbers. Again, I slept reasonably well and, after another bacon roll, headed down to the arena for another day of music. For me personally, Saturday was the weakest day of the festival with less bands than usual catching my attention. Derecho got things underway on the Main Stage and, despite having a fantastic singer, failed to impress. The songs just were not there, and the singer could do with finding herself a better band as she has some real talent. 4th Labyrinth played another set, on the Main Stage this time, and as it was much the same as the one on Friday I will not review them again, apart from to say that they were just as good the second time around. I headed back to the tent after their set for a bit of rest before heading back later to see the Bare Knuckle Blues Band on the Second Stage, as Tim Mills is a fantastic guitar player, but there seemed to have been a change and someone else was playing in their place. I never did find out what happened to Mills and his band! I wandered over to the Main Stage instead and caught a last few numbers of Walkway's set. I had seen this band at the CRF in the past and thought their set was filled with too many covers, but this time it seemed to be all original material (at least all I saw was) so that was a big improvement. The little I heard sounded quite good however, so I shall endeavour to give them a proper listen sometime in the future. Up next was one of the bands I had been looking forward to...

I saw this young progressive metal band at the CRF a few years ago, so was looking forward to seeing them again. As I said before, metal is not always something that goes down well at the festival, but these guys always seem to be popular and there was a decent-sized crowd watching them throughout. Their music is pretty melodic however without being overly heavy however, so that is probably why. Most of their songs are quite long, as you would expect, with the band's two guitarists working well together with intricate riffs and leads. I have heard their second album Caerus a couple of times but I am no expert on their music. Most of the set came from this album however, with Progress & Failure getting the set off to a good start, and the lengthy, epic The Black Hand rounding things off nicely. There was even a good cover of Thin Lizzy's Hollywood (Down on Your Luck) thrown in which was good, and saw a bit of singing from the crowd too. Overall, the band put on a good set packed with well-written songs that went down well with the crowd.

Colour of Noise:
Straight after HeKz' set on the Main Stage was Colour of Noise, a band who were added to the bill late to replace the Pink Fairies who had to pull out due to illness. I had not heard of the band before, but when I found out they featured Furyon singer Matt Mitchell and Little Angels' Bruce John Dickinson (guitar) I immediately ordered a copy of their debut album. I was impressed with the album so was really looking forward to their set and they did not disappoint. Unfortunately there were not that many people watching them, which I thought was a real shame for a band with some real rockers in the ranks, but they still played a fabulous set with nearly all of their debut album featured along with a newer song. You Only Call Me and Medicine Man got things off to a great start, but it was the melodic Head On, with Mitchell really nailing the chorus, that was the real highlight of the early part of the set. The faster, 1980s-style rock of Drive it Like You Stole It was another standout number, which strays somewhat from the band's Bad Company vibe to something more raucous. The new number Lucky Number Seven, which I assume will be featured on the band's next album, sounded strong before the set came to an end with the swampy groove rock of Heavy. Despite a disappointing turn out, Colour of Noise really gave it their all and rocked the Main Stage. The setlist was:

You Only Call Me
Medicine Man
Can You Hear Me?
Head On
Can't Take it With You
Rock Bottom
Drive it Like You Stole It
Lucky Number Seven
A Great Day for Rock and Roll

After Colour of Noise's great display of old-fashioned hard rock, I headed back to the tent for a bit of a break before heading back for something rather different on Stage 3...

Anne-Marie Helder:
Despite having seen Anne-Marie Helder live countless times as a member of Panic Room, Mostly Autumn, and Parade (an early version of Halo Blind), I had never seen one of her acoustic solo sets until now. Armed only with an acoustic guitar, Helder played for about 40 minutes and filled the packed tent with delicate but powerful acoustic music that was vastly different from the majority of things I had seen at the festival so far. I was unfamiliar with most of the material she played (the Luna Rossa song Secrets & Lies was the only song I had heard previously), but the songwriting was in her familiar and warm style. Despite some bleed from some of the other stages, her set went down well and was a  nice break from all the rock of the rest of the weekend.

After Helder's set it was across to the Main Stage to watch the start of Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy's headline set. I saw the first few numbers before retiring to bed. There was no doubting the musical talent on stage (Palmer is one of the defining rock drummers of the 1970s and the other two musicians with him were phenomenal players), but the exclusive instrumental nature of the music just was not my thing. Impressive, certainly, but not my cup of tea! After another reasonable night of sleep, I was up and refreshed ready for the final day of the weekend. The Sunday is always the best day of the Festival, with many of the best acts being saved until last. This year was no exception and it was a pretty full-on day of live music from start to finish. Opening the Main Stage were...

T Clemente Band:
Coming all the way from San Jose, California, at their own expense, the T Clemente Band were making a huge gamble. The 11am slot is never that well attended at the CRF, but word must have got around about the distance the band travelled for this slot and there was a healthy-sized crowd present for what turned out to a decent set of melodic rock. Led by Teddy Clemente (guitar/vocals) the band played a slightly proggy brand of melodic rock which went down well with the crowd and got the day off to a good start. The powerful vocals of Amanda Dieck really cut through the powerful music created by the band, and Clemente's simple but fluid guitar solos were the icing on the cake.

Space Elevator:
Following immediately on from the T Clemente Band was the over-the-top AOR of Space Elevator. While this should have been something that I would have loved on paper, I was actually a bit disappointed with their performance. Their singer The Dutchess is the perfect frontwoman and has an extremely powerful voice, but many of the songs lacked the spark, huge choruses, and soaring melodies that make great AOR unbeatable. That being said, there were some decent songs throughout their set, but sometimes it just fell flat. I think the lack of prominent keyboards hindered the band's sound. Pre-recorded keyboards were used on some songs, but a live keyboard player playing constantly would have definitely added to the band's sound. All the best AOR bands have keyboard players, and I think Space Elevator should consider it! Despite being somewhat disappointed in their set, I think there is definitely some potential there to be worked on.

After Space Elevator's set, Norway's progressive rockers The Windmill (who played at the festival two years ago) played. I really enjoyed them last time, but after a couple of numbers of this year's set I had had enough. I am not sure what I did not like about them this time, but to my ears they seemed fairly tuneless this time, which was a shame I was looking forward to seeing them again. So back to the tent it was for a break, before heading back for the home straight, and the best run of bands of the weekend! Next up on the Main Stage was...

Heather Findlay:
With a great new album and a successful UK tour under her belt, a triumphant set on the Main Stage at the Cambridge Rock Festival seemed like the next step for Heather Findlay and her band this year. The set was basically a condensed version of the set performed at her headline shows earlier in the year, featuring the best of her new album The Illusion's Reckoning and choice cuts from her times with Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly. Angela Gordon (keyboards/flute/percussion/vocals), Stuart Fletcher (bass guitar), and the multi-talented Sarah Dean (harp/keyboards/recorder/dulcimer/percussion/vocals) all remain from the year's spring shows; and Martin Ledger (vocals/guitar) and Henry Rogers (drums/vocals) have been added to the line-up. As with the shows earlier in the year, the arrangements of the songs played were much closer to the originals, rather than the more stripped-back rawer feels of previous years. The Fleetwood Mac-y Island was a great opening number, but it was the darker gothic rock of Veil of Ghosts that was an early highlight. Ledger proved to be an inspired choice as a lead guitarists, capturing the spacey feel of the original solo perfectly. The folky Lake Sunday was another excellent early number, and the set then took a trip into the past for the Mostly Autumn oldie Caught in a Fold, with Dean playing the organ parts and Gordon playing those iconic flute leads. Another highlight was another Mostly Autumn song, Unoriginal Sin, the only song in the set not played on the tour earlier in the year. Findlay played the piano parts, as she did on the original Glass Shadows album, and it was great to hear the song live again. The dark nature of it fitted the mood of the set well and it was great to see that Findlay is an accomplished pianist. Two epics brought the set to an end. Carpe Diem, one of her signature songs, brought the house down with Ledger's lengthy guitar solo at the end standing out, before her future classic The Illusion's Reckoning brought the show to a close. The setlist was:

Island [Mantra Vega material]
Veil of Ghosts [Mantra Vega material]
Mountain Spring [Mantra Vega material]
Lake Sunday [Mantra Vega material]
Caught in a Fold [Mostly Autumn material]
Magnolia Half-Moon [Odin Dragonfly material]
Unoriginal Sin [Mostly Autumn material]
Magpie [Odin Dragonfly material]
Carpe Diem [Mostly Autumn material]
The Illusion's Reckoning [Mantra Vega material]

Straight after Heather Findlay's set, the psychedelic rock of Purson was next and this was another highly anticipated set of the festival for me. I saw the band in Plymouth back in March, so was excited to see them again, especially now their second album Desire's Magic Theatre has been released. The set was basically a slightly truncated version of what they played that night in Plymouth, and featured great songs from both of their albums and their EP. The set opened with some real rockers, including the Hendrix-influenced Electric Landlady and the organ-driven Spiderwood Farm, a personal favourite from their debut album. The set was generally focused on their harder rock songs, forgoing many of the ballads. The slower, spookier Rocking Horse was brought about a change of pace, and the excellent Danse Macabre was another mid-set highlight. Rosalie Cunningham's (vocals/guitar/kazoo) slightly witchy feel is what makes the band so unique, and her charisma and guitar playing are what really drive the band live. She handles the vast majority of the guitar solos and her slightly deeper voice (than is usual for a woman) makes the band stand out. A couple of acoustic-led numbers, The Sky Parade and another personal favourite in Tragic Catastrophe, featured towards the end of the set, before an extended version of the rocky Wanted Man brought everything to a close. The setlist was:

Desire's Magic Theatre
Electric Landlady
Spiderwood Farm
Leaning on a Bear
Dead Dodo Down
Rocking Horse
Well Spoiled Machine
Danse Macabre
The Sky Parade
Tragic Catastrophe
Wanted Man

As much as I wanted to check Curved Air out, it was over to Stage 3 after Purson's rocking set to catch a rare live performance from...

Odin Dragonfly:
Odin Dragonfly are an acoustic duo created by Heather Findlay (vocals/guitar/whistles) and Angela Gordon (vocals/keyboards/flute) while they were both members of Mostly Autumn to showcase another side of their songwriting. They released one album, Offerings, in 2007 but have been almost exclusively dormant since that year. The two reformed for a few shows, as a support to the Heather Findlay Band, in 2012 but this set was one of the few full-length shows the duo have performed since 2007. The pair played for around an hour, and featured songs from Offerings, reworkings of Mostly Autumn songs, a couple of covers, and one new (although as Gordon pointed out, not so new) song that could feature on a new Odin Dragonfly album that the pair have been slowly working on. The Mostly Autumn oldie The Eyes of the Forest worked well as an opening number and segued perfectly into the uplifting How I Feel Today with plenty of soaring flute lines from Gordon. Four and Twenty Moons, the new number sung by Gordon, was an early highlight, as was the moody Web, the only song co-written by the two ladies. Despite quite significant sound bleed from the other stages that made the delicate music hard to hear sometimes, the pair performed a great set. The under-rehearsed feel actually added to the charm and gave the set an intimate feel. A version of the Mostly Autumn classic Evergreen went down well with the large crowd that was packed into the tent, and their excellent version of Jethro Tull's Witch's Promise received a huge cheer. The set ended with Gordon's Given Time and the pair received a big round of applause. I look forward to the next Odin Dragonfly album when it is finally released! The setlist was:

The Eyes of the Forest [Mostly Autumn cover]
How I Feel Today
Four and Twenty Moons
This Game
Waiting for the Snow
Bitterness Burnt [Mostly Autumn cover]
Yellow Time [Mostly Autumn cover]
Sirens of the Sea [Above & Beyond cover]
Evergreen [Mostly Autumn cover]
Witch's Promise [Jethro Tull cover]
Given Time

Mostly Autumn:
Angela Gordon (flute/keyboards/vocals) did not have long after Odin Dragonfly's set had finished to go and get set up and ready for her third gig of the day - Mostly Autumn's set on the Main Stage. The band are festival regulars, and regularly attract some of the biggest crowds of the weekends. This year was no different, and their set was easily the best by anyone at this year's festival. Playing a condensed version of the set they have been playing most of the year, the band's current set simultaneously showcases the current sound of the band, while showcasing some older classics to display the band's legacy. Gordon and Chris Johnson (guitar/vocals) were the first musicians on the stage as they rushed into a spirited version of the old instrumental Out of the Inn which has established itself as a fantastic opening number as it showcases Gordon's contributions to the band, before morphing into a real rocker for founding member Bryan Josh (vocals/guitar) to solo over. Olivia Sparnenn-Josh (vocals/percussion) makes her entrance on the heavier rock of In for the Bite from Josh's recent solo album. This song has fitted seamlessly into the band's set, and adds a heavier edge to the early part of the show. Three newer songs followed, culminating in the epic folk rock of Skin on Skin which has become even longer and rockier now it is freed from the strict Dressed in Voices concept part of the shows of the past couple of years. Alex Cromarty (drums) showcases why is the band's best ever drummer in the solo part-way through, and the jam feel of the final instrumental section gets more powerful every time. Sparnenn-Josh then had her chance to shine on the following couple of ballads, and it is on the second one, Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts, that she really impresses. Backed only by Iain Jennings' (keyboards) piano, she sings the heartfelt lyrics with ease, and demonstrates her vocal warmth. This song has become a real regular over the past couple of years, and it provides a perfect change of pace from the harder rock that is dominating the band's sets at the moment. The set came to an end with two of the band's best epics. Mother Nature was easily the song of the weekend, and ended in a crescendo of noise that was extremely powerful even by the band's usual live standards. I am so glad the band have been playing this song again this year, as it is one of their best, and brings the best out of everyone on stage. The closing instrumental duel between Jennings and Josh is perfect, and brought a huge reaction from the crowd. Heroes Never Die, the band's customary closing number, brought the set to and end, and one of the biggest cheers heard at the whole festival erupted from the crowd at the end. The setlist was:

Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Drops of the Sun
Deep in Borrowdale
Skin on Skin
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Mother Nature
Heroes Never Die

Following Mostly Autumn was always going to be a hard act, and Dutch progressive rock legends had that unenviable task. As with Carl Palmer the night before, the instrumental nature of Focus' music does not do it for me, but I stuck around for a couple of numbers to see the festival. The band are extremely popular, as the tent was pretty much full, but they just do not do anything for me! So closes another Cambridge Rock Festival. Despite other years having better line-ups, I still had a great time at the Haggis Farm Polo Club this year. Hopefully the festival will be back again next year!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that this year there were two bands on the Blues stage on Friday I actually wanted to see (Laura Holland and Rebecca Downes. Rebecca Downes in particular was great, and worth missing the end of Jump for,