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Cambridge Rock Festival

Ian Ambrose is a regular contributor to Grapevine. We took him well and truly out of his world, roots and folk music comfort zone and sent him to his first ever rock festival.

First time at a festival for nearly a year.  Has my enthusiasm gone?  Am I too old for this malarkey? Will I miss my cocoa and the news at ten? So many questions, harder to answer for this is my first time at a rock festival of any description, still life is a series of small steps as many a pretentious soul has said.

Having made my way to the grounds of Horseheath Lodge I thought it best to settle in gently, so off to the acoustic tent I went, first a point of order, in this case, the word acoustic means less noisy than the other two stages, where I was joyously entertained by Claudia and The Braidy Bunch with their infectious sunny pop stuff.

Having climbed the first mountain successfully, the higher peaks came into view. So, having girded my loins, or the aural equivalent, I entered the grownups stage where Bootleg Boss were about to do their thing. They do exactly what it says on the tin – Springsteen songs, as a fan of the man it was interesting to listen to someone else do his songs, and the thing it brought home is the uniqueness of his delivery. If that isn’t right then the music is, ever so slightly, out of whack, that said, whatever the circumstance, the opening chords of “Born to Run” are a thing of goose bumps and delight. Although not really a Bowie fan I gave a listen to Aladdinsane doing “Space Oddity” and “Starman” and, again I felt much the same. May be it is a visual thing, meaning that as you can see it isn’t Springsteen or Bowie in front of you subconsciously you are expecting less or, perhaps, the musicians lack that sprinkling of subtlety and originality that make the originals able to stand the test of time. Whatever it is, whilst appreciating that they fulfil a need, tribute acts are not for me.

Disappointingly, whilst pondering the above, I only caught part of the last song by Searching Grey which sounded really good and, I am led to believe that they hail from the Cambridge area, so there is a fair chance that I can catch up with them again. Really hope so.

My chosen last act of the evening, remember I am pacing myself,  were a six piece band called Moritz and, unsurprisingly, I had never heard of them. But with twin lead guitars they seemed to have a bit of a Whitesnake strut, and were very enjoyable in a slightly predictable way. Their contribution to the party was nothing new, but, hell, the songs were strong  and the requirements of the crowd were amply met. For this is not a festival of new music, it is a celebration of what makes blues and rock the life affirming things that they have become over the last forty years or so, and should be enjoyed as such.

Day two, and with the swagger of a veteran, I am off to see a Cambridge based band called 4th Labyrinth and very good they were. Hard to be succinct when describing their sound as it encompasses so much, smart original songs and diverse covers like “Locomotive Breath” and “Purple Rain” and all as a cohesive whole.

All the way from California came the T Clemente Band whom are firm favourites of the loyal festival crowd and were given the reception that the acclaimed deserve. I will confess to being rather unmoved so went to the other stage where Catfish were doing their thing. Genuine enthusiasm being the result of my ramble, for Catfish are a rather fab blues rock quartet led by guitarist Matt Long who, rather importantly, plays to suit the song rather than fashions a song to suit his solo, that is a win in my book. I look forward to hearing more of them as I was particularly taken by the pathos evident in “Make it Rain“.

Even I have heard of Chantel McGregor – she plays everywhere all the time and, generally, has good things written about her, so I was expecting the aforesaid good things. But it didn’t really work for me, the aggressive use of feedback and other guitar pyrotechnics left me somewhat cold, all I wanted was a good song passionately delivered.

I am not sure that the Tygers of Pan Tang rank as legends of heavy metal but, I guess, they dwell high above the sunlit uplands, as they bring a sprig of recognition to those completely unfamiliar with the genre, and I find myself in that category. Having been in their presence I, still, can’t call myself a fan but they sure know how to put on a damn good show with charisma and punch in abundance, and any heavy metal fan would not have been disappointed. Indeed, some of the older audience members may be in need of the doctor’s surgery later this week.

But, in my quest to hear as much as possible, I didn’t get the full Tygers experience and, instead nipped off to hear a lady I had never heard of. That seems to be one of the underlying themes of this festival, it is populated by acts that never get anywhere near national exposure all doing their own thing very well, and more power to their collective elbows. Doris Brendel being a case in point, and it is probably lazy writing on my part to suggest that her latest album “Eclectica” is an accurate description of her sound. Anyway, it may be a clue to their sound when I say that they are on tour with Wishbone Ash shortly, although a more fitting fit may be Jethro Tull.

Unable to dodge Saturday’s brief, but torrential, downpours my day was rather curtailed by the possible threat of double pneumonia, so armed with nothing more than fortitude and coffee I sallied forth to be entranced by Kinky Wizzards, which is not something readily available on the dark web. But, may be, listening to some wonderful jazz rock first thing in the morning shows the extent of my depravity. On a more serious note it just shows that there is a place for instrumental music in the rock canon, and rock is so much the better for that. The band themselves cite Rush and Frank Zappa as major influences, but I would take them back to a time before their birth, to the time when John McLaughlin ruled the jazz rock world as, in my small head, that is the root of their sound. By the way did I say it was good?

Next up were the appallingly named JFK Blue who were a bit of a curate’s egg, one moment I was thinking that they were the best thing that I’d heard all weekend and at others I wanted them to shut up. The quartet have a little bit of a southern rock vibe going on and a pretty smart lead guitarist, both make them stand out but, over the course of an hour, they didn’t really sustain that position. At the other end of the spectrum Split Whiskers have no such pretensions, they do what they do very well. What they do is blues based pub rock, mind you it would be a very superior pub that put them on, and I would certainly go.

Falling into the caught by accident category come Last Great Dreamers, and I am absolutely thrilled that I did catch them, if the term power pop was not invented for them then it should have been. Think of a more pop minded Jam and you won’t be far off the mark, the song from which they take their name is a thing of joy and beauty, as is “Oblivion Kids” . They won’t solve the complexities of Brexit, or potholes, but an hour in their company will enrich the lives of many, and I am expecting CDs from a major online retailer any day now.

On the other hand the whole planet would make the effort to see John Otway, this time accompanied by his big band, and, in my mind, he simply enhanced his position as the Arthur Smith of rock. We were treated to all the hits, both of them, along with several from the new album “Montserrat” and, in his hands, “House of the Rising Sun” remains a thing of astonishment and wonder. So, safe in the knowledge that the already happy crowd would be suitably entertained and left smiling by Eddie and the Hotrods, I headed home to the pleasures of a hot bath.

Work commitments meant a late start to Sunday’s entertainment but, bearing up well, I rushed, pen and pad in hand, to the nearest stage where I caught half an hour of London Blusion who immediately won my undying admiration for stating that they don’t do love songs, on the grounds that there is only so much to be said about leaving your lover, mother, dog etc. Although, in the blues idiom, that does leave a paucity of songs to cover. Answer to that conundrum  – write your own stuff, they do and, for the most part, they do it pretty well. Having said that the highlight of the set was a long, nuanced doing over of “I Shot the Sheriff“. Sadly, nuanced isn’t a word that I could use in connection with the performance of young blues hot shot guitarist Laurence Jones, the much used cliché style over substance says all that needs to be said.

When, during a sound check, the drummer plays rolls and fills rather than sounding like they are nailing the roof on a shed your expectation levels start to rise. Fortunately, on this occasion, the expectations were not false, for Deborah Bonham and her band were nothing short of wonderful, playing rock that springs from the blues, as beloved by Tommy Vance, and still played by Radio Caroline. Right from the start this festival favourite had the audience in the palm of her hand, from where she squeezed, pushed and pulled them through a set of deeply impressive songs ending with the triumphant encore of “Rock and Roll“, although my favourite was the Gram Parsons influenced “Take Me Down“.

Having mentioned country rock indirectly it is time to throw Jamie Williams and the Roots Collective into the mix, their more modern take on the genre is high on melody and low on bombast, although that opinion may have been swayed by the fast and furious nature of most of the other acts on the bill. But there is no disguising that this is very much to my liking, and being hidden away on the ‘acoustic’ stage was a betrayal of his talent.

At most festivals I attend I am aware of the act chosen for the grand finale, but I confess to being completely ignorant regarding Atomic Rooster, nonetheless they were the chosen ones and, therefore, must be worthy of a listen. So I did, and it is always a pleasure to hear an expertly played Hammond Organ and, along with drums bass and guitar they create an amalgam of prog-rock and blues. It was fun although unlikely to make a deep impression and early on they played one of their hit singles from the 1970s – “Tomorrow Night” which brought absolutely no memories flooding back. Nonetheless the large crowd seemed happy enough and, in reality, what more is music supposed to do, and, on that level, the festival can be judged a success  with lots of crowd pleasing acts. I enjoyed myself rather more than I expected and came across half a dozen acts I would happily watch again, and that is what I want from a festival. I guess that means everyone is pleased.

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