Expanded this year into a two-day festival, Camden Rocks is fast snowballing in both size and influence.
From humble origins 10 years ago, it’s becoming an urban Goliath, attracting bigger names and longer line-ups every year.
2019’s roster featured a mind-boggling 400 bands crammed into 20 venues – a logistical nightmare roughly on a par with Brexit.
That the whole thing went off with barely a hitch is to the considerable credit of organiser Chris McCormack (The Professionals) and his team.
With the smorgasbord of talent on offer, reviewing such a massive event was a considerable challenge.
Undaunted, EPs Matt Catchpole (words) and Sam Wells (pictures) took up the cudgel – fearlessly braving the bars, taverns, gin palaces and nitespots of Camden to bring you this report.
With time perilously short on the Saturday (don’t ask!), I headed down to a packed Electric Ballroom to catch a bit of the night’s headline act Frank Turner.
The bearded bard of Meonstoke is something of a phenomenon, shifting units aplenty with his affirmative take on punk folk.
It’s not easy to find new paths on a road well travelled by the likes of Billy Bragg and The Levellers, but with seven albums under his belt Frank’s certainly making a decent stab at it.
And there’s no doubting his power as a performer.
Watching him hold a rapt audience in the palm of his hand – armed with just a microphone and an acoustic guitar was something to behold.
Overjoyed to be back in North London, he was clearly among friends, with the audience eagerly helping him out with the lyrics for songs old and new.
Tragically I left before the stagediving, but there were a couple of bona fide rock icons I wanted to catch on The Fest stage at Stables Market.
Sunday started small – up and coming Aussie artist Suzie Stapleton kicking things off on the ‘punktastic’ Good Mixer stage.
I say small, there was a danger the Mixer’s bar staff might outnumber the audience when Suzie’s trio first plugged in.
But they soldiered on, steadily winning new friends with finely crafted songs of real depth and passion.
There are shades of compatriot Nick Cave and the dark blues of The Gun Club in Suzie’s songs and it’s a rare pleasure to find a singer-songwriter, who can actually sing,
She’s no mean guitarist either, blending psychedelic elements with pulsating solos on songs like Hit and feverish set closer We Are The Plague (see what I did there).
Yep, she’s definitely got some chops, has Suzie, and with a new album in the works, if she’s not playing bigger places by this time next year, I may have to eat my laptop.
Ash’s Tim Wheeler seems remarkably youthful for someone who’s been doing this music biz thing for the best part of a quarter century.
Then again, given he was just a teenager when Ash first hit the airwaves in 1996, it’s perhaps not quite so surprising.
Strapping on his trademark Flying V he bashes out a couple of deafening, distorted power chords and it’s clear from outset – Ash are here to rock.
The hits fly by at quantum speed, Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton nonchalantly blending subtle skill with brazen showmanship.
I’d honestly forgotten how good they were, but I was in a minority of one, as The Electric Ballroom bounced and sang along to such guaranteed crowd-pleasers as Oh Yeah, Annabel and their salute to chop-socky, Fu Manchu.
Endearingly geeky with their love of martial arts, cartoons, sci-fi and video games, Ash are like The Big Bang Theory of rock.
Given the ecstatic reception they got for The Girl From Mars, we might yet see the revenge of nerds enter the next generation.
“To Camden we will crawl” The Libertines sang on Fame and Fortune and Sunday’s Dingwalls show certainly felt like a homecoming for Carl Barat.
Match fit and brimming with confidence after a series of tour dates, Barat and his band tore into the set like a pack of rabid dogs.
Playing a career-spanning mix of Libertines, Dirty Pretty Things and Jackals tunes, Carl’s the epitome of cool throughout.
At one point he even gets a punter in the front row to hold his guitar while he takes off his leather jacket.
The music clatters along with a familiar rambunctious swagger, the heavier Jackals’ songs like Glory Days and A Storm Is Coming delivered with conspicuous attack.
I was less taken with the solo acoustic bit towards the end, not so much because it smacked of self-indulgence, (though it did!), but because it sucked the momentum out of a hitherto blistering half hour.
Happily, things soon pick up again, once his excellent band rejoin him on stage and a performance of real star quality reaches a triumphant climax. Over to you Pete Doherty.
With the festival drawing to a close, we made one last journey to The Underworld to spend some time in the jovial company of The Wonder Stuff.
Frontman Miles Hunt is another seemingly immune to the ravages of time.
Indeed, with his shock of red hair and rustic green waistcoat – I was half expecting a white wizard to gallop on and whisk him off on a quest for the one true ring.
Thankfully that didn’t happen and instead we were treated a peach of a set, chiefly culled from the band’s absurdly catchy first three albums.
Genial and accommodating, Miles knows exactly what his audience wants and is more than happy to deliver.
Promising never to utter the words “we’ve got some new stuff to play you,” he leads the band on a nostalgic ramble through their best loved songs, including Golden Green and Size of a Cow.
“This used to be my boozer for five years in the ’90s,” he remembers, “I’ve been in some states in here!”
Funny and charming throughout, he pays a moving tribute to the late Kirsty MacColl by way of introduction to Welcome To The Cheap Seats – violinist Erica Nockalls elegantly filling in for Kirsty on vocal duties.
With original guitarist Malc Treece back in the fold – the band sound as good as they ever have, Erica’s vibrant fiddle adding extra sheen to their infectious melodies.
Now, 52, Miles may jokingly wish they’d written more ballads like Piece of Sky. but he’s a ball of energy, the absolute beating heart of the band.
When we reluctantly take our leave to the closing strains of Don’t Let Me Down Gently, it feels like the Stuffies could go on all night.
Six shows in two days and we barely scratched the surface of what was on offer.
New, established, nostalgic and legendary – Camden Rocks 2019 had a bit of everything. Roll on next year.
- For more about Camden Rocks and information on all of the artists featured visit the festival website here.