Words by Colin Osborn | Pictures by Léna Villari

With over 200 acts to choose from trying to navigate efficiently around Camden Rocks can be something of challenge. Inevitably there will be some clashes and the spread out nature of the hosting venues can also mean having to cut short a bit of a set to catch another here and there. Still, that’s the same at any festival and is hardly something to complain about, with the line up this year offering a plethora of acts from across a huge range of genres. The sun was out and Camden was heaving with festival goers all trying to decipher the best routes to and from various stages. My carefully planned itinerary came apart more or less within an hour but I did manage to squeeze in a few bands across the course of the day.

Things kicked off at 12 and I decided to head up to the Lyttelton Arms, which is one of the smaller venues to check out Arable Desert (6). This London based band play a swampy sounding type of psych rock with some heavy overtones of blues and the odd funk influence thrown in for good measure. It’s always tough starting out so early and there weren’t many people in the bar yet. That said, a good band can put on a show worth watching irrespective of crowd size and these guys did a decent job. They had a percussionist in addition to a kit drummer which worked pretty well, there was even some maracas brandished at one point. I think these guys would be worth seeing again with a bigger crowd and a little bit later than noon but they weren’t a bad start to the days festivities.

Ryuketsu Blizzard (6.5) are a Japanese outfit who  were playing in The Camden Assembly, formerly the Barfly. Upon going upstairs into the crowded stage room it was a little disorienting to walk into a space that was pretty much pitch black, not to mention hard to navigate. It’s hard to encapsulate exactly what the Ryuketsu Blizzard show was like. The band looked like extras from Mad Max with the addition of clown makeup and their stage antics were equally as flamboyant. Needless to say it involved a costume change from y-fronts into a mankini and the liberal distribution of sanitary products and a sex doll into the audience. Musically they were somewhere between hardcore punk and some unholy variant of J-pop which made for an interesting mix. While they were an engaging watch, the set was marred somewhat by spending about five minutes introducing the band in a half hour set. Their pantomimic stage presence and over the top clowning largely made up for this though and when they did actually play some songs they were tight. I’m not sure that I’d listen to them at home but they were an entertaining act who are worth seeing live for the spectacle as much as anything else.

Cavalcade (5) were playing in another fairly small venue, Coffee Crescent. The most noticeable thing about their set was how ear splittingly loud it was. There’s nothing wrong with playing loud but when everything is turned up to maximum for the sake of it can detract from the set considerably. Such was the case here, as a band who seemed like they could have been alright were mostly lost under a caterwaul of noise. Musically they were on the heavier side of Indie, there were shades of Bloc Party and Arctic Monkeys style influences detectable at times. The four piece certainly weren’t lacking in confidence but it didn’t really hit the mark for me. Perhaps if the guitars weren’t so loud that you could barely hear the drums they might have made a better impression but as it was they were one of the weaker acts I saw across the day.

Rews (7) are a duo who were gracing the Fest stage towards early evening. They got off to a slightly muted start but as they kept playing the crowd warmed up and its numbers began to swell. When there’s just two people on stage there’s not really anywhere to hide but that wasn’t an issue for this band at all. Between them they created a large sound that filled the room and their interaction with the audience helped to add to the atmosphere. You get the feeling that both members are very comfortable playing together and the fact that they both sing adds another layer to their sound, which encompasses solid percussion with some heavily distorted guitar that manages to retain a catchiness and keen ear for hooks and riffs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

They are a good example of a band getting the chance to move upwards in terms of venue size at the festival having played the fairly small Hawley arms last year and now filling out the considerably bigger Fest stage. On the strength of their effort on this occasion it is not hard to see why.

Hands Off Gretel (8) followed Rews on the Fest stage and they wasted no time in getting started. Frontwoman Lauren Tate stalked across the stage with undeniable presence. The grunge sound of the music was complemented by her banshee like howls which resonated as if dredged from some deep primal recess. The energy of all members of the band was high but the interplay between Lauren and the guitarist was particularly strong. Their frenetic chemistry is evident and the live set was hard hitting throughout. There was a  cover of Now I wanna be your dog, which was very well delivered. It’s always going to be a challenge to match the sheer stagecraft of Iggy but Lauren did an excellent job putting her own slant on the enunciation and altering the song a little; which always makes for a better cover, rather than an attempt at a carbon copy. There was also a new track that was very well received. This was the first time I’d seen Hands off Gretel and they were a mesmerising band on the numbers where they really let rip. If anything it might have been better to see them a bit later on or at a show where they’re headlining to get the full experience but no matter, as an introduction to their live set this was excellent.

By the time I had reached the Black Heart to watch the Healthy Junkies (8) take to the stage the place was like a sauna. It was to a very sweaty crowd that the band delivered a storming set. The room was packed and guitarist Phil and frontwoman Nina were clearly enjoying themselves. They put in a highly energised performance and being on homeground there was a decent swathe of the crowd who were very familiar with the songs and sung every word back at them. They barreled through a number of songs, all of which hit the mark, though I remember Runaway Devil being one of the standout tunes. If the audience were warm they must have been positively sweltering on stage, particularly Nina who threw herself into the performance with gusto, moving all over the stage and working the crowd with abandon. They rounded off their set by inviting someone called Tom onto stage, (think they said he was from another band, but didn’t catch the name), to join them on vocals. He obliged and really let loose with some bellowing vocal accompaniment. Things were then built into a crescendo of increasingly fast drums and wall of sound guitar to bring the set to an electrifying finish.

Playing the penultimate slot at the Electric Ballroom were the Beatsteaks (7). This German band have a reputation for their full on live sets. Admittedly due to time constraints I wasn’t able to catch their whole set. However what I did see proved that since their formation in 1995 this Berlin based act have honed their set of upbeat punk numbers into a real crowd pleaser. There was a lot of jumping around happening towards the front and their verve and enthusiasm was infectious. The sound is to the lighter end of punk, at least for the numbers I caught but they’re a band I will make sure to look into a little further. They finished off the set with a version of The Beastie Boys Sabotage which went down a treat and set up the crowd nicely for the headline act.

John Lydon took to the stage and presided over the crowd of by now quite inebriated punters with huge charisma. He gave off the air of an irreverent preacher, proselytising over a back drop full of synth and and pounding drums. There was the predictable dose of anti establishment posturing but it was conducted with humour and a willingness to make light of himself; there were even a number of quips around butter. John Lydon’s voice was commanding throughout, feeling at times almost operatic in its range. The set itself was pretty varied drawing on the bands expansive back catalogue. For the most part the crowd was receptive though a spoken word introduction to one song did illicit a couple of heckles. Throughout, the set was tight and blended more esoteric numbers with hits such as Rise, This is not a love song and Public Image. There was also a range of instruments brought out at various points such as an electric upright bass and what looked like some form of electric bazouki, demonstrative of PIL’s (9) interest in experimenting with unusual instrumentation and influences. They played an hour and a half set that remained captivating from start to finish proving to be a band who are on the top of their game.

Playing the final live set of the festival were the appropriately named Nightlord (8.5) who took to the stage at The Dublin Castle at eleven to round things off. They did a grand job of it as well, playing a form no nonsense metal that was technically proficient without being overly flash. By this time most of the revellers had loosened up considerably and the combination of a full days drinking, some time in the sun and crucially some energetically played tunes resulted in a reasonably sized mosh pit. The standout song for me was one from the band’s back catalogue, apparently written in 1990 called for the faithful. This was a real thrash metal belter and went down a storm. There was also a pretty good new one about a witch and a deal with the devil that I forgot to note down the name of. In truth they were all new to me as I hadn’t encountered Nightlord before. However I’m very glad that I did as they provided a great end to a long and varied day of music. The crowd were into it and the band were clearly enjoying themselves. While there were DJs going on until later in the morning elsewhere I felt Nightlord had been a good conclusion and stumbled back to get the tube home.

This is the first time I had attended Camden Rocks and I would definitely recommend it as a day out. The team at Camden Rocks really do put on a huge range of acts and afford a showcase for much smaller bands alongside the headliners. It can require a military like attention to timings if you’re really keen to get in as many bands as possible. However the layout does invite the possibility of stumbling upon new bands if you’re willing to be a bit freer with who you decide to check out. The festival atmosphere spreads out of the venues onto the surrounding streets, with a number of performers and buskers dotted around as well.