Both myself and Steen are in recovery this Monday, having spent a fabulous weekend with friends at the annual Cambridge Rock Festival. We’re tired, sunburnt and windswept, but with many happy memories of another fantastic festival. The festival continues to go from strength to strength, and kudos is due to Dave Roberts and the other organisers and festival staff for ensuring that the weekend is hassle-free and full of not just great music, but also a superb selection of real ales and relatively inexpensive but tasty on-site food and shopping of every kind. Like some of the larger festivals (like Glasters and Cropredy), the Cambridge Rock Festival (or Rockinbeerfest) really is a self-contained world all of its own. In short, after our various ailments of late, exactly what the doctor ordered :-).
The festival is actually a doddle to get to, being now situated just off the M11 outside of Cambridge, meaning it’s a straight shot along motorways and A-roads right to the door of the festival. The upshot of this is that a journey that we anticipated taking us over 2-and-a-half hours barely took us 2 hours and 10 minutes. Thankfully, the threatened rain had held off, and the sun was shining brightly on the site when we arrived. With some help from the friendly and laid-back staff, we’d found a parking space and were busily anchoring our rapidly erected tent in place within an hour of arrival. Then it was off to get our wristbands and get the lay of the land.
A quick glance at my newly-acquired programme told me that Heather Findlay was currently on the main stage with her band, so whilst Steen went back to our tent to finish setting up, I popped in to catch the tail end of Heather’s set. With talent like Dave Kilmister (Roger Waters) and Chris Johnson (Mostly Autumn, Halo Blind) on guitar and Steve Vantsis (Fish) on bass, Heather’s band has skill and energy to spare, and the few songs I saw were slickly delivered with an energy that surprised me somewhat, given the lacklustre, slightly leaden quality of her most recent release, The Phoenix Suite. Clearly the problem is translating the power and energy the band displays on stage to the studio; considering an album (or even another EP) has yet to appear, it could be that everyone involved realises that this is something that needs addressing. Let’s hope so: although Heather has never been one of my favourite vocalists, she has a distinctive tone and style and the charisma to deliver something special.
After a brief retreat to our tent to grab Steen, our camping chairs and funds for some chow, I got back in time to see the bulk of John Otway‘s set. We’d seen him do his one-man show as a support to Marillion at one of their previous convention weekends, but here he was performing with his full band. As madcap as ever, suitably deranged covers were deployed (along with the inevitable stepladder – don’t ask!) to comically heroic effect. His cover of Dio’s We Rock has to be heard to be believed. My only real criticism would be that his show hasn’t developed significantly in the near full decade since we last saw him (a lot of the same covers were wheeled out again). Beyond that, Otway was as entertaining as ever – assuming, of course, that you find him funny in the first place.
After grabbing some food, we moved our chairs so that we had a clear view of events on Stage 2, where Sankara were just starting their set. Partially comprised of ex-members of The Reasoning (vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Gareth Jones and drummer Vinden Wylde), the band play a set of mostly hard-hitting, metal-influenced material. My immediate reaction is stunned delight at the sheer power and clarity of Gareth’s vocals, which remain exceptional – seriously, this guy can sing anything with real impact and authority, tackling ballads and full-bore metallic intensity with equal effectiveness, his extended range more than up to the challenge. However, what was disappointing was how often the songs descended into metal-oriented cliche, several of them starting and/or ending in a very similar fashion – perhaps a bit more variety is called for? It’s perhaps telling that the highlight of Sankara’s set was a hugely effective rocked-up cover of Tori Amo’s Precious Things. Still, it’s early days for Sankara, and there’s no question that they’re only going to improve with time as they find their own direction.
Our ‘big draw’ of the evening were female-fronted metal act Winter In Eden, who had sounded good from the odd tracks I’d sampled online. They were playing Stage 2 later, so we elected to stay at Stage 2 for Jump, even though they’d never really made much of an impact on me in the past. I’d seen them support both Marillion and Panic Room in the past, and whilst John Dexter-Jones has a fine voice and they’re all perfectly effective players, their material never really clicked with me. However, whilst we were waiting, we had to contend with the lowlight of our weekend in the form of Broken Arrow, who were by now getting stuck into their set on Stage 3, in the tent next door. Playing a set principally comprised of Floyd and Dylan covers, they were truly excruciating – I had thought I’d heard some awful Floyd covers in my time, but Broken Arrow’s tuneless, endless, unintentionally hilarious cover of Comfortably Numb (complete with cack-handed guitar ‘solo’) is going to take some beating. Thankfully, just as I was about to jam clods of earth into my ears or perhaps take my own life, they were drowned out as Jump started their set.
Quite honestly, I’m still not sold on Jump. Dexter-Jones is a consummate frontman – and kudos for his perhaps somewhat outspoken comments during the band’s set about how the band are perceived by the media – and their performance was polished and energetic, but their material remains hit and miss for me. One of our friends commented that they were surprised that the band had opted not to play some of their more upbeat fare, which might have been more effective for a festival slot, and even not being all that familiar with their back catalogue, I think that that’s probably a fair comment. Still, Jump were better
than I had remembered, and we were all quite happy to have stuck around for their set, which in my case is definitely progress. Perhaps they’re getting under my skin after all!
And so it was time for Winter In Eden. Right from the start, I could sense we were in
for something special, and I was not disappointed. A positive ball of energy, the band hit the stage and went off like a firework. Frontwoman Vicky Johnson has a fantastically powerful and distinctive voice, and the band manage to walk the fine line between evident technical ability and needless instrumental showboating with real skill. Pitching themselves somewhere exactly midway between the metallic drama of Nightwish and the no-nonsense heads-down rock of bands like Delain and Evanescence, they delivered an
absolutely stunning set: the hour shot past so fast that it felt like they’d barely got on stage before they were leaving. In that hour they’d got the sizeable crowd entirely on their side, captivated by their relentless energy and good-humoured interaction with the audience. To say I was blown away was an understatement – I went from intrigued observer to complete devotee in the time it took them to play half a dozen songs. They’re supporting my beloved Karnataka in November, at the Assembly in Leamington – now that promises to be a double-header to relish! The first Winter In Eden album has accompanied me home – I’ve got some real catching up to do! Superlatives fail me: Winter In Eden were absolutely awesome. Definitely by far my Friday highlight, and right up there with the very best acts I saw all weekend. Check out their website for more details.
I was a bit disappointed that the festival had scheduled Winter In Eden, who I had wanted to check out for quite a while, against It Bites, a band who I own several albums by, but have never seen live. So once Winter In Eden had finished their set, Steen and I hoofed it fairly quickly back up to the main stage to catch what was left of the It Bites set. We arrived just in time to see It Bites close with a spirited Calling All The Heroes. I’d not heard the band with John Mitchell at the helm since
Francis Dunnery left the band, but on this evidence they’re every bit as effective as they ever were. It clearly wasn’t Steen’s cup of tea, but I think it’s high time I gave the Mitchell-fronted albums some time and caught up with events.
And on that note, we decided to call it a night. Beyond the daft fun of Hocus Pocus, Focus didn’t really appeal, and although metalheads Kyrbgrinder are very good at what they do, we weren’t really in the mood for it. Well, it’d been a long and tiring day, and I’m getting on a bit, alright? 😉
Updates about our Saturday & Sunday experiences to follow 🙂