Camden is, without question, the hub for Alternative culture in London. For many teenage music fans, that first trip to Camden can feel like a rite of passage, the place is so steeped in the lifestyle and scene that many of us hold dear and feel we belong to, it almost feels like a home away from home. And with the many, MANY music venues dotted around Camden town, it’s also a place where music really feels vibrant, alive and part of the scenery more so than a majority of other places, especially in London. Therefore, it is of course a no-brainer for it to play host to a music festival that literally encompasses the whole town.
Camden Rocks Festival, for those who don’t know, was originally started in 2009 by promoter Chris McCormack, and after a break of a few years, it returned and became an annual event. 2019 in fact was the first year in which the festivities expanded into a 2-day line-up, encompassing 20 different music venues across the whole of Camden, and playing host to over 400 bands over the 2 days. Now, I had never been along to Camden Rocks before and wasn’t fully sure what to expect. I only managed to get along to the first day, but I had an excellent time and, long story short, it’s definitely a festival I intend to visit again in the future.
So, on a very hot and Sunny Saturday at the start of June, I arrived in Camden around 12:30PM and traded my ticket for a wristband at The World’s End pub, situated next door (or more accurately, above) the Underworld, a reasonably well-known venue which in 10 years of going to gigs, I had somehow never been to. Until today of course, where my first band of the day were Mutant Monster, a Japanese Punk band. Getting out of the Sun and into a well air-conditioned room even at this early stage in the day was wonderful, and before too long the girls had taken the stage and put on a surprisingly decent show. It was a moderately sized audience for the early stage time, but that didn’t stop the band from putting as much energy into their performance as they could, and by the end of their 45-minute set they seemed to have earned a lot of good will across the room. That said, however, without wanting to sound like a crotchety old man, they were VERY loud. Loud to the point where my hearing was muffled for the rest of the day, and still remains muffled at time of writing some 4 days later.
After a quick stop for lunch, I made my way to the Camden Assembly (formerly the Barfly) to see a band called Gold Key. I hadn’t heard of the band going into the show, but over the course of their 30-minute set, they’d won me as a new fan, and I daresay a few more new fans among the decent crowd they’d pulled. Their sound is a difficult one to explain, there’s a fair amount of ambient/atmospheric work in the guitars, and especially in the vocals, though I’m not sure there’s another band I could make a direct comparison too. The best thing I could say is think about the sound of a Prog band, but without all the noodly and overindulgent Prog stereotypes on top. At any rate, the band sounded tight, and their set was very well-paced. Definitely a band to keep an eye on.
Next up was one of the 2 acts I was most excited to see on the day – Milk Teeth. In the past I’ve seen Milk Teeth play a great support slot for Against Me! and play one of my favourite sets of the weekend at 2018’s Download Festival. This would be my first time seeing them with Em from the band Nervus (who were also playing today but whom I was unfortunately unable to go and see due to a clash) on the guitar, and I was interested to see how this new dynamic would affect the sound and on-stage dynamic with lead vocalist and Bassist, Becky. I’m very pleased to say they played an incredible set to a pretty well packed Electric Ballroom (the biggest venue of the whole festival with a capacity of around 1500). 45-minutes of wall-to-wall bangers with barely a moment to catch your breath, Milk Teeth are genuinely one of the most exciting British bands to watch and listen to in 2019 for my money. If you’ve not been lucky enough to catch them yet, I would genuinely suggest going out of your way to do so.
The penultimate band of the day turned out to be the only band I didn’t particularly enjoy. Wheatus are a band known primarily for one song – ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. But whilst that’s true, they are also a band who are on the cusp of the twentieth anniversary of their debut album in 2020. I didn’t really know what to expect from Wheatus, I’ve never been moved to listen to them before, but they had a set time scheduled to be 1 hour and 15 minutes. Upon entering the Electric Ballroom to see them, they were already on-stage sound checking. No problem, it’s expected and every band before them to this point of the day had done the same. The issue I have is they sound checked with ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ – the song a good number of people were probably there to see. It removed the wind from the sails a little bit for me, I’ve heard the song now, obviously they’ll play it again properly but the build-up was just removed for me.
The set itself was, well, pretty pedestrian to be honest. Frontman Brendan B. Brown oozes charisma, and was talking and joking with the crowd throughout the set, which was nice. He announced before the first song that there was no setlist for the show and to call out if there was a song you wanted to hear – and to be fair, if most of my favourite bands gave me this option, I would probably wet myself in pure unadulterated joy. Here’s the thing, I know there were Wheatus fans in that room having a really great time, and I am really happy for them. I think, in this instance, it just didn’t work for me. Perhaps if I knew the band’s music better it would have struck a chord? But then again, I’d already seen bands earlier in the day I didn’t know and came away having had a good time. My biggest gripe with the set really is that, in spite of the sound check at the start of the show, they were very quiet. I could just about hear most of the set from where I was positioned, admittedly closer to the back than to the front of the venue, but if people started talking, I was honestly finding myself more interested in the conversations being had than trying to make out what was being played onstage. This all feels really harsh to write, and honestly Wheatus didn’t do anything wrong. It was just hard for me to find enjoyment in the things they did right.
After Wheatus however came the act I had most been excited for and Saturday’s headliner, Frank Turner. Now, I’m massively biased when it comes to Frank, he’s one of my all-time favourite artists and I think practically everything he has done is, at the very least, good. Tonight’s set was no exception, playing solo here for most of his set and allowing his band, The Sleeping Souls, a surely well-earned night at home, Frank was on fine form with a setlist full of his greatest hits. This was my 15th Frank Turner show, and no matter how many times I’ve seen him, the giddy sense of excitement within me whilst he’s playing never dilutes.
Frank’s main set took in 18 songs from across his catalogue and each of his so far 7 studio albums got a look in, as did a new song from his upcoming 8th album due for release later this year (this new song was called ‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’ and was both good fun musically, and really interesting lyrically in the story it told). Frank made frequent references to how important Camden is not just to Rock music, but to himself as a place he frequently visited in his youth, and you can tell he means every word he says when it comes to Camden, a place that is intrinsically a part of him at this point having played more than 50 shows - of the over 2300 under his belt - in the town.
Frank teased throughout his set that he had a very special surprise lined up for his encore, and when it finally came time for the surprise, it truly didn’t disappoint. Frank returned to the stage with a band formed specially for the night, the Shoulda Woulda Couldas (featuring the 2 members from Rock duo The Virginmarys and Festival founder Chris McCormack), who proceeded to rip into riotous covers of Punk favourites from the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Undertones, The Clash and Sham 69. It was a set of covers that I feel really got into the heart of Camden and what Camden Rocks Festival is all about. That Punk sensibility and how we should all come together and just have a great time. It was a brilliant and surprising end to a set, and to a whole day, that had been extremely fun.
If you get the chance to go to Camden Rocks Festival in 2020, you should definitely take it, even if it’s just for one day. With so many bands to choose from, so many venues to go to, and the entirety of Camden’s culture surrounding you, it’s a brilliant day out for any music-lover, and for the price of entry, it’s honestly a bit of a bargain. See you there in 2020!
By Matt Dobbie