Camden, Camden. So much to answer for. While it’s place at the centre of hipster life in the UK capital may have been relinquished in favour of the East End, the area still has an atmosphere all of its own. The Camden Crawl festival has borne witness to many of the comings and goings in the borough, expanding to our own Dublin leg in 2012, taking a break from London in 2013 and now returning on a new weekend slightly later in the summer.
As with many urban festivals, there’s an awkward mix clash of cultures. Expanding beyond the traditional Camden venues, the bands and audience find themselves dropping into some odd locations. There’s also the official pub crawl factor, as lines of increasingly drunk punters are led in and out of bars – often coming into contact with artists of a more challenging nature with varying results. State, however, was there purely for the music and here’s what we got up to…
Abjects – Friday, Good Mixer
Label mates of Pins (who they describe as their “big sisters”), three piece Abjects combine a two thirds Spanish / one third Japanese line-up but their sound is less international, settling instead on tight, harmony driven guitar rock. They rattle along nicely though, giving the languid early evening a shot in the arm.
Akiine – Saturday, Black Heart
As the name of the venue suggests, the upstairs room that State ventures into on Saturday evening is dark and intimate – in stark contrast with performer on its tiny stage. Purveying the kind of skewed pop that only seems to emerge from her native Sweden, Akiine is often lost in her own music as she twirls and dips to the electronic beats produced by her on stage partner. One song, she tells us, sounds like an “underwater detective movie”. Quite.
Atari Teenage Riot – Friday, Electric Ballroom
A venue with a long and ignoble history on the Camden scene, there’s no more suitable act to take it by the scruff of the neck than ATR. Their approach is simply assault your aural and visual senses and they never give up, the wall of noise backed by an ever pulsating strobe. No matter how long they’ve been at it it’s still incredibly exciting, Alec Empire joined by UK rapper Rowdy Superstar and screaming American Nic Endo, who regularly drops to her knees and rolls around the stage. Digitial hardcore, you know the score.
Blizzard – Saturday, Jazz Cafe
A 20 year old Mancunian relocated to London, Blizzard isn’t your average inner city MC. After all, he did make his name thanks to a rap battle with his English teacher. He throws an equal curveball tonight, performing solo apart from a keyboard. No beats, processed or otherwise, just his clever wordplay and engaging personality. It’s very rough around the edges but that’s what makes it so enjoyable, a world away from the over slick approach of most urban music. Seek him out before the producers and stylists get there hands on him.
CuT – Saturday, Belushi’s
One thing that’s very noticeable from the Crawl is that guitar music is still in vogue on the other side of the water, far more so than here in Ireland. Londoners CuT are hugely old school, all hair, vests and huge crushing riffs. There’s nothing new to be honest but, squeezed into this tiny venue in the heat, it’s a heady mix.
Dirty Beaches – Friday, Electric Ballroom
Alex Zang Hungtai arrives in Camden in the middle of a punishing schedule that seems to have taken a toll on both him and his equipment. A faltering technical start threatens to derail the first of his two shows over the weekend but, once he gets into his stride, his mixture of old and new styles works its magic.
FEMME – Saturday, Beatrice
While the modus operandi of the Beatrice venue on the first night was distinctly roots based, Saturday is all about the pop and no act personifies this more than Femme. Laura Bettinson first came to our attention through her work with Nigel Godrich on his Ultraista project but tonight she’s the centre of attention. It’s nice enough but could do with a little more substance to support the froth, although her pom pom shaking dancers at the close are certainly one of the weekend’s more memorable moments.
Ghetts – Friday, The Monarch
Despite their being a wide array of music across the venues, the curator led nature of the festival means that each night has a distinct theme. Hosted by Blackjack London, Friday at the Monarch is all about hip-hop and soul, and Ghetts in particular. He’s clearly a big deal here and the place is rammed as his three piece band – including a keytar, not exactly a common sight at a rap show – lead proceedings. Ghetts himself more than proves what all the fuss is about, a natural performer and lyricist who clearly deserves bigger stages than this. A cover of ‘No Church In The Wild’ could easily have exposed his own shortcomings but as he is able to match it note for note.
God Damn – Saturday, Underworld
Drums, guitar, hair, volume. Four words that pretty much sum up duo God Damn. The music is turned up to the max, as is drummer Ash Weaver’s onstage face pulling, photo posing and stick pointing. Not essential listening at home by any means but certainly a fair old way to pass fifteen minutes.
Gnarwolves – Saturday, Purple Turtle
As if playing their second show in the space of a few hours isn’t enough, hardcore trio Gnarwolves have to contend with a broken guitar string (and no spare) during their first song. All of which makes what follows the more incredible. The US influence looms large but there’s also strong nods to the likes of Mega City 4 and Hundred Reasons, a sense of passion and emotion underpinning the furious playing, stage diving and mosh pit. One of the bands of the weekend.
Johnny Foreigner – Saturday, Underworld
Approaching their tenth anniversary, Johnny Foreigner are veritable veterans compared with most of the acts on the bill – yet still they find themselves midway through the night in a medium sized venue. It appears not to bother them, though, as they rip through one pacey indie guitar tune after another, all delivered from behind floppy fringes. The boy / girl vocal interplay helps lift it above the ordinary and they prove themselves a band to cherish, and not just for their longevity.
Mickey Lightfoot – Saturday, Jazz Cafe
Unsurprisingly there are plenty of takes on urban music to be found across the Crawl, yet none leave such an effect on us as Lightfoot. Coming from a background that includes West African politics, punk fashion and a great grandfather who was a WWII prisoner, he’s not your average MC by any means. Commanding the stage he charms the audience (and, in the case of one girl who insists on sitting on stage with her back to him, cajoles them) with the result that the whole room is soon eating out of his hand. Switching from rapping to a gospel tinged voice and backed by a bassist and second vocalist / master of laptops, this is a far more soulful and uplifting experience than most in his field could provide.
Miraculous Mule – Friday, Beatrice
The only all Camden born act on the bill, trio Miraculous Mule have more than a hint of the old school about them. Second generation London Irish, they dig deep into the history of blues, gospel and soul and emerge as something pleasantly different to everything else on the bill. Not that we’re the only ones to think it as the sizeable crowd they draw proves that there is life beyond hipster in this part of North London.
Pins – Friday, Underworld
While other bands throw themselves into performance with sweaty abandon, Manchester’s Pins are a far cooler proposition. Thankfully they manage to stay just on the right side of aloof and it proves to be a welcome change of gear. ‘Girls Like Us’ says it all, a theme tune of sorts that sets their agenda in a powerful, yet subtle manner.
Shabazz Palaces – Saturday, Koko
Playing the largest venue in the festival, and certainly with one of the highest profiles, Shabazz Palaces should have been a shoo-in for a weekend highlight. Why they don’t get anywhere close is probably down to a number of factors. The room itself robs them of any of the intimacy offered by less notable spots and a combination of tired limbs and heads after two days of gig action has a probable effect on the audience. That said, the duo are hardly hugely inspiring either – their staid performance failing to do their innovative music justice. The best moment is discovering that fellow CC artist Akiine dances the same off stage as she does on.
Slaves – Saturday, Underworld
Drums and guitar duos are common place these days, none more so in these parts, yet none of them make an impact like Maidstone pair Slave (pictured). Bare-chested and playing a spare stand up kit like a demon, singer Isaac Holman attacks every song as if it’s his last, while partner Laurie Vincent asks us to name our favourite biscuit. Quiffs melting in the heat, they make each second of their short set count, dedicated to the belief that one great show can change the world. They may not be wrong.
Thought Forms – Friday, Belushis
One of the smallest spaces on the Crawl, curators Art Rocker have opted to fill it with some of its loudest bands. Making do without bass, their two guitarists create a massive noise that eclipses everything else in the near vicinity. Twenty years ago we would have called them shoegazers (and, to be fair, they do spend a lot of time looking floorwards) but there’s nothing wrong with that. Intense, especially at such close quarters.
Tout – Friday, Beatrice
Seldom have we seen a band as unhappy to be on a stage as Londoners Tout, as their quiet instrumental music faces an uphill battle in a venue full of noisy revellers who aren’t necessarily in the mood for some subtleties. Once the blow ins have departed, however, the mood changes for the better and their lovely country tinged post-rock starts to take shape. Mixing viola with slide guitar and rhythmic crescendos, Tout may not have enjoyed the experience but we certainly did.
Vondon – Friday, Belushis
It takes something special to make you stand out amongst such a large number of acts and Vodon have it nailed. A other worldly back story, Amazonian body paint and colourful costumes catch the eye, their mix of brutal garage rock and belting soul vocals ensure that you stay for the music.
Youth Man – Friday, Belushis
The very first band we see at the Crawl, early on Friday evening, also prove to be one of the most impressive. Led by the energised Kaila Whyte, they play their lightning fast punk rock with a conviction that sets them apart.