Camden Rocks is a long day and the ultimate “something for everyone” rock festival. 250 bands over 25 venues, clashes galore and ensuring you get in (every venue has a one in, one out policy), you may find yourself queuing for a long time or suffering your way through the previous band to make sure you’re in if the next band is in demand.
With a 5am start from Glasgow and finally landing in London after 11, I’m greeted by sun and my companions for the day as we make our way up to Camden and catch up. There’s talk of bands and the day’s plans as we fall into chatting as if we’d only all been together the previous day.
After swapping tickets for wristbands, band timings and maps, it’s straight to the bar as the conversations continue before the seven of us dump our belongings in our accommodation and head our separate ways to our respective venues.
For me, the first of the day is Louise Distras at the Kraken’s Sound Stage. Proudly sponsored by the rum merchants, the amphitheatre at Camden Market plays hosts to acoustic renditions of acts appearing elsewhere on the day. It’s a joy to see Distras once more as it’s been far too long since last time (opening for The Red Paintings last year, in fact) and I can’t keep the smile off my face. Her hard-hitting lyrics are packed full of emotion as she belts out songs like “Aileen”, “Bullets” and the raw, empowering “The Hand You Hold”. She commands her crowd with aplomb, venturing out from her spot to join them and her own grin is never far from her face; it’s obvious she’s enjoying herself. It’s a perfect start to the day and I’m looking forward to seeing her hit Glasgow once more in August, even moreso now!
Back down to Be At One, the sounds of Massive Wagons hit my ears as it sounds like they’re tearing through their set whilst we queue outside for Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics. Somehow Buchanan and the Cult Classics cram themselves into the tiny space as the five-piece jostle for space, pedalboards stuck in any space they can manage. They power through the bombastic, energetic, sweaty set, throwing in a couple of Heaven’s Basement songs (Buchanan’s previous band) and convert a couple of my friends to fans who are already desperate to see them again. I’ve been raving about the album for months and they’ve got the live performance to back it up. Miss them at your peril.
Back to the amphitheatre, it’s noticeably more packed as we all reconvene and meet more friends for what promises to be a special set: Ally Dickaty of The Virginmarys treating us to a half-hour acoustic performance. Before he takes his mark, I can already feel myself start to burn with the sun but I’m safe in the knowledge that it’s going to be worth it. It’s a riveting half hour, passing in a flash, the only time Ally is interrupted is by applause but other than that, it’s reverent silence as Ally belts out staples like “Just a Ride”, “For You My Love” and “Off to Another Land”. He encourages people to come to their headlining set (not that some of us need it) before acknowledging the passing of Chris Cornell and closing the set with deep cut “Northern Sun” and a foray into “Billie Jean”. Despite the acoustic backdrop, the songs are delivered with as much passion as you’d expect from their electric incarnations, laced with power and passion, some hitting even harder.
Next is a pit stop for food before making the pilgrimage to the Underworld. There is, however, the matter of Ruts DC’s set first. Not particularly to my tastes, there’s a lot of love in the room for them, the place is packed with old school punks and pits to give metalheads a run for their money. As the changeover occurs and the anticipation builds, the army reunites, ready to jump, bounce and sing like it’s our last. The reason so many of us made the trip from all over the UK; the band which bonds us. Opening with the guttural screams of “Portrait of Red”, The Virginmarys hammer through their set and the sweat is flowing freely. As Ally implores the crowd to look after one another several times, it’s a far more energetic crowd than last year’s (and those who were there last year know that wasn’t exactly a tame one).
Balancing the set from both albums with songs like “Taking the Blame”, “Dead Man’s Shoes”, “I Wanna Take You Home”, “Halo in Her Silhouette”, “Running For My Life” and personal favourite “Lost Weekend”, they pepper in some new songs which they debuted on their March tour. Groove-filled “Sweet Loretta” has the room bouncing while “Sitting Ducks” has bass man Ross Massey marching across the stage. There’s great chemistry between him and drumming powerhouse Danny Dolan, Massey’s effortless performance gives a portrayal of a man who’s been with the band since the start and not just a handful of months.
With the final couple of songs of “Motherless Land” and fully plugged in venomous “Just a Ride”, we’re all spent and elated, safe in the comfort that it was a performance worthy of the wait. After cooling down in the cool Camden Town night, the Saturday is still in full swing, a hive of activity as we decide to decamp to a local bar. A touching conversation with a homeless man leads into the horrible news of recent London events and ends the night on a sombre note as beer and whisky flows in equal measure.
I may not have taken in as many bands as I would have liked (well over two dozen bands I enjoy were appearing) but with the way Camden Rocks is set up, I choose quality over quantity, acts I knew would deliver on the day, each and every one of them surpassing my expectations. But that’s only half of the appeal of the day, it’s a chance to see some of my favourite people and create new memories with them.