Camden Crawl - North London - 24/4/09
01 Jul 2009
"at the end of the day no one can complain too much at a load of bands playing live at a load of pubs, clubs and venues, now can they..?"; release - '09
Airports are funny things. Generally much maligned, I actually have a lot of time for them. In the context of being a means to an end (the end generally being some sort of holiday), they provide some of the best people watching opportunities outside of another unpopular phenomenon - motorway service stations. Airports are a surreal microcosm of people coming and going, rushing and relaxing, excitement and arguments, tantrums and anticipation - and everything is right there where you need it, all laid out in one long strip of commercial opportunity. And, even if the trip turns out to be a complete disaster in the end, at that moment the potential of it remains infinite...
And so it is with the Camden Crawl. One long strip of opportunity. Disorientated people rushing to and fro, propelled by the potential of witnessing some stellar live music, be it the odd AAA live show from a real modern great (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), some chart-bothering indie-rock (Kasabian, The Enemy, Hockey), plenty of old favourites (Madness, Wire, The Fall, Echo & the Bunnymen) or hyped Camden favourites (Peggy Sue, Alessi's Ark, Goldielocks).
However, thrown into the melee of Camden High St, Chalk Farm Road and Parkway on a Friday night just like a normal one only even busier, more than stellar live music, the reality seems to rely a lot more on just plain Stella (or perhaps sponsors Gaymers' cider). A scan down the list of bands playing is likely to reveal enough eye-catching and enticing names over the course of the two days, but compared with many of festivals (be they field-based or among the ever-growing ranks of this kind of urban weekender), the 2009 Camden Crawl doesn't seem to have the depth nor real quality of exciting bands as other events. What's more, experience of previous years hinted that the chances of you being able to see more than one or two of the bands you had your eye on would be rather slim, with overcrowded venues, long queues and the distance between the Mornington Crescent and Chalk Farm extremities of the festival a fair old walk.
This very situation greets the tardier customer (such as I) strolling up to the Roundhouse at 6.30pm on the Friday to pick up a wristband, weaving through crowds of after-work punters still milling around trying to decipher their fold-up guides to the festival, only to discover the evening's biggest queue - for many peoples' highlights of the festival Yeah Yeah Yeahs playing a surprisingly early show for the BBC (and that a whole other wristband is needed to even get into the Roundhouse). A quick glance at the schedule also showed that the much-hyped Virgins had already played too, even earlier. Having got over that mild initial disappointment, though, there is still plenty of music to choose from across the 16 venues to take your mind off it. And with that considerable draw at the Chalk Farm end of the festival, many other venues had plenty of room to breathe and take in some new music. One such was a sparsely filled Underworld, where London-via-Brighton's Flashguns kicked off my Camden Crawl '09. The relative lack of audience was by no means reflected by any lack of enthusiasm on the part of the impossibly young-looking band, who barely paused for breath as they tore through an energetic and engaging set. From the extended thrashing of the opening number, through more standard, but thoroughly enjoyable '80s-influenced jerkily melodic indie-rock fare (supplemented with more than a touch of xylophone), the increasing head-nodding and foot-tapping of a growing crowd was complemented by some outstanding moves by frontman Sam Johnston, who, with guitar slung incredibly high, moved around the stage like a cross between Michael Flatley and David Byrne. This remarkable routine added to an all-round encouraging performance - including a great rendition of the Stephen Street produced single 'Locarno' - from a band I would otherwise have missed, and provided a more than pleasant start to a Friday night.
My attempts at "doing" the Camden Crawl proceeded in very much the same way as Sam's hap-hazard dancing. Neither the first - nor last - mix up corroborating the stage times on my schedule with my watch meant a trek back up the high street for Peggy Sue allowed me to also witness almost the entire set of Berlin-based Canadians Circlesquare on before them in The Monarch. Given that the average music fan's year seems destined to be split between dancing about wildly to synth-orientated pop and gazing steadfastly at their shoes, Circlesquare should do fine, for live their square peg seeming to fall perfectly between the two circular holes filled by the glut of electro-pop and shoegaze bands doing the rounds. The dark, brooding, pulsating electro songs from their Songs About Drugs and Dancing album stretch out in a way that seems to fit perfectly into their geographical heritage - something like a trimmed down Broken Social Scene playing a krautrock-themed morning after party.
By the time Rosa, Katy et al of Peggy Sue (shorn of Pirates and Pictures) take the stage, the Monarch's former Wetherspoon's layout is full to bursting in anticipation. With Florence + her major label Machine picking up awards, fans and super-hype left, right and centre, Peggy Sue could be forgiven for feeling a little hard done by for being the quirky female chanteuses a little left behind in what seems to be developing into a whole new wave of eccentric girl power. Not that it shows in performance, with the cockney patois of their charming rockabilly-infused sea shanties sounding perfectly at home in 21st Century Camden. With the familiar to fans Missy Elliott cover 'All In My Grill' crowning an impressive set to an appreciative crowd, there's still time for the forthcoming debut album to set the Peggy Sue ship on course for bigger things this year.
A quick stop off at Dingwalls to catch the end of Sportsday Megaphone's one man laptop party (including an intriguing folktronica version of The Buzzcocks' 'Ever Fallen In Love With Someone You Shouldn't Have Fallen In Love With', adding some clinical beats and Pet Shop Boys style vocals to the punk classic to pleasing effect) and what had initially seemed an evening of high maintenance struggling was starting to feel more comfortable, and dare I say it, fun. For this is really the key to something like the Camden Crawl - unless you plan to spend your evening queuing to see one or two bands you've just got to throw your preconceptions and attempts to formulate any kind of running order out the window and go for impulsiveness instead; make it a spontaneous pub crawl with an unpredictable soundtrack, rather than a hectic logistical nightmare trying to squeeze in your personal favourites. (By this point I was fully resigned to the fact that I probably wouldn't be able to catch any of my wanna-sees of the evening like James Yuill, Three Trapped Tigers, Pulled Apart By Horses and more).
As much as that philosophy is true, you are still allowed to pick which band playing the "headliner" slot you want to brave the queues for. Being in the mood for a mellow end of the evening, mine was the wonderful Mumford and Sons at the Jazz Café and so I duly waited in line feeling rather satisfied at the night's work so far. Alas, the sign on the door indicated that the Mumford and indeed his whole family had cancelled (a post-event check of the band's Myspace indicated that they had announced in mid-March that they were rescheduling all their April tour dates, so quite why they were still down to perform up to the night of the event seems a little mystifying). The organisers had managed to find a replacement, though, and at the risk of a long walk to join the back of another queue I decided to cut my losses and stick around to check out... well I never actually caught their names. Replacing the scheduled folky Americana with some sweaty American hard rock may have been unavoidable at short notice, but it was something of a shock to my system and the entertained grin that appeared when first confronted with such a hairy band taking themselves very seriously soon turned into boredom and the feeling of being slightly robbed, so it was back out into the Camden night air. A headliner down and another timetable mix-up meant I had missed the end of Wire's set at the Electric Ballroom.
Still, with several more hours of DJs and more bands playing late sets, and a whole new day full of music to come, the night and weekend were far from over. Except it was for me. Deciding to cut my losses while the tube was still running, I headed away from my 2009 Camden Crawl with mixed emotions and no ticket for the Saturday. So it can be over-crowded and frustrating with little chance to see the bands you wanted to and seemingly bizarre scheduling decisions, and the line-up isn't necessarily the very best, but the Camden Crawl's negatives can become plus points when they push you in the direction of some great new music. Get lucky, avoid the queues and catch some bands you might have passed up and things can work in your favour. At the end of the day no one can complain too much at a load of bands playing live at a load of pubs, clubs and venues, now can they? To return to the rather awkward and generally unnecessary opening airport metaphor, the holiday turned out fine but I'm not sure if I'd go back again.