Last weekend the generally intellectual Cambridge was turned into somewhere far more entertaining, with bikes and rockers replacing the usual bicycles and students. This of course was the Cambridge Rock Festival and it has reached a milestone, the 2013 flavour being the 10th year of it all.
So what did they do to celebrate such an epic occasion? Well, apart from making sure the weekend coincided with my birthday (seven in dog years if you must ask), they just went and put together a line-up that pretty much had everything covered and should have pleased everybody at some point. There were a couple of points I would take issue with personally as far as the line-up was concerned, but I will get to them later.
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As those regular Cambridge Rock Festival patrons will know, and there are many, this is an incredibly well run and friendly festival from the top down to the mass of volunteers that make the whole thing possible. But a music festival is rightly judged on its music (hence the name, clever eh?) and in this respect this year's edition must be considered a success.
Over here we often sit enviously looking over the North Sea in the general direction of such festivals as Sweden Rock and remember with fondness the heady days of festivals here. Pretty much in tune with our national football team, we invented the good festivals before serving up mediocrity of impressive proportions and although things have been looking up recently (for festivals, most definitely not the football team) the more classic rock injected occasions are still sadly missing. This one goes a long way to redressing that balance.
Take away the obvious health and safety issues that have sterilised some festivals (pun entirely intentional) and we can do nothing about, this is happily like a classic festival and steers clear of the corporate branding that has overtaken the music in in so many.
So to the important bit... the music. My weekly Thursday night rock show precluded me from going until the Friday and idiots intent on crashing on the M4, M25 and even the M11 precluded me from arriving until towards the end of Eddie And The Hotrods' set, which was a shame as the ten minutes or so that I got to see was enough to get rid of any damp spirits caused by an eminently forgettable journey.
Bonafide on the other hand I did get to see in their entirety. I have heard good things about this lot from Sweden and when the likes of Krusher Joule sing their praises, you tend to sit up and take notice. Some of the naysayers claim that Bonafide do nothing new... they may not do, but what they do they are very good at - good old fashioned down and dirty rock with a side dish of sleaze – and the result is something very addictive.
From the first strains of 'Doing The Pretty' they have my attention and it didn't take long to get my head banging and feet thumping. They never let up and whilst they may not yet be ready for headlining slots they are more than a capable first support.
So to the day's main band, The Quireboys. I hadn't seen Spike and co live for some time so I was mighty interested to see just how the 2013 vintage tasted. After reviewing their recent and seventh studio album 'Beautiful Curse', it didn't take a genius to work out musically they were as good, if not better than ever, and as it transpired the 2013 live version has reached the same heights.
From the moment Spike started twirling the mic stand with more moves than a three legged cheerleader, his familiar tones bursting through the PA, it was obvious this was a band high on confidence and just doing what they do and more to the point they love doing it.
It doesn't matter if they are playing to 100 or 10,000 you can guarantee they will give it everything and Cambridge was no exception. Although the crowd was good, it was nowhere near as packed as later on in the weekend, but they flocked to the front as soon as the Quireboys hit the stage.
Most of them did anyway – and on that note, seriously guys and gals, if you don't feel the urge to get yourself into the tent and rock out when the likes of Spike are doing their bit, then there really is no hope. We were treated to a series of highlights from their catalogue including 'Mona Lisa Smiled', 'Hey You', '7 O'Clock', 'Roses And Rings', 'I Don't Love You Anymore' and 'Too Much Of A Good Thing' from the new album going down with more gusto than the wind brewing in the campsite (nothing to do with curries and chilli).
The real gem of the set though was another new one, 'Mother Mary', a different tempo to their more classic sound and an epic in the making. The band were in fine fettle boosted by the return of the prodigal rhythm section, guitarists Guy and Paul having as much fun as Spike and ivory tinkler Keith Weir adding the bar room touch like it was invented for him. Is it any wonder I spent an hour and twenty minutes with a big smile on my face?
And as for the mainman himself, he covered every inch of the stage, his mic stand antics putting even Coverdale to shame, the crowd hanging on his every word and gesture, this was pure entertainment Quireboys style – as they said, "This is Rock n Roll".
We all knew what was coming after they were roared back on stage but still, Spike inviting everyone to a Sex Party has a realism about it. And you can guarantee it is one party you will want to be at.
As Guy mentioned to me after the show, this band is so much better than the more dated version even though the members may be the same and you can't help but agree. Friday night belonged to The Quireboys, just a shame they weren't lighting up the Saturday. And as if you weren't impressed already, Spike told me afterwards that they hadn't actually rehearsed for this one...
It was going to take a lot to oust the 'boys as the stars of the festival and I am not sure anyone did.
Saturday is another day entirely, a day that took a curious turn of events for me personally early in the afternon involving a bottle of JD and a missing hour or two. Yes I know, spooky.
Cornerstone, from Austria, have been receiving a lot of good press recently and their faces, or faces and clasped boobs to be precise, seem to have been everywhere I look. So I was expecting something that may not quite blow me away but that would at least leave things feeling a little windy. I have to say I was left feeling very disappointed.
Vocalist Patricia Hillinger, clad in a space age silver dress, has a good voice and the rest of the band are more than competent musicians, but there just doesn't seem to be a spark, that extra something. Sure, they are a good band but then so are quite a few that I have seen in pubs and small venues over the years and that is to me the category Cornerstone fit into.
Something tells me that those within the band organisation know that as well as a lot of the band's marketing seems to be centred around the vocalist's looks, up front assets and womanly charms rather than the music.
As it turned out, with the very notable exception of the quite fantastic Pat McManus, who I will get to in a minute, Saturday turned out to be a mildly disappointing day for one main reason. After the Quireboys turned the stage red hot on the Friday night, the last band on the Saturday, Caravan, whilst musically good, were never going to induce a crowd frenzy, more generous appreciation.
A Rock Festival Saturday night should leave the punters gasping for breath as they go back to their tents unable to sleep for at least two hours until they come down from the musical high rather than polite conversation – more "Holy shit, this rocks" than "fancy a cup of tea?".
But there was definitely a "Holy shit..." moment, or several of them, a little earlier in the day. The reason? The Pat McManus Band. Although I have interviewed him a couple of times on my Rock Show, this was actually the first time I had managed to get to one of his gigs for a very long time, in fact it was so long ago the band then was Mamas Boys.
Pat has a lot going for him, his band are as tight as the proverbial intimate body part of a duck, he has a stage presence not all those in his genre can boast and he is up there enjoying himself – the smile never came off his face. And he can play, boy can he play.
As he pointed out between songs, where he hails from is close to the birthplaces of a couple of legends. Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore and he joked he didn't stand a chance. After this performance, they are in very good company.
Just to get one thing straight, Pat McManus is without doubt one of the best guitarists treading the boards today, but what sets him apart from many others is that whilst he is a wonderful technician (he isn't called The Professor for nothing), his technical wizardry is kept very much within the confines of the song – he doesn't feel the need for self indulgence just because he can and the songwriting remains king. Sure, there are solos aplenty, widdley bits coming at you from all sides but they never swamp the song.
His band, drummer Paul Faloon and Marty McDermott on bass, are an integral part of the performance as well. There is definite emphasis on the word 'band' and that just makes the performance so much better.
'Juggernaut', 'Last Thing At Night' and 'Dangerzone' showcase Pat's immense talent to mix the thoughtful with the rocky, never losing the blues feel that he has pouring through his veins.
The highlight of the show though was the quite immense 'Belfast Boy' written as a tribute to Gary Moore and featuring so much of the style that made Gary Moore who he was. Whilst I know Pat in his normal humble way would deny it, he is probably one of the few guitarists around who can pull this off.
Starting off poignantly pulling at the heart strings, lyrics and music doffing their cap to the great one, it moves seamlessly forward into a full featured Celtic rocker; awesome stuff.
For the encore the guys treated us to what is probably the best cover version of 'Le Grange' I have ever heard.
As Pat and the guys left the stage the announcer promised that they will be back... too right and headlining one of the days if there is any justice.
Two thirds of the way through, it has been a good festival, a couple of outstanding performances and a Sunday full of promise to look forward to. I must say it was very considerate of Magnum and others to consent to playing a gig there for my birthday so a little sleep later, I wandered off to the stage area a year older and absolutely none the wiser.
First up was Attica Rage, a Scottish band I have heard positive things about. The first time I have seen them and I have to admit to being mightily impressed. Very much in the classic rock vein, one of those bands that mixes melody and loudness in almost perfect quantities with hints of Lizzy, Motorhead and a few others coming to the surface, but they are very much themselves. Definitely one to see if you get the chance and they will not be openers for long.
Persian Risk, featuring Carl Sentance, is a band I can remember from the first time around during the original NWOBHM outbreak. Like so many they didn't last as long as they perhaps should have and Carl has only very recently put the band back together – well when I say back together it is only him from the early days.
For those who are all a bit hazy, Persian Risk hailed from Cardiff and featured vocalist Jon Deverill (who joined the Tygers Of Pan Tang in 1980) and guitarist Phil Campbell of Motorhead fame. Carl Sentance replaced Deverill in the band.
So to this century – Sentance, who since those days has sung with Geezer Butler and Krokus, started up Persian Risk again late last year. Their appearance at Cambridge this year was only one of a handful of gigs so far and given it is such early days, the performance was definitely an impressive one. 'Fist Of Fury' and 'Women And Rock', including the mandatory crowd participation, are out and out rockers.
The band he has put together features guitarist Howie G (Lawless), bassist Wayne Banks (Joe Lynne Turner, Blaze Bayley, Sabbat) and drummer Tim Brown (Don Airey, Kee Marcello). What they do so very well is take the original NWOBHM sound and update it without ever losing the essence of it and the result live is old tracks that actually sound new... in a word, genius, when you think how many NWOBHM bands sound the same now as they did then and to me that is never a good thing – stagnating for 30 years is bad in any sphere.
Carl himself still has a voice any rocker would be proud of – although not the biggest, he has the lungs and power of a giant and stagecraft to match. The only criticism I would have is that some of the newer material has a little too much of the Iron Maidens about it and they are far better than needing that to help them. That said, they are a class act and if this is what they do on their third or fourth gig, give them a few months and the result could well be out of this world.
Carl told me afterwards they are currently doing everything themselves as far as the business side goes, so when that side is sorted and they can devote all their time to what they do best, the music, things will get even better.
So to another band who were around at the same time as the original Persian Risk, I of course refer to Praying Mantis. One of the very few bands who have never quit since those heady days, they have recently undergone a couple of line-up changes with vocalist Mike Freeland and drummer Gary MacKenzie replaced by Dutchmen, vocalist John Cuijpers (Jaycee) and Hans in ‘t Zandt.
They have been on my list of preferred bands for a very long time, ever since I saw them at the Reading Festival way back in 1982 so I was hopeful the new guys would boost Mantis back up the ladder.
'Children Of The Earth', 'Panic In The Streets' and 'Praying Mantis' started proceedings and I must confess to not being entirely convinced about the new vocalist. He can sing and knows his way around a stage as well as most but it took a little time to convince me his voice was right for the band, but convince me he did, especially with his rendition of 'Turn The Tables', a classic Mantis song and one of their finest.
As well as his vocal input, the arrival of the two Dutchmen seems to have given the band's brothers Tino and Chris Troy a new lease of life, Tino especially galloping around the stage mostly with a beaming smile and there is a real feeling of unity both within the band and between them and the audience.
They finished off with 'Captured City', a rousing tune and whilst the band never actually went away, there was a definite welcome back feel to it. Impressive stuff and for a birthday treat, trust me it is hard to beat.
Coming towards the end of Sunday night, it was quite obvious who most people were waiting for. The Animals may have been the headliners in name, but in every other way it was a certain Midlands band, rock royalty no less.
Magnum, fresh from an appearance at Steelhouse in Wales last weekend, are currently recording yet another studio album so this would be their only UK appearance until next year when they embark on a UK tour. Having had a chat with bassist Al Barrow beforehand, it is clear the band still have the same enthusiasm for touring and recording, and the intensity with which vocalist Bob Catley delivers every performance is there for all to see... these guys care about their fans.
After a brief false start where the intro music kicked off before somebody decided they should open the curtain to let the band on stage (always a good move), the strains of 'All The Dreamers' hit, swiftly followed by 'When We Were Younger' and another from last year's album 'Blood Red Laughter'.
The classic 'How Far Jerusalem' featured some interesting interplay between keyboard wizz Mark Stanway, resplendant in dark glasses for half of their set, Tony Clarkin and drummer Harry James. The more you watch Harry, the better he seems and with someone that good, it is sometimes easy to think it is all too simple.
'Kingdom Of Madness' closes their set, something off their very first album and still as relevant now as it was then. But they were never going to be allowed to leave so quickly, coming back to do three more; 'See How They Fall', 'Rocking Chair' and 'Days Of No Trust', the band clearly having fun but not half as much as the crowd. This is what a British rock festival is all about.
Ninety minutes after they started, the guys bade their fond farewells, the rest of the band clapping Bob Catley who told us he didn't need all the applause – much as we all love you Bob, you are getting it whether you want it or not, it's just the way it is.
As an added bonus I also had a long chat with Rodney Matthews, legendary artist probably best known in these circles for his album cover designs for Magnum and Praying Mantis. Who said I'm not cultured.
I did as well actually almost conduct a very impromptu interview with someone who approached me asking if I was with the press. In his words, he was in fact the son of God and the Devil had put a media block on him. Tempting though it was, I passed on this one.
For me that was the end of the festival as I disappeared to interview a couple of people but the memories of it will stay for a long time. The whole festival was a fantastic advert for how it should be done so hats off to everyone involved and to all the festival goers for making it the event it was.
I will be back next year, that is for sure.
As a final note, any bands I have not mentioned – it was not because I didn't like them or thought them undeserving of column inches, just that my duties took me elsewhere (generally backstage as against the bar, honest).