A trip to Camden on a weekend requires a zen-like tolerance at the best of times, but during Camden Crawl weekend taking a deep breath before counting to ten is essential currency. Not only is NW1 awash with the usual stag dos and tourists with unnecessary DSLRs, but there’s the added legion of indie types staring at huge line-up sheets, left to fend for themselves.
Camden’s relevance as an alternative hub is a memory on par with Empire and red telephone boxes, yet there’s still a hubbub of mystique about it. Yes, East London is where the Macbook posing hipster-blogs like to buy their lattes and listen to Soundcloud, but Camden has the golden touch.
You see, it still feels like a place where a young musician can turn up with a guitar and a crumpled fiver, and within three months be on a stage with the next band to change the world. Despite the crowds and generic MSG noodles, if you think of London’s music scene, Camden comes to mind first.
Camden Crawl was the original urban multi-venue festival, a model which has been regurgitated to tedium. While SXSW and The Great Escape are wonderful for The Biz, and Dot to Dot caters for the provinces, Camden Crawl is for the fans and retains its excitement.
If there’s one thing Camden does well it’s carefree fun, so Imperial Leisure are the prefect start to the weekend with ska horns and sing-a-long punk anthems feeding our inner Madness. Eight members on a tiny Wheelbarrow stage may have been a bit tight, but it’s surely a bridge to bigger platforms. The anti-fun, however, should have been standing at the drizzly, Red Bull Jam outdoor stage, for Japanese noise rock sludgers Bo Ningen, but their psychedelic stoner drone was truly energising.
Returing indoors, watching Three Trapped Tigers in a sparse Koko is a unique experience. The level of tight musical proficiency between their raging synths and Bonham drumming is unparalleled and produces a rampant thunder akin to a jazz-metal Battles or F*ck Buttons.
In need of aural recuperation The Monarch gifts the Crawl Brighton’s Fear Of Men and our own Echo Lake, both purveyors of art school lo-fi shoegaze yet with their own lofty sentiments. Echo Lake adopt a dreamlike approach to their ethereal guitars and gentle keyboard soundscapes, which allows their music to weave you in cloud of dust like a late 80s 4AD record. Fear Of Men, however, use soft jangly guitars to build an image of hazy afternoons in an indie pop meadow, which is delightfully uplifting.
The stars of the day are the solo artists, modern day one-man bands confidently doing it themselves. This is literal with Sweden’s Loney Dear; the sole presence on Dingwalls’ stage, with a guitar, bass drum and hi-hat, all playing consecutively. No, it isn’t a drum on the back and cymbal on the head affair, rather he overdubs live loops, to create mountainous aural collages which sweep and swoon. My Heart is gradually built up and sounds astonishing. Swayat Jazz Café doesn’t bother with such subtleties, a DJ and the fastest tongue in the (north)west is all he needs to create a frenzy of arm waving, bass bouncing and smiles all round.
Kwes, although solo, is backed with a drummer and synth-master allowing his bass to pulse and gentle voice to thrive. Live he lacks the enthralling layering of his records, but this is made up for by the sheer simplistic majesty of his songs which develop their own life live. The crammed Black Cap audience are captivated by Bashful’s elegance and confirms his as the rightful owner to Ghostpoet’s crown.
Unfortunately traditional bands can’t live up to the level set by soloists. Koko hosts the most tedious of the weekend’s music, first with The Big Pink playing their first home town show in months. From the whining bagpipes of opening track Gold they are nothing but insipid. Their anthemic mid-tempo stadium rock is more akin to The Script than their electro-noise peers and lack any imagination, even Robbie Furze’s crowd hugging is from the How-To-Be-A-Rockstar 1987 handbook. It is, however, surprising how many songs are recognisable and Hit The Ground is truly thunderous.
Even for The Futureheads the Crawl failed them. They bravely preform a capella, with minimal acoustic instruments, in promotion of their excellent record Rant. But, come on, this is Koko, in Camden, on a Saturday night, it’s not the time to show off how clever you are, nor win people over. A drunk swagger lad at the side correctly summed it up, heckling: “Boo, plug yer guitars in ya northern buggers.”
After a Sunday morning nursing one’s calves it’s a relief to start the day gently with acoustic sessions for the media dahlings by Kids in Glass Houses and Niki and The Dove, more of whom later. However, it was Toy in a tiny chapel in St Michaels Church which really started Sunday with relentless fuzz-gaze reverberating around the appropriate surroundings. Equally as uplifting, but much more rawkus were Rolo Tomassi at Koko, who obliterated any hazy heads with their phenomenal math-hardcore. They would later repeat their pounding angular growls at the end of the night at Jazz Café.
Counteracting Saturday’s guitar band failure, Evans the Death and Johnny Foreigner light up the DIY stage at The Wheelbarrow. The former show there’s still life in 90’s fuzz guitars and louche vocals while JoFo proved why their probably Britain’s best, yet underappreciated, band. They’re fast paced, energetic and in Alexei Berrow have a bona fide guitar hero in their midst. They start with Berrow and Kelly Sothern duetting a capella in the crowd to hushed appreciation, before their guitar riot sucker-punched the throbbing crowd. Fanzine at Enterprise would later reaffirm the guitar's reinvention with a wonderfully breezy take on fuzzy 90’s college grunge.
Back in the Crawl's best venue, The Black Cap, our Ones To Watch, NZCA/Lines, ooze a slick synth sheen veering between oriental tinkling and sweeping RnB electronica, while managing to muster a groaning bass. Main man Michael Lovett has become suave and bold as he leans back and flicks a Jarvis-esque finger to the crowd while he sings. Ending with Atoms and Axes he uses his vintage Korg like a one handed guitar while jamming out. This is followed by goth-lite grunger FOE¸ with a set appealing to 14-year-old’s wanting some entry level sanitised angst, and middle aged blokes.
Over at Jazz Café, a little tear is shed while the legendary Raincoats play Don’t Be Mean (I’d waited 18 years to hear it live- DN), after a much delayed wait. While at Koko, Spector perform their indie-for-the-masses guitar pop near-hits, and The Cribs confirm themselves as a proper rock band. A Cribs' set is always mixed, their shouty feedback often descending into monotony, but tonight they’re an invigorated and lively spectacle.
Sunday, however, belongs to Niki and The Dove. For two years they’re been bubbling under, amassing an avid following of hipster fans, and they’re now set to go nova with their earth shattering debut disc Instinct. At the Crawl they look like superstars, their tribal drums and piercing bleeps capturing the hearts of Koko. Their epic anthems are the soundtrack to a cool World Cup, a universal sound which empowers the body and stirs the soul. They were on at 7pm, and the venue wasn’t full — this won’t happen again — their majestic sound matched only by their inevitable accolade. London is a second home to Niki and the Dove and the city is theirs to own.
Best venue: The Black Cap – Tiny cabaret stage for the drummer while the band play on the floor.
Best band: Niki and the Dove – Just perfectly rousing pop.
Come again next year? Sure — as long as all the paving works by Camden tube are completed.