Our Travel blog
The Cambridge Rock Festival (CRF) is now in its 12th year and in the last few has been held at the Haggis Farm Polo Club just outside Cambridge. This year it was spread over 5 days, the Wednesday being a charity event for Addenbrooke’s hospital before the full-on 3 stage 4 day festival kicked off on Thursday lunchtime.
The whole event is the brainchild of Dave Roberts, who runs the festival alongside a committee who help with the organisation. And it’s no mean feat; over 5 days, on 3 stages, bands play from 11:00am to 11:00 pm with barely 30 minutes turnaround between each set. In addition there are 2 bars and the usual camping facilities, traders, artist liaison and green room, catering, stewards and crew to manage.
Our role in all of this was as back stage crew for the main stage. Our friends from another festival were running the back stage and recruited us earlier in the summer. The job basically entailed loading band’s equipment into one of 5 bays behind the main stage, then getting one band off stage, carrying all their equipment, amps, instruments etc. back to their bay, doing the same in reverse to get the next band on in time to sound check and be ready to perform. Meanwhile another band would be turning up to unload and equipment from bands that had completed their set had to be loaded back into their vehicles to head off home. In essence we moved each band’s gear four times. The key to the whole operation was the risers, platforms on wheels that allowed the drum kit to be set up backstage while the preceding band played. Once finished, their riser would be dragged back offstage for the drummer to disassemble and the new one wheeled on. Occasionally a band would have a complicated keyboard set up so a spare riser came into play and all three would be manoeuvred round like one of those children’s games where you have to slide squares around in a frame to make a picture.
Happily we weren’t alone. Under Dave and Trudy’s excellent direction a core team of 9, plus one or two who did odd days, all donned the red tee shirts and passes allowing us to hump and shove backstage. We even had a TV to monitor what was happening on stage and watch the band playing. It was all great fun and soon we settled into the rhythm that was to characterise the next few days, bursts of intense work followed by milling around until a van reversed up and then we’d swarm around like a plague of ants in our red tee shirts grabbing gear and occasionally, in our enthusiasm, spare tyres, the drummer’s lunch and anything else foolishly left within our reach.
The festival site was surprisingly small, set in an oval with traders at each end, the three covered stages, a large outdoor screen for the main stage and a marquee with local arts and crafts along with, I was gratified to see, a large Radio Caroline stall. Some of their DJ’s were compèring and I think they broadcast some of the bands too. I grew up listening to Caroline and some of the other pirate stations of the era, a small act of rebellion at a time when they were illegal and frowned upon by the grim suits at the BBC and in government. My fondness for music blossomed under these stations more than anything the staid old Aunty Beeb could throw at me. Caroline played all sorts of music, album tracks and whatever tickled the DJs fancy, a policy I adored. I might not have liked every track but the chances were high that I would. And the DJs didn’t witter on, it wasn’t ‘personality led’ like the legit stations but music led, surely the correct policy for a radio station whose remit is to play music.
Apart from the people and music the other joy for us at CRF was being paid in beer tokens, a useful currency since the real ale bar stocked 70 or so beers and ciders over the weekend. We limited ourselves though as most artists wouldn’t welcome slurring uncoordinated fools slinging their $5,000 Fender into the loading bay from 20 feet away.
And so to the artists. We saw or at least heard just about every act on the main stage and I have no intention of reviewing each one, instead here are a few highlights.
Wednesday – Addenbrooke’s Rocks
Wednesday was a sort of bonus day for the festival, a charity event for Addenbrooke’s Hospital which served as a handy warm up for the crew as well. Headliner Don Airey (Deep Purple among many others) delivered a stunning set to close a day that had flowed well, with a mixture of folk and classic rock bands, all of whom had a link in one way or another to Addenbrooke’s.
Thursday – Tribute bands
There were tributes to AC/DC, Cream, Ozzy Osborne and Pink Floyd among the line-up today and every act was skilled, impressively like the band they were imitating and had an act to match. For us, these tribute acts are the closest we’ll ever get to watching the real thing and done well they are entertaining and fun. I still harbour mixed feelings about tribute acts though. Technically gifted musicians in their own right I wonder how many are doing it because it’s one of the few ways that being a musician can pay nowadays – lugging your gear around on the modern equivalent of the ‘chicken in a basket’ circuit pretending to be someone else and earning them royalties. On the other hand, the bands were good, the musicians unfailingly pleasant and refreshingly down to earth. Where else would ‘Ozzy Osborne’ hug you for finding his £1 pair of sunglasses?
Opening band DC/73 played mostly Bonn Scott era AC/DC with a polish that belayed their usual pub gig status. A great start to the festival proper and they get a mention here because they sent a charming thank you email to the crew. Yes, I really am that cheap.
Later Pure Floyd headlined, lit up by their elaborate light show. Alison borrowed an illuminated cape from a friend, a sheer translucent material with coloured lights in the arms, giving her the appearance of a luminescent jelly fish. Having wafted about back stage to the pulsating rhythms from the band she was heard to mutter “I’m really quite shy you know” before leading the crew out into the arena to dance about among the audience, a floodlit pied piper cavorting around to the melody and briefly stealing the show before whirling out into the open air, startling the timid, alarming the children and making some serious drinkers look deep into the glass in front of them and wonder just how strong was this pint of ‘Speckled Old Cobblers’ and consider that maybe they should stick to half a mild in future.
Friday – Classic Rock
So, into the rockier stuff today with some original acts. Worthy of a mention, in my humble opinion, are Son of Man, a kind of hybrid tribute-come-spin-off from the original Welsh band Man. I wasn’t familiar with Man but Son of… were on great form with their psychedelically infused heavy rock. A band I’ll be seeking more of.
Later came Remus Down Boulevard. Built around Dennis Stratton, one of the original members of Iron Maiden they played straight forward honest heavy rock with great aplomb. Of note too was their cheery down to earth ego free disposition. They chatted away freely to everyone, mixed with the punters around the bar and if anything dressed down before taking to the stage. Without wishing to appear rude Dennis couldn’t look less like a rock star if he tried and I love him for it.
Headlining was Cregan and Co. Jim Cregan is a long-time collaborator and song writing partner of Rod Stewart and the band play their songs. Ben Mills, an X-Factor finalist, fronts the band on vocals and guitar. Now, normally I’d rather listen to the sound of my own testicles being grated than hear anyone associated with a TV talent show but he was great; perfect voice, poised and professional, permanently grinning and he reminded me of Marti Pellow without the smack.
Towards the end of the set when the crew started to gather behind the curtains, poised to commence clearing the stage once the final applause echoed around the marquee, we all spontaneously started dancing. I posted a brief clip on Facebook of Alison and a couple of our colleagues lost in the music. It was unashamedly feel good sing-a-long fun.
Another classic rock day and by now we were melding into a facsimile of a professional crew. With our roles and places pretty much sorted we’d slouch around backstage, chatting or watching the monitor or just lost in our own private world listening to the music. As the band’s allotted time drew to a close we’d all drift up the ramp onto the stage, drawn by unspoken command to our stations. Cue applause and announcements, then we would draw back the curtain and scurry into action. The technician would shout the all clear and we’d drag the drum riser off. Then a swarm of red shirts would dart to and fro with equipment; amps, guitars, keyboards etc, clear down the rest of the stage, drag the next band’s gear on, push their drum riser into place and then resume slouching. At our best we achieved this in 6 minutes.
Hazel O’Connor was as entertaining and down to earth as ever. Last time we worked with her she had a long conversation with Alison about dog biscuits. Today she turned up with a Sainsbury’s shopping bag containing her tambourine and bodhrán and wondered if it would be alright on stage. Suitably reassured she and her band delivered a storming set.
The headliner tonight was Carl Palmer, formally of ELP and a drummer of extraordinary talent. As impressive as his skills were they were matched by the guitarist and bass player who shared the stage with him. Simon Fitzpatrick on bass played Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on his 6 string bass and it was stunning. Normally I abhor Queen, Bohemian bloody Rhapsody fills me with revulsion and I consider that any bass player whose solo exceeds 60 seconds should be turfed into the nearest cesspit. (Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al has what I think of as the perfect bass solo). Today though I was won over by a masterclass performance. Hearing the crowd hush and then gently sing the words to accompany him was a spine tingling moment. The guitarist, Paul Bielatowicz looked about 12 years old; I swear he hasn’t started shaving yet; nevertheless he was every bit the match for his colleagues, leaning back and staring upwards, eyes tightly closed, lost in the bubble as the music flowed through him. We saw three masters of their respective instruments on stage, I even applauded the drum solos!
Sunday – Prog day
Prog, short for progressive rock, is generally something I avoid. It’s characterised, by me at least and I may not be an expert but at least I’m not neutral, by long rambling tunes with unnecessary changes of time signature, choruses that are heavy on the ‘la la far de la’s’ and in the worst cases 4 or more keyboards. You just know that the set list will contain the word suite and with a sense of dread you realise the singer will whip out a flute at some point.
There’s really no excuse for this nonsense, prog was the reason that punk was necessary. Having said that some exponents’, Pink Floyd for example, convey more political nous than the cartoon anarchy of some of punk’s pioneers, and some of the space-rock we’ve come to enjoy isn’t that far removed from prog. All in all its an area of music I generally find hard to warm to so to escape an afternoon of meandering noodling and self-indulgence we took ourselves off for a brief sojourn to stage 2 to see Gunrunner. A down to earth, no nonsense rock covers band of rare pedigree and talent with a mate of ours, Pete, on vocals. Suitably refreshed we returned to catch Mostly Autumn – Kudos to them for winning Alison’s award for having the most organised van, a multi shelved affair split into compartments and packed like a game of Tetris.
Headliners were Focus, a Dutch band who were the most laid back bunch of blokes of the weekend. Leading them was shambolic frontman Thjis Van Leer who assembled an old wooden Hammond organ, stool and amp on stage, all of which were literally held together by gaffer tape. With all the teak veneer his riser resembled my Nan’s living room circa 1972. Their set was characteristically Focus, mostly instrumental with occasional yodelling from Thjis, punctuated by his unique brand of cheerfully erratic stage patter. They went down well with the audience and were a fitting end to a great 5 days of music.
After their set a few of us linked arms singing “We’ll Meet Again” during the final stage announcements. I turned to the person on my left and said “see, that’s how to have a hit single” to which he replied “ah, I understand now”. Turned out it was the guitarist from Focus, a band notably hit free since the 1970’s. If their next hit is a version of We’ll Meet Again I expect a cut of the proceeds.
When we’d finished loading the van their roadie entertained us with some card tricks, having first explained that 6 pints of larger…”or maybe 7, I’m not so good at counting…” improved his skills. Amazingly he appeared to be correct as he wowed us with some close up card manipulation.
Their van packed, Focus pulled away, stopped at the gates and reversed at speed as they realised they were missing a guitarist. Thjis jumped out and started wandering the site shouting “Hello” and asking if anyone had maybe seen a guitar player. Meanwhile the missing person had found the van and was sitting inside wondering where Thjis was and if he should go and look for him. A farce was avoided by Alison guarding the van to ensure no more band members escaped while I dragged Thjis away from the bar, where his searching had turned into mass appreciation by inebriated punters.
Which left us free to return to Mavis, happy and exhausted. CRF was the most coordinated multi-day music festival we’ve worked at, although of course we’ve only seen it from the perspective of working in one place but it’s definitely one we’d return to. The crew were an absolute pleasure to work with, nearly all of the bands were refreshingly ego free and grateful for our help, the committee and organisers of the festival were appreciative and the punters laid back, friendly and polite. We were sad when the last extended chord from Focus signalled the end for this year.
There is some question of whether CRF will happen next year but if it does we will return. Some people don’t understand why we do what we do for no financial reward but after a few days at CRF we’ve learnt new skills, heard some great music and made new friends. There’s talk of a reunion later in the year for the crew and offers of accommodation, driveways for Mavis and help finding paid work. We slunk into bed reflecting that this could be our last music festival of the season, but if it is we agreed we went out on a high.
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