It’s an event that makes such perfect sense it should be impossible to go awry; a metropolitan festival in the heart of London showcasing the best that new music has to offer. Yet, up against the ever-increasing powers of The Great Escape, Dot to Dot and iTunes Festival, Camden Crawl has been left rather unceremoniously by the wayside. Once able to attract such chart-commanding names as Pendulum, Kasabian and Madness, this year has had to settle for headliners ABC, Atari Teenage Riot and Of Montreal; hardly flagships of the mainstream, nor examples of fresh talent. Consequently, despite a plethora of desperate half-price ticket deals, the event is eerily empty. Saves on queueing, I suppose.
First on inside The Camden Eye at 4:15pm, a somewhat belated time for an event of this nature, was the twisted jangle pop of Paul Orwell and the Night Falls. Shamelessly indebted to the 60’s in style and in sound, the band delivered a set of angular and high-spirited melody, at times evoking the ramshackle tunefulness of Violent Femmes and at their most rambunctious the semi-controlled chaos of The Cramps. Good start.
Next up are Cambridge four-piece Violet Bones; whilst their proposition of rock n’ roll-tinged power-pop is a tad vanilla in flavouring, it’s sprightly enough to remain enjoyable. It does however, give me a moment to notice that there are only 20 or so people in the room and they are at the time the only act performing across the whole event. It can’t have sold THAT badly, surely?
I make my way over the road to one of the main venues of the weekend, Electric Ballroom, whose doors open leisurely at 5:30pm. Unlike the preceding Camden Rocks (which you can read a review of here) where club doors were opened at the bright-and-early midday, Crawl’s decision to leave their venues dormant until late afternoon provides only a 6-hour window each day to see acts, making the ability to truly the appreciate the breadth of the line up an infeasible challenge.
Despite these complaints, all is made well with the world when Arrows of Love appear on the Ballroom’s stage. Looking as if they had just stumbled their way out of a 3-day long squat party, their glam-grunge-noise meld is riotous, captivating and genuinely exciting. Performing to a crowd not 100-people strong, their show is worthy of selling out the venue under their own banner, with lead singer Nima Teranchi storming in to the sparse crowd like a man gone feral during the Mclusky-mannered ‘Prescriptions’ and guitarist Lyndsey Critchley visibly shaking with emotion during her verse on ominous ballad ‘The Knife’. It is very rare to see a band that is as anarchic and simultaneously as honest as Arrows of Love.
Afterwards it’s a trip down the road to Belushi’s to catch Birmingham post-punk act Youth Man. Despite their bassist being absent, the vicious, brooding sound produced by the temporary two-piece still manages to sound cohesive; the space left by their AWOL bassist easily filled by frontwoman Kaila Whyte’s exuberant stage presence. With the group’s gear set up by the window I look through to see the door staff turning more casual drinkers away from the bar than letting wristband-holders in, another sign of the event’s inescapable lacklustre sales.
Moving further down the road to KOKO, it was time to see indie-rock throwbackers Yuck. With guitarist and lead singer Daniel Blumberg leaving in 2013, I thought it would be interesting to see how their dynamic had changed since their line-up alteration. Well, I thought it would be interesting, until they started playing. Performing exactly how you’d think a band would after losing their defining asset, the remaining three members and new guitarist Ed Hayes looked lost, bored and lacking in identity. Basically, they needed a frontman. Whilst tracks off their critically acclaimed 2011 début were warmly received, songs from the tanked post-Blumberg album ‘Glow & Behold’ met half-arsed applause and phone-checking from the audience. For all intents and purposes, Yuck have already broken up.
After facing half an hour of disappointment it was back to Electric Ballroom to catch the noise of Dirty Beaches. Playing a wonderfully filthy collection of tribal rhythms, floor-shaking bass and menacingly distorted vocals; their performance was as unnerving as it was fascinating. Against the backdrop of glaring strobes, main-mind behind the project Alex Zhang Hungtai appeared in a trance-like state, throwing punches in to the air, fully immersed in the baleful beats emanating from the PA.
It was not long after that headliners Atari Teenage Riot graced the stage of Electric Ballroom. Displaying their signature blend of unrelenting electronics, punk-rock songwriting and anti-fascist ideology, the recent propulsion of the far-right illustrates that their message is still as pertinent as it was when they formed over 20 years ago. Nevertheless, Alec Empire and company still move with the times, a new song performed near the end of their set sounding like an F1 car stalling in the midst of the apocalypse. Perhaps the rest of the world is still playing catch-up. Usually brilliant raucous, the atmosphere was dampened by the venue being less than a third full; the event’s floundering once again clear for all to see. However, that didn’t stop their brand of digital hardcore from being forcefully potent.
Although I was planning to finish my night watching arguably one of the biggest acts of the festival, Krept & Konan, their 12:30am start time excluded everyone living outside of Travelcard zones 1-3, meaning that whilst grime’s hottest property were performing at the Underworld I was on a tube to Walthamstow Central.
Upon returning to Camden on Saturday afternoon, there was a more relaxed fare to the bruising cacophony of the previous night, initiating the day with stand-up showcase Alternative Comedy Memorial Society. As is the case with all comedy showcases, some pieces of material work better than others; host Thom Tuck plays on this, shouting “a failure” after each act, getting the audience to call back that it was “a noble failure”. Whilst a few comedians fall flat it’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours before the first acts of the day.
At 5:30pm it’s to the Hawley Arms to catch the hyped emo-duo Nai Harvest. Whilst their Cap’n Jazzy tendencies are delectable, their too-cool-for-school-or-soap slacker image hinders any showmanship from occurring, causing their set to be disappointingly forgettable.
Sadly, the even-more hyped Gnarwolves are just as average. Admittedly playing with a ton of vigour, aside from their energy there isn’t much else to mention. Standard pop-punk, standard stage presence, standard band.
Things begin to look up as God Damn take to the stage, their mix of Sabbathy riffs and breakneck speed grunge energising the crowd; however, it is only when Slaves begin their set that hell well and truly rises up and breaks loose. Pits, audience members dancing on stage, all to the soundtrack of razor-sharp guitar-lines and tales of urban decay underlined by idiosyncratic humour. As I left the Underworld I heard at least three people say “that was one of the best live acts I have ever seen”. There’s a reason for that.
In short, whilst it would be an understatement to say that Camden Crawl didn’t excel sales-wise, its budgetary constraints forced their curators to dig deeper, to lean to the left of field; to genuinely offer up some new music. Sure, it may not have provided some of the bigger buzzed-about bands, but do you really need to see Catfish and the Bottlemen for the fifth time this month? Yes, on the surface, Camden Crawl was a failure. But it was a noble failure.
EDIT: Since writing this review Camden Crawl have entered voluntary liquidation, allegedly before paying many of the acts who performed at the event. Less than noble, then.