There’s no denying it; Camden’s looking a bit knackered. The glory days of The Good Mixer belong in 90s nostalgia programs voiced by Phil Jupitus, and The Hawley Arms most famous patron is dead. Tonight, slogging through the perennial indie piss up that is the Camden Crawl – the colder, wetter, less glam UK version of SXSW – feels, at times, like guiltily shagging an old flame. The familiarities all well and good, but there’s no denying that everything’s looking a bit saggy, and you can’t stop thinking there’s fitter prospect on the other side of town. When the chips are down, your best bet is to neck all the booze in sight and plunge in with gusto, so, dear readers, that’s exactly what I did.
The night started promisingly at a packed out Cuban Bar, in the heart of the Stables market. Urban Nerds were curating the venue, kicking off with grime veteran Durrty Goodz. Goodz has been knocking around for the best part of a decade now, never really making that big breakthrough- although on tonight’s showing that’s an undeserved fate. He’s straight up and on the crowd, hyping the vibe and working the room til all arms are aloft. Chatting over a slightly muddy soundsystem, Goodz delivers his patois inflected hood tales with seemingly endless energy, and despite dubbing himself ‘the UK Jigga’ his Jamaican tinged flow shares more in common with Busta Rhymes. As the rhythms ratchet from hip hop boombap to grimey clickclack, the speakers clear up and the bass hits that sweet spot. The rapper bounds the stage, leading the audience in call and response, getting the room to holler his name and generally spreading expansive good vibes. The half hour set is over in moments and Goodz leaves the stage with the crowd wanting more.
Next it’s a trek up to Underworld to catch fresh talent CYMBALS. Underworld is disconcertingly quiet- especially after the high energy levels of The Cuban. When CYMBALS take to the stage there’s only around 15 people waiting to watch them from the pit. Credit to the band, they don’t let this phase them, and launch into their kinetic set with a sense of contagious urgency. Half a decade ago CYMBALS would have been described as Angular—and they could easily fit on the label of the same name. Lead singer/ guitarist Jack thrashes out spikes of riff that reference the spasmodic disco of Talking Heads and Gang of Four, whilst keyboardist Dan one-fingers deceptively simple synth passages on his Roland SH-102. The two trade vocal yelps and grins back and forth whilst drummer Sean keeps things uptempo with propulsive hi hats. “This next one is by Black Sabbath” Jack lies, before adding a few songs later “All the songs tonight are by Black Sabbath. They’re just really, really obscure.” This sense of fun, a reluctance to take themselves too seriously, and some joyfully bouncing art pop melodies win over the venue, and the small crowd swells to a decent size. Well worth catching if you get the chance
Leaving the Underworld I head off up to gruesome corporate soul drain The Purple Turtle, to catch Clock Opera. I get there to see a band setting up that don’t look at all like Clock Opera. What’s going on? Who are these guys? Why do they look like a bad Killers tribute? HUH? These guys, it turns out, are called fIN, and are, in my honest opinion, fucking horrendous. They’ve taken Muse and The Killers as a template, sucked out the charm, and replaced it with unconvincing ‘rock star’ posing, empty bombast, and, in the bass players case, looking like a squinting, mutely aggressive postman.Remember when you were a kid and you wanted some Weetabix or Cornflakes or whatever, and your Mum went to the supermarket and came home with Weetobricks, the insanely depressing Tesco own brand version – if you can recall the feeling of chewing through the soggy cardboard imposter, knowing that it wasn’t, and never would be authentically what you wanted- that’s what I felt watching fIN. To be fair I should point out here that there were about 5 kinda Top Shoppy girls dancing next to me, who seemed to be enjoying it. They would probably have written an entirely different review of the band, but tough tits. I’m in charge here. I lasted four songs and decided it was time to go.
Back up an increasingly chilly Camden High Road and into the more salubrious, albeit still half empty environs of The Black Cap. The venue is being hosted by Moshi Moshi and onstage Turner Prize winner Martin Creed is hammering out a shambolic garage commotion. I’d been planning to give Creed a miss, worried that he’d be on some sort of high art nonsense- the sound of black paint dripping onto a harp made of cheese strings etc. Turns out I was way wrong. Looking like an avuncular fisherman with his curly mop of hair held in check by a natty bowler, Creed is belting out a number that seems to be called Fuck Off. “Fuck off// Fuck off// Fuck off” go the lyrics whilst his band batter away. The next track is called 1234. “1234” Martin sings, then the band all smash out a chord “1234” he shouts again. This is more or less repeated for about a minute. In between songs Creed appears genuinely happy that people are enjoying it, chuckling and chatting to the crowd, before cranking out another lofi bomb. It’s the kind of visceral primitive garage rock that fellow artist Billy Childish has perfected, and attracts an audience of burly, hammered blokes, waltzing and cheering, and having as much- if not more- fun as anyone I’ve seen on the Crawl. It’s probably not for everyone, but after the overblown fIN, feels like a breath of fresh air.
Headlining the Black Cap is the biggest draw I catch all night—rising star Kwes. The venue fills out and gets more buzzy waiting for the soultronica star to emerge. Tonight Kwes has band membersperforming with live drums and keys, whilst he plays the bass, synths and sings in his rich timbre. His dense, swirling sound is impeccably delivered, with songs such as .bashful sticking close to their recorded counterparts, and the room sways appreciatively. The set is good- the songs Kwes produces played proficiently were always going to be strong- but he doesn’t seem to break through, to elevate above the recordings to that state where a gig becomes a dialogue between performer and audience, a happening. Solid as it is, as the last set of the night it leaves me wanting something more, something energetic, surprising or transgressive.
And that’s the Saturday night done. Off to the tube with me. I have to wonder at the line up—this year the two acts with their names writ large on the publicity are Death in Vegas and Alabama 3, both of whom had moderate success around a decade and a half ago.Outside of decaying Brixton coke casualties, who really is going to get all a-quiver about seeing Alabama 3? Is this the best the organisers can do for a festival that’s supposed to shine a light on new talent? There were late night shows from the new crop of young dubstep/ techno producers– D/R/U/G/S and Rustie, butthey seem a little out of pace– I feel like the Crawl should be primarily about live performance, not guys hunched over laptops.Where previous years have seen queues stretching round blocks, 2012 saw half empty halls and a general air of meh. Undoubtedly the presence of Land of Kings just down the road in Dalston drew people away from the Crawl, but the programing itselffelt a little flat. And whilst the bands I saw were mostly pretty good, there was a distinct lack of vibe. I’d love to know if any else who was there completely disagrees with me– who did I miss who was amazing? Over to you lot…