In only its second year CROYDON ROCKS is fast establishing itself as a serious contender on the winter rock festival calendar. Mixing quality local bands with national and international acts and topping it off with cult headliners guaranteed to draw a crowd. And then it places it all in the incredibly un-rock ‘n’ roll environs of the Croydon Conference Centre. However despite the strange somewhat sterile, Travelodge-esque entrance lobby it’s actually a surprisingly good choice of venue; well equipped, a good size room - with a decent view wherever you stand - and a stage with room for the musicians to actually move around on.
First up onto that stage is JOE HEAD, a local singer-songwriter whose acoustic strummery eases us into proceedings nicely. Gone are the days that a man alone on a stage armed only with an acoustic guitar means a minimalistic sound as Head utilises backing tracks and loop pedals to create a full and immersive sound. His vocals have a distinct Layne Staley feel to them - and it’s no surprise when he reveals he also plays in an Alice in Chains tribute band - so Jar of Flies comparisons are inevitable. However, it feels more like a modern reboot of the grunge era than mere slavish imitation and he gets a warm reception from the crowd as the room starts to fill up.
Next up are well-dressed men the SOHO DUKES. Attired somewhere between Victorian gents and punks up for a court appearance they combine barrow boy charm with a well-crafted 70’s style sleaze-rock stomp. There’s a hint of many of the greats of that era in their songs, a bit of Mott there, a slug of Faces here and a little dash of Thin Lizzy to boot.
Reminiscent of an England now lost forever and masked by their easy-going patter between songs - singer Johnny Barracuda gently remonstrating the bassist as he tunes up “come on, it’s only got four strings on it...and you only use two” - these are consummate musicians with a long pedigree, members of the band have supported Guns N Roses, Skid Row and Faith No More in the past, and the rapturous whoops they receive from the now thoroughly warmed up crowd as they leave the stage is testament to a job well done.
One of CROYDON ROCKS’ defining features is its broad and eclectic line up, if it fits anywhere under the rock umbrella then organiser Richie Hudson appears happy to throw it on the bill.
So following on from the well-received glam rock and cockney charm of SOHO DUKES there may be a feeling that a full-on metal band based on Leeds who have literally only just made it to Croydon having played Manchester the night before might struggle to follow them. Luckily for CHASING DRAGONS they - as I believe is the modern vernacular - absolutely smash it. Both female-fronted and reared (if that’s what you call a band with a female drummer) they pound into their set with joyful abandon.
On initial listen it’s not easy to classify exactly where they sit in the metal canon, there are touches of nu-metal interspersed with more symphonic moments. There are some Djenty guitars and a smattering of harsh vocals but ultimately what they do incredibly well is blend the melodic aspects with the heavier stuff to create fantastic songs and a great live experience. And in a metal world where scowls and aggression are generally the order of the day frontwoman, Tank, refreshingly looks like she’s having the time of her life.
And while the whole band are impressive it is she who really sets them apart, her vocals are huge but more importantly, they’re expressive and emotive and lead to a captivating performance. 'Bare Knuckle Love' is an especially intense and thrilling experience - exactly as a song that lowdown and dirty should be. They draw the crowd in, get them to sing along, and steal the show. If you haven’t caught them live yet, go do so. And if you have, go do so again.
Next up is another stylistic volte-face as THE SPANGLES take the stage. With a name that is almost an onomatopoeic description of their sound and featuring members of The Idol Dead and The Main Grains, it’s no surprise they deal in bouncy punk-pop. As bassist Polly Phluid jokes “the good thing about our songs is if you don’t like this one there’ll be another one along in a minute and a half”. You couldn’t exactly call them tight; the first song breaks down halfway through as the drummer realises he’s got nothing in his monitor, they admit they could’ve done with another rehearsal and a good proportion of their songs start with one of the band asking “how does this one go?” But it all adds to a bouncy punk charm and their onstage patter is genuinely witty.
As they say, they’ve only been together 12 weeks, they’ve already hit their target on their PledgeMusic campaign and by the time you read this, they’ll have started work on their debut album. They don’t hang about this lot and despite the rough edges they certainly have the songs to make the album a worthy investment. ‘POTUS’ stands out from this set - a not too flattering take on a certain Mr Trump - and across the set, there are hints of NOFX, Weezer and old skool punk. Who needs to practice anyway?
Following on is Croydon-based band TENYSON. A late addition to the bill as a replacement for Vambo they receive a warm reception and a slot higher up the bill than they might perhaps have got otherwise. They play a set of exceptionally tight post-grunge built around a good, solid groove. I am informed by a fan before the set that the frontman Rob Jupp makes his own guitars and that could well explain the unique tone he has that adds a layer of gloss over the meaty rhythm section. The songs are all exquisitely crafted but the band could perhaps make more of the stage, the drummer being the most energetic and vocal member of the band. That said they grow into their set and when they have one of the most distinctive sounds on the bill, which suggests Croydon’s local scene is in pretty rude health at the moment.
A suggestion which is furthered by another local band starting to make waves further afield: THE WEIRD THINGS. One of the lighter bands on the bill they have an eclectic looking line-up and an equally eclectic sound. There’s punk, there’s pop and there’s a strong 80’s vibe throughout. New lead singer Leila's vocals get a little lost in the mix at first and drummer Martin Parrott struggles with a dodgy drum stool, but they make light of the issues and carry on with their quirky, bubblegum songs as pockets of pogoing break out in the crowd and even the hardest hearts are tapping their toes by the end. The also through in a bizarrely saccharine cover of Motörhead’s ‘Damage Case’ that surprisingly works rather well.
The last of the first day’s local heroes THE FIASCOS then take the stage. Starring a certain Richie Hudson (who organised this whole shindig) on guitar they are never going to receive anything but warmth and love from the crowd, but they repay it in spades with their full-on, Britrock influences sound. All low slung guitars and a pared-down drum kit that receives the pummeling of a lifetime they blast out a set of party anthems that the crowd lap up.
The band obviously enjoy every minute as much as the crowd do and it’s good to see all the members of THE SPANGLES front and centre in the crowd grinning like Cheshire cat’s as every song hits home. It’s a triumphant show and sets things up perfectly for the night’s two heavy hitters who are coming up.
First up is Hollywood’s cult legends JUNKYARD. Veterans of the old LA scene they command the stage like no other band so far, the crowd are pushed right up to the stage as singer, David Roach, stalks above them. They blast into their punk n roll and the crowd goes nuts, you feel this is a band that could rock up anywhere and blow the roof off. Which is exactly what they proceed to do.
It’s hard, it’s fast it has attitude by the bucketful and guitarist Jimmy James has a stunning pair of mutton chops, literally what more could you ask for? In fact, it’s so good that when not required to sing Roach just heads into the crowd to hang out as if he’s as much a fan as a member of the band. It’s quite a coup for the festival to get them over from America and the crowd gives them the response they deserve.
Speaking of coups for a small festival in only its second year to snare Love/Hate living legend JIZZY PEARL as their headliner has to be right up there. The crowd seems to have dispersed a little for a bit of a breather after Junkyard but they’re soon back in force. Time may have passed since his heyday but he is still clearly a draw. And if the era of the rockstar has passed it seems no one mentioned it to Jizzy. He is a bona fide old-school rock star who poses and postures like grunge never happened.
Even those who aren’t aware of his work are drawn into the music - basically a thinking man’s G’n’R - and though the band are consummate musicians they lack a little personality but Jizzy himself more than makes up for it. Day one of CROYDON ROCKS is certainly rounded off in style by an artist with true pedigree. A fitting end to a great first day.
The second day kicks off with VAMPIROK, who it will surprise no one, are a touch gothic. Despite looking like they shouldn’t be out during the hours of sunlight they are an incongruously happy bunch and their music has a nice punky bounce to it. And while they don’t take themselves too seriously with their over the top schlock horror titles and beatboxing bassist the wit belies the fact that they have more than a handful of very good songs. They may be more hammer horror than gore porn but they’re a damn fine band to start off the day.
The sight of a Hammond organ being set up on the stage is the first hint that the next band isn’t going to be PSYCHOBABYLON as advertised but instead is the mighty JUNKYARD CHOIR instead, their swampy, Deep South (of Sussex) groove and gruff Tom Waits vocals sets them apart from the majority of the bands on the bill but as ever Croydon embraces the change and in return JUNKYARD CHOIR treat them to one of sets of the weekend.
Any lingering hangovers amongst the crowd are blasted away, feet are stomping and the band hit a phenomenal groove. It’s a dark and dirty brand of Americana that sounds like the band are just jamming but in truth the songs are concise and well written and when they round things off with a cover of Creedence’s Born on the Bayou it fits seamlessly into their set as if they wrote it themselves and I can think of no higher compliment than that.
PSYCHOBABYLON then belatedly take the stage - perhaps they were delayed on their way down from “Charlie Chuck land” as they describe it? Whatever the reason it doesn’t seem to faze them as they launch into their set. Wild-eyed and slightly gothic looking their music inhabits the middle ground between The Misfits and traditional metal. The fat bass tone, the distinctively sneered vocals and 100% effort all add up to a damn fine band and a damn fine set.
Don’t be fooled by THE KUT’s cute and youthful looks because this energetic power trio clearly means business and have the chops to back it up. They have a strong attitude and a fine line in straight ahead rock n roll. There’s a little hint of grunge in there too and some big old choruses to boot.
They invite the crowd on the stage and when the backstage staff cut this activity short the band instead join their fans in the crowd, then they basically play until their booted off the stage. Attitude? They’ve got it.
If The Kut have youth on their side then THE WITCHDOKTORS have experience having formed in the early nineties, and with that comes the knowledge of how to throw a damn good party. They play a joyful type of rockabilly that resembles good time bands like Reverend Horton Heat and Social Distortion.
Fast, frenetic and in your face they play songs from right across their long career right up to their latest release ‘Voodoo Eye’ and then get their skank on with a cover of Clash classic ‘Guns of Brixton’ but in truth it’s not about the songs, it’s about the way they make you feel. They’re fun and really bloody cool, the pace never lets up and they ensure everyone has a good time. If they’re playing anywhere near you then go see ‘em, trust me you need this in your life.
Next on and tasked with keeping the party going is BLIND RIVER and boy do they deliver. Their hairy ass heaviness grabs you from the start and they don’t let go. The visceral blasts of ‘Bonehouse’, ‘Resurrection Sister’ and ‘Can’t Sleep Sober’ punch you square in the gut so hard that they leave you questioning whether you ever really needed your solar plexus anyway.
The whole band bring their A game and unlike other bands across the weekend, they don’t need to ask the crowd to get closer because, frankly, you couldn’t get a fag paper between the crowd and the stage. It is a dominant and commanding performance that marries live ability with top class songs. BLIND RIVER are everything you need in a rock band and more. They’re also, I believe, the only band to have played both CROYDON ROCKS festivals and I can’t imagine there would be any objections if they returned next year as well. Band of the day? Certainly. Band of the weekend? Yep. Best live band you’ve possibly never heard of? You better believe it. They are simply stunning.
It was always going to be tricky to follow that but FLIGHT 16 are undaunted by the task and launch into it with gusto. Helped by a truly huge sound and big, anthemic grunge songs that bring to mind Pearl Jam at their stadium-filling best.
The crowd lap it up too, bouncing along to each track and just when you think the day couldn’t possibly get any better FLIGHT 16 prove you wrong. Well played, sirs. Well played.
And so on to THE MEN THAT WILL NOT BE BLAMED FOR NOTHING, a band renowned for their witty take on the steampunk scene. And it’s no surprise when they get the crowd laughing with their onstage chat - the do have a stand-up comedian in the ranks after all - but it is the music that really grabs you. Leaning heavily on songs from their latest and hardest album, 'Double Negative', this is a full-on hardcore punk show wrapped in charisma, good gags and the dark side of Victorian Britain.
It’s all utterly bonkers of course and all the better for it, on record the songs have a depth that perhaps the band don’t always get the credit for but live it’s all about having a good time and when the band bring their dad’s up on stage to join them for a song it just adds another layer to the feelgood feeling the whole festival has dished up.
And so to wrap up an excellent weekend is Terrorvision’s TONY WRIGHT. A man who is pretty much feelgood in human form. An 11th-hour replacement for fellow Britrock stalwart Ginger Wildheart, Wright is a shrewd choice as a replacement. A Venn diagram of Terrorvision and Wildhearts fans has a large crossover section after all. And with a happy blend of his old band’s stuff with his own solo material he keeps the party very much alive and kicking. The crowd are probably better versed in the older songs but are equally receptive to the new. Considering it’s just two guys with acoustic guitars at the end of a day marked by huge sounding rock bands it’s a testament to both Wright’s capabilities as a frontman and his underrated songwriting ability that he keeps the crowd entertained and attentive throughout.
And so draws to a close an eclectic, exciting and beyond all excellent weekend of music. Croydon does indeed rock. Did you ever doubt it?