So multi-venue in-town festivals have wormed their way through our nation over the past few years like the contents of a fisherman’s bait box doubling as a gangrene victim's foot bath. This was brought forth by many an enterprising young promoter realising that by booking a shitload of venues and a shitload of bands, then charging one hefty price for a wristband to all the gigs, calling it a festival, one can make a SHITLOAD of dosh.
Result: thousands of pissed off punters, made to realise that unfortunately the aforementioned slapdash process doesn’t by any means equate to a functional or enjoyable experience. The Camden Crawl should really know better. One of the originators of this breed, they’ve had many a year to troubleshoot the finer points of what makes and breaks an event of this nature.
The Chew Lips played, apparently
Early this year I’d experienced South By Southwest for the first time. An event that can be likened to a full-scale military occupation, both in the way it cordons off a huge chunk of land, and in the anarchic bedlam it tends to unleash within the locale.
SXSW ingests Austin whole, turning literally every given space – people’s front gardens, bicycle shop backrooms - into a a unique, riotous live experience. For four days everyone’s a promoter, every band to have ever existed is in town, every fajita's free, and every second’s a party, with the best shows being the free parties that locals throw in aid of but not tied to the official festival.
Everyone in and around the area seems to turn into a free-love gig hippy from 1969, doing whatever he/she can to get as high and see as many bands as they can. And since the bands have traveled so far to get there, they make sure they physically play as much as humanly possible, with Lovvers, this year, for instance, playing 15 shows in four days.
Overall, the whole shindig is basically gig utopia. In comparison, the Camden Crawl comes off like a dank weekend in Bognor Butlins accompanying terminally ill elderly relatives on their last hurrah.
I'd seen the line-up prior, and breathed one giant, hearty "meh". The same by-numbers buzz bands (that we championed yonks back, so of no use to me now), the same 'quick , who's touring?' headliners and a sprinkling of do-the-job newbies. It couldn’t have bellowed, ‘will this do?’ in any more of a resigned tone. But determined to persevere, I scoured the line-up for a handful of acts I was yet to see and called in my pass. Thanks to a miscommunication between team NME and the PR, no one told me I needed to call the press girl on the day to collect my queue-jump pass, so assumed the one I was given was all we got, resolving to experience the event as a proper punter. God help me.
Come Saturday afternoon, after collecting my band and bumf, I turn to my daytime schedule to discover a splurge of useless info. Fifteen venues listed, but no details. Just a stream of performers' names that may well play at some point during the hours of Midday and 6pm. Excellent. So I take a deep breath and try to half-heartedly convince myself something about ‘the joy of discovery’.
My following journey runs something like this: Camden Tup, to the Fifty Five, to the Lock Tavern, then back to Camden Tup. During that time I saw, an Irish comic bumbling something about the Max Clifford and Walkers Crisps, a chap that obviously not long ago used to front a greebo-emo outfit but got dumped by his bandmates for being too sensitive and had to go solo acoustic, some bald dude in a yellowing Sub Pop T-shirt monoton-ing about iPhone applications, and lots and lots of stuffy mostly empty darkened rooms, with a few awkward-looking dweeby faded Seahorses T-shirt sporting dudes lingering round the front doors with steaming plastic glasses of lager.
After about four hours of not being able to track down one band that I could even recognise as being part of the advertised daytime programme I gave up and went window shopping for the most expensive means of inhaling TCH along the high street - which it turns out is a three-foot glass vapouriser costing £149.
The XX played too, allegedly
As I finished a gigantic slice of rubbery Hawaiian pizza, I realised the evening’s proceedings were kicking off. Deciding to wipe the slate clean and plotting a timing route to see five key bands, I set off in search of lo-fi laptop balladeer Banjo Or Freakout at the Enterprise. When I got there, five minutes after the intended start time, I perplexingly found a deadlocked queue bulging through the downstairs bar.
This is a band whose press had not moved beyond blog hype, a first on, and yet, as I stood for 20 minutes, scratching my behind and guesstimating how many of the assembled adolescent congregation possessed Noel Fielding's Blackberry Messenger PIN details (approximately 13, I reckon), I realised that tonight I would not be watching them.
As the lucky attendees dispersed down the rickety stairs of the upstairs room I fought my way tooth and nail to the front, whoever was on next, had it been the barman singing ringtone karaoke to an 8-bit keyboard demo accompaniment, I was watching them. Thankfully it wasn’t It was Alessi’s Ark, a twittering alt.folk outfit that made me want to dress up pigeons in petticoats and invent our own secret coo language that opened secret gates to a mythical kingdom at the bottom of Aunt Marjorie's garden, and, well, you get the picture, hopefully… They were quite good.
As the Enterprise was running late, I had to run to catch my next planned band, Lion Club, at The Barfly. Again, I arrived about five minutes late, again, a band that were hardly on the obvious must-see lists, and again, I was greeted by another another daunting looking queue. Cue another agonising wait, only relieved by another surge of people down the stairs signaling the end of the band's set. Ipso Facto were up next at the same venue, playing for the first time as a three-piece after the departure of keyboardist Cherish.
I decided since I’d come all that way to have a gander at one track (disappointing btw, Cherish was integral to the onstage dynamic, and the pre-recorded keyboard track sounded shitty) before legging it down the road back to Enterprise for Marina and The Diamonds'' headline set. This time, I was on time, arriving a few minutes before the scheduled stage time, and guess what greeted me? That’s right, another impenetrable queue of about 50-odd people, spewing out of the downstairs bar and onto the street. This time I didn’t even bother joining it.
As I sat sipping meekly at the bar, watching the non-moving stalemate as no one left and no one entered, I sank into a sorry disheartened state. Is this the best we can do? Is this the jewel in our urban-festival crown? Our multi-venue institution? The spearhead of the capital’s showcasing of live new music? Our SXSW? A street full of sardined pub top rooms, that you don’t stand a snowball in hell’s chance of getting into.
Oh, and a bill full of bands that spend their careers playing in pub top rooms anyway - so what’s the point in trying to get into this particular inhumanely rammed pub top room?
I had now been in Camden 11 hours, trying my very upmost to uphold my position and scope out as much new music as physically possible. I had managed to see a grand total of, drum roll, one new band. I was really, really pissed off. Pissed off enough to write a drawn out disgruntled blog and sit pondering whether it was too boring to post for a while. I however, unlike many of the wispy-chinned young, winkle-picker scuffing twinkies around me had not coughed up £55 to do what I’d done.
If I was in their position, I think the Hawley Arms would have been retorched that night. Of course, this kind of complaint against the multi-venue festival is not a new one. For as long as I can remember precursory 'tsks' have gone round about all the good gigs being impossible to get into… But c’mon, this is beyond a Jade Goody joke. This isn’t good spirited fun, this is a total shambles, and a complete drain of well-meaning, bunny-eyed gig goers' hard-earned pocket money. I call for a complete reappraisal of the way the Crawl is run, a look to what makes other comparitive institutions like SXSW so amazing...
Unless visible evidence is shown to prove they’ve done so, I call for a boycott of next year, not next year's Camden Crawl, the whole of next year, in its entirety.