The Blockheads and Cutting Crew prove age is only a number as, joined by Blurred Vision, they headline the first-ever Rock On The Lawns one-day festival.
It’s a warm, sunny summer’s evening and the scene is more like a vicar’s tea-party than a music festival, deep in the Sussex Wealden countryside with a rather genteel gathering of some 350 music lovers. The stage, complete with a quality sound system and lighting rig, is set up in the grounds of a magnificent Georgian manor house. There’s everything you would expect at a music festival, except downsized – from beer and wine tents, ethnic clothing and jewellery stalls, to BBQ and sandwich counters.
The event is Rock On The Lawns, the first ever “boutique” one-day festival to celebrate 20 years of Trading Boundaries, an Indian furniture and craft import business/showroom run by Michael Clifford and his partner, Tracy Thomson. However, a walk through the interior of the splendid property, reveals room after room of artefacts, furniture, and textiles, soon telling you these are no ordinary shopkeepers.
The premises feature a wonderfully atmospheric dining room and stage, boasting fabulous acoustics and a state of the art sound system. Named “The Elephant Café,” it has already played host to legendary artists such as Steve Hackett, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, Carl Palmer, John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, and Cutting Crew amongst others. It was voted one of the Top Ten Live Music Venues in the UK by Prog Rock Magazine, according to the venue’s website.
There is yet another surprise for the uninitiated in this Aladdin’s cave; upstairs lies a hidden gem, the official gallery of internationally acclaimed artist, Roger Dean, best known for his iconic album covers for bands such as Yes, Asia, and Uriah Heep.
Amongst the artists that have played during the afternoon, there’s much talk about the excellent set from Coda, a Led Zeppelin tribute band.
The crowd is relaxed, many alcoholic beverages already consumed whilst basking in the late July sunshine, and enjoying Guitars Supreme. The quartet features guitar virtuosos Ray Russell who has played alongside the likes of Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, and Paul McCartney; and Phil Hilborne whose credits include performing with Iron Maiden’s drummer Nicko McBrain, and as a regular in the hit West End show, We Will Rock You. With technical mastery, they delight us with their blues-infused jazz, an astonishing display of improvisation, fretwork dexterity and groove.
Having played the prog stage to an enthusiastic crowd at the Ramblin’ Man Festival less than a week before is Canadian trio Blurred Vision. The band comprises frontman Sepp Osley on guitar, his brother Sohl on bass, and Ben Riley on drums and is next on stage.
Blurred Vision music is often called alternative pop rock meets prog and psychedelic rock but this is because their sound straddles many genres, has a wide appeal, and is hard to fit into any particular style. The truth is they just make great music – melodic, progressive rock n’ roll – making you want to sing along, bounce around to and, at times, just listen to, taking in the richness of their songwriting, vocal harmonies and musicianship.
Their set includes songs from their highly acclaimed debut album, Organised Insanity, produced by Terry Brown, producer of Rush and Cutting Crew, who, appropriately, also happen to be the next band. It’s remarkable to see brothers, Terry and Phil Brown, present to manage sound today; such is their support of their artists.
Without the chance of a prior soundcheck, Blurred Vision kicks off with their anthemic war protest song, “No More War,” with its backing sound clips of speeches by Martin Luther King and John Lennon. It immediately captivates the crowd with its stomping intro, powerful, rhythmic protest mantra and compelling chorus when the solid, riffy bass line suddenly stops due to a power failure to the bass amp.
Whilst the sound engineers scramble to fix the problem, the band plays on, minus bass, until the end of the song. In the light-hearted spirit of the event, we hear cries of “Bloody Canadians got the voltage wrong!” from Nick Van Eede of Cutting Crew, which provokes much laughter.
The driving beat of new track “P.O.W.” gets the crowd up and dancing, and clapping along as it launches into a melodic guitar riff with a solid bass-line evolving into wondrous changes of drum rhythms, highs and lows, and dark and light. A break leads to an intricate catchy riff and mesmerising complexities in rhythm, demonstrating the astounding musicianship of all three band members.
Sepp introduces the next song, “The Keeper,” inspired by a poem written many centuries ago by the great ancient Persian poet, Hafez. It is featured on the soundtrack of the recently released Paramount film, Manhattan Undying. The verse is first sung by Sepp in Persian, over a dramatic and compelling musical arrangement with surprising twists of phrasing, Middle Eastern melodies fused with progressive rock and guitar solos which make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
A track of similar calibre can only follow such an outstanding song as they launch into “Organised Insanity,” the phenomenal title track of their debut album. Another progressive arrangement, with protest-style verses evocative of Pink Floyd, it subtly builds into a song of arena proportions having everything from soaring guitar solo with crisp and clear tone worthy of Dave Gilmour, a catchy melody, great harmonies, soaring backing vocals, and a memorable chorus to which none can help but sing along.
All too soon, Blurred Vision announces their final song – a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” – which first brought them public recognition and received the endorsement of Roger Waters when it went viral on YouTube. Reworked to protest against the oppression of youth in Iran for playing popular music (the Osley Brothers were born there), they renamed their version “Another Brick In The Wall (Hey Ayatollah, Leave Those Kids Alone)”. The number has the crowd singing along, quickly picking up the reworked chorus lyrics.
Blurred Vision leaves the stage to resounding cheers, and an encore would have been the order of the day had it not have been for the tight festival schedule. Their ultra-tight, slick set certainly shows promise of great things to come and that, without a doubt, they will one day be performing to arena audiences.
There is an interesting link between Blurred Vision and the next band, Grammy-nominated Cutting Crew, one of the 1980s acts who have sold millions of albums worldwide. The two groups were introduced by their producer in common, Terry Brown. Both bands have recently completed a five-date tour as a single act onstage together, sharing their songs and which received some great reviews.
Frontman, Nick Van Eede, along with guitarists, Gareth Moulton and Joolz Dunkley, are clearly comfortable and thrilled as they step onto the stage – this is a local gig for them, being regulars at Trading Boundaries, playing previous shows at the Elephant Café. Today’s line-up is Eede (vocals) along with Nick Kaye (bass), Jono Harrison (keyboards), and Sachat Trochet (drums).
Nick announces that their first song will be their soundcheck and might be quite scary as it’s “just me and keyboards” whilst the rest of the band sort themselves out. He dedicates it to all that have bought their new album, Add To Favourites. The song, “Berlin In Winter,” is an 80s style ballad, and Nick’s tenderly emotional vocals send shivers down the spine, hushing the crowd whilst they hang on to the meaningful lyrics.
Nick explains the song is about the time Cutting Crew played in Berlin just three days after the wall fell. Few came to their gig that night so they just invited six people to join them on stage before all going down help dismantle the wall. Nick was invited back to sing in Berlin for the 25th-anniversary celebrations.
The much-underrated “One For The Mocking Bird,” which was never the hit it deserved to be, gets the crowd up, clapping and dancing to its catchy melody. This song always had great hooks but sees a new breath of life, being more rock now with its opening guitar riffs and exciting Sambora–like solo from Gareth.
Amongst covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” and a fantastic, fun rendition of Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes” sung by guitarist Joolz, was the fabulous Springsteen-like “Till The Money Run$ Out” from their latest album. The response proves Nick can still write a hit song with a catchy chorus to get the crowd singing along.
One of Cutting Crew’s biggest hits from the 80s, the crowd-pleaser “I’ve Been In Love Before,” brings a slower pace. TJ Davis, a female vocalist who has sung with the band many times in the past, as well as the likes of Gary Numan and Blur, joins Nick on stage.
Continuing the pace, Nick dedicates “No Problem Child” from their Grinning Souls album, with its beautiful and touching lyrics, tender, yet haunting melody, and powerful, melodic chorus, to his mother who was in the audience and his daughter, currently 3,000 miles away.
An exceptional extended guitar solo from Gareth breaks into the first iconic notes of an intro no one can mistake. Cheers erupt and the crowd piles towards the front of the stage, dancing and clapping along as Cutting Crew play “(I Just) Died In Your Arms,” their debut single which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s The Hot 100 chart. Nick leaves the singing of the chorus to the crowd who still know every word to this iconic 80s power ballad, a term which Nick, however, dislikes.
It is worth noting that the day of the concert marked the 30th anniversary of their debut album, Broadcast, from which this track comes. Remaining the classic it is, its new arrangement, Gareth’s uplifting, soaring guitar solos, and Nick’s ever more powerful vocals, bring the sound up to date, whilst not forsaking the original.
Ending on covers of REM’s “One I Love” and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” there was a palpable feeling of nostalgia and satisfaction amongst the crowd as the set ended. It was hard for those that remember the 80s not to be transported back while listening to the Cutting Crew. One thing certain is that tonight, Cutting Crew left an ecstatically happy crowd, wanting more.
Darkness falls and the crowd are now well and truly warmed up for the headline band of the day, The Blockheads. It is a remarkable achievement that this seven-piece, despite having lost their charismatic frontman Ian Dury sixteen years ago, have managed to carry on as a successful and sought-after band with new frontman and raconteur, Derek “The Draw” Hussey, Dury’s former chaperone.
Tonight’s band comprises original members of Dury’s band, Norman Watt-Roy (bass), Chaz Jankel (guitar/keys), Micky Gallagher (keys), and John Turnbull (guitar). They are joined by Hussey, with Gilad Atzmon on sax and John Roberts on drums.
Hussey thrills the crowd with his Essex bloke humour and patter. As he tips his John Lennon shades, lenses emblazoned with peace symbols, he announces to the crowd, in his trademark laid-back delivery, “We are The Blockheads, and we go like this,” launching straight into the epic “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”, to the obvious delight of the crowd.
Much alcohol has been consumed over the course of the day and, approaching the stage, the crowd are clearly up for a good time. Being a festival with a crowd of mixed age and music taste, The Blockheads plan to hit them with exactly what they want to hear, a setlist which treats the crowd to their back catalogue of hits, including many songs from Dury’s debut and biggest selling album, New Boots And Panties.
The set continues with “I Wanna Be Straight,” “What A Waste,” and the rather cheeky “Wake Up and Make Love With Me.” The Blockheads, without Ian Dury, clearly misses his magic and charisma as it’s no easy feat to fill Dury’s rather huge shoes but Hussey does a formidable job. Dury’s spirit lives on through the music as the crowd lap it up, thrilled to dance and sing along.
Each member of The Blockheads is a talented and expert musician in his own right but it’s wonderful to watch a band so tight and so comfortable, clearly getting joy from playing together. Their sound is unique, a blend of blues-based grooves bordering on jazz, tinged with the signature funky sax. Norman Watt-Roy excites the crowd with his infectious basslines and riffs. Being his usual energetic self, he is mesmerising, the funky rhythm seeming to run through his entire body.
The Blockheads performance is a truly worthy celebration of the man they honour. They prove that their infectious, upbeat blend of Estuary pub rock, funk and rock n’ roll, blended with Cockney music hall humour, is still a magical formula and there’s still plenty of life kicking in this ageing band, even after nearly 40 years.
From a music fan’s point of view, the first Rock On The Lawn was a great success. The organisers’ passion for the event, their exceptional care and attention to detail were key to the smooth running of the day and many of the crowd will, no doubt, be hoping that 2017 will see its return.