There was a camp meeting at the Shepherds Bush Empire on Nov. 18 with all the requisite testifyin’, hootin’ and hollerin’ you’d associate with a revival. This wasn’t your usual tent revival however, it was a Caamp meeting, Caamp being a five piece band from Ohio, USA, and it wasn’t the faithful being revived, it was folk rock being reborn.
The show was sold out and the audience was ready in anticipation for the main event when five long haired musicians took the stage, looking like a Rip Van Winkle band that had been sleeping since the sixties. They certainly didn’t look like the usual Caamp line up. They did two quick songs, including the Faces number, ‘Ooh La La.’ The audience was buzzing with questions when one of the band unslung his guitar and announced that Caamp would soon be out. The other band members then took off their wigs and hats and became Caamp. It was great piece of theatre and the crowd loved it. The drummer doffed a long blond wig, stepped from behind his kit, picked up a guitar and was transformed into Taylor Meier, lead singer and guitarist for Caamp and with ‘Just Wondering’, there were off and running. They were cooking from the first note, following it with ‘Huckleberry Love’. Caamp has an energy that one hopes and prays for when you go to see live music, and they delivered. It was folk, with more than a taste country and a whole lot of rock.
Meier has a distinctive voice, gravely yet with great range. He doesn’t just sing; he belts out songs with power and emotion. He can also be lyrical as on ‘So Cool’ with its echoes of the Lovin’ Spoonful. But he isn’t a solo act. Caamp was founded by Meier and Evan Westfall, who plays guitar and banjo along with singing; eventually adding Joseph Kavalec on keyboards with bassist Matt Vinson and drummer Henry Allen. Everybody in the band sings and harmonies are an important element of the Caamp sound; there were moments when I was thinking ‘Byrds with a banjo’. Westfall’s banjo takes the lead on most songs, giving them a rich and complicated sound that is complemented by Vinson, Kavalec and Allen. But they aren’t just background, all three are major players. There are no weak links.
Caamp went to on alternate high energy folk-rock with mellower songs, drawn from their back catalogue. Standouts included ‘Misty’, a heartfelt song of longing beautifully sung by Meier, accompanied with little more than Westfall’s banjo, the rest singing hauntingly in the background. They stuck to their early songs, with only two from their new album, ‘Lavender Girls’; ‘Fever’ and ‘Believe’ as part of the encore. It was a great performance with Meier in his wife-beater, dancing, prancing and interacting with the rest of the band; Westfall switching back and forth between banjo and guitar, Vinson exchanging comments with Meier while laying down a great bass line, Kavalec providing a classic rock organ sound and Allen keeping the beat on drums.
The sound quality was not always great, making the lyrics at times muddy. Hard to say how much of this was an inherent problem of the building’s acoustics. Though, that didn’t materially affect the experience. This is a band one needs to see live. They interact with the crowd, who was with them from the first note to the last. When Meier turned his back on the crowd while playing some great guitar, it didn’t feel like being excluded, it was like the audience were all in the band, sharing the stage looking out at ourselves, part of the event.
Before going on Westfall had sat down backstage to talk about music and who influenced him. He said the some of his early influences were English bands, particularly those from Manchester – The Stone Roses, The Smiths and Oasis. And there was evidence of that Northern English influence in the encore; high energy renditions of Caamp’s ‘Believe’ juxtaposed with Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ ending and Caamp’s own ‘Going Up The Country’ And as they started, so they ended, with Meier back on drums. It was an incredible evening.
These guys demonstrably enjoy playing together, and love playing live. This is what makes a band rather just a collection of individually talented musicians. The total is immeasurably greater than the parts. And this collective energy has developed an individual sound as exciting and as innovative as anyone who has gone before. Caamp is adding new songs to the folk-rock canon, and having fun doing it. It was an incredible evening. They have the energy, heart and musicianship needed to make great music and the ability to write lyrics that tell great stories of life, love and the heart of America.